Saturday, 27 February 1993

1993 New Zealand Part 5

Lake Tekapo and Kaikoura

I was now on my way to Kaikoura, a whale watching hot spot in New Zealand but first I had to get there and I had a fair distance to drive. On the way I had planned to try and see black stilt, possibly one of the rarest birds in the world but essentially an all dark black winged stilt. There was a breeding centre that had been established near the town of Twizel and that was my next stop. On the way I managed to see what my Collins New Zealand bird guide calls a spur-winged plover however it cannot really be called that and should go under the name of masked lapwing, unless of course I had actually stumbled across a first for New Zealand but I don't think so.

On the way to Twizel is Omarama and the Ahurri River and here I had: Lapwing 4, caspian tern 3, black-billed tern 2, white-faced heron 1 and welcome swallow 10.
Spur-winged Plover, not really, more like a masked lapwing.

I stopped of at the black stilt breeding centre near Twizel and managed to see a black stilt, albeit one that forms part of the captive breeding population.
Black Stilt

Nevertheless a very rare bird and severely under threat from mans persistent attempt to meddle with nature. The introduction of stoats to New Zealand has almost been the demise of this delicate species, it is hanging onto existence by a thread. Only the foresight of a few dedicated conservationists will hopefully allow it to continue to exist. You would have hoped that at the time of writing in 2008, 15 years since my trip, I could have said that the human species would have learnt from its past mistakes in messing with nature but unfortunately no such luck.

On the horizon another mountainous region started to appear this time the islands famous winter resort area holding the islands highest snow clad peak of Mount Cook.

On getting nearer to Lake Tekapo the scenery started to get a more stunning with the impressive Ben Ohau Range coming into view and the edge of the lake looking great in the late afternoon light.

I checked into the local YHA at the town of Lake Tekapo but with it's proximity to Mount Cook it was very popular and I had to make do with one of the tents for the night.

This was not a problem in the slightest as the previous nights sleep had not been all that great at Jackson Bay (remembering my mosquito mates) and the view I awoke to in the morning was just awesome.
I unzipped the tent and looked out to this....just incredible.

It was at this YHA that I met a gentleman who I think was called Jim. One of my other interests is military history and on talking to Jim I found out that he had been in the Royal Air Force in WWII as a rear gunner in Halifax bombers. He mentioned that one of the duties of his squadron had been to drop window to try and hide the main bomber force from German radar. Windo comprised of aluminium stips ciut to the same length as the wavelength used by German radar, effectively blocking out any signal being given by an allied bomber. Jim was on a similar youth hostel based trip as myself and from then on we bumped into each other every now and then. At one hostel Jim pointed out a couple of more elderly men and told me that they were German and soldiers also from WWII and he had no time for them. Quite how he knew I'm not sure, maybe old soldiers instinct, but the most interesting thing for me was that he considered them to have been in the SS. During that night at the same hostel I shared a small male dormitory with the two Germans, I was itching to talk to them but just couldn't pluck up the courage or really find the right opening statement, something like 'Hi there, I'm really interested in military history and understand that you two might have been in the SS?' wouldn't really have worked too well!

Around the shoreline of the lake I managed to see a Pukeko, sort of New Zealands equivalent of a purple gallinule or purple people eater for those in the know.

That morning I left Lake Tekapo and headed off for Kaikoura, for the most part I was the only car on the road and enjoyed travelling at speed with the music cassettes I had brought along for the trip blaring out at considerable volume, down!

For the most part the rest of the trip was uneventful and I finally started to get close to the Kaikoura Peninsula, which you can just about make put in the distance.

Kaikoura is a great place to see whales and dolphins, especially sperm whales. The shelf edge here is extremely close to the coast and that means very accessible deep water which is ideal habitat for sperm whales. I drove through the town of Kaikoura and passed the post office which was very close to an inlet where a cafe with outside tables was located the significance of which will become clear. The youth hostel was on the eastern side of town nearer to the peninsular tip.

After checking in I returned to town and passed the inlet/post office and cafe again to find one of the few whale watching operators where I could book my trip. I was here for two nights and managed top get on a trip for the next day which was quite lucky as they were very popular. So I returned to the hostel passing the inlet and cafe once again, so that was now 3 times.
Next day I went to the jetty and joined the boatload of similar cetacean enthusiast climbing aboard a large rib with a couple of even larger outboards attached to its' stern. We were given life jackets and packed into the vessel. As the powerful engines started and the boat gained speed the bow lifted into the air and we just flew out of the harbour toward where the sperm whales might hopefully be. It was a real adrenaline rush and almost worth the fee for the trip in itself. The good thing about the operator I had chosen was that they were interested in other aspects of natural history than just the cetaceans so it wasn't too long before they had seen an albatross on the water which turned out to be a juvenile wandering albatross.
Juvenile Wandering Albatross

To try and find a sperm whale the boat was using a hydrophone to detect the clicks of a whale as it started its ascent toward the surface. Like all mammals whales need to breath air so need to come to the surface in order to replenish the stocks in their large bodies. Usually they stay at the surface for a few minutes before diving beneath the surface again. The first breath on surfacing is usually a deep one as the whale breathing causes puffs of water vapour to appear on its outward breaths called blows. A whales blow is generally quite easy to see with the sperm whale being no exception. The driver of our boat on hearing some clicks that meant a whale in our vicinity was about to surface sped to the approximate location and it wasn't long before I was experiencing my very first sperm whale.
Sperm Whale & blow

In the picture above you are seeing about half the animal with the blow or outward breath visible to the right of centre and the whales dorsal bump well to the left. Really at the surface the whale looks like a dark log it is not until it starts to dive that you start to see more of the animal and get an appreciation of its size and grace. Sperm whales are good value amongst cetaceans as they almost always show their 'flukes' or tail before they disappear below the surface.
Sperm Whale flukes

A dolphin species that is in the area in good numbers was dusky dolphin and these guys are true performers with a mix of back flips, head stands and general dolphin silliness they surrounded and entertained us. Also the group we had met could be seen from the coast road.

As with most nature experiences though, you have to share them with others and it wasn't too long before other boats started to arrive.

On the whale trip I had managed to see: sperm whale 1, dusky dolphin 150, white-fronted tern, wandering albatross 3, little blue penguin 5, black-fronted tern 3m black-browed albatross 1, grey headed albatross 1, mollymawk sp. 4, macronectes sp. 2, prion sp. 1, westland petrel , bullers shearwater, fluttering/Huttons shearwater, sooty shearwater, diving petrel sp. 1, Australian gannet 30, arctic skua 2,

It had been a great experience and all too quickly we started to head back to Kaikoura harbour but not before getting a chance to have a look at some New Zealand sea-lions hauled out on some rocks. Once a species that had almost been wiped out by man, luckily they have made a comeback.

Around Kaikoura headland I saw: Arctic skua 1, white-fronted tern, red-billed gull, black-billed gull, kelp gull, turnstone 40, bar-tailed godwit 2, black oystercatcher 4, southern pied oystercatcher 10, banded plover 5, spotted shag, pied cormorant, little pied cormorant 1, great cormorant 2, Australian gannet 1, Huttons/fluttering shearwater, Sooty Shearwater, westland/Parkinsons petrel 4

The next day after having driven past the inlet and cafe a few more times I went along the coats road to see if I could watch the dusky dolphins from there but there were none to be seen. I headed back into town and went back to the same operator on the off-chance that I could get on another trip but was kindly informed that none of the trips that had been out that day had seen anything, no dolphins and no sperm whales. Later it transpired that a guy in a plan flying over the area had seen a pod of killer whales entering the area and I expect that everything else swiftly moved out. So I had been lucky to have seen what I did and pleased my fortune I started the drive north to Picton to catch the ferry that would take me to north island and the rest of my trip.
On north island I would discover that in Kaikoura it is possible to get views of Hector's dolphin (a very rare species) which is quite often observed in the inlet by the cafe in the middle of town, doh!

Thursday, 25 February 1993

1993 New Zealand Part 4

Jackson Bay
So after my success with yellowhead, I was now on a mission to get to Jackson Bay. This meant driving back to Lumsden and then heading north on highway 6 to Queenstown then route 99 to Wanaka and back on 6 to Haast. Blimey, a reasonably long way, still the roads were relatively empty so off I sped (of course keeping to the speed limits). At Queenstown I drove past a gorge with a bridge across from which I could see people throwing themselves off on a bungie rope, and a very large sign advertising this activity. To me it looked terrifying as I sped past only to stop off at a store for a quick meat pie and to get some milk.

I was getting closer to the coast now and the weather was changing with lush forest covered hill slopes and lots of water, more stunning New Zealand scenery.
The fantastic temperate rainforest of the wet south west.
Not the bungie bridge, but impressive anyway.

The drive from the Haast pass then turns left and follows the Haast river to the town of Haast. In fact the place is more of a small village with not that much there (at least I didn't think so). I did manage to see a few birds:
New Zealand falcon 1, bellbird, tui, silvereye and new zealand pigeon.

At Haast highway 6 then turns north east, but I turned south west on a minor road, still looking for my first Jackson Bay signpost. The cloud base was low and the early evening starting to draw in as I proceeded along the coast passing Waiatote, Arawata, Neils Beach and finally a sign for Jackson Bay, hurrah I had made it.

Jackson Bay, not renowned for its sun tans and sandy beaches.

I parked up by the local information board and toilet shack and yes the information confirmed that penguins did occur here and even breed in the forest. I looked at the forest and there was a lot of it and it was very thick and very wet and it was starting to get dark. I started to get panicky, I had driven a long way on a long shot and now found myself at the site with no more help from the gen as what to do and no sign of any penguins, in the water, in the forest, nothing. I found a path that led toward some huts that didn't look occupied but actually comprised the settlement of Jackson Bay proper, unfortunately a sign that declared 'No Entry' put me off going any further (whimp, I hear you say!). I skirted more forest edges and suddenly from deep within the undergrowth the sound of penguins, so they were still hear or at least one was. That was it, I had come this far, there was nothing for it, I would have to sleep in the car overnight and continue trying in the morning. No matter, I hadn't actually passed any accommodation in the 50K since Haast and I wanted to be at the Bay for dawn so I didn't miss any chances.

That night I settled down in the car trying to get as comfortable as possible which is nearly impossible when you are 6ft 2". At least I'd had the forsight to get some food and milk. I brewed myself a cuppa and added the milk only to find I'd bought condensed which dolloped into the tea, still I had to drink something. After my wholesome evening meal, I settled down to get hardly any sleep as the place was also home to a number of hungry mosquitos who managed to get a much better meal that night than I had.

It was no problem getting up early the next morning to find the weather was the same, low cloud and rain. I just had to keep on trying for a few hours to get my penguins, so looking out to sea, looking in the forest but I could find no sign. About 08:00 o'clock, a car draws up and someone that looked like a park ranger gets out, I was in two minds as to whether to speak to the ranger but as luck would have it I made the right decision. By the time I strolled upto the guy he was busy reparing one of the toilets, I mentioned that I was here from the UK and trying to see the penguins. I don't think he could believe that I had actually slept at the Bay in my car and probably took pity on me thinking I must be a little deranged. He told me that the penguins were definitely here but I'd ne lucky to see any as most of the adults and chicks had departed given it was the end of the breeding season. He suggested that my best chance would be to follow the path that I had found the previous day and ignore the no entry sign, cross over a stream and then follow a track through the forest that led to another bay. So off I went, the path was easy walking with the forest edges closing in on the sides, everywhere was dripping with moss covered branches.

Southern Rata

It was amazing to think that penguins actually lived here, I always tend to think of snow and ice when I think of penguins. I was creeping along as quietly as possible when I heard some penguin like noises off to my left, this time I was determined to try and see if I could check out what was making the noise. I scrambled up a wet muddy bank and parted some very damp branches, getting soaked in the process to look upon two adult penguins. I couldn't believe it, I barely dared take a breath and I was precariously balanced on a wet branch halfway up the bank.
Fjiordland Crested Penguin

One of the penguins was perched on a tree root and its partner was just stood at the base of the same tree. The penguin on the root hopped down and then went up to it's partner with both of them making little grunts and noises all the time which is what I had heard from the path. It was magical, I couldn't really take it all it, they were so close and so amazing with their red coloured bills and striking yellow eye stipes. After watching them for 10 minutes I left them as quietly as possible and decided to go back to the car for my camera, I was back at the same spot in less than 15 minutes and quietly parted the same branches but this time, no penguins, they had gone.
I continued along the path until it came out of the forest and ended at the next bay, I scanned the bay and quite incredibly there were some amazing seabirds just offshore:

Bullers shearwater 40, Australian gannet 70, sooty sheawater 200, shy albatross 2 and bullers albatross 4, arctic skua 6, caspian tern 4, white-fronted tern 60. In the forest i'd also had bellbird, silvereye, tui, fantail and new zealand pigeon.

So being very pleased with myself I left Jackson Bay and headed back toward Haast where there was an information centre in which I could get a coffee and something to eat. I must have looked a bit bedraggled as I entered the centre as the person behind the information desk did give me an odd look, but hey, I had just scored a great bird, did I care what people think, nah!
I then started to drive back north, first heading back to Wanaka to join highway 8 that would take me to the hostel at Lake Tekapo. The interior of South Island is much drier that the region I was now leaving with rolling countryside of brown hills.

Tuesday, 23 February 1993

1993 New Zealand Part 3

Fjiordland - Milford Sound

The crossing back from Oban to Bluff was a good one with more views of some good species: yellow-eyed penguin 1, little blue penguin 40, shy albatross 10, Bullers albatross 7, loads of sooty shearwaters and a single prion sp.

I then started to head for an area called Fjiordland so called because it resembles the coastline of Scandinavia. Beautiful snow clad mountain scenery with steep sided valleys tumbling into the sea and large freshwater lakes.
The road into the Fjiordland area from Invercargill follows a broad river plain with the mountains visible in the distance.

At Lumsden the road forks, heading north you skirt around the eastern edge of Fjordland turning west you head for Milford Sound. On the edge of Lumsden I had around 300 black-fronted terns which was a little unexpected for an inland area. I then found out that another one of their names is 'ploughboy' and they will follow the plough hawking for insects, so that explained it.

The main draw for me in Fjordland were a couple of bird species. An alpine parrot called a kea and a new species of penguin for me called, fjiordland crested. I was now on a road that was part of the normal tourist trail for most New Zealand visitors and the road traffic started to pick up especially coaches. These were heading down to the ferry terminal at the head of the famous Milford Sound a very scenic part of the very scenic area and one where I might be able to see the bird species I was after.
From the road you can get great views of the fast flowing rivers and forest borders.

Having left Stewart Island, I wouldn't make it to Milford Sound and get a ferry trip in on the same day so I decided to stop off at the hostel near Te Anau, which was about halfway there.

The view from the hostel across the lake was quite something.

Next morning I was up early and headed off to Milford Sound with the hope of getting onto one of the first ferries to travel up the sound.

Along the way, north of Te Anau is a place called the Homer Tunnel and on its south side is a site for rock wren.
There are no road markings or overhead lights in the Homer Tunnel and watch out for the fallen rocks as well as the on-coming coaches.

Below is the site for rock wren on the southern side of the tunnel, sadly for me I couldn't find one. Only occurring on South Island it has a restricted range being found in the alpine areas at lower altitudes. I read about another species of wren called Stephen Island Wren, discovered in 1894 and becoming extinct almost straight away as the island population were killed by a cat!

On exiting the northern side of the tunnel I drove out into a misty shroud and noticed a number of parked cars in a layby. It was the bird on a car roof that made me pull over and get out. I had managed to come across some keas. One of these incredible alpine parrots was working its way along the line of cars in the layby checking out anything that wasn't suitably fixed down. It reminded me a little of the baboons experience for those unwary people who took their cars into Longleat losing windscreen wipers and car ariels. My car was the last left in the layby and I had a kea on the ground and another in a nearby tree. I took out a shiny 5 cent coin with the kea on the ground watching my every move. Every now and again the two would call to each other and I carefully placed the coin on the bonnet of my hire car. The kea on the ground flew up onto the bonnet and deftly picked the coin up and then threw the coin. It landed in the windscreen wiper gully at the base of the windscreen and despite the keas best efforts it couldn't retrieve it. So bored with the coin game it scrambled onto the car roof and ambled over to the car ariel to check it out, it gave the ariel a very careful bite but not being able to dislodge it flew off with its partner and I lost them to view in the mist.
A kea the alpine parrot that is capable of killing a sheep! I really think it has to be a weakened/sick sheep and one that is probably stuck in the snow.

Other than the 2 keas I also saw rifleman, New Zealand scaup 6, grey warbler 1, harrier, bellbird 2 and silvereye.
There were just so many stunning photographic opportunities along the way.

Including more incredible moss carpeted forest.

Finally I made it to the ferry terminal at the head of the sound and booked myself onto the only ferry that did a full trip to the mouth of the sound and back, as I was hoping to see the penguin species I was after at the mouth.
Many types of trips were available from the ferry terminal, the one I chose cost $36.

At the allotted time the ferry left the berth and headed up the sound with its famously stunning scenery.

A haul out of New Zealand fur seals.

Impressive cliffs, the white blob on the water right of centre is in fact a large ferry!

This valley has special significance as it is the site were the kakapo was re-discovered in 1958 after it was thought to be extinct. The species is incapable of upward flight and progresses by walking along well worn tracks or clambering up leaning trunks and branches. The bird does posses large wings and can perform a downward glide of up to 100m.

Suddenly we were nearing the mouth of the sound and I was looking forward to a few minutes there looking for the penguins as the ferry maneuvered for its return leg. However the ferry captain obviously wasn't working to my itinerary as we did a very swift u-turn and started to head back the way we came not quite reaching the mouth of the sound. Needless to say despite some frantic scanning I didn't see anything that remotely resembled a penguin. Blast!

Back at the terminal I was a little disappointed but there was just no point in giving another trip up the sound another go, so I started on the journey back up along the road to Te Anau.

On the way back I stopped off at a place called Knobs Flat, an area of beech woods where I had a site for a good bird called a yellowhead. By this time I had started to make some further plans as I had been thumbing through the gen I had brought along to see if there was any chance I could try to see Fjiordland crested penguin anywhere else. I'd come to conclusion that there was a slim chance that I might see one at a place called Jacksons Bay which is the north of the Fjiordland area. As the drive to get there was a fairly long one I set myself a time limit looking for the yellowhead. It seemed quite straight forward as the gen said to look at the base of the trees and scrub areas for the birds, so that is what I started to do. The beach woods were good habitat with other species being seen well : south island tomtit, bellbird, tui, south island kaka 2, robin 2, yellow fronted parakeet 3, silvereye, New Zealand pigeon, rifleman, grey warbler, brown creeper, fantail and harrier but no sign of the yellowhead. I was running out of time and it looked as though I would dip on my second key species for this part of the trip, double blast! Something in me decided tghat it was no good looking around the base of the trees for birds and I might as well just start looking all over the place including the canopy which was a long way up.
The canopy was a long way up but that is where the yellowhead was!

Suddenly I caught movement at the top, did that bird have a yellow head? Surely not, but it also had a yellow belly and there wasn't just 1 but 4 of them feeding with a small group of other passerines. I'd cracked it and found my yellowheads, not grubbing about at the base of the trees but enjoying the very top branches. Hmm! this was the same gen that I was trusting to get me Fjiordland crested penguin at Jackson Bay...
Scored yellowhead, even with my stupid hat on, time for a brew before moving on.

South Island Tomtit