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New England Seabirds

 Wilson's Storm-petrel  Dave Jones

Birding On My Own
Australia &
New Zealand 2002
Emmalee Tarry
Revised 2015

Trip Reports

Table of Contents

 

 

Chapter 3
Kaikoura Pelagic Trips

Rangitoto
Cook Strait
Albatross Encounters
Hutton’s Shearwater
Special Pelagic Trip
Chum Basket
Albatrosses
Penguins and Petrels
Whales and Dolphins

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Kaikoura White-headed Albatross

Close encounter with a White-capped Albatross.

Rangitoto - A Volcanic Island in the Hauraki Gulf
On a beautiful Sunday morning while still in Auckland I took a boat trip to the volcanic island Rangitoto in the Hauraki Gulf. There were many sailers and kayakers enjoying the harbor. The Maori were here to see the last eruption of Ragitoto 600 years ago. The island is a popular recreational area for day trippers and people with vacation homes. The vegetation and bird life of the island have been terribly disrupted and the contrast with Tiritiri was very evident.

NZ$44 gets you the ferry trip and a ride on the tram to the 800m boardwalk to the summit. At the top you can look into the crater of the volcano and enjoy a beautiful view of Auckland.

At the summit I met a man with Zeiss Binoculars, the international symbol of a birder. He said he had lived in Europe for the past 30 years and just returned to New Zealand to retire. He was happy to tell me that two years ago he had been in Boston in May and had birded at a cemetery (Mt. Auburn). He mentioned that the birders there were very friendly and helped him identify the birds. He called it the best birding day of his life. Boston birders have world wide reputation.

There is a large breeding colony of Black-backed Gulls on the island. I also saw Tui . An eradication program is underway to remove the introduced Brush-tailed Possum and other predators that have caused much damage to the native plants and animals. As the owners die off, the vacation homes too will be removed making the island a park for all the people.

Cook Strait
I took the night train from Auckland to Wellington. This seemed like a good idea at the time since I saved money by sleeping on the train and did not have to rent a car until I got to South Island. The cost was NZ$125 and included a ticket for the Cook Strait ferry. The train does not have sleeper cars and I spent a fitful night in a reclining airplane seat. The train makes many stops, but everyone going all the way to Wellington is seated in the last car and the conductor does not waken people in this car.

This was my first big mistake. Some time during the night I passed Miranda and about 2,000 wintering Wrybills. When I later visited Miranda in December most of the Wrybills had departed for the breeding grounds and there were only 30 left. I was very lucky to see one. You can drive from Auckland to Miranda in about 2 hours. All the rental car companies facilitate dropping off a car on either side of the strait and picking up another on the other side.

In Wellington a bus took me from the train station to the ferry terminal. The Lynx Ferry to Picton on the south island was a big disappointment. This is a huge car ferry with many passengers, gambling, restaurants, and blaring television sets. There was only one very small rear facing outside deck that was populated with smokers. I was forced to stand at the front windows of the lounge. I saw many flocks of Fluttering Shearwaters. There were 7 Albatross (sp) all of which seemed to be the smaller Mollymawks. I also saw:Cape Petrels, Australian Gannets, and Common Diving Petrel.
At Picton on the south island I rented a Budget Rental car at the ferry terminal and arrived in Kaikoura about 3 PM. This was my first time to drive on left side of the road and I drove very slowly and carefully. I was also adjusting to the narrow 2-lane highway with the very narrow one-lane bridges. Fortunately I rented a car with automatic shift for this first trip.

On arriving in Kaikoura, I went to Albatross Encounters to arrange for the pelagic trips and then registered at the YHA hostel. I stayed here 5 nights on the June (winter) trip. I returned to Kaikoura in November and spent another 3 nights taking two more trips with Albatross Encounters and doing the Swim with Dolphins. This chapter describes both visits. The reason I started this trip in New Zealand was to take the Kaikoura Pelagic trip in the winter. All but four species of Albatross breed in the southern hemisphere during the astral summer September - April. They spend the winter months at sea feeding and this is the best time to see them at Kaikoura and off Wollongong. My plan was to do Kaikoura in June and then fly on to Australia to pick up the July Sydney and Wollongong pelagic trips. I would return to the south island of New Zealand in November to tour the rest of the island and then return to tour the north island before my December 17 return to the US.

Albatross Encounters

I am revising this trip report in the year 2015 some 13 years from the date of my trip. Things have changed so I am eliminating specific information that may no longer be relevant. From searching the internet I find that Albatross Encounters has expanded and is now part of a larger company called Kaikoura Encounters. One name is still familiar Dennis Buurman who was the owner/photographer who helped me get out in the winter months when other customers were scarce and most trips cancelled . Contact them at info@encounterkaikoura.co.nz .

Special Pelagic Trip
I arrived in Kaikoura during a spell of very good weather. However, it was winter (June) and a slow tourist season so Albatross Encounters did not have many customers. Dennis Buurman, one of the owners and an excellent photographer was planning a special trip and invited me to come along. Usually trips are 2-3 hours in length, but he planned to spend all day on the water. I met him at 7:30 AM the next morning at South Bay. On this trip we were looking for photo opportunities and did more searching than usual. Kaikoura is a great pelagic location because the edge of the continental shelf is only 1.5 miles offshore and a deep canyon (1600 meets deep ) runs into Goose Bay.

Hutton's Shearwater
We were barely away from the dock when we saw a flock of 20 Hutton's Shearwaters on the water. The only known breeding location of this small shearwater which looks like our Manx Shearwater is on the mountains behind Kaikoura. It is very common here, but very skittish and not attracted to the chum or the boat. While I saw hundred of Hutton's Shearwaters I never did get a good picture of one. Hutton's Shearwater is very similar to the smaller Fluttering Shearwater which is much more common around Auckland and in Cook's Strait. Separating Huttons from Fluttering at sea is difficult unless you are very experienced. We did have one Fluttering on the water at Kaikoura. I drove past the location of the breeding colony on the mountain behind Kaikoura, but you are not allowed to enter. This is to protect the future of the Hutton’s shearwaters all of which breed here

Cape Petrels
Dennis uses a frozen block of fish guts which he puts in a wire basket with attached floats and drops off the back of the boat. Within seconds we attracted a chattering flock of Cape Petrels. In the photo to the right you can see the wire basket.The Cape Petrel used to be called the Pintado Petrel. Two subspecies have been identified. Most of the Kaikoura birds are the Snares subspecies. On one of the summer trips we had a Southern Cape Petrel which has much more white on the wings.

Cape Petrels at kaikoura

Albatrosses
Soon the great Albatrosses start circling the boat and they too come in for their share of the chum. Within minutes a large number of Albatrosses are on the water around the boat. You don't even need your binoculars to identify them.

On my winter trips I had 8 species of Albatross: Southern Royal, Northern Royal, Wandering Snowy, Wandering Antipodean, Black-browed (Subantarctic), New Zealand White-capped, Salvin's, Buller's.

In this photo you can see at least 7 Albatrosses. A Wandering Albatross is in the center. As the Albatrosses land near the bait they keep their wings spread for just a minute before folding them next to their body. Notice the bird in foreground. Since one of the main field characteristics of the different species is the underside of the wings you have an opportunity to get a shot of the wing.

Albatross at Kaikoura
Kaikoura White-capped Albatross, Cape Petrel Wandering Albatross Kaikoura Wandering Albatross Kaikoura
Wandering Albatross Kaikoura

The large Wandering Albatross dominates at the chum block moving the more aggressive Cape Petrels back.

To the left a Wandering Albatross face on.

More species of Albatrosses and more individuals were seen on the winter trips. During the summer adults are busy with breeding and stick close to the breeding islands. In the summer you will see juveniles and Great Albatross ( Royal and Wandering) individuals who are not breeding this year. The Great Albatross only breed every two years.

Salvin's Albatross Kaikoura

White-capped Mollymawk.
The former Shy Albatross has been split into 3 subspecies of which White-capped is one of the new species. Australian and New Zealand bird books have not adopted the new splits and especially on the Australian pelagics some birders refused to acknowledge them. I don't know why since the splits certainly make pelagic birding in this area more interesting.

Penguins and Petrels
Northern Giant Petrels showed up on all trips and in the summer we had a Southern as well. Two Blue Penguins were seen on one trip in the summer.

Winter trips had Gray-faced Petrels and Common Diving Petrels.

Both summer and winter trips had numerous Fairy Prions.
Shearwaters included: Huttons, Fluttering, Sooty, Flesh-footed, Short-tailed .

We had one Antarctic Fulmar in the winter. Westland Petrels (belowleft ) were very common on the winter trip. On the summer trip we had both Westland and White-chinned Petrels (below right).

Westland Petrel

Westland Petrel

White-chinned Petrel Kaikoura

White-chinned Petrel

Whales and Dolphins
The Albatross Encounters Boat did not have a license to watch whales. Whale Watching was the concession of a Maori group. Since we were on a special photographic trip we did stop to photograph a large Sperm Whale which presented itself close to the boat.

A very exciting pod of about 250 Southern Right Whale Dolphins appeared. This is a very rare dolphin which some of the experts have never seen. It is distinctive because it has no dorsal fin.

A pod of Pilot Whales seemed to be feeding with the dolphins. The more usual dolphin in the bay is the Dusky Dolphin.There is a small plane trip you can take to fly over the whales. This is certainly the best way to appreciate the full size and shape of the Sperm Whale. I didn't take the trip, but did see the footage Dennis has made of the Sperm Whales from the plane.


Daily Albatross Encounters Trips
I made two visits to Kaikoura, on the first during the winter (June) I went out 3 times on the Albatross Encounters. On the second trip in summer (December) I went out twice with Albatross Encounters and also did a Swim With Dolphins. The cost of the Albatross trips is NZ$60, but after the first trip I got a discount NZ$50. See the Kaikoura Bird List for the complete results of my trips.

The daily trips are out to see Albatross only and most non-birders are not impressed by seeing 8 different species. An albatross is an albatross. Since most do not have binoculars or can't really use those they do have, they want big birds close to the boat. The boat sails offshore to a good location, puts out the chum basket and waits for action. A large number of interesting seabirds are attracted to the chum, but don't expect to go off looking for rarities. Non-birders will be puzzled at your enthusiasm for the Hutton's Shearwater. The captain did stop to give me an opportunity to see this bird, but don't expect too much.This was not the only time on the trip where traveling solo was a disadvantage. A group of three birders might be able to negotiate a special birding trip especially if you were willing to go early in the morning when most tourists are still asleep.

Swim With Dolphins
Swimming with sea animals has become immensely popular around the world. At first it was swimming with captive dolphins in pens. Now you can swim with sharks, sting rays, sea turtles, dolphins, and seals in the open ocean. While some say that this is an unethical exploitation of the animals, people seem to absolutely love the experience. Anything that generates this sort of enthusiasm and revenue will be good for the ultimate survival of the animals at least in my opinion. I prefer the swim with free animals programs as opposed to swimming in a pen with captive dolphins.

At any rate I wanted to try my hand at it. The trip cost me NZ$90 with a discount because I had taken so many trips. First you get outfitted with a suitable wet suit, face mask, snorkel, and fins. It is not a requirement, but it seems to me that a person needs experience snorkeling before you take this on. Using a snorkel is not intuitive. Of course you must be a good swimmer. I have a scuba diving certificate and a good deal of snorkeling experience so it was easy for me. Dragging all this equipment, we were off to the boat at South Bay by bus. Some people sign up at half price to just watch. The boat sails out to locate a large pod of Dusky Dolphins.


The boat horn signals for the swimmers go into the water off the back of the boat. Suddenly you find yourself with dolphins all around you. Some swam right next to me so close that I could have touched them (against the rules). You could hear their squeaky calls. Then off they went and the boat horn sounded for the swimmers to scramble back on board. Off we went to catch up with the pod again and back into the water for another try. Some days the dolphins hang around in one spot, but today they were busy and kept moving . I finally learned that the best tactic was to be the last back to the boat so that I got to sit on the back step with my legs in the water. That way I was the first off for the next swim. We did about 6 swims. The water was very cold at first, but after your body heats up the water in your wet suit it is comfortable. I was very tired after the last swim and rather glad to stop.

Back on the boat you can fill your wet suit with warm water which feels really good. Then you take it off and put a sweat shirt over your wet swim suit. No matter what it is going to be a little cold going back. Before returning to the dock, the captain caught up with the dolphins again and they were now putting on a pretty good jumping show. I got some good picture of jumping dolphins always a thrilling sight. And yes I returned very enthusiastic about the experience. It is good fun to swim with dolphins. I am sure it is no advantage to the dolphins, but neither did I think it caused them harm. There are 2 boats in Kaikoura and each one makes two trips a day with swimmers. If the dolphins really minded they would not stay in the bay. The swim with dolphins program is good income for the former fishermen and residents of Kaikoura, giving them a good reason to see that the dolphin population remains healthy and protected.

The Maori run a very successful whale watching operation in Kaikoura. It is expensive NZ$110 per person. At certain times of the year there are Humpback Whales migrating off the coast of Kaikoura. The rest of the year Sperm Whales are are the show. The whale watch is a very successful business and the Maori have plans to build a large hotel on the top of the Kaikoura Peninsula to feed tourists to the whale watch. I wish them success.There is also a "Swim With Seals" trip out of Kaikoura and the one person I met who went on this was also very enthusiastic despite getting seasick on the way home. Swimming with sea animals is very popular and profitable.

Around Kaikoura
When I wasn't taking pelagic trips, I drove around Kaikoura looking for birds and exploring. On a trip in the direction of Mt. Fyffe I stopped at the Lavender Farm and birded around the garden: Spur-winged Plover, Blackbird, Song Thrush, Chaffinch, Pukeo (Purple Swamphen), Silvereyes,Tomtit, Dunnock. On a farm fence I had flock of Redpolls. I drove a distance along the gravel Kowhai River Track and had Bellbirds, Fantail, Skylark, and Tomtit.I walked the track from the South Bay refuge which climbs up a steep hill and affords a marvelous view. I had Skylarks and Yellowhammer up here. Pied Stilts were along the shore with a White-faced Heron. Recognize the names of these birds?  If you have birded in the British Isles or Europe you do.  Many were introduced by settlers.

Kaikoura Fur Seal actually a Sea Lion

Fur Seal Colony
Follow the road in front of the YHA to the Seal Colony at the far end. Most of the Southern Fur Seals haul up on rocks a short distance from shore. Some of the younger seals will haul out next to the road as did this youngster. The Southern Fur Seal is actually a Sea Lion notice the external ears and that the hind limb can turn forward to facilitate walking on land.

Take pictures from a safe distance. Remember they are wild animals and should defend themselves. I really do not think swimming with seals is a good idea. Notice the sheep pastures in the background come down almost to the sea. This is a feature of most of New Zealand farming that has made survival for the Yellow-eyed Penguin a problem.

Kaikoura Pied Shag

This Pied Shag is drying its wings on the rocks in front of the YHA hostel where I stayed in Kaikoura.


There is a large colony of Spotted Shags around Kaikoura. This one too was photographed on the rocks just outside the YHA

Kaikoura Spotted Shag

Christchurch Antarctic Center
After five nights, I reluctantly left Kaikoura and drove to Christchurch using the back roads. This took me through rolling pastures in which I saw pairs of Paradise Shelducks. There were flocks of the European introduced Yellowhammer, a New Zealand Pipit and White-backed Magpie introduced from Australia.
The female Paradise Shelduck has a white head while the male has a dark head. I saw several pairs walking in the pastures and was amazed at how the female stood out. At a distance the only bird you would notice would be the female. Here a female stands on a fence post.

I am not ready to leave New Zealand, but I must go on to Australia to make the winter pelagics at Wollongon. I will be back in New Zealand for summer birding.

Shielduck Christchurch
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