Thursday, 10 March 2016

Birding Bonanza, Stewart Island- Part 3

Continued on...from Part 2

Well, we've seen island birds and beach birds so I guess that only leaves sea birds. We booked a Pelagic (ocean-going birds) Tour with Rakiura Tours and met Matt our skipper and guide down on the wharf on a sunny and calm afternoon. Great you say?Well not really, because for a change it is best to have a windy day (which means a choppy sea) when you go sea bird spotting. The wind helps them with their lift and they spend more time in the air around the boat than sitting on the water. Ocean going birds thrive on wind and here in what is known as the 'roaring forties' there's usually plenty of it.

There were just three of us on the tour along with the skipper, which was excellent, as we had plenty of room to move about the boat and get good views. We pulled away from the wharf and immediately half a dozen albatross swooped in behind the boat to follow us out of the harbour. Halfmoon Bay is home to quite a number of fishing boats-commercial & pleasure- and the albatross spend a lot of their time scavenging for scraps as the boats return to base filleting their catch along the way. Just think the birds get more Blue Cod than any of us!

Matt pulled up within a short distance and the birds immediately (crash)landed beside us. This handsome guy with the superb eye makeup is a Buller's Albatross, also known as a Buller's Mollymawk. Mollymawks are a group name for medium sized albatrosses.

Buller's Albatross are the smallest of the albatrosses and are endemic to New Zealand. They breed in four main colonies on the Snares and Solander Islands in the south, the Chathams to the east of NZ and Three Kings Islands in the north. There are estimated to be around 30,000 breeding pairs spread through these islands.

Not the famous 'Grumpy Cat' but there is a resemblance there don't you think? Isn't the colour of his bill just gorgeous.

The next bird to slide in sideways is another Mollymawk; the slightly bigger White-capped Albatross. This guy is a little worse for wear, he's has an eye injury on this side. Which is not surprising when you see them fighting over fish scraps. That sharp bill would be deadly in a fight.

The White-capped Albatross is also endemic to New Zealand with 99% of the total population (98,000 breeding pairs) breeding in the Auckland Islands.

Matt starts the boat up again and we head off around the coastline, we're going to check the rocky shoreline for penguins. We leave the albatross bobbing about on the water behind us but it's not long before they take off, catching up quickly and swooping in behind us, gliding and dipping along in our wake. What magnificent birds they are.

Everytime we stop to check for penguins, at least half a dozen birds land around us. They're hoping for some scraps but so far nothing is forthcoming.

They soon take off and head out towards the open ocean quickly being replaced by others that fly in. I have a feeling they spend all day doing circuits from Halfmoon Bay out to the Muttonbird Islands and back again, looking for boats along the way.

We're looking for the endemic Fiordland Crested Penguin/Tawaki which are confined to the shore at the moment because they are moulting.

Fiordland Crested are one of three penguin species that breed on New Zealand mainland. Their breeding range extends along the South Westland coastline to Fiordland and the islands of Foveaux Strait and Stewart Island. We've only ever had a glimpse of the Tawaki when we were doing a tour of Doubtful Sound, so I'm keen to, hopefully, get a close up view.

Matt found a penguin holed up in a cave- none of us could spot it, even through the binoculars, although we thought we could just see a white bib. It wasn't until I uploaded this shot that I could see that it was indeed a shy penguin. We let it be and carried on around the coast. Matt told us we'd return later in the afternoon when perhaps it would be out, standing on the rocks.

We passed a number of beautiful private beaches and houses with amazing views but saw no more penguins.

Matt turned the boat seawards and we headed out into Fouveaux Strait, towards the Muttonbird/Titi Islands. There are numerous groups of islands (approx 36 in total) located around Stewart Island and they're all know as the Titi Islands- it's where the Muttonbirds or Sooty Shearwaters, a member of the petrel family, return to nest after around 7 years at sea. They return to the same burrow that they hatched in. It's also where Rakuria (Stewart Island) Maori have come for hundreds of years, and still do to a lesser extent, to gather a traditional food source, titi chicks. They hunt them out just before they are due to fledge, when they are big and fat and still located in their nest burrow or flapping about outside learning to fly.

There are at least 20 million mutton birds world wide and Rakuria Maori harvest around 250,000. The season begins on April 1st and is over by May 31st. It's here that I have to admit that I actually had Muttonbird at a restaurant we visited while on Stewart Island. It wasn't a salted bird which is the traditional way of storing them and while I was happy I tried something new I don't think I'll be repeating the experience. It tasted very gamey, a little oily and was quite stringy. Nothing to write home about.

Here's a small flock of muttonbirds we passed along the way. I was totally absorbed with the albatross that I failed to get a close up of the titi.

We stopped again for a raft of tiny Little Blue Penguins/Korora which were feeding ahead of us. This is the world's smallest penguin, it's around 25cm tall and weights about 1-1.5kg. We've seen Little Blues many, many times especially when we were boating but the closest encounter we had was on an island near the Tairei River mouth when we found a dozen or so hiding in a rocky crevasse.

Little Blues forage out at sea during the day and then return to land under the cover of darkness. Many visitors to NZ take tours or find places to sit and watch the 'penguin parade' each night. Even on Stewart Island word is passed around about the Little Blues that come home beside the fuel tanks on the wharf at Halfmoon Bay. And every night there's a parade of people that quietly file in behind the tanks to find a spot to sit and wait for these cute little guys to make an appearance.

I went to see them one evening and saw four penguins come home; it was high tide unfortunately(for us) so they were able to swim in quickly and disappear into the darkness behind the rocks. Others that were there were very excited all the same even if I was a little underwhelmed. This lot quickly swam away, disappearing under water as soon as they could.

Albatross continued to fly in to check us out and fly off again as soon as we moved. They wheel and soar effortlessly on their long narrow wings. I'm spell-bound, I could watch them for hours as they soar and dip behind us, often catching up and passing our speeding boat. 

They are able to hold themselves just off the water, their wing tips appear to just touch the surface as they fly. Perhaps the tips are like cats whiskers and they can judge the distance by touch.

For all their grace and beauty in the sky they don't seem to have perfected their landing too well; using their large webbed feet as rudders as they clumsily surf to a halt, face planting the water as they settle.

Albatross are attracted to offal from fishing boats and it is thought that fish-processing waste makes up a large component of their diet. They also feed on surface fish and squid and can do shallow dives. We find a small boat on a fishing tour and instead of the gulls we would normally expect to see around a boat we find a flock of White-capped albatross.

We hung around the boat waiting to see what else arrived might arrive....more Buller's...

and many more White-capped...

We moved off a little way and Matt reached underneath the rod holder to bring out the secret weapon; a bin of fish heads and skeletons.... and then it was 'game on'! Birds came from all direction, crash landing on top of each other, squabbling and fighting over the fish.

Albatross have the great capacity to extend their throats so they can swallow large pieces of food. If you look closely at the photo below (click to enlarge) you can see a bird at the back swallowing a large piece of fish. Other birds have their gapes wide open. For a size comparison, you can also see red-billed gulls flying overhead hoping for a chance to grab any food going spare.

Here's a close up of the action as white-capped albatross fight over food. Their strongly hooked bills grasp the food whilst the sharp edges are used to slice it into manageable portions. Although here they just grab and swallow. 

It's not long before a different bird flies in and drops himself right in the middle of the melee; this is the Southern Giant Petrel, also known as the Sea Vulture and the largest of petrel species. 

Slightly smaller than mollymawks, the Giant Petrel has a large and distinctive hooked bill with two large tube nostrils that are joined together on top. They are not the most attractive birds.

Here are a couple of photos showing the size comparison- petrel, white-capped & a red bill gull in the background...

Petrel and a White-capped Albatross...

Giant petrels will attack and eat smaller species of seabirds although they are generally scavengers and are frequently seen around anything dead and floating. The traditional seafarers' name for giant petrels was "stinkpot" which is very apt as apparently the birds have an intense foul smell, like purifying flesh. We couldn't smell anything except fresh clean sea air! 

Southern Giants breed on ice free islands around the Antarctic Continent and are mainly a winter and spring visitor to New Zealand waters.

Here he is getting right in there...

And here you can see he's not afraid to come close either, the white-caps look a little afraid of him...

because when he wasn't around they were up close too...

Although they ignored him when he came back in for another feed...

We left the albatross behind (or did we.....when I looked out the back of the boat a number were still escorting us) and headed for the Titi Islands passing a small rocky protrusion  on the way. Atop the rock were a number of smartly attired Stewart Island Shags including the pied morph which has striking black & white plumage and one bronze morph (left) which appears dark brown but is iridescent in the right light.

We skirted around one of the Titi Islands, Herekopare Island,  looking for a different penguin, the Yellow-eyed Penguin/Hoiho, but all we could see were a couple of guano covered lookout points. Matt told us the parents, followed by the chicks, had used the mounds as look out points over the last few months. We were too late, the chicks had fledged and everyone had gone swimming.

We did see plenty of NZ Seal/Kekeno pups though, very well disguised amongst the rocks- see if you can find them all. I count ten.

Here's a couple of cuties we disturbed playing in the water.

With no different sea birds or penguins spotted on the island, we headed back to Stewart Island to check for those elusive Fiordland Crested/Tawaki. The penguin we saw hiding in a cave hadn't moved so we moved on around a point and there on the rocks ahead of us were three crested penguins! We were quite a distance from them and they were only just visable to the naked eye. Tawaki are very timid birds and they rock hopped away from us as soon as they saw us quietly creeping forward. They jumped and waddled up into another cave where two of them stopped to peer out. Check out those prominent crested eyebrows.

We stopped and Matt fed out the last of the fish skeletons to the few albatross that were still with us. You can see a lone Buller's in one of them too. Being smaller they lacked a bit of confidence around so many snapping white-caps.

Once the feeding frenzy was over we motored around the point to the otherside of the cave where the penguins had disappeared into and sure enough, just as Matt had predicted, they had come out and were down near the water line. Not for long though. They hurried back to the cave. 

We left them to it while Mat made us afternoon tea; a welcome cup of tea and a piece of banana cake; a great way to finish an awesome afternoon. Highly recommended and well worth doing.

And that's it- a detailed account of our Stewart Island bird encounters. It was a privilege and a pleasure to view such an amazing variety of  spectacular and beautiful native birds. Our virtual list is getting shorter.

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