Monday, 19 August 1996

NEW ZEALAND 1996: South Island (13-19 August)

13 August 1996:  We were up at dawn and drove into Wellington to catch the 08:00 ferry to Picton.  The crossing, on the Arahura, produced our first Cape Petrels, Fairy Prions and a Royal Albatross with Common Diving Petrels and Hutton’s Shearwaters very common in Queen Charlotte Sound.  A brief stop at Lake Elterwater produced nothing of note and we soon continued on to Kaikoura where the rest of the day was spent.  The terns around the Fur Seal colony were good and a few seabirds were seen rather distantly.  That evening Nick contacted the skipper of the M.V. Virgo who was happy for us to join him when he checked his nets the following morning, provided it wasn’t too rough.  With a feeling of anticipation, and some anxiety given the rising wind, we slept in the car by the Fur Seal colony.  33 species were recorded, the 100 Cape Petrels being the highlight of the day.

inter-island ferry crossing Cook Strait, snowy mountains of South Island in the distance
Queen Charlotte Sound
the road south to Kaikoura was spectacular
it would be an impressive train journey too
looking northwest from the headland at Kaikoura

14 August 1996:  We met Gary and his crewman on the quay before dawn and were soon off, squeezed into the deckhouse.  It was cold and there was a heavy swell, while reports on the radio suggested worse weather further south.  Gary did not appear to be at all concerned, exhibiting a calmness I did not feel!  After a couple of hours of bouncing around seeing very little we arrived at his first net.  Up until this point in my life seabirds had been rather mythical birds one glimpsed from headlands if lucky and couldn’t really identify without a bit of imagination while pelagic trips involved hours of boredom and a few Bonxies.  The next 3 hours challenged this conception completely, not that my identification of seabirds has improved very much and I still prefer to be on dry land!  As the nets were drawn in and fish gutted, a mass of birds surrounded the boat and descended on the innards as they were thrown overboard.  We estimated at least 2000 Cape Petrels, 20 Royal, 3 Wandering, 30 Shy, 2 Buller’s and 15 Black-browed Albatrosses, 20 Grey Petrels and 15 Westland Black Petrels were round the boat, some almost close enough to touch (and readily photographed with a standard lens).  It was a magical experience and we were sorry when the final net had been reset and we turned for home, although the return journey was just as memorable with a small pod of dolphins riding the bow wave inches from where we were sitting for 20 minutes.  Two hours seawatching from above the Fur Seal colony was a distinct anticlimax after the Virgo.  We departed Kaikoura towards Arthur’s Pass, getting as far as Waipara before dark.  We drove on to Arthur’s Pass camping by the Hawden Shelter.  A very memorable day despite only 29 species being recorded.  Wandering Albatross was the bird of the day.

seabirds from the MV Virgo off Kaikoura.  Probably Wandering, Black-browed and Royal Albatrosses, Southern Giant and Cape Petrels and Kelp Gulls 
gulls, Cape Petrels and albatrosses
Wandering and Black-browed Albatrosses with Cape Petrela
Black-browed and Wandering Albatrosses and Cape Petrels
Black-browed, Shy and Royal Albatrosses with Cape Petrels
Black-browed, Shy, Royal and Wandering Albatrosses with Cape Petrels (this is the above image digitised from the negative rather than a print, interesting how different the colours are)
Wandering and Royal Albatrosses with Southern Giant and Cape Petrels
Black-browed and Wandering Albatrosses and Cape Petrels
Dusky Dolphins riding the bow-wave
returning to Kaikoura, seabirds would never be the same again
MV Virgo back in Kaikoura.  Thanks guys.
Fur Seal
15 August 1996:  A couple of hours wandering up the Hawden Valley at first light produced very little so after packing up the tent we drove up to Arthur’s Pass.  By this time it had started to snow and a brief look at a river were Blue Duck had been seen the previous November was soon abandoned.  We saw 4 Keas but little else and decided to go on to Punakaiki.  As we descended the snow became rain and the weather started to brighten up a bit.  We went first to Bullock Creek to see where to look for Great Spotted Kiwis that evening but after 2-3 kms the road into the site was seriously flooded and we could go no further.  A walk back along the road looking for Weka was looking to be unsuccessful, although it did produce our first New Zealand Brown Creeper, until we returned to the car to find a Weka crouched under it!  This bird and another then gave amazing views.  After a brief look at the pancake rocks at Punakaiki, where Westland Black Petrels were obvious gathering offshore, we waited by the road south of Punakaiki River to witness the petrels returning to their burrows.  We saw at least 1000, though observations were interrupted on occasion when we retreated into the car to avoid particularly heavy showers.  Birds still seemed to be coming in after dark, but with the rain becoming more persistent we decided to call it a day.  Trying for the kiwis was impractical given the rain and flooded road so we drove south, sleeping in the car just south of Ross.  Only 27 species were recorded, possibly due to poor weather, but 3 were new.  Weka was clearly the highlight.

Hawden Valley campsite at dawn.  it was cold!

Arthur's Pass

Weka at Punakaiki

impressive sized feet
me at the pancake rocks

16 August 1996:  We were up at dawn and drove down the Westland Coast with stops at the southern end of Okarito Lagoon, Franz Josef and Fox Glaciers and Lake Paringa.  All were pleasant, without producing many birds.  The last two hours of the day were spent at Munroe’s Beach seeing three Fiordland Crested Penguins which appeared in the breakers and quickly walked up the beach into the rocks at the foot of the cliffs - superb.  Despite it being mid-winter sandflies were a problem at Munroe’s Beach, particularly as we’d not thought to take any repellent with us.  We continued past the town of Haast and started to climb towards Haast Pass, stopping in a layby near Okuru Forest to sleep in the car.  36 species recorded of which only one was new and few of the others were particularly significant.


Frans Joseph Glacier

Fox Glacier

Munroe's Beach
17 August 1996:  After a cold night we quickly drove up to Haast Pass and spent a very enjoyable two hours on the bridle track walking on an amazing carpet of moss through absolutely stunning woodland.  Best birds were an amazing 27 Riflemen and 6 Yellowheads as well as 2 Kakas, 3 Yellow-crowned Parakeets, 10 Tomtits and 2 New Zealand Brown Creepers.  We then drove fairly steadily to Wanaka (for supplies) and over the spectacular Lindis Pass to Twizel.  Taking a road east just before Twizel led us past the Power Stations and on to the northwest end of Lake Benmore adjacent to the braided river complex.  We watched until dark seeing 5 Black Stilts, 1 Pied Stilt and 1 hybrid as well as 20 Double-banded Plovers.  Birds were generally rather distant but two Black Stilts did give close views enabling us to be confident of their purity.  We were expecting Black Stilts to be much harder to pick out but were pleased this was not the case.  Perhaps this is a good time of year to find them, with most Pied Stilts and hybrids not having returned from their northern migration?  34 species were recorded of which 3 were new.  This was one of the best days of the trip, the 27 Riflemen the inevitable highlight.  After much debate we decided not to stay at Lake Benmore that night and drove on south towards Te Anau, putting up the tent in a layby near The Key at 2 am.

Haast Pass

Lake Wanaka

Lake Hawea

Lindis Pass

Lake Benmore

dusk at Lake Benmore
18 August 1996:  A cold night and up at dawn, we drove through Te Anau and out towards Milford Sound, stopping at the Mirror Lakes (rather unimpressive) and Homer Tunnel (rather scary).  Few birds were seen although Keas gave good views, especially at the Homer Tunnel were one landed on the car as soon as we stopped and needed to be discouraged from shredding the window seals.  Homer Tunnel was covered in snow (up to a foot in places) and any idea of seeing Rock Wren hopping round the boulders nearby were immediately dashed.  There are very few winter sightings with suggestions they feed around boulders below the snow perhaps no more fanciful than them hibernating.  A great pity as they look a stunning bird.  We continued down to Milford Sound where a Great White Egret was present and after deciding not to go on a very touristy and rather expensive boat trip on the sound we returned through the Homer Tunnel to Lake Gunn.  Here we had a pleasant walk through excellent woodland before putting up the tent.  Few birds were evident at Lake Gunn, possibly due to the cold, although 3 Riflemen were seen.  Just 21 species recorded, the lowest daily total of the trip and also the first day with no new birds, though Rifleman was again a worthy highlight.

Eglington Valley

Mirror Lakes

upper Eglington Valley
Kea in a parking area, waiting for unwary motorists!

road to Homer Tunnel
near Homer Tunnel

colour-ringed Kea "K" at the Homer Tunnel with its eye on our windscreen wipers and window seals.  It had to be chased away repeatedly and on one occasion it under-estimated the slipperiness of the bonnet and skidded in a rather undignified manner off onto the snow!

Milford Sound

19 August 1996:  We returned to Milford Sound for a final look around but soon left after stops at Homer Tunnel (nothing), Lake Gunn (7 Riflemen) and Knobb’s Flat (4 Riflemen).  The woodland was superb but appeared to have very low bird densities.  We left this area and bought some supplies in Te Anau before driving to Invercargill.  I was lucky enough to see a New Zealand Falcon as it shot across in front of the car between The Key and Mossburn.  Unfortunately it could not be relocated and as the light soon faded we continued on our way.  After a visit to another excellent Fish & Chip Shop in Invercargill we ended up sleeping in the car at Bluff.  While enquiring in the local pub about boats to Stewart Island Nick was told if we’d been a couple of days earlier we could have got a lift on a week trip in someone’s brother’s boat to a couple of the Sub-antarctic Islands.  Even I, not liking boats, would have jumped at the chance.  It was noticeably warmer but rather breezy.  25 species were recorded including, sadly, what turned out to be the last Riflemen of the trip.
Milford Sound

near Homer Tunnel

Eglington Valley
moss covered forest in the Eglington Valley

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