NEW ZEALAND 2001 ONE-MONTH BIRDING TRIP

Thursday, May 3, 2001. Week 4, Day 1. Dunedin. Soaring Albatrosses. Where Are the Penguins?

We wake up to another fantastic sunrise, which blows our minds for a couple of minutes. Beautiful. The sun pops up over the island and warms us as it shines onto the water. It lights up the boats in the bay as we head over for breakast.

8:35 AM. Today is the day we break our current record of having seen a Kiwi one day in a row. I shower and we have breakfast, and we're waiting for Doug to load us up and take us to the air terminal in town.

We buy some maps and stamps and other stuff at the terminal, then hop into the van that takes us out to the airstrip. We load up and take off, headed for Invercargill. I am fascinated with the pictures in the digital camera screen of the propeller, frozen in its rotation. The hop over the water takes no time at all, and we pass over a fog-shrouded landscape, then we set down smoothly. Ah, (Kiwi) mission accomplished.

Sharon stands by the logo on the side of the plane, and the look on her face says, "Safe on the ground. Kiwi under our belt."

10:03 and we have loaded into our motorhome and just exited the airport. We are headed for Dunedin and the Otago Peninsula today, hoping for Yellow-eyed Penguins this afternoon. Our internet trip report says that they saw both Yellow-eyed and Blue Penguins the two hours before dark at a beach that is our destination for the day.

As we drive through Invercargill city center, Sharon reads a sign that says, "Our Strength is your Cartage." A moving or transport company. We don't know what this means, but that's OK. I have found that there are lots of things in life that I don't know what they mean. But I can still function.

It's fun to compare expressions. In America, if you do something well, your friends might say, "Good!" In Australia, it's "Good on ya!" and here it's "Good as Gold!" If something is expensive in NZ, it's "dear." So if you get a letter from a New Zealander, and it starts off "Dear William," it may mean that they think you are too much.

We gas up at 74.9 NZ cents/liter at a BP petrol station in the outskirts of Invercargill. We buy some cokes and Sharon puts one or two into the refrigerator. Which, by the way, had been turned off by the load-shedding scheme of the motorhome, to prevent the auxiliary battery from running all the way down. But it must not have happened too long ago, because the food in there is still cold.

At our lunch stop, just short of Balclutha, we make plans to stop at the Sinclair Wetlands for Bittern and Fernbird, then head for Tairoa Head on Otago Peninsula to look for Penguins. We drive through Balclutha and there's the Deka store, the Bank of New Zealand, the Bo Peep Woolmart, and the National Bank.

We reach our turnoff, and leave the highway. There are fast-moving double-trailer gravel trucks sailing along on the gravel (NZ: metal) road. But whew, we make it to the wetlands with no broken windshield, or windscreen, as it's called here. We ask the fellow in the visitor center if there are any Bitterns here. No, he has never seen or heard one. What about Crakes? Might be, but they are very difficult, he says. They have Fernbirds, and that's what most people come here to see. By coincidence, he says he works with the Yellow-eyed Penguins on the Otago Peninsula -- just where we're headed. We ask him about the Southlite Penguin Observatory, and he says that was recently sold, and he thinks maybe they now have organized tours or something. We decide to go back to the highway and on to penguin territory.

3:38 PM and Sharon and I are at the Albatross Center, on a high bluff, called Tairoa Head, above the ocean. We somehow missed the entrance to the Southlite Penguin place we read about. We did see the other penguin place, called The Penguin Place, but it sounded too commercial for what we want. Anyway, I ask at the Albatross Center, "Can we just pay the entrance fee, and run up and see the Albatrosses and leave?" Answer: no, you have to watch a 5-10 minute video, then listen to a sort of presentation/speech about the birds. Then you can go up. Translation: We're gonna be here an hour, no matter how we want to do it. We ask the guy behind the desk where the Southlite Penguin private place is, and he sort of puts his nose in the air and points to the continuation of the road which we thought stopped here. "It was sold. You MAY see some penguins there," he said, in a sort of snort.

We didn't like this guy, so that made us want to see the place the guy didn't like. I tell Sharon that I'll bet the new owners will really be eager to please us, since they are new. An excellent prognostication on my part, it turns out.

The former Southlite Penguin Observatory, or whatever it used to be, was very cool. Instead of an organized tour, you gave somebody $5 NZ, got a key to the lock on some gate, passed through, drove a rather steep, windy road to a high point overlooking a beach, and from about 4 PM to dark, you watched the penguins come in for the night. But now there are new owners. How are they going to handle it?

We go through an unlocked gate, up the hill and come to an old barracks, which is now the ticket office. We go in and a young kid, Tony, whom we later learn just had his 21st birthday, sells us tickets and is the friendliest guy you could hope for. He tells us just to drive down on our own -- exactly what we wanted. There are free-ranging sheep around, so we are to drive carefully.

We go on up and down the windy, steep-in-some-places, gravel road, and come to a fantastic view of Dunedin across the big bay. We continue on to a car park, and park near one end. As I'm getting the stuff together (scope etc.), Sharon has stepped out on her side, and is looking down at the part of the beach we can see. "I see Penguins!!" she shouts, "And they've got yellow eyes! I don't believe this. A parking lot bird!"

I come over, set up the scope and holy cow, it's two *YELLOW-EYED PENGUINS, on the beach, just above the surf line, preening and stretching. They are about two feet tall. "Another one just came in!" she shouts, as I get the rest of my gear. We go to the observation post, a sort of metal shed with a roof for protection against rain and wind. But it's a little too restrictive, so we move back outside. As I'm looking at these three, Sharon says, "A fourth one just came in. He's walking. HE'S WALKING LIKE A PENGUIN!! I told all my friends I wanted to see a penguin walking. And now I'm doing it."

There is a network of trails which go up steep sand dunes. Above the sand dunes is scrubby greenery -- small trees, shrubs and the like. And above the greenery is a rock cliff. We can see another penguin who has climbed partway up a trail, and is standing there. We figure their caves or burrows are in the sand somewhere near this bushy area.

I say, "It's a few minutes before four. Let's drive back over and see the Albatrosses if we still can today, then come back." "OK, let's go," says Sharon. And off we go, stopping to get a shot of Sharon beside a wooden cutout of a Yellow-eyed Penguin. Just then Tony drives down, and we tell him our plan. "Just come back over if it doesn't work out, or after you're done there," he says cheerfully. This operation is going to be a success if they keep treating the public like this.

Over at the Albatross place, the creep guy is gone, and I tell one of the women behind the counter what we want. "Yes, you can just make the four o'clock tour. That's the last one of the day." And we do. The movie is very good, narrated by David Attenborough, and the lecture is even better. The leader then takes our group of perhaps 8 people up, up, up the sidewalk towards a building near the top of the bluff. As we are walking, two "teenage" Royal Albatrosses fly over our heads, one at a time, then over the cliff, disappearing from view. They do this several times, and we finally reach the building. Inside, we can see two Albatross chicks on the grassy slopes below the building, already about 20-25 pounds, 3 months old, covered with downy white fuzz -- no feathers yet.

They stretch and yawn, occasionally stand, then sit down again. Open and then close their fantastic wings. This is the closest to any mainland anywhere in the world, where Royal Albatrosses raise chicks. We also see a colony of Stewart Island Shags -- both color morphs. Then Sharon says, "OK, let's go back over to the Penguins," and we are off.

We wave at Tony on the way in. We can see him through a window, and he waves back. Back down to our penguin lookout we go.

Now there are more than a dozen Yellow-eyeds, and soon Tony joins us. He has tremendous admiration for our 15-45X zoom scope and tripod. We let him use it and he is wowed. "You want to hear someting really cool?" he asks. "You bet," we say. "See the cliff, just at the base, above all the bush?" Yes, we see that. "That's where the penguins are climbing to. That's where their burrows are."

How on earth can they climb all the way up there, we ask ourselves. But now we hear one calling, and it turns out to be about halfway up one of the trails, and has just stopped, and started calling. I get him in the scope, show Tony and Sharon, then I get a photo of the Yellow-eyed Penguin through the scope, a technique I'm still trying to work out. Tony starts counting. "There are 38 Yellow-eyed Penguins on the beach," he gleefully yells. They are everywhere, doing everything. Sharon watches two of them belly-bump each other, but I miss that.

I watch one climbing up the sandy trail, and he actually hops upwards a couple of times. Sharon spots a seal in the surf. Tony says we just have to take time out to go see the seals, and he doesn't understand why we don't go over. "We have seals where we live, but until an hour ago or so, we had never seen a live penguin walking. We're stayin' right here. We want to see the Blues." He had said that there is a 50/50 chance that in the last ten minutes before dark,that a squad of Blue Penguins will come into this beach, land, and move up and off of it. We have to see this, and that agrees with the internet report we have, regarding the happenings at this particular beach. At ten minutes till six, Tony leaves us.

Before he left, a girl who had joined us asked Tony how many penguins were here. He told her there were 40 pairs.

It is getting dark. I've got the video camera on, and now it's on Super Night Shot. Sharon is on the scope and says that she thinks she might have just seen a Blue Penguin come in, not reach the beach, then go back out. "Yeah, right!" I say. But then I notice about a dozen black dots just in the surf, in an incredibly tight bunch. I get on the scope and it's them. We've hit the jackpot.

These little birds stick together. The surf rolls in, then back out, leaving them in the sand. They stand up, then one of them runs back down to the water, and sort of slides in. All the others then join in the same behavior. This happens perhaps a half-dozen times. Each time, they seem to get a little farther up the beach until finally, they stay out. I'm still recording. They penguin-walk their tiny little selves out of our sight, below the bluff face that we're standing on. Unlike the yellow-eyed penguins who walk alone out of the water and up the beach, these little guys stay in a group and huddle together. Maybe for protection as they are so much smaller than the Yellow-eyeds.

We drive back up to the ticket office and go in. Tony's parents are there, and we talk to them about twenty minutes, listening to their very animated description of their plans, how they love the Yellow-eyed Penguins and so on. Sharon buys some cool junk they have for sale there. As we start to leave, Tony's dad says, "When you get down to our gate, drive very carefully. You'll find the Blue Penguins crossing the road." Huh?? How are those penguins going to climb that cliff at all, let alone in 25 minutes? But he's serious.

We head on down, and I get the video recorder ready, power on, in standby, in night shot. We arrive at the gate, but there's nothing. We laugh and I shut the camera off, put it away, down on the floor between our bucket seats. I round the corner where the gravel road changes to pavement, and head back towards Dunedin and our camp for tonight, which we have yet to define. "Look out, something's in the road!" yells Sharon, thinking it's a cat. But you know what it is, don't you?

That's right. Four little Blue Penguins are caught in our light beams, and two leave the road to the right, and two more to the left. But the ones to the left are stuck. There's only a ditch between the rising mountain and the road. The ones on the don't-drive-off-the-cliff side of the road just went over. It's not a sheer drop, and they must have trails over there. I manage to get the video camera back out and get these little, unbelievably cute Blue Penguins walking on the road in front of us. They are about 16 inches tall.

Sharon says don't run over any because how would that look -- her eating a Sooty Shearwater and then me running over a penguin?

It's like we went to sleep and woke up in Fantasyland, man.

We find a good Holiday Park in Dunedin and Sharon warms up the Spaghetti and the Chicken and Noodles from previous meals. We finish them off and they are great the second time around. We're glad to be back in our rig. We loved the Stewart Island Lodge, but we really enjoy having everything we need right at our fingertips. $8 per night instead of $160. Hey, we can stay 40 nights on the road for the price of the two nights at S.I. Lodge. It was a great break. We both loved it, but we're tickled to be back in the motorhome.

Bird Summary:

Life Birds:
Today: 1. Yellow-eyed Penguin.
For the Trip: 71.

Trip Birds:
Today: 1. The lifer.
For the Trip: 96.

Friday, May 4, 2001. Week 4, Day 2. To Twizel. Black Stilts.

9:18 and I just sent off two email trip reports and updated our website. We're in Dunedin and the ducks are gathered all around where Sharon's been feeding them. Mallards one and all. Our target today is a town called Twizel (TWYE-zul), north of here and in the center of the country, in the east-west sense. We will also be looking for Cirl Buntings at a throroughbread race track. We are off.

Highway 1 runs right through Dunedin -- there are no high-speed bypasses. A little while ago, we went by a giant Cadbury's Confectionary Ltd. building. I've noticed in almost every store that sells candy, Cadbury's Easter Eggs are up front.

According to our Lonely Planet guide, Dunedin has the steepest street in the world. Something like 1 foot of rise in 1.16 feet of distance. That's about 40 degrees, I reckon! I have no idea how a car would get up that steep grade.

10:40 and we are welcomed to the Waitaki District. I think South Cantebury is next. These districts are kind of like states, but are much looser in application. We go through the town of Palmerston, and if my assessment is correct, teenagers have done their work on a statue. All the fingers are broken off of the Statue-of-Liberty-like figure holding one hand up in the air instead of a torch. All except the middle finger that is, which is only broken halfway off.

It is very hilly now and Sharon says to look off to our right. Sheep are just tearing down a hill -- maybe 200 or 300, coming down into a funneled fence arrangement. There is a guy in a four-wheeler ATV and two dogs are at the heels of the sheep. I've never seen sheep run so fast, like they're trying to outrun us, Sharon says.

We stop in Oamaro, but there are no Buntings at the race course or anywhere else, so we have lunch, then continue on. We come to a field with lots of huge rolls of hay, where we both saw birds flying around. We stop and turn around, then come back, but we find House Sparrows, plus what we thought might be grebes in the pond across the highway turn out to be ducks. Some Shovelers included.

It's 1:35 PM now, and we're on Highway 83, having just left Highway 1. We're Twizel-bound. As we're driving along Sharon sees a huge hedge, clipped into the shape of a chicken. Maybe 8 feet tall. I notice that there is also a huge egg just behind the hen. This answers the question, "Which came first? The chicken or the egg." Wait, if you're driving past from the other side, then the egg comes first. Maybe this is NOT the answer to the age-old question.

Or maybe it is.

We come to the town of Moeraki, then continue a little further, where we pull off as planned. We go down to the beach to see the famous Moreraki Bolders. Of course, I have to jump up on one, and Sharon tries to swipe one to stick in her purse. One has "exploded," it seems, and the pieces are on the beach. I like the view of several backlit by the sun, and another with about ten or so, in the surf. These boulders have somehow formed and then remained while the earth around them has been worn away.

Just before 3 PM now, and I pull over at Lake Benmore because I thought I saw grebes. Nope, Mallards. Plus only the second Coots we've seen in NZ. We stop at a Caltex petrol station and fill up at 80.9 cents/liter, in Oamarama. A half-hour later, we stop at the first location on our list to try for Black Stilts. It's where Highway 8 crosses the Huriri River. No stilts. We continue on.

5:17 PM and we're in the area below a dam -- the home of the Black Stilt Captive Breeding Centre. A girl in the downtown Twizel Info office said that the breeding center blind, normally open to tourists, is closed for cleaning of the aviaries. We could go down there, but wouldn't be able to see any birds from the hide.

What she did NOT say, as we learn for ourselves, is that if you go down there, you can see perhaps eight Black Stilts in cages small and large. Now why didn't she mention that?

Anyway, we want to see one in the wild, not one that is caged. We continue a little further to the next spot to try for wild Black Stilts. It's by the river below the dam.We get Grey Warbler, a Scaup, but no Stilts. It's getting dark, though, so we just go back to camp. We'll try tomorrow.

At 6:02 PM, we're in our site. We're having meat pies, corn on the cob and -- Rats! We got shut out today. We look at yesterday's videos of Penguins and Albatrosses, then at the previous night's Kiwi. We are being overloaded with Good Stuff, but don't worry. We can take it.

Bird Summary:

Life Birds:
Today: 0. Snookered.
For the Trip: Still 71.

Trip Birds:
Today: 0. Nada.
For the Trip: Still 96.


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