Birds at a Canterbury estuary, New Zealand

Leaving the birds of the river from my last post behind, continuing along a bike trail in Canterbury New Zealand still revealed many new birds to be seen. The bike trail didn’t quite land us at the beach as we’d expected, but instead at the Ashley River estuary. The tide was quite low and there were shorebirds aplenty to be seen.

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Ashley River estuary

In one of the main channels of the river outlet were quite a few birds enjoying the calm flow of the inter-tidal estuary. A few familiars we’d already seen, including the Paradise Shelduck (a pair of course) and the Spur-winged Plover were among some new species. Sacred Kingfishers zipped by overhead, calling loudly, moving so fast they were impossible to photograph, must like the Belted Kingfisher I am familiar with in BC.

Pied Stilts roved along the sandy shore in search of critters to eat, their long pink legs and black-and-white colouring conspicuous among other birds, though the South Island Pied Oystercatcher has equally beautiful black-and-white colouring. They strongly reminded me of our own Black Oystercatchers with red eyes and pink legs.

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South Island Pied Oystercatcher and Pied Stilt

But no birds were as familiar as the Mallards that floated in the deeper water of the channel among a flock of Southern Black-backed Gulls. The mallard was introduced to New Zealand as early as 1870 and within 100 years populations really took off. Sadly, they have out-competed the native Grey Duck or parera in most areas of New Zealand, who can mainly only be seen in wilder regions.

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Pied Shag and Little Shag

Further along toward the sea was a pair of cormorants perched on a brush pile: a Little Shag and a Pied Shag. Further away and a lot more shy, I spotted a Bar-tailed Godwit and a Banded Dotterel. The Banded Dotterel, or Double-banded Plover, is endemic to New Zealand, frequenting estuaries and rivers. Northern populations winter in Australia while southern birds move north. They are unfortunately very vulnerable to the predators introduced to New Zealand, including cats, stoats, rats and weasels. This is yet another sad example of the dangers of introducing non-native species.

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Bar-tailed Godwit

The Bar-tailed Godwit is also known as the Eastern Bar-tailed Godwit, especially in North American where they breeds in Alaska. They tend to leave New Zealand in March and return in September. A female bird tracked by scientists was found to have made the longest ever nonstop flight by a bird – a whopping 11,500km in just nine days! Incredible. Meanwhile, humans spend thousands of dollars and tons of jet fuel to make the New Zealand Birds Onlinesame journey. If that doesn’t make you think nature is cleverer than humans, I don’t know what will.

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birdprints in the sand

References

from New Zealand Birds Online:
Banded Dotterel
Bar-tailed Godwit
Grey Duck
Little Shag
Mallard
Pied Shag
Pied Stilt
Southern Black-backed Gull

Riverside birds in Canterbury, New Zealand

Back in March, I went on a trip to New Zealand for a couple of weeks. Most of the time I spent in and around Christchurch and it was gorgeous! I loved going back to visit and getting to watch birds there for real for the first time. I hadn’t really gotten into bird-watching yet when I lived there before.

With my Handbook of Common New Zealand Birds by Kinsky and Robertson that I picked up at a used book sale and my knowledge of a few birds that I’d seen there before, it was exciting and challenging to encounter some new birds!

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the Ashley River, Canterbury, NZ

The first bird I really saw after settling in was one of my absolute favourites – the Paradise Shelduck! These ducks are familiar to me, having seen them frequently before. I love the sounds they make – have a listen here. They are quite loud and distinct and being endemic to New Zealand, are quite special. These gorgeous and colourful ducks are almost always seen exclusively in their breeding pairs and can be found all across New Zealand in fields, along rivers, in parks and inland shores.

Biking along a quintessential braided Canterbury river toward the sea, there were many more birds to encounter. Next, as I paused for lunch on the cobbled riverbed and looked across the water, I saw a tall, pale greyish blue bird standing along the river’s edge. It was striking how similar to the familiar Great Blue Heron this White-faced Heron appeared, yet they live half a world apart.

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White-faced Heron

Meanwhile, swallows flew overhead, diving and swirling and a Swamp Harrier hovered above, searching for prey. I felt a sense of familiarity that these birds are akin to many I know here in BC. Yet I also felt in awe at the beauty of the landscape and wildlife surrounding me and the connectedness of all things in nature.

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Looking toward the mountains

In the middle of the river where the water was flowing quickly, a shag (also called a cormorant) floated along. I watched him dive below the surface and bob back up before hopping ashore for a quick rest. After further study, I identified the cormorant as a Little Shag, or Little Pied Shag. They are native to all parts of New Zealand and live in fresh or coastal waters.

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Little Shag

Not far from the heron, there was another interesting bird. This one was totally new to me and had a very interesting appearance with a white body, grey back and bright yellow face. I quickly found this bird in my book and had no doubts as to its species – the Spur-winged Plover. In Australia, this bird is known as the Masked Lapwing. I saw one again later on my trip in Picton on a sports field. Unlike many others birds of New Zealand, these plovers have coped very well with the presence of humans as they can thrive in agricultural and urban areas.

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Spur-winged Plover

References
Handbook of Common Birds of New Zealand by F.C. Kinsky and C.J.R. Robertson.
Little Shag, New Zealand Birds Online
Paradise Shelduck, New Zealand Birds Online
Spur-winged Plover, New Zealand Birds Online
White-faced Heron, New Zealand Birds Online

Fantails and flightless birds of New Zealand

The New Zealand Fantail, also called piwakawaka, has to be one of my very favourites. These forest birds certainly live up to their name; spreading out their tail behind them and doing a memorable dance and singing a loud chattering song. For a little bird, they are extremely noisy and not shy of people at all!

On a walk one day, a fantail (in the photo below) tagged along with me and my partner, fanning his tail periodically squeaking and chirping as he flicked from branch to branch. This behaviour continued for quite some time! If you haven’t seen it, its worth watching. There is a great, short youtube video available here.

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The New Zealand fantail

As a duck-lover, the Paradise Shelduck (putangitangi) is another one of my favourites. They are actually a type of goose and they are just as noisy. They have a very distinct call and are often found in pairs in wetlands and on ponds. The female has a brilliant white head while the male is a bit more drab with a mostly black body. The pairs mate for life and return each year to the same nesting sites (DOC). For a real treat, listen to their calls here.

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Paradise Shelduck female (and chick just below her).
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Pair of Paradise Shelducks (and mallards) at the Dunedin Botanic Gardens. (Male is left, female is on the right)

New Zealand is also home to some unique species of penguins! Yes, I have been lucky enough to see both the Yellow-eyed Penguin (hoiho) and the Little Blue Penguin though I have no photos of the latter. The Yellow-eyed Penguin is the largest resident penguin that breeds regularly in southeastern New Zealand. If you find the right beach at the right time of year, you can see them leaving their nests in the early morning to go fishing or returning to them around dusk for the night. Its a joy to watch them come ashore and clumsily make their way up the beach after swimming so gracefully in the sea; however, they do move more quickly on land than you might expect!

 

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Yellow-eyed penguins returning to their nests after a long day out fishing. Bit blurry as these photos are taken on my old camera years ago.

They are extremely sensitive creatures, though, and must be watched in silence and with caution only under cover. Unfortunately, they are threatened by the predation from invasive species like cats, dogs (people walking them off leash down the beach), ferrets and stoats (NZBO). The Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust and Penguin Place have both been set up to support these unique birds by putting in nest boxes, planting native plants and even rehabilitating sick and injured penguins back to health.

Little Blue Penguins are the world’s smallest penguin and as such, face similar threats. The West Coast Penguin Trust aims to help the little blue through research, education and restoring habitat to its natural state.

That is all for 2016, I hope you all have a wonderful new year full of feathers, nature and everything else you love. I will see you again in 2017!

Keas, kiwi and curious birds of New Zealand

You can’t mention New Zealand birds without mentioning the Kiwi. While I have never seen one in the wild (though I have heard them), I saw this one at the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve, where they have an excellent breeding program in effect to try to help the kiwi population. Because they are flightless, they are vulnerable to predation by species introduced from settlers including possums and stoats. Shy and nocturnal birds, they have a very strong sense of smell they use to feed on insects, worms and fruit under cover of night.

There are actually five different species of kiwi: the North Island brown kiwi, the Okarito brown kiwi, Southern brown kiwi, the Little Spotted kiwi and the Great Spotted Kiwi. In general, each species tends to inhabit a different geographic region.

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Kiwi in center of photo at a nocturnal exhibit at the Willowbank Wildlife Reserve.

Like the kiwi, the Weka is another flightless native bird of New Zealand and is also part of the rail family. These beautiful birds are not shy of people and this one walked right up to us and hung out with us for quite a while. It was quite entertaining to watch them walking around and exploring.

While on birds who are not shy, the Kea is one of the most inquisitive and raucous birds you’ll ever meet. Also known as the New Zealand mountain parrot, no one should ever visit this country without meeting one. They are lovely olive-green parrots that literally live in the Southern Alps, though they can also be found at sea level, they thrive in the alpine environment.

Anyone driving through the Homer Tunnel en route to Milford Sound is likely to see a kea. They are not at all shy of people and in fact, are infamous around New Zealand for being so curious; they tear apart people’s hiking boots left outside tents, tents and backpacks, and especially cars. They really like anything rubber. If you don’t believe me, google it. Despite their troublesome nature to some people, I absolutely love them.

The Pukeko is also known as the Purple Swamphen (or purple Gallinule) and is another member of the rail family. In North America, you might find they bear a resemblance to the American Purple Gallinule. Unlike their close relatives, the Takahe (once thought to be extinct), the Pukeko can fly long distances with a running start to get in the air. They can also be found in Australia, Indonesia and Papua New Guinea.

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Pukeko

As a country with no native land mammals apart from the bat, New Zealand is full of interesting birds with more to come in Part 2 of this series…

Thoughts and memories of Kaikoura

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a rocky beach in Kaikoura, New Zealand

Since hearing about the big earthquake on the weekend, my thoughts have been drifting to New Zealand more frequently than usual. I was lucky enough to live there for a number of years, and I am so in love with the place – it has to be my favourite and most beautiful place on earth.

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Town of Kaikoura, New Zealand on the east coast with the Kaikoura Ranges in the background

I visited Kaikoura a number of times while there, which is where the earthquake really hit hard. Its a small town on the north-east coast of the South Island perched along a beautiful area of coastline. Its renowned for whale watching because of a deep offshore canyon (Kaikoura Canyon) full of nutrients and fish, bringing whales closer to the shore than usual. Whale watching and tourism are economic staples for the town.

After my first visit, it was very memorable and it stuck in my memory as one of my favourite places in New Zealand for a long time. It was here that I first went on a whale watching tour, though I did not see any whales, but lots of vomiting tourists!

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Kaikoura beach

Kaikoura is also well known for its local seal colony where seals come to mate and can almost be seen relaxing on the rocky coastline. It was a delightful little spot just off the highway, popular with tourists, which I used to like visiting and taking visitors to see. Unfortunately, it looks like their favourite beaching area was buried under rockfall from a landslide induced by the earthquake. I hope not many seals were lost in the slide and that those that return find a new place to call home.

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New Zealand fur seals at their colony in Kaikoura
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the rocky Kaikoura coastline

I hope Kaikoura is able to recover from the damage from the quake – its a beautiful place everyone should visit when going to New Zealand and it would be a shame to miss out on. I hope people don’t let it stop them from visting. After 5 years, Christchurch is still recovering, and I hope all the residents of Kaikoura and other areas hit recover physically, mentally, emotionally and economically. I hope to go back again someday and enjoy the rocky coast and seal colony again… kia kaha, Kaikoura.

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Kaikora beach with cliffs in the background