Seawatching in Kaikoura

Check out the May 2016 issue of The Wrybill – it features an article about our experiences seabirding in Kaikoura over the last few months. We’ve found Kaikoura to be an exceptionally rewarding seawatching location, thanks to the abundance and diversity of seabirds found off the coast here. We’ve made one or two exciting new discoveries, and also highlighted the interesting contrast with the boat-based seabirding that most birders experience here.

Big thanks to the Canterbury branch of the Ornithological Society of New Zealand for the invitation to contribute this article.

Saturday seawatch

Many enjoyable hours spent seawatching from Point Kean and sharing the seabird love with others

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Where (and when) to watch birds in Kaikoura

Birding in Kaikoura

front page2We’ve just added a new page all about birding in Kaikoura, to accompany our leaflet Where (and when) to watch birds in Kaikoura.

It has plenty of info on the best places for birdwatching in the Kaikoura area, the species to look out for and tips on how to get the most out of your visit.

Check it out here!






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Hutton’s Heroes: rescuing crash-landed shearwaters

Here in Kaikoura, it’s a scary time to be a juvenile Hutton’s Shearwater: FLEDGING TIME.

Life so far has involved snuggling in a burrow high up in the mountains of the Seaward Kaikoura Range, not much to do each day except wait for Mom and Pops to show up with a fish supper and keep on growing. But now that fine fluffy down has made way for proper flying feathers, regular feeds have dwindled and there’s no sign of the parents coming back. That means there’s only one thing to do. It’s time to fly.

First a little warm-up exercise: wing-stretching, practice flapping, clambering up onto the nearest high spot to test how the breeze feels under those new wings. Looking up at the night sky to remember this place, looking down at the empty space below and beyond where the ocean lies. Peeping into nearby burrows to check what the neighbours are up to. But one by one they’re disappearing. They’ve flown already. It’s time to fly too.


Flight paths of Hutton’s Shearwaters from alpine breeding colonies to/from the ocean. Birds from the largest breeding colony (est. 106,000 pairs) pass directly over Kaikoura []

One brave leap into the darkness and the shearwater is swooping down from the mountain and towards the ocean. But many don’t quite get there, lured at the last moment towards the bright lights of town. Circling disorientated down to the ground, they crash-land with a bump, on roads or pavements, driveways or yards.


” Is this it? Is this where the fish are? “


“What the…are the fish here?”


“Umm…how do I get to the fish?”

Shearwaters can appear anywhere on the streets of Kaikoura on nights during March and April. Confused and naive of the world beyond their burrow, they sit quietly on the ground and ponder their next move, many less than 100m from the ocean. Some sustain injuries in collisions with structures on the way down, and once on the ground they are sitting ducks for prowling cats or speeding vehicles, but many can be rescued and released out at sea. A special army of local volunteers is out looking for them, very late at night and very early in the morning.  These are the Hutton’s Heroes.


A crash-landed Hutton’s Shearwater is carefully picked up from the ground

The coordinated efforts of the Hutton’s Shearwater Charitable Trust, Department of Conservation, a research team from University of Canterbury, Encounter Kaikoura, and many local volunteers, mean that a large number of these crash-landed birds will be rescued. By walking or driving the streets after dark, any grounded shearwaters that are spotted are gently picked up and placed in suitable container (ironically, cat carry boxes are perfect) to be transferred to the Hutton’s Hub.


Checking in to the Hutton’s Hotel

Once at the Hub, shearwaters are placed into the individual compartments of the purpose-built Hutton’s Hotel – a holding station for shearwaters to rest in until they can be processed. Finders log the details of the shearwaters’ locations to assist the research team’s study of the crash-landing phenomenon and its association with street lights and other factors.  Birds are banded and measured before being released to the ocean, many getting a free headstart courtesy of Albatross Encounter.

No one is quite sure exactly how and why the Hutton’s Shearwaters come to crash-land where they do, though it’s understood that their attraction to lights is the biggest factor. More birds are found in brightly lit areas, but is this just where it is easier for people to find them?


Hutton’s eye view: from the mountains looking towards the ocean, Kaikoura’s lights line the bay


Hutton’s eye view: circling over Kaikoura, Torquay Street, the Esplanade and Beach Road stand out as rivers of light.


Ground view: bright white lights seem to create a hotspot for Hutton’s Shearwaters

Shearwaters are regularly found at certain locations around Kaikoura, including along Torquay Street and particularly the Esplanade, with its row of brightly lit motels. It is thought the birds are most attracted to white light, so research is ongoing into whether the fine-scale distribution of crash-landed shearwaters corresponds to light type. Other factors such as weather conditions and landscape topography may also influence whether, and where, birds crash-land. A better understanding of the Hutton’s Shearwaters’ experiences on their fledging flight should help us to limit human-induced losses of this unique and nationally (hence also globally) endangered bird.


It’s YOU that needs to go slow, not the birds. Also, you’re most likely to see them sitting on the ground rather than in flight. And they don’t have googly eyes. But never mind, just watch out!


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Waders of the Kaikoura coast

A couple of weeks ago we gave a talk on Kaikoura’s waders, as part of the summer speaker series organised by the Department of Conservation and hosted by Encounter Kaikoura.

summer speaker series

For those who missed it, or those wanting to experience the magic again, our talk is now available on Youtube. Enjoy!


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Hinewai: the most engaging, inspiring and entertaining nature reserve we’ve ever been to

One of our favourite wild places since arriving on South Island is a nature reserve called Hinewai, which is tucked away in a tranquil valley right on the end of the beautiful Banks Peninsula. Although really only a short (but steep) hop over the hills from tourist honeypot Akaroa, Hinewai feels like being a world away from anywhere. It is somewhere you can go to forget all about the real world while you wander the many kilometres of footpaths that meander through the varied native forest in perfect peace.

View of Hinewai looking towards Otanerito Bay

View of Hinewai looking down the valley towards Otanerito Bay

Hinewai is owned by the Maurice White Trust, which bought the land in 1987 (and has since added adjacent areas to it), and is managed by Hugh Wilson. We were lucky enough to get to know Paul and Tricia who also live and work on the reserve and were kind enough to share with us their knowledge and great enthusiasm for Hinewai.

IMG_9389-001Under Hugh’s hands-off approach, the valley has quickly advanced from gorse-plagued grazing land to fascinating and diverse native bush. The original idea was to leave the much-maligned gorse alone so that, as long as the pesky grazing mammals were removed, it would provide a sheltered environment in which the native plants could regenerate and spread.

IMG_7394In time, natural succession would see the native forests outgrow and ultimately replace the gorse. And that is exactly what is happening.



Gorse in bloom on Hinewai's hillsides

Gorse in bloom on much of Hinewai’s hillsides

Gorse is also useful for a few other things on Hinewai:

Gorse is useful for many purposes on Hinewai!

You need a bit of time to explore Hinewai properly as it’s bigger than you might initially think, encompassing about 1000 hectares from the 800m high peaks to the valley floor. The reserve doesn’t quite reach the coast, but there is a short walking track across private property to reach the beach at Otanerito Bay.

Just a few of the options to explore native bush at Hinewai

Just a few of the options to explore native bush at Hinewai

Manuka (left) next to Kanuka

Manuka (left) next to Kanuka

The range in altitude allows for a diverse array of vegetation types, from tussock grasslands on the exposed ridges, to beech forest, podocarps, mixed broadleaf forest and regenerating gorse or kanuka scrubland.



A selection of the plant diversity at Hinewai

A selection of the plant diversity at Hinewai, including some that are non-native and/or weedy but nonetheless have their own beauty

The reserve has a visitor centre and numerous public walking trails, along which you’ll see lots of signage that is informative, entertaining and beautifully handmade in the manager’s idiosyncratic style. This is definitely a nature reserve with more personality than most!

Hugh doesn't hide his disdain for the motor car, travelling everywhere by bicycle. He refers to Christchurch as 'the car-infested swamp'.

Hugh doesn’t hide his disdain for the motor car, travelling everywhere by bicycle. He refers to Christchurch as ‘the car-infested swamp’.

Visitors to Hinewai's bush dunny are cheerfully requested to not interrupt the serenity

Visitors to Hinewai’s bush dunny are cheerfully requested to not interrupt the serenity

The reserve abounds with birdlife (introduced as well as the native species).

A few of Hinewai's residents: (top row from left) Shining Cuckoo, Grey Warbler, Redpoll, Blackbird; (bottom row) Rifleman, Bellbird, Kereru.

A few of Hinewai’s residents: (top row from left) Shining Cuckoo, Grey Warbler, Redpoll, Blackbird; (bottom row) Rifleman, Bellbird, Kereru.

Particularly noteworthy is the number of Brown Creepers, which seem more common here than anywhere else we’ve visited.

NZ 2015_Brown Creeper2a

Brown Creepers are such a feature of Hinewai that the reserve’s hand-written newsletter is called Pipipi, which is this species’ s other name.

Tomtit, Bellbird, Grey Warbler, Kereru, Morepork, Swamp Harrier and NZ Fantail are all common, several pairs of Rifleman (Riflemen?) nest here and Shining Bronze-Cuckoos are easily heard in the summer. Tuis were recently reintroduced to the area and are doing well, while New Zealand Falcons have naturally recolonised the area (although we failed to see them on our visits).

NZ 2015_Rifleman2e-001

Watching this pair of Riflemen visiting their nest was a real treat on our last visit to Hinewai.

NZ 2015_Akaroa Tree Weta2nAnother special animal that we were lucky enough to see is the Akaroa Tree Weta, Hemideina ricta. This spectacular insect is endemic to just the eastern end of the Banks Peninsula, including Hinewai where it is common. They hide during the day, but all the chewed leaves give away their presence.

A face that only its mother could love?

Akaroa Tree Weta: a face that only its mother could love?


This is a female with the abdomen ending in a fierce spike – but it’s not a weapon, it’s her ovipositor.

With more time to explore, this would be a fascinating place for an entomologist – who knows if there are other as yet unknown invertebrate species inhabiting this secluded valley.

The excellent work at Hinewai is largely funded through donations. Supporters can receive Pipipi, the twice-yearly newsletter stuffed full of Hinewai happenings humourously handwritten by Hugh, with charming illustrations to boot. Hugh’s book Hinewai: The Journal of a New Zealand Naturalist collates ten years of the newsletter to tell the story of Hinewai so far, a must-read for any keen conservationist.


We thoroughly enjoyed visiting Hinewai: it is a special place cared for special people, and offers much to teach us all. Highly recommended!


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Saturday Seawatch kicks off in Kaikoura

We’ve been loving Kaikoura’s spectacular seabirds and other marine life so much, we’ve recently started a new weekly event to celebrate it – Saturday Seawatch!

Saturday Seawatch 2015


Getting ready to offer breakfast to the seabirds during an Albatross Encounter trip with 'slight to moderate' seas.

Getting ready to offer breakfast to the seabirds during an Albatross Encounter trip with ‘slight to moderate’ seas.

Kaikoura is a star attraction on the NZ birding map because of its exceptional range of pelagic species and their unusual proximity to land. Most famously, Albatross Encounter operates daily boat trips out to the nearby ocean canyon for a fantastic up-close seabird experience, and that is exactly what most birdwatchers come here for. However, that is not the only way to view seabirds in Kaikoura. With a spotting scope, or even just binoculars, pretty much all the same species can be viewed from the land – a relief for those of us who may be slightly out of our comfort zone on a boat.

IMG_8819Our regular seabird viewing spot is from the top of the hill at the Point Kean seal colony.

The best days are usually the windiest ones, when more seabirds are on the wing and getting blown in close to land.

Compared with being out there on the boat, there are actually a few advantages to viewing from the land:

1) The elevation means you can watch over a vast area of ocean, see things that are a long way away, and follow travelling birds for quite a long time.

2) You can spot species that are not particularly attracted to boats and are therefore less frequently recorded on the pelagic trips. This includes various shearwaters and petrels.

bird blizzard

Bird blizzard at Point Kean, on one of those days we were glad to be seabirding from the land

3) You can watch on the windiest and stormiest days, which have the most exciting seabird action but are usually days when the tour boats won’t go out, and you really wouldn’t want to be out there if they did.

The big disadvantage to land-based viewing, of course, is that most of the birds are a long way away.

View looking out from Point Kean on the Kaikoura peninsula

View looking out from Point Kean on the Kaikoura peninsula

In fact, at Point Kean, they are usually passing by well beyond the far end of the rock platform, which is more than 700m away! But that’s why we have a spotting scope.

It’s very good seabird ID practice when the birds are at this distance, and the majority can be confidently identified with experience. So far we’ve seen seven species of albatross, five petrels, five shearwaters and an assortment of other birds, as well as Dusky Dolphins and the occasional Sperm Whale. When the wind’s up, the sheer number of Hutton’s Shearwaters you can see zipping past is exhilarating. Check out the eBird Point Kean hotspot page for more detail on what’s been seen.

Despite these viewing opportunities, we’ve been amazed at how rarely we see anyone else scanning the seas from the headland. To share the possibilities with more people, we’ve just started up a weekly Saturday Seawatch event, where we invite others watch with us at Point Kean from 6.30pm. We can offer use of our scope and binoculars and some assistance finding and identifying whatever we can see out there. So if you’re in Kaikoura and want to see and learn about seabirds and any other local wildlife we might happen to spot (there are loads of seals, we regularly see dolphins, whales are possible) come along and join us for an evening of seawatching. Everyone is very welcome and it’s all for free – hope to see you down there!

saturday seawatch 13 dec IMG_2931


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All about Oycs

Oystercatchers piping and parading - Aussie Pied Oycs in Sydney.

Oystercatchers piping and parading – Aussie Pied Oycs in Sydney.

Oystercatchers are among our favourite birds, being among the most charistmatic characters of the Charadriiformes. They occur on most of the world’s coastlines, with 11 living species globally. All belong to the Haematopus genus and are easily recognisable, following the same familiar oystercatcher design: all have much the same shape and size; a long, straight orangey-red bill and a bright orange or yellow eye-ring; fleshy-looking pink legs (Haematopus meaning ‘blood foot’, refers to the colour of the legs); and all advertise their presence with loud, excited piping calls. Six of the species have boldly pied plumage, four have all-dark plumage, and one indecisive species can have plumage that is either pied or all-black (we’ll be looking at that one very shortly).

With three endemic species of Oyc, New Zealand is rather a Haematopus hotspot, although the Chatham Island Oystercatcher occurs only on that remote island group and we won’t really talk about it here. The two species that are found on the main NZ islands are the Variable Oystercatcher and the South Island Pied Oystercatcher, our Stickybeak mascot. Arriving in NZ, we could see that both of these look strikingly similar to their Australian counterparts, the Sooty Oystercatcher and the Australian Pied Oystercatcher.

Australian Pied Oyc

Australian Pied Oyc – Western Australia

South Island Pied Oyc

South Island Pied Oyc – Kaikoura, NZ

Broome2015_Sydney July 2015_Sooty Oystercatcher1a

Sooty Oyc – New South Wales

NZ 2015_Variable Oystercatcher5b

Variable Oyc – Otago, NZ

The SIPO (as we call it for short) breeds mainly inland on the South Island of NZ, and migrates to the coast of both North and South Islands for the winter. Breeding inland is quite unusual among the world’s oycs, as the Eurasian Oystercatcher is the only other species that often does so. As a migratory species, the SIPO occasionally wanders off course and we were lucky enough to see one turn up in Sydney earlier this year.

NZ 2015_South Island Pied Oystercatcher6a

SIPO at home on a nice mown field at Timaru.

The Variable Oystercatcher is much more strictly coastal, and occurs all around the edges of NZ’s main islands. Our first impression of the VO, other than that it appeared exactly the same as the Sooty Oycs we were used to seeing in Australia, was that they didn’t seem to be variable at all. For several weeks, every VO we saw looked just like this:

NZ 2015_Variable Oystercatcher1a

A pair of typical Variable Oycs on the South Island. The bird on the right has a longer bill, and is probably the female.

In fact, the vast majority of VOs on South Island are boringly all-dark, but a small percentage are fully pied and strongly resemble the SIPO. The proportion of pied VOs does increase greatly the further north in NZ you go, and they may even outnumber the dark ones in the far north. There are also some intermediate, blotchy individuals that mainly just have an irregular white belly patch.

NZ 2015_Variable Oystercatcher8f

Variable Oyc, pied morph: the dull eye and leg colour show this is an immature bird.

NZ 2015_Variable Oystercatcher8d

Another Variable Oyc: a very blotchy, intermediate one this time.

A few more tips on how to tell a pied morph Variable from a South Island Pied Oyc. VOs can be larger, noticeably bulkier birds than SIPOS, with shorter and thicker bills. SIPOS often look oddly small-headed and have proportionately long, skinny beaks. Shape may be the easiest way to spot one of those sneaky pied morph VOs that masquerade as SIPOs. But there are other clues to look for. Where SIPO plumage is neatly divided into areas of black and white, VOs are a bit scruffier and tend to have a smudgy border to their white belly. SIPOs usually have a big white patch that extends from the belly up in front of the folded wing, while this is comparatively indistinct or lacking in VOs.

NZ 2015_Variable Oystercatcher8b

Variable Oyc. Slightly smudgy border to the black bib and very little white in the folded wing are good clues. The white curling around the wing-bend makes this one look quite SIPO-like.

NZ 2015_South Island Pied Oystercatcher2d

SIPO: Boldly and neatly black and white, with distinct white along the bottom edge of the wing (specifically the secondary feathers). The very long, narrow bill is another good pointer.

If in doubt, you can always wait for your mystery oystercatcher to fly. SIPOs have much more white in their wings than any VOs do, and have a big white wedge up their back.

NZ 2015_Variable Oystercatcher7h-001

Variable Oycs in flight. The Pied form has just a narrow, smudgy wing bar and smudgy rump.

NZ 2015_South Island Pied Oystercatcher9a-001

SIPO in flight, with much bigger and whiter bits.

Finally, here’s a curious oystercatcher feature to look out for: iris flecks, or iridial depigmentation if you want to sound very academic. If you get a very close look at an oyc’s eyes, you may notice that the pupil seems to be a funny shape, bulging out into the iris on one side. Here’s a SIPO with a large iris fleck:


Iris flecks have been studied in the Black Oystercatcher of North America and found to be a pretty good way to tell the bird’s gender: those with big flecks were almost always (94%) females; those with little or no flecking were almost always males. Similar results have also been found in American Oystercatchers. Looking at pics on the web, all oyc species seem to have eye flecking sometimes, and we’ve certainly noticed it on both of New Zealand’s species. We don’t know if anyone’s actually looked into it for these birds, but check out these Variable Oystercatchers we found near Kaikoura:

New Zealand 2015 pt23

Variable Oyc pair, in which one bird has an eye fleck (and the other has a sticky beak!)

These two were certainly a pair, and you can see that one has big iris flecks and the other doesn’t. What’s more, the flecked one has a proportionately longer bill, which strongly suggests that it is the female.

Here’s another pair we had a close look at, SIPOs in Timaru this time:

SIPO pair, one with a large iris fleck, the other with a slight fleck

SIPO pair, one with a large iris fleck, the other with a slight fleck

In this pair, both birds had iris flecks but one had a much larger fleck than the other. This bird also had the longer bill of the two, so again we think this is the female. So, on what we’ve seen so far, we think iris flecks could be useful for sexing oycs of both these New Zealand species too. We’ll be interested to have a close stickybeak at more oyc pairs to see if this is always the case.

To read more about oystercatchers of the world, check out Wader Quest’s nice posts on the subject starting here.

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