I was on my way to Stewart Island off the southern tip of south island, New Zealand. I had made it as far as Invercargill and was now birding around the area of Bluff preparing to get the ferry to Stewart Island.
Banded Plover roosting on an area of short turf within an industrial park south of Awarua Plains.
Near the ferry terminal at Bluff a group of white-fronted terns were resting on the rocks. These had actually been reasonably common all down the east coast from Christchurch.
Venturing further south to Stewart Island meant leaving my car and most of my luggage in it for a few days whilst I stayed on the island. It was easy for me to pack a few essentials in a ruck sack and arrange for my car to be left in storage for 4 days and book the ferry to the island. The ferry cost me $37 each way and the storage $3 a day, I didn't have any accommodation booked on the island but I was sure that I would be able to find something. The ferry is a large catamaran and with the twin hulls you tend to feel any wave motion and the crossing was a rough one but in the Foveux Straits there were good numbers of sooty shearwaters with 5 minute counts of 230, 350 and a 1 minute count of 470 birds passing through some flocks of birds on the water exceeded 3,000. Other birds on the crossing were 2 Australian gannets, 5 mollymawk sp. and 1 prion sp. Foveaux Straits.
The lighthouse on Dog Island, Foveaux Straits.
The draw of Stewart Island is the chance of seeing a kiwi species and the fact that it is still relatively pristine. Apart for birders it is also a prime location for those folks that love to go hiking so the only town of Oban near Halfmoon Bay is well stocked with reasonable accommodation.
The metropolis of Oban on Stewart Island, the ferry terminal is top right.
On leaving the ferry at Oban dock I walked into the town and started looking for somewhere to stay. The first place I tried was Innes Backpackers a lodge that didn't look too bad, Stewart Island does not have a youth hostel.
Innes Backpackers, a good place to stay.
I was lucky there was availability at $10 a night and the friendly owner asked me what my plans were, I replied that I was on a birding trip and hoped to see a kiwi and maybe go out on a pelagic. He seemed pleased that I had some sort of a plan because without any hesitation he picked up the phone and within 5 minutes I was booked on a kiwi tour for that night, tomorrow I was to go on a boat to Ulva island for the day as one of his mates was going to pass close by and he would also pick me up. The day after I was also booked on a boat that was taking some fisherman out into the straits and for a small fee I could join them to see what birds also appeared. He then asked me if there was anything else he could do to help? I was dumbfounded and elated at the same time, he told me that it was refreshing to have someone that knew what they wanted, most people that stay just seem to drift in and out. Being a birder you can tend to be slightly snobbish and believe you know more and know best than other non-birdy types ever since this experience I have never doubted local knowledge and local people and I always now try to ask the locals if possible. So I was all set and after dumping my stuff off in my room I went for a walk awaiting the night time trip where I would hopefully score brown kiwi.
On my walk, a smart and confiding New Zealand Pigeon.
My walk around Oban produced, tuis 4, silvereye, bellbird, new zealand pigeon, south island kaka 1.
The catamaran ferry and terminal at Oban.
I got picked up after dark and ended up in a mini bus with a small group of other people and taken to an area of forest in which after a short walk we started to emerge out onto an area of sandy beach. The beach had a ridge of vegetation before it and the path went through the ridge, suddenly an eerie call reverberated in the night and I had just heard my first kiwi. Our guide led us through onto the beach and with the help of dim torchlight we started to search for kiwis. The beach had a high tide line of dumped seaweed and after a short time we started to hear some snuffling and there in the torch light was an amazing looking hairy/feathery bird. It reminded me of one of the slag brothers out of whacky races or maybe cousin 'It' from The Addams Family. It had strong looking legs and feet, you couldn't really see any wings, it just looked hairy.
It would probe the sand deeply with it's long bill and the sensitive tip and hairs at the base would detect the small items of prey that it was looking for. We managed to hear 2 and see 3 that night along with 2 fairy prions and we also heard a couple of moreporks. The brown kiwi is probably one of the most amazing and odd looking birds that I have seen.
The forest looks and is dense but there are some good trails through it.
After a while it became apparent that I wasn't alone in fact I was being watched and I had been actively followed. I tended to stop every now and then scrutinising this and photographing that when I could hear some footsteps. The owner of which soon appeared in the form of a juvenile weka. A weka is a type of rail and this particular form is called Stewart Island Weka, they are capable rat killers and this inquisitive juvenile had sought me out. It's parents who were not quite so inquisitive were making the odd noise amongst the ground cover and gradually moving away. Junior having had its fill of looking at me followed with much tail flicking and clucking.
There is a Weka in the picture below. You can just see it's face looking right, in the middle just below the tip of the fern leaf.
I then came out of the forest and discovered this lovely sandy beach, along which were running a couple of black oystercatchers.
Going back into the forest I started to retrace my steps and was suddenly startled when a commotion at my feet made me stop in my tracks, a large brown bird flew up and perched on a branch above me. After having averted a minor coronary, I realised that it was a morepork sat just above me and looking down at me. Then as if by some magic a whole tone of birds suddenly appeared and started to mob the morepork. Being oblivious to me, my head was surrounded by tuis, fantails, tomtits and silvereyes all going berserk, it was incredible. Finally they all got bored after giving the morepork, what for, and I moved on. I made it back to the pier for 17:00 to find no boat waiting for me, in fact 18:00 came and went with no sign of anyone. A boat then did pass by and seeing me on the pier came in to see if I was alright, I managed to remember the name of the person who had dropped me off in the morning and after raising them on the radio I was told they were running late and apologies but they were on their way. I finally got picked up and headed back to Oban.
The wonderful Ulva Island.
On getting back to Innes backpackers the owner had managed to get hold of a large salmon which had been duly cooked and was left out for all to share, needless to say after my day out it was delicious washed down with a beer, what a day.
Over the next two days I went on a couple of pelagic trips taking advantage of a fishing boat being chartered by a couple of errmm..... fisherman.
A challenge for one of the beer drinking fisherman.
I didn't really mind what they did as I was there for the seabirds and it wasn't long before the cut up remains of fish started to attract the beasties I was there to try and see.
A white-capped albatross is attracted by the fishing or maybe the beer?
One surprise catch was this octopus, certainly a tricky thing to handle but I wasn't impressed by the way it was kicked back into the sea by the crew of the boat and the fisherman. It was here that I started to consider the respect or rather lack of it being shown to the oceans and the creatures that live in it. Probably a defining moment for me but not one I realised for a while yet.
Turning red is supposed to be a sign of anger by cuttlefish and octopus and so would I be having just been kicked about.
As more fish were caught more albatross started to turn up and the photo opportunities were great.
White-capped Albatross along with typical salt drip on the tip of it's bill. They are able to extract the salt from any seawater they ingest.
Spreading your wings is intimidating to other birds and hopefully other Bullers' albatross.
A few other seabirds also appeared, sometimes the odd southern skua, prions and a pintado petrel.
Pintado Petrel or Cape Pigeon
For me using the fishing boats had been a great success, over two trips I had seen: huttons shearwater 2, little blue penguin 40, yellow-eyed penguin 3, fluttering shearwater 10, diving petrel sp. 11, pintado petrel 1, southern giant petrel 1, Bulers albatross 11, white-capped albatross 6, fairy prion 1 and southern skua 2.
Stewart Island sunset.