Tuesday, April 10, 2012

Birding in New Zealand

I promised to write about some creatures from New Zealand when I returned from my travels, but have been exceptionally slow in accomplishing that undertaking.  As an island with only two native mammals—both bats—New Zealand’s bird and insect life have evolved to fill niches normally occupied by rodents, scavengers, ungulates.  Without predation as a selection pressure, several NZ birds have lost the ability to fly.  Everyone knows about kiwis, but there are plenty of other such birds. Examples include an extremely rare parrot, the Kakapo, a large blue-green moorhen-like bird called a Takahe (only about 250 individually remaining), and the more abundant Weka, an enormous rail. Kakapos can’t fly, but climb trees to forage. Go figure. They are also nocturnal. Takahes are grazers; David Attenborough shows them in high alpine fields eating the tasty white part of grasses and discarding the top bit. Wekas forage for insects, grubs, and vegetation.  And then there was the Moa, a huge bird that grazed New Zealand before being hunted to extinction.

Takahe in the Te Anu Wildlife Sanctuary

As well as allowing for flightlessness, the lack of predation in evolutionary time has made many birds are very approachable.  Wekas in particular were unbothered by our presence and boldly approached our campsite to glean scraps of our meals. We tried to discourage such behavior, but it was interesting to see a rail so close.

Weka (western subspecies) trying to steal our dinner.

New Zealand Robins followed us down trails as we stirred up bugs with our feet, and would nearly jump onto our hands if we stirred up the leaves on the side of the path.

After eating bugs around our feet for a few minutes, this Robin
decided to pose nicely where there was actually some light. 

Robins can fly, but many of the flightless birds are suffering now that introduced predators roam New Zealand. Feral cats, stoats, rats, and Australian possums are major problems, but the country deals with them by aggressively trapping, poisoning, hunting, and, in the case of the possum, developing a market for fiber. Possums are killed to harvest their fur; what a great way to manage an invasive species!  Most of the possums I saw were dead, but unfortunately I didn’t even get a photo of roadkill. I did buy some possum yarn. It is very soft and will make great socks for my grandpa.

Back to flightless things. At latitude 47˚S, New Zealand is the closest thing to Antarctica after South America. You might expect to find some penguins. Nine species are found in NZ waters, and some of them breed on the islands. We were able to get a few glimpses of what is touted as the “rarest penguin in the world”—the Yellow-eyed Penguin. They breed in the Catlins, and in late February were onshore, molting (keep in mind that February is late summer in the southern hemisphere).

Yellow-eyed Penguin near Nugget Point

Fjordland Crested Penguins were just starting to molt. We were lucky enough to see one on Monro Beach, an area where about 30 birds nest. They lay two eggs in August and the life-mated pair shares incubation duties.  Chicks get a daily meal of squid, shrimp, octopus, and crab.  By early December they are no longer seen on land, and no one really knows where they go.  An informational panel told us that they usually return around March to molt before disappearing into the sea again.

Fjordland Crested Penguin, Monro Beach, South Island

Little Blue Penguins stick around the colony all year, and we saw a group of around 30 adults return from a day at sea to feed their chicks. They return at dusk in large groups to help escape predation in the water. From a distance they looked like a slow-moving dark log, but as they approached, I could pick out individual heads bobbing along side-by-side. When they reached the shore, the chicks, previously hidden in borrows in the tall grass in the hill behind us, began to make horrendous begging noises. The adults walked uphill to the appropriate burrow, and coughed up some food into the waiting mouths of their chicks. Yum.

For a birder like me (not very experienced, but very excited), five weeks in New Zealand was superb. There are few enough forest birds that I was sure I could ID them all by sight by the time the plane landed. After about a week and a half, I could ID most of them by ear. For the first two weeks at least, I was able to add at least two new birds to my life-list every day. The sea-birds were more challenging, and oddly, we hardly saw any shorebirds until we got to the north island, where we saw close to half of the world population of Wrybill (birds who use their right-curving bills curve to gather food from under rocks while watching the sky for danger) and had about 3000 Bar-tailed Godwits fly over and land 50 feet from us.

100% Pure Awesome. 

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