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!


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