CHAPTER 14 – SOUTH ISLAND, NEW ZEALAND
(Bert) Late to bed, early to rise, at 6:30 AM we caravan to the ship harbor and drive our RV’s onto the huge ferry. We climb the stairs to the seventh floor and take up seats overlooking the bow. After we are underway I join Jim on an outer deck, the windows from inside being too dirty to see birds. Out of sight of land, we start seeing a parade of Buller’s Shearwaters, easy to identify by the X crossing their backs and wings. We spot a few larger birds, an all dark one identified as Giant Petrel and a mostly white albatross that we photograph, later identifying it as White-capped Mollymawk.
Back on land, now on New Zealand’s South Island, we drive along the eastern coast, stopping at a gourmet-style restaurant overlooking a gravel beach and offshore rock outcroppings supporting a few New Zealand Fur Seals. While waiting for lunch preparation I check out the grassy expanse, finding a few Dunnock, and the strip of seawater trapped between gravel beds where a few Pied Stilts feed. After lunch Jim tells me he has spotted Banded Dotterels and is returning for his camera. I pick up mine from the RV and join him at the beach. We find several and creep ever closer for the perfect shot of these plovers.
(Shari) It is a short night with only 6 hr. of sleep. We need to be at the ferry dock by 7:15. Boarding goes smoothly and we all head up to the seventh level to get front row seats for better birding. The 3-hr. crossing goes faster this time than it did in June, as I have other people to talk with and we discuss past and future trips, books read, etc. When we start to enter the channels between islands, the trip gets pretty. It is rated as one of the prettiest ferry trips in the world and indeed it is. We weave through aquamarine waters in and around green-covered mountainous islands through channels big enough for only three ships to pass. In June I commented that the South Island drive was like autumn with barren trees and bushes. Today everything is green, leaves are on the vines at the many vineyards and flowers are blooming along the roadside. We stop at the same restaurant we did in June but this time we bring a group. Most of us have the clam chowder and it seems better than it was last time, which then was the best I ever ate. Served in a bread bowl and heaped with chunks of clam, it fills me up.
We stop to see if the seals are playing under the waterfall. When in June
there were about 15 little ones, today we see only two cavorting in the small
pool below the waterfall. Cute, nonetheless! The road hugs the coast of the
Pacific Ocean and the views are spectacular. The water color is intensely
aquamarine. Devoid of boats, we have commented many times about this and I
wonder where the boats are. We do not see many houses either, until we get to
Kaikoura. This still is a favorite town of mine, set between snow-covered
mountains and the sea.
(Shari) Repeating the trip we did in June, we walk to the place of departure, about a mile through the cute town of Kaikoura. A van takes us to a 15-passenger boat on top of a trailer attached to a tractor. The tractor backs us into the water and our captain motors us off to the continental shelf. The shelf is only about 2.5 mi. out to sea here and therefore makes sea birding an easy task. Even easier, the birds come to us by the dozens as they seem to smell the frozen chicken livers in a cage that our captain tossed over the side. We are told we are seeing some birds that are only seen right here in Kaikoura or far out to sea. I forget names as fast as I hear them but I think the rare one is a Hunter’s petrol. We will see what Bert names it. Big great gray albatross fly in, making sounds like a horse and acting fierce to push the little birds away. Some fight each other to get at the food. A Royal Albatross also makes an appearance. This is the one with the biggest wingspan in the world and as it lands on the water, it folds its wings to its side in sections, like a military jet after landing on a ship flight deck. It is a very bossy bird and keeps the little ones at bay as it eats its fill. The sea is calm but the morning is foggy making it hard for the birds to see us. I have a feeling that we do not see as many as we did last time, but we still see a lot. We move to another location and pick up another type of bird. We move again and see a pod of dolphins swimming under and around our boat. Since our captain does not have a “dolphin license” we are not to look at them. Yeah, right, as if that is going to happen. The boat goes past a rock with many seals basking in the sun or playing in the water. Soon our 4-hour charter trip is over and we are motoring onto the trailer that seamlessly moves us onto land.
(Bert) Curtains of gray fog have hidden the sea from land. I wonder if we will see albatrosses today. Gary has the van ready to carry us the short distance to the harbor. We quickly climb the ladder to board the boat which sits on a large trailer on dry land. Almost before we realize what is happening, a tractor backs the trailer into the harbor waters, Gary starts the engine and we are propelled toward open water. He tells us we likely will see flocks of Hutton’s Shearwaters follow us to deeper water. We see hundreds fly beside us like packs of dogs chasing cars. Glancing back toward land we are surprised to see hazy windows in the fog reveal snow-capped mountains.
Now, out of sight of land, Gary turns off the engine, comes to the stern and drops a bag of frozen chicken parts over the side, tethered by a short rope. A Cape Pigeon has been eyeing our boat even before we stopped and now it rushes in to feast on the meaty ice cube, pecking through the webbing to extract small bits of flesh. It enjoys the luxury of dining alone before the big birds arrive and bully their way in. In spite of its name, Cape Pigeon is a petrel, though shaped and colored like a large Rock Pigeon. A few minutes later another Cape Pigeon discovers us and the two birds squabble about dining rights, the first bird successfully fending off the second amidst a shrill chorus of keep-away warnings.
When several Northern Giant Petrels arrive they easily push back the Cape Pigeons, a fraction of their huge size. Petrels are usually the size of footballs, but each of these of these Giant Petrels is the volume of two or three basketballs. One Giant Petrel stays away from the feeding frenzy, displaying angry distain for the crude bunch that have horned in on his dinner. It grunts and croaks. It lowers its head, spreads its wings, cocks its tail vertically, all the while keeping a distance of ten feet. I watch the petrel equivalent of a disgruntled bull, imagining it hoofing the ground and snorting, with horns bent low. Finally, after many long minutes, the alpha male charges into the snarling frenzy, with neck swinging, bill snapping and wings flaying. In seconds he has taken control of the chicken cube and the other petrels are reduced to quick snatch and grab tactics. Meanwhile, a flock of Cape Pigeons assumes the second tier seats and like squabbling chickens they peck at tiny bites of floating debris.
Gary calls aloud when he sights a few Westland Petrels flying toward us. They do not come to the chum, staying instead a few dozen yards away or circling the boat. Virginia notices some have black-tipped bills and some do not. Gary explains those with the black tip are Westland Petrels and those without are a different species, White-chinned Petrels, a Subantarctic bird. I ask him about the difference in the Cape Pigeons and he tells us the majority are the northern form, also called Snares Cape Pigeon. He points out one with whiter back and wing feathers and this one is the southern form or Southern Cape Pigeon. More birds begin to gather around us. Several attractive Salvin’s Albatrosses watch from a distance and briefly we see a White-capped Mollymawk fly past and come to rest in line with the sun, making it difficult to photograph.
The scene changes again when the pecking order is upset by the arrival of a Wandering Albatross. If we thought the Giant Petrels were large, the Wandering Albatross is a giant among giants. Maybe it doesn’t seem so big when viewed a half-mile away at sea, but close up, almost within arm’s reach from the boat, the albatross is unbelievably huge. Even though dozens of birds now surround the albatross, it successfully takes full command of the dining area, fending off all intruders. With angry grunts and growls, it snaps its wicked bill at the wings and heads of the petrels and it grabs the tiny Cape Pigeons by the neck until they flee for safety. It continues to feed on the free food for a very long time. I ask Gary what form of Wandering Albatross this is and he says it’s a Gibsons Albatross and explains that it probably has a chick and will gorge itself and then fly to the Auckland Islands to feed the chick.
Gary pulls in the chicken bag and drives the boat to a distant location off South Point. Here the boat attracts a Gray-faced Petrel, which I photograph in flight, and I get many close-up shots of Salvin’s Albatrosses. We have one more albatross make an appearance, a Royal Albatross, though it stays away from the boat. After another half-hour of watching the feeding frenzy, Gary heads toward the coast. En route we encounter a school of Dusky Dolphins which playfully surrounds the boat, surprising us when they surface and dive. The boat enters shallow water where small rock islands offer purchase for gulls, White-fronted Terns and New Zealand Fur Seals. Old coarsely-haired giant seals command the rocks and younger ones playfully bounce over the uneven surface on their flippers. After the thoroughly enjoyable circus-like entertainment of the seals, we move away from the rocks and quickly stop again when we see a penguin and minutes later a second Little Blue Penguin. I never thought in my lifetime I would see a penguin fishing at sea.
(Shari) A bunch of us stop at a recommended fish and chips restaurant for lunch. Cindy, Norm, Bert and I order the grilled groper instead of the battered version. It was not the right choice and as I say to the group, I have not gotten fish and chips out of my system and will just have to go order it again soon. Upon our return, Bert goes out birding again with Ralph and Virginia and I do the wash and write journals. It is now 4:30 and I hope to get in a short nap as I know others have done. Soon I hear knocking on the window and see the group gathered next door at the picnic table. Apparently I have forgotten about a travel meeting, something I haven’t done in 11 years and 21 caravans. I am so embarrassed. I tell myself, as I so often do to others, “Read the schedule”.
(Shari) We are the last to leave the campground as everyone wants to do something different today. We stop for Internet in front of the hotel where there is WI-FI signal of the company we bought a month’s contract. Finally we are on the move by 10 AM. The drive is pretty with a patchwork of yellow and green on the mountains. Arriving in Christchurch before lunch, we do another load of wash and catch up on chores. Around 5 Jim asks us if we want to join him for pizza at Pizza Hut. Do we ever! We walk the 800 meters only to find an empty shell of a familiar Pizza Hut building. Boy are we disappointed! We walk farther down the street, passing many takeaway joints and Oriental restaurants but have our heart set on pizza. About now we will settle for the sweet pizza that the Kiwis like but we don’t even find that either. Bert and I are wishing we stayed home to eat our chicken breast sandwiches and salad. We settle on a pub/casino advertising $10 meals. Bert gets the roast beef and I the hamburger. Both are good if not pizza. So we still do not have pizza out of our system.
(Bert) We take a leisurely start this morning and everyone leaves before us. Our drive is leisurely too, as we enjoy the pleasant spring weather. I pull to the side to let traffic pass and to photograph the yellow mountains, abloom in nearly contiguous yellow bushes of Scotch Bloom. Below me in a valley I can hear a chorus of songbirds and watch as Silvereyes and Chaffinch fly by. When not winding through coastal mountains, we are driving beside the blue sea. Black rocks form tiny islands weaved together by floating kelp beds. Parallel to us is an old railroad track with occasional tunnels either for us or for the trains. The rural scenery is idyllic until we reach the hustle and bustle of Christchurch. We penetrate a bit of the city outskirts to find our campground and then I use the afternoon to catch up writing journals. Others had more interesting days with some visiting the Antarctic Centre and more taking the bus to downtown Christchurch to the sights of this historic city. Later, Jim suggests going to Pizza Hut for dinner. Shari and I jump at the invitation, as do Ralph and Virginia and Chris. We walk about a mile through the city outskirts to the Pizza Hut and are disappointed when we find a vacated building at that address. We settle on a bar restaurant a few blocks away which satisfies our hunger, but the meal isn’t as good as Shari’s.
(Shari) It is cloudy as we leave Christchurch and gets cloudier as we go west. I know the beautiful yellow flowers on the bushes are the pesky Scotch Broom but it makes for a pretty patchwork of yellow and green as we wind our way up the mountain. Again we see rain along this route although the funny Kea bird does not disappoint us. No one wants to walk the trails at Arthur’s Pass as the day is yucky, so we travel onward to our campground. Bert does stop at varying pullouts to look for birds and we try to take some scenic pictures. When we arrive in Greymouth we are in the midst of a coal mine disaster. I notice that it even makes the PBS News Hour. Last night the mine exploded and 29 miners are trapped. News media are in town trying to interview families and friends, helicopters by the dozens fly overhead and our campground is full. The rescue operation must be hampered by the rain as well. People are talking about it wherever we go because in a small town like this, everyone knows someone in the trapped mine. I pray that this outcome is as good as the recent mine rescue in Chili.
(Bert) Crossing the Southern Alps of New Zealand is a lot like driving through Denali National Park in Alaska. Sweeping, majestic views of raw, polychromatic mountains separated by broad valleys, flattened by braided streams, greet us at each curve of the narrow highway winding up to Arthur’s Pass. We stop at Lake Lyndon, small enough to see the opposite shore, but wide enough to require a spotting scope to see the nesting Southern Crested Grebe, one of only about 250 in New Zealand. Jim points out a couple of Double-banded Dotterels on the gravelly shore near us and Ralph highlights a Pied Oystercatcher sitting on two eggs in a nest that is simply a depression in sand in the midst of a grassy field. A Paradise Shelduck gathers her eight chicks, a flock of New Zealand Scaup floats on the lake and a Skylark appears to defy gravity as it remains suspended with spread wings high above us for many minutes. Shari and I stop at Lake Peterson where I see a second Crested Grebe, this one diving in the middle of the lake. I photograph a duck with chicks and the hen displays a green speculum–like a Gray Duck–in some photos and a blue one–like a Mallard–in others, depending on the angle of view. The dark bill supports Gray Duck, though these two species have interbred so much I am not sure what its genes are.
We pass beside another braided stream valley and when I stop for a photo I notice terns in flight. They get close enough for me to see their bright red-orange bills and a black cap that extends to the base of the bill. They are Black-fronted Terns, a new species for me.
When we arrive at our campground in Greymouth, Shari turns on the TV and I can hear the motors purr as the automatic satellite dish zeroes in on a signal. The local news is dominated by a coal mine that exploded from methane gas and has trapped miners underground. The Pike River Coal Mine is nearby and Greymouth is the focal point for family members and news crews to gather. When Shari switches to PBS News Hour with Jim Lehrer, one of the top stories is the New Zealand coal mine explosion. We are camped at the focal point of international news tonight.
(Shari) We depart for Pancake Rocks in the rain. When we arrive it is still raining but now I must decide. I decide to go out as this is my last chance to see the unusual geological formations. I tell Norm the day is a 1 weather-wise, but he says I have to give it at least a 2 as it could be worse with rain coming at us sideways instead of gently straight down. The short 15 min. walk on the boardwalk to the cliff edge is neat, as the paved path cuts through dense rainforest. Along the walk, many observation areas provide good vantage points to view the strange rock formations from every which angle. They look like stacks of pancakes, shoved against each other without gaps. The waves roar in at one area causing water to spray up as in a blow hole. At another area the water is surrounded by steep cliffs on all four sides, forming a square. The water rushes in below the cliffs, then pushes back against incoming waves, agitating like a turbulent washing machine. I am glad I got out of the camper to see this sight.
We have some coffee in the café before heading south to the campground to check everyone in. Some will not be coming until maybe as late as midnight due to the kiwi tour. This particular tour has at least a 95% kiwi seeing success rate, so many do not want to miss it. But kiwi only are out at night, hence the evening tour. We pay the camping fees, take a nap and then head to the tour’s start, meeting the rest of the group already parked. I choose not to go on this tour and Ralph and Virginia are to bring Bert home. I then drive the camper back to the campground and need Chris’s help getting into the spot. I don’t do backwards very good and the spot has a tight turn requiring a couple of back and forth maneuvers. The day has turned into a 10 and everything is so green and pretty.
(Bert) Sharp arrows of moon rays pierce the podocarp forest, sending silver slivers of light only a bit above the carpeted forest floor. The rising moon, only a day short of full, competes with the setting sun, so we can still see the old logging road where we gingerly sidestep the gravel base and stick to the softer greener spots. Silence is essential, just one of the rules drummed into us by Ian who acts like a coach training his team. No crackling raincoats, no talking, march lockstep in single file, turn to face the direction Ian points, keep to the edge of the path and wait and wait and wait, quietly.
Twelve years ago the Okarito Kiwi population was down to only 150 birds. Decimated by predators, only 5% of chicks survive in the wild. Hence, a program of collecting the eggs, hatching them in captivity and then releasing the young birds in the wild in the same area where they were collected was instituted and has lead to a current population of 300 birds. Tonight we are attempting to see one of these rare birds in the nearby forests. We are waiting, and waiting …
During 600 trips in search of the kiwi, Ian has honed a technique that is both rigorous and successful. In fact, in the last 302 trips he has found Kiwi 297 times. In spite of his many visits to the birds, he says they have not gotten used to him and they behave in a natural way, as if he and his groups are not even present. We are waiting, and waiting …
Our team arrived shortly after 7 PM and walked 2 km along the logging road, stopping often for team instructions and for details about kiwi lifestyle. We learn that we are passing through three territories comprising two pairs and a single male who lost his mate 25 October 2010. It takes us 5-10 min. to cross the boundaries of the first pair, nicknamed Jim and Beaumont. In the opposite directions their territory reaches down to a creek and up half way to the ridge, the same ridge I hiked earlier today, the forest where Tomtits, New Zealand Robins and Gray Warblers were singing, but are now silent. We are waiting, and waiting …
Poor eyesight through beady eyes is compensated by a remarkable sense of smelling. With the shortest nose–the nostrils are at the end of the long bill–only the Andean Condor surpasses the kiwi in its ability to smell. And it has whiskers to feel its prey while probing the soft ground. The female lays an enormous egg and the young are born completely developed, so they can hit the ground running as they are on their own from birth, without aid from their parents. To confuse predators, kiwi can freeze in position for up to 20 min. or they can shock molt, i.e. eject soft feathers in a fluff as they disappear in the underbrush. We are waiting, and waiting …
In many ways kiwi are more like mammals than birds. Their bones contain marrow, like mammals. Their body temperature is the same as humans, not elevated like other birds. Females have two ovaries, though unlike humans, both are functional, not only the left one, according to Ian. We are now in the territory of BZ, the lone male. We are waiting, and waiting …
BZ is only about 90 meters away, well hidden in the understory. How does Ian know this? The kiwi are equipped with radio transmitters and Ian has a listening device with direction sensitive antenna like an old style TV antenna. The intensity of the sound he hears tells him the direction and distance of the bird. We are waiting, and waiting …
We are listening too. Listening for the crunch of kiwi feet, two feet stepping gingerly, not the rapid pit pat of a possum. Listening for the clink of its plastic transmitter bumping into a branch. Listening for its ID ring slipping on its leg. Listening for kiwi pooing, unlike the silence of possums. It is 8:55 PM and we have formed into smaller teams. Ralph and Elizabeth, a visitor from Austria, are in my team. I have a CB radio for transmitting to head leader Ian. Cindy leads another team. We are listening. We are waiting, and waiting …
BZ has moved away from the path, according to telemetry, so Ian directs us to
march single file, in close rank, silently, to the territory of White-eyes. This
time we stay together in one line, nearly shoulder to shoulder, facing the
forest where Ian suspects White-eyes will emerge on to the path. We are
listening and waiting …
At 9:15 a Morepork calls in the distance. It is still light enough to read my watch. At 9:25 the moon shines through the forest like a distant street lamp, brightly, but much crosshatched by branches. A dark cloak settles over the forest, pierced by pinpoints of light, one a bright planet, two others are sparkling star diamonds. Magically appearing from nowhere, perching briefly atop a barren tree trunk, watching us intently, silently, is a Morepork. Without a sound, the illusion disappears. It is 9:34, the last time I have enough light to see my watch dial. We are listening and waiting …
It must be the nearly full moon that inhibits the kiwi from calling, for not once do we hear either a male or female. A possum crashes and squeals in the distance. For more than an hour now, one to three Morepork have repeated their “more-pork” call, sometimes nearby, sometimes so far off I can just hear it above the rumble of ocean waves that are miles away. Otherwise, the forest is deadly silent. No insects humming, no frogs croaking, no twigs snapping, no fruits and nuts munched by nocturnal animals, no birds cooing to their mates. We are listening and waiting …
Ian shifts position, kneeling in front of me. He asks me if I have heard a kiwi. I whisper, “No”. His telemetry device suggests one is near. Then I hear soft footsteps, very soft footsteps. It is getting closer and moving to our right. We are listening and waiting …
The footsteps continue. Minutes creep slowly, footsteps move slowly. I can hear the kiwi walking. Ian trains his red light down the path, eerily illuminating just the edge of the forest and spreading half-way across the path. White-eyes steps from the forest edge, pauses briefly, then trots slowly and gently across the path. Its profile is distinct, a pear-shaped body propped up by sturdy legs, a long bill outlined in red light. He is large, larger than I expected. Then he’s gone.
(Bert) It was nearly 1 AM when I fell asleep after our kiwi adventure, so I snooze until 8:30, not arising until Shari is awake. An hour later she is busy on the phone and computer trying to confirm our schedule a few days from now. I join Ralph and Virginia, returning to the same area we were last night, but this time concentrating on the adjacent marsh. Our target is a Fernbird. We position ourselves at different listening posts within the marsh and begin another vigil reminiscent of last night, but this time under bright clear skies and a chorus of bird songs coming from the nearby forest and the ridge across the road where a pair of Tui apparently is nesting. The marsh is silent for 20 min., interrupted by talking Tui and a fly-over Kaka calling in flight. Then I hear two quick low-pitched quiet notes from somewhere in the vicinity of Virginia. I move toward her location and in the next 10 min. I hear several 1-3 note chips. Ralph sees a bird quickly fly from one clump of grass to another one. I hear the bird several more times, but none of us see it. It is the Fernbird, though a visual confirmation would be nice.
(Shari) As I look out the window from my bed all I see are blue skies and mountain peaks. Wow, a glorious day in the making! Bert goes birding with Ralph and Virginia; I finish up on confirming our last campgrounds and activities. When he comes back Ralph and Virginia accompany us to the two glaciers in the area. This was something I wanted to see last June but the day was rainy and cold and our fast-paced schedule did not permit. Franz Josef Glacier can be seen from the road, but as is with all glaciers, the closer you get, the prettier they become. So we drive the road toward the glacier and park our car. We pass a sign telling us the glacier had reached this point in 1750. We drive farther, until we reach the end of the road. The glacier is now a half hour’s walk away. We walk about half the distance when the path turns upwards and I decide I have gotten close enough for my pictures. This glacier had advanced when more snow fell than melted back in the 1980s but now is receded at a meter per day. It is one of the few glaciers, reachable by walking, that plummets into a rainforest. In our binoculars we can see guided groups of people walking on the glacier itself. Double-backing a few hundred yards, we take a side trail upwards to a rock wall. I expected to see a rock wall at the top, but when arriving there, I realize we are standing on the rock wall. From a different and higher perspective, we see the same glacier we saw at the bottom and read the same signs.
Next we drive about 25 mi. up a curvy mountain, made curvier since I am sitting in the back of the RV with Virginia. We stop for lunch at a café before going to Fox Glacier, another glacier that plummets into rainforest. Again we only get halfway along the path before turning around. I think my pictures are good enough. Driving back down the mountain curves, we reach our campground about 4 PM. Everyone is still doing their own thing today. Cindy and Norm went kayaking on the glacial-fed waters and others went to the glaciers as we did. Now I see Hugh and Mary pull out with a group headed to the I–Max movie featuring views of the glaciers. We eat the last of our lamb steak tonight. I sure will miss all the good lamb I have had when I get home.
(Bert) We return to camp, switch campervans, pick up Shari and spend the rest of the day visiting glaciers. We have visited so many glaciers in North America it is hard to say something original about Franz Josef Glacier and Fox Glacier. Always overwhelmingly huge, it takes a few people walking atop the monstrous snow field, viewed from a mile away, to gain the gargantuan perspective. These have been receding rapidly, though for a brief period they lengthened for a couple of decades. Most interesting to me is a marker fixing the extent of Fox Glacier in 1750. Today the spot is covered by a dense forest of tree ferns, a remarkable testament of how fast plant life can take over barren broken rock.
(Shari) I hear that the crested penguins are molting and it should be easy to see them on the beach. I dread the hour’s walk and intend to turn around if the going gets too rough. I am last to start out on the well-manicured gravel path through the rainforest. New Zealand has no snakes to worry about, no bad biting insects and no dangerous animals, so I am not afraid to walk alone. At times I catch up with the group as they have stopped to look at one bird or another, but mostly they stay ahead of me. Ermine and I walk together for most of the trip, never getting tired of talking with each other. At the end of this walk I expect to see hundreds of penguins all huddled together and chattering, waiting for their feathers to grow back. Instead, what I see is an empty beach and one lone penguin who seems scared of us even though we stand a good 600 ft. away. It does not take long before he tumbles into a wave, rolls around a bit and dives back out to sea. The walk was not worth only one penguin and now I have to walk back. I rest awhile, sitting on a rock and eating an apple before I start back. Forty-five minutes later I arrive and peal off all my sweaty layers of clothes. I just finish dressing when Bert arrives and we pull out of the full parking lot to make room for more cars and campers.
(Bert) Westland, the western coast of the South Island, is a wonderland of mountains and lakes, vast forests uninhabited by humans, broad stretches of flat coastal areas and a few green pastures populated by Pukeko, Paradise Shelducks and Spur-winged Plovers. At one interlude through forest, a Long-tailed Cuckoo flies across the highway. We started together as a group so that we could meet at a forest trail leading to the beach. Even Shari joins us for this walk, lured ahead by the wishful hope of finding Fiordland Crested Penguins. Cushioned by plant debris, the soft path leads beside a trickling stream, beneath a tree fern and podocarp forest. The flat trail makes for easy walking and we pause often to listen to and sometimes see the many warblers, Bellbirds, Tui, Tomtit and fantails. While we dilly-dally, Jim moves on ahead and when the rest of us catch up at the beach I ask if he has seen penguins. Not yet, but within a minute we see one far down the beach. It stands erect just in front of giant boulders where rolling waves kiss its feet. Even from a distance I can see the penguin’s crest. We move toward it, closing half the distance. We have a much better view now, just as the penguin negotiates returning to sea. Forceful waves push against the penguin and it flops on its stomach, is turned about by the waves, then stands erect again. A few more times it negotiates the waves, then floats above them and disappears in the surf. We think we see it again, but it is probably the seals feeding near shore. A gannet flies overhead. The penguin is gone.
Shari drives while I nap. Then she naps and I drive, stopping often for scenic photography. Having taken many photos in past years I am sensitive to lighting conditions. I cannot recall a day like today in the past decade. Yesterday’s rains have flushed the skies and, in the mountains we are driving, almost nothing is adding pollutants to the cloudless sky. Haze is absent and suspended water molecules nearly so. Lakes and sky are intensely blue, snow-capped mountains many miles away are distinct and sharp, showing shaded crevices and pinkish gray highlights, cabbage trees display spiked lime green leaves and yellowish white inflorescence, lupine glow in shades of blue and pink and Scotch Bloom is on fire in sulfur yellow colors. It is an Ektochrome day, not subdued Kodachrome. Razor sharp scenery is like God dialed PhotoShop to maximum contrast and sharpness.
(Shari) The day is another fantastic sunny one and we drive all day viewing scenes that were clouded in June. We see one beautiful vista after another all day long. We stop for lunch at a rest area that has a 20 min. walk to a waterfall. Again the path is well maintained, gravel and smooth, as it meanders through the dense trees and foliage to the river. We drive up mountains and back down. We stop at streams and lakes to take in the scenery. Finally we get to Queenstown, a town that I described earlier as a large Breckenridge, Colorado, because it is set in the mountains on a lake and has that vibrant young ski-town feel to it. Tonight we are having a LEO, let’s eat out. I tried to make reservations at a Pizza Hut that GPS May said was in town. The number I called was answered by a Spanish-accented woman who told me, “No Pizza Huts Queenstown, no more”. She must get lots of calls for pizza delivery but she was nice to me about it. Second choice is Lone Star Café, thinking it would be a bit of Texas for this girl who is a bit homesick after six months on the road. The restaurant is not Texas, but New Zealand. Most interesting, is our waiter, a Polynesian from an island south of Fiji, who has the remarkable ability, without pen and paper, to remember every detail of what each of the 10 of us has ordered and even recalls our home states a half hour later. I find that this restaurant is the first of a chain of restaurants found in many of New Zealand’s larger cities. It may not be Texan but it sure is good. Even Jim, the fussiest eater in the group, likes it. He says his steak was good. I had braised lamb shanks that are delicious and Bert’s steak, roasted potatoes and salad are too much for him to finish. We all eat too much and are thankful we have a short walk home to wear off some of the food.
(Shari) When we were here in June, we added the Milford Sound boat tour to the trip. Not originally scheduled, we had to squeeze it in on a day already full of activities. Therefore we have to depart Queenstown at 6 AM. Here in the mountains that shield the early morning and late afternoon sun, it is still dark when I get up. Four couples have already left when we pull out at 6. We drive along a lake surrounded by mountains for a good while before breaking free of the shadows. First we stop at tonight’s campground to deposit three of our rigs. We car-pool the rest of the way to the fiord, birding along the way.
(Bert) Leaving Queenstown we travel along a large lake surrounded by mountains that were snow-capped in June but barren now. Mountains subside as we continue south, then west across sheep and cattle country and then head north again toward the fiords. Now the mountains are even higher, some snow-capped. In a broad valley we stop several times for birds. At Mirror Lakes we are ticking off many of the songsters–Tomtit, Bellbird, Whitehead–and then are inundated by busloads of Japanese and Chinese tourists all wanting to line up at the railing for portraits backlit by distant mountains. We escape and travel to a quieter woods where I hope to find Yellowhead, an increasingly rare bird now found in only a few places, this being one. Many birds are singing, but I recognize all of them, so nothing new here. Continuing on, I see the two similar-looking chubby green parrot species within minutes: two Kaka flying through dense forest and two Kea in a gravel parking lot devoid of surrounding trees. Our best birding stop is at the tunnel. The others have continued on, so it is just Ralph and Virginia joining me in a walk through the sharply cut rocks and boulders, so high in altitude that vegetation is almost completely absent. Snow drifts are still visible on the opposite side of the road. For 20 min. we look fruitlessly for Rock Wrens, known to favor this spot. Virginia heads back to the RV when Shari honks the horn; Ralph waits longer. Then I hear a soft note and zero in on a warbler-sized bird perched on a huge gray boulder. To my surprise, it is not the wren but the Yellowhead. I thought Yellowheads lived in old native forests, not here in this barren outpost. Ralph and I take lots of photos to confirm the identification, then return to the RV to open the books and compare photos to drawings. They match.
(Shari) I have to rush Bert at each stop as he so desperately wants to see three target birds, a Yellowhead, a Rock Wren and the vary rare Blue Duck. At the entrance to the tunnel he makes one last ditch effort to see the Rock Wren. I have to honk the horn repeatedly before he comes back to the rig. We cut our arrival time close as we are to be there by 12:40. I arrive at 12:35 as Bert has dropped Ralph, Virginia and myself off and then goes to park the RV. I get our tickets from the desk and pass them out to the concerned group. Bert shows up about 10 min. later, still having a bit of time to board the boat. We have a reserved table on the second deck and I buy a sandwich and have complementary tea while the boat takes off from the dock. Then I go up on deck for the remainder of the trip standing behind Bert, Mary and Hugh, who act as windbreaks for me. For the next two hours we enjoy the ride through one of the world’s deepest fiords with mountains shooting up over 5600 ft. Mary spots three Crested Penguins on a rock and that excites everybody. The captain tells us one of the waterfalls we see from below is three times higher than Niagara Falls but looks smaller because of the immense surrounding mountains. Not everyone enjoys this trip as it is too commercial for Jim’s taste and Chris is too tired and falls asleep.
(Bert) The fiord cruise is the same one Shari and I took in June. Again, the immensity of the mountains, sawed sharply by moving glaciers in near vertical slices, is overwhelming and very hard to judge in scale. I cannot recall any other place where I have viewed a vertical drop of more than a mile from mountaintop to sea, so shear you could imagine a high-diver jumping from the peak without hitting the side before plunging into the sea. The highest peak, set off from the coast but clearly visible with its glacier-capped dome, is 6600 ft. above the fiord waters. The ship carries us through the fiord to its opening into the Tasman Sea. Tasmania is 900 mi. away. On the coast, but too distant to be sure, I think I can make out the erect bodies of three penguins. Fortunately, we get a much better look later when Mary spots three close up on the leeward side, standing erect about 6 ft. above water’s edge. I can see their yellowish crests, like horns on each side of an oblong head, pink bills, black bodies, white bellies and, of course, flippers where other birds have wings. A few minutes later Marie finds two more. These are swimming near the ship, lying flat on the water, positioned more like ducks but not remotely similar in features. Odd birds, indeed!
We’ve car pooled to get here and each of the three RV’s drives back on their own schedule. I stop again at the tunnel and see that Jim is already parked here. Virginia is keen on seeing the Yellowhead, so we take the same rocky trail across the mountainside. This time it is not to be found. I hear a squeaking sound, a bit like a bird, but I suspect it is Jim. I hear it again, this time coming from behind a boulder. Now, in the distance, we see Ermine waving to us. We hustle in her direction and when we catch up she says Jim has found two Rock Wrens. Although it bears the same name as our North American bird and adopts rocky terrain, though much higher elevation, it doesn’t look at all like its drabber cousin. They are in clear view, perky little birds with a bobbing action reminiscent of Dippers, nearly tailless and surprisingly colorful in pastel shades of yellow and lime green. The two are not shy and seem eager to entertain us with bouncing action. Reluctantly, I leave, stopping again to watch three Kea that are another sort of entertainment for all travelers waiting at the tunnel entrance for the stoplight. It changes from red to green only once every 15 min., as the tunnel is only wide enough for traffic in one direction. We stop yet again where two more Kea are inspecting vehicles. They swoop from another to our RV and check out the rubber cable on the TV antenna. I shoo them away as they have quite a reputation for chewing apart rubber. After several swoops from vehicle to vehicle Ralph and I finally get photos of their bloody red underwings. This day was so long and packed with adventures that, as I write this, it seems like two days.
(Shari) On the way home by RV Virginia and I, sitting in the back, enjoy the fantastic scenery from our picture windows as Bert snakes his way back up the hairpin road. He again stops at the parking area at the tunnel to look for those elusive birds. Ermine waves to us as Jim has scared up the Rock Wren. Back at camp, I take a quick shower before the group again goes out for a LEO. Tonight’s pick is Italian and does not disappoint as I hear no complaints.
(Bert) Before we leave Te Anau I want to visit a wildlife sanctuary. While the birds inside the pens are interesting, those outside are better. Best is a Great Crested Grebe sitting on a reed nest close to shore of the large lake adjoining Te Anau. For a species with so few in number in New Zealand, I find it remarkable that I have seen it at three locations.
Last June we drove the more scenic and coastal route through The Catlins; this time we take the shorter route through rolling hills and shorter mountains, past thousands of white sheep grazing on bright green short grass. Herds of Red Deer browse in fields so big the fenced boundaries are distant and one could imagine the deer are wild and not destined for restaurants in Germany. We pass through the village of Gore and then notice a sign announcing we are entering the Gore-Clinton Presidential Highway. When we reach the other end, it is the village of Clinton. Both towns are old enough to predate the birth of both politicians, so it is Believe-it-or-not coincidence.
We stop at wetlands, set 10 km from the main highway, and I suspect we will be the only ones visiting. Yet when we arrive, I see Jim and Ermine are already here and Hugh and Mary are following us into the parking lot. I’m impressed with the wildlife present. I video a Yellowhammer cheerily in full song and photograph a pair of Grey Teal and several families of Canada Geese with shy fuzzy goslings. The target species is Fernbird. Shari talks to the manager and reports to me that the prime nesting site is 3.6 km away, only reached by walking. Too short on time, I guess I will miss seeing those birds. Then I meet Jim and Ermine walking back and they tell me they found them nearby. With renewed incentive, I continue walking to the place they mention. Twice I see birds that might have been the Fernbird, but I am not certain. It seems 90% of the dozens of small birds I see are Common Redpolls, the rest being Chaffinch, Dunnock, Yellowhammer and Silvereyes. I photograph one distant bird that looks different. Maybe it is the Fernbird.
(Shari) Leaving camp at our leisure, we stop at the Wildlife Centre on the lake. A nice free spot to spend some time, Bert finds a nesting grebe. We take the shorter route to Dunedin and stop at a wildlife reserve where Bert is hoping to find a Fernbird. I walk the short trail and then read a book in the camper while I wait for him. Two others of the group also stop here for a couple of hours. We make our way into Dunedin and are the last to arrive, as has become our custom. Bert seems to stop at every rest area that has a river, lake, pond or stream near it to look for birds. The terrain is green rolling hills populated with many sheep, as they have had babies since our last visit. I have heard that New Zealand has 4 million people and 40 million sheep. We must see 10 million today. Our pancake breakfast tomorrow requires another stop at the grocery store for sausages, milk and syrup. Finally we arrive at camp. Today is not my wash day but Ermine does not need to do wash, so Bert and I get our dirty clothes ready for the machines. An impromptu social hour is in the making and as the machines tumble my wash, I join in the fun. The group moves from the picnic tables outside to the kitchen as it has started to rain quite hard. Hopefully this will clear for tomorrow’s activity.
(Shari) New Zealand of course does not celebrate Thanksgiving so November 25 is not Thanksgiving. November 25 here is only November 24 in the USA and that is not Thanksgiving there. Today is November 26 in New Zealand and November 25 in the USA. Finally then, we have Thanksgiving somewhere, so we celebrate it with a pancake breakfast. I wanted to have turkey sausages but could not find them anywhere. Kiwis don’t even have turkey lunchmeat, turkey bacon or frozen turkey roasts. Turkeys are just not a big thing. So our Thanksgiving consists of pancakes, sausages, bacon, syrup and fruit. I cooked the sausages last night and get them in the camp kitchen oven by 8 AM. Then I start the pancakes, making two at a time in the camp kitchen’s electric skillet. Cindy offers to help and she starts cooking pancakes too, as does Marie. By 9, we have them all cooked and kept warm in another electric skillet. After eating our fill, we offer our leftovers to anyone in the kitchen. A young couple is very grateful to take the syrup, a box of pancake flour and a bottle of olive oil. It is time to get rid of our extra food again and is hard to believe the trip is almost over.
(Bert) Shari’s pancake breakfast for the whole group is a good start for the day. New Zealand campgrounds come equipped with spacious kitchens and dining areas, ideal for all of us to gather on clustered tables and enjoy the pancakes and sausages Shari makes and the apple slices and strawberries brought by others. I catch up on journal writing until around 3 PM when we are to meet transport for birding this afternoon and evening.
(Shari) Soon it is three o’clock and we gather at the bus stop where our tour bus and guide picks us up. Arriving at the Albatross Center, we learn of the birds’ life cycle. The birds have grown a lot since June when we were here and many fly over our heads looking like small airplanes as they spread their mammoth wings. When the birds first fly from their nest here in Dunedin, they travel to South America and spend three years circling the South Pole never touching land. When it is time to mate, they come back to Dunedin and show off to attract a mate. I suppose that is what they are doing today.
(Bert) A high hill is at the point of a long peninsula jutting out between the open sea and a large bay circled by the Scottish-settled city of Dunedin. Adult Royal Albatrosses use the gentle breeze and high pressure uplift to circle the hill and each time they pass my viewpoint I get a close-up opportunity to photograph them in flight. Without flapping as most birds do, the albatrosses glide on outstretched wings, a spread of almost 11 ft., making them the largest of all the world’s seabirds. Viewed from above I see black wings separated by a white head, back and tail. It tilts in its glide, revealing all white below except for black wing tips. Their gliding flight appears effortless as they continuously circle the hill.
When we visited the Royal Albatross nesting colony in June we saw three or four half-grown chicks on different nests. The adults were off to sea. Now in November we see a different part of the breeding cycle. Three adults are sitting on eggs, although we cannot see the eggs, nor the nests for that matter. Instead, the albatrosses are sitting on a sloped hillside with just their white heads and shoulders poking above billowing green and brown grass stems. About 20,000 Royal Albatrosses nest on the Chatham Islands and it wasn’t until 1919 that a pair attempted nesting here on the mainland at Taiaroa Head. It was not until 1938, though, that a pair was successful in raising a chick. The birds only lay an egg every two years and not all hatch. Then when one reaches the age to fly on its own, it goes out to sea, never to return to land for 3-5 yr. and sometimes as long as 8 yr. During that time they circumnavigate Antarctica, finally returning to the place where they were born where they mate and start a new generation. The colony now numbers about 150 birds.
Far below the albatrosses is a large colony of nesting Stewart Island Shags and on the opposite side of the steep hill is a colony of Red-billed Gulls. The shags are black-and-white cormorants and their colony is hundreds of chimney-like mounds, cratered at the top. All-black juveniles are nearly full grown, but have not left the mounds. A few adults are flying low over the sea, though most of the hundreds are close-packed on the colony.
(Shari) The highlight of the day is our next stop. It is the highlight of my trip too. We have the opportunity to see a good number of penguins come ashore, nest and show off. Our tour takes us to a private reserve for penguins. Twenty years ago two penguins came ashore. Now there are over 60, owing to the efforts of a private conservation group who has replanted the hillside with native vegetation and have tried to keep the predators out with traps. The bad news is that we have to go down the cliff. That part is not bad yet, but the return will be. To be honest, the trip is not as bad as it was in June. I think because I am prepared, it is not raining, the ground is not slippery and it is not as dark. As soon as we can look over the cliff, we see some penguins come ashore and rest on the beach below. I can hardly wait to get down there.
We hear a penguin vocalize and are told that he or she is calling to its mate. Another penguin comes up close and our guide wonders if it is the mate or an intruder. He says soon enough we will find out as either a fight will occur or we will hear a duet of lovers. We hear the fight and see the intruding penguin walk off looking quite dejected. While we watch a big sea lion take a nap, more penguins come ashore. They stand up just as they hit the beach, take a few short steps and then stop, stretching their flippers horizontally. This cools them off as the exertion of walking generates heat. They are just so cute, taking flat-footed baby steps up to the start of the hillside. When they reach the rocks and hill, they have to hop up and over the rocks and uneven ground to reach their burrows. This just tugs on my heart strings and my mother instinct wants to rush over and carry them the rest of the way. This is just soooooooooo cute I could watch for hours. We are so close to something few people get to see. The walk back up the hill will be worth the sight, I THINK. I choose to walk slowly and therefore miss the chance of seeing the seals. This was a mistake since I miss another sight of nature few people see as Bert will tell you.
(Bert) Next we head to Cape Saunders, named in 1769 by Captain James Cook. Unlike our visit in June when most of the penguins came in during a short period after it was dark, now some already arrived at 2 PM and will continue until dark after 8 PM. Also, only one of the Hooker Sealions is on the beach, a male sleeping near the rocky point, so the penguins need not be afraid of this threat. Thus, single penguins are quite willing to waddle up the beach. In fact, one is doing just that when we arrive at the hilltop and look down at the beach a half mile away. We walk down the steep sheep pasture and enter the penguin nesting grounds. A male Yellow-eyed Penguin is nearby, partially hidden in tall grass. With still bright daylight at 7 PM I can easily make out its features: a black-and-white tuxedoed body, white face mask, black-streaked crown, large red and white bill and, most unusual, a washed-out, large pale yellow eye with a pinpoint black pupil. The penguin marches uphill through the grass, mostly hidden. Although we cannot see what happens next, we sure can hear it. Interpreted by our guide Shawn, the male penguin encounters a penguin pair whose male screeches loudly and continuously, scaring off the intruding male. Once banished, he goes off looking elsewhere for a mate. Meanwhile, the pair sing a duet, a rather coarse love song, certainly unmusical, but pair-bonding nonetheless.
We reach the bottom of the hillside and are now walking on beach sand. Nest boxes are tunneled into the hillside and to my surprise, unlike June, two of the boxes are occupied by Blue Penguins, often called Little Penguins because they are world’s smallest penguins, standing up only about 15 in. I photograph one resting in a prone position over a stick nest and staring out at us from a recess of a few inches.
Crossing about 50 yd. in front of us, we watch a penguin head bobbing atop a cresting wave, body flipping into a floating position and floating to land with a succeeding wave. Quickly, it stands upright and marches across the beach, leaning forward at a 15º angle, eyes focused on the grassy hillsides, flippers drooping down vertically, feet shuffling left, right, left, right–the march of a single penguin.
We walk along the beach, enter the dunes and continue to a hide where we can watch the penguins without disturbing them. Here we see one penguin after another emerge from the sea, cross the sand, reach the grass and arduously climb the steep mountain and go over the crest. This action, however, is not continuous. Instead, the penguins pause frequently and for long periods. In fact, no penguin makes the complete journey during the hour or so that we are watching. Small groups are paused at each of the stages, standing quietly, cooling off from the labor effort and the relatively high air temperature compared to their life in a cold sea.
A soft pink firmament separates the blue sky from an equally blue sea, both tranquil as the sun sets unseen behind the mountains. I change the ISO setting on my camera to compensate for the loss of light, though our eyes adjust more easily. On our return hike we encounter a penguin on the path ahead of us. Rather than disturbing the penguin, we take a side path and circle it. Fortunately, this allows our closest approach so far, excellent for photographs even in the diminished light at 8:30.
The uphill struggle through the sheep pasture discourages most of the group from continuing down the other side. They figure they have already seen seals and would rather rest in the bus. Ermine, Ralph and I join Shawn over the hill and down to a cliff side vantage point. What the others did not calculate is that the seals are having pups. The first one we see is so new born that it is still wet and the placenta still lying in view. Another tiny pup is nursing from an exhausted female slumbering on her back. A few others have grown to a playful size, looking soft and cuddly. Elsewhere, Kelp Gulls sit on grass nests strewn on lichen-covered black rocks. The coastline is outlined in diminished skylight that forms horizontal layers of pastel purple and pink. On one broad rock ledge a flock of Steward Island Shags are resting. On the cliffs almost directly above us are the nesting holes of Sooty Shearwaters, though none of the birds are visible.
On this idyllic wildlife scene there is a villain. Ralph is the first to spot the black cat resting on its haunches at the very edge of the cliff, its feline profile clearly outlined by the darkening sky. Wild cats are a major threat to New Zealand birds. Earlier we saw a video of a cat raiding a nest. Non-native predators such as the stoat are caught in traps placed around the penguin nesting area and the farmer who owns this land tries to eliminate the feral cats too. A few years ago he shot one to two per year. Sadly, now he shoots one to two per month as the threat continues and seems to be worsening.
I thought the birding day had ended. However, on our returning drive through the seaside mountains and sheep pastures, I see a Little Owl spring from a fence post and fly into the field. A serendipitous life-bird, a bonus to a delightful evening!
(Bert) From the coast we head inland into the mountains and follow a river and chain of lakes through a broad and gently upward sloping valley. Ralph and Virginia accompany us today, following us in their RV. We stop often as the weather is ideal and the birds plentiful. I see a field of flowers and pull off just before Ahuriri Bridge for photographs. Suddenly we are struck by the overwhelming number of flowers. Spreading across the braided river are millions of purple lupine blooms, sprinkled with pink varieties. Photographs share a gravel and crystal water foreground with a sea of flowers, followed by dense dark green stands of trees, then succeeding veils of brown hills, purple mountains, snow-capped peaks and finally a blue sky fluffed with pillows of white clouds. Pied Oystercatchers probe the gravel, Goldfinches and Chaffinches flutter between tree branches and above us passes a flock of Black-fronted Terns.
(Shari) Aquamarine waters glistening in front of brilliant green mountains with pink flowers covering the faces of the cliff cannot be captured with a camera. I snap picture after picture but never get the beauty of the scene. We are traveling with Ralph and Virginia today and stop at numerous rest areas to look for feathers. If a rest area has a river running through it, a pond lying next to it, the seashore alongside of it or a lake close by it, we stop to look for birds. In addition we stop at the area above a dam and see the blue waters from the vantage of the lookout point. For 20 mi., we travel along a lake that just is a marvel of nature. Reminiscent of Muncho Lake in Yukon Territory or Lake Louise in British Columbia, its colorful waters are stunning. In addition, we are treated to an array of lupines growing along a braided streambed that we just have to stop to take pictures. Later we learn that all the lupines are from one woman who planted the seeds. Actually the lupines are a deterrent to birdlife as they destroy habitat for them and offer hiding spots for their predators. I feel guilty now when I enjoy the simply spectacular scene. Just imagine a river of flowers, thicker than bluebonnets in Texas, in pallets of purple, violet, fuchsia, pink, rose, yellow and a few white between shallow waters and surrounded by green snow-capped mountains, beneath a clear blue sky. No one but God (helped by this lone woman who loved lupine) could paint such a picture. We are not the only ones to stop for pictures as cars line the roadside on either side of the bridge.
(Bert) At 3 PM at the Kaki Hide we meet Peter, a Department of Conservation employee. He takes us first to a large enclosure housing two Black Stilts that have been retired from the breeding program, giving us an opportunity to photograph these rare birds. In the adjacent meeting room and observation deck we learn just how rare these birds are. In the late 1970s the entire world population was down to 23 adults, making the Kaki–the Maori name for Black Stilt–world’s rarest wading birds. In 1981 a management program was initiated in hopes of bringing Kaki back from the brink of extinction.
Factors leading to their decline and prohibiting their sustainability are numerous, including dammed lakes alternately drying up the breeding areas within braided rivers or inundating them beneath the lakes, sportsmen and boating and off-road enthusiasts trampling through nesting grounds, introduced predators, plus another threat which surprised me. All of those wonderful lupines we enjoyed earlier were introduced by a single lady who spread seeds along roadsides. However, the lupines thrived and colonized riverbeds, restricting the flow of water through braided streams, smothering nesting sites and creating hiding spots for predators. What was good for the eye was not good for the Kaki. Another surprise to me was the predators. Many times now we have heard about the possums, rats and stoats. In addition to these, a major predator is introduced hedgehogs, a strange spiny small mammal with a beak that raids the ground-nesting Kaki for eggs. What the hedgehogs don’t pick off as eggs, the stoats and wild cats get as chicks. We even see a video, shot at night, of a feral cat catching a chick and carrying it off in its jaws. Trapping was instituted and in the past 5 yr. in the Tasman Valley they have captured 3388 hedgehogs, 1800 stoats, 671 cats, 413 ferrets, as well as possums, weasels and Norway rats. How can 23 Kaki compete with that? Intensive breeding programs hatched chicks in special facilities and for the past few years have been releasing 100 sub-adult birds per year. The facilities and the effort sound impressive. Yet as of the 31 August 2010 census, only 94 adult Black Stilts are known to be alive in the wild.
(Shari) Today we hear a presentation on the Black Stilt, another of the threatened birds in New Zealand. It almost seems hopeless to me to try to stem the influx and increasing numbers of stoats, cats, possums, hedgehogs, rabbits and weasels in this country. Having no natural predators and little competition, stoats eat rabbits and then when the rabbit supply is low or they are too hard to catch, stoats go after bird eggs, bird babies and adults too. But conversationalists keep trying to capture, poison or kill the pests, often resulting in an emotional political issue. Here in Twizel, a private group of conservationists with the help of the government is trying to save the Black Stilt. They collect eggs, incubate them, raise the chicks until they can go out on their own and then release them by the hundreds. Less than 2% survive even with that help.
(Bert) After seen the captive birds and listening to the sad tale of its survival, I wonder what our chances are to see one in the wild. Unsuccessfully, I tried to find Black Stilts when we were here in June. Now I ask Peter for more detailed directions to one of the Black Stilt release areas. I find out I was in the same braided stream in June, but a better site is a mile farther upstream. The four of us now head to the spot and park on the gravel near the streams. From inside the RV we immediately see two adult Pied Stilts and another stilt with a confusing identity, part white and part black, but not in the expected pattern. We loose track of the bird, so drive a bit farther and then get out to explore.
Birding is exceptionally good this late afternoon along the braided stream. Downstream is an enormous lake with a peacock color I normally associate with coral seas. Upstream is a range of mountains dominated by spectacular snow-covered Mount Cook. Warm weather with just enough breezes to warrant a light jacket, a kaleidoscope of pretty pastels, miles of long-distance scenery and birdlife everywhere, what more could I wish for? Pied Oystercatchers tend half-grown chicks, as does a pair of Paradise Shelducks with six tiny chicks. Overhead, a Swamp Harrier glides, arches its wings skyward in a dihedral and then teeters unsteadily as it swings its V-shape left and right, waiting for an opportunity to pick off a wayward chick. Scanning across the graveled expanse I see up to a dozen Banded Dotterels, adults showing bold chestnut chests and others are drabber in juvenile plumage. European Skylarks sing a tinkling serenade while suspended high above us. We see 15 species but are yet to find an adult Black Stilt. Again I get a glimpse of the odd-colored stilt. It meanders in and out of grass stems twice its height. I call over Ralph and Virginia, but by the time they reach my vantage point the stilt has hidden in the grass. When I get back to the RV, Shari is convinced the odd bird is a hybrid. Without waiting to check the books, I drive back to the campground. Later, though, when I read discussions and study drawings, it seems quite likely that the odd bird was a cross between Pied Stilt and Black Stilt, which is described as a natural occurrence resulting in very variable hybrids.
(Shari) After the talk, Bert, Virginia, Ralph and I go out searching for a glimpse of the Black Stilt before it actually does become extinct. We realize we were at the wrong place in June and did not travel far enough up the road to Mount Cook. This time we get there as we see a sign. The day could not be better and again I seem to fill up my camera with pictures. The camper company has a contest going that invites participants to send them pictures of their camper at spots in New Zealand. I even see Bert snapping pictures of our camper and Mount Cook in the background. We are parked on a field next to a stream with cows grazing nearby. I have a picture of the camper, glistening snow-covered Mount Cook looming overhead and cows grazing on bright green grass below. We do not see the Black Stilt but may have seen a hybrid. Who cares as the day is so spectacular only to be capped off by a rainbow that stretches the whole length of the horizon, igniting the tops of the mountains from north to south.
We get home late and finish up all sorts of leftover food. A little salad, two kinds of soup, a sausage, some strawberries and a whole bottle of wine that is so good that it goes down smooth as water. At the beginning of the trip, I made a bingo game of things to look for in New Zealand. One of the squares was a label from the vineyards of Durvillea wine. Marie and Cindy found it and bought Bert and me a bottle. How sweet is that! So now I am sleepy, the packing is almost done and it is time for my last night after 6 mo. in a camper. Sort of sad, don’t you think?
(Bert) We finish our last minute packing and are out of the campground by 7
AM, heading to Christchurch. Fog obscures the horizon and the broad lakes are a
different shade of blue this morning than yesterday. We thought we saw a lot of
flowers yesterday; today are even more. A swath five to fifty feet wide of
lupines carpets each side of the highway and stretches for over 35 miles.
Purple, pink, white, red, yellow and dozens of gradations between, each plant is
only a single color, but the one next to it is a contrasting color.
(Shari) Knowing there may be a problem with the drop off charges at the camper company, Bert and I leave Twizel as early as possible, travelling the 179 mi. in a little over 4 hr. Even though the day is a bit foggy, the lupines show their wonderful coloring as do the large aquamarine lakes. Some in our group were charged drop off fees even though we told the company upon pickup that the guests should not be charged. Others were not charged at all and still others were charged a different amount. I have been in communication with my third-party booking agent about those charges and either the camper company pays them, the caravan company pays them or I pay them myself, but under no circumstances does the customer pay them. Unfortunately, due to a plane cancellation and earlier booking, Mary and Hugh arrive and depart before we get there. Apparently they had trouble, but thankfully Hugh refused to pay. After many minutes on the phone the camper company decides the fair thing to do is to refund the charges and absorb them themselves. Hurrah!
(Bert) Even with a stop for breakfast and another for fuel, we reach the RV return facility by 11:15, nicely ahead of schedule. We are sorry to see Hugh and Mary have already come and gone. An airline flight change forced them to leave a day early and they are at the airport now. Shari takes care of the return paperwork while I unload suitcases. From our final odometer reading I calculate we drove 2241 mi. in New Zealand. While we did not see everything, we certainly covered a lot of the country. Islands, bays, estuaries, rivers, sandy beaches, rocky coastlines, mountain streams, snow-capped peaks, glaciers, lakes, thermal springs, hot volcanic lakes, fiords, mile-high mountains, is there anywhere else in the world where you can see all of this in one country? The USA, yes, but probably spread across larger distances.
We have a leisurely afternoon at the hotel to rest and shower, and then at 5
PM we meet the bus that will take us to this evening’s festivities. We visited
the same place in June, but it was dark when we arrived, so now I am anxious to
see the animals in daylight. The place is an odd zoo, with samples of animals
introduced into New Zealand, others clearly not, and still others that are
native. Again, the most interesting to me are the ones outside the pens. I get
nice photos of Dunnock, Yellowhammer, Barbary Dove and the black phase of
(Shari) We are taken to our hotel where we can unwind and shower before we are to be picked up for our farewell activities. As soon as we arrive, we have an hour to wander the grounds of the preserve, getting close-up views of New Zealand’s wildlife. The next hour we are entertained by a traditional Maori performance. As soon as Jim is picked to lead our group into safety many in the group laugh and I have jokingly to say, “Boy, are we in trouble”. He is shown how to act when meeting a Maori warrior to show we come in peace. Apparently he passes muster as we are invited into the village. Jim and Ermine are given seats of honor for the performance which introduces us to Maori culture, teaches a few words in the Maori language and shows us some of the traditional songs and dances. Audience participation is also included. Women use balls on a string swinging them in time to the music and men stomp and stick their tongues out and make their eyes “bug eyed” to appear fierce and scare away animals or other threats. One of the last songs the Maori women perform talks about sending their men off to war and Marie notices that some women have tears on their faces as they sing and are apparently very emotional about it.
Our next hour is spent over a leisurely four-course dinner. Eight of us choose the lamb and the rest have steak or pork. My dessert is the chocolate mousse; others choose the bread pudding or pavlova.
(Bert) When I catch up with the rest of the group I see that Jim is at stage center and the Maori guide has chosen him as leader for confronting the Maori tribe. We learn a few Maori words, most importantly Kia Ora, a catch-all word for hello, how are you and other forms of greeting. Then the Maori man teaches Jim the polite and formalized custom for greeting one another. They lean forward, touch foreheads together and then touch noses one against the other, staring eyeball to eyeball. This trusting intimacy contrasts sharply with the dancing practices we see next, entailing gruff shouting songs and wide-eyed tongue-protruding facial expressions. Jim performs his duties admirably, passes the fern frond, a simile to the olive branch of peace, and we are welcomed into the make-believe ancient Maori village to be entertained by their traditional dances with interludes of descriptive words from the elder leader. Lest we get too comfortable in our seats, a few women are selected to join on stage for the intricate poi dance and perform quite admirably after they learn the swinging ball techniques. I have video of Ermine, Shari, Cindy and Virginia as testament to their skills. I am not sure we do as well as men, however. All of us are sequestered and taught the haka or war dance. Mostly though, I think it is for our wives to capture us in photos with our buggy eyes and exposed tongues, held out to the count of three: one, two, two, two-and-a-half, three. In contrast to this shenanigans, the Polynesian style, lyrical love songs or waiata aroha are more in tune with music we can identify with.
A four-course dinner is next and I am quite satisfied with my choices of lamb dinner and chocolate mousse dessert. The leisurely evening continues with a night tour through the native bird enclosures. The best is seeing Northern Brown Kiwi actively on the move. After many previous attempts, this time I get a recognizable flash-inhibited photo in the very dim lighting. Perhaps it is the exposure conditions that make the birds look like wooden carvings, the feathers like groves on a wooden brown basketball and the legs like ivory pedestals, the oversized bill like a stout stick and the eyes buggy with dark pupils. The feathers are dense and hair-like, giving the bird a shaggy dog appearance. The facility participates in a conservation trust that is very successful in captive breeding and hatching of eggs collected in the wild and reared until strong enough to be released. Fifty-two kiwi have been raised at this facility and released on predator safe islands.
The evening closes with an impromptu night-time tour of the city, necessitated by the bus route to drop off a few others before us, yet encouraged by Shari who asks the driver to tell us about Christchurch as we pass in the darkened streets, but still visible enough to scaffolding against some buildings. We learn that this winter’s earthquake in the city registered 7.1 and that there have been 3000 aftershocks since them, including some registering 3 to 4 the last few nights.
(Shari) After dinner we take a nighttime tour of the facility and are able to see two kiwis, caged of course. Both kiwis would not survive in the wild but have a nice life here at the center being used as a teaching tool to emphasize and educate the public as to the threats imposed on native New Zealand birds. Sighting of the birds are guaranteed and an easier way to see the bird than Bert’s standing and waiting game the other night. Our bus gets us home by 10:15 and we stand around the lobby a bit saying more goodbyes. After 21 caravans now, I should be used to these goodbyes. It is still strange to do it though as we have spent just about 24/7 with these people for almost the past two months. They have become our family. Our life will change quickly tomorrow.
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