Sunday 30 September 2018

An Open Sanctuary; Part 2- On the Rail Trail


I wonder how many people have seen this bird in New Zealand, let alone know of this bird?

That is a Banded Rail/Mioweka and it is one very shy and secretive bird. 

And it was a  'big wahoo for me!!!' < that's me jumping up & down. I have finally been able to tick the Banded Rail off my virtual 'Bird Life List'. It's only taken me five years of scanning every saltmarsh and estuary we've ever parked near or explored to find one! I keep my 'bird list' in my head not like genuine Birders who photograph & record every aspect of a sighting but it was pretty exciting all the same.

The road to Okoromai Bay
I knew there had been quite a few sightings of Banded Rail in Shakespear Park and that the birds were a little less shy due to the number of people that visit the area, so I got a heads up from an acquaintance on one of the Facebook birding forums I belong to. She lives nearby and spends a lot of time at the park bird watching.

Once I knew where to head, it was 'just' a matter of spending some time scanning the marshes with our binos and looking out for any movement along edges of the mangroves and grasses. David went along one side, I went up another. What a job that is; it's still not easy and you really do have to keep your eyes peeled. There are plenty of Pied Stilts/Poaka who are quick to give the game away as you approach.....

...and even more so if you are near a nesting Pied Stilt.

There's a Banded Rail in the photo below (click to enlarge), you probably won't see it, it's too far away but I've arrowed the spot so you can see (or not as the case may be) how far away we were from the bird spotted. And spotted by none other than my 'bird spotter extraordinaire' David, who has a very good eye (and patience) for this sort of challenge.

It came wandering out of the mangroves following the tide line along as it searched for snails, worms and crabs, along with anything else tasty it found. They are very well camouflaged amongst the mangrove pneumatophores (aerial roots).

Once David spotted it he had to try and grab my attention as I was away off down the road. I could see this little stick figure waving his arms about so I hurried back towards him (he'd sent a text but I had my phone on silent). As soon as the rail spotted my movement (and I was a long way away from it too) it shot back into the mangroves. The nearby Pied Stilt didn't help with it's high pitched alarm call.

We quietly waited for it to venture back out into the open and then watched it weave up and down a small open patch for quite awhile. Once it had finished and moved off out of sight we searched again, along both sides of the road but failed to find another bird. Not too worry, I was more than happy to have finally seen a Banded Rail!

But then a little niggling thought kept playing in my head for the rest of the afternoon and everytime I woke during the night. So there I was, up before the crack of dawn and back down at Okoromai Bay where it was like Piccadilly Station with at least 10 Banded Rail feeding on the grass verge along both sides of the road. As soon as they spotted the vehicle they were off, some across the road, others into the nearby undergrowth (and looking like little mini road runners as they streaked across the tarseal). A couple even flew off- they are strong but reluctant fliers. I've lighten this photo alot, it was still very dark outside.

And this one has been lightened too, this rail stood still in the saltweed. That was until I moved to get a shot out the window and then he was off too.

I watched as several birds, heads down snaked their way quickly through the weed until they reached the cover of the high scrub on the far side of the saltpond and disappeared.

And then I quietly watched from inside the cab with the window down as I scanned the edges waiting for them to reappear. Some even moved back out onto the grass verges beside the road, but always far enough away that I couldn't get a good shot. And then the morning influx of daily runners/jogger/walkers and dogs started arriving which put those ones back down for good.

On the far side of the wetland, two birds came out of the undergrowth together, can you see them? Their camouflage colours work really well here too.....all the time they have their heads down and weren't flicking their tails.

I think they were a pair, they stopped to say hello to each other when their paths crossed as they worked their way back and forth through the saltweed. 

Another bird, making it's way along the back edge, went to check out a bunch of reeds and wandered into their space, it was soon chased off. 

Banded rail  were once widely scattered throughout New Zealand. They have now disappeared from almost all of the South Island and only occur around Nelson and Marlborough. It's thought that they have now disappeared from the lower half of the North Island as well.

Rails spend much of their time feeding under mangrove cover when the tide is out and when it's in, in rushes, tall grass and scrubland in the upper reaches of estuaries. Habitat clearance and drainage has had a significant impact on the banded rail population nationwide. Over 90% of lowland wetlands have been drained and cleared for agriculture since Europeans settled New Zealand. 

I was thrilled to finally be able to say I have seen a Banded Rail and not just one Banded Rail, at least a dozen! Long may they survive in this special little bay (outside the Shakespear Park's predator fence) and not far from suburbia.

Thursday 27 September 2018

An Open Sanctuary- Part 1; Shakespear Park

Real Time

To try and keep up to date, I'm going to do a few more short posts rather than wait until I have a stack of photos to process and then have to spend a couple of days writing up a long post. We'll see, but you know how it is, it's very hard to change a habit of a lifetime (well 6 years of blog writing anyway).

From Ardmore we carried on heading north towards our next destination...

...timing the drive through Auckland just right as there wasn't too much traffic on the motorways. It's been five years since we last saw the Sky Tower loom up ahead of us. 

Once across the Harbour Bridge and through the northern suburbs we headed out along the Whangaparaoa Peninsula where the locals have this flash (fairly new) control system to ease congestion during rush hour traffic. The middle lane changes direction depending on the traffic flow. Outside rush hour it becomes, as the sign says, a flush median. 

You might wonder why this was of interest to me; we used to have this over the causeway on Chapel Street in Tauranga for a number of years (before the expressway was built). We didn't have flash lights and signs though; ours were just road cones that were moved from one lane to the other during rush hour- it fixed the problem though! 

Twenty kilometres later we arrived at the tip of the peninsula; our next camp is through that pest proof fence. The automatic gates open as we approach; of course we have checked we have no stowaways onboard- you know us and our mouse traps; they are permanently set in the rig.

This is the stunning Shakespear Open Sanctuary, a 500ha Auckland Regional Park that was once a large farm at the end of the peninsula.

This is a ideal site for a sanctuary, a relatively short 1.7km predator proof fence runs across the narrow isthmus between Army Bay on the north side and Okoromai Bay on the south side while water borders the remaining three sides of the sanctuary. You can see the fence snaking down through the gully here on it's way to Okoromai Bay. Gulf Harbour houses overlook the bay.

Mr WH Shakespear purchased the farm in 1883 and built the family homestead overlooking Te Haruhi Bay in 1910, it's now a YMCA Lodge. The farm was purchased from the Shakespear family by the Auckland Regional Authority in 1967. The end of the peninsula was also an important defense site during WWII and the army acquired (and still has) 130ha at the northeastern tip which is fenced off.

The farm woolshed used to sit right in the middle and to the front of Te Haruhi Bay; obviously for ease of shipping sheep and wool from the farm.

The historic woolshed has now been shifted back from the water and sited below the homestead, you can see it mid right in this photo (click to enlarge), the homestead is higher up to the left. Our camping area is on the right side of the road above the cars you can see, You can just see the end of a caravan below one of the trees.

The Auckland Council run a website booking system for all of their 26 regional parks; bookings for camp sites and camping grounds, for accommodation in houses & baches within the parks, for functions inside buildings (such as the woolshed) and outside for picnics & parties at the numerous BBQs that are dotted around the park.

It's quite a long-winded and often confusing website to use but once you get the hang of it, it does work. It just takes a bit of time to organise things, and to get your bearings if you're unfamiliar with the parks and their layout.

We initially wanted to book at the campground (basic) in the park where you can stay for 7 nights, but it was closed because of the ground conditions. This only left us with the CSC (certified self-contained) camping area, which was fine except that there was a maximum of 3 nights only.

Once the booking is confirmed ($15pp per night here) the combination number to the gate into the camping area is sent via email- so you do need to be organised before hand if you're wanting to stay (or risk sitting outside a gate for a couple of hours waiting for confirmations and emails).

There are 4 hard stand areas to park on the side of the drive in the CSC area or you can park on the grass if the ground allows it. We had the place to ourselves the first night and then 2-3 vans for the next two nights. In the end I decided that I liked this area probably better than the other camp which was at the end of the bay.

It wasn't too far to walk across the grass, pass under the large pohutukawa trees lining the sand dunes, to reach the beach.

Where another world can be seen far across the water...

Sky Tower & Auckland CBD
... and Rangitoto Island in another direction. 

The bird life throughout the park is amazing....but more on that in the next blog.

To be continued....

Sunday 16 September 2018

Back 'Out There' & Heading North


Finally we are back on the road; we left Napier feeling a little sad having to say goodbye to Mum & Dad after spending two months on their backdoor step. We'll miss Mum's lovely home cooked meals and our happy hours with them both, along with long hot showers and the washing machine! But it was time to move on, and I'm sure I heard Dad say "Thank God they've gone" as we pulled out (getting his own back with a family saying that's said as we wave visitors off from camp).

After four days of heavy rain, the weather had cleared and the sun shone; real Hawkes Bay sunshine although there was a nip in the air. And once we were on the Napier-Taupo Road we could see why, the Kaweka Range had a lovely coating of spring snow on it.

The road had been closed several times during the rain storm but other than a little bit of flooding here and there and the odd bare cliff face where a slip had come down this was the only Stop/Go  section on the road.

We'd decided to do short trips each day as we eased our way back into travelling (actually we had an appointment in Tauranga two days later so there was no hurry). The Central Plateau mountains looked spectacular at the bottom of the lake... we headed to the NZMCA Taupo Park near the airport for the night. We parked in the exact same spot as we'd parked just two months prior when we had smoked trout for lunch with friends Amanda & Paul who happen to be touring the States in their motorhome at the moment. I messaged her that we had the billy boiled and where the heck were they.

Next morning it was onto the Ngongotaha NZMCA Park in Rotorua for the night. We like to stay hitched when we're stopping overnight so it's quick and easy to pull out the next morning. But it does depend on how level the sites are, it's no good if the nose has to be lowered because it can't go any lower than the fifth-wheel hitch in the back of the ute.

Tauranga was out next port of call, we had an appointment in the city but, hmm....where to leave 'Out There' for a couple of hours in a busy city. We had a quick look along the side streets near where our appointment was but we should have known better, they were all full (and the roads very narrow). So it was off to a very familiar carpark at the Bridge Marina and not too far from our old boat berth which set me off reminiscing.  

On the way over we also checked out the carpark in front of our old office building at Sulphur Poinr but with such a perfect day the carparks there were full of boaties' cars and trailers and the six or so free camping spaces there were all taken (not that we were intending to stay overnight, just for a few hours). 

We had lunch overlooking the marina and I also managed to take a few photos of the calm waters; by the time we arrived back to collect the van, the afternoon breeze had kicked in and the beautiful reflections were gone.

We made it out of the city before the afternoon traffic peaked although that Tauranga-Katikati road is never not busy. It was a relief when we pulled out of the traffic and headed down a quite country lane to our next overnight stop at Tuapiro Reserve just north of Katikati.

This is one of the many freedom camping sites located throughout the city and around the district that the Western Bay of Plenty & Tauranga City Councils oversee. This is a win/win situation for all concerned (and one many other councils should take note of); we get to camp in places that overlook some spectacular scenery...

Overlooking Bowentown, Matakana Island and straight out the the entrance from the inner harbour.
...and the councils get to have honorary security guards over-nighting in quiet, end of the road reserves. I'm sure this arrangement has curtailed much of the unsavory activities that sometimes happen in these out of the way places. Tuapiro Reserve is one of the larger areas and camping is allowed in three areas of the carpark, there is also a maximum 3 night stay here. Our neighbours for the night were a convoy of three small car and caravan units and three campervans who arrived later on in the evening.

The Tauranga Inner Harbour has extensive tidal mudflats at low ride and at this end you can hardly see the channel from the reserve. And in fact up near Omokoroa it's possible to walk (and sometimes drive) across to Matakana Island. In our early days of sailing the harbour we were once caught out by the quickly departing tide and had to sit it out for quite a few hours until the tide turned and we were released from the seabed's muddy grip. 

The mudflats are a great place for a variety of shore and sea birds to fish for their dinner, here a wary Kingfisher/Kotare keeps an eye on me as he waits for a crab or small fish to poke it's head out from it's mud home.

I'm pleased to report that sunrises are still on the menu! The new blinds, while darker than their predecessors, didn't filter out all the early morning glow which was a surprise given that this sunrise had an eerie haze over it.

From Katikati we continued north, our next stop was another familiar site although it's been a few years since our last visit to Rays Rest on the Seabird Coast near Miranda. Miranda is on the lower western side of the Firth of Thames, it's a very important place for migratory wading birds and in particular the Bar Tailed Godwit & Red Knot. They are attracted to the food found on the 8500 hectares of tidal mudflats. 

Being not too far from Auckland, Rays Rest is a very popular site with many people using it as a stop-over on their way out of or into Auckland. Others also come here for a short break away (2 night maximum stay), fishing and bird watching are popular pastimes.

I recall our first visit to Rays Rest was not long after we purchased the rig (nearly 6 years ago) and had made the decision to hit the road full-time. I remember thinking how surreal it was to be sitting watching TV right next door to this view out the door. It doesn't quite feel so surreal now, more the norm but no less amazing to think we have a different view out our front door every week and often every night.

And it's not only the different views that we get to enjoy; it's also the varied sights and slices of New Zealand life you come across too. It's not often that a herd of cattle munch their way past your kitchen window as you're preparing lunch.

The next day dawned cold and overcast and I couldn't blame the sunrise glow for waking me this morning. The sun rose on the other side of the Coromandel and didn't look like it was going to make its way over to us at all so once we were up and about we made the decision to continue onwards and upwards... the NZMCA Park at Ardmore Airport which is on the outskirts of the big smoke, Auckland City. The sun was shining and the park was busier than we thought it would be, given that there has been a recent ban on dogs being allowed here which has stopped many from visiting. 

The last time we stayed here was again, way back at the beginning of our journey and in fact if I recall rightly the Park had only just opened. We were the only ones in for a couple of nights and we parked horizontal along the front fenceline overlooking the runway, now a big no-no because the Parks are so busy! We had a little smile to ourselves as we recalled our newbie exuberance.

And here's a sunset to finish the blog; taken from Ardmore on Friday night. The sun still has that weird haze cover two days later, although I suspect it might be a bit of big city smog.