Our Northland Big Day

Two weeks ago, I’d arrived back from Stewart Island feeling lost without my birding compadres. Not knowing what to do with myself, I began planning for the eBird Global Big Day which was to be held on may the fifth. The eBird Global Big Day is an event held each year in May in which people all around the world go out and spend 24 hours trying to see birds. Some people just eBird from the house, while others undertake huge voyages chasing immense records.

As the event is organised in America, it unfortunately clashes with the first day of duck-shooting and is in our Autumn, so the Arctic migrants have mostly left. This makes the event harder to plan, but I still wanted to do something big. So I jumped on my phone, and began chatting to Dayna Davies, a young birder from Tutukaka about going for the Northland big day record.

We invited Adi-Grace Mooar from Raglan and Charlie ‘Steve’ Thomas from Orewa. Unfortunately, Steve had to pull out at the last moment due to tonsilitis, so it was just Dayna, Adi and I going after that record. The Northland record stood at 74 species, held by David Howes, Russell Cannings and David Thomas. This meant that a huge amount of planning would be needed to take the title, and so I knuckled on down with a 1B5 and started writing.

The team arrives in Tutukaka, Northland

The team arrives in Tutukaka, Northland

Then, on Friday last week, Adi and I clambered aboard our Intercity coach from Hamilton to Auckland, enjoying a day off school for the sake of the seeing birds - dream life! We had a brief wait in Auckland, before catching our service northward to Whangarei. At 7:05, we finally rolled into town and met-up with Dayna, and her mother Wendy. A brief drive back to Tutukaka, and we resumed planning and discussing for the day ahead.

The next morning, my alarm of Blue Danube Waltz sounded at 5:30, and we ‘leapt’ into action. A top-notch breakfast of Weet-Bix and tea had us rearing to go. I popped the bathroom, and upon coming out to wash my hands heard a loud “SKARRRK”. I ran out of the house to the sight of five Kaka wheeling overhead - what a way to start the day! By the time we’d left, we had five species under our belt and were ready to get far, far more.

Tarawhata at sunrise

Tarawhata at sunrise

We pulled into Tarawhata, a headland just north of Tutukaka at ten to seven, and the birds kept flowing! The main reason we’d come here was the view over the sea, but winds prevented anything exciting. Good numbers of Fluttering Shearwater and five Buller’s Shearwater were feeding just offshore. There was a single Dunnock calling, and we began to tick off most of the common passerines.

From there it was off to Ngunguru Sandspit, which we pulled into just a tick after eight, and the good birds quickly started rolling in. Such excitements as Mallard, White-Faced Heron, and Skylark were complimented by two Reef Heron and four New Zealand Dotterel.

From there, we’d planned to go to Ngunguru Sewage Ponds, but lo and behold, of course we had picked the time the farmer was moving his cattle right along the path. Discontent with wasting time waiting, we changed tactics and headed to Lake Waro. Lake Waro is a well known Scaup lake in Northland, but for the eBird Big Day they had made an exit. We did, however, add Peafowl, Dabchick and Coot, among other species.

The team at Bream Head

The team at Bream Head

We moved south to Peach Cove Track on Bream Head. Whilst we were behind schedule, we knew we could make up the time that afternoon when we wouldn’t have to drive to Lake Waro. We had Spoonbill, SIPO and Pied Stilt from the car as we rounded the north Whangarei Harbour. The bush at Bream Head, however, was shockingly quiet. Dayna and I heard Bellbird, Tomtit were common and there was one brief encounter with three Whitehead. The regular Robin, however, was not to be found. Time was of the essence though, so we had to kiss our robin chances goodbye and hit the road.

Next stop was Papich Road, where we quickly located the sewage ponds at the back of the track. These revealed 164 Paradise Shelduck, 6 Grey Duck, 55 Mallard, 18 Grey Teal, 19 Little Shag, 2 Little Black Shag and 5 Caspian Terns. After a thorough search for anything odd in the ducks, we left to find the Industrial Estate. A drive-by looking for the local dotterel flock failed, however, and so we pushed up to Wilson Dam. Here, we found Black Swan, 29 Paradise Shelduck and a Dunnock. The high duck-shooting activity on the lake appeared to have scared off the resident Canada Goose, much to our disappointment.

Our next stop was Ormiston Road, now 1:45 in the afternoon. Much to my delight, we were rewarded with gorgeous views of Australian Little Grebe, as well as more Pacific Black Duck and Dabchick. A half-hour stop at Waipu gave us Brown Quail, Banded Dotterel and Bar-Tailed Godwit, as well as good numbers of Variable Oystercatcher (85), Fluttering Shearwater (18) and NZ Dotterel (17).

A few stops on the way back up to Ngunguru Sewage Ponds added little, though we did get Barbary Dove in Whangarei. The Ngunguru Sewage Ponds (the third sewage ponds we’d visited that day!) had 40 Brown Teal and 16 California Quail, both handy birds for the day list.

It was half-past five by the time we pulled into Old Mill Lane, which is a marshland in Tutukaka. Almost straight away we added Fernbird, and slightly further along the boardwalk we got Spotless Crake and Banded Rail. Time was not on our side anymore though, as we were now sitting on 68 species and the sun was fast setting. We raced around trying desperately to find Kukupa (or Kereru to those south of Auckland), but failed.

As darkness set, we headed back to Tarawhata, where we added Morepork and Grey-Faced Petrel to our day list. The Grey-Faced Petrel were awesome, as heaps of them squaked and whistled from the forest floor in pitch black. Now a little hungry, we headed off for pizza and a brief break from birding.

We were now on 70 species, and the record seemed to be just slipping from reach. Determined, we struck out for Matapouri in the hope of Little Blue Penguins coming ashore. We dipped. Desperate, we tried Sandy Bay for Barn Owl. We dipped. We raced to Old Mill Lane - our last chance. To our relief, two North Island Brown Kiwi were rustling at the end of the boardwalk. On 71, the record was still just beyond reach. We had no luck attracting Marsh Crake or Bittern, and so walked out just four species short of holding that Northland record.

Despite missing out on the title, we all really enjoyed our big day. We also know that when we try again in Summer, this route has all the potential to cross the line - watch this space!


Birds NZ Youth Camp 2018!

Well, I am now comfortably sitting on my Intercity bus ride back to Hamilton after another hugely successful Birds New Zealand youth camp. For those of you who aren’t aware, this years camp was organised by Lloyd Esler for Stewart Island and Fiordland, and a huge shout out to him for making the whole thing happen. Before I write this post, I’d also like to thank all the other adults who contributed to the organising and running of the camp, and the participants who made the socialising and birding come together beautifully. 

For me the trip started two days earlier than for everyone else, as I spent Saturday night in Auckland with Oscar Thomas. We caught up with Spotless Crake at Tuff’s Crater in downtown Auckland - it is a really magical place and I highly recommend checking it out. We snuck into Mangere before our flight on Sunday morning, but there was nothing of note. We flew to Christchurch to meet with Eleanor Gunby and Amber Calman, and did some pre-birding camp birding. TheGrey-Tailed Tattler and Black Stilt were both present at the Ashley River Estuary, though we couldn’t find the Cirl Bunting or Little Owl later that evening. The following morning on our drive to Dunedin we stopped in at Oamaru for Otago Shag and Katiki Point for Yellow-Eyed Penguin. We dipped on the penguin, but a seawatched Buller’s Albatross was nice compensation.

Meeting up with other camp members at Dunedin Airport, we slipped into the minivan and struck out for Invercargill. Brief stops at Lake Waihola and Gore revealed no surprises. We checked into our accommodation and met up with the other attendees (who had been out looking at Brown Creeper and Fernbird but I’m not sure where…). An easy going night of get to know and the first day of camp was done.

Day two started early, with some of us leaving at 7:30 for Bluff Harbour and others arriving around 45 minutes later. We set up scopes and seawatched, and the albatross in the harbour seemed an ominous warning of what was to come. The seawatch revealed Salvin’s, Buller’s and White-Capped Albatross, as well asSooty Shearwater.

The ferry crossing was very dicey, but good numbers of the usual seabirds, plus a White-Headed Petrel over the back of the boat. After all of five minutes on Stewart Island and it already felt like we’d had all four seasons. Bright sun was quickly contrasted with a light drizzle, followed by hail and strong winds. It was so cold that hard rain never fell, just hail. At one point it fell so hard for so long, one of us made a hail-angel on the bowling green…

The first day’s excursion was over to Mamaku Point, a predator-fenced sanctuary near Oban. The track was not really a track, and due to bad weather bird numbers were pretty low. The highlight was certainly seeing the dense undergrowth that you just don’t get to experience anywhere on the mainland. With a couple of the other young birders, I walked back to our accommodation in Oban so we could see more of the island - what a beautiful place! Birds weren’t exactly screaming diversity, but there were good numbers of Redpoll, Dunnock, Tui, Bellbird, Kaka, Kakariki, Kereru and VOC. It was also cool to see good numbers of Red-Billed Gull right through the camp, without having the standard scream-in-your-face-to-get-food behavior. 

That evening it was off to Acker’s Point, which was really quiet except for a single grounded Sooty Shearwater in what we were told is a fairly inland place to get them, which is pretty cool. There was also a Little Penguin coming ashore. Some young birders went out that evening and saw Southern Tokoeka, though I had stayed back at the campsite for that one.

Day three of the camp and we were off to Ulva Island, where there were remarkably few birds. One group got a diurnal Tokoeka, and the rest all got relatively similar stuff. Bird numbers were low for all species, but all of the island’s specialities were seen. These included South Island Saddleback, Yellowhead, Brown Creeper, Weka, Stewart Island Robin, & both Parakeet sp.

In the afternoon following Ulva, we headed out on a half-day pelagic. The notable species were as follows:
Sooty Shearwater 300
Snares Crested Penguin 1
Yellow-Eyed Penguin 2
Buller’s Albatross 14
White-Capped Albatross 71
Southern Royal Albatross 4
Northern Giant Petrel 2
Cape Petrel 12
Prion sp 2
Procellaria sp 3
Common Diving Petrel (probably) 15
Spotted Shag 2
Foveaux Shag 49
Westland Petrel 2
Hutton’s Shearwater 2

The following day was far more relaxed. Some of us went to Ulva Island and some went to check out the local beaches. George, Amber and I booked ourselves in on a personalized tour with Rakiura Water Taxis - we just told them what we wanted to do, payed $25 each and did it. We went out and around Acker’s Point, stopping out at the very tip to bring in the seabirds. A Northern Giant Petrel flew past, and we had 9 Sooty Shearwater, 23 White-Capped Albatross and 2 Buller’s, all without chumming and only about 50 meters offshore. We then went around some rock stacks looking for tern roosts, but only found White-Fronts along with Foveaux Shags on Big Rock.

In the afternoon, we split into groups to go to various conservation projects around the islands. I was on the weeding team, and amazingly, I really enjoyed it! On our way back, we asked our driver if he could take us to the Stewart Island Sewage Ponds. A slightly easier security system compared to that of the mainland was navigated well, though standing at such a point where the water from the ponds was being whipped up in our direction by the wind wasn’t optimum. There were some beautiful Grey Duck on the ponds, along with good numbers of really pure mallards.

That evening a small group of us, including me this time, got incredible views of a young Tokoeka up at Traill Park, another highlight of Stewart Island for the list.

The following morning and it was straight to the wharf for our ferry to the mainland. Amazingly, a Cook’s Petrel was literally sitting right there on the wharf, which provided the first excitement of the day. The tired bird was returned to the water by Ian Southey without too much damage being caused. The ferry ride back did not reveal anything exciting, nor did any stops between Invercargill and Borland Lodge.

At Borland Lodge, however, there was a Chestnut-Breasted Shelduck, as I am sure you have seen on ebird and earlier posts on this site. The bird was about 250 meters up the road from the lodge, and was spotted by George Hobson from the car. Everyone saw the bird, and it was seen over each of the three days we spent at the camp. A long evening scout out revealed no Little Owl, though Morepork were present in numbers.

Day two and we headed over to Milford Sound. We couldn’t find a Crested Grebe at Te Anau, and the bush at Lake Gunn was quiet. That is probably because the birding party was a little large and rowdy to hear the good stuff. Monkey Creek had Kea and Blue Duck, and Kea were also present at the Homer Tunnel and The Cascade. We did not see Rock Wren, however. Milford Sound was great, with the resident White Heron showing well, Weka calling and a good mix of ducks and shags as well.

The last day started early for a pack out. We had Fernbird up close at Rakatu Wetland, along with big numbers of waterfowl. Nugget Point was a good seawatch, with a Northern Giant Petrel, a Southern Royal Albatross, and good numbers of Buller’s and White-Capped Mollymawk and Sooty Shearwater. The Otago Shagwere also present.

And that was it, the end of camp. Pretty much all our stops are visible on ebird. Just look up my account (Michael Burton-Smith) and scroll through the checklists for more details.