STOP PRESS – White Island volcano erupts

I’m interrupting the chronological flow of this blog to report a shocking piece of news. White Island volcano, which we visited on 20 October, has erupted.

Happier times: White Island volcano at the time of our visit, 20 October 2019

As I sit here – at 7:45am, 9 December 2019 – writing this, snug in my dressing gown with a steaming mug of tea at my side, the BBC News website leads with the headline One dead in NZ volcano, with number ‘likely to rise’.

Here’s a link to the post I published shortly after our visit. Reading it again, I can see that when we went White Island we were a bit glib and complacent. Yes, we were made aware of the dangers: we were required to sign a disclaimer, instructed to wear hard hats while on the island and issued with gas masks. But neither we, nor any of the others on our tour, believed for a moment that anything bad could or would happen. Bad things don’t happen to good people, do they?

And those poor souls who visited White Island earlier today wouldn’t have believed it either. They, like us, would have regarded a visit to New Zealand’s most active volcano as a little adventure, a bit of a laugh maybe.

But nobody’s laughing now. Except, maybe, nature herself. Nature always has the last laugh. Nature makes the rules, and we are subject to her whims and capriciousness. That is the way it is, and the way it should be. We’re all just guests here in nature’s garden, guests on this beautiful, crazy, brutal planet.

I’m reminded also of the role of chance in our lives, and our deaths. We could have been on White Island today. The timing of our trip to New Zealand was determined to maximise our chances of seeing Fiordland Crested Penguins. Without that driver, without our goal of laying eyes on that particular species of bird, we might have visited New Zealand a few weeks later, when the weather is kinder.

In a parallel universe, one where birding doesn’t shape our travel plans, we could have been on White Island today, terrified and in mortal peril as the volcano blew its top.

The story is still emerging, but our thoughts are with the tourists and tour operators who got caught up in today’s White Island tragedy, with those who were injured, and with the families and friends of the deceased. It’s a very sad day, and takes a bit of gloss off the memories of our New Zealand adventure.

Link to the emerging story on the BBC news website, 8:30am

Link to updated story on BBC news website, 3:40pm

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.

Lady Kaka and other parrots on my porch

16 November 2019

She’s perched on the railing that guards the edge of our veranda, or porch as they call it in North America, staring into our room through the full length glass sliding door. I’m looking back out at her, captivated by her audacity. We’re separated by no more than a couple of metres and a sheet of glass. She can see me but is totally un-phased.

Even when I slide the door open and step closer she’s untroubled, and simply watches me calmly. She doesn’t need reassurance but I offer it anyway, whispering to her, telling her that I find her beautiful and won’t ever harm her. She tips her head to one side quizzically, weighing me up.

I can read her mind. Are you for real? she’s asking. Why do you people always act so weird around me? She’s plainly in charge of this encounter, which is like a thousand other meetings she’s had before with guests occupying our room.

I, however, haven’t read the script. I’m lost for words, unsure what to do next. Wild birds aren’t meant to be like this. Is she ill? Or mad? Or am I the crazy one, standing here in awe of this kaka, this big parrot with olive grey plumage, yellow sideburns and a bloody enormous bill?

I watch her intently, and she watches me back. It’s a Mexican standoff, and neither of us wants to make the first move. Finally she gets bored – I’ve obviously buggered up the audition – and utters a piercing, eardrum-exploding squawk as she flies off into a nearby tree. Lady Kaka has left the building.

The kaka is one of three species of parrot in New Zealand, and is still relatively common on Stewart Island. This is a good thing, as – along with most of the country’s endemic birds – on the mainland it’s in big trouble due to mammalian predation and habitat loss.

Although kaka are doing quite well here, we’d expected to have to work hard to see one. We certainly hadn’t imagined a bird would pop down to our accommodation to say hi. And it’s not just one: in all, during our three days on Stewart, no fewer than four kaka make themselves known to us on and around our porch.

We also watch the kaka feeding on pieces of apple that have been left for them on the nearby bird table. With dextrous feet they grasp the fruit and hold it up to their enormous bills, which quickly shred and devour it.

As well as lunch, love is plainly in the air. One of the other birds makes eyes at Lady Kaka, who, taking after her namesake, is loud, elegant and feisty and therefore a good catch in the weird world of parrots. He displays to her and chases her along the railing, squawking loudly as he does so. He’s persistent, but she’s not impressed. He obviously needs to try harder if he’s going to have his wicked way with her.

Eventually Lady Kaka flies away, leaving the suitor looking disconsolate. After a few seconds he takes off in pursuit, but his heart isn’t really in it. He knows when he’s beaten. There’s no doubt who wears the trousers around here: Lady Kaka, the parrot on my porch.

Midnight kiwi capers

15 November 2019

The kiwi, New Zealand’s iconic bird, is nocturnal, secretive and rare. The chances of us ever tracking one down without help are remote, so we’ve hired a local expert to help us out. Stewart Island (Rakiura) boasts several experienced birders selling their guiding services, but Ulva’s reputation surpasses all the rest. If anybody’s going to find us a kiwi it’s Ulva, and we’re lucky she’s available.

Darkness has fallen as we make our way to Ulva’s offices at around 10pm, where she issues us with torches that shine red light. Being nocturnal, kiwis operate primarily by smell. Their eyesight is poor, but a normal white torchlight may scare them off. However they can’t see red light at all. This is a great help for spotting kiwis, but not so good for taking photos of them. Using flash is totally forbidden; at best it will alarm them, and at worst blind them.

We clamber into Ulva’s 4×4, and she proceeds to drive us around Stewart Island’s road network in search of the elusive bird. “Road network” is maybe overstating it a bit; only 3% of the island is open for settlement, the rest being either a nature reserve or in the ownership of the Rakiura Maori Lands Trust. In total the public highway extends to no more than 25 kilometres.

Ulva knows every metre of Stewart Island roads intimately, and also knows where kiwi are most likely to be seen. As the rain falls steadily we check out all her favourite haunts, but there’s no sign of a kiwi at any of them. We do however spot several other search parties shining torches beneath bushes and into dark rocky corners, all on a similar quest to ours. It’s evident from their body language that they’re having no more luck than us.

Ulva decides to try a different approach, checking out a stretch of beach where kiwis are know to feed, and a fence-line where they sometimes forage, but again to no avail. The rain is getting heavier, and our morale is sinking fast. It’s now approaching midnight, and Ulva decides to retrace our journey of earlier in the evening to see if the situation has changed.

We’re driving along a narrow, dark road that’s lit only by the car headlights when we spot movement on the roadside to our left. Ulva slams on the brakes, and for maybe five seconds we have a great view of a Little Blue Penguin. Even in the difficult light we can clearly pick out his brilliant white waistcoat and the hint of blue in the feathers on his back, before he scuttles off into the bush. Unfortunately there’s no time to get a photo, but the image below (taken in Tasmania) shows the bird’s key features.

The Little Blue is the world’s smallest penguin. It nest in small numbers all around the coast of New Zealand, and in parts of Australia too where it’s called the Fairy Penguin. They nest in burrows some distance inland, staying out at sea during daylight and returning to their chicks with food in the dark of night.

A penguin wasn’t what he had in mind for tonight’s expedition, but at least we’ve seen something. We carry on driving the roads. I’m sitting upfront, next to Ulva, scanning the road hopefully. I spot some movement and shout “stop.” Ulva pulls up sharply, and as she does so a smallish, brown/grey bird flies up from the ground where it’s been feeding on roadkill. It’s a tiny owl called a Morepork, named after its distinctive call.

PHOTO CREDIT: Mosborne01 [CC0]

We leap out of the car and scan the tree into which it flew. It takes off again and circles the trees for maybe a minute, before disappearing for good. Again it’s impossible to take a photo, but finally catching sight of a bird we’ve heard a few times previously is an unexpected bonus. The image above from Creative Commons shows what a Morepork looks like in daylight, although the bird’s tiny size is difficult to appreciate.

It’s now approaching 1.00am, and despite the penguin and the owl we’re feeling miserable. Our best chance of seeing a kiwi seems to have passed us by. Ulva decides to take one final drive along a road where she’s had success recently. She drives slowly, and we’re all scanning ahead and to the side of the car.

Suddenly Mrs P shouts “There! There! There!”. We look ahead and to the left, and spot the unmistakable shape of a kiwi. Ulva stops and kills the headlights, and we all leap from the car brandishing our red-light torches. The kiwi is a few metres from us, apparently unaware of us, or at least untroubled by our presence.

We watch, transfixed, for a couple of minutes until, amazingly, a second kiwi appears. It’s much bigger than the first bird, with a longer beak, and must therefore be a female. She chases him into the bush and seconds later a deafening screech comes from his direction. It’s not clear what she’s done to provoke such a response, but it is an unearthly noise and if we didn’t know the cause a supernatural explanation would have appeared plausible.

As if to mark the success of our kiwi search the rain has stopped, and the sky is now crystal clear. Stewart Island is an acclaimed ‘dark sky area’, and in the darkness we can see countless stars shining their light upon us. From a gloomy start the night has turned magical, and without doubt will remain one of the highlights of our visit to New Zealand.

We assume that the show’s over, but amazingly a third kiwi has appeared from the bush and is working his way calmly along the roadside verge, plunging his beak deep into the grass in search of food. Being flightless he can’t take to the wing to get away, but in any case he seems happy where he is, completely ignoring his entranced admirers.

We watch for maybe 15 minutes, getting unforgettable views of a magnificent, iconic bird. The red light makes photography very difficult, but it doesn’t really matter: this memory will stay with us forever.

New Zealand’s most photographed tree

10 November 2019

We were passing, and simply had to drop in to see New Zealand’s most photographed tree. It’s a willow and started life as a fencepost, simply a branch hacked off a nearby tree 80 years ago with a wire attached to it to keep someone’s sheep in … or out, depending on which side of the fence you’re on.

But in the manner of some willow branches it took root, and whereas all its fencepost buddies have rotted away our hero has gone from strength to strength, sitting with his feet in the shallow water at the edge of Lake Wanaka. Not only that, our Willy’s become a celebrity.

The story goes that around 2011 local Wanaka photographers and writers began flooding social media sites with images of the tree as a bit of a joke. It plainly touched a chord, and two or three years later Lake Wanaka Tourism put Willy on its photo trail. Around the same time Christchurch photographer Dennis Radermacher took Willy’s photo on a misty June day, and won the 2014 New Zealand Geographic photograph of the year.

Willy had made the big time, and continues to go from strength to strength. Blogging apart I don’t do social media, but I have it on good authority that the tree has its own Facebook page and Twitter account (#ThatWanakaTree) and is big on Instagram too. Call me a miserable old curmudgeon (many people do, even Mrs P when I go off on one) but I can’t help wondering if the whole world isn’t completely out to lunch!

Mrs P enjoys photography, and snapped away merrily for 20 minutes, relishing the warm afternoon light on Willy’s tender green leaves. You can see a couple of her efforts on this page.

Meanwhile I was people watching. Men and women of all ages and apparently from all over the world were recording their encounter with Willy. Some were plainly amateurs, doing it with cheap cell phones and selfie sticks, but at the other end of the spectrum there were serious looking guys with enormous tripods and cameras that must have cost a king’s ransom.

At least one professional photoshoot took place while we were there, a pretty young lady flouncing and posing and pouting in front of the lens as if her very future depended on it. But on the other hand, pretty young models are about as common as blowflies at a barbecue these days, so it probably did.

And all the while Willy sat there contentedly, with the waters of Lake Wanaka lapping gently over his roots and caressing his wrinkly bark. He’s seen it all before, and no doubt will see it all again tomorrow … and the day after too.

The fencepost done good.

Penguins on parade

8 November 2019

The timing of our visit to New Zealand has been planned to maximise our chances of seeing the Fiordland Crested Penguin. Today’s the day when we find out if we’ve got it right.

Gerry drives us and a couple of other guests from the Lodge and drops us off by the side of the road. He tells us to lurk in the bushes while he secrets the van at another location some distance away. On his return we are ushered into the undergrowth, leaving no evidence that we were ever there at all.

This cloak and dagger stuff is worthy of a television crime drama, but Gerry has his reasons. The Fiordland Crested is endemic to New Zealand, meaning that it’s found nowhere else in the world. It’s one of the world’s rarest penguins, and to protect it from mammalian predators the Department of Conserevation has laid baited rat traps all over the area.

But this penguin is also desperately vulnerable to disturbance by people and, especially, their dogs. The colony that Gerry’s taking us to visit isn’t well known and is very difficult to find. He’s determined to keep it this way.

The path takes us deep into the forest, past palm ferns and a variety of native trees. It’s twisty, steep and slippery, and not at all pleasant to walk. But that, of course, is exactly the point.

To cover our tracks we ford the same river a number of times, and at one point a false trail is laid so that anyone following us won’t find the correct river crossing. The Lodge has loaned us all gumboots (wellingtons to any Brits reading this), and this is a good thing in view of the trek we’ve embarked upon.

However the river’s running fast and high due to all the rain we’ve had recently, and at the second crossing Mrs P fills one of her gumboots. She’s not at all a happy bunny, but the prospect of penguins stiffens her resolve and she squelches on stoically.

Eventually we arrive at the beach, and Gerry leads us to the appropriate spot. To our right the sea, waves slapping into the beach and shoreline rocks; to our left, a steep hillside, green and thickly forested. The penguins nest in the forest, and trudge up and down the hillside every day to feed their youngsters. This is what we’re hoping to witness.

Within seconds we spot our first penguin. He’s out at sea, but paddling calmly towards the shoreline.

Soon he’s out on dry land, looking this way and that to check that he’s safe. We can tell immediately that he’s a good looking lad. He stands at around 60cm, a stout bird with dark head and upperparts, and white underparts. A broad yellow crest, which is the source of his name, runs above his vivid red eye.

Having established that the coast is clear, both literally and metaphorically, he moves up the beach a little and begins to preen. He needs to ensure he’s in tiptop condition before he starts the yomping to the nest site.

Once everything is in order he sets off. And as he walks up the beach we spot his unusual posture. Whereas most penguins that I’ve seen (albeit courtesy of Sir David Attenborough) hold themselves upright when they move, he walks in a stooped position like an old man with a walking stick.

But his posture doesn’t hold him up, and soon he’s reached the spot where the beach ends and the hillside begins. Now he’s been joined by another penguin, and the two of them begin to scramble up the slope. They’ve walked this path many times before, as have the colony’s other adult birds. The lower slope is bare of all vegetation, worn away by the trudging of countless webbed feet, and the soil is crumbling away.

At last our hero is within metres of the forest edge. He turns and surveys the beach one more time, before heading off amongst the trees. He may still have several hundred metres to travel, but we will never see him again.

By Gerry’s reckoning we see 19 penguins on parade over a period of about 90 minutes, some climbing uphill to their nests, and others returning down to the sea to catch more fish for their ravenous chicks. It’s been an honour and a privilege to watch them go about their business at Gerry’s secret location. Here’s hoping the secret remains a secret, and that the action continues for generations to come.

Kaikoura dolphin encounter

29 October 2019

Our third Kaikoura boat trip in a little over 24 hours sees us venture out to sea in pursuit of dolphins.

Most of the people on our trip are going to swim with the dolphins, and are therefore ushered off into a back room at the Dolphin Encounter offices to get fitted out with wetsuits and bright yellow flippers. Neither Mrs P nor I are strong swimmers, so instead of taking a dip we’ll stay on board and watch the action from the comfort of the boat.

The boat slips out of Kaikoura harbour and speeds off to where the dolphins were seen by another group this morning. The pod is soon sighted and the skipper edges as close as he dares, then switches off the engine. He sounds the ship’s siren, which is the sign for the wetsuit warriors to slip off the back of the boat and wait in the water for the dolphins to pay them a visit.

At the briefing before we set off we were all reminded that dolphins are wild animals and may not be in the mood to interact with the crazy humans who wander into their territory. Any interaction will be on their terms, and the wetsuit warriors are advised of the etiquette and protocols of swimming with these intelligent and lively animals. There is a real danger that the dolphins will take one look at the motley bunch of swimmers, and promptly bugger off to somewhere more peaceful.

But we needn’t have worried. Dolphins are naturally curious, and the pod we have located seem anxious to check us out. They swim alongside and beneath our boat, circling us madly like wasps around a Devon cream tea, and then head on out to the excited wetsuit warriors to make their day too.

Not content with whizzing round the boat like Mark Spitz on steroids, some of the dolphins decide to show off their skills as gymnasts, leaping clear of the water and putting on a high octane performance of improbable twists, turns and spins.

Chris Packham, a noted UK naturalist and television broadcaster maintains that animals do everything for a reason, and have no concept of “fun.” But watching the dolphins strutting their stuff around out boat and amongst the swimmers, I find this impossible to believe.

There’s a whole ocean out there and yet the dolphins have chosen to check us out. We are slow and clumsy and therefore no threat to them; they are the masters of their environment. Nor are we inducing them to hang around with food, as we did with the albatrosses earlier in the day. Sorry Chris Packham, I love you dearly mate, but you’re wrong about this.

These dolphins are here because they’re having fun. They’re having the time of their lives, and so are we.