New Zealand, the Final Frontier, 2019-2020 (2 Viewers)

Jos Stratford

Beast from the East
Dedicated to a fellow birder some hundreds of kilometres to my south, hoping this report will bring some light relief :t:

Travelling from 14 December 2019 till 13 January 2020, this four-week trip was to one of the last great corners of the world that I had yet to visit! After a brief stop in Hong Kong, it was full-on the delights of New Zealand, covering North Island, South Island, Steward Island and a number of the smaller associated islands.



INTRODUCTION

New Zealand requires little introduction, lands of rare endemics and mouth-watering pelagic species. With thoughts of nocturnal kiwis, albatrosses by the bucketload and the mountain-dwelling Kea, it was finally time for me to visit this far extreme of the world.

The basic plan was to split my time between North Island, South Island and Stewart Island, taking opportunity to not only mop up the various endemic bird species on route, many of these on small predator-free offshore islands, but also to enjoy the excellent shorebirding at sites such as Miranda, as well as taking a couple of pelagic trips for the wealth of seabirds that can be found in New Zealand waters. As time went by, I also had some warped delight in trying to see all the introduced species too.

Additionally, though New Zealand has a very impoverished butterfly fauna (only about 30 species, several of which are occasional vagrants from Australia), about half of the species it does have are endemic and, thus, effort was made to see a good chunk of these, especially in the mountains of South Island. That said, as a destination, New Zealand is really naff for butterflies – though I did see 18 species in all, the highest single day total was just six species, most days it was just two or three, or none at all.

New Zealand, especially over the Christmas/New Year period, requires some advance planning – ferries and pelagics tend to get booked out, accommodation on Stewart Island can be hard to come by and, critically, overnight access to Tiritiri Matangi is restricted and can be totally booked months in advance. Booking about two months prior, I was lucky by tweaking my dates a little – there was only a single night available on Tiritir in the whole of December and January! Regrettably no Haukuri Gulf pelagic or extended pelagic off Stewart Island were scheduled in the period of my trip. As it was, my shorter pelagic off Stewart Island also got cancelled. However, with several very productive ferry crossings and some luck on headlands, there were only a few likely pelagic species that I missed.
 

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Jos Stratford

Beast from the East
14 December. Airborne.

Regardless of the route, regardless of airline, Lithuania to New Zealand is a long way! With at least 22-24 hours required in planes alone, I decided to choose a route that gave me a full day stopover in Hong Kong midway – a chance for some classic birding in this mega territory and a break from the endless hours in the sky.

So it began, under cool grey skies, a short mid-afternoon flight from Vilnius to Helsinki, followed by a 90-minute transfer and another plane for 9.5 hours overnight to Hong Kong. Zero birds in Vilnius airport, semi-dark in Helsinki.
 

Jos Stratford

Beast from the East
15 December. Hong Kong.

A perfect stopover option - landed in Hong Kong at 8.30 am, half prepared to do battle with Hong Kong's protesters, but instead zipped through immigration in all of five minutes and, in no time at all, was on the airport link metro for a short ride to Tsing Yi to meet local birder, Mike Kilburn. So rather than satisfying my curiosity with the downtown troubles, today I was to be honoured with a visit to the amazing San Tan fishponds - an extensive series of rural pools tucked up against the Chinese border and the towering highrises of Shenzhen across the river, classic stuff!

On site by about 10 am, popped out of a taxi and, at Mike's suggestion, started with a quick look at what appeared to be an uninspiring roadside hillock. An excellent start to the day it proved however - Chinese and Red-whiskered Bulbuls, a corker of a Pallas's Leaf Warbler, Japanese White-eyes, one Daurian Redstart, a little flock of Olive-backed Pipits and, among others, several Scarlet Minivets. Already better than spending the day downtown! Crossing the road, we entered San Tan proper, House Swift and Red-rumped Swallows overhead, a Grey Wagtail on a boundary stream, a Fork-tailed Sunbird in a bit of a hedge. And then the pools opened out in front of us, and right birdy places they turned out to be! A brief flit of a Black-faced Bunting at the outset, then a flock of Azure-winged Magpies, then several rather nice Collared Crows, then masses of starlings - flocks of them everywhere, big impressive Black-collared Starlings and numerous Silky Starlings in the main, but also a couple of Common Starlings, several White-shouldered Starlings and, a little later, White-cheeked Starlings too.

As we zigzagged from pool to pool, with mighty fine Black-faced Spoonbills passing over now and then and singles of both Greater Spotted Eagle and Imperial Eagle, it was very much a case of which way to look - Great White Egrets and Little Egrets commonplace, so too Chinese Pond Herons, plus a scatter of other herons, including roosting Black-crowned Night Heron, a single Cattle Egret, one Intermediate Egret (uncommon at San Tan) and, if you count a pair of deceased wings as a bird, one Yellow Bittern! Pegging onto a fly-over of Black-faced Spoonbills, one European Spoonbill too. Also good for waders, eleven species noted (including Wood, Green, Common and Marsh Sandpipers), but the absolute highlight was a stunning male Painted Snipe, a San Tan rarity and cracking bird at that.

And then there were the passerines! Eastern Yellow Wagtails and Amur Wagtails by the bucketload, Zitting Cisticolas and both Yellow-bellied Prinia and Plain Prinia common, Crested and Black Drongos, one big floppy Chinese Blackbird, occasional Stejneger's Stonechats, quite a few Long-tailed Shrikes, skulking Siberian Rubythroats, Dusky Warblers and Yellow-browed Warblers, plus many more. Out on the western fringe, yet more good birds, not least a Greater Coucal and a smart Wryneck, plus good from a Hong Kong angle, both Black-necked Grebe and Scaup, and a couple of Skylarks.

A few hours on, now approaching 4 pm, it was time to cut and run, back to the airport. Two stunning parting gifts however - as we left via the Main Drainage Channel, a flock of magical Red-billed Blue Magpies and an equally endearing flock of Masked Laughing Thrushes. Uber back to Tsing Yi, metro to the airport. Hong Kong had done itself proud - I'd notched up 95 species, a darn good total for an airport stopover. Sincere thanks are due to one top HK birder. And then it was onboard for another long overnight flight, 11 hours to Australia.
 

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jurek

Well-known member
Looking forward, great trip!

Re: 3rd photo - so that's how they look when fully ripe!
 

MKinHK

Mike Kilburn
Hong Kong
Excellent - I've been looking forward to this.

Really enjoyed our day at San Tin Jos - very cool to catch Eurasian and Black-faced Spoonbills in the same flight shot.

Cheers
Mike
 

apbarr

Well-known member
Looking forward to reading this as well. It was very nice to meet you at the Miranda hide Jos and I look forward to hearing how the rest of your trip went
 

Jos Stratford

Beast from the East
16 December. Mangere.

A three-hour stopover in Sydney, the city skies painted in a lurid orange pastel by the wildfires savaging the surrounding regions, a pervasive aroma of smoke adding to the effect, then onward for a 2.5 hour hop over the Tasmin Sea and to my final destination, arriving late afternoon.

Welcome to New Zealand, a land that's had its native bird populations devastated by introduced mammalian predators, yet at the same time had a whole range of introduced birds from Europe, Asia and Australia flourish. And so it was, departing Auckland airport, my first birds of the trip, Skylark, Eurasian Blackbird and Song Thrush! Could have stayed at home!

Moments later however, with 40 exquisite Wrybills on the mudflats just yonder, there was no question, I was in New Zealand! And most fine it was too, a mere five minutes from the airport and to the salubrious backdrop of Ambery sewage treatment plant, I was at the expansive mudflats at Mangere, ranks and ranks of waders a stone's throw away, pushed by the rising tide. As well as the Wrybills with their kinked bills, thousands of Bar-tailed Godwits and Knots, waddling Paradise Shelducks, possés of Red-billed Gulls and lesser numbers of the dainty endemic Black-billed Gull and plenty more. Just to my rear, in a water treatment outflow channel, one of the only New Zealand Little Grebes of my trip and loads of Pacific Black Ducks of varying degrees of purity/impurity (most here having interbred with Mallard).

An hour or so here and that was really that for day one, drove a few kilometres more to a leafy suburb and made acquaintance with a friend from a bygone era. As darkness fell, popped out to a light show by the local glow worms, heard my first Moreporks, did my notes for day one - 33 species, 11 of which were introduced species!



17 December. Waipu Rivermouth & Tawharanui.

Jeepers, did the heavens open! A major storm battering North Island, it was raining like bonkers, the wind was rocking the car and, on the sea, thousands of storm-blown shearwaters battled impressive waves! An ideal time for a spot of seawatching I thought, but receiving a full facial of wind and rain, that didn't last long - Buller's, Flesh-footed and Fluttering Shearwaters certainly abundant, loads of Australasian Gannets too, beyond that there could have been anything!

50 km north of Auckland, hopes of Australasian Bittern and crakes at Te Arai were out the window, so instead I confined my early morning birding to peering out from inside the car, notching up mostly an impressive collection of yet more introduced species – along with parties of Wild Turkey, occasional Pheasants and Spotted Doves, there was a distinct multinational flavour to the passerines ... Australian Magpies, Common Mynas and virtually everything it seemed from an English country garden! The lone native passerine seen this morning was a New Zealand Fantail!

My main target this day was Fairy Tern, a bird on the brink of extinction, a mere 40 or so pairs surviving. Breeding on beaches and sandbanks, the combined impacts of disturbance, mammalian predators and habitat loss have all taken their toll, though the tiny population is slowly creeping up, in no small part due to the work of some dedicated conservationists. And of the pairs in existence, perhaps the easiest to see are those at the Waipu Rivermouth, a small tidal system and associated dunes. I arrived to a miraculous pause in the rain and a lull in the wind, so off I went, paddling across flooded saltmarsh, then settling myself on rocks to scan the sandbanks …Variable Oystercatchers and New Zealand Dotterel chaperoning chicks, White-fronted Terns and Caspian Terns patrolling the far sandbank, but no initial sign of the Fairies. Kept a wary eye on the moody sky, but more so I kept scanning a patch of sand that one of the two pairs currently at Waipu had been showing interest in over the previous days, apparently building a nest scrape, courting and the like. And then in flew a Fairy Tern, swooping around the nest area, shooing off nearby Kelp Gulls and generally showing very nicely indeed. After a while, the tern settled down and began to roost - perfect, Fairy Tern seen!

Some 60 km to the south, my next stop was Tawharanui Regional Park, an exquisite predator-free reserve. Given I was camping here, it was a relief that the rain had finally given way to a pleasant sunny afternoon. With Australasian Swamphens and Brown Quails strolling around, I chucked up my tent and immediately set off to explore. With an absence of rats and stoats, there is an abundance of native passerines and other birds. Thus, in short succession, I found both North Island Saddleback and North Island Robin, plus Kaka, New Zealand Pigeon, Whitehead, Silvereye, New Zealand Bellbird, Tui and New Zealand Fantail. I also managed several of the highly localised endemic Brown Teals, as well as my first New Zealand Falcon of the trip, one zipping across the forest canopy.

My real reason was staying here however was for a certain nocturnal resident, my first of the iconic kiwi species - North Island Brown Kiwi. After whiling away a little bit of time on the beach, several New Zealand Dotterels and a surprise vagrant Lesser Sand Plover present, I duly awaited darkness. Torched up and ready, a half moon somewhat illuminating the route, off I went to walk the Ecology Trail up and over an open hillside and then a loop through thick woodland. An abundance of Moreporks calling, and two were soon perched a mere metre or two above my head, very photogenic. However, not a squeak or squeal from my targeted one just yet, I had hoped one would be feeding in the meadow next to the forest. With the kiwis probably on eggs or with chicks, there had virtually stopped calling and my best hope to find one was quietly stalking the forest paths and listening for the rustling as their trundle along the forest floor.

Can't say this first evening was massively successful on the kiwi front - over two hours of listening and walking the trails and nothing. Deciding to give up and return to my tent, one Northern Brown Kiwi then promptly darted across the path in front of me! Only a brief view, but a female judging by its large size and, yay, I had seen my first kiwi!
 

Jos Stratford

Beast from the East
First day birds...
 

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Jos Stratford

Beast from the East
Dodgy flight-only view of a flushed kiwi, eh? o:D

Absolutely :)

Fortunately, next day:



18 December. Tawharanui.

All day at Tawharanui, walking assorted trails again, photographing Brown Teal and North Island Saddleback amongst others. Saw many similar birds as the day before, one addition being my first Grey Warblers of the trip (a species that would prove fairly common throughout the trip). Better however, I also found the first of the endemic butterflies that I was hoping to see - in coastal dunes, a small colony of the very quaint Rauparaha's Copper. One Monarch drifting over too.

As night fell, I opted this time for the Mangatawhiri Trail quite near the reserve entrance. And what a contrast to the evening before - North Island Brown Kiwi within ten minutes, four sightings of probably three individuals in the first few hundred metres of the trail, an area where the forest track runs adjacent to damp marshland. If this wasn't enough, there was then an additional individual in the open sheep meadow as I walked back to my car! A successful kiwi night indeed.
 

Jos Stratford

Beast from the East
Some of the birds...
 

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Jos Stratford

Beast from the East
First of the endemic butterflies...
 

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