Friday, 3 July 2015

The Birds of Ohau Canal

OK, back to the backlog of blogs. I hope you can keep up with all this toing and froing, it’s a little difficult when I’ve been talking about the same place- before the snow and after, and  just a couple of weeks apart. Anyway this is the last blog post from the MacKenzie Basin…….that is until I process the remainder of the snow photos.

While David fished I was able to take my time exploring the canal, the hillock behind and the surrounding lakes looking for birds to photograph.

On the very first afternoon I couldn’t believe my luck, when I walked to the beginning of the canal where it leaves Lake Ruataniwha and there, right in front of the rocks and below me, was an adult Australasian Crested Grebe/Kamana. I’m not sure who got the biggest fright, it took off fast towards the centre of the lake but I managed to get a shot before it dived and disappeared. Those that have been following the blog will know that I’ve been trying for quite some time to get close up photos of the incredibly shy grebe. Still not perfect but getting closer….

Along the canal, around the salmon farm and in the small lake behind the farm which is called the Wairepo Arm, there were the usual mix of hybrid mallards and grey ducks and a handful of Australian Coots (I love that name- I’m not sure if it’s the coot part or the fact that it has Australian in front of it).

Australian coots are slate-grey with a white bill and frontal shield, and red eyes. They also have large grey feet with lobed toes which help with swimming and diving as they spend nearly all their time in the water. Coots are a member of the same rail family that our native Pukeko & Takahe belong to, they arrived in NZ from Australia around 1958.

This is a male New Zealand Scaup (aka ‘Angry Duck’). NZ Scaup/Papango are also known as Black Teal- so many names for a little duck! Scaup are small diving ducks, they are sociable birds and can be found in large flocks bobbing about on many lakes.

Males are dark black-brown with an iridescent blue-green head and yellow eyes. The females are a duller chocolate brown with white feathers at the base of the bill and brown eyes.

I was pleased to locate half a dozen grebes scattered about in various places while I was exploring the canal,and ponds. They all kept their distance but at least I knew I had a chance of a close up shot if I managed to creep up on one. Every day I’d watch one grebe swim very fast down the canal past our van but out in the centre of the flow- I’d watch him out our window- but every time I stepped outside he shot off over to the far bank where he’d spend most of the afternoon poking about in the amongst the grass overhanging the water. Then he’d swim back past in the late afternoon, hugging the far bank and the edge of the salmon farm, heading back to the lake. I managed to get a slightly closer shot but still not a great one.

Surprisingly enough, aside from the waterfowl, there were quite a number of smaller birds feeding in the grasses along the canal banks and up on the hillock behind us; goldfinches, chaffinches, green finches, sparrows, dunnocks, NZ pipits, yellowhammers, blackbirds, thrush and silvereyes. A wild apple tree growing on top of the small hill provided plenty of food for the silvereyes and blackbirds which was just as well when the heavy frosts coated the ground for most of the day.

The Silvereye/Tauhou were a little cautious and tended to stick to the half eaten apples on the inside or on the far side of the tree. They also spend more time chasing each other than feeding as they are quite territorial. I always wonder why, when there’s plenty of food, they don’t just tolerate each other and get on with eating instead of wasting energy and time. In the end I decided that I had waited long enough in the cool wind to get a good shot so  I took matters in hand and took a bite from an apple myself (in situ), so I could get some shots on the sunny side Smile  They were tasty enough but with a hard skin. All in the name of a good shot of course! And no that’s not what you think on the apple, it’s frost.

This Dunnock (aka Hedge Sparrow) all fluffed up against the cold, was resting near the van and warming up in the weak morning sun.

A New Zealand Pipit/Pihoihoi foraged for seed and insects along the canal bank every day including  the morning after our first snow fall. Pipits resemble skylarks but they have longer legs and walk rather than hop like the lark. Being a member of the wagtail family, pipits flick their tail as they walk, they are also less likely to fly when approached.

Late one afternoon I was looking out the window when I caught sight of a Grebe further down the canal and on our side. I quickly grabbed my camera and ran along the track out of sight of the canal edge until I thought I was about opposite where I’d seen him. I crept up to the edge and there he(or she) was! But it was only a juvenile.

I shouldn’t say ‘only’ because it was still thrilling to see him but I was after an adult. I already have a juvenile photo that I took last year when we visited the lake front in Queenstown.

Grebes have very strange legs, they look like they’re hinged onto their butts. Grebes spend all of their time in the water, only coming out to nest on floating rafts of vegetation that they build. Their strong legs are set way back on their bodies to help with diving.

Juveniles are a lot more confiding than the adults and more inquisitive. This fellow initially got a fright to see me pop up but once he sussed out I was no threat he just went about his business. You can see the beginnings of his adult crest forming on his head here.

After this initial encounter I didn’t see him again, I think he was encroaching on a prime piece of real estate (salmon farm=food) and the adult may have chased him away.

The Grey Warbler/Riroriro is a tiny endemic songbird that usually stays up among the canopy foliage so it’s often heard but not seen. Unless there is no canopy. Scrubby briar bushes and the native spiny matagouri  both grow along the side of the ponds behind the salmon farm and this is where I found numerous warblers working the bushes from one end of the pond to the other, looking for insects.

The warbler with it’s distinctive red eye is the only New Zealand bird that hovers while searching for food, making them identifiable by behaviour from a long distance.

And finally I nailed it! A close up of the elusive adult Australasian Grebe. I spotted him (or her, male & female look the same) in close to the canal bank and working his way down towards the salmon farm way across the otherside. I grabbed my gear and headed quick as I could to the road and over the bridge keeping a careful eye on him feeding.

Every time he dove down to feed I’d break into a run, then pull up fast when he bobbed back up, creeping along low behind the bridge rail and then the bushes on the edge as I got closer. A couple of fishermen were casting off the bank nearby and quietly cursing the grebe for scaring away their fish. 

I managed to get a few close shots before the grebe decided I was too close and took off through the water, heading into the salmon farm. He obviously feeds under the nets too.

A few days later I found him floating about in amongst the salmon farm, it wasn’t long before he decided I was stalking him again and he was gone. I had to post this photo though, not because of the grebe but because of the drums that are being used as floats at the farm. These aren’t just any old drums, although old and faded they are. These are very special Devan Plastic drums, made in Tauranga at our old business. It’s amazing the weird and wonderful places we keep finding Devan products on our travels.


  1. Super photo's as usual Shellie, love the contrasting backgrounds too.
    I suppose they wouldn't eat to much from the Salmon farmers stock!
    Australian Grebe nailed, can't imaging just what tactics you'll use to nail a hoar frost.
    Cheers J

    1. Thanks Jimu, I love that beautiful blue from the canal too, it almost looks to good to be true. Caused by 'rock flour' from the glacier melt way back up the line.
      Can't let you into any secrets re the hoar frost- let's just say I have matters in hand *wink, wink* :)

  2. Yes re the rock flour, same or similar in the Hokitika Gorge.....
    Ask the Hoari's where to find it....."Wink, wink , nudge, nudge...say no more!"....curtsy of MPFC.


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