In February/March 1993 I went to New Zealand by myself on a birding holiday, there is a story behind why but that is one that I'm keeping to myself. It has nothing to do with me being an unpopular person or having bad body odour, at least I don't think so! Anyway I decided to fly via Los Angeles with Air New Zealand and the island hopping section of the flight across the Pacific was notable as we landed at places such as Roratonga and the Cook islands but I had to stay in the aircraft which was a shame but then again it was night time. At one point one of the local rugby teams boarded the flight. A group of huge muscular blokes appeared and wedged themselves into the ill fitting seats, heading for some Pacific island rugby competition. I used to play rugby when I was at school and the thought of having to stop one of these incredibly powerful looking men in full stride on a mission to score a try for their country was one that I was glad to see someone else having to do on telly. Blimey! you just wouldn't stand a chance. When we landed at Aukland in north island I joined an internal flight to hop onto south island and finally took possession of my hire car in Christchurch. I had organised my trip at quite short notice and managed to obtain some bird gen and I'd decided to make use of the good network of youth hostels within New Zealand as my accommodation base. My itinerary was reasonably flexible but I had a figure of eight route planned that spanned both south and north island starting at Christchurch heading south, then back north onto north island and leaving from Aukland. I was certainly very tired as I started to drive from Christchurch south following the coast. Given that Christchurch is one of the few major cities on south island, I couldn't help thinking that there wasn't much traffic, something which turned out to be a feature of New Zealand. I'd decided to aim for the youth hostel at Dunedin for my first night but had totally misjudged the driving distance and being very tired I got no further than the Red Kettle youth hostel at Oamaru.
Red Kettle Youth Hostel - Oamaru, you can tell by the large red kettle on the corner of the white picket fence.
I then discovered quite unexpectedly that in some cases the youth hostel managers had a good local knowledge of the bird life in the area. When booking into a hostel the manager would invariably ask what your plans were and whether they could help you with anything. In this case I mentioned to the manager that I had only landed that day and had intended to drive much further south to a youth hostel that was near a site for yellow-eyed penguins (according to my gen and bird reports that I had taken with me). Imagine my surprise (and not the only time on the trip) when the manager came back to me with 'Oh we have penguins here too, just at the coast there!'. Needless to say I got more information not only for yellow-eyed penguins but also little blue penguins and it was just as well my itinerary was flexible as my plans had already started to change. That evening I found myself sitting quietly on a platform along with a few other people waiting patiently for the arrival of the local little blue penguins that had their nest burrows in an area of fenced off scrub the other side of the road from the sea wall.
The penguin crossing at Oamaru, the burrows and protected area is to the right.
The fenced off area protected the penguins from cats and rats and suitable signs had been posted on the road to hopefully ensure people did not run them over as they crossed. As the evening drew in a small group of cautious penguins appeared in the sea and small stony beach next to a ramp that helped them get up onto the road. You could hear the juvenile penguins in the burrows amongst the scrub calling to their parents and once the first adult had started to scrabble up the ramp and cross the road their was a bit of a bundle as the others followed. The adults quickly found the penguin sized holes in the fence around the scrub and they disappeared from view as they tended their young. I must admit that I felt sorry for the cute small penguins just trying to bring up their young in an environment where unnatural predators threatened their very existence but unfortunately this is a common environmental trend for New Zealands native wildlife.
The penguins appeared on the right at the base of the wall, made their way to the top and then scampered to the enclosure on the left.
An impression (I would say artists' but I don't think so!), of little blue penguins waiting to scramble up the bank having just come onto the shore.
However, it was an amazing and totally unexpected way to end my first day in New Zealand. On that first day I had managed to see: White faced heron, mallard, harrier, black-billed gull, kelp gull, black-faced tern, welcome swallow, blackbird, greenfinch, goldfinch, chaffinch, house sparrow, starling, white backed magpie and 28 little blue penguins along with 1 New Zealand fur seal.
The hostel manager had also told me about some forest walks nearby so the next morning I went to have a wander around. The forest was beautiful with amazing tree ferns and loads of moss encased trees and blanketed forest floors. One thing that did strike me almost straight away though was how birdless it was, certainly there was a lot of insect noise but no bird song or calls!
Amazing forest but practically birdless.
The next day I went to look for yellow-eyed penguins. The hostel manager had given me directions to an area of coastal scrub and forest where penguin burrows and young existed and I should await the return of the adults who would cross the stony beach to find and feed their young.
A rare habitat, coastal scrub and forest, used by even rarer yellow-eyed penguins to breed, near Oamaru. I had this area all to myself, apart from the penguins of course.
Back in 1993 their were around 800 pairs of yellow eyed penguins left and they are endemic to New Zealand with a status of threatened, they are the rarest of the penguin group. They prefer the coastal scrub forest habitats which is in decline as it is lost to housing and hotel developments. Looking on the Internet today I've found an estimate of 4,000 individuals so hopefully their numbers remain on an upward trend. It wasn't too longbefore I saw a couple of adult penguins in the shallows and then a few more appeared and left the water to go to their chicks.
Yellow-eyed Penguin, you can just make out the metal tags on the birds wings used as part of the monitoring program setup for this species.
The coastal forest habitat had a few trails through it but the cover was thick and whilst I could hear the odd juvenile penguin calling I couldn't really see what was making all the noise. A walk along a nearby beach turned up a juvenile little blue penguin in its rock hole, waiting for its parents to return to feed it during the night. Local dog walkers on the beach seemed to know it was there and kept their animals at a respectful distance.
Nearly fully grown little blue penguin, safe from any stray dogs, hopefully!
I couldn't help thinking that it did seem a little vulnerable and didn't linger beyond taking a quick photo. So in the Oamaru area I had managed to see: Yellow eyed penguin 3ad + 1 juv, little blue penguin 2ad + 1 juv, Australian gannet 2, Stewart island shag 30, spotted shag 100, variable oystercatcher 2, arctic skua 6, kelp gull, red-billed gull, black billed gull, large flocks of white-fronted terns off-shore, fantail 6, bellbird 6, silvereye and welcome swallow.
I then drove to Dunedin on the way stopping off at Moeraki, a small coastal town home to famous some rock formations.
Heading south and time for a cuppa.
According to Maori legend, the Moeraki Boulders are gourds that washed ashore (on what is now Koekohe Beach) when the Araiteuru canoe was wrecked hundreds of years ago.
Watch out for the crowds here. I'm starting to detect a theme!
The scientific explanation is that the boulders are calcite concretions, formed over 60 million years ago in seafloor sediment. The spherical boulders formed in a pearl-like process that took as long as four million years (due to crystallization of calcium and carbonates), and the soft mud that contained the boulders surfaced due to wind and rain. The boulders vary in size—up to ten feet (three meters) in diameter—and can weigh several tons each. The draw for a birdwatcher to Dunedin is the Otago peninsular which is the only mainland site where you can see royal albatross.
I think since I went to New Zealand royal albatross has now been split, to be honest I struggle to keep up with splits and lumps. Anyway as you approach Dunedin you get a great view of the peninsular and I was lucky with the weather for the scenery shot but it was almost my undoing for trying to see the albatrosses.
You can't see any albatrosses in this picture. I still had quite a drive to make, heading for the tip of the peninsular in the distance on the left.
The superb design of an albatross is to take full advantage of the wind and if there is no wind then an albatross just has to sit it out until a breeze comes along. With such beautiful calm weather would there be any breeze on the peninsular. The area where the birds breed at the tip of the peninsular is protected and you have to climb a few steps to get into a hide where you can overlook the vegetation. Given that it was spring and the vegetation was high would it be possible to even see any birds on the nest. Luckily albatrosses are big birds and royal albatrosses are some of the biggest. Having said that the shot of the bird below shows how obscured they can get and it was very hot with the bird gaping to help it keep cool.
A hot Royal Albatross
Whilst I was there a slight breeze did get up and the birds are such masters of the air that soon a few more started to appear on the wing.
Before this trip the only other albatross I had seen was the famous 'Albert', the black-browed albatross that used to return to the gannet breeding colony at Hermaness on the Shetlands. Seeing these royal albatross was just amazing, they are truly stunning birds. On the Otago Peninsular I managed to see : Royal albatross 5 ad and 2 juvs, sooty shearwater 20, Australian gannet 2, red-billed gull, kelp gull, white-fronted tern, southern pied oystercatcher, variable oystercatcher, spotted shag, Stewart Island shag and white-faced heron.
Part of a densely packed colony of Stewart Island shags.
White-faced Heron, a coloniser from Australia.
Moving on from Dunedin I continued to head further south for Invercargill on my way to Stewart Island, seeing New Zealand fur seal, black swan 12, New Zealand shoveler 6, gray teal, paradise shelduck 5, pied stilt, variable oystercatcher, southern pied oystercatcher, bar-tailed godwit 12, white-faced heron 2, pukako 1, harrier, welcome swallow, fantail, silvereye and bellbird. At Invercargill, a night at a different youth hostel and in the area of Bluff and Amarua bay I managed to see : Brown creeper 20, bellbird, tomtit 5, fantail, grey warbler and silvereye in the vicinity of Bluff Hill.