All at sea: the penguin, the mollymawk and the shameless shag

17 November 2019

Many of the best experiences during our New Zealand odyssey have happened in boats, so it’s good to get back on the water again. We’re taking a half-day pelagic trip from Stewart Island and are hoping for a seabird bonanza.

Our boat is small, and normally operates as a water taxi

The boat is small, and when it’s not taking birders out on spotting expeditions it plies its trade as a water taxi between Stewart and the surround islands. We’re in for a rough ride if the wind gets up. Fortunately as we set off the sea is fairly calm, although dark clouds on the horizon hint that there may be trouble ahead.

A pale and distant rainbow arcs over Stewart Island

As our journey begins the boat hugs the coastline, allowing us to view Stewart Island from an unfamiliar perspective. We’re pleased to see a rainbow in the distance: pleased partly because rainbows are a joy to behold, but mainly because it means some other buggers are getting wet rather than us.

White-fronted tern

Just offshore a line of jagged rocks slices through the rolling sea. Atop one sits a White-fronted Tern, sporting a distinctive black bill. Known as tara by the Maori it’s New Zealand’s commonest tern and is found in coastal waters throughout the country. It’s a good looking bird and we’d like to stay longer to admire it and its companions, but we have an appointment with some mollymawks so it’s time to move on.

Juvenile Pied Shag

As we edge along the coast we spot a Pied Shag (karuhiruhi) rookery in a tree close to the water. The tree is leafless and probably dead, an inevitable consequence of having a colony of large, messy seabirds living in – and pooing over – your branches for months on end. We’ve seen these birds at several places during our travels, but this is first time we’ve had a clear view of juveniles as well as adults. You might expect the youngsters to be cautious and a bit shy, but one of them is standing out proudly and shamelessly on a branch, watching us watching him. Judging by his behaviour and plumage he’s fast approaching maturity.

White-capped Mollymawk

We head a short way out from the coast and into open water, then turn off the engine. Having done a similar trip from Kaikoura a few weeks ago, we know the drill. Park the boat somewhere a little way out to sea, toss some fishy bits overboard and wait for the fun to begin. And so it does. The skipper chucks some offcuts from the local fish processing factory into the water close to the boat, and we all sit back to watch the action.

White-capped Mollymawk posing for baseball-capped birder

The birds are familiar with the routine, and if they spot our boat acting suspiciously in open water they know a free lunch is up for grabs. They’re not shy in coming forward, knowing from experience that the early bird catches the finest fishy offcuts. They also know that if they paddle up to the boat and look cute some bloke with a beard, baseball cap and big lens will take their photo.

White-capped Mollymawk

And why not? These are fabulously handsome birds, known as White-capped Mollymawks. A mollymawk is a small to medium sized albatross, but at nearly a metre long and weighing in at up to 4 kilograms they don’t seem either small or medium sized to me. For reasons I can’t fathom they’re also called the Shy Mollymawk, though their facial expression tells me that “cross, bad-tempered mollymawk” might be closer to the mark.

White-capped Mollymawk

We enjoy watching maybe a dozen mollymawks fly in to feed on the fish scraps our skipper offers them, squabbling angrily amongst themselves when they feel they’ve missed a particularly tasty morsel. It’s great to see them, but the experience is tinged with sadness too. These birds, along with other species of albatross, are in big trouble, innocent victims of the long line fishing industry in the southern oceans. I wonder if future generations will be able to do what we’re doing here today, getting up close and personal with these magnificent birds?

Brown (Subantarctic) Skua

Although White-capped Mollymawks are the birds most interested in what we have to offer, other species also drop in for a look . One of these is the Brown Skua, known to the Maori as hakoakoa.

Being followed by a Brown (Sub Antarctic) Skua

Similar in appearance to a skua found off the north of Scotland, these birds are scavengers that feed off carrion, as well as on other seabirds, their eggs and chicks. Always on the look out for a free meal, this one follows us as we head off to our next destination.

Little Blue Penguin

The fish scraps have all gone and the mollymawks, knowing that lunch is over, start to take their leave. The rain pours down. We need to move on too, towards Ulva Island, where the skipper will drop us off for a tour of the famous bird sanctuary. On the way we’re pleased to spot a group of Little Blue Penguins (korora to the Maori). We saw one a couple of nights ago while we were out looking for kiwi. However we failed to get any photos, so it’s good to catch a glimpse today of this trio of Little Blues swimming characteristically low in the water, untroubled by the downpour that’s giving us a soaking.

Little Blue Penguin

In Australia these are known as Fairy Penguins, and our skipper jokes that the New Zealanders don’t use that moniker on grounds of political correctness. Whatever, they’re small (the smallest penguin species in the world) and they’re blue, so the New Zealand name works just fine for me.

Fiordland Crested Penguin

Further along, on the rocky shoreline, we spot some old friends: a group of Fiordland Crested Penguins (pokotiwha). These are one of the rarest penguin species in the world and when we came to New Zealand we feared we would struggle to find any. But as it turns out, they’ve been fairly easy to find if you have a knowledgeable guide to show you where to look.

It’s been a great morning on the water. Plenty of birds and no sickness. But the day’s birding hasn’t finished yet. The skipper drops us off at Ulva Island for a guided tour of the bird sanctuary, which will be the subject of my next post.

5 thoughts on “All at sea: the penguin, the mollymawk and the shameless shag

  1. tanjabrittonwriter December 8, 2019 / 1:26 am

    Thank you for introducing us to all these interesting species. I’m glad you were able to get some close looks and photos!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man December 10, 2019 / 9:33 am

      I still can’t believe how close those mollymawks came to our little boat. We were under strict instructions to keep our hands inside, in case one of them took a fancy to one of our fingers!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Ms. Liz December 27, 2019 / 8:06 am

    I’d love to do a boat trip like this some time. You’d recommend this skipper then? .. if so, do you know his name?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Platypus Man December 27, 2019 / 9:49 am

      Yes, I’d definitely recommend. We can’t recall the skipper’s name but the boat was the Rakiura Suzy, operated by Rakiura Charters https://www.rakiuracharters.co.nz/category/all-tours/ We did the Half Day Pelagic Bird Tour. Although there’s a cabin with sliding windows, the best views are from the back, outside the cabin and exposed to the elements! Grab a seat there when you board, (while the other passengers are distracted, having a look inside the cabin!), settle down and wait for the fun to begin. Dress to stay warm and dry. Although you need a long lens for some distant views, the mollymawk / albatross come so close that you definitely need a standard lens as well. I hope you get to do it, I promise you’ll love it! 😊

      Liked by 1 person

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