Wednesday 21 December 2016

Christmas in the Catlins


Well, as you can see from the heading and the photo below, we're having Christmas in the Catlins this year. 

We're at the Pounawea Motor Camp, just a few kilometres from Owaka in south Otago. The camp is a very compact little motor camp surrounded by native bush and on the edge of the Pounawea Scenic Reserve.

We arrived a few days ago, ahead of our Winton family, who will be joining us in their caravan on Friday for Christmas & New Year. The Christmas lights are up although being way down here in the south they don't start twinkling until well after 10pm. One of the bright orange camp lights illuminates everything on the other side of the van, it's just as well we've set up on this side otherwise the lights would be non-existent.

The camp also sits on the edge of the huge Pounawea Estuary.

Pounawea means 'meeting place of waters', and it is, as the Owaka and Catlins Rivers flow down either side of the small peninsula Pounawea and the camp sit on. The tide movement is massive inside the estuary, it disappears across the mudflats at a very fast rate, it can also creep up on you very quickly if you turn your back.

The birdlife across the estuary at low tide is fantastic, all the usual suspects and more, along with plenty of those comic cousins of the White Heron, the Royal Spoonbill, the one on the right complete with leg bling!

We've explored this area before, we've spent about 6 weeks in the Catlins during two visits not long after we arrived in the South Island three years ago. We stayed at Newhaven near Surat Bay which is across the estuary from Pounawea. We drove around to Newhaven to check the walk to the bay out for sealions (none spotted). The Catlins is well known for sealions, they haul out to rest on the beaches and in the sand dunes right along the coastline. They also swim up the estuaries at high tide and rest on the banks. We'd already seen two at a distance, one near the camp and one over the far side. 

This is looking back towards Pounawea from Newhaven, the camp is in the bush at the left of the houses.

While there's plenty of bird life out on the estuary, the bird life around the camp and in the reserve is positively amazing. The dawn chorus is spectacular- spectacularly deafening! I can set my watch by it- 4:40am and the cacophony steadily builds to a very loud crescendo before suddenly dying to the odd late comer call about 45 minutes later.

I turned my camera video on to record the noise for you- an amatuer attempt, there are no pictures of course, it's still pitch-black, but at least you can hear some of the noise from the resident bellbirds and tui along with many others chiming in. There is one noise that had stopped before I thought about recording it, I'll try for another recording and add it to the blog in a day or two.

Of course once the birds wake me there's no going back to sleep, so I've taken the opportunity of watching the sunrise the last three mornings. 

The camp has a number of cabins along the water's edge, what a great view to wake up too.

Now you'll have to bear with me on this next little story. After taking the sunrise photos above I went back to the van and back to bed to read the web 'papers'. I got up again about an hour later and lifted the blind in the lounge. As I looked out I saw, through a gap in the trees, a log floating past (we're about 100mtrs from the water) and then I thought that was no log, when it floated through the next gap. I grabbed my camera, dressing gown and Crocs (in that order!) and raced down to the water's edge just in time to see a sealion hauling itself out of the water further up the estuary.

There's a walk from the camp through the reserve and around the estuary and back along a short path to camp. I thought I'll walk down the short track and find the sealion on the estuary edge. I did a double take when I saw him approaching me up the path! I quickly retreated to the other side of the fence and he stopped too, probably wondering at the fluffy white(dressing gown) 'sealion' approaching him. I've lightened these photos a lot so you can see him but it was pretty dark and pretty scary with a big lump of blubber thumping down the path towards me.

I thought he'd disappear into the bush or back the way he came but no, he wobbled his way all the way up and around the end of the fence- 'he's done this before', I think to myself.

And sat down near one of the cabins (no one staying in it)...

He was a big boy with a mane as well.

I kept a good distance away from him (actually a tree trunk or two between him and me), I've seen how fast they can move, but in the end he must have decided this wasn't the place to hang out today and headed off towards the cabin!

He crossed the deck (imagine that, sound asleep with the curtains open to hear a thump, thump, thump and wake up to a sealion on your deck!)...

...and by the time I got to the edge, was heading off into the sunset....I mean sunrise! What an cool experience, you just never know where or when they're going to happen. Two seconds either way in opening that blind and I would have missed him altogether, and been none the wiser waltzing along the track later in the day. Now I carefully check in the undergrowth as I pass by.

Yesterday we did a little tiki-tour back to Nugget Point...

...just to check it out again after our previous visit.

And surprise, surprise, it was just as stunning and breath-taking...

Next was a re-visit to Cannibal Bay, where we'd seen eight sealions on our last visit. This time there was just the one, sound asleep at the far end of the bay.

We parked up not far from him and had lunch on the back of the ute. It looks lovely and sunny but there was a very cold wind blowing in off the sea.

I got a couple of strong whiffs of seal while we were having lunch and then spotted a couple just behind us on the rocks, a male sound asleep in the sun and another creeping through the rocks towards him. They had a bit of a tussle after spotting each other and the intruder was sent packing.

The sleeping seal resumed his sunbathing and slumber position but kept a beady eye on us for a short while. 

Did you know that seals are mostly found on rocks and sealions on sand, seals have a 'dog' face with a pointy nose and long whiskers, while sealions have a bear face and shorter whiskers. Seals are generally scared of humans and will head to the water, sealions aren't afraid and will often mock-charge humans (and bite if they get close). Sealions have the ability to 'walk' on land while seals have to slither forward because their flippers don't rotate.

After lunch we walked across the headland on a very sandy track and through hundreds of yellow lupins (you can rest easy, I don't like yellow lupins but the perfume was divine)... check out the north end of Surat Bay for sealions! The last time we walked 5kms along the beach from Newhaven to find 4-5 sealions here too. Not today, there wasn't a single one to see. The entry to Pounawea Estuary is down the far end of this bay.

We retraced our steps back over to Cannibal Bay, headed back along the beach to the road and back home to Pounawea.

The birds woke me once again this morning and a quick glance out the window confirmed that there was going to be another intense orange sunrise so it was on with the dressing gown and back down to the water's edge although the tide was still on it's way in. And not a wayward sealion in sight.

This will be my last post for awhile, I'm going to do a little relaxing and enjoy some family time over the holiday period. I would like to take this opportunity of wishing you all a very Happy Christmas and a prosperous and peaceful New Year, wherever in the world you may be.

I'd also like to thank each and every one of you for your continued support and encouragement for my blog and photos during the past year. It makes it all worthwhile knowing that there are people 'Out There' enjoying and following along on our travels. Take care & travel safely, see you in the New Year.

Ohau C Campground, Lake Benmore, MacKenzie Country

Monday 19 December 2016

White Herons of Waitangiroto

Catch-up (November 17th, 2016)

I've finally managed to complete the White Heron blog- it took awhile because I had so many great photos and it was hard to choose which ones to include. 

The main reason we returned to the West Coast so soon after our disastrously wet winter visit was to take a tour to a very special and magical place deep within the Waitangiroto Nature Reserve near Whataroa. A tour to where the only known nesting site of the White Heron/Kotuku in New Zealand is located, on the banks of the Waitangituna Stream.

Access to the nesting site is restricted and tours can only be taken with one company, White Heron Sanctuary Tours, they have a DOC concession to take limited numbers of people and tours to the site. We based ourselves at the rustic 'campground' behind the pub in Whataroa so we could choose a suitable day weather-wise (based on the rain we'd had so far!) and tour time.

It was a good move, we had one clear day in the middle of a week of rain. And after finding out that there was a full load of 12 people on our original tour, we changed our time from early afternoon to late, when there was just the 5 of us. We boarded the minivan at the tour company's office in Whataroa and were then taken on a 20 minute drive along gravel roads, through farmland and native bush to connect with the jet-boat on the Waitangitaona River.

An exhilarating 20 minute jet boat ride with Dion at the helm followed; down the river...

past the river mouth...

...and into the Waitangiroto Nature Reserve which is up a side stream that is part of the river system. It's a quiet and calm oasis surrounded by dense bush and the tall kahikatea trees of an old swamp. 

A small unobtrusive jetty comes into view...

And it's here that we disembark and follow a boardwalk through the bush and along the edge of the river, anticipation building as we hear the noisy calls of herons nearby...

...and catch sight of number of large white birds roosting in the bush ahead of us. Our guide Dion puts us straight, those aren't White Herons, they are Royal Spoonbills/Kotuku Nutupapa who also nest alongside the herons. They are still gathering, catching up with each other and checking out who has the best courtship display. They nest a few weeks after the herons.

The boardwalk leads on and then finally into a split level bird hide (complete with binoculars for everyone), which is tucked into the bush across the water from a magnificent sight. Fifty to sixty White Herons in various stages of nesting, feeding and displaying, all located within one tiny section of bush on the outside of a slight bend in the river. 

It pays to have a zoom lens, this is the actual view from the hide
And that is it, no rhyme nor reason for it to be here in an area that looks much like the bush further upstream and down, the only nesting site in New Zealand of these rare and sacred birds. 

The feathers of Kotuku were highly prized by Maori and were used to adorn the heads of chiefs both in life and after death. For Maori, to see one of these birds in a lifetime was considered to be good fortune and to liken someone to a Kotuku was paying them a great compliment.

A few herons were resting in the trees beside and above the hide,
 these made ideal close-up subjects
Along with Maori, European settlers also sought out the White Heron for its ornamental feathers; the feathers becoming fashionable in women's hats. The species was almost exterminated to satisfy the demand after its only breeding site here on the Waitangiroto River was discovered in 1865.

Younger, less mature birds also gather at the nesting site.
They will return each year until sexually mature and ready to breed.
It’s thought the first White Herons were windblown across the Tasman Sea from Australia. It’s not known why the White Herons have only one nesting site or why it’s in the location it is. The population of White Heron in New Zealand has always been small and limited, when first found, the population reported was between 50 and 60 birds. There are still only around 200 birds in New Zealand, breeding is not always successful and many chicks don't reach fledgling stage.

In 1944 just 4 nests were recorded. This was when steps were taken to protect the herons and the nesting site, and in 1949 the area was declared a Flora and Fauna Nature Reserve. White Herons only use this area for breeding, usually from mid-September until late February. 

The nesting site on the banks of the river is not far from the Okarito Lagoon, where many of the birds feed and forage for food for their chicks. Over the autumn and winter they disperse widely throughout New Zealand and are generally seen as a single solitary bird. 

As the White Herons return to the breeding ground in spring they transform into their spectacular breeding plumage phase. Long lacy elegant plumes are grown from their back which they display like peacocks. 

The beak changes colour from yellow to black, and around the eyes a bright turquoise blue colour develops.

Male and female look the same, both have similar plumage. They also don’t mate for life. Elaborate courtship displays include shaking twigs and building a false nest, preening displays and fanning of the nuptial plumes.  

Once the female is attracted, she builds the real nest platform which is placed in trees or in the crowns of tree ferns near to or overhanging the water and at various heights from 3 to 13 metres.

The nests are built of sticks and fern fronds, 3-5 eggs are laid and the chicks are ready to fly in December and January. 

Not only do Royal Spoonbills nest nearby but also scattered in amongst and in sometimes very close proximity to the heron nests, are the nests of dozens of Little Shags/Kawau Paka...

...their chicks being very demanding (and dare I say it, very ugly).

Mind you, the heron chicks must come a close second! 

Many of the nests had newly hatched chicks in them but it was quite hard to see them unless they were demanding food. This was one of the bigger chicks, don't you think he looks like one of those plucked squeaky chicken toys you buy for dogs. At least this ugly duckling will grow into a beautiful bird.

Unlike this poor wee chick who has died in the nest. It was quite sad to watch the parent trying to make the chick sit up. It's early in the breeding season and it's likely this pair will lay another clutch of eggs and try again. In a few weeks time it'll be too late for others who lose their chicks.   

We watched this heron in amazement as it flew in with a small eel and tried to feed it to the chick (small for the adult but huge for the chick-remember to click on the photos to enlarge). 

The chick tried hard to swallow it down but was struggling, the adult kept pulling it back out and trying again. I know there were some nearby chicks that would have snatched it given half the chance.

It's not known why the shags and spoonbills nest in the same area as the herons although it's thought is might be that they gain some sort of protection, all nesting together and being able to warn of intruders.

Royal Spoonbills have been breeding here since 1949 and prefer to nest in the taller kahikatea trees. I always think of the Spoonbills as the comical cousins of the White Herons. They look prehistoric when they fly and kind of weird with their big spoon bill, especially as they sweep through estuarine waters searching for food and looking like mini minesweepers. And then during the breeding season they have bright yellow patches above the eye that gives the impression it is the eye, and a goofy top knot. 

And as if to prove my point, I watched these two hi-jinking about far up in the kahikatea tree above the nesting herons. It was rather strange to see Spoonbills so high up in the trees. I've only ever seen them flying or in estuaries feeding at ground level. It's a pity we missed seeing their nests and chicks, but just another reason to return.

 "Get off my back!" says the bird in the middle shot. The bird in the background chooses to ignore the goings-on burying its head in the 'sand'.

"Hey, what happened to your leg!?"
"Huh....I'm sure it was there yesterday"

I could have stayed all day watching the nests and various interactions between the courting birds, the nesting birds and their chicks...

Bye, bye Shellie...
...but before too long it was time to head back to the jetboat and head home on another exhilarating ride up the river, weaving around the willows and through narrow overgrown gaps, flying across shallow shingle banks, scattering Paradise Duck ducklings and chasing their parents along in front of us for miles (unintentionally of course). The jetboat ride was definitely part of the experience and nearly as good as seeing the herons.

Cloud covered Mt Adams looms over the Whataroa valley ahead of us, as we make out way back to the jetty.

As we were the last tour of the day, the boat was loaded onto the trailer and Dion delivered us all back to the office in Whataroa safe and sound.

We both had an awesome time visiting the White Herons and being able to finally tick off one of our bucket-list items. The tour was well worth doing ($135pp Nov'16) and I'd place it as one of the top experiences we've had on this tiki-touring journey of ours. We visited in mid-November but given the chance again, I think I'd add another 2-3 weeks which would have been a little more ideal, with bigger chicks and the Spoonbills nesting. Of course there might not have been as many courtship displays happening.