Temperature control

When the weather gets hot we can easily change our clothes. In summer we can visit the beach or the local swim pool to cool off and in winter we wear extra layers – puffer jackets filled with feathers or several layers topped by warm, woolly jumpers. Animals don’t usually have those options.

When you grow your own fur onesie it’s not that easy to strip down. Birds can use their fluffy down to line their nests and keep their chicks warm at night but not all birds have nests lined with feathers or sheltered from the blazing sun by leafy green shade. Lots of sea birds just use a shallow scrape in the sand and their young are exposed to sun, rain, predators, king tides and stormy winds.

Feathers might keep birds warm in winter but feathers become tattered, lose their waterproofing or their ability to keep birds in the air. Some birds loose their feathers one or two at a time and grow replacements without it affecting their day to day activities, a bit like us loosing hairs when we brush our locks.

For other species moulting is a big deal. They must find a safe place to hide while they discard old feathers and grow new ones. Ducks, geese and swans moult after raising their new seasons brood. They can’t fly during this period and so wild birds often flock together for safety. They can still float so are mostly safe from predators.

Penguins have a much more difficult time. To prepare, they try to put on as much weight as they can before coming onto land and settling in the most sheltered, private spot they can find. Their loss of feathers is called a “catastrophic moult” as they replace almost all their feathers at the same time. Seals undergo this process by loosing their fur and reptiles, like snakes, cleverly shed their skin when they outgrow it.

During their moult penguins lose their waterproofing and can’t survive in the cold ocean. This means they don’t get to eat anything until they can return to the sea. Vulnerable (for example to dog attacks), they hunker down like hunched old men in shabby suits, looking and feeling miserable. By staying in one spot they conserve energy. This is when you are most likely to spot penguins during the day, amongst the tussock grasses and under scrubby bush while they wait for their new feathers to grow out and their old ones to fall out. I imagine their skin must feel very itchy and scratchy and their tummies empty.  When birds are believed to be at risk, wildlife officers rescue them and release them in a safer location.

I’m glad I’m not a penguin and can change my jacket at will.

Photos S Parkinson The Catlins 2018

January 2018

At this time of year a lot of birds have teenagers demanding attention. Their chicks have grown and are practically as big as them. They have sprouted sturdy flight feathers. They look more like their parents although, depending on the species, adult plumage may take longer to develop. Nonetheless they still need to be shown the ropes and fed. It’s tiring for Mr and Mrs Bird.

Others are minding their second or third clutch of eggs. Life can be very fast and short. For some species reproduction is an imperative. Some may get a surprise when their eggs hatch. Without their agreement they have become foster parents. Their new hatchlings look different. Do they realize they are caring for another species? If they do it makes no difference. They pull out all stops to ensure ‘their baby’ survives to independence. When I see a tiny riroriro (greywarbler) feeding its much larger pīpīwharauroa (shining bronze cuckoo) fledgling I am amazed at their dedication and perserverance.

Most of this year’s brood will now have fledged so they are able to follow their parents through their habitat. This is like bird home schooling and it pays to learn quickly. They need to know what is good to eat and what to avoid. They need to know about all the dangers in their habitat and develop fast reflexes.

JuvMagpieShakespearParkI observed a young Australian magpie foraging in the leaf litter. Its parents watched from a distance. It did not yet have adult colours. This intelligent teenager was clearly curious, interested to learn about the world. It decided to inspect me close-up. Maybe it has already learnt that some humans are a source of free food.

NZDotShakespearParkI also observed a NZ dotterel (tūturiwhatu), which approached me with steely determination, his eyes fixed on mine. I realised that it was challenging me to turn back. I felt as if we were communicating or at least that the tūturiwhatu was making a statement I understood.

While the early bird may catch the worm, the distracted bird gets caught by Master Cat, who has also been practicing his hunting and stalking skills. The sound of raucous teenagers demanding food from their harassed parents makes it easy for us to spot them. It also alerts the local predators. Most small birds flit through the leaves chasing insects and perhaps also to avoid being caught. Getting a good clear photo can be challenging.

Some species may leave their offspring on their own or in nurseries watched over by a few adult birds. Their parents return with food and are greeted with enthusiastic demands. Lastly some birds are rejecting their young, refusing to feed them thus forcing their teenagers to scavenge and hunt on their own.

Avian parenting is not that different after all.

The photos show a red-billed gull (tarāpunga) feeding its teenager.

Big Day Birdathon

There’s a bit of fun planned on Dec 16th. A kiwi birdathon. Register a team and see how many different species of birds you can see in 24 hours.

I did a very casual trial run attempt around Mangawhai and when I counted them up I was surprised at the number of species I had spotted.  The photo below shows three species making it easy for me. These birds were patroling the same area while the tide was out, sharing the estuarine habitat with many other shorebirds including the rare fairy tern.IMG_0204

Here’s the list (in no particular order) of 33 birds.

Sparrow, song thrush, blackbird, starling, chaffinch, greenfinch, tui, Californian quail, waxeye, fantail, mallard ducks, royal spoonbill, fairy tern, pied stilt, variable oystercatcher, SIP oystercatcher, red-billed gull, black-backed gull, Australasian gannet, spur-winged plover, fairy tern, ruddy turnstone, bar-tailed godwit, pied shag, little shag, kingfisher, white-faced heron, paradise shelduck, Australasian harrier, pukeko, NZ dotterel, red knot, welcome swallow.

I heard but did not sight the shining cuckoo, grey warbler and morepork. Species that call Mangawhai home but which I missed include pipit, banded rail, Caspian tern, NZ dabchick, black shag. Then there are the shy birds still waiting for me to spot them.

I’m sure that a more dedicated effort would result in more species. In 24 hours a list with more than 40 birds would be quite achievable so check out your locality and share your results. Good luck and happy birding adventures.

Time to Vote for your favourite bird

Which New Zealand bird is your favourite? Have you seen this bird in its natural habitat? It you haven’t yet, it will probably be on your lifer list.

It’s that time of year when we can all vote for our favourite bird and decide which will be the NZ Bird of the Year for 2017. Voting closes on 23 October 2017.  Learn more about each bird and listen to their call.

There are 54 birds to chose from and some of these are listed as “In serious trouble”. The worst thing for these birds would be if next year the listing shows “extinct”. I hope that those listed as ‘in serious trouble’ can be helped to move their status to ‘in some trouble’ and then to ‘doing ok’. It would be a wonderful improvement if all native birds could increase in number and have the right environment for the species to flourish.

Each year I vote for a different bird and this year my vote has gone to the NZ falcon, kārearea. I learnt about and watched these amazing birds at Wingspan, The NZ Bird of Prey Centre earlier in the year. I am convinced that they deserve to keep their place in the NZ ecosystem.




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.


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.