My wife Lisa, 1 year old Alex, and I have just returned from a superb school holiday trip to the South Island. We managed to score some cheap flights to ChCh direct from Hamilton (on points--woo!) so decided to focus on some areas we either hadn't been to or not for a long while. In hindsight I think we bit off a bit too much for a week-long adventure as it certainly felt like we were driving a lot most days, when we could have been hiking around in the wonderful weather. We certainly would have been happy staying put in any one of the marvelous places we stayed in. Ah well--our ambitious travel itinerary still allowed for an incredible diversity of areas to visit, explore, stay, eat, and of course...bird.
Christchurch to Arthur's Pass:
Flew into Christchurch on Wednesday, October 2nd in the afternoon. Little Alex needed a nap, so we drove her to sleep by heading up to Waikuku and the Ashley River mouth. Strong southerlies made scoping a bit challenging but birding from the south side made it possible to be protected by the dunes to an extent. Fortunately both the BLACK STILT and SANDERLING made themselves conspicuous early on, and it was nice to watch BLACK-FRONTED TERNS fishing over the estuary with the more numerous WHITE-FRONTED TERNS. On the drive back out, we spotted several LITTLE BLACK SHAGS which were Canterbury ticks for me.
The following day we struck out for the hills. It was certainly wintery in Porter's Pass, but that was a welcome bit of newness coming from the sticky Waikato. At both Lake Lyndon and Pearson we were delighted to get good looks at GREAT CRESTED GREBES, along with a few SIPO, stilts, and BANDED DOTS. We stopped at Hawdon Shelter for lunch where it was nice to bump into fellow British Columbian Mike Ashbee, working his usual magic on tomtits and robins. Hilariously (or tragically), Alex got very upset every time a bold male robin approached our picnic blanket. She is generally very inquisitive about birds (mostly big ones), so this little guy must have been too unpredictable for her liking. Later on she scored her lifer KEA at Bealey (Didn't mind them at all), then more at Arthur's Pass Village. Interestingly, Arthur's Pass itself was sunny warm and without snow; a distinct contrast from the fog, cold winds, and snow around Porter's.
As we descended west of the divide, the sun came out more and the day warmed up wonderfully. Following tips from previous posters to this group, we cut SW toward Hokitika on the Old Christchurch Road and stopped off along the cycle trail where a hydro canal leads to a small reservoir and dam. Here there were lots of NZ SCAUP as well as several pairs of pure-looking GREY DUCK. Best of all was a pair of BLUE DUCK just above the dam.
We eventually made our way to our Air BnB in Hokitika and mostly relaxed around town. In the late afternoon we made our way down to Lake Mahinapua (The lake that some speculate Kotuku/Great Egret are nesting or prospecting). Sure enough we noted 4-5 of these elegant birds flying south over the lake. This is a stunning place to visit, particularly on a calm sunny day. BROWN CREEPER were abundant in the tangled foliage around the carpark, and a lone LITTLE BLACK SHAG fishing off the beach was an unexpected bonus on the west coast. We finished off the day with some fish and chips near the driftwood 'Hokitika' sign on the main town beach. Offshore several SPOTTED SHAGS flew by, and best of all--a fishing vessel had some WHITE-CAPPED ALBATROSS, WESTLAND PETRELS, and at least 1 GIANT PETREL tagging along (Unfortunately smaller and distant birds could not be identified in the evening sun).
One of my favourite things about travelling NZ (or anywhere I suppose) is noting the slight (or obvious) differences in distribution of supposedly widespread and common birds. Before visiting the coast on this trip, I took a quick look at my bird lists from previous visits and was shocked to note that even while accruing around 70 species for the coast (Good for 2nd all time on eBird believe it or not!), I had never recorded (among other things): Grey Teal, Gannet, Pied Shag, White-faced Heron, Bar-tailed Godwit, Banded Dotterel, Caspian Tern, or Sacred Kingfisher! Was this simply because I didn't bother to note down common species seen incidentally while travelling, or had a really never seen these on the west coast? As we would find out, these species (while present) are indeed much scarcer than other parts of NZ (particularly the Waikato where we live and build our bias). Fortunately we scored our lone CASPIAN TERN for the trip at the Hoki mouth that evening, along with a lone BANDED DOTTEREL.
The next morning, we headed inland to the beautiful Lake Kaniere en route to the now very touristy Hokitika Gorge. Both places are well worth the visit, for bush-birding, scenery, and even a few birds. Our first WHITE-FACED HERONS of the trip were in some remote farm paddocks in the area, and we also found a small flock of BANDED DOTTERELS in similar habitat.
After lunch in Hokitika (and a disappointing stop at the poo ponds--lots of ducks but no teal!), we made our way north up to Greymouth, where rain descended. Little Alex was not loving being cooped up in the car at this point so we only stopped briefly at a few of the estuary wetlands in town with 2 more LITTLE BLACK SHAGS near the airport being the highlight. Instead of doing the usual coastal route up to Punakaiki, we opted this time to head inland up the Grey River to Reefton (via Blackball on the day). This scenic rural valley seems like a great place to explore whether both for birding and for the mining/pioneering history. We rejoiced on the outskirts of Reefton when the first KINGFISHER appeared on a wire---wahoo! Reefton too is a surprising gem. Up until recently it was your typical depressed former coal town with lots of shut up shops. It is undergoing a revitalisation effort with many new 'trendy' businesses coming in, including a well-regarded gin distillery which we managed to check out before it closed for the day. Without a doubt, my main birding memory of our time in Reefton were NZ PIGEONS (Kereru) being absolutely everywhere feeding on cherry buds.
As forecasted, the next morning was rainy. Fortunately our next accommodation in Westport said we were welcome to check in early so after a wet drive through the Buller Gorge (kind of seems fitting, driving it in downpours), we popped into a lovely suite on the outskirts of Westport, lit the fire, and did some reading. As the rain subsided in the afternoon, my wife insisted that we should take this opportunity to check out Karamea. Knowing little about the driving involved I agreed. Woooeee, that's a mission. While the map might show mostly straight lines, driving over the Karamea Bluffs in rain takes a wee while! Anyway, we did eventually make it although unfortunately the rain returned. Not wanting to give up, we continued up into the Oparara Basin. This pocket of superb native forest averages around six metres of rain per year (similar to Milford) and we could certainly feel it on the day. Still, the rain eased off and we enjoyed a great walk to one of several impressive limestone arches and caves in the area. The usual bush birds were present along with 1 or 2 calling KEA in overhead (No kaka detected unfortunately). On the return trip to Westport, we noted a KOTUKU in a field near Karamea, and several BAR-TAILED GODWITS (distant) on the main estuary south of town. In the evening after dinner, I ventured out from our accommodation, ideally placed right on the Orowaiti Lagoon, and counted well over 100 GODWIT along with a few ROYAL SPOONBILL. After dark, the wind died down, so I tried listening for bittern and the like in the area, but settled for 1 MARSH CRAKE calling, plenty of WEKA (We must have seen hundreds over the 3-4 days on the coast!), and a SHINING CUCKOO which called as it migrated overhead in the starry sky. Eventually I got tired of being continually questioned by suspicious farmers and police about why I was standing on the side of the road at night and decided to go to bed.
In the morning, the sun was back out, and after breakfast we ventured back down to the edge of the Orowaiti Lagoon and were delighted to see a small flock of 6 CATTLE EGRET along with a few ROYAL SPOONBILL. We packed up our things and headed west to Tauranga Bay, perhaps the nicest beach on the west coast? Here there is a popular walk to the Cape Foulwind seal colony and lighthouse. While the wind was down, there were still plenty of WHITE-CAPPED ALBATROSS floating offshore, along with a few SOOTY SHEARWATERS, and yes--2 GANNET! To finish up in Westport we popped down to the other tidal lagoon south of Tauranga Bay--Okari Estuary. Unfortunately the tide was low, and one could only view the bottom third of the estuary with any ease, but still--there was our first PIED SHAG. This species has a very peculiar range in NZ, being common in Southland, Canterbury, Marlborough, Tasman, Wellington, Manawatu, Gisborne, Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Auckland, and Northland but being scarce to rare in Otago (except Catlins), West Coast, Taranaki, and Hawkes Bay (except Mahia). Go figure...
Over the divide to Marlborough, then down to Cheviot/Gore Bay and finally back to Christchurch
We enjoyed a much more sunny drive through the Buller Gorge and stopped in Murchison for lunch. Here a KAKA flew over town and some of the last WEKAs of the trip crossed the road. A brief stop at Lake Rotoiti in St Arnaud revealed a visiting flock of BLACK-BILLED GULLS and we could not see any sign of the Mandarin Duck that had previously frequented the area. By the time we reached Blenheim we were hungry and tired of the drive, so we loaded up on groceries and headed up the Awatere Valley (west of Seddon) to our lovely stone cottage accommodation (If you haven't explored the options on Air BnB, check it out!). While relaxation was the focus, I couldn't help but note the dusk call of a RING-NECKED PHEASANT (my first for Marlborough).
Brilliant sun graced us again, for our drive south to Gore Bay (on the coast near Cheviot). After a lazy morning up the Awatere (Marvelous views of the Kaikoura Mountains), we reconnected with the highway, and stopped at Elterwater (Sadly no time for Grassmere with a baby in tow!) where wind was up making for difficult grebing. Only a DABCHICK could be seen in that department, however the male NORTHERN SHOVELER was so obvious we spotted him with the naked eye before getting out of the car. Any drive south from Ward to Christchurch is highlighted by the Kaikoura coast. Neither of us had visited since the quake, so while we weren't surprised to see a lot of uplifted bleached rock, we were surprised at how so much roadworks are still ongoing (Seems to be employing half of north Canty!). While some changes were sad to see, it appears that the seals at Ohau Point are loving life, and from Ohau all the way south of Kaikoura to Goose Bay and beyond, what seemed like the entire HUTTON'S SHEARWATER population was on full display--not just in big rafts, but right off the rocks so that even my 1 year old daughter was pointing at them out the car window! Joining them were also hundreds of SOOTY SHEARWATER which must be on their way south to Otago and Southland. Several NORTHERN GIANT PETRELS made close approaches to the highway as well which is always neat, and even though the wind was blowing out to see, it was nice to get onto a BLACK-BROWED/CAMPBELL ALBATROSS and a WANDERING ALBATROSS off Ohau Point.
After lunch in Kaikoura, we pretty much just blitzed down to Gore Bay (Not even stopping at St Annes Lagoon, though we did note a lone CAPE BARREN GOOSE from the road) where we wanted to spend the afternoon doing next to nothing. Here we were staying in the old school house which was really neat. In the evening we walked the beach and checked out a lagoon near the north end which had a good mix of waterfowl. Out to sea it was neat to catch a flock of around 25 SIPO migrating southward, and there were also several feeding flocks of FAIRY PRIONS mixed in with lesser numbers of HUTTON'S SHEARWATERS.
The following morning, we continued along the Gore Bay 'tourist drive' past the old Port Robinson (where a cock RING-NECKED PHEASANT was showing off), and to the mouth of the Hurunui River. Lisa and I were both stricken with how similar the Hurunui mouth is to the Mohaka mouth up in Hawkes Bay. Both involve an approach from the north along fertile terraces overlooking the river valley, before finally ending at a bluff on the north side overlooking a river with a rocky mudbar in the middle of the river, then a long channel that runs north up the coast, paralleling a stony spit before seeping indirectly into the sea. The bird makeup was also similar, as several hundred BLACK-BILLED GULLS and WHITE-FRONTED TERNS (and lesser numbers of RED-BILLED) were gearing up to nest on the spit (in essentially an identical position to the ones at the Mohaka). On the muddy bar was also a lone BANDED DOTTEREL and several BLACK-FRONTED DOTTERELS, and also nice to see were around 8 BLACK-FRONTED TERNS.
Ended the day by exploring downtown Christchurch (our first visit since their earthquake as well). We were both quite impressed. After hearing so much about the delays in rebuilding etc., the downtown seemed to be filled with locals and tourists enjoying a variety of eateries, shopping, and just business in general. We tried Hagley Park for a bit (no Little Owl) but still a great place for a stroll, then enjoyed an evening catching up with friends who live in the area.
Our final full day in Christchurch was spent out around the Banks Peninsula, first around Akaroa, then later around Lyttelton. We stopped briefly near Kaituna Lagoon where I had found a MARSH CRAKE and we did bag the COCKATOOS up Price's Valley (including a bird in a poplar cavity) but otherwise this was more of a non-birding day of sight-seeing, windowshopping, and ice cream consumption. Cool to see Alex getting more and more into her Larid ID, as she enjoyed pointing out every Red-billed and Black-backed Gull that flew over us in Lyttelton---shorebirds next!
Flew out the following morning so I think that's pretty much it! If you've read this whole thing, good on ya!
Russ, Lisa, and Alex Cannings
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