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.

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.

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.

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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New life

Some birds are now rearing their first batch of young and you may spot them demanding food, trying their wings or parading with mum and dad close by.

My neighbour rescued a fledgling from his cats. It was a young barbary dove. This surprized me as I hadn’t spotted any adults in the area. So another bird species to add to my local list.

At the local park the black swans are supervising their brood. I know there will be more chicks around soon and I will have to keep a watchful eye on the hedges and shrubs to spot them as they first leave their nests. Over my back fence the pukeko may soon have small, black, furry balls on enormous feet following them in the long grass. Young birds are really cute with their short tails or fluffy feathers and they all seem to have huge appetites.

Keep watching and you may spot them in your garden too.

Book successfully launched

Outside it was wet but inside the hall bird song welcomed people as they arrived to celebrate the launching of A Magpie Collection and to support the Friends of Okura Bush – a local conservation charity established to protect the Okura Bush and Okura estuary habitats. Together we raised almost $500 for FOOB and books were signed.

About 70 people attended. The fabulous artwork entries were displayed on the walls. There was a predator table complete with a stuffed stoat and a weasel. There was Fairy Fern , who transformed faces into living art works. Kids learnt to make their own origami bird bookmarks. The bird masks were also amazingly creative.

Books were won by twelve talented young artists and three mask makers, four artists received special mention and each won a bird beak poster. There were spot prizes and plenty of afternoon tea meant everyone from the youngest to the oldest enjoyed themselves.

Thanks to Canoe and Kayak for generously donating a family kayak trip in the Okura River estuary and to Kokako chocolate for their packs of drinking chocolate. Both these organizations support conservation work as part of their business efforts.

The joys of spring

When the weather is sunny, warm and with little wind it is perfect for a day of bird watching. In New Zealand we are spoilt for places to visit. It can be as simple as a walk to the local beach or park or a car trip to the nearest regional park. Combine a picnic, building sand castles and paddling amongst the waves with a spot of quiet observation. It is good to stop and just take time to notice the things around you. Spend a moment to watch crabs scuttling amongst the rock pools or gannets diving after fish. In the park you might see a magpie strutting in the grass, a fantail chasing insects, bees getting nectar from flowers or butterflies fluttering past. Life is all around us, there whether we notice it or not.

Today was just such a perfect day. We headed west to Shelly Beach, which lies below South Head on the Kaipara Harbour. It’s a quiet place but in September the shorebirds are busy pairing up, finding, claiming and building nest sites and laying eggs.

The white fronted terns, called tara in Maori, were busy and we enjoyed watching the males bring gifts of fish to their mate. These birds form pair bonds, which continue from one year to the next. Tara are beautiful, medium sized, black and white birds and are the most common tern seen in New Zealand. They flock together and nest in colonies on the ground, on cliff ledges or on river banks. Their numbers are declining. Their eggs and young are at risk from introduced predators and the birds are easily disturbed by approaching people, dogs and other animals. Their eggs are also sometimes at risk from gull attack.

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Two reviews

Received a review in the North Shore Times and in the Forest & Bird North Shore September newsletter (towards the end).

We’re busy putting the final arrangements together for the book launch, which is in the middle of Conservation Week and less than two weeks away (17/09/2016).


Open Sanctuary

It was the last day of winter, a beautiful, sunny, calm day. Perfect for getting out and about with the binoculars and a camera.

Shakespear Regional Park at the end of the Whangaparoa Peninsula is an open sanctuary. Protected behind a predator proof fence, wildlife can thrive in a range of habitats. There are wetlands, forested areas, cleared countryside and coastal habitats. The park is a working sheep and cattle farm. Gully areas of regenerating bush, planted and maintained by DOC and volunteers, are fenced off from livestock giving native species a chance to make a comeback. There are beaches, recreational areas, walking tracks and a camping ground all within driving distance of New Zealand’s largest city. It’s a natural and national treasure.

For those who want to see birds living in cage free habitats, free to move at will between the relative safety of the sanctuary and the more dangerous world of urban sprawl, this is the place to visit.

It’s a great destination for a daytrip. Bring a picnic and spend time at Okoromai Bay exploring the wetlands, or at Te Haruhi Bay where you might enjoy a game of beach cricket or take a wander up to the lookout. You could also join a planting day or become a Junior Ranger.

If you have only a half day the Heritage trail is a wonderful option. The path takes you through waterfall gully and up to the lookout.

If you enjoy the outdoors why not pitch your tent and spend the whole weekend exploring.

To give you some idea of the birds you might see in the park here is the list (in no particular order) of birds we saw.

Pukeko, peafowl, black backed gull, red billed gull, variable oystercatcher, South Island oystercatcher, white-faced heron, pied stilt, little black shag, NZ dotterel, Australian gannet, house sparrow, song thrush, blackbird, myna, magpie, fantail, silvereye, yellowhammer, skylark, grey warbler, welcome swallow, tui, kereru, harrier hawk, rock pigeon, paradise duck, red crowned parakeet, California quail, eastern rosella.

We did not see everything that makes its home here and one day you might be able to see kiwi here.

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Books received from printers.

It was with great excitement that I took delivery of a pile of heavy boxes. With three weeks before launch date the books have arrived from the printers! Yippee!

All that hard work, hours of editing, checking and rechecking is condensed into one book weighing about 250gm. No more changes possible. So now my little magpie collection has to make its own way, trust in itself, spread its wings, fly off library shelves and out of bookshops into the hearts and minds of readers.

What is it like? Well, browse the first few pages to get a feel for the book. Enjoy.

A Magpie Collection 1-6

If you’d like to order a copy please leave a comment and I will get back to you.