Wednesday, 2 January 2019

Best of 2018

Best of 2018

You just never know what is round the corner here at the beach. Whether it is a resident bird, a migrant or vagrant, there is always something to see. Last summer, I was disappointed at the lack of even the regular visitors but during the year there has been lots to get excited about. Here are my favourites for the year.

I always love seeing the terns during the summer mating period and especially in the autumn when they congregate in larger numbers and swirl around you, seemingly oblivious to your presence. I loved this photo of the resident white-fronted terns 'marching' up the beach.

During the autumn, we also usually see the odd black-fronted tern. They are usually juveniles and I love seeing them.

White herons, or great white egrets as they are called in the southern hemisphere are a regular winter visitor to the beach and this year was the first time I managed to get close to any.

And following the white heron came the little egret, a rarity to these shores. This one stayed months and was regularly seen fishing along the little creek in front of the viewing platform. Really skittish, it took a good deal of skulking around behind flax plants (much to the amusement of the residents) to get close to it.


Saturday, 3 November 2018

Spring Fever Hits Foxton Beach

Spring Fever Hits Foxton Beach

With typical changeable spring weather, it is all go at the beach. With a little perseverance and luck, you can spot some cracking birds down there. We have good numbers of bar-tailed godwits and red knots but nestling in with them are some birds that have not been reported for a number of years. The big advantage of Foxton Beach is that if you are quiet and patient, you can get close enough to the birds to get great shots without disturbing them. These are my best photos for the week.

Pacific Golden Plover

Ruddy Turnstone

Curlew Sandpiper

Bar-tailed Godwit

Variable Oystercatcher

Red-necked Stint

Sunday, 28 October 2018

Birds of Sydney Part 2

Birds of Sydney

The laughing kookaburra is such an odd bird. Fascinating to watch as it scavenges or hunts for food and that call! Did you know that early Tarzan films used the kookaburra's call instead of that of real monkeys as it was considered more realistic!

The black-shouldered kite is a bird I have seen many times but never hawking over a car park. I think this bird was a juvenile (I forget why) and it wasn't bothered even when I was just about underneath it.

The golden cisticola is a small grassbird and they are always tricky to see and I've never really been satisfied with my photos of them. Till now. It always surprises me that there is such diversity in such an urban area. This bird was in a very small purpose built patch of wetland on the coastal walk. 

I saw the superb fairywren just about everyday on my trip. And when I didn't see it, I could hear them. Common as they are, they are wonderful little birds. This is the magnificent male and my best photo.

The superb lyrebird was described by my mother as a scrawny pheasant. How rude. It is a wonderful bird and I spent a fabulous time listening to it calling in the woods. Returning to the pathway, there were 2 more waiting for me on the path.

The Australian king parrot is often seen and heard flying overhead. At the botantical gardens I was lucky enough to see a pair of females feeding. A distinct advantage of birding alone is that you are quiet and these usually shy birds did not mind me watching them.

This next shot was my best technically. Unfortunately, I flushed this Latham's snipe as I approached a small pond. It flew about 50m away to the other side of the pond and I had less than 5 seconds to raise my 10 pounds of camera gear, focus and shoot before it flew away. This picture is cropped but the focus still holds up.

The bell miner is so named because of its delicate call reminiscent of a dinging bell. It is a joyous noise. I met another birder who told me they were too difficult to photograph. Challenge on. See what you think...

The mistletoebird is a small but beautifully plumaged bird. My first decent shots of the male and female was terrific.

My last photo is of a yellow-tailed black cockatoo. It was a target bird but I only got good sightings of 3 birds. Lucky for me, the sun was out and they were enjoying it.

Stay tuned for news from Foxton Beach. We have recently been visited by golden plovers and a turnstone...

Sunday, 21 October 2018

Birds of Sydney - Part 1

Birds of Sydney

These spring holidays I spent some time in Sydney. Unfortunately, it was unseasonable wet with rain every day. Sometimes just a few showers and sometimes torrential. This did somewhat hamper my bird watching and photography but I've long since learned to be patient where animals are concerned and with a bit of good fortune and the occasional ray of sunshine I still managed to see plenty of birds and get some good shots. Here are some highlights.

The Australian anhinga or darter is a sleek but shy bird known locally as the snake bird as the long neck is often all that is seen above water. Similar to the cormorant, it dries its wings outstretched and is then easier to see. This is a male (darker colouring) in breeding colours (see the red tinge on the neck).

The Australian ibis is a common sight around urban areas. As a natural scavenger, it has adapted to city life as well as humans. Often it is overlooked by birders but it is still an exotic sight for me.

The powerful owl is incredible. This juvenile is the size of a very large teddy bear. The family of 3 were well fed as evidenced by the remnants of flying fox bats strewn beneath their roost.

The little corella is a member of the cockatoo family and at times I saw (and heard) flocks of up to 100 birds. I love them for their comic playfulness and raucous behaviour.

The red-whiskered bulbul is an invasive pest from Asia but very photogenic.
The spotted pardalote is always one of my favourite birds and I lucked out when I found a spot overlooking a small patch of bush containing a nest. I watched as the parents took it in turns to bring food for their young. 

The tawny frogmouth is always difficult to see because of its incredible camouflage. I'd like to say I spotted this dad with the baby but not a chance. I never would have seen it if another birder hadn't shown me.

I was really keen to see a red-rumped parrot. I knew they were in the Olympic Park but its a big place and it too some running around before I found them. For a little known parrot, it is spectacular.

Stay tuned for part 2 ...

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