This is now over a week late and I'm afraid I just can't get my act together to include photos or much details at this stage... but... I just wanted to give a shout out to my old (albeit brief) stomping grounds of Otago for being such a great place! My wife and I spent around 6 days exploring our old Dunedin haunts as well as venturing further afield to take in the lovely winter weather. While we had some stiff northerlies early on, the trip was mostly under calm sunny skies which was not superb for seawatching but certainly made for enjoyable sightseeing.
Out route took us initially south past Lake Waihola where we checked in to see if the winter flock of coots (that was just getting going when I lived in Dunedin in 2008) was about--sure enough, there were about 150 in a tight flock at the SW end along with the usual Black-billed Gulls near the boat launch. We then headed down to Milton and took the coastal route to the mouth of the Clutha via Toko Mouth which I had never been to before. Really neat spot actually and was pleased to pick up a pair of Fernbird plus a very close Buller's Albatross that didn't seem to care about the lack of wind. We tried a few back roads on Inch Clutha but failed to come up with any Cattle Egrets, then after lunch we headed to the always impressive Nugget Point. Few seabirds were in the air as it was nearly flat calm out there, but we did pick up a juvenile Southern Royal Albatross along with the ever-present White-caps and winter trash birds ( ) Buller's Albatross. A giant petrel came in quite close and a few Cape Pigeons danced around out there.
Next we got into the proper Catlins and although it was getting dark we tried a bit of the Catlins River walk. Didn't make it far enough in for Mohua but had our first taste of southern bush birds though the highlight was a surprise Eastern Rosella (a bit south of its usual Dunedin range). Spent the night in an old pioneering house about 30km out of Owaka (after taking in the Highlanders game at the pub of course), the awoke the next morning to gale northerlies. This was our day to explore the south Catlins so we headed on down toward Curio Bay, bumping into Bruce M at the Tautuku overlook, then we checked out the southern most point of the island--Slope Point, as well as the more scenic Waipapa Point lighthouse. Both of these spots by the way would be epic in gale southeasterlies! Just hide behind the lighthouse and strap in for the bonanza!
The Catlins are truly a magical place which I'm glad are still not that touristy or busy in any way. There are so many things to do from beaches and cliffs, to protected inlets, and lakes, waterfalls, and wonderful bush walks. McLean Falls was definitely a highlight. We made it back to the Owaka area just on dusk and popped down to Catlins Lake for a shot at the local cockatoo roost. Sure enough--there were 7 Sulphur-cresteds in a macrocarpa near the Hinahina Bridge. Thanks to Richard S for the tip. Also had a Pied Shag in this area (the previous night) which is scarce in Otago though the Catlins seems to get them more than around Dunedin.
After spending a day around Dunedin city, we did a day trip inland to Middlemarch to visit some of Lisa's extended family. On the way we stopped in briefly at a few hotspots north of Dunedin and--despite it being winter and Otago (shorebird wasteland), we were treated to a single Red Knot among some Bar-tailed Godwits on Blueskin Bay, and 2 adult Pied Shags at Karitane. (You have to be a local to appreciate these sightings). The scenery then changed dramatically as we crossed into the interior. Macraes Flat was an impressive area which I wished we could have spent more time in. The settlement is based around the large gold mine on the hill, but there is also a large flat area of wetlands and paddocks that clearly attract a lot of water birds at this time of year. The highlight in this area was a single female Cirl Bunting that was on the side of the highway.
While we weren't really birding in Middlemarch, we did a great walk up to Sutton Salt Lake (I think that's what it's called) which is a stunning area which was crawling with pipits and yellowhammers. We all noted quite a few SIPO in various fields around Middlemarch as well. According to Lisa's uncle, they usually only see them in the early spring but they seemed to be spending the entire winter this year. A pair of apparently pure-looking Grey Ducks were in a small farm dam on the SE side of the river from Middlemarch. Definitely a beautiful area to visit, especially if you're into trail biking (as it's on the Otago Rail Trail).
Finally, we spent a day and a half around one of my favourite areas in the world--the Otago Peninsula. Duck and wader numbers seemed to be doing pretty well on Hoopers and Papanui Inlets and the seawatching off Taiaroa Head is still awesome even with zero wind. While there might be less birds and less flying, it's much easier to see things like 300-400 Spotted Shags on a bait ball feeding frenzy, an unseasonal Arctic Skua chasing gulls offshore, and 3 orca--which were probably around 3.5 km away but were still easily visible in the scope. Didn't see the Great Crested Grebe that has been hanging around Broad Bay (and we stayed at Broad Bay), and also didn't see any White Herons at Tomahawk Lagoon (though the second time was cut short when the armed offenders squad showed up!).
Oh! And somewhere in there we went to the fabulous Orokanui Sanctuary--what a place! Fantastic place to see bush birds up close (including fernbird by our toes) in a beautiful setting.
So this is an abbreviated tale, but we had a blast and saw around 70 species--but go see for yourself. Otago is Owesome! (as David Tua might say)
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