NEW ZEALAND 2001 ONE-MONTH BIRDING TRIP

Thursday, April 12 to Saturday, April 14, 2001. Day 1,2 and 3 of Week 1. SAN JOSE TO AUCKLAND. WE HIT THE GROUND BIRDING. OUR RENTED MOTORHOME. OREWA BEACH HOLIDAY PARK.

SAN JOSE TO LOS ANGELES

It's 7:37 PM, Thursday evening and we're sitting at Gate 121 at LAX. It's dark, but a little while ago, I got a nice sun setting between the tails of two 747s -- one Air New Zealand and the other Qantas. You know, when the sun gets down to the horizon, and it gets a little oblong and the color gets really cool?

We got up early this morning and finished our packing, double-checking and preparations. Let's see, money, medications, computer, digital and video cameras, GPS, MiniDisc, books and maps, scope and tripod, binoculars, clothes, New York Peppermint Patties -- all the critical stuff.

Then our friend Bill Petrick came over, loaded us and all our gear into his SUV and drove us to the San Jose Airport. We unloaded in front of the American Airlines Departure door and started our adventure. I owe Bill $180, or at least that's what we spent on parking at SFO earlier this week when we checked out of long term parking after 12 days in England.

The good news continued. Because American and Qantas are partners, we were able to check our two big suitcases all the way to Auckland without having to pick them up again in LA, moving them over to Qantas and checking them again.

We flew down on American Airlines from San Jose, scheduled to leave at 5:10 PM, but taking off about 6:00. We landed at LAX, walked the short distance to Terminal 4 andwent through baggage control and to our gate, with just minutes (well, 110 of them) to spare.

LOS ANGELES TO AUCKLAND, NEW ZEALAND (NORTH ISLAND)

Our seats on the big Qantas 747-400 were in Row 60, on the left side, aisle and center, of a three-seat row. We were hoping that nobody had the window seat and we could spread out. But as luck would have it a bloke named Neville had the spot. He worked for an American drilling company, whose name I didn't recognize, for about 15 years or so, and as he ticked off all the places he'd been, I kept thinking, "Man, they have great birds there." He married a girl from the Phillippines that he met on one of his jobs, and they had a "wee lad," about 18 months old. Neville is gone from home a lot, and his wife can't wait for him to get there, so she can unload some of the parenting. Neville was a good guy, but never took the hint from us that the flight was only about 60% full, and there were complete rows with nobody sitting in 'em. He let us in on the secret that he'd been drinking for several hours while waiting for the plane, and it seemed that he was eager to have someone to talk to. He wasn't persistent though, and after an hour and a half, and after we put our headsets on, and after another half-hour, he put his headset on, watched a movie, then went to sleep for the rest of the flight.

But don't get me wrong, I liked Neville. He had lots of good, scary stories about townspeople chasing him in countries like Peru, Malaysia and Indonesia, who didn't want drilling near their property. And having to pay "duty" to corrupt officials at entry stations, as he drove his drilling rig from country to country, moving to a new job site. He said usually, they'd hire a local driver, because they could get away without having to pay much bribery money, and also locals were less likely to chase their own.

The story I liked best was when he moved his rig out of Peru. He had weighed earlier, and knew he was under the limit, but at the last stop, he was asked to weigh again. He did, but the corrupt officials didn't like that he was underweight. So they had him drive across the road to the scales for incoming traffic and weigh there. He did, again he was ok, and when he finished, they asked him to come back and weigh again, on the first scales. Now he felt like they were just harassing him, so instead of going back to the first scales, he just gunned his big rig, and took off. He laughed as he looked in his side rear-view mirrors at them jumping up and down in the road, shaking their fists at him. But, as he said, "They didn't follow me. They only wanted money."

I liked Neville.

We had dinner about 11:00 PM, California time, and breakfast two hours before getting into Auckland. Lots of lights-out in between, during which we got plenty of sleep. The flight was nice and smooth, and it was entirely in the dark, as we chased the sun, which was halfway round the world, all the way. The pilot announced that the winds were gusty as we approach Auckland, and we believed him after a landing that seemed to start with us crab-flying sideways down the runway until touchdown, when he seemed to jerk the wheel around so the plane would stay on the runway. Very exciting. Even Neville laughed, "That's the most excoiting touchdown I've felt in a while (pronounced whoile). It felt loike he was troying to lend the theeng soidwoys."

We disembark (disemback), and I see Sharon under a huge carved Maori arch, welcoming us to New Zealand. A little further, and she gets me under a Welcome-to-New Zealand sign.

AT THE AIRPORT

Now it's 5:30 in the morning here in Auckland. We went thru passport control, where they logged us in, and passed us on to luggage pickup. Only a small wait, and our two big bags came around. But while we were waiting with our arrival cards filled out, listing the three oranges, one banana and one large bunch of grapes I had in my backpack, a fellow with a dog came running through the luggage-pickup area. I first thought he was exercising him after picking him up following the long flight. Sharon thought it was a drug-sniffing dog. But when the dog came over to my backpack, sniffed once and sat down, his handler asked me, "Is there any food in this backpack?" in that great New Zealand accent.

Yes, I said, as Sharon handed him our cards. I dug the stuff out and handed it to him, and he praised the dog lavishly, giving him a small doggie treat. The fellow marked on our card that he had taken the food. This being a smart dog, he came back two more times over the next fifteen minutes, getting a treat each time. Later, a lady with another dog hit it too. Those bananas must leave a powerful smell for a long time. But we already knew that, didn't we?

When we got to Agriculture, they took my cheap rubber overshoes, which had been decon'd in the US upon our arrival from England, and my dirty Neo's, which hadn't been to England, but were caked with dried mud. They gave Sharon a ticket for the boots, and sent us around the corner to press a bell after ten or fifteen minutes. Sort of a decontamination coat-check room. I got my boots, in plastic bags, and we continued through the airport.

Flight QF26, by the way, had been 12 hours.

Next on the agenda was to find the "Free Phones," and call Adventure Caravans. They had 24-hour coverage, according to their website, and as I learned when I found the Free Phones, and their big color picture right there, all I had to do was dial 04.

This produced a recording saying, "That mailbox is full. Your message cannot be recorded," followed by a hangup. As Stephen Wright used to say when he was seen closing the front door of the 7-11, to a shopper who pointed out the "Open 24 Hours" sign, "Not in a ROW."

It's 6:20 AM, so we figure somebody might be in at 6:30 or 7:00. I check at a competitor's stall, where a live person sits, and their "depot" doesn't open till 7:00 PM. I'll call a little after 6:30 and a little after 7:00. Meantime, we're a little hungry, so we find a McDonald's and split an Egg McMuffin and a hash brown order.

No new phone response at 6:45. At 6:52 AM, we start birding. Our first bird of the trip is a (get ready, this is really going to be exciting) HOUSE SPARROW, and it's actually inside the terminal building. There are several pairs, as we look around. They like McDonald's bits and scraps that hit the floor, especially french fries and eggs. As in America, this bird is an introduction.

As I did for the England birds, if a bird is new for this trip, but we have already seen it, it will be in all upper case. If, in addition, it's a new life bird for us, it will have an asterisk in front of it. If it's the second mention, or later, it will just be title case (first letter of each word only, in upper case).

As we're walking over to check them out, a guy sees us and yells, "Kill it. It's a sparrow," and laughs. I yell back, "There's two of 'em. They're multiplying."

Through the glass walls of this part of the airport building, we begin to see a largish gull that's black on top and white on the bottom. This is a *BLACK-BACKED GULL, but at first we don't know if it's the same or a different species than the Great Black-backed Gull of the eastern United States. A check of the latin names in my "NGS Field Guide to North American Birds" book shows that it's a different species. With considerable foresight, it seems, I have brought this book because I figured things like this would arise and need checking.

Now, it's 7:42 AM and we're sitting outside Door 9, waiting for our ride. When I called about ten minutes ago, a real person answered, said they were expecting us, and someone would be down to get us in a taxi honey, in fifteen or twenty minutes. I interpret this to mean 30-40 minutes, but we don't mind at all. The reason is that it's a perfect blue sky with puffy white clouds, pleasant temperature, we're sitting outside and there are new birds around us. Hot dog. Oops, I spoke too soon. Our third trip bird is a STARLING. Oh well, we got that one over with.

8:00 AM and we've got several *RED-BILLED GULLS. They are far away right now, but in the right light, we can see red legs and bill.

Soon a friendly lady shows up to claim us. We load our gear into the back of her van, and off we go. I ask her name and she says Attie. So I call her that, Attie.

PICKING UP OUR MOTORHOME

Within ten minutes, we are at Auckland headquarters of Adventure Caravans. We go in and meet Cassandra, whom I've talked with over the phone regarding our reserving a motorhome. She came over from the Cook Islands, like the first Maori, though she didn't come in a longboat. She is beautiful, competent and very friendly -- perfect for her work with the public.

We do the paperwork, and start loading our stuff into our 5-person motorhome, which Attie has driven around to the front for us. I get curious again, and ask Attie to spell her name. She says A, AH (rhymes with bath), TEE, EYE, ATTIE. Ooooohhhhhhhh, ARTIE! Like a Boston person would ask for a big cup of coffee. Make mine a "ladge." Attie.

Storage space is at a premium, but we finally get all our gear aboard, and will iron out where everything goes later. We say goodbye and thank you to Cassandra and Attie, but not before I ask about renting a mobile (digital) phone. "We give them to you to use for free," Cassandra says. Huh? The drill is that you press and hold the '2' and that rings the office here. Press and hold the '3' and that rings the office in Christchurch on the South Island. Press and hold the '1' and there are four submenus, delivered by a man's voice at the phone company.

The submenus are: 1) dial a number, 2) check for messages, 3) use your credit card and load your phone up with minutes, and 4) ask for help. All right! From our experience, I know we'll want this.

WE'RE OFF

We take off, having directions to a Shell gas station and a "Foodland" in a big shopping center, where Sharon will load us up with supplies and food.

We easily find the Shell station, and fill up with diesel at 63 NZ cents per liter. At $2.40 NZ per US dollar and 3.78 liters per gallon, this works out to about $1.00 US per gallon. Can that be? She also said the vehicle gets 10 to 13 kilometers/liter in gas mileage. At 1.6 k/mile and 3.78 liters/gallon, that converts to 24-30 mpg, so we're hoping for 25. Totally efficient. That works out to 11 cents U.S. per mile, plus the rental of the motorhome, of course. I think it's about $75 per day [actually about $50], all insurance included.

... THE REAL BIRDING STARTS, NOT JUST THAT AT-THE-AIRPORT STUFF

It's now a little after 1PM, and we're out on the motorway, headed north. I figure we're about an hour from our first day's (easy) destination, at Orewa Beach. We see the first of many COMMON MYNA birds. At 1:37, Sharon sees a RUDDY SHELDUCK. And just before that, we saw two large dark birds, on tall legs. They are called PUKEKO, or Purple Swamphen.

Then Sharon sees a GREENFINCH, where we have parked, but I haven't seen it yet. We are both seeing a big brown thrush. It feeds on the ground, with its tailed cocked way up, and has thick, chunky-looking undertail coverts. There are white vertical streaks on its neck. Checking our book turns up the juvenile BLACKBIRD as the most likely, and later we see adult black ones with the orange beaks and eye rings.

It's 2:40 PM and we're near Orewa Beach, having parked in an Orewa town parking lot. We walk across the street, and then across a grassy little park, and we're at the edge of the sand.

There are lots of Red-billed and Black-backed Gulls. As we're watching a bird fly right to left, about ten feet above the surf. First I think it's a Black-backed Gull, but as it gets closer, it's neck is long and slightly kinked. From the color pattern, we ID it as a *PIED SHAG.

Now it's 3:51 and we have gotten ourselves into the front row of motorhomes at the Orewa Beach Holiday Park, adjacent to the beach, for $24 NZ per night. That's about $10 US. The view is sort of breathtakingly beautiful. I'd say they use the term 'Holiday Park' the same way we'd say 'RV Park.' We have backed into our Space 299, on the beachfront, and the weather couldn't be nicer. We're getting the picture that our weather may be like San Francisco September and October weather, after the summer visitors leave and before the rains come. A perfect day, perfect temperature, no rain, and the sky's the limit.

I check out the electricity, and it's good. We head down to the beach with our birding gear and can see what look like American Oystercatchers. But they are *VARIABLE OYSTERCATCHERS. We see two types of oystercatchers: one is all black (commonly called here the Black Oystercatcher), and the other is all black but for white lower chest, belly and underparts. They both have red feet and long red bills, but there is another, similar oystercatcher in with these. It is the *PIED OYSTERCATCHER. It looks like the black-and-white version of the Variable Oystercatcher, except that it has a little "peninsula" of white running up each shoulder. Quite stunning, all these waders.

Mixed in with the oystercatchers are Red-billed Gulls. Here is a typical scene. An oystercatcher plucks an oyster out of the sand. He turns and starts running away from the waterline as fast as he can. A gull chases after him, harassing him. Finally, frustrated, the oystercatcher drops his oyster, the gull picks it up and runs away. The oystercatcher chases it for a few feet, but then gives up. The other gulls then begin chasing the gull with his new stolen goodie. The oystercatcher goes back to the waterline to get another oyster. Of course, sometimes the oystercatcher is successful.

In this case, he finds a patch of wet sand, stuffs the oyster into the sand vertically, then attacks it from the top, opening it and pulling out the meat. Using the sand as a holding tool.

It seems to me that the oystercatchers need to stop running away from the beach. Or maybe they should take turns acting as decoys to run away, sending the harassing birds on a wild gull chase.

It's 4:23 PM and we're back in our rig. My adrenaline says to go out of the park again for more birding, but my experience and common sense know that I've had enough for one huge, long day that began umpteen hours ago in San Jose.

Sharon sees some MALLARDS in our camp, with other ducks with the Mallard shape, and looking like the Mallard females, but with more pronounced stripes in the face. A check of our book shows that they are hybrid Mallard-Grey Ducks. We need to see a pure Grey Duck, which are listed as common, but all these are hybrids. It's clear that the park-stayers feed the ducks, and Sharon throws them some bread crumbs. Suddenly there are twenty ducks at Sharon's feet. But they turn out to be fair-weather birds, as they quickly drift away when the last crumb is gone.

The key reason that they are hybrids is that they have purple specula. Now even on the Mallards, when they turn in the light, the speculum looks purple or blue or green. But the speculum of the Grey Duck will appear green only, and none of these fit that requirement.

Bird Summary:
Life Birds: Today: 5. Black-backed Gull, Red-billed Gull, Pied Shag, Variable Oystercatcher, Pied Oystercatcher. For the Trip: 5.
Trip Birds: Today: 11. The five lifers, plus House Sparrow, Starling, Myna, Ruddy Shelduck (Sharon only), Greenfinch (Sharon only) and Mallard. For the Trip: 11.

New Zealand is the friendliest place you can imagine, just as we remember it from 1994. And the prices are huge bargains, because of the recent, continuing drop in value of the NZ dollar vs. the US dollar. In 1994, there were 1.6 NZ dollars per US dollar, maybe a year ago it was 2.0, and now there are about 2.4.

Cheahs (Cheers)

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