Sunday, 16 September 2018

Sea birds of New Zealand

Sea Birds of New Zealand

It is very quiet on the beach at the moment with a couple of godwit and a single red knot over wintering. So I took the opportunity to venture on to the Cook Strait. The Ornithological Society of NZ organises occasional charters from Wellington out to a deep trench that attracts a range of sea birds including the holy grail - albatross.

We leave from the north of the harbour at Petone and sail along the eastern side towards the straight. It takes about an hour to get out into open water and on this particular day, we knew the swells were a couple of metres high. I don't like water particularly but love pelagics because of the amazing access to the birds. I took my sea sickness pills and got the best position on the boat, set up my camera and was all set.

As we sail through the harbour we see normal coastal birds and begin to see some sea birds like fluttering shearwater. The sun was rising, the skies were clear and I was in bouyant mood (excuse the pun). However, once we reached open water the waves increased in size and the boat began to rise and fall. Nonplussed, I continued to watch the horizon. This is the most exciting part of the pelagic.

As we sail further out, the deck hand throws chum into the water behind the boat and we accumulate a flock of gulls, screeching and diving for it. After 10-15 minutes (and it is always the same timing) you catch a glimpse of a big, big bird wheeling across the water in the far distance. Too far away to photograph, you strain your eyes to keep it in sight as the boat dips and rises. It's gone.

Then, there's another. Slightly closer this time. And then another. Before you realise it, there are a dozen albatross circling the boat. They are mesmerizing, beautiful and elegant. The most common species we see are the white-capped and Salvin's mollymawks. They will land behind the boat and all grace is gone. They cackle and squabble like geese and are hugely entertaining.

White-capped Mollymawk

Salvin's Mollymawk

The mollymawks are small albatross, agile and fast. A little larger are the giant petrel, which are very distinctive birds. They are scavengers and will also fight over food and their posturing with those huge bills looks positively dangerous. Unfortunately, with the big waves, the birds were not keen on landing so I had to be satisfied with photographing them in flight. This particular bird seemed to be having a good stretch.

Northern Giant Petrel

After about half an hour of taking photos, the rough sea started to bother me so my attention was split between keeping my balance, taking photos and keeping my breakfast down. It became a race to see as much as I could before I succumbed!

My next sightings were of the royal albatross. Bigger than the mollymawks, the royals are aloof and keep their distance. The seem to watch the less delicate fighting with some disdain.

 Northern Royal Albatross (note the dark edge on the wing)

Southern Royal Albatross (note the white edge on the wing)

The one we wait for though, is the wandering albatross. These birds are in a league of their own. You can identify them from a mile off. Their wing span is nearly as big as the boat and when one cruises by, it is stunning.

Gibson's Wandering Albatross

Job done, I'm off to the back of the boat to crawl into a ball until we reach the calm of Wellington harbour again!

Saturday, 8 September 2018

Waders of Foxton Beach Article Part 2

Wading Birds at Foxton Beach, New Zealand

I tend to watch the waders from a distance as the incoming tide pushes them up the beach. Burying myself away in the nook of some driftwood so I don’t disturb them, I spend many an hour watching them. My favourite behaviour is when they are disturbed by the water and have to move. Like a lot of waders, the bar-tailed godwit rests on one leg and when needing to move, they will hop up the beach.

Bar-tailed Godwit

Huddling along the shoreline with the bar-tailed godwits are the lesser knots (Calidris canutus). About half the size of the godwit, the knot is frequently described as ‘plain’ and ‘dull’ which I think is a little harsh. As their plumage changes during breeding, late in our summer season, the breast becomes a pinkish, red hue and it is a most attractive little sandpiper. Tricky to photograph, the knot spends most of its waking time digging for molluscs.

Lesser Knot

The lesser or red knot is also a long distance migratory bird, flying along the coasts of far east Asia to get to their breeding locations in Russia. Human incursions into their flight paths are threatening their ability to migrate successfully. At Foxton Beach the knots number about half the godwit flock and they receive little publicity even though they are every bit as remarkable as the godwit.

Bar-tailed Godwits and a Lesser Knot

The pacific golden plover (Pluvialis fulva) is one of my favourite and most difficult birds to photograph. We only see between 4 and 6 birds on the beach each year and they are the most difficult to approach.

Pacific Golden Plover

To get anywhere close to this bird, I had to monitor the group’s pattern as they moved around the beach at high tide. Then I had to get there first. 3 hours before high tide I found a position by approaching like a commando. Wriggling along the sand and driftwood on my stomach (not easy when carrying a very large lens), I found a log to lie under and waited. Not much fun, but worth the wait. 3 birds came to rest within shooting distance and even when I sat up to get this shot, they were comfortable with my presence.

We have a couple of small waders that are semi-resident on the beach. The most common is the endemic double-banded dotterel (charadrius bicinctus). As adults, they are shy and their familial group will scatter in all directions on approach. When breeding, they will communicate with staccato peeps and try to draw you away from their nest. At times, like this female bird, they will rest on sand bars or driftwood keeping watch.

Double-banded Dotterel

However, the juveniles are much more confiding and most endearing. One afternoon, I was hidden away waiting for the godwits and knots to be pushed up the beach by the incoming tide when I heard this regular high pitched peeping. When I looked down, it was this juvenile dotterel running a semi circle around. It appeared curious and not at all wary of me. It is not often that a bird on the beach is difficult to photograph because it is too close.

Double-banded Dotterel

One of the most remarkable aspects of bird watching in New Zealand is that while we do not have great numbers of birds, we do have some incredible ones. My favourite wader on Foxton Beach is the endemic, vulnerable wrybill (Anarhynchus frontalis). It is a small wader that visits the estuary frequently in small flocks. It holds the distinction of being the only bird in the world with a laterally curved bill. Always bending to the right, the bill is used to dig up invertebrates.


Whilst, like most waders, the wrybill is wary. However, if you sit quietly then they are tolerant and will go about their business around you. Often in small groups of 15-20, the are commonly seen running on the shoreline using that unique bill when feeding or roosting together on the sand.


Birds like the wrybill make the challenging aspect of bird photography in New Zealand worthwhile. Most people have to travel thousands of miles to see such an unusual and interesting bird like this. And they live within walking distance of my house! We may not have the same numbers of waders as the east coast of Australia, for example, but what we have is incredible!

Lesser Knots

Saturday, 11 August 2018

Waders of Foxton Beach Article Part 1

Wading Birds at Foxton Beach, New Zealand
Foxton Beach estuary mudflats looking west towards the mouth of the river

Foxton Beach lies at the mouth of the Manawatu river estuary (-40.470297, 175.227008) on
the west coast of the North Island of New Zealand. The estuary is host to a range of
migratory, endemic and vagrant birds. Protected by the Ramsar Convention, it is recognised
as a location of huge significance for land, shore and seabirds. The bird sanctuary is a
kilometre long beach running east from the mouth of the river as it meets the Tasman Sea.
It is one of several major locations in New Zealand that support migratory and local waders.
The birds most celebrated here are the visiting birds that spend summer resting and feeding
on the food the estuary offers. The largest number of these are the bar-tailed godwit and
lesser knot who arrive in early September (southern hemisphere spring) and depart in March

Bar-tailed Godwit (non-breeding on left, breeding plumage on right)

The bar-tailed godwit (Limosa lapponica) is now recognised as flying the longest migratory
non-stop route from Alaska to Australasia. Unable to feed or rest over water, the estimated
80,000 birds fly the entire 11,000km journey from Alaska to the bottom of the world without
stopping. After a 9 or so day flight, they arrive at their feeding grounds, thin and exhausted.
These birds spend the summer months in Australia and New Zealand, resting and replacing
their feathers and preparing for breeding.
In March they’ll be in great condition, having doubled their body weight for the return journey.  
This journey is a slightly more sedate affair, as they head to stopping sites along east Asian
coasts. Here they feed up again before heading back to Alaska, ready to breed then start the
process again.  Their chicks will do the long flight to New Zealand at only 12 weeks old.

Whilst in New Zealand, the godwits are monitored by the ornithological society, Birds New
Zealand. Through a banding programme, scientists are building more knowledge about the
movements of the birds during migration and most interestingly, how many times they make
their incredible journey. The information also helps to map the birds and their chosen feeding
sites while in New Zealand. Identification through banding can be a complex affair with
different colours on a single leg, different positions and flags all having meaning.

There are groups of dedicated people who regularly participate in capturing and banding
birds across New Zealand. An additional group of people are also dedicated in recording
bands they see in such places as New Zealand. Band details and other information about
the sighted bird is submitted to the banding office run by the Department of Conservation.
I met such a person recently and her hobby was collecting band details and mapping their
journeys across the world. Some birds are also fitted with geo-locators. You can see one on
the leg of this lesser knot. It was fitted in 2013 by local scientists to record, via GPS, the
migration journey in more detail.

Lesser Knot

Some incredible information has been obtained from the banding and geo-locators. For
instance, some birds migrate on virtually the same day each year and stop at exactly the
same sites in Asia year after year. Young birds, however, take their time to establish their
routines. The will travel around New Zealand before choosing a regular summer location.
The arrival of the godwits heralds the beginning of spring in New Zealand. Their coming is
celebrated throughout the country in diverse ways. Some have ceremonies at local estuaries,
some ring bells and even at times planes pulling banners have announced their homecoming.
Most people recognise the incredible achievement at even still being alive after the longest
known migratory journey.  

A particular skill the godwits have is always of interest to me as a photographer. They are
able to bend their upper mandible upwards, something known as rhynchokinesis. Mostly they
use this ability when digging for food but occasionally you can see them do it while resting on
the beach. Much as I hate anthropomorphism, I think they look like they are yawning. It
doesn’t help that they usually do it when waking!

Bar-tailed Godwit

Saturday, 4 August 2018

A Canine Interlude

Someone once told me the following saying 'When the past is too painful and the future too scary, look down'. They were talking about greyhounds. I chose to adopt a greyhound because I wanted a dog that would be happy in the house alone when I am at work. There is a myth that greyhounds are full of energy and demand a lot of exercise. In reality, they run, sleep and then sleep some more. I did want a small dog but when the staff at Greyhounds as Pets brought out Axle I was sold. He was as big as greyhounds get and with his red colour and long legs, I often felt it was like have a deer in the house. 

I remember taking him for his first run on the beach. He was skinny, wired and ready to go. I let him off the lead and within seconds he was out of sight. He returned covered in blood, having not being able to stop when the beach turned into sharp rocks. I measured his gait, it was close to 2 metres. I knew then, I had something special.

I lost Axle last week and although I am sad to lose my beach buddy, I am so happy to have known him. 

Sunday, 3 June 2018

A plethora of egrets (well for New Zealand anyway)

Wonderful views this week of 2 great egrets (known here as white herons) and a little egret. The herons associate with the spoonbills most of the time, wandering up and down the little creek behind the spit, resting and feeding. The little egret moves around this area too with typical darting movements and it seems to be a very successful fisher. The bird seems to be in partial breeding plumage and hopefully will stick around for a while. 

As a rare bird, the little egret is a reportable species. Birds New Zealand produce a list of species rare enough to be reported. I report birds regularly from the estuary. We are renowned for seeing the common tern more often than any other place in New Zealand and I think I have reported 4-5 sightings in the last year. Once a bird is reported (with any descriptions or photographic evidence), the committee will review it and approve (or not) the species identification. It is rather a laborious process, taking some time but there is also a thriving community of birders online who can give immediate confirmation of any identification. 

In this case, when I first saw the egret I thought it was a third white heron. Easy mistake to make from a distance but close up the differences were distinct.

Neck - the white heron has a big kink, whereas the little egret does not.
Activity - the white heron moves slowly and thoughtfully and the little egret darts about much more.
Bill - the white heron has a long, yellow bill, whereas the little egret has a darker bill, particularly on top.
Feet - the white heron has fully dark legs and feet but the little egret has yellow soles which are very distinctive if you can see them!

Saturday, 26 May 2018

Giant Petrel at Foxton Beach

Fabulous sighting this week of a southern giant petrel at the estuary. I see giant petrel only on pelagics around the south island and even then it is the northern sub-species. This is a juvenile southern and was presumably blown in on very high winds this week. It flew several kilometres up the estuary and wheeled around for a while. It was around a km away from me when I saw it and I knew it could only be the giant petrel as they are the size of a small albatross, far bigger than our usual large bird, the black-backed gull. After racing back to my car to get my camera, rounding up the dog and racing back to the water, I was rewarded with a fly past. Very difficult to get any good shots but it was just so wonderful to see it. A first recorded sighting for the estuary.

Saturday, 12 May 2018

White Herons

Every year, 1 or 2 herons visit the estuary. If we are lucky, they will stay all winter. If not, they might stay for a few days. Whenever they do visit, it is very special. They are stunning birds. Last weekend a visitor arrived to feed in the shallow tidal waters of the estuary and it has stayed for the week. It sometimes associates with the royal spoonbills but will move east along the mud flats to feed.