Friday, 30 August 1996

NEW ZEALAND 1996: Stewart Island to Auckland (20-30 August)

20 August 1996:  We left the car at Bluff and caught the local supply boat, the Marine Maid, which sailed for Stewart Island that morning.  This was a rather slow vessel which enabled reasonable views of seabirds to be obtained, or would have had there been many on the crossing.  As it was, it extended a period of boredom from one hour to over two!  Halfmoon Bay on Stewart Island was very reminiscent of Hugh Town on St. Mary’s and we soon settled in Anne’s Place, a cheap backpacker’s just out of town.  This was to prove to be an excellent base for the next couple of days.  The weather had worsened, with the wind picking up and squally showers and we were concerned as to whether Philip Smith's evening kiwi trip to Ocean Beach would go ahead.  It was the most eagerly anticipated part of our trip and a conversation with Philip was not as reassuring as we would have liked!  A visit to Acker’s Point (just under an hours walk from Anne’s Place) produced good views of Weka but the rough seas made our hearts sink.  Fortunately the wind eased during the rest of the afternoon and the rain held off to enable the trip to go ahead.  Nick, four others and I left in Philip Smith’s boat just before dark.  The trip started well with Philip telling us he’d only failed to see kiwi once in 6 years of taking visitors and that he’d seen 11 kiwi’s on his previous visit a week before, although this was tempered by also being told that the weather had been much better then and that kiwis were much harder to see in bad weather like this eveninng’s!  Not really what we wanted to hear although 35 Little Blue and 1 Yellow-eyed Penguin from the boat took our minds of kiwis for a while.  We landed at The Neck and after waiting 15 minutes for it to get dark set off across a narrow isthmus to Ocean Beach.  Being shown kiwi tracks, kiwi ‘runs’, kiwi droppings and places where Kiwi’s beaks had probed the sand did little to ease the tension as we walked further and further down the beach without seeing an actual kiwi.  Philip then told us he ‘would have expected to see a kiwi by now and had seen several by this time on his last trip’, sinking further our hopes.  With the end of the beach fast approaching and me thinking it’s going to be 2 dips in 6 years at this rate, Philip spotted a kiwi blundering around behind some marram grass.  What an amazing bird.  It then gave excellent views for 10 minutes when we had to leave it although another was seen on the walk back down the beach.  The whole experience, amazing as it was, was over far too quickly and I could happily have stayed all night but unfortunately the amount of time Philip is allowed to spend with the kiwis is limited for their protection – not that they seemed to be the least bit bothered by us.  A memorable day, 32 species recorded including 3 new ones and the bird of the trip.  I'd seen a kiwi!
Halfmoon Bay, Stewart Island
Halfmoon Bay
me at Acker's Point, somewhat anxious as the rough see might prevent the much anticipated kiwi trip from going

21 August 1996:  A wet day with quite strong winds, so just as well we had made it to Ocean Beach the previous evening.  We persuaded a boatman to take us to Ulva Island, possibly against his better judgement, and boarding his boat was quite entertaining.  It took no time to get there and being landed on the sheltered side of the island presented no problem.  We arranged to be picked up 4 hours later and slowly wandered around this idyllic island.  The more notable birds were 6 Wekas, 6 Kakas, both Red and Yellow-crowned Parakeets and 35 New Zealand Brown Creepers.  We returned to Anne’s place to dry out and did little during the remainder of the day.  We would happily have returned to Ocean Beach if another trip had been going that evening.  Not that there were any other takers, but Philip wasn’t licensed to visit on consecutive days.  We heard on the radio of heavy snowfalls in the mountains and that several of the passes (including the Lindis Pass) were closed.  Although we had time to return to the western side of South Island, we’d seen all we could hope to at this time of year and the possibility of getting stuck made it a less attractive proposition.  28 species recorded, the 6 Kakas being the highlight.

Halfmoon Bay at low tide
Ulva Island
Weka on the shoreline

Ulva Island
22 August 1996:  As the Foveaux Strait crossing was so poor we booked a return on the mid-day sailing of the fast (1 hour) Southern Express catamaran.  We walked to Acker’s Point again that morning before collecting our bags.  There appeared to be many more birds in the Foveaux Strait but viewing was not easy from the fast moving catamaran.  We would have been better off on the slower boat although we did identify 8 Buller’s Albatrosses.  Once back in Bluff we quickly drove to Nugget Point, very much a race against the setting sun, arriving with half an hour of light left and just in time to see 1 Yellow-eyed Penguin waddle up the beach.  Leaving Nugget Point we came across a French couple who had skidded their camper van into a ditch.  We gave them a lift into Kaka Point, the nearest town, and got them assistance at the Fish & Chip Shop.  In conversation, one told us he was a medical student doing national service on New Caledonia.  Had he seen Kagu I asked optimistically and was completely gripped to be told he’d seen them walking round a picnic area in the Rivière Bleue Reserve.  Nick and I wished then that we’d fitted a few days on New Caledonia into our itinerary, although knowing Kagu could be relatively easy to see made us determined to do so soon.  We drove on to Dunedin and the Otago Peninsular sleeping in the car near Cape Saunders.  38 species seen but little of interest other than those mentioned above, the Yellow-eyed Penguin being the highlight of the day.

final walk to Acker's Point, rare patch of blue sky!
23 August 1996:   Up at dawn, we drove down a muddy track towards the coast south of Cape Saunders and seawatched for a couple of hours seeing a few albatrosses.  Returning up the muddy road was more difficult but we managed it, just, and then continued on to the Royal Albatross colony at Taiaroa Head.  This is fenced off and access only allowed on an organised ‘tour’.  This included a tour of the information centre and a compulsory 25 minute video with only 15 minutes in the hide.  We did not really fancy this and having had amazing views off Kaikoura from the Virgo we decided to watch from outside, seeing 13.  Here we also witnessing a big passage of over 500 Spotted Shags moving south in less than an hour.  Leaving Otago we drove north to Katiki Point, stopping to look at the nearby Moeraki Boulders first.  We had been sitting in the hide at Katiki for over an hour, somewhat disappointed to see only 2 rather distant Yellow-eyed Penguins, when the lady in charge invited us into the fenced off area.  Here we had excellent views of 17 individuals on the beach and walking up to their nest sites.  A fine spectacle.  We left as the light was going and continued north to Oamaru where, after obtaining directions from a garage, were too late for the nightly Little Blue Penguin spectacle, seeing just one by the side of the road.  We decided to revisit Lake Benmore, and drove inland west towards Omarama before finding a suitable picnic area to put up the tent.  38 species seen including some excellent seabirds, the highlight being the 17 Yellow-eyed Penguins.
Otago Peninsular
Spotted Shags
Taioroa Head

me at the Moeraki Boulders

Katiki Point
Yellow-eyed Penguin
24 August 1996:  Up at dawn we drove on to Omarama and then north to Lake Benmore, stopping almost immediately as a seemingly pure Black Stilt flew over the road.  At Lake Benmore we tried to drive to the braided river by taking a track to the north of the power stations but without a four-wheel drive it was impossible and despite walking some distance we never managed to approach the area we were hoping to reach.  We eventually returned to the area which we had visited a week earlier.  There were generally fewer birds to be seen and at a greater distance than we had remembered.  Rather disappointedly we continued on to Lake Tekapo where a brief look at the southern end of the lake was unproductive.  With the light fading we drove northeast towards Christchurch, camping in a lay-by just south of Ashburton.  33 species seen, the highlights being 10 Double-banded Plovers and 3 Black Stilts.

Lake Benmore

25 August 1996: After a slightly disturbed night, being right next to the main north-south road, we packed up the tent and drove northeast to Kaituna Lagoons at the extreme eastern end of Lake Ellesmere.  A Great White Egret was the only bird of note and we soon continued on to the Banks Peninsular.  This was very spectacular with a steep climb before dropping down to Akaroa Harbour.  Being a Sunday it seemed to be full of day-trippers and was very busy.  We drove as far round the eastern side of the harbour as we could and then continued walking for a mile or so towards the southern end of French Bay, eventually being halted by a private keep out sign.  On the walk back we had rather distant views of 5 White-flippered Penguins out in the harbour and on returning to the car decided to try and drive to the coast at the end of Lighthouse Road in the hope of a seawatch.  We drove out of Akaroa but the road was incredibly steep and when it changed to dirt we decided it probably wasn’t sensible to continue.  Returning we continued north to Kaikoura and arrived with an hour or so of light left, having had a brief stop in Christchurch (a very clean city and pleasantly quiet on a Sunday).  The M.V. Virgo’s winch was being repaired, dashing our hopes of another seabird trip the following day and we decided to try the Whalewatch boat instead, returning to our ‘usual’ car-park to sleep in the car.  35 species seen, the highlight being a flock of 75 Black-fronted Terns roosting at Kaikoura.
Banks Peninsular

Kaikoura at sunset
26 August 1996: We arrived at the Whalewatch Office in Kaikoura as it opened and booked places on the morning trip.  When feeding at this time of year Humpback Whales are solitary and seem to spend 2-3 minutes on the surface and then dive for up to 20 minutes, often travelling some distance underwater.  Because of this the Whalewatch boat, a fast catamaran called the Wawahia, is guided onto a whale by two zodiac teams with sonar equipment.  With only a couple of minutes to reach the whale before it dives it is necessary for all passengers to remain strapped into their seats and this makes birding very difficult.  We saw 2 Humpback Whales but the views and the whole commercialised experience was a big disappointment, and not a patch on our previous encounters with Whales (Southern Rights in Argentina and South Africa).  Birds were a disappointment too, with many fewer seen than from the M.V. Virgo, although to give them their due the Whalewatch crowd did circle some Royal Albatrosses on the return.  In the afternoon we drove inland a short way to Mount Fyfee Forest but few birds were seen, a flock of 4 Brown Creepers in the scrub above the car park being the most notable.  Seawatching produced little and at dusk we drove to Lake Elterwater where we put up the tent in a rather noisy lay-by.  33 species seen with 4 Royal Albatrosses from the Whalewatch boat being the highlight.
Whalewatch boat
Humpback Whale, going
going, gone ...
Kaikoura headland

Kaikoura from Mount Fyfee Forest

27 August 1996: Up at dawn we were soon checking a large flock of Chaffinches and Yellowhammers hoping for a Cirl Bunting, but to no avail..  Wildfowl on the lake included 14 Australian Shoveller and 15 New Zealand Scaup.  We drove on to Picton hoping to cross to Wellington a day early but as we’d made an advance booking we would have lost the associated discount.  As the extra cost was almost as much as a day return for a foot passenger, we chose to do this and had two crossings on the Aratika.  These were particularly excellent when passing close to, or crossing the wake of, a fishing boat, some of which were trailing long ‘tails’ of albatrosses.  A total of 126 albatrosses were seen on the crossings including 14 Royals and 1 Buller’s.  When we returned to Picton it was late afternoon and after the usual fish and chips we drove a few kms along Queen Charlotte Drive, in low cloud, before finding a suitable place to camp.  40 species seen with Royal Albatrosses again the highlight.
Queen Charlotte Sound
The Interislander
28 August 1996:  We boarded the Aratika again for the morning sailing to Wellington, this time with the car, but very many fewer birds were in evidence and only a few distant trawlers were seen.  Once in Wellington we started driving north, stopping briefly opposite Kapiti Island where 500 Hutton’s Shearwaters were moving in the freshening wind.  We continued driving north, seeing little and in deteriorating weather.  We reached Waiouru late afternoon and took the Iron Road to Turangi.  Any hopes of seeing Mount Ruapehu in the fading light were dashed as we were engulfed in a blizzard, although the volcano’s presence was obvious from the very strong sulphur smell.  We continued driving, after a food stop, and arriving at Miranda very late, we slept in the car.  Just 22 species were seen, the highlight being 18 Shy Albatrosses from the Aratika.

Kapiti Island
29 August 1996:  Early morning at Miranda watching waders, including their first Eastern Curlews of the season.  Only 3 Wrybills and no Double-banded Plover were found, most having moved south to the breeding grounds (we must have passed the Wrybills on our way north).  After a brief stop at Island Block Road, where the river was in flood, and an abortive look for Spotless Crake near the Upper Mangatawhii Reservoir (not having a tape didn’t help) we returned to Auckland in the late afternoon, somewhat exhausted .  49 species were recorded with 7 New Zealand Dotterel at Miranda being the highlight.

30 August 1996: I caught an early morning flight to Sydney on 30th while Nick returned, with Ruth and Emma, her young daughter, on a more civilised flight at mid-day.  I had a 7 hour wait in Sydney and arrived in England just an hour ahead of them.  I saw 9 species from Sydney Airport, where it rained heavily most of the time.  Black-winged Kite and Magpie Lark were the highlights.

Nick and I covered much of New Zealand and thought it a brilliant country.  So much so that, ignoring birds, it is the only place I have visited where I’d probably prefer to live than England.  August, being mid-winter, was not an ideal time to visit but he only time we could get away for more than two weeks.  A few seabirds are more regular at this time of year but others move out of New Zealand waters.  Some of the endemic species are harder to find in winter and we failed to see Rock Wren, not that we expected to.  The sites we had for them were under snow.  Attempts to look for Great Spotted Kiwi near Punakaiki were also thwarted by the access road being flooded, although apart from this we were generally lucky with the weather, in particular by leaving the west coast of South Island ahead of blizzards which closed some of the roads we had used a few days earlier.

Due to the time of year (less daylight, likelihood of poor weather, birds not so vocal etc.) we allowed longer in New Zealand than one would have done in summer.  This was to maximise the chance of seeing most of the endemic species and we planned a north-south itinerary that allowed time to look for birds on our return north that we might have missed travelling south.  In the event, and with the possible exception of White-flippered Penguin, we saw no new birds after leaving Stewart Island.  An alternative we had considered while planning the trip was to fit in a short visit to New Caledonia (for Kagu) but the cost of flights from Auckland exceeded £400 return which was rather off-putting.  In hindsight this would have been a better option and meeting the French doctor who had seen them at Rivière Bleue made us very regretful of not having done so.  Something for the hit list for fairly soon.

Many thanks to Ruth and family for looking after us so well, Nick for being an excellent travelling companion and Gary for an unforgettable trip on the MV Virgo.

[blogged July 2015]

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