NEW ZEALAND 2001 ONE-MONTH BIRDING TRIP

Saturday, May 5, 2001. Week 4, Day 3. Twizel to Christchur--. No Wait!

If you are a counter, you may have noticed that we lost one lifer somewhere along the line. That's because I finally realized that the Black Shag of New Zealand is the same as the Cormorant of Turkey, and that's the same as the Great Cormorant of the East Coast of the U.S.

Cinco de Mayo, the fifth of the fifth, as they say here. It's 8:20 and we have just broken camp. We are looking for the incredibly rare Black Stilt. Our book says that there are 24 of them left in the country, but I think that information is a year or two old, and I think there are more likely 50 or so today. I hope so anyway. The more the better, as far as we're concerned.

Our fingers are crossed, as Philip said on the last return beach walk, looking for the Stewart Island Brown Kiwi. We had luck then, will we have it again?

9:02 and we have gone down past Power Station C, on Lake Benmore (I think that's its name). A long, deep and wide canal enters four huge pipes directing the flow to the four turbines of this power plant. Our Location Guide said to turn left, but we found that we had to turn right, to go in the direction of the lake. There are all sorts of fingers of water, streams and rivulets down here. I set the scope up and make a survey around, sort of like the submarine captain does upon surfacing in dangerous waters. I see lots of birds, but none of them black. Well, none the right kind of black, anyway.

We've been looking for about ten minutes when Sharon says, "I think I just saw a dark shorebird for about two seconds." I can't locate it, although I'm trying to from the angle of her binoculars. She takes a few steps to the right as the bird in question takes a few to the left. It keeps disappearing behind a mound at the edge of the shoreline, next to a stream. Finally, it apparently stopped moving in a blind spot for us. We can't go far enough in either direction, or forward because of all the streams. This habitat is exactly right for the bird we're after.

Sharon describes to me where she saw it, and I zero in on the location with the my eyes, then my binoculars. After about fifteen seconds, we both see this all black (Hey, All Black, get it? See next paragraph) shorebird, with long pink legs trailing behind, fly straight away from us, then hook a left and land by the water, but again, in a blind spot for us. But you know what? That's enough. We are 100% positive that this bird is our *BLACK STILT! There was not a hint of white anywhere. Funny how sometimes you can see the backside of a bird, then a sideways angle, all taking some two seconds, and be sure what the bird is.

In the early 20th Century (who can remember that far back?), a British newspaper, heralding the excellent game played by the visiting New Zealand rugby team, said that the team played like "all backs," referring to the special skills of backs vs. linemen (e.g. in professional football in America). Rather, they tried to say "all backs," but misspelled it and said "all blacks." New Zealand loved this, and their country's rugby team became and is today, officially, the New Zealand All Blacks.

We keep watching and it steps up a couple of times, such that Hawkeye (Sharon) can see it, but both times I'm trying to align the scope, and I miss it. We wait twenty more minutes, but it's shown us all it's going to. And all we need. This is our rarest bird seen, in terms of number left on earth. It's six minutes till 10 AM.

Back out onto the road and not quite to Twizel, we check birds on a lake and the surrounding grass, hoping for Cirl Bunting, but get about 15 Greenfinches. They are elegantly handsome when they fly, with their yellow wing patches mixed into the flurry of their wingbeats. We can see the lighter outer tail feathers too.

Incidentally, today is the first day of duck hunting season. And the last day of Black Stilt hunting season, for us. As we continue along, the water in the huge canal is unbelievably turquoise. Sharon says it must be coming off of glaciers, and I think that must be right.

We come around one corner, and there is fog on the lake so soft and smooth that you can't tell where the lake ends and the fog begins.

It's after 11 now, and we're still on Highway 8, headed for Christchurch, from Twizel. Looking to our right, I see cross-fenced pasture, one being full of perhaps a hundred elk. Across one of the fences from the herd trots a small, single elk, obviously trying to figure out how to get back.

Going through the town of Fairlie, we have a choice of going straight on 8 or taking a shortcut to the left on 79. We take the shortcut. I wanted to go the 8-route, because it goes through the town of Timaru, but I can no longer remember or find why I wanted to stop there.

12:45 and we just finished lunch at a little picnic area about 6 km short of the town of Geraldine. Now, for the first time, I think I see the rest of the trip (he said, figuring it would probably change a couple of more times anyway). We have one bonus day on the South Island and another on the North Island. We will use the South Island day to make a trip up Arthur's Pass, hoping to have just one more try at Rock Wrens and Yellowheads. Sort of like America's Ten Most Wanted, we've knocked all the big guys off, leaving these two as the new big guns I want to get.

Anyway, tomorrow morning, we'll do the Rock Wren walk, one hour in and one hour back. Then we'll spend tomorrow night, the 6th, in Christchurch. All the way up to Picton for the night of the 7th. Next morning, the 8th, at 5:30 AM we take the ferry back to the North Island. Have to be in line at 4:30. That night around Masterson. Next night around Taupo, that's the 9th. Next night is a bonus, the 10th.

We need Black-fronted Dotterel, Marsh Crake, Spotless Crake and Bittern. And we need an extraordinary amount of luck to get ANY of them. The first because we do't know where they go after chicks have fledged. The last three because they are early morning and late evening birds, in the marshes where you can't get to, to see them. But what fun trying.

Anyway, the 11th at Bolstads, then fly home on the 12th.

I like this plan.

We need to stop in Geraldine and call to make the reservations. It's almost 2 PM now, and we're crossing the Rakaia River. Sharon says this is the longest bridge in New Zealand, but what's underneath is a braided river. Mostly rocks, a few slivers of streams. I'm guessing in floods, this becomes one mighty roar.

We turn off of Highway 1 onto 73. It says West Coast via Arthur's Pass. That's us. If we went all the way, we'd come out around the spot where we saw the Westland Black Petrels, I think. Near Punakaiki [Actually, further south than that -- a little south of Greymouth].

We want to check one more place for Yellowheads, but we're going to do that on the return, tomorrow. There are mountains to the left and to the right. It's overcast, and we can see definitions of cloud layers, as opposed to being totally gray. It is raining lightly but steadily. There is a huge flat gravely river bottom to our right. Maybe a few small stream branches are coming through it. It is clearly autumn. Some trees have lost all their leaves, some are brown and orange. It's very pleasant, and reminds me of late fall in California, when you can smell the football games.

We drive through Arthur's Pass Village, and on up to the summit. We arrive there about 4 PM. We can't find the place that our location book is talking about to park, walk 30 minutes to a bridge, then 20 more minutes to the location of a pair of Rock Wrens. It's getting dark, late, and it's raining, so we head back to the Village, where we noticed a camping area for motorhomes and campervans, although there is no electricity.

We try the visitor center, but it has just closed. We drive down to the toilets, and both go in the separate building, to our separate toilets. The men's is filthy and stinks, so I'll try somewhere else. Sharon comes back out and says that the women's has (impossible!) toilet paper. I tell her to hold off the troops and I use the Women's. Mission accomplished.

We drive over to the public parking area, and a smaller motorhome from Adventure Campervans is already here. We pick our spot and settle in. Sparrows and Chaffinches are eating some bread on the ground. A loaf has been run over by some vehicle, and the birds are having a field day. I get on the computer and Sharon reads a book till 6:30 or so. Then she fixes us spaghetti, cauliflower and cuts up a fresh tomato. I have a diet Pepsi and she has her iced tea. For dessert, I have the nougat bar I bought today, and she finishes off her trifle.

What a fantastic feeling of accomplishment and ease. We got a very, very tough lifer today, I can hear the rain hitting the camper rooftop, and every so often a train will roar by.

When I was on an overnighter in Japan in 1970, traveling by myself, the porter came and made my seat into a private sleeper by some sort of magic. Anyway, I would go to sleep, then wake up as the train would pull into a station. I'd peek outside and it'd be lightly snowing, visible in the few lights on in the middle of the night.

Don't you just love trains?

Friend Bill Bolstad says that in Great Britain, there is a hobby called trainspotting. There was a movie with that name, but it wasn't about this hobby at all. Anyway, the hobby is to try and see every locomotive (by ID number, stamped on the engine) in England. First you get the list, then you check off each engine as you see it.

Bird Summary:

Life Birds:
Today: 1. Black Stilt.
For the Trip: 71.

Trip Birds:
Today: 1. The lifer.
For the Trip: 97.

Sunday, May 6, 2001. Week 4, Day 4. Arthur's Pass, One More Shot at a Rock Wren.

Four minutes till 8 AM. There hasn't been any rain for an hour or two, after raining most of the night. There is fog just above us, and it HAS to clear. We will allow nothing else.

8:05 and we're headin' up the pass. We see a bird fly over about five minutes later and I say that it's a big bird. Sharon nonchalantly says, "It's a Kea."

I knew that.

We go up, over, and down the other side of the pass, but only about 100 yards. We park in an area where a trail goes off to the left. We think that this is the spot our location guide is trying to send us for the Rock Wren. And the weather is beginning to clear. In fact, I can see some places where the sun is breaking through the clouds. Looking up the canyon, I can just imagine the little Rock Wren, dipping and running from rock to rock, as they like to do, rather than flying.

A little after 10 AM now, and we're quite a bit higher than our motorhome, but I can still see it. A small car pulled up behind our camper and three guys got out, then sort of changed clothes. This, about ten minutes ago. Just now, three guys pass us. They give us a G'dye and we them.

As the three go past us, one says to the leader, "Do you always walk this fast?" "No union rules here today," he responds. And they zip by.

The last fellow stops and says to Sharon, "That's some stick you've got there!" Sharon says, "Where are you off to?" and the fellow points to the highest peak and says, "Up there somewhere." "Take care," says Sharon. And he is off again. He has on shorts, but is wearing leggings. He's about 50-55 and appears to be extremely fit.

A few minutes later, Sharon yells, "Kea!" as another one flies over.

We took off on this trail at 9:40. It's 10:22 now and the sun is shining on us in such a way that we are actually hot now. There are still fog and clouds about, so we figure this is probably momentary. The third climber comes back and Sharon says something that would have really frosted me if I had been him,"Did you forget something?" "I lost my lunch out of my pack," he says, continuing back. Then just a couple of minutes and he's back again, passing us, sandwiches in hand.

"A couple of lads picked it up and gave it to me," he tells us, all smiles. Then three more hikers pass us. A young couple, maybe a boyfriend and girlfriend, and the father of one of them. But I can't tell which. I think maybe the girl's. "Have you been here before?" I ask the young fellow. "Many times," he says. "Is there a bridge ahead?" I ask. "About fifteen minutes ahead, you can't quite see it from here. A good wooden one." Holy cow, fifteen minutes. And we've already been out almost an hour. "Are any of you birdwatchers?" I ask. And the same guy says, "I am, a bit." I ask him about the Rock Wren and he has seen them, but much farther ahead. Maybe 45 minutes. Let's see, they're about three times faster than we are. That puts it, oh, about next Thursday or something.

We decide it's not worth it. The track is mostly big rocks, but some water, some mud, some roots. It's very, very slow going. We go forward about five more minutes, then sit and wait and listen for about ten minutes. Finally, we reluctantly give it up. We meet an older couple on their way in as we're on our way out. Sharon talks with the woman, who says they are birders and are up there to get Blue Duck and Rock Wren, and she says there are only one pair of each. Somewhere farther up.

11:57 AM and we are back in the motorhome and wiped out. The weather is beginning to turn bad in the canyon where we have just come from, as we look back up it. Our decision to turn around, it seems, may have been perfect, given the rapid weather change.

But the trip was a success. That is, we're alive.

Down we head, now through Arthur's Pass Village, as the rain continues. About forty minutes later, we turn off at Lake Sarah, where our location book says we have a shot at Yellowheads in old growth forest. Just one problem, there is no old forest. Farmland, pastures, meadows, new pine forests.

We go back out to the road, and decide to take the road Sharon has been trying to get me onto. It goes to the Hawdon Valley shelter. We cross the river on an old bridge, then make it up to the camping shelter. There are half-a-dozen cars, and two guys in the shelter, fixing a fire. They have been out two weeks, and somebody is supposed to be picking them up right here, any time now. I ask about Yellowheads, and they're not sure which bird that is, but they say they've seen and heard lots of birds here, but even more at another shelter back down this road, and then to another valley to the left.

We try this one first, playing the Minidisc, alternating with Sharon's calls. We get the usual forest birds, but no Yellowheads. We give up in the rain, and head back out, in the end deciding not to try the other shelter. We have Christchurch on our mind, and want to start burning some miles. I don't think the Yellowheads were going to be easy to find in this rain anyway.

As we are barreling down the road, I can see two birds in the road, a quarter mile ahead or so. One is white, and it flies early -- an Australian Magpie. The other is a Harrier. He just has to get one more claw-ful of roadkill, but he has miscalculated. I start honking 200 feet away, but he ignores me. I honk maybe six times, and he finally jumps into the air to fly off, but the grill gets there before he can get away.

He changes positions in the food chain.

We head on into Christchurch in time for Sharon to make a meeting while I go back and try to get the laundry into the dryer, waiting our turn. There's only one dryer (the other is broken and "will be fixed tomorrow"), and it's hard-wired to the WARM setting. So it takes six fifty-cent coins -- three bucks NZ per load. A dollar twenty US. One woman is ironing(!) her clothes to get them dry. We won't go that far.

Under my speculation hat, I decide that either they are extremely cheap or the HOT setting trips a circuit breaker.

We eat in a KFC, and don't that bird taste like Harrier.

Bird Summary:

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

Trip Birds:
Today: 0. Nada.
For the Trip: Still 97.

Monday, May 7, 2001. Week 4, Day 5. Christchurch to Picton. Goose Hunting. South Island Circle Completed.

9:33 and we're out of camp, on Yardhurst Road. We stayed last night at Rustlee's Motor Camp. This is the new worst-camp-of-the-trip. It is really sloppy, dirty, with extension cords strung all over the place. The girl who checked us in was obviously filling in, as she knew the answers to none of our questions.

We are now in the suburbs. Sharon says "Don't forget to say that Phar Lap was born here." Actually she read to me earlier that this remarkable thoroughbred was born in Dunedin. He won something like 80 races in a row. First here, then in Australia, then in the United States, where he died of poisoning.

His bones are in Auckland, the skin is in London, and his heart is in Australia. Everybody wanted a piece of this great horse. It's a movie, if you're interested, called "Phar Lap," or some phrase with his name in the title.

When I first read about New Zealand, I recall reading that the South Island architecture was very much like England. But I can tell you, having been to London about four weeks ago, that the two are not alike at all. Then Sharon reads me the thing I had wrong. It's only downtown Christchurch that is a copy of London, not the whole South Island. And we didn't even go downtown.

Sharon loves reading the newspaper, and has come across the following story, which I semi-paraphrase here.

"A cyclist who tested positive for the drug ecstasy says that an herbal medication he was taking is responsible." The authorities let him off with some mild punishment, and critics say that he only got a "slap across the face with a wet bus ticket." An obvious parallel to our "they let him off with a slap on the wrist." I wonder what it feels like to get slapped in the face with a wet bus ticket.

We come across another area where the hedges are neatly trimmed, though not as smoothly as others we saw earlier. Beyond one field, there is a hedge row that is trimmed to a certain point, then wild after that.

11:46 AM and we are at St. Anne's Lagoon, just off the highway. What has brought us here is the possibility of Chestnut-breasted Shelducks, Cape Barren Geese and a couple of other birds. You know -- Marsh Crake, Spotless Crake and Bittern.

As we are looking around, I play the tape of a petrel with a sort of mournful call. We hope that this will trigger some response from one of these last three birds, but we are doubtful. Suddenly two pale grey birds with green beaks come gliding across the scope view. "*CAPE BARREN GEESE," I say to Sharon, as I back away from the scope and she gets on. She thinks I am kidding, but it is evident that I'm perfectly serious. We think the strange calls brought them out.

As we're enjoying all the water birds, suddenly a male Paradise Shelduck in the middle of the lake jumps on top of the female next to him. I decide that he's trying to drown her. After four or five seconds of this thrashing, he jumps off and swims about three feet away. The female starts doing a rocking forward and back motion, where she dips her white head totally into the water, then pulls it back out on the backward rock. She does this rocking back and forth motion about six times, then the male starts doing it also, at exactly the same time. It looks a little like a chorus line bow.

Sharon says that it's a mating ritual they do. We take off, happy at the Cape Barren Geese we saw.

We are headed for Blenheim, but immediately after Lake Grassmere, in the town of Ward, I pull over and fill up at a petrol station. As Sharon is looking at a map, the attendant says, "Are you looking for a place to stye (stay) tonight?" and Sharon says no, we're looking for Lake Elterwater. "What for," says the fellow, as in, "What on earth would anyone want to go THERE for?"

He gives us directions to get there and two places to get near the lake. We take the one that looks like less traffic.

We turn off for Lake Elterwater, which is supposed to have a possibility for Chestnut-breasted Shelduck. Unfortunately, the road recommended turns out to be the driveway to a private home. A friendly lady comes out of her sewing room, from the garage.

We tell her what we're after, and she says that she is sewing. She gives us permission to look at the lake, actually volunteering before we could ask. She goes back to her sewing and we head down to the lake. It's about ten times bigger than I was expecting. We get Paradise Shelducks, Grey Ducks, Pied Stilts, Shags, Canadian Geese, Australasian Shovelers, but we don't see any Scaups. A White Heron stands in the shallows across the lake. Several black-backed gulls.

We use our binocs, then the scope and Sharon picks up a Shelduck that is different from any we're ever seen. The white ring around the eye and another around the bill say *CHESTNUT-BREASTED SHELDUCK. Our location guide says that this is one of the most dependable places to see them.

We finish and go back to the sewing building. On the way, we see lots of Fantails around a bird watering dish.

We talk a bit with Helen who has invented something called a Zippit. She's got a contract for 10,000 of them, and she has a helper at another location, so they'll each do 5,000. Holy cow. They look very handy, and we buy four at $5 NZ each -- about $2 U.S. It's a flat pouch with clear sides so you can see what's inside, and it has a zipper.

Sharon and Helen pose with the Zippits we've purchased for a picture, and then a car drives up. It's Helen's daughter-in-law with Helen's youngest granddaughter, Isabelle. She's cute as a bug, and shy, but I get one good closeup of the little girl. These are really nice people.

We hit the road again, and drive past Kaikoura. This is where we would have come if we had decided to spend our bonus day on a pelagic trip. We're driving along the ocean now, and it's stunningly turquoise. Sort of like driving south on Highway 1 in California, except that we're on the wrong side of the road and we're driving in the wrong direction. Nevertheless, it makes us think of Route 1.

We're tooling along and Sharon spots something we've never seen before. The two-lane highway splits, while the railroad track runs beside us. Three separate tunnels penetrate the mountain. Three!

We get into an argument about whether there are any white morphs of the Reef Heron here. I say there are and Sharon says there aren't. Sharon scours all our book and comes up with the fact that there is one accepted record of a white Reef Heron in NZ. See, told ya! Hey, Sharon, there goes another one. Yeah, seen in 1987 last, she says.

3:18 PM and we pull over to the side of the road at a picnic area for a short nap. I'm getting drowsy. Sharon could drive too, but she hasn't done any yet. She opts for sleep because she knows that if she were driving, I wouldn't be sleeping.

The railroad tracks, called railway tracks here run right beside the road, sometimes passing underneath the road, in a tunnel or undercrossing, then they will run along on the other side of us.

We round a corner, and have caught up with a huge double big rig. That is a regular big rig, but pulling a trailer behind it. Each of the trailers has four levels, each crammed full of sheep. Sometimes the sheep in the top floor rear up and you can see their heads. "Hey, Mom, look at me! I'm goin' for a ride! I'm bigger than you are now!"

Back on the road again, we come to a double-decker bridge. It's a one-laner, so cars can only go across one direction at a time. And there is also a single lane on top of the bridge -- a railway. The tall sheep in the top of the truck seem to me to be in danger of losing their heads, but when they pass under the bridge, there are easily three or four inches to spare.

We make it to Picton, staying in the same Holiday Park we stayed in the night of the great intestinal blockage. Let me tell you, I wake up several times, then get a nice contented smile as I think what a pleasure this night is.

Bird Summary:

Life Birds:
Today: 2. Cape Barren Goose, Chestnut-breasted Shelduck.
For the Trip: 73.

Trip Birds:
Today: 2. The lifers.
For the Trip: 99.


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