Birding Down Under Part 1

Pre-expedition ramblings

Pre-expedition ramblings

I touched done in Queenstown, New Zealand at 0900 on Sunday, October 23rd. I was here for the classic Birding Down Under Tour run by Heritage Expeditions. I of course had planned some pre-expedition excursions and after the usual rigamarole at the airport I was off in my car rental on the way to the Banks Peninsula. I had booked a place on the Black Cat Cruise out of Akaroa specifically looking for “White-flippered” Penguin (Eudyptula minor albosignata) and Hector’s Dolphin.

Although the former is considered a subspecies of Little or Blue Penguin some
recent genetic work has suggested that “White-flippered” and “Chatham Island” subspecies may be closely related to the “North Island” birds which are potentially distinct from the other “South Island” birds which with the Australian Little Penguins may be a separate species. Regardless it sounded like a nice cruise and I was keen to get out birding.

First Image “White-flippered” Penguin off Akoroa

The cruise was ok not really the greatest for photography and the interpretative guy kept misidentifying the birds but this was sort of my expectation so I had a pleasant time and the weather was spectacular. The Banks Peninsula was very scenic and the headlands were very wind swept with the shrubs being sculptured by the predominant winds.

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Permanently windswept shrubs on the headlands of the Bank’s Peninsula

We did see a couple of small groups of “White-flippered” Penguins along with a few Fluttering Shearwaters as well as a large group of mostly Salvin’s & Shy Albatrosses following a fishing vessel.
A couple off
Short-tailed Shearwaters rounded off the seabirds for the cruise.

First Image Fluttering Shearwater, off Banks Peninsula

First Image Salvin’s Albatross, off Banks Peninsula

First Image Short-tailed Shearwater showing distinctive head and bill structure, off Banks peninsula

The highlight of the cruise for most was an extended visit with a big group of Hector’s Dolphins with at least a couple of young. The dolphins were quite affable but don’t seem to get above the water much and thus are a bit difficult to photograph. This New Zealand coastal endemic is quite small with a unique rounded dorsal fin. Akaroa Harbor is on of the few places in New Zealand were one can reliably observe this handsome species.

First Image First Image First Image Hector’s Dolphins, Akoroa Harbor

After the cruise I departed Akoroa and headed north to Kaikoura. No trip to New Zealand would be complete without a day with Captain Gary Melville off Kaikoura. I had booked two “Albatross Tours” with Albatross Encounters months before but unfortunately no on else had signed up. After a bit of negotiating they agreed to run one of tours just for me - so Gary and I set out alone.

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Early Morning Kaikoura

My goal today was to get a lot better pictures of Hutton’s Shearwater as well as good flight shots of Westland Petrel. These two species are certainly easiest found and photographed at Kaikoura.
Opportunities for seabird photography at Kaikoura are really unparalleled. Gary Mellvile the usual skipper for the Albatross Tours not only knows his seabirds very well but he knows what you want from a photographic standpoint and he ensures excellent opportunities.

It wasn’t long before we were into the thick of it.

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First Image New Zealand Albatross ssp gibsoni at Kaikoura

Note the size difference between the much larger ssp gibsoni when compared to Salvin’s Albatross, while ssp antipodensis is still considerably larger it is much closer in size to the Salvin’s Albatross. Of course some of this size difference could be related to sex.

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New Zealand Albatross probably ssp.
antipodensis at Kaikoura

Gibson’s” New Zealand Albatross is the commonest “Wandering type” Albatross at Kaikoura with “Antipodean” New Zealand Albatross often being present in small numbers as well as the occasional “ Snowy” Albatross. Gary Melville recounted that the male “Snowys” really stand out from the pack based on their large size. I photographed a largish “ Wandering” type that seemed to meet plumage criteria for a Snowy according to “Only & Scofield”.

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Snowy vs Gibson’s Albatross at Kaikoura

The above albatross fits nicely into Plumage H in “Onley & Scofield” which apparently is shown by both Snowy & Tristan but not gibsoni. It of course is impossible to be absolutely definitive -understanding the limitations I have put this down as a “Snowy”.

UPDATE - Steve Howell’s new book Petrels, Albatrosses & Storm-Petrels of North America provides us with some valuable new (at least for me) insights into sorting out the “Wanderers”. He states that both older Gibson’s and Snowy can show extensive white like the above bird and may not be separable by plumage. Gibson’s have “extensive coarse vermiculations”. The above bird has relatively sparse vermiculations but I have a suspiscion that this might well fall within the range of an older Gibson’s.

Most of the Royal Albatrosses present were Southern. Lots of pictures of those to come in Part 2.

The commonest Mollymawk in Kaikoura is
Salvin’s Albatross. Shy Albatross is usually present and during both my visits I have had a single immature “Black-browed” type Albatross. It would appear from Captain Melville’s records that Black-browed Albatross T. melanophrys is a regular winter visitor with Cambpell’s T. impavida being much less regular. Southern Buller’s as well is a common visitor in winter with Northern Buller’s/Pacific Albatross being less common.

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First Image Salvin’s Albatross, Kaikoura
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“Black-browed” type Albatross , younger immature, Kaikoura

Westland’s Petrel
is a localized species breeding only in the Paporoa Range on the west coast of New Zealand’s South Island. Outside breeding season they can be found in far flung areas off the south-east coast of Australia and the south-west coast of South America. It is commonest in Kaikoura in the austral summer months.

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Westland Petrel, Kaikoura

The amount of black on the bill tip in Westland Petrel is quite variable. In some birds it is rather faint. Howell describes this well in his ID article “Identification of Black Petrels” published in Birding V38N6p52.

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Westland Petrel showing variable amount of black on bill, Kaikoura

Note the bright crisp yellow tip of the White-chinned Petrel.

White-chinned Petrel, Kaikoura,New Zealand- d
White-chinned Petrel-Kaikoura

On this day we saw only one
White-chinned Petrel. This bird had an unusually large and asymmetric “white-chin” which is a well described and apparently a relatively common variation.

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White-chinned Petrel with asymmetric white chin, Kaikoura

Hutton’s Shearwaters
another South Island endemic is abundant at Kaikoura. However they do not come into the chum nor are they attracted to the boat. On my last visit I got only poor quality pictures. I did a bit better this time but still was less then satisfied. I guess I will have to go back.
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Hutton’ Shearwater-Kaikoura

Hutton’s Shearwater
is a medium sized Puffinus shearwater with a long neck, flat head and long thin bill. This gives it quite a distinctive structure quite different from the Fluttering Shearwater.
The underwing is heavily marked in Hutton’s especially in the axillary region.

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Northern Giant Petrels- Kaikoura

The
Northern Giant Petrels were out in full force, bickering and fighting over the chum. On the way back to Kaikoura we ran into a family of Dusky Dolphins with young and lots of New Zealand Fur Seals on the rocky islands.

First Image Dusky Dolphin- Kaikoura

First Image New Zealand Fur Seal pup-Kaikoura

After saying goodbye to Captain Gary Melville I headed north to Queen Charlotte Sound Sound. It was a great drive with some fantastic ocean scenery along the way.
I stayed overnight outside Picton. I was booked for a boat tour with
Dolphin Watch Eco Tours with primary purpose of seeing the King Shag an endangered and very localized species breeding only in the outer reaches of Marlborugh Sounds on barren rocky islets. In a 1992 survey less than 600 birds remained with 188 nests.

We departed from Picton at 1300 with just three passengers on a large motorized catamaran. It wasn’t long before we were seeing a good number of
Fluttering Shearwaters.

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First Image First Image First Image Fluttering Shearwaters, Queen Charlotte Sound

Smaller than Hutton’s with a rounder head and a shorter bill this species has quite a different feel to it. Although variable the underwing is much less heavily marked. Of note some of the Fluttering Shearwaters were making high arcs 100s of feet into the air going much higher than I have ever seen any shearwater venture previously.

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Fluttering Shearwater -100+ feet in the air, Queen Charlotte Sound

The first stop was at a small Spotted Shag colony. Pied and Little Black Shags were present as well.
We started seeing the occasional
Australasian Gannet diving in the distance.

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Spotted Shags on nests, Queen Charlotte Sound

As we headed further out the Sound we came across an odd pair- a juvenile Spotted Shag that seem quite enamoured with a Fluttering Shearwater. I contemplated that this unlikely pairing could result in a Sputtering Shagwater.

First Image Juvenile Spotted Shag & Fluttering Shearwater, Queen Charlotte Sound

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Juvenile Spotted Shag, Queen Charlotte Sound

We had a few decent looks at small groups of Blue Penguins and then came across a group of Bottle-nosed Dolphins several with major damage to there dorsal fins.

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Blue Penguins, Queen Charlotte Sound

As we headed towards the outer reaches of the Sound we came a cross a single juvenile
King Shag. It was quite distant and the pictures were poor.
Then in the distance we spotted a small group of shags that looked suspicious. As we got closer it became clear it was a small group of
King Shags.
We were able to get much closer to these birds and a we had ample time for careful study.

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King Shags, Queen Charlotte Islands

We continued on to
Motuara Island a bird preserve managed by the Depatrment of Conservation. Birds such as Okarito Kiwi and South Island Saddleback have been introduced to this predator free zone with some success. We hiked up a steep trail coming across lots of Tuis, Bellbirds, New Zealand Robins and a couple South Island Saddlebacks. Views from the top were sublime.

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Views of Queen Charlotte Sound and Long Island from observation platform on Motuara Island

On the way down we encountered a couple of inebriated New Zealand Pigeons apparently having eaten some fermented berries.


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New Zealand Pigeon - Motuara Island

The cruise back to shore was uneventful and a bit frustrating. Tons of Fluttering Shearwaters but the boat was going to fast for any sort of decent photographic opportunities.
The captain needed a few lessons from Gary Melville. Having said that it was a fun trip a
Little Shag earlier in the day and the success with the King Shag resulted in a 5 shag day and allowed for the possibility of a clean sweep of all twelve of the native New Zealand shags in one trip-stay tuned.

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Kelp Gull- Picton Harbor

The next day was a travel day with stops in Arthur’s Pass to commune with the Keas and a great nocturnal adventure to see and hear Okarito Brown Kiwi.

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Kea carjacking my rental car, Arthur’s Pass

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Kea-pretty cool bird even if it isn’t a petrel, Arthur’s Pass

On October 27th/2011 at about 1400 hours I found myself pulling into Monro Beach which is about 45 minutes north of Haast. I received a ton of conflicting advice on finding the Fiordland Crested Penguins
at this location which accounted for my rather late arrival. It appears that the penguins now nest at the far north end of the beach and move from the rocky cliffs to the sea intermittently during the day and not just in the evenings.

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Monro Beach Walk Entrance

It is a fine walk to the beach on an excellent trail through rainforest type habitat. It takes about 45 minutes to get to the beach.

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Monro Beach Walk

After some advice from a very helpful young DOC officer I nestled down by some rocks and it wasn’t long before I spotted my first Fiordland Crested Penguin emerging from the sea. About every 15-20 minutes a penguin would scuttle either in from the sea or back out.

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Fiordland Crested Penguins, Monro Beach

I was pretty distant so I crawled a bit closer into a large rock outcropping were I was well concealed. After about an hour of further observation I was shocked to have a penguin sneak between me and the cliff so quietly I almost didn’t see it. When it realized I had spotted it scurried off but not before I managed a few pictures.

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Fiordland Crested Penguin - Monro Beach

I headed back towards the trail finding a lone penguin on the rocks towards the south end of the beach along with a Variable Oystercatcher. A fishing boat passed in the distance followed by a huge throng of Albatrosses and other seabirds but alas to far to be certain of identification.

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Fiordland Crested Penguin - Monro Beach

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Variable Oystercatcher, Monro Beach

I stayed overnight in Haast and spent a long day driving to Invercargill the next day. I was scheduled for the afternoon ferry from Bluff to Stewart Island were I was to spend the weekend before departing on the expedition.

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Stewart Island Map

Stewart Island lies off the southern end of New Zealand a short ferry ride from Bluff across the Foveaux Strait. The ferry can be reasonably productive for pelagic birding. Not long after we left Bluff a mollymawk albatross started following the boat. It was distant at first but I new it wasn’t a Shy type Albatross as it had quite a wide border to the underwing. Eventually it got close enough to see well and I was very pleased to identify it as a Southern Buller’s Albatross.

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Southern Buller’s Albatross, Foveaux Strait

The Southern Buller’s Albatross generally don’t return to their breeding sites in the Snares and Solander Island until early December so given that was a month away I was a bit worried I might miss this species. Subtly different in plumage and bill coloration from the Northern Buller’s (Pacific) Albatross there is significant grounds to consider these birds distinct species. Other birds on the way over to Stewart Island included Shy Albatross, Fairy Prion and Sooty Shearwaters and Stewart Island Shag(6/12).

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Shy Albatross with Stewart Island in the background

After arriving in Stewart Island I met with Furhanna from Ruggedy Range Wilderness Experience. She was kind enough to set me up with one of the local fisherman to spend the next day out on the Foveaux Strait. Early the next morning we left on the Tequila with Skipper Anthony for a day of fishing for Blue Cod - he did the fishing we took pictures. Accompanying me was Eric Tan a keen photographer originally from Singapore currently in Broome, Australia. He was going on the expedition as well and was the expedition physician.

It was a brilliant day and my hopes were high.

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Cape Petrel - Foveaux Strait

We started seeing lots of Cape Petrels of the australe ssp. that nests primarily on the Snares as well as many of the other subantarctic islands of New Zealand. Restricted amounts of white on the wings a darker back and more spotting on the rump makes this subspecies readily differentiated in the field when in fresh plumage. They can be a devilish species to photograph. A black bird with large swatches of bright white is an exposure nightmare. If you manage to get the exposure right 9 out of 10 times the dark eye is indistinguishable from the dark face leaving a very suboptimal result.

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Typical eyeless/faceless Cape Petrel picture - Foveaux Strait

This is a common bird off New Zealand and we saw numbers every day from here until the end of the expedition. I was never completely satisfied with my flight shots of this species despite 1000 or so attempts.

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Cape Petrels, Foveaux Strait
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Cape Petrel living up to its other monicker - Cape Pigeon - Foveaux Strait

As the skipper started bringing in fish an entourage of Shy Albatrosses started following the boat waiting for handouts.

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Shy Albatrosses-Foveaux Straits

The New Zealand subspecies of the Shy Albatross T.c.steadii is also known as the New Zealand White-capped Albatross. This is a very common mollmawk of waters off southern New Zealand rivalled in abundance probably only by Salvin’s. It breeds primarily on the Auckland and Antipodean Islands. The nominate subspecies breeds in Tasmania.

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Shy Albatross - Foveaux Strait

Well, I kept waiting for the Southern Buller’s Albatrosses to show up but other than a few Salvin’s Albatrosses and some Sooty Shearwaters it was pretty slow. No prions, pteredromas or penguins.

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Salvin’s Albatross- Foveaux Strait

Skipper Anthony had a less than a great catch but at the end of the day it picked up. It was quite interesting watching him work. Blue Cod is the gold standard “fish & chip” fish in New Zealand and is quite delicious.

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Skipper Anthony pulling in a few Blue Cod

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Adult Kelp Gull - Foveaux Strait

On the way back to Half Moon Bay we had a few Blue Penguins and a larger penguin that was probably a Yellow-eyed Penguin. Off Half Moon Bay was a large collection of Stewart Island Shags probably the bulk of the entire population was present in a large flock on the water and nearby rocky islet. Uniquely at least in New Zealand the Stewart Island Shag has a “bronze morph” which is sometimes referred to as the Bronzed Shag.

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Stewart Island Shags off Half Moon Bay

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Bronze morph, Stewart Island Shag - off Half Moon Bay

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Stewart Island Shag - off Half Moon Bay

The next day I visited Ulva Island with Eric Tan and we had a good day photographing
South Island Saddlebacks, Yellowheads, Kaka, Red-fronted Parakeets. Weka, Robins and Tomtits.
This small Island has a very nice trail system managed by the NZ DOC and is a great place to spend a day. That night I went on a fantastic Kiwi Tour and had prolonged close-up encounters with several Stewart Island Kiwis. This is a fantastic place to view Kiwis as they come out on the beach to feed and can be viewed very well.

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Kaka-Ulva Island

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Brown Creeper-Ulva Island

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New Zealand Robin-Ulva Island

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Red-crowned Parakeet - Ulva Island

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Weka - Ulva Island

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Yellowhead-Ulva Island

The ferry ride back to Bluff was very slow. Back in Invercargill I checked into the hotel had a nap and went to the introductory dinner for the Birding Down Under Tour.
The next day after the usual formalities we finally boarded the “Spirit of Enderby” and were scheduled to depart with the outgoing tide at 1600 hrs. I was psyched and ready.

proceed to
Part 2-Birding Down Under