2017 Birdathon!

 White-Fronted Terns and Spotted Shag

White-Fronted Terns and Spotted Shag

3am came in the form of Joe stomping into the lounge and turning the lights on, while the more sane neighbours slept on. Not us though, and I rolled off the couch and coaxed my body into reluctant action. I had a quick breakfast of cheese and crackers, (the breakfast of champions) washed down with an oddly warm Up & Go, and grabbed my gear. I crammed my supplies into “Georgie” - Donald's wonderful vehicle - and we hit the road.

So why were we getting up at such an obscene hour? For the 2017 Birdathon of course! Our team - the Crakeless Spotters - consisted of Michael Burton-Smith, Joe Dillon, Oscar Thomas, myself, and driver Donald Snook, were setting out to break the Waikato record of 73 species seen in 24 hours. Much like camel polo or cardboard tube fighting, this was a hotly contested competition with a promise of eternal fame and glory, so we were taking it very seriously.

We headed south from Donald's house in Whangaparoa, and as soon as we crossed the Auckland-Waikato border, our count began, at bang-on 5:00am. It was unsurprisingly dark, and unpredictability foggy so we would need to be uber-focused. A certain team member, however, didn't see it that way and fell asleep. Lightweight.

Our first stop was Whangamarino Wetland, where as we rolled along the road a small flock of Spur-winged Plovers became Bird Number One on the trip list, at 5:09. As we continued along the road less travelled, we saw a Pukeko and a few Black Swans, bringing the total up to a whopping 3 birds! 70 to go. We stopped at Coal Bucket Marsh, where the birds began to flow in. While we couldn't actually see anything due to the thick fog, we heard some of the common passerines and more notably a Fernbird, the only one for the trip. We sped on to Falls Road, where a Sacred Kingfisher and a pair of Eastern Rosellas were spied. We pulled into one of the many pond tracks and followed a beaten-down trail into the wetland. As we approached one of the maimais a Dunnock began singing - number 19. Australian Shoveler and Grey Teal were both present, along with a few Mallards and confusingly mucky hybrids. Two Feral Pigeons were present in one of the maimais, and a New Zealand Dabchick flew into view (the first time I have seen one in flight). On our way out we heard a Spotless Crake bubbling away, followed by its characteristic prrrrrr. We heard an Indian Peafowl or two, then moved on to the Falls Road Lookout, where we added Black Shag, White-faced Heron and confirmed Pied Stilt, along with a few more common passerines and a Shining Cuckoo to pad our total out to a nice 37 species, and we were well on schedule.

Next stop was Miranda Shorebird Centre, where we arrived at around 7:30 to catch the falling tide. On our way to the Centre, we made good use of Georgie’s sunroof, and Michael spotted distant Greylag Geese in the southern paddocks. Keith Woodley generously let us hire some decent scopes, and almost immediately we added Bar-tailed Godwit, Red Knot, and South Island Pied Oystercatcher. After a little more searching, we spotted Wrybill, New Zealand Dotterel, LOTS of Pacific Golden-Plovers (almost a hundred if I remember correctly) and Ruddy Turnstone. After scanning the distant shellbanks White-fronted and Caspian Terns became birds 51 and 52, respectively. Black-backed and Black-billed Gulls made an appearance, although to my surprise no Red-billed Gulls. At the Stilt Hide, we managed to pick out five Banded Dotterel, one in beautiful breeding plumage. This was a relief to me, as last month I unwittingly sent two Texan birders on a wild goose chase (hehe) up the coast after Bandies, only to find out they were all in Aussie! 5 Sharp-tailed Sandpipers were probing the mud on the other side of the Stilt Pools, and soon after we made our escape. Somehow we missed Banded Rail in the mangroves, but we had no choice but to suck it up and press on.

 The Arctic Skua at left. Photo by Donald Snook

The Arctic Skua at left. Photo by Donald Snook

We powered up to Te Puru on the Coromandel Peninsula, ticking Red-billed Gulls (finally!) on the way. A huge colony of Spotted Shags followed, probably more than a hundred birds. We pulled over and hunkered down for a seawatch, and pretty soon I spotted a dark gull-like bird chasing a tern. “SKUA!” I called out and watched in awe as it performed some superb aerial acrobatics. The others got onto the bird soon after and it was decided that this bird was an Arctic Skua (Parasitic Jaeger). This led to a small crisis when a certain team member accidentally recorded it as an Arctic Tern and unwittingly triggered rare bird reports around the nation, but Joe shall remain nameless. Anyway, I realised that we had seriously missed an easy species - Gannet! So we strained our eyes for the glimpse of one, and finally, one was spotted far off on the horizon, diving into the sea. Australasian Gannet was number 59. On our way down, Oscar suggested that we should have another try for Banded Rail, so we headed to the Karaka Bird Hide in Thames. No rails except those of the model train, however, so we tried to transform one of the numerous White-faced Herons into Reef Herons, to no avail. We were about to leave when I suggested that perhaps this would be a good spot for Brown Teal, so we checked the Mallard flock that was almost at our feet… and lo and behold! A single Brown Teal, right in front of us! Bird number 60! We continued our long southbound journey, and on the way finished off our shag set with a Little Black Shag.

We wound up crossing Lake Karapiro, where I again utilised the fantastic sunroof and we spotted New Zealand Scaup on our way to the southern end of Maungatautari. When we arrived at the maunga a pair of California Quail ran along the path while a New Zealand Pigeon swooped from one of the huge rimu trees. As we went deeper into the native bush North Island Robins and Tomtits called as a Kaka screamed overhead. A small flock of Whiteheads buzzed near us, and we began to climb the 16m viewing tower. A Bellbird called, as did Saddleback and Stitchbirds. A New Zealand Falcon zoomed over the canopy, screaming before stooping at unimaginable speeds towards some hapless animal. Number 72, and we were now 2 birds away from claiming the Waikato record! We walked up the Rimu track in search of the elusive Kokako and noisy Yellow-crowned Parakeet, but found neither, and left Maungatautari at about 4:00, heading north again to Cambridge.

We realised that Canada Goose was still missing from our list, and eyes were peeled as we again crossed Karapiro, until finally, Michael spotted a small flock bobbing on the lake. High fives all around, as we were now on the threshold of glory. We arrived at Lake Te Ko Utu with high expectations, and claimed Eurasian Coot as number 74! We made it, despite dipping on so many species (Wild Turkey, Banded Rail, Lesser Redpoll). We all grabbed pizza in Cambridge and drove up to Maungakawa to eat it, where we were promised Redpoll. It seems, however, that we had been duped. No Redpoll here. We soldiered on, to the North End of Maungatautari where once the sun went down we ticked Morepork, our last bird of the day - number 75. We searched for kiwi but no luck, we would have to be content with 75. It was a nice round number anyway.

We got out of Maungatautari at 10, and I finally got to bed at 11:30, buzzing from the thrill of being champions of the Waikato (the V helped too!). Credit must go to Donald Snook, our fantastic driver, and to Georgie, his fantastic van. And of course, to the idiosyncratic and ineffable Michael, who planned the entire trip.

Biggest dips were a few of the Arctic waders, Fluttering Shearwater, Lesser Redpoll, Banded Rail, Australasian Bittern, Royal Spoonbill and… Wild Turkey! We couldn’t believe we missed that one. Next time eh?

-Liam Ballard