NEW ZEALAND 2001 ONE-MONTH BIRDING TRIP

Saturday, April 28, 2001. Week 3, Day 3. Milford Sound.

It's 8:10 AM and overcast, but there are lots of places that blue sky is poking through. Earlier I got a spectacular sunrise shot, then a minute later another one. Lots of pink and blue and purple and white.

As I am going down to return the key to the backpackers building, where I got onto the internet last night, Sharon says, "Look! Look!" and points. I pick up the bird in a second. It is very dark and has really fast wing beats. I put the park in gear, I mean the gear in park, jump out and watch the bird fly till it lands exactly in the top of a tree, where it fans its tail. "Falcons don't usually do that," I think. But we review everything we saw and are convinced. It maneuvered deftly among the trees, unlike any other bird we've seen since we've been here. Plus we've eliminated all the ones we know. This is our *NEW ZEALAND FALCON. What speed! It takes off again, and we follow it over a ridge with our binoculars. Then we jump back in the motorhome and chase it, but cannot refind it anywhere.

8:18. Sharon had fun dealing with the lady at the front desk a little while ago. We call her Mrs. No because no matter what you ask her, she seems to say NO. Sharon wanted to mail some postcards, so she saw a box and put them in. "That's only for guests!" the lady said. "We're staying here," Sharon told her. Mrs. No then said, "It's only for incoming mail." Why she didn't say that the first time is, of course, a mystery. So Sharon starts to walk out, and the lady says, "Do you want to post those?" Duh. "Yes," said Sharon. "Give them to me, and I can do it," she said.

She's clearly one of those people who likes to make you wrong, then swoop in and make you feel like a fool. I am SOOOO sorry for her husband. And kids.

8:30 and we just petrolled up. We're headed for Milford Sound. About a half-hour later, we come across Wetford Stream. There is a farm on the right, with the stream going under the bridge. Sharon says, "Bird in the trees! That's a Falcon. That's a Falcon." I turn around at the first opportunity and slowly approach the stand of trees holding our bird. We go past the trees, and turn around again, heading now in the same direction as when Sharon first saw the bird. A bird lifts off, but it's large, slow and has a white rump patch. The Harrier flies across the road, but then we hear a rapid "kek kek kek kek," and I say "THAT'S a Falcon!"

We walk across the road, and I see a smaller bird attacking the Harrier. The smaller bird flies up, banks, turns, and heads for the Harrier again. But it's gray and has a white tail. That's no Falcon. The small bird lands, and continues its "kek kek kek." I get binoculars on it, and it's one of three Spurwing Plovers on the ground. Hey, not counting our misidentification all the way around, that was pretty cool watching that Plover harass that Harrier.

9:25 and this is feeling a lot like Alaska or Northwest Canada. We are in a flat valley. To the left are peaks and ahead are peaks. We come to Mirror Lakes, where we get a small group of New Zealand Scaups. There is a very clever sign in the water, but it's upside down and in mirror image. You have to see the lake to understand the logic, and if you think about it, you will get it.

We continue on, and I resume wondering what the weather will be like, and if we'll be in time to take a cruise today, and if there'll be room on it, and whether we should chase the Rock Wren first and whether the chicken or the egg came first.

We drive by a sign that says 45 degrees South Latitude. We pull off at a maintenance station, and find the track into the Beech forest mentioned by our location book. We get a 15-foot look at a Yellow-crowned Parakeet and guess who saw it first. Wrong! It was me! Almost never happens. Sharon calls and we get a nice Black Fantail, a couple of Bellbirds, several Grey Warblers.

10:18 AM and we are headed into another Red Beech forest along Cascade Creek. This is a famous bird walk called the Lake Gunn Walk. I play my Minidisc and Sharon calls -- we alternate. We get Tomtit, Brown Creepers and more Brown Creepers. These big Beech trees remind me of Redwoods a little. They are really tall, but don't have evergreen type leaves on them. About fifteen minutes later, we get our first New Zealand South Island Robin.

11:14 and we are off the walk. It was pretty quiet, relative to what we were hoping for. Next we come to The Divide, presumably the place where rainfall on either side drains to opposite bodies of water. Before you can say Edmund Hillary, we are at the Homer Tunnel at one minute till noon. We enter the 1.3 km tunnel, which is all downhill, straight, and fairly steep. We are following a big bus with a photo of raft riders on the back. We can't for the life of us see how two such buses can meet and successfully pass each other, this tunnel is so small.

As we round one corner, there is a breathtaking view of a snow-covered peak with clouds around, so I have to pull over and capture it. Then, just so I'll be able to remember it, I take a picture of the road, with the scenery behind it. This photo shows the typical sign just before a one lane bridge or very narrow road.

We pass Cledda River, and wonder what kind of silly name that is, when the next one is River Number 128. Cledda River doesn't sound so bad now. We pull into the first car park, to see if this is where we get tickets. We both get out, and see a for-sure New Zealand Falcon fly right smack over our head. We go into the building and ask our question (Where do we get tickets for the Wanderer?), and are told that we need to go to the next car park to get the ticket. As we exit that building, the Falcon flies in the opposite direction as when we went in. Extremely cool, the fleet-winged Falcon.

We drive to the final car park, and stop the motorhome in front of the ticket building. I run in and confirm that yes, we are in time, and yes there is room! Jackpot. The lady says we are in time to take the 12:30 boat, which is not the Wanderer. I tell her we're birders, and that the Wanderer was recommended, at 1:30. She agrees that there is more deckspace. So I buy two tickets, $106 NZ total, or about $21 US apiece. We park and Sharon fixes us lunch. Mine is a ham sandwich with swiss cheese. I am so easy.

Back in our Holiday Park, Reese, the check-in guy, had said that the best time to take a cruise on Milford Sound is during rain. It's more exciting! he said. We wonder about that. Anyway, it's cloudy and cool, but it's not raining, so we're happy.

We see one of the "rare" White Herons and point that out to one of the crew. "That's Herman," he says. "Is he always here?" I ask. "Pretty much," says he. So we presume this is a tame-ified White Heron, unlike the wild and crafty bird we got at Miranda Estuary many days back.

Our boat, a two-master (Sharon doesn't like how she looks in this picture of the boat, so I blacked her out), backs out of its slip and we're off. As we're headed out, Sharon spots a white bird -- a tern. It's easy to see, with the dark mountains behind it. I get on it right away. It has an orange bill and is a *BLACK-FRONTED TERN.

Our trip out and back takes about two and a half hours, and is excellent. You look up and it's about 2000 feet as high as you can see, almost straight up. The captain takes the boat over to within a few feet of the big rock, and the naturalist says that the almost vertical rock continues down into the water another 3000 feet or so. Sheerly spectacular. But don't call me Sheerly.

The wind is blowing so strongly, that we can see some waterfalls, where the water is pouring over the cliff, maybe five hundred feet up, but the uprush of wind is so strong, that it's blowing the water straight back up. And the waterfall just vanishes into thin air. Another first for me.

As we approach the fiord outlet to the sea, the naturalist points to an island and said that in the old days, people would drop off letters on this island, and the passing ships would pick them up. It became known as Post Office Island. As we turn around, and head back in, Sharon gets a Fantail on the shore, still one of our favorite birds. This is in keeping with the tradition of seeing this little bird everywhere we go.

On the return trip, the captain takes the boat actually into some falls. Spray is everywhere, and while most people stay on deck, I run down one flight and get in the center of the boat, protected from the spray. Now you understand, I am protecting my camera gear, right? After we move out of the spray, I get a picture of Sharon against the falls, then she gets one of me against them. Then another cruise person gets a picture of both of us, which turns out pretty good, even if Sharon IS in it.

There has been wind all day, but stronger going out than coming back. I turn to look back toward the sea, and all is dark except for a sliver of white on top of the water, where the sun must be shining. Now we're in the last bit before the dock, and we spot a very, very white tern. We decide that it must be White-fronted, and the naturalist confirms that there have been a bunch in the Sound the last week or so. As we're coming into port, I snap a picture of the boats docked in the little harbor, and the dock area seems much, much smaller than I had assumed, the first time I heard about Milford Sound.

As we're getting off, the girl who took our photo as we got onto the boat offers them for sale. We see this coming, and I say to Sharon, "If they're $20, we'll take it, if it's good. If it's more than $20, we'll pass." "OK," says Sharon.

"Would you like to buy your photo?" the girl asks? "How much?" we ask, as we notice a bit of unpleasant reddish tint. "Normally $20, but we're asking $10 today." I wonder if it's because there's only two more days in their season, or because of the poor tint. Anyway, we take it. We load up into the motorhome and take off, hoping to pick up Rock Wren at the far side of Homer Tunnel. When we get there, it's getting dark and it's windy. We try for a little while, and I do manage a smashing closeup of a Kea.

Now the Keas are famous for their antics with tourists' windshield wipers, and sure enough, three birds come over. I throw them some peanuts (Don't feed the Keas) as far as I can, to keep their minds off of our motorhome. After they finish with them, one hops under the back of the motorhome and begins chewing on the mudflap while another one flies over and lands on top of our vehicle so I can't see him. I hear sounds of him doing something with the center vent so I yell at him. Then he's up and walking on top. I throw a rock at him to get him off (Easy, Shirley, it's just a little rock), and he jumps/flies over to the right hand rear view mirror. Which is right next to the radio antenna. He looks around, spots the antenna, clamps down onto the rubber tip with his beak and starts twisting. I have run around the motorhome, in the meantime, to see all of this, and I throw another rock at him. This time he flies down to the parking lot.

Sharon, who all of this time is looking for the Rock Wren, laughs at my concern, and says, "What's the worst he can do?" The answer to that, of course, is that he'll kill us, unless we watch him carefully. I keep a close eye on the feisty one.

O! How I love these little parking lot guys.

Anyway, we finally turn the birds over to the next set of unwary tourists in a little Honda. The feisty one latches onto the driver-side windshield wiper as the owner bends over double with laughter, trying to snap a couple of pictures. Obviously, not her car.

6:46 PM, and we're back in Te Anau. It's about a 2 hours 15 minute drive one way, and Sharon has slept much of it. We pick up groceries and she is in heaven because she has found the gerkins.

Bird Summary:

Life Birds:
Today:2. New Zealand Falcon, Black-fronted Tern.
For the Trip: 66.

Trip Birds:
Today: 2. The lifers.
For the Trip: 90.

Sunday, April 29, 2001. Week 3, Day 4. Homer Tunnel and Rainbow Reach. The Bad Day.

We stayed in the Te Auno Holiday park again last night.

To tell you the truth, we are sort of on each other's nerves today. I don't want to go where she wants to (4 hour round-trip to Homer Tunnel again), and she doesn't want to go where I want to (Rainbow Reach Walk). We go to both places, so we are both pissed off to some extent, and to top it all off, we see no new birds. Sharon says she needs to get away to a meeting or somebody in the motorhome is going to die, and she doesn't think it's going to be her.

If things had gone a different way, we would have been courteous and considerate to each other, and seen Rifleman, Yellowhead and Rock Wren. But this is the way the world works, you know? It don't always go your way, brother.

Sharon does the laundry, and fixes us steak, baked potato, and brussel sprouts. Hey, this wasn't such a bad day after all, we say, as we apologize to each other. Must have been a rip in the cosmos.

We did take a couple of interesting photos. One of some Japanese tourists at the Homer Tunnel entrance car park -- very colorful. One of a Kea in the rain (soak, you dirty bird). One of me on the swing bridge, with a dorky expression, one of Sharon on the swing bridge, on our way to the Rainbow Reach Walk. And finally, a nice sunset. We have been getting the most gorgeous sunrises and sunsets I can remember seeing in a long time.

Bird Summary:

Life Birds:
Today: 0. Skunked.
For the Trip: still 66.

Trip Birds:
Today: 0. Double-skunked.
For the Trip: still 90.


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