After two days of exploring the Chaslands Highway area of the Catlins we were keen to move on from the more structured holiday park environment & in particular the gravel patch we were parked on. We headed inland to the isolated DOC (Dept. of Conservation) camping ground at Tawanui, on the banks of the Catlins River. David was going to do a bit of fishing & we'd walk some of the Catlins River Track, a 10 hour return tramp up river.
The DOC Campground was huge and well maintained, below is just one of the large camping areas, there was another area of similar size to the left and four other smaller clearings dotted in amongst the trees. A few overnighters arrived each day but they mainly stayed up by the toilets at the entrance to the park.
We set up camp in one of the smaller clearings with the river directly behind us. We had the place to ourselves for four of the five nights we were there. We came home one day to find a sleeper van parked in the gap to the left of the ute, the couple weren't overly friendly & it wasn't until a couple of hours later, while watching TV, that we realised why they'd given just a short quiet greeting. We heard a baby cry & had to turn the volume down to realise in disbelief that it wasn't coming from the TV, it was coming from van next door. I'm all for taking babies & children camping but in a sleeper van? With no toilets or water nearby? And in weather that isn't that warm overnight. Wouldn't be my idea of fun, nor the baby's I would think.
On the afternoon that we arrived we had to wait to pull into the main camping area because of a helicopter that was flying in and out of the park. We thought that this might have been part of DOC's 1080 poison drop in the Catlins Forest to help with pest control before, what is going to be a bumper crop (or mast) of beech tree seeds. But it turned out that the helicopter was taking maintenance supplies in to one of the four swing bridges further up the valley.
Later in the afternoon we walked the first couple hundred metres or so of the River Track, checking out the river for trout & the bush for birds. Beech trees line both banks of the river & logs & debris littered the river but it was relatively clear & fast flowing with some good pools & rapids.
The bird song was amazing and there were quick glimpses of tiny warblers, fantails, tomtits & even the elusive rifleman. The Catlins Conservation Forest Park is also a known breeding area for the critically endangered Yellowhead (mohua) which is only found in the South Island and only in a few small areas. We were hoping to sight them here.
So it was with jaw-dropping surprise that while we were standing looking at the river we caught a sideways glimpse of a larger bird flying in & landing on a branch not two metres away from us. We were stunned & could not believe our eyes when we realised that it was a NZ Falcon- Karearea. NZ Falcons are one of only two endemic NZ birds of prey (the other being the Morepork- Ruru) & like many of NZ's birds they are critically endangered. They are much smaller & much, much faster flying than the commonly seen Australasian Harrier Hawk.
NZ Falcons are known internationally as one of the bravest & most aggressive of the falcon species. They live mainly in the forest & bush, their nests are made on or near the ground under rocky outcrops or in rotting tree stumps, one of the reasons their eggs & chicks are easy targets for predators. Falcons aggressively defend their nests & chicks, attacking any animal or person who happens to wander too close to their nest. Swooping down on their prey at speeds of up to 200 kilometres per hour, NZ Falcons are also supreme aerial hunters.
We think this was a female and she had flown in to check us out, she probably had fledglings nearby as we heard her calling often over the next few days but failed to see her again. This was confirmed by the NZ Falcon Website after I submitted an observation sighting.
She stayed on the branch for about 8 seconds before swooping off down the river. Just long enough for me to click 4 shots, thankfully I had just adjusted my camera settings for the dark bush. A once in a lifetime experience.