Kaikoura Wader Watch

Kaikoura wader quest1  WCWW A3

Last weekend was the second international Wader Conservation World Watch, organised by superlative supporters of shorebirds, Rick and Elis Simpson of Wader Quest. So with wader watchers and plover lovers turning out all over the globe in celebration of shorebirds, we decided to represent the waders of Kaikoura by ogling oystercatchers and hopefully twitching a turnstone. We advertised around town in the hope that a few people might like to join us and were delighted when five people actually turned up to meet us at Jimmy Armer’s Beach!

We’d calculated that at least six species ought to be achievable, having regularly seen both Variable and South Island Pied Oystercatchers, a pair of Pied Stilts, the odd Banded Dotterel and a handful of Ruddy Turnstones along the short stretch of coastline from Jimmy Armer’s Beach to Point Kean, with Spur-winged Plovers/Masked Lapwings in a paddock over the road. It was a lovely evening to watch the tide dropping as birds foraged along the tide line and among the rockpools. The company was convivial and the shorebird spotting all went pretty much to plan, except the Masked Lapwings were nowhere to be seen…were we going to finish with only five species in the bag?

Kaikoura Wader Quest-001

Our Kaikoura Wader Watch included Banded Dotterel, Pied Stilt, Variable Oystercatcher, South Island Pied Oystercatcher and Ruddy Turnstone. But where were the Masked Lapwings?

We feared we’d have to drive up to the paddocks on top of the peninsula to tick our final species, but suddenly, just as we were all returning to our cars, we spotted the Masked Lapwings had returned to their regular spot across from the car park. Success! Last-minute lapwings got us our six species in the end. And we were so excited we forgot to take a picture to prove it, but here’s a dorky photo from elsewhere for you to enjoy anyway:

Masked Lapwing or Spur-winged Plover. Or as we like to call it, Cheeseface.

Masked Lapwing or Spur-winged Plover. Or as we like to call it, Cheeseface.

Results for the Wader Conservation World Watch should be available soon – check out the Wader Quest’s page for a full list of all participants and species seen, including our small Kaikoura contribution.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Kia ora Kaikoura: sleepy seals, spectacular seabirds and doting dotterels

We’re based in Kaikoura for the summer, and it’s probably one of the most scenic places on the planet. Snow-capped mountains descend steeply through lush native forest right down to the turquoise waters of the Pacific. The town sits on a lowland plain surrounded by green farmland, at the base of a rugged peninsular with pebbly beaches, rocky shorelines and dramatic cliffs. Landscape photography is hard to resist.

IMG_4793 IMG_5336

20272493755_a7df24f771_h IMG_5518

On arrival in Kaikoura, one of the first things we noticed were all the big, fat, hairy bodies lying on the beach. Don’t worry, we’re not being unkind about the lovely locals – we’d found ourselves in the middle of a seal colony.

IMG_5633Around the peninsula, the NZ Fur Seals are everywhere. Hauled out on rocks, lolling on the tide line, snoozing in the shade under the bushes. The more energetic pups may be seen swimming in rock pools, but most of the time they are all sleeping.

And when they’re not asleep, they’re doing this:

Yaaaawn - life on land is a lazy one for seals

Yaaaawn – life on land is a lazy one for NZ Fur Seals

The seals are so sleepy because they spend days at a time out at sea, hunting for squid, octopus and fish, before they return to land for a well-earned kip. But getting enough rest can be tricky when there are a lot of curious visitors around. People are required to keep at least 10m away from any seal (or 20m anywhere else in NZ), to avoid disturbing their rest, but also for safety – seals can deliver a powerful bite and carry some very nasty bacteria. And like their Aussie mates, they’re quite capable of showing who’s boss on the beach if you get on their nerves, so best to always keep a respectful distance.

People must keep 10m away from the seals, but it can be difficult when they block the footpath! Here at Point Kean, the toilets have gates to stop the seals from entering.

People must keep 10m away from the seals, but it can be difficult when they block the footpath! Here at Point Kean, the toilets have gates to stop the seals from entering.

For birders, the main attraction of Kaikoura is undoubtedly the awesome array of seabirds that can be found just offshore. In fact, this place is world renowned for the diversity of species and their proximity to land. With just a quick boat trip you can be bobbing around amid a feeding frenzy of albatrosses and petrels, and still within sight of Kaikoura’s beautiful mountains. Local tour operator Albatross Encounter offer excellent trips to see this spectacle daily, using fragrant fish liver to attract the birds, or simply pulling up next to an obliging fishing boat.

Albatrosses and giant petrels queuing for scraps around a fishing boat. Almost nowhere else can this variety of pelagic species be seen so easily.

Albatrosses and giant petrels queuing for scraps around a fishing boat. Almost nowhere else can this variety of pelagic species be seen so easily.

Incoming Southern Royal Albatross, one of the world's largest seabirds.

Incoming Southern Royal Albatross, one of the world’s largest seabirds.

Nellies (Giant Petrels) have terrible table manners.

Nellies (Giant Petrels) squabbling over scraps


As well as boasting a incredible variety of seabirds visiting local waters (including the recent addition of Grey-headed Albatross to the list, which one half of the Stickybeak team was lucky enough to spot), Kaikoura also has its very own endemic-breeding seabird: Hutton’s Shearwater.

Hutton's Shearwaters have recently returned to Kaikoura waters after spending the winter around Australia, and can be seen congregating in large feeding flocks offshore.

Hutton’s Shearwaters have recently returned to Kaikoura waters after spending the winter around Australia, and can be seen congregating in large feeding flocks offshore.

Kaikoura's endemic seabird: Hutton's Shearwater

Kaikoura’s endemic seabird: Hutton’s Shearwater

Remarkably, these are birds of the mountains as well as of the ocean. Hutton’s Shearwaters have the distinction of being the world’s highest-nesting seabird, making their burrows over 1000m high in the Kaikoura mountains. During the day they forage at sea and can often be seen easily (with binoculars) close in to shore, sometimes resting in huge rafts on the water’s surface.


One other bird we didn’t have too go far to notice is the Banded Dotterel, which are currently nesting on the pebbly beaches around town. This species is unique for its east-west migration (though this is mainly seen in the populations breeding in South Island’s alpine riverbeds), and until this year we’d only seen them on their winter holidays to eastern Australia. So we were excited to see these birds here during their breeding season and observed several pairs fiercely guarding their nests amid tide-line debris.

Brooding Banded Dotterel - probably a male.

Brooding Banded Dotterel – probably a male.

We couldn't resist taking a very brief peep at the nest, which held a clutch of three beautifully patterned eggs.

We couldn’t resist taking a very brief peep at the ‘nest’, which held a clutch of three beautifully patterned eggs.


So it’s clear there is much to see around Kaikoura, even if you only visit for a day. With a bit longer there is much more to explore, and that’s what we hope to do over the next few months.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Same same but different: Stickybeak now on South Island

It's early spring in NZ

Early spring in NZ

Having recently relocated from Sydney to New Zealand, we are now stickybeaking around the beautiful South Island!

(possibly while singing this!)

It’s exciting to be exploring a country with such unique and fascinating wildlife, featuring high endemism and iconic bird species such as the kiwi, kakapo, kea, kaka, kokako, kaki, kereru, kakariki, and a few others not starting with the letter K.

First bird seen on arrival - Eurasian Blackbird

First bird seen on arrival – Eurasian Blackbird

Although bird diversity in NZ is lower overall than on the other side of the ditch, since touching down in Christchurch it’s been obvious that birds abound absolutely everywhere we look.

And we’ve noticed that rather a lot of those birds are already familiar to us, but also that some are not quite as familiar as they seem.

It’s striking that much of that avian abundance, especially in the lowlands, is comprised of introduced species. Most of these species were brought from Europe by early colonists in a misguided attempt to replicate the natural history of the motherland. Unlike the disastrous mammal introductions that went a long way towards destroying much of New Zealand’s native fauna, many of the non-native birds seem relatively benign.

Most of the native passerines are forest dwellers and, with large regions having been cleared by early settlers, lowland New Zealand might be eerily lacking in birdsong were it not ringing with the calls of European songbirds. Perhaps due to the lack of competition or predators over here, many of these introduced species are thriving spectacularly in NZ, some much more so than in their native range – Yellowhammers and Skylarks for example are really struggling in the UK.

We have never seen so many Yellowhammers! We counted 455 birds in this flock at Hagley Oval.

We have never seen so many Yellowhammers! We counted 455 birds in this flock at Hagley Oval.

So despite their non-native status, it’s been quite a treat to see some of these species in large numbers here, especially as many are undeniably beautiful birds.

Little ray of sunshine - Yellowhammer

Little ray of sunshine – Yellowhammer

The Yellowhammer's rarer and more twitch-worthy cousin - Cirl Bunting

The Yellowhammer’s rarer and more twitch-worthy cousin – Cirl Bunting

Pretty in pink - male Common Redpoll

Pretty in pink – male Common Redpoll

Larking around everywhere - Skylark

Larking around everywhere – Skylark

This one's not singing - Song Thrush

This one’s not singing – Song Thrush


The next lot of familiar species are those that we already know well from Australia. Some of these were also deliberately introduced, while some have invited themselves over, probably with the help of strong winds blowing them across the Tasman. Some have been here since well before people arrived, and/or long enough to become a separate subspecies, but many are indistinguishable. Only trouble is, many are known to the Kiwis by a different name, so we’re having to re-learn what to call them.

The brown Grey Duck - except orange legs reveal that it's a mallard mongrel

The brown Grey Duck – except orange legs reveal that it’s a mallard mongrel

Australia’s Pacific Black Duck is known here as the Grey Duck, despite actually being brown. We haven’t seen a pure Grey Duck, and given the extent of hybridisation with Mallards there may not be any left.


Cormorants aren’t called cormorants here – we get to amuse ourselves by referring to shags instead. In fact we can look forward to up to 12 shags (7 on the mainland), as NZ happens to be the world’s shag hotspot. Four of Australia’s five species of cormorant are present in NZ, all under different names:

  • Pied Cormorant = Pied Shag (NZ subspecies)
  • Little Pied Cormorant = Little Shag (NZ subspecies)
  • Little Black Cormorant = Little Black Shag
  • Great Cormorant = Black Shag (guess you can’t have a Great Shag here in NZ)

Little Shags here are of a different subspecies to the Aussie Little Pied Cormorant – juveniles are actually all black, and adults can be either white-chinned, fully pied or somewhere in between.

Juvenile Little Shag (short yellow bill shows it's not a Little Black Shag), with adult white-chinned morph (inset)

Little Shags – all-black juv (short yellow bill shows it’s not a Little Black Shag) and adult white-chinned morph (inset)


Among the shorebirds, we find the familiar Black-winged Stilt is known here as the Pied Stilt. Also Double-banded Plovers seen in Australia during their non-breeding season have become Banded Dotterels after returning NZ to breed.

Pied Stilt

Pied Stilt

Banded Dotterel - currently nesting on beaches and inland braided rivers

Banded Dotterel – currently nesting on beaches and inland braided rivers


Two further species have alternative names lacking a habitat association. The Kelp Gull is known instead as the (Southern) Black-backed Gull, which is fitting as the species is widespread, regardless of the proximity to kelp, and is commonly seen well inland.

Southern Black-backed Gull

Southern Black-backed Gull

Harrier Hawk - the common one of only two raptors in NZ

Harrier Hawk – the common one of only two raptors in NZ

Similarly ubiquitous, the Swamp Harrier is more often referred to as the Harrier Hawk and is not tied to wetland habitats. In fact they seem to be just everywhere here, including farmland, upland and even hunting over forest.


And there are other birds that are the same species as in Australia but called a different name here – the bird named as the Great Egret almost everywhere in the world is known as the White Heron here, while the Maori name Pukeko is used in preference to Purple Swamphen (and the birds over here have noticeably darker plumage).

Yet other bird species look extremely similar to Australian species, but we find they’re not the same species at all. Here Red-billed Gulls occur in place of Silver Gulls, but it’s not easy to pick the difference between the two.

Ta da! Red-billed Gulls perform crowd-pleasing stunts outside Dunedin library

Ta da! Red-billed Gulls perform crowd-pleasing stunts outside Dunedin library

South Island Pied Oystercatcher, or SIPO for short

South Island Pied Oystercatcher, or SIPO for short

You’d also be forgiven for thinking those black-and-white oystercatchers are the same as Australian Pied Oystercatchers, but they’re NZ’s distinct South Island Pied Oystercatchers, just as at home on farm paddocks and inland braided rivers as they are on the coast. Meanwhile all-black oystercatchers are not Sooties but Variable Oystercatchers, named for the varying amount of white in their plumage (although the majority of the birds on South Island are entirely dark).

Variable Oystercatchers - don't actually vary that much on South Island, but spot the odd one out.

Variable Oystercatchers – don’t actually vary that much on South Island, but spot the odd one out.


A couple of others have only been recently split from their Australian relatives – these include the NZ Fantail and the NZ Pipit, which display small noticeable differences but are very similar to their familiar cousins.

Much loved - NZ Fantail

Much loved – NZ Fantail

Mainly ignored - NZ Pipit

Mainly ignored – NZ Pipit


So moving from Australia to New Zealand, it certainly seems there’s a lot that is same same but different! However, there’s heaps more that is new and exciting, and we’ll be sticking our beaks into that very soon.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment