I spent 10 days with my family travelling in mid-December from Christchurch visiting Queenstown, Stewart Island, Te Anau and the MacKenzie district. Here are some of the highlights.
For some years now Lake Wakatipu has been graced with Crested Grebes (ppullonbyeong-ari) in the bay with the Earnslaw Wharf - so just off the town's stylish lakefront cafes and parks. Numbers seem to be increasing, with 5 seen off the Earnslaw steamship this time. Over on the other side of the lake at Walter Peaks there was another in the bay close to the shore. According to one of the farmers there they have been present there for many years. It is very satisfying to see a beatiful bird like the Crested Grebe increasing in numbers.
A walk on the Glenorchy wetlands produced very little apart from a few Black Swans (goni), but the GYC cafe situated in the old post office served great food and coffee - just be careful not to annoy the cat as an amusing sign says he's a bit old and grouchy!
On the way between Queenstown and Invercargil is the tiny village of Athol, famous for fly-fishing for trout on the nearby Mataura River. Just before reaching the village a rock outcrop is a regular haunt of the New Zealand Falcon (similar to mae). However only the whitewash of droppings on a ledge was all that could be seen.
After staying overnight on the outskirts of Invergiggle it was off to the ferry for a trip over the notoriously bumpy and windy Foveaux Strait to Stewart Island. Seawatching off the back of the boat was a rather damp affair with spray coming right over the cabin. Just off Bluff a large skua (like bukgeukdodukgalmaegi) was harrassing the terns and gulls twisting up and down and around like an aerial big dipper - it was probably a Brown Skua, but could have been a dark phase Pomarine Skua with no spoons - the view was too brief. Common Diving Petrels were common - tiny birds that look like Murrelets (ppulsoe-ori) but aren't even closely related, and Sooty Shearwaters (like soeburiseumsae) were very common. The only albatross species was NZ White-capped Mollymawk. One White-faced Storm Petrel was also seen and some towering all-dark Pterodroma petrels - seemingly Grey-faced Petrel - but unusually far south.
Stewart Island is NZ's third largest island. It has a population of only 400, one convenience store, one pub, one restaurant and one fish and chip van - the Kai Kart which sells the best fish and chips in NZ (but rather expensive unfortunately) which can be eaten overlooking a beautiful bay. The Kai Kart's oysters and mussel chowder are also not to be missed. Kaka (NZ's forest parrot) wheeled overhead. The birds have two main calls - beautiful whistles and a call which sounds like they are being sick.
The next morning it was off to Ulva island - an island cleared of mammalian pests and where bird species already there thrive and some those previously lost have been returned. Weka patrol the beaches and sort out their tribal disagreements over areas of sand-hopper infested seaweed with their stubby wings and sharp beaks. Yellowheads (bush canaries) brighten the forest and tear strips of bark off trees to get the insects beneath. Bright green parakeets feed contentedly next to the path on the forest floor, or fly by unseen calling overhead. Saddlebacks (rare NZ wattlebirds) hop around the trees and bushes with their burnt red backs and staccato calls. Birds were everywhere - a birdwatcher's dream island.
A walk up to Acker's Point the next day found evidence of many seabirds nesting near the tip of the peninsula with holes of Sooty Shearwater and Blue Penguin next to the track. Young Sooty Shearwaters are eaten in NZ as muttonbirds - they taste a bit fishy, are very oily, and there are lots of bones.
Back on the mainland we walked a bit of the Milford Track at the top end of Lake Te Anau. The weather was awful with strong winds bringing trees down across the path and thunder and heavy rain. But still Robins were seen and a few Tomtits, and a couple of Long-tailed Cuckoos screeched unmusically in the middle distance.
Back in Canterbury - well almost - next to the Ahuriri River in the Mackenzie District is an area of wetlands - the Ben Avon Wetlands. Recent releases of the critically endangered Black Stilt have been made and led to birds using this roadside series of ponds and marshy grassland. Two were seen on my visit - the first time I had seen the species at that location.