** The following is the first of a two part guest blog series written after Wild Lens board member Karen May returned from a 3-week trip to New Zealand. This first entry was written by Karen’s longtime friend and birder Janine Harris, who accompanied her on the trip. **
With my Hand Guide to the Birds of New Zealand packed, I headed off for a sixteen-day road trip in New Zealand with my good friend and Wild Lens Board Member, Karen May. I’ll admit I was a bit unprepared, and was reading the intro to my field guide on my flight from DC to LA, learning there are less than 300 native birds in New Zealand. However, what the island lacked in diversity it makes up with in uniqueness (flash back to island biogeography 101). One reason New Zealand birds are unique is because the islands historically had no mammal predators. This allowed the development of many species of large flightless birds that are ground nesters. The introduction of mammal species to the islands creates a threat to the survival of many of these ground nesters now. Stoats and a possum species native to Australia are two pests that are particular nuisances. Everywhere we traveled on our trip there were poison traps set to trap these pests, and a market has even been created to hunt the possum for their fur to mix with lamb’s wool to create a softer material for knit clothing.
My birding goal for our trip was small: I wanted to see 4 types of birds that I knew we had a good chance of encountering on the planned trip: royal albatross, yellow-eyed penguin, Australasian gannets and the kea.
Unfortunately, heavy rain made us change course from the planned Tongariro Crossing on the North Island, apparently one of the most beautiful one day hikes in New Zealand, to a little extra time in Napier and Hawks Bay area. This gave me the opportunity to take a last minute Cape Kidnappers tractor led tour to see one of the few land colonies of gannets- a beautiful diving sea bird. A small tractor pulled 40 people on two flatbed platforms along 3 miles of dramatic earthquake shaken cliffs. The tractors left us at the bottom of a steep cliff we needed to climb to get to the breeding gannet colony. I’ve never been to a colony of breeding birds but it was just as I had imagined- loud, pungent and amazing. There were birds flying in for clumsy landings, adults greeting their mates at the nest with a little ‘necking’, adults regurgitating their food for their little ones, and chicks of all sizes from eggs to big fluffy white ‘babies’ that the parents were still unsuccessfully trying to sit on. And all of this activity was right on the edge of a dramatic sheep-spotted cliff over the ocean—definitely a highlight to the trip.
I had to wait until the end of our trip to spot the last three goal birds, checking off others slowly as we drove south toward Fiordland. Next up was the kea- a large parrot that likes to hang out around people in higher elevations. We took a guided van ride from Te Anau to Mildford Sound, and our guide was confident we would see them on the drive. On the way back, we spotted a few walking awkwardly on the guard rail, hanging out on top of a tour bus and one even pecking at the rubber insulation on the door frame of a car as they are known to do. Even with all the other tourists around trying to get a good photo, it was still great to see a parrot of that size—and to see the dull green bird take off and show its beautiful feathers under the wing. Success on spotting #2!
Our last stop on the way to Christchurch for our flight home was a stop on the Otago Peninsula near Dunedin. A friend of mine connected us with his study-aboard advisor’s family for a night’s stay, and a chance to view wildlife on their private shoreline on Cape Saunders. On the way to their home, we made a stop at the royal albatross breeding colony at The Albatross Center, the only albatross breeding colony on the main islands of New Zealand. There were a few albatross flying overhead in the parking lot, and their wingspan is truly impressive. I took a guided tour with the center to see where the birds breed. Only two birds in our view were sitting on nests—not as chaotic as the gannet colony. The highlight was watching one adult wobble to the edge of the cliff, open its wings, take about two running steps to jump off and soar away. The birds need winds to take off because they lack powerful flight muscles, and the wind was in our favor that day.
Last stop, the McKay’s house and a private beach tour to spot the yellow-eyed penguin. We drove through fields of sheep racing our jeep to the cliff edge for a walk down to the beach. We were greeted by two male sea lions in a heated territorial dispute that was in the background for our hour-long visit. Then we spotted the penguins. One swimming into shore and hobbling up the cliff, and dozens just hanging out on the grassy shoreline. Yellow-eyed penguins are rare and only found in this area of New Zealand and the islands off the coast. This colony of penguins was not shy—they lets us stand right next to them without giving us a second glance. Only one fluffy brown chick showed some fear and ran away to hide. Walking around a private beach watching the penguins and sea lions was a perfect way to end our New Zealand trip.
Success! All four goal birds seen and photographed on our New Zealand adventure. Final bird count for the trip: 34 birds. Not a very high number but almost all were birds I had never seen before so I was pleased. And you might, like many others, ask—did you see the elusive kiwi? Unfortunately we only saw the human species of Kiwi, but there was evidence that the kiwis are underfoot and crossing the roads…