Tuesday, May 8, 2001. Week 4, Day 6. Picton, South Island to Lake Taupo, North Island.

4:46 AM. We've been in this line for fifteen minutes. The huge ferry leaves Picton at 5:30, and all these vehicles have to be loaded on and cinched down. Somebody's gonna be truckin' here in a few minutes. We eat our breakfast while we wait. There goes the first big rig from two lines over. In a minute or two it's our turn. Once they get us moving, things hurry along. I drive up a long, winding ramp, onto the boat, to the back, then the director has me sort of parallel park. How fun.

At 5:30 on the nose, we can feel the boat slowly start to move in total darkness, and we're off. It'll be dark the first hour or hour and a half. So we'll nap for that time, then go outside and try for a Cape Pigeon. There are two big ferries that go back and forth, one going each way at the same time. We are on the same one we took to get to the South Island.

After a bit, I wake up and it's beginning to lighten up. I go outside in back, but I can't see a single bird yet. Back in for an orange juice at the breakfast bar. Sharon wakes up and has some tea too, then we both go outside, to the stern, as usual. Now there are lots of dark shearwaters -- Sooties for sure.

We see a smaller bird too, though, with constant wingbeats. It never glides, but flaps its wings all the time. It's very small, white on the bottom and dark on top. We also see a bird that looks like a gull from this long distance, but its wings are white on top, and dark on the bottom. I have no idea. But it stops its flight parallel to ours, banks and wheels around so I can see that the top of its wings look white but blotched with black. And then he's gone.

7:59 and we are watching two pods of dolphins. Before that, we saw a few Blue Penguins in the water, in small groups of twos and threes. They ride differently in the water than the other birds.

We are well into the inlet now, and we pass a bird resting in the water. It doesn't seem to be bothered by the ferry's presence at all. It's medium-size, dark on top, white below. There are two dark vertical streaks that run down the white lower parts -- one in the front and one in the back. It sits kind of high in the water and as we passed it, I'm sure I saw a tube on its nose. We finally ID it as a *WHITE-FACED STORM-PETREL. These birds nest in this area and are common, Sharon reads.

At about fifteen minutes before docking, an announcement sends all of us vehicle drivers and passengers down to our transportation. We get ready to move, but wait to turn on the engines till getting the signal. The signal, by the way, is somebody else turning on their engine.

We dock, and I see the first truck up ahead of us (actually behind, the way we are facing), and soon it's our turn, I can't quite do the U-turn it takes to reverse directions, and I have to do a back-and-forth once. As I'm backing towards a little red car, Sharon sees them waving their arms back and forth so I don't hit them. Success.

We find our road and drive out of Wellington. We pass through Featherston and blow right by our turnoff, then recover.

If you want to say cemetery in New Zealand, just say symmetry. Here, a railroad crossing is a railway crossing. Or a rail crossing road is a rail crossing way, as I read them.

12:13 and we are at Mount Bruce Forest, a spot of old growth forest right next to the highway. We go in and look at the caged Stitchbirds and one Kokako. The captive breeding program here is very successful, and Stitchbirds and Kokakos have been placed on Tiri Tiri Matangi, among other places, in hopes of continuing the species in the wild. I see a stuffed Great Spotted Kiwi, and collect a photo. We heard this bird, but never saw it.

We then walk the forest paths a little and Sharon calls in a Fantail and a Whitehead, then several Brown Creepers. We have lunch at a picnic table adjacent to the forest and occasionally hear one of the calls we have come to enjoy so much.

3:08 and we're in the town of Palmerston North, down by the Monawatu River. There are two hundred gulls and a hundred Welcome Swallows working the area. Some Pied Stilts and a buncha ducks. Mallards. We are hoping for Black-fronted Dotterels, but like every other place we've tried for them, they've moved on to destinations unknown to us.

4:45 sees us passing the DC3 Cafe on our right side. It's a complete airplane, painted in camouflage colors. It's up on piers and you walk under it to get to the restaurant. I didn't take a picture, so let me describe it to you, in a thousand words. OK, picture a DC3. Now...

I am getting incredibly tired, probably from getting up a little before 4 AM this morning, but we take a break, and I wash my face and have a Traffic Light. That's a kind of popsicle that's colored in thirds. Red on top, orange in the middle and green on the bottom. The red is particularly attaching and every time I have one, Sharon says it looks like I put on lipstick.

I revive and we continue, arriving in the town of Tarangi, on the southern shore of Lake Taupo, a huge lake. I think the biggest in New Zealand. Lots of civilization here, but we are after crakes. We drive along the lake, heading up the east shore, stopping where it looks like crakes may live. We play our tape and click rocks together, but get no response. But we do get the lay of the lake for tomorrow morning, when we'll try again. We check in at a nearby Holiday Park, and the man who checks us in gives me a brochure about a two-hour small boat nature tour we can do. We go find our spot, plug into 240 AC, turn on the propane, and I call the number.

A girl answers and says, sorry, but the season is over. Actually what she says is, "We're not doing the tour right now," but I figure I know what that means. Anyway, I tell her what we're after, and she gives us exact directions to a couple of places to try. Excellento.

We have dinner and crash, hoping for crakes tomorrow.

Bird Summary:

Life Birds:
Today: 1. White-faced Storm-petrel.
For the Trip: 74.

Trip Birds:
Today: 1. The lifer.
For the Trip: 100. Century mark for the trip.

Wednesday, May 9, 2001. Week 4, Day 7. Lake Taupo to Bolstads in Hamilton. Earthcrake!

7:24 and we've driven down old Wharf Road. It goes to the old wharf, don't you know. There are hundreds of Australian Black Swans and I remember reading that they are becoming a nuisance in some places. Here, I would guess, is one of them.

As we scope around, we get first one pair, then another pair of *DABCHICKS. These are little grebes, sort of like Horned or Eared Grebes, but without all the makeup. There is also a white goose of some kind, but it's splotched with black streaks, and we have no idea what it is.

We walk the metal (gravel) road, with Sharon calling. We get a fantastic look at a Fernbird, who is totally fascinated with Sharon's call. It follows us down the road for ten or twenty feet, but staying in the bushes beside the road. We can see it lower its tail when it flies, sort of like a dog sticking its tail between its legs as it slinks away. But it isn't ashamed of anything, that's just how it flies.

8:10 and we come upon this bright green frog that I think is mashed into the gravel. And I probably did the mashing. But the more we look at, and as Sharon scoots it a little with her stick, we see that it's alive -- it's just in a torpor. Sharon picks it up, and it has turquoise-blue upper legs. It's so cold that it can't move. And that's about how cold I am, even though the sun is shining. Sharon pets it. A green and blue frog!

The reason we are walking the gravel road is to try and see Bitterns and Crakes, but we get not a bite. We decide to move on to the new wharf.

There were bullrushes, called Raupo (rhymes with Alpo, sort of) on both sides of the gravel road. Raupo of the Taupo.

As we search the area around the car park of the new wharf and boat ramp, we notice a number of birds in the water. I go over and there are two pairs of Dabchicks. I try my new technique of shooting the digital camera through the scope, on one of the Dabchicks. Then I catch a pair together, as I'm hiding behind a plant. When they see me, they swim away or dive. I get one more single bird, then we resume birding the area.

9:08 and I hear a bullfrog. The girl last night, on the phone, described the bittern as having a sort of booming voice. Our book says the same thing. After seeing the frog this morning, though, I figure it's probably frogs. Sharon is absolutely convinced that we have just heard a Bittern. It turns out that she's right, it is an *AUSTRALASIAN BITTERN, but I don't agree until a phone call to the girl from last night, who confirms that they have no bullfrogs that make such a sounds. She says it had to be a Bittern. Dangit, doesn't Sharon get used to being right all the time?

Then I ask Sharon if she wants to go back and try to see the Bittern. We try, but get nowhere, and decide to move on. A NZ Pipit pops its tail up and down in the car park as we are loading. This bird is called Richard's Pipit in Australia.

We are tickled to death, and because we skipped breakfast to get an early birding start, and because it's so cold, Sharon requests a hot breakfast at a restaurant. We find one, and load up on eggs, bacon, sausage, orange juice, tea, potatoes, toast, and tomatoes. This, at this restaurant, is called the Kiwi Breakfast.

It's a gorgeous day, and we are still on Highway 41, headed over to 3. There are cattle and sheep all around, and a power line, but as far as you can see in every direction, it's green, green, green.

Eleven o'clock and we're at Highway 4. Left goes to National Park (and the general direction of our great Blue Ducks), and right goes to Hamilton.

Another expression that is popular here, to say that someone is out of work, they say they were "made redundant." Sharon says the other day, she read in a NZ paper that a florist here started a new service. For men, as you will see. They will send flowers to your loved one and a note that says, "We apologize for an error made at our store. Due to this error, these flowers could not be sent to you in time for the [anniversary, birthday, etc.]. This is entirely our fault, and we hope that this will cause no friction between you and the sender." Here and in England, you don't rent things, you hire them. So this new service is a Liar Hire.

I want to see another Kokako, and there are supposed to be 25 pairs or so in the Mapara Forest, which we are heading for. But we miss a key sign, and go all the way to the end of the gravel road, and up into a farmer's place. I say, "We're lost," and laugh. I say we're birdwatchers and he says, "Are you looking for the Kokakos?" That's it.

He says there is a sign on the right, about 6 k's back. We drive back and the problem was that there was a bigger sign across the road, that got our attention as we missed the Kokako sign.

We cross the stream on the swing bridge, and start our walk. We have no idea how tough this is going to get, and I happily walk along, following Sharon. The trail, which is actually two tire tracks, quickly begins about a twenty degree rise, and continues like that till we get to the top of the mountain It is also incredibly wet and slippery with the track being clay-like material, wet and often covered with moss.. Sharon calls in a Tomtit (black and white again, with no yellow underparts, here on the North Island), and some Silvereyes. It's a loop trail, and we make the return trip a little faster than the trip up, but we're wiped out.

I know that we are going through Otorohanga on the way to Hamilton, and I want to stop and take a picture of the Moa statue, which, it later turns out never was here (the statue). But that's for later. There is also one more spot to try for the crakes. A lake called Ngaroto Lake. It's about 10k or so off the highway, but I told the Bolstads that we expected to be at their place about 5 PM, and we want to take them out to dinner.

It seems that I can't do all three, so we start reviewing everything. I decide to skip the Moa statue photo, but try the lake. It has a boardwalk most of the way around it, and the location guide says that Marsh Crakes are regular here. We've heard that before, but will try anyway.

We get to the lake about 4:30, following Sharon's shortcut that is better than the book's directions. We park, and this lake is used for rowing meets, like the ones in the Olympics when there are about six oarsmen and a person yelling at them through a megaphone. But the lake is huge, and I can see us taking an hour and a half to get around it. I have brought the mobile phone in case we're going to be REALLY late.

We walk through a Raupo patch, then come to a more open area. I say open in the relative sense, because it's a large mud flat, peppered thickly with trees sort of like mangroves, which are very close together. Sharon suddenly says, "I just saw a black bird fly across from right to left." I get down to her line of sight, but the bird is gone. We continue on, but I have my eye on that spot. Suddenly a bird walks from behind a tree, then straight away from us. It's a Spotless Crake! Holy Cow, I have to get Sharon on it. I grab her shoulder and point towards the bird, which promptly changes from walking to flying, straight away from us. I'm sure I scared it. Then it banks to the right, and lands, out of our sight. We need to keep our eyes open now. Will that be our only look?

Sharon has stopped and is looking to our left now, straight away from the boardwalk. "I've got a crake!" she says. "It's the Marsh Crake! Quick, look right through that hole." I look and there are about sixteen holes. "Which one?" I ask, knowing it's a stupid question. She looks again, but the bird has moved. We are both looking, when I see it standing. I get out the video camera, and set it up for manual exposure (manadatory in this light) and manual focus (mandatory with all the plants between us and it). Lots of wheels to dial in to the right setting.

But I get the little *MARSH CRAKE perfectly, walking across a path from left to right, as calm as you please, just like a miniature chicken. It's back is streaked different shades of brown, with some black. What a cool bird. We watch it disappear and quietly high five. "Let's go get the other one," I say. We move on, and get lined up with another walking channel through the plants, and there, just as pretty as you please, is a little *SPOTLESS CRAKE, walking nonchalantly away from us. It walks back and forth about three times, then Sharon spots (excuse that) another one. It's obviously a pair. I can't seem to get the camera focused properly, but I do get the spot-less black bird for an instant in good focus, and thirty seconds in poor focus.

Two of the hardest birds of the trip, both within sixty seconds of each other, on video. That's like winning the lottery in California, then learning you also won it in Nevada the same day. Heck, anyone can win the lottery.

Back on the road, we drive into Hamilton, and find ourselves at a stoplight behind a small red truck, with an oversized bed. The license plate (registration number here) is SADNOH.

We make it to Bolstads, where we try to tell them how exciting this is. They get the picture that we're excited, all right, but it's the kind of thing that just doesn't translate as well as we'd like.

Those four birds were the tops on my list, of all remaining birds. And we knocked them off in one day. Unbelievable. It will be a long time before we top this day.

They've made dinner reservations at a restaurant called Tables, in downtown Hamilton, right on the river. We have time to shower and change, and we go have the most fantastic dinner you can imagine. This place combines the art of presentation with great-tasting food, and it's a real treat. Sharon has venison and I have pork, as does Bill, while Rachel has a tasty vegetarian dish. We top these off with desserts of unimaginably cool presentation [Mine is three different ice cream flavor scoops, somehow stacked vertically, and then it's back home. It's about $20-25 US per person, including a couple of drinks and a bottle of wine and the tip.

If you want to find value, go to New Zealand for your next overseas vacation.

Tomorrow we plan to zip up to Trounson Park, basically sit in our chairs on the walkway over Kiwi feeding ground, and sit out as long as it takes to see at least one. We'll sleep there, then drive back down to Auckland, stay the last night near the airport, turn our rig in the next day, be driven to the airport by the Adventure Caravans, and begin the end of this fabulous vacation.

That's the plan, anyway. But it's shot down by a weather report of a huge storm bearing down on the upper half of the North Island. Right where we're going. So we decide to hang around here tomorrow, do some shopping and relaxing, then decide how and where to spend the last night.

Bird Summary (NOTE: This is the end of the birding on the trip. THANK YOU, THANK YOU, THANK YOU, say some. I DON'T NEED TO READ ANY MORE, say others):

Life Birds:
Today: 4. Australasian Bittern (heard only), Dabchick, Marsh Crake!!, Spotless Crake!!
For the Trip: 78. I had hoped for 45 or 50.

Trip Birds:
Today: 1. The lifers.
For the Trip: 104.

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