You may remember this guy, featured in my first post from New Zealand:
He was the first of what would be many new and interesting birds, many quite peculiar, that we encountered. Had I been on my own, I would have merely marvelled at them shortly and then moved on. But traveling with Aaron, a bit of a birder (or enough of one to pack a small set of binoculars!), I learned the fun of getting a closer look; identifying and learning about the birds, and checking off the ones we’d see.
The day we saw the shag, we picked up a guide book, “Which New Zealand Bird?”, a great book for the cycling tourist: focusing on the birds that you’re likely to see during a New Zealand trip, categorizing them by location type (i.e. by the ocean, farmland, forest, etc.), small, and durable.
Here are the birds spotted and identified on our trip:
Grey Warbler, Fantail, Tomtit, Silvereye, Bellbird, Blackbird, Tui, Morepork, NZ Falcon, NZ Pigeon, Weka, Kea, Goldfinch, Welcome Swallow, Yellowhammer, House Sparrow, Song Thrush, Starling, Chaffinch, Australian Magpie, Spur-Winged Plover, Australasian Harrier, Pheasant, Black-Billed Gull, Australian Coot, Australasian Shoveler, NZ Scaup, Pukeko, Mallard, Paradise Shelduck, White-Faced Heron, Black Swan, Black Shag, Pied Shag, Little Shag, White-Fronted Tern, Pied Stilt, Red-Billed Gull, Variable Oystercatcher, Black-Billed Gull, and the Royal Spoonbill.
I’m sure that list is helpful. How about the highlights instead:
The fantail was another bird seen on our first day and many times thereafter, mostly in forests near the coast. It would fan and un-fan its tail feathers and do so during its very loopy and flittering flight. They are not shy, no, they would make themselves known by flying back and forth in front of us, showing off cicada-catching skills, with short rests to watch us from close and low branches. Maybe they were defending their nests or looking for food, but I liked to think of their behaviour as playful and welcoming. (Silly human misinterpretations…)
We saw many silvereyes on the road, unfortunately not as animated as the fantail. “Why so much silvereye roadkill?”, we asked. Then one day we saw one fly hastily across the road and our path, swooping very low to the ground, and we understood.
Is that a kiwi?! one tourist asked. No, not a kiwi, just a weka. But not “just”, these are really cool birds! Alright, slightly chicken like, but prehistoric-looking and amusing to watch where their oblivious curiosity will take them.
Aaron taught me that sewage treatment ponds are great places to see a variety of birds, primarily waterfowl. Sewage – seems kind of horrible. But the human waste makes terrific breeding grounds for many insects, meaning a smÃ¶rgÃ¥sbord for the birds. So they like it, but a good reason to think twice about what you pour down the drain. In the pond pictured, we saw the graceful black swans, australasian shovelers, and the paradise shelduck with their beautiful plumage, always in pairs like bride and groom of the pond.
I read about one of New Zealand’s few owls, the morepork, before the trip. I didn’t understand how it could be named for its call until we camped at the Lyell DoC and in the middle of the night I woke up to “more pork! …… more pork!” echoing across the Buller Gorge. It really does say that! From then on, we’d hear them every few nights but never guessed we’d have the chance to actually see one. That is, until Okarito worked its magic. On our walk through the forest, as we turned around a corner I saw something brown and fairly large fly up into a tree. It was close enough to see, without binoculars, that it was indeed the morepork! So exciting! We still had a look through the binoculars and when I brought them to my eyes and saw wide owl eyes staring right back at me, it was stunning and spooky at the same time.
We saw our first Kea in a valley somewhere North of Okarito and there were a bunch who’d taken residence in Fox Glacier town. Unfortunately, I didn’t get a picture so the one above is from our guidebook. Note the artist’s rendition of the Kea’s habitat. Yeah… Our host in Fox Glacier suggested that we store our bikes in the garage. “Why?” we asked. “You know…the keas”, she responded, nodding slightly at a tall tree behind the property. Sure enough, 2 or 3 keas were roosted, eyes scanning the town for potential mischief.
I was grateful for the garage when, in the middle of the night, both Aaron and I woke up to a racket punctuated with witchy caws. Aaron went outside to investigate and reported back that the kea was having a go at a box of crackers (the lack of bears and raccoons in NZ makes for pretty lax food handling in campsites) and when he tried to shoo it away, the bird gave him a look that showed it was not threatened in the least (similar to a raccoon’s I imagined). They continued with their racket and once, thankfully only once, I heard one fly into or against our tent. I was actually a bit spooked, as one can get in the middle of the night, but Aaron calmed me by explaining that given the size and weight of a kea, if it really attacked me, I would have the advantage.
Good enough. I put in earplugs and they were not a problem again. But something to consider if I ever return and do any backpacking. Those keas are something fierce!
The morning of our last touring day, by which time the fantails and wekas had become a norm and we’d mostly forgotten about seeing any new birds, we were riding along a tidal flat area south of Waikouaiti and spotted a royal spoonbill. Its name describes it well, quite the exotic creature to see. I’d click the link (to Wikipedia) for photos closer up.
Before humans introduced mammals like cats and possums, birds ruled New Zealand and had a relatively predator-free life. This leant to the existence of many flightless species, like the kiwi, and fearless and/or too-curious species like the weka. Now many are being threatened by habitat loss (aka. deforestation, agriculture, mining, etc.) and predators against which they don’t know how to defend themselves. Sanctuaries and efforts to bring predator populations down exist but still, can the variety of species be maintained under human conditioning? I fear not…something to think about when we’re given the ability to speak up against the destruction of Canadian habitats.