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)

Friday, 22 December 2017

Several trips to Kapiti Island

 Kapiti Island is a must visit in New Zealand. It is a small island (2km by 10km) lying off the west       coast of the North Island, opposite the township of Paraparaumu. Nowadays it is a bird sanctuary of  
 international significance but it also has huge historical importance. Maori chief Te Rauparaha   lived and ruled parts of the North Island from here and later colonial settlers cleared the land and   ran several whaling stations. As early as 1897 it was recognised as important for its flora and   fauna. It is now predator free and the vegetation is as close to New Zealand pre-human as you are   likely to get. Endemic birds have flourished here and it is a haven for our priceless flightless birds.

 I have visited Kapiti Island several times while I have been in New Zealand and in the last part of 2017 have been lucky enough to journey there 3 times. On my last visit I stayed overnight in the   wonderful new glamping facilities. Whilst I am there primarily to photograph birds, it has been   exciting to connect with the residents and staff of Kapiti Island Nature Tours. They were   inspirational in their conservation work, not only of the birds but also of the Maori culture and history.

Here are the highlights from my recent trips.

Bellbird (anthornis melanura)

The korimako  or bellbird is a honeyeater with a call similar to the tui but with less coughs and whistles. It is smaller than the tui also and is often bullied by the more aggressive bird.

New Zealand pigeon (hemiphaga novaeseelandiae)

The kereru or New Zealand pigeon is our only endemic pigeon and is a very entertaining bird. With a huge body and small head it looks comical and can often been seen perching in the afternoon sun looking quite dozy. In the sunshine, the feathers shimmer with colour.

Morepork (ninox novaeseelandiae)

The ruru or morepork is our only endemic owl and is a real taonga (treasure). Much more likely to be heard than seen, it is so called because of the haunting call resembling an anguished soul asking for 'more pork'. I slept with my tent wide open and was woken regularly by a ruru calling from the trees close by. It was a real highlight of my trip to see one up close.

North Island kaka (nestor meridionalis)

The North Island kaka is a wonderfully comical character that sounds how I imagine a pterodactyl would as it screeches in the air. Typical of parrots, they are curious and will sit on your shoulder and try to steal your lunch. This is a youngster and you can already see a sense of mischievousness.

Red-crowned parakeet (cyanoramphus novaezelandiae)

The kakariki or red-crowned parakeet is usually spotted in pairs, wheeling overhead and calling loudly. In the early morning, they were everywhere and although I had previously found it difficult to get a shot of one in sunlight, I knew it would only be a matter of time before I got lucky. Thrilled with this shot.

South Island takahe (porphyrio hochstetteri)
 The South Island takahe is one of the most special endemic NZ birds. Extinct on the North Island, it was also thought to be lost on the South Island until they were discovered in the mountains in 1948. There are still only 300 birds left and I felt so lucky to see them plodding around the island.

North Island robin (petroica longipes)

The toutouwai or North Island robin is an endearing bush bird. Tiny as it is, it will bounce around your feet and shuffle around in the disturbed undergrowth looking for food. This is a young bird, looking for a delivery of food from the parents.

North Island saddleback (philesturnus rufusater)

The tieke or North Island saddleback has long been my birding nemesis. I have spent lots of time around them, usually at Zealandia sanctuary in Wellington but have never managed to get a good photograph of them. I was hoping to get that corrected this time and this photograph is a real thrill and I can now call the tieke a friend!

Tui (prosthemadera novaeseelandiae)

Although I regularly see the tui around, I have struggled in recent years to get a good shot of one. They are easily identifiable by the bright white ruff (colonists called them the parson's bird) and are loud and aggressive. The noises they can make put any parrot to shame, from beautiful melodies to coughs, clicks and sneezes. They are a remarkable bird.

Weka (gallirallus australis)

The weka is another flightless rail and I never quite understand why it doesn't receive the same amount of attention as the kiwi. It has all but disappeared from mainland New Zealand and only thrives in sanctuaries. You can see here the remnants of its wings.

Stitchbird (notiomustis cincta)
The hihi or stitchbird is so named because of the staccato call that sounds like a sewing machine. It is a flighty wee thing and difficult to pin down and more difficult to photograph as it lives in the gloom of the forest. What I love most about it is that when courting, the male and female both raise their eyebrows to become crests. Very distinctive and impressive.

Saturday, 9 December 2017

Australasian Shoveler Family

Australasian Shovelers

It is not uncommon to see Australasian shovelers in the ponds around Foxton Beach but they are shy and will often flee as soon as they see you. To my huge surprise this spring, they have bred here. I have only seen a family of shovelers in the wilds of the Wairarapa and even then I couldn't get close.

Dad stuck around and watched over mum and her brood of 8 for several weeks. Miraculously, all 8 have survived to be fully grown even though one has a deformity with its bill. Mum and dad have now left them and they now skulk around the ponds together looking a bit unsure about what to do next.

I tried to photograph them each week to record their progress and I am delighted that they are all doing well. I hope some of them stick around!

23rd October
The first time I saw the ducklings was when the male was attempting to mate with the female. You can see the youngster behind them. I think it was a few days old. The remainder of the brood were not far away, screaming. I didn't think they needed my presence!

29th October
The first time mum was out in the water with the whole brood.

3rd November
That distinctive bill is beginning to be prominent.

5th November

8th November

13th November
I finally got close to the duckling with the deformity. It doesn't seem to have affected the growth of the bird.

21st November
The growth of the birds is markedly different as you can see here.

26th November
Dad disappeared long ago but now mum has gone as well. The juveniles are now on their own.

2nd December

8th December