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Citizen Science

Birds are beautiful to watch and interesting to study but it’s not just the scientists that can discover new facts. Citizen science projects are a great opportunity for everyone to take part in research. There is no age barrier to many of these science projects, anyone can take part.

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If you’d like to help our researchers and you love birds especially our beautiful kererū then you should check out the Great NZ Kerurū Count which start on October 1.

The more people taking part the better the data collected and the more accurate the research findings. So keep your eyes open for kererū and add your observation to all the others coming in from around New Zealand. This is one way to help ensure that in 10, 20 or 50 years you will still be able to admire these beautiful birds in natural habitats in your neighbourhood.

Good luck. Hope you get to see lots of these endemic birds near your home or school.

Cold weather and baby birds

July is often the time when birds start to build nests and lay eggs. It can also be very cold at that time of year.

I discovered a pair of spur-winged plover guarding their very cute chicks on one of the coldest days of the year. They must have been only one or two days old, tiny balls of fluff on long legs. There were six of them and both parents were on guard duty.

SWPloverSilverdale1Later when I passed them again the chicks were all sheltering under a parent’s wings, which were draped over them like a snuggle blanket. The other still on guard duty nearby.

The next day the chicks seemed twice as big but there were only 3 left. Perhaps the harrier hawk which patrols the sky above found them and made a meal of them or they got lost in the long grass. I have watched spur winged plovers attacking both hawks and magpies and chasing away ducks twice their size so they are not timid birds. Their alarm call whenever their territory is invaded is extremely raucous.

Life can be fragile when weather turns cold, predators lurk and you are very small.

Meeting an owl called Whetu

It’s school holidays again and we planned a trip to Rotorua to visit Wingspan. They focus on NZ birds of prey – falcons, hawks and owls.

As well as kārearea (NZ falcons), swamp harriers (kāhu) and ruru (morepork), they also care for one of NZ’s latest arrivals, a pair of barn owls. How many of us would ever get to see kārearea in the wild? Thanks to the dedicated and caring people, who look after these endangered birds, we can learn about the bird on our $20 note (NZ Falcon), and watch displays of the ancient art of falconry.

At Wingspan they care for injured birds, exercise and train them before releasing them back into the countryside. Watching these birds soaring overhead, practicing their hunting skills and landing on your outstretched arm is a joy.

Kārearea (and kāhu) are diurnal meaning they are active during the day unlike owls, which are nocturnal birds of prey and hunt at night. They can fly at over 100km per hour, turn, swoop and soar with astonishing agility as well as catch live prey with their sharp talons. It is almost impossible to understand that anyone would shoot these rare and beautiful creatures.

The star of our visit was a young morepork named Whetu. He kept us entertained with his antics and endearing personality. We won’t forget his comical expression, the way he tilted his head to inspect us or his soft murmurs. Next time you are in Rotorua make sure you schedule a visit to Wingspan.

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Keen kids

The rain held off for most of the morning on Sunday when the North Shore Kiwi Conservation Club held an outing to explore Okura Bush.

It was great to meet families who enjoyed tramping through the bush, learning about the importance of trapping for pests and about the variety of flora and fauna, which call this special place home. Each family also received a free copy of the book A Magpie Collection.

Three cheers for the wonderful organisers responsible for encouranging a love of nature in our children.

Everyone loves a party

What makes a party? Games? Food? Friends? Fun and laughter? Special theme?

When you turn eight what sort of theme do you want for your party?

Well ‘Lij decided he wanted an adventure – a boat ride, a swim in the sea and a picnic! He wanted friends and whanau to come. His mother was in charge of the food and his dad and sister decorated the cake.

The boat trip was the ferry to Tiritiri Matangi. It took about one and half hours. The adventure was bush walks and seeing native birds. We had great guides to tell us all about the island and its population of endangered species. The picnic was outside and there was time for a swim. Tick, tick, tick!

He didn’t ask for good weather but he got that thrown in for free! We saw two ginormous insects, as big as a man’s hand, called wekapunga and lots of special birds like tui, kokako, saddleback, bellbirds, hihi, kereru and takahe. The takahe had a chick. The bush was full of bird song and the sound of cicadas.

As a party treat he gave his friends a copy of ‘A Magpie Collection’. It was a great way to celebrate.

New bird in town – the red footed booby.

In early January 2017 a new bird was spotted amongst the gannets at the Muriwai Gannet Colony near Auckland. News travels fast creating quite a stir amongst local bird watchers and nature photographers. This beautiful intruder became the most photographed bird of the month.

The red-footed booby has never previously been seen on the New Zealand mainland. Two were spotted the previous year near the Kermadec Islands. This species is the smallest of the gannet and booby family and comes in sub-species. The Muriwai visitor has red feet, pale blue bill and black tail and wing markings and is a white morph, more common to the Galapagos Islands than the South Pacific. On February 23rd I had the opportunity to visit Muriwai and see this bird myself. Two days later it was reported gone so I am thanking my lucky stars I got to see it before it left.

As well as getting excellent views of the booby I also managed to get some photos of the adorable, white, fluffy gannet chicks.

Surprises

You are familiar with the habitat. You know what flora and fauna live there. You do not expect to see something new. Yet time and again you get that unexpected thrill.

“What’s that?” you ask yourself.

You instantly turn into a detective, a spy and try to creep up as close as you can, so you can identify this stranger. Your brain is trying to match what your eyes see with your knowledge bank of shapes, names and identifying characteristics. You don’t care what anyone else thinks of your strange behaviour. You are in the moment and the sight in front of you is all that matters.

The other day I spotted a strange bird in the distance. It looked a bit like a weka but wekas are not found in these parts so I crept closer. Luckily I had my camera at hand so I stopped every few meters and clicked.

Before I got close the bird disappeared but by then I had guessed what it might be. Still I needed to be sure and was impatient to get back and view the images on my laptop, where I could zoom in and enlarge the bird. My guess was right. It was a banded rail.

I’d never seen one in that part of the beach although I’d walked there many times. Banded rail like estuary habitats but avoid the open. This habitat had recently been cleared of mangrove trees, which would have offered this bird shelter and protection. Now the rail had a nest and young to feed so it was forced to venture into the open.

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Banded rail

Early the next day at high tide, near that first sighting, I snuggled down amongst the rushes and sand tussock, waiting and watching. A pair of rail, very shy and timid broke cover to forage. I got some better photos and mentally added another species to the local population. It made my day!

I dream that one day I might unexpectedly spot another secretive bird, here in this familiar place and so I will not assume I have seen everything that calls these estuary margins home.

I hope you too, dear reader, will experience the thrill and joy of an unexpected encounter.

Like a rabbit out of a hat

rabit-okaritoHolidays are an opportunity to do new things, see new places or take a break from the everyday routines we all keep. They can be full of surprises, unexpected adventure and fun. I recently spent five days on the West Coast at a place called Okarito. Much of this area of South Westland has been untouched for hundreds of years. Okarito rose to significance during the gold rush days and then quickly faded. Today its claim to fame rests on its natural habitat.

Okarito has New Zealand’s largest untouched estuary. A uniquely beautiful, unspoiled corner of New Zealand. Its a small, out of the way settlement with around 30 permanent residents next to the wild Tasman Sea. The beach is stony and littered with driftwood. It is a place for hardy souls, white baiters, fishing folk and for birds. Its a place tourists visit to see our native birds, our stunning scenery and to kayak the wetlands.okaritowharf

The only NZ breeding place of kotuku, white herons, is nearby. This was the main reason for our visit. In this isolated location we went by jet boat along a shallow river, through farmland, past and into dense rainforest. Still wearing life jackets and wet weather gear we followed the short boardwalk to the viewing hides across the river from the White Heron Sanctuary breeding colony.

There were 43 pairs of white heron nesting as well as royal spoonbills and little shags. The nests crowded into a small area, one beside the next, more above and below. There were chicks in the nests some just hatched and some larger. Birds were flying in and out, bringing food for their offspring. It was a busy colony and the views from the hides were amazing.

Growing alongside the track we spotted native orchids in flower as well as several predator traps. These birds deserve all the protection we can give them. The forest is home to the rare Okarito or rowi kiwi and an extensive monitoring program called Operation Nest Egg is in place to help these kiwi survive and increase in numbers.

Early next morning we took a boat tour onto the estuary. It’s a beautiful place with a backdrop of snow covered mountains and ancient rainforest to the water’s edge. It was worth it despite the rain and the cold temperature.

We went to see white herons in their breeding plumage but we saw much more. We saw a family of South Island Pied Oystercatchers (one chick), who hadn’t made it to the braided rivers on the east instead nesting at Okarito. We watched banded dotterel foraging on the beach and hunting for worms in the fields. We were lucky to see and photograph mātātā (South Island fernbird) for the first time. There were several families of paradise shelducks in the village. One pair had seven, very cute ducklings.

All in all we saw 30 different species of birds during our stay as well as rabbits and deer. What an amazing holiday.

Pecking order on Tiritiri Matangi

Last week I had the privilege of visiting Tiritiri Matangi. The weather was perfect – mild temperatures with only a light breeze. The sea was calm for the crossing and we spotted a tall ship in the gulf with its sails up. It felt for a moment as if we had stepped into the past and like those early explorers saw for the first time the island as it once was.tall-ship

Tiritiri Matangi is a ‘must visit’ destination for all bird lovers and an important sanctuary for many of our endemic species. Originally covered in coastal forest and within a short paddling distance of  the Whangaparaoa, Maori explorers discovered the island. By the time European explorers reached New Zealand they had settled, had cleared large areas of salt-resistant trees like puriri, mahoe, manuka and kanuka and created gardens. After the Treaty of Waitangi was signed in 1840, pioneer farmers living around Auckland leased the land to graze stock. Little remained of the coastal forest. Those early pioneers soon discovered that in summer there was insufficient water to support large numbers of sheep or cattle and farming proved uneconomic.

tirilighthouseA prefabricated lighthouse was erected on the island in 1865 and is the oldest working lighthouse in New Zealand. It stands proudly at the highest point and the well maintained keeper’s houses are still used by rangers, visitors and visiting workers. In 1970 Tiritiri Matangi became part of the Hauraki Gulf Maritime Reserve and from 1984 to 1994 volunteers worked to reforest the island. The next step was introducing birds back to the island and today many species flourish in the open sanctuary providing visitors with a rich opportunity to see endemic and rare birds and giving the birds a safe place to call home.

Regardless of the time of year there is something to see and every visit brings a new experience. Being spring many birds can be heard but most are not easily seen as they are busy nest building, sitting on eggs, feeding young or defending territories.

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I am the king!

Unintentionally I timed my arrival just as a staff member was refilling the sugar water feeders near the shop. Talk about pecking order! I enjoyed watching the tūī chief trying to keep the sweet treat to himself. He couldn’t be everywhere at the same time so was mostly unsuccessful as other birds took their chances and I even saw a bellbird (korimako or makomako) take a sip or two while he was distracted.

Most of the tūī had a dusting of golden pollen on their foreheads so there was a nectar supply handy.

While I heard many birds including the takahē and the kōkako they kept out of sight. I spotted a male hihi (stitchbird) in full breeding plumage being chased by a korimako, saw an inquisitive robin (toutouwai) on the path, caught a flash of orange – a tīeke (saddleback) in the bush and in the safety of the forest a tuatara enjoying a patch of sunlight under a large tree. Down one of the tracks I caught a glimpse of two pūkeko foraging in the long grasses.

On the rocks, ignored by a nearby shag (kawau), three variable oystercatchers (tōrea pango) were circling each other all the while exchanging what sounded like loud insults. I wish, like Dr Doolittle, that I could have understood them. On the beach just above the high tide line a pair were nesting. I hope there are no king tides before their eggs hatch.

Mangawhai Estuary

It’s the school holidays and while the first week was wet the second week has had moments of calm, dry weather. For me this is an opportunity to get out of Auckland and indulge in some R&R – a little bird spotting.

Mangawhai Harbour is a large, tidal estuary about an hour and a half north of Auckland. The settlement is sprinkled with holiday homes. It has a popular surf break, an open, sandy ocean beach with surf club patrols in summer and calmer estuary waters for swimming and boating. While more houses are sprouting up, for most of the year there are few people around and the habitat is reasonably untouched.

A long, narrow, sand spit protects the estuary from the open sea. This is a wildlife refuge  because it is one of the most important breeding areas for the rare, endangered tara-iti (fairy tern), which nest along the coastal beaches between Waipu and Pakari. It is believed that a total of about 42 of these birds survive with around 11 or 12 breeding pairs. DOC and local volunteers monitor an extensive predator trapping program, which is helping to keep rats, stoats and weasel out of the nesting areas however the spit is close to land and these pests are capable swimmers. I was lucky enough to spot a fairy tern flying above the water hunting for fish. On the spit I observed tūturiwhatu (NZ dotterel), several pairs of tōrea pango (variable oystercatcher), gulls both karoro (black-backed) and tārapunga (red-billed), a pair of tarānui (Caspian terns) and pīhoihoi (NZ pipit).

An evening walk at low tide showed me how just important this estuary habitat is to our avian neighbours. I spotted an amazing number of different bird species. Kāruhiruhi (pied shags) chased fish trapped in the pools by the outgoing tide. There were quite a few kōtare (kingfishers) in the trees along the shore. Kuaka (bar-tailed godwits) just arrived from their long flight from the Arctic circle were busy feeding along the shallow water channels, ditto ruddy turnstones and huahou (lesser knots) both arctic migrant birds. Further out in slightly deeper water I spotted the beautiful kōtuku ngutupapa (royal spoonbills) sweeping their long black bills from side to side, focused on catching aquatic prey.

The mudflats provide a smorgasbord of invertebrates for sea and shore birds. Tūturiwhatu are very well camouflaged and hard to spot as they run across the shells and sand. There were poaka (pied stilts), tōrea pango, tōrea (SIPO – South Island pied oystercatchers), karoro (southern black-backed gulls, tarāpunga and spur-winged plover. Other species are found here but the mudflat area is extensive and some birds are hard to spot from a distance – perhaps next time I’ll see other species. This is what makes birding so interesting – you can never know exactly which birds you might score.

Earlier in the day I checked out a wildlife pond where I saw pūkeko, mallards,  pāpango, (black teal or NZ scaup duck) and duckling, song thrush and pīhoihoi (NZ pipits).

Beside the estuary at high tide I watched mallard ducks patrolling the reedy margins, Australian gannets diving for fish, kāruhiruhi, karoro and tarāpunga, kōtare and kawau paka (little shags) drying their wings in an old pōhutukawa tree.

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Collect shells

The weather, the tides, the time of day, the season, the people and animals nearby; all these are variables that impact on the birds you are likely to glimpse during a visit to an estuary habitat. Binoculars help increase your ability to spot the smaller, well-camouflaged birds and when you get bored you can always collect shells.

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