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. 


An American diversion

Kia Ora!

I have neglected my blog for very good reason. I have been on a wonderful trip to the United States. I visited Philadelphia, Delaware and Texas, all to see interesting and new birds. 175 species later with 101 new birds, I am back and happy to be in my wonderful Foxton Beach home.

My best sightings in America were the least bittern. Living up to its name, this tiny bittern is less than a foot long. It was a once in a lifetime experience getting so close to it.

The other special bird I saw was the ruby-throated hummingbird. My first attempt at photographing the hummingbird was challenging, at the limit of my skill and the capability of my camera. This photo is shot at 1/8000th of a second.

You can see more of my American bird photos in my trip report.

Wednesday, 7 March 2018

More terns of Foxton Beach

Autumn is a wonderful time on the beach for terns. They gather in large numbers (and in New Zealand, that doesn't happen too much so it is always special) and it is the best time to see vagrants and migrants. In the last couple of weeks the white-fronted terns have numbered in the hundreds and in the afternoon they will swirl around your feet as they fly to and from the ocean. When they all take off and circle around your head it is magical. They are so close that I am absorbed and never manage to photograph them. Still, if I got all the photographs I want today, what would I do tomorrow? A project for next year I think will be to get them in group flight. My best effort this year was when I was lying on the beach and watching them land almost in formation. It reminded me of planes landing at a busy airport.

White-fronted Tern (sterna striata)

Another wonderful moment that day lying on smelly sand, getting bitten by flies and in seventh heaven was watching them being pushed up the beach by the tide. I'd like to say this shot of them marching in synchronicity is carefully framed but in reality it was a lucky shot.

White-fronted Tern

A juvenile black-fronted tern has also visited this week, a regular autumn visitor and one of my favourites.

Black-fronted Tern (chlidonias albostriatus)

A rarer visitor has been spotted on the beach in the last couple of weeks, the arctic tern. I haven't found one in the group myself as they are very difficult to distinguish from non-breeding white-fronted terns. A couple of years ago, I did see an arctic tern in breeding colours which was extremely unusual. This was taken at Plimmerton, Porirua. I will keep hunting on Foxton Beach.

Arctic Tern (sterna paradisaea)

The highlight of the tern invasion was when I spotted something different. And that is essentially what I do - look for differences in any birds from the white-fronted tern hoard. This bird was smaller and immediately obvious because its cap was full black all the way to the bill. The white-fronted tern gets its name from that white bar between the black cap and the bill, so anything different from that is interesting. I thought initially it was a gull-billed tern but it wasn't big enough and didn't have that distinctive chunky bill. I discounted arctic and antarctic terns as the bill was black. I concluded it must be a breeding common tern (race longipennis, the only sub species to reach New Zealand). This is exceptional and very rare. Happy me to see it. Very happy me to get close up views and photographs. It was a stunning bird.

 Common Tern (sterna hirundo longipennis)

Saturday, 10 February 2018

Terns of Foxton Beach

We have 2 tern residents of Foxton Beach. They are present all year round with brief absences for breeding. Other species are regular visitors. I have seen common, little, white-winged black, black-fronted and gull-billed species here.

The first is the medium sized white-fronted tern. It is elegant and beautiful to see in the air, on the ground and in the water. Usually in flocks, the terns are present on the estuary side of the area at the moment. I'm not sure if that is because the seaside of Foxton Beach is full of tourists and people fishing or another reason. It is a treat to watch the terns in spring as they court, bringing food for each other and parading past prospective mates. Into the summer they bring the youngsters to the beach who are not quite so elegant but equally interesting with a black and white patterned plumage. They are comical as they demand food with an incessant whine. I have even seen one stamp its feet (although I am prepared to concede I may be anthromorphosising here). 

White-fronted Tern
(sterna striata)

The other native tern is the Caspian tern. It is the largest tern species and when you see it next to the other varieties, you really appreciate that. Usually in small family groups, there are between 5-10 birds on the beach at any one time. It is quite an impressive sight to see these large birds diving for food.

Caspian Tern
(hydroprogne caspia)

Black-fonted Tern (juvenile)
(chlidonias albostriatus)

Common Tern
(sterna hirundo)

Little Tern
(sterna albifrons)

White-winged Black Tern (next to a Caspian Tern)
(chlidonias leucopterus)

Monday, 5 February 2018

Foxton Beach Proper

For all the years I have been visiting Foxton Beach, I have spent the vast majority of my time in the bird sanctuary on the estuary area running east-west.

Just east of the bird sanctuary is Marine Boating Club and from there you can see upriver and the Tararua ranges beyond. There is often mist on the river in the early morning and it is just lovely.

Last summer I visited the beach proper, running north-south. I have always avoided this area because the number of people is vastly larger than the number of birds! In 2017 though, I was lucky enough to see lots of fairy prion bouncing around in the surf. So this summer I have made a point of taking my trusty companion Axle and walking north along the beach. While I have not seen any prion this year (alive anyway), I have discovered a real joy just from being on this stunning, peaceful beach. 

On a clear day, you can see hundreds of miles north and south. This view is from a little way north of the access road looking south. The building on the right is the surf life saving centre.

At low tide the beach is huge. During the summer months, the water is warm and clear. My favourite time, though, is when it is stormy. The waves churn up and drag in driftwood from the smallest twigs, to whole trees. The beach doesn't look the same from day to day. 

Another bonus of visiting the beach proper is how happy it makes my greyhound Axle. He is a retired racing dog and now 11 years old. When I adopted him, I was told that he would only run when chasing small furry animals and would not like the water. Mmmm. They obviously never told him. He thinks he is a retriever and will chase sticks in the water until he drops.

These ears only appear when a stick might be thrown! 

Saturday, 3 February 2018

Gulls of Foxton Beach

In New Zealand we have 3 species of gull:

Southern Black-backed Gull
This is the largest species in NZ. It is native and I have seen it in Australia. It is a deceptively large gull and makes the familiar screeching call associated with seagulls around the world. This gull is extremely territorial, particularly at breeding times and will attack humans if it deems necessary. Youngsters take several years to mature and their brown/white plumage is as distinctive as the black/white of the fully grown birds.

Southern Black-backed Gull
(larus dominicanus)

Red-billed Gull
Another native gull (known as the silver gull) in Australia, the red-billed is smaller and although it maybe declining, it is the most commonly seen in New Zealand. Mature birds have bright red bills and white eyes. They gather in numbers on the beach and squabble loudly as only gulls do!

Red-billed Gull
(larus novaehollandiae)

Black-billed Gull
This is my favourite gull, maybe because I see it least. The black-billed is the most endangered gull in the world and is classed as nationally critical. Not as glamourous as other endangered NZ birds, it is the only endemic gull and receives little attention to save it. In mid to late summer, a small number of these gulls gather on the beach to court and prepare for breeding. When they are ready to do so, their legs turn blood red and they spin around each other in a manner similar to terns. 

Black-billed Gull
(larus bulleri)

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Unusual visitors to Foxton Beach

This summer is unusual in that we have, as yet, had no unusual visitors to the estuary. Apart from a red-necked stint in spring, we have only attracted the usual waders and not even all of those species. Each year bar-tailed godwits and lesser knots spend the summer on the beach fattening up before their epic journey back to the northern hemisphere to breed. A few godwits will overwinter here as well. Pied stilts, masked lapwings, oystercatchers, banded dotterels and wrybills are present all year round on and off. We also are the summer home for the pacific golden plover and there are 2 on the estuary at the moment. They are very skittish and difficult to get close to. I spent a good couple of hours rolling around in the sand and lying under driftwood waiting for them to arrive at their respite from the advancing tide. Once I had taken a few shots and was pretty fed up of the sand flies and bored of picking bark, I sat up slowly. I expected them to just take off but they were unconcerned. Miracles do happen and the lesson for today is to be thankful for what we have - it's not too shabby!

Pacific Golden Plover
(pluvialis fulva)

Bar-tailed Godwit
(limosa lapponica)

Lesser (red) Knot
(calidris canutus)

Banded Dotterel
(charadrius bicinctus)