Sunday, June 16, 2019

Post #160 - Eastern strays everywhere!

The following is quick recount of some of my recent adventures in bike-birding. I've been a bit of a message board vulture lately, so I need to find some good birds to redeem all the stuff I've been poaching! Anyway, on with the show.....

On June 6, there were two would-be new birds for my Bay Area bike list in the South Bay, a five-day-staying Indigo Bunting at the Stanford Dish and a day-before-discovered Eastern Bell's Vireo at Don Edwards in Alviso. My plan was ride south to Stanford, look for the bunting, and monitor the list-server to see if the vireo had overnighted. If it had - and I'd managed to find the bunting - I'd continue south to Alviso to look for it. That trajectory (map) was 64 miles and would require about 4.5 hours of riding. However, northwestern gales would build through the morning, so the longer it took me to find the bunting, the harder the return leg from Alviso would become.

The most direct path to the bunting and the vireo - 64 miles.

I left San Mateo at 6:30am, arrived at Stanford at 7:30, and found the bunting 8:30. With no reports of the vireo, I birded the dish to kill time and wait for news. Receiving none by 9:30, I rolled over to Shoreline and slowly birded my way north along the under the assumption the vireo was gone. Just before rejoined streets in East Palo Alto at 11:30, I checked the message board one last time. Wouldn't ya know? The vireo had just been reported! Worse, it had been present all morning! Had I immediately departed Stanford for Alviso I could have collected the bird and been nearly home by the time I received word of it. The problem is that it's really difficult for me to commit to a chase without knowledge - or at least suggestion - the sought bird is present because riding is so demanding and time consuming. I can't casually investigate as can folks in cars because getting anywhere is such a big production.

Indigo Bunting - Bay Area bike bird #284


Given the new information, I faced a difficult decision: return home without the vireo (mentally painfully) or turn around, retrace my tracks to Shoreline, continue to Alviso, tick the vireo, and then battle vicious headwinds all the way home (physically painful). I knew folding such a great Bay Area bird would bother me forever, so I activated Beast Mode and headed south.

Bell's Vireo sightings in the Bay Area and beyond - 
there aren't many, at least in eBird.

"I'm just chasing the vireo so I don't get fined"

With a decent WNW breeze behind me, into only took me an hour to reach Alviso from my East Palo Alto turn-around point. I heard the vireo calling as soon as I arrived, and I had eyes on it within 5 minutes. In traditional Bell's fashion, it preferred tangled foliage, so it took another 20 minutes to obtain an identifiable photo. As soon as I did, I remounted and began the long ride home.

(Eastern) Bell's Vireo - Bay Area bike bird #286

The slog was as rough as I imagined, particularly the southern/eastern half on the bayshore where I was exposed to the full force of the wind. I ducked into the neighborhoods at Shoreline, a strategy partially mitigating the breeze but subjecting me to traffic and lights in exchange. My return ultimately required 3 hours of riding, 50% longer than usual. I managed but was mostly incapacitated the following day. It was totally worth it for such a good Bay Area bird!

The path that actually transpired. The wind was 
blowing at a steady 15 MPH the whole return - ouch.

And since I've been presenting birds in groups of three for my last few posts, I'll throw in this American Redstart I poached in McLaren Park. Reported mid-morning on June 11th and just over an ride hour from my house, this bird was a no-brainer, even in the sweltering temperatures! 75 mins out, 45 mins to find the bird, and 60 mins home - easy!

American Redstart pursuit

American Redstart - Bay Area bike bird #286

OK, that's it. I'm off to Colombia for 3 weeks on Friday, so this will be the last post for a while. Cheers!

Thursday, June 6, 2019

Post #159 - More spring bike birding - the hits keep coming!

Two quick notes before I get into things:

1) My 2019 Colombia installment for Alvaro's Adventure's is sold out, but we've already slated our 2020 iteration for June 20 - 30. It will operate like a traditional birding tour and offer some really sweet photo ops for those that want to take advantage of them. You can do damage with a 100-400mm lens in the tropics (see below), so mark your calendars now!


2) I am leading a Cuba trip for Alvaro's Adventures in December. Access to this incredible birding destination is in constant limbo - as evidenced by new restrictions implemented by the Trump administration - so seize the opportunity and join us this winter!

OK, back to the bike!

The weather has continued to improve since my last bike-birding update two weeks ago, so I've undertaken a few longer rides to offset my newly-developed donut addiction. The first took me to areas south of San Jose to look for American Dipper and Black-chinned Hummingbird, two species I haven't seen in the Bay Area. Prior to this excursion, I'd only bike-birded the foothills as far south as Stanford, so everything beyond my alma mater was novel cycling. Foothill Expressway offered nice riding, and the residential streets of Cupertino and Saratoga were easy to navigate. The 35-mile outbound ride netted me 370 feet of vertical gain from 860 feet of climbing, but the hills were rolling and presented no significant impediment.


I arrived in Los Gatos roughly two hours after departing San Mateo and commenced my dipper search in the concrete flume south of town, an area recent eBird reports indicated the birds frequented. Those reports were spot on, and I found an adult feeding a fledgeling after just 20 minutes. I would have loved to see and photograph them in a more natural setting, but it was still really cool to watch the adult make repeated foraging dives into the brisk current.

American Dippers - adult (L) and iuvenile (R)
Bay Area bike bird #281

The dipper ticked, I jumped back on my bike and followed the very nice Los Gatos Creek Trail north into the San Jose sprawl. eBird showed scattered Black-chinned Hummingbird sightings from the Willow Glen area, so I kept on the pedals towards that vicinity. South of Campbell Park, I spotted a hummer with a very white breast and slightly curved bill collecting spider webs from a stone wall. It disappeared into some adjacent foliage before I could unequivocally label it a female Black-chinned, but I walked around the corner and found her building a nest right next to the bike path. Additional looks confirmed my identification, and I captured some record shots as she came and went from her nest over the next 20 minutes. The male was sticking to the tops of some nearby tall trees and didn't offer much in the way of looks or photos (all backlit). 

Female Black-chinned Hummingbird on nest
Bay Area bike bird #282

My second long ride targeted the Black-tailed Gull Chris Hayward and Malia Defelice found at Gazos Creek on Thursday, May 30. This bird presented three specific challenges. First, I received word of the bird to late to chase it on the day of its discovery. Second, it flew off soon after its discovery, so there was a good chance I'd be chasing a ghost whenever I tried for it. Third, the round-trip ride to Gazos is best split into two days because of the > 4000 feet of climbing its 80-mile length requires. It can be done in a day, but it's a lot of riding and doesn't leave much time for birding.


My solution to these hurdles was to secure a room at the Pigeon Point hostel for the Friday, May 31. That lodging would let me split the ride into two days and give me plenty of time to search for the gull. Irrespective of that long-shot bird, the ride would be welcome time on the southern San Mateo Coast, a inconvenient but beautiful geography I don't get to explore as often as I would like.

The gull had not been reported by the time I reached Half Moon Bay Friday midday, but there was substitute good news of Red Phalarope, a would-be new bird for my Bay Area bike list. My gull gamble instantly morphed into a phalarope pursuit, and I continued down the coast to tick a stunning Red for Bay Area bike bird #283. I spent the late-afternoon birding Gazos Creek Road, rechecked the beach before sunset (no gull), and retired to the hostel for the night. I made a final check of Gazos at sunrise the next morning (no gull) and retraced my steps to San Mateo by 11am. The weather held up both days, and the phalarope was a great consolation for my 94 miles of riding. So, it was a really nice ride despite the gull's absence.

Phone-scoped Red Phalarope at Gazos Creek Beach
Bay Area bike bird #283

Incidentally, I've seen the Black-tailed Gull once before (adult, Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel, December 1998). Had it been an ABA bird, I most certainly would have driven for it. ABA birds are few and far between, so I don't think twice about driving for them (though I kinda regret not chasing that bluetail).  

OK, that's it for now. I actually added Bay Area bike birds #284 and #285 today, but those will be in the next update. Photography is hella slow now - I haven't taken real photo in 6 weeks - but I'm hoping to get a few keepers before I leave for Colombia in 2 weeks. So, fingers crossed.....

Sunday, May 26, 2019

Post #158 - In hot pursuit of unusual Bay Area birds - on a bike!

Between crappy weather and non-birding responsibilities (book writing, see last post for update), bike-birding has been relegated to an occasional distraction in 2019. However, I've recently dusted-off my legs and worked my way back into the game with a few a notable chases. Read all about 'em!

Bay Area bike bird #278 - White-Faced Ibis at Candlestick SRA, May 11, 2019

This bird was discovered on Friday, May 10th and spent the whole afternoon obliging SF County birders before reportedly flying off in the evening. It was the first White-faced Ibis reported near my San Mateo home base in the two years I've lived here, so I decided to look for the bird the following morning despite the discouraging end-of-day news. There isn't much habitat along that heavily developed stretch of bayshore, so I thought there was a decent chance the bird would return to the small pond from which it flushed.



My White-faced Ibis pursuit
16.5 miles each way for 33 total - easy!

The ride to Candlestick State Recreation Area was a flat 16.5 miles and took just over an hour each way (I ride much faster than Google's predictions). I wasn't very familiar with the area, but I found the referenced water feature without much trouble. The returned/reappeared ibis immediately sauntered out of the reeds, and I captured a few phone-scoped shots as a reward for my efforts. I spent another two hours birding the park and biked home. It couldn't have worked out better given the bird's disappearing act the previous evening!


Pond/puddle hosting the ibis

White-faced Ibis (phone-scoped)

Bay Area bike bird #279 - Yellow-breasted Chat at Pescadero, May 17th, 2019
This bird was also found on Friday, May 10th, but I prioritized the White-faced Ibis because of proximity. The ride for the YBCH would be much longer, and I didn't want to undertake it without follow-up reports. Those established a pattern in the next few days, so I decided on Thursday the 16th I'd give the bird a try on Friday the 17th. Partly sunny skies and temps in the high 50s would make perfect riding, and the forecasted west winds wouldn't impede either the southbound or northbound leg, an important consideration given the hilly terrain I'd need to overcome. You can see the elevation profile on the map below - 3,855 feet of climbing, ouch!



My Yellow-breasted Chat pursuit
32 miles each way for 64 total

Can't beat biking the San Mateo Coast

I left my apartment at 6:50am, climbed over the mountains on Highway 92, and continued down the coast to Pescadero. It took 2 hours and 20 mins of uninterrupted riding to cover those 32 miles. The bird was very vocal when I arrived, and I was able to get eyes and camera onto it without much effort.

Yellow-breasted Chat

I birded the area until 10:45 before beginning my return ride. Even with a 45-minute lunch break in Half Moon Bay, the second crossing of Highway 92 was excruciating and required a rare 15-minute recovery at the top (not in my best shape at the moment!). By the time I reached my apartment, it was 2:45pm, ~8 hours after I departed. Subtracting the hour-and-a-half of birding and the combined hour of recovery on the return ride, the 64-mile trip (and 3,900 vertical feet of climbing) required 5 hours 30 mins (2:20 out, 3:10 return) of active riding. Now you understand why I have to be very careful to pick my moment on these longer chases. Besides being exhausting, they eat up the whole day!

The day's only negative was this car-killed Rose-breasted Grosbeak I found on Highway 1. This species is generally restricted to the Eastern United States, so it's unusual in California. Woulda been a new bird for my Bay Area bike list - ugh.


Road kill Rose-Breasted Grosbeak and range map

Bay Area bike bird #280 - Gray Flycatcher, McLaren Park (SF), May 20, 2019
This bird was posted to the list-serve around 11am, and I shot out the door when I saw the post at 3pm. The ride was basically identical to my White-faced Ibis chase, so it was a no brainer to undertake it. There was a fair bit of north wind impeding the outgoing leg, but 70 minutes of riding and 5 minutes of birding yielded the bird from the exact spot it was reported. I stuck around a few minutes, jumped back on the bike, and made it home in 57 minutes. These short chases are great since they get me out of the apartment but leave lots of time to get work done!


My Gray Flycatcher pursuit 
15.5 miles each way for 31 total

Gray Flycatcher

So that's what listing on a bike looks like. I might be able to squeeze in a few more chases before I head to Colombia for three weeks in late June, but I'll have to see what turns up and how much time I have. Stay tuned!

The best part of bike-birding? No guilt!

Thursday, May 16, 2019

Post #157 - An update on my book and a bunch of photos!

First, I want to apologize for the lack of recent content. I've been directing all my efforts into my book, and terrible weather since January has reinforced writing as a more productive use of my time than biking, birding, or photographing. I have, however, received several recent inquires about book progress, so I'll use this post to offer a quick update. These questions have commonly taken three forms, so let's start with those, cool? 

1) What is the book about?
2) Why is it taking so long?
3) Do I have a publisher?
4) What is the title?


Since all words and no pictures is no fun, I've interspersed a bunch of pictures I took on Dauphin Island, Alabama where I gave a lecture for the Alabama Ornithological Society in mid-April. It's a great place to photograph shorebirds (and view neotropical migrants!). All of the shown birds are molting from basic into breeding plumage.

***click on all images for larger, higher resolution views***

Short-billed Dowitcher - Limnodromus griseus
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/4000 at f/7.1 ISO 640

1) What is the book about? 
Most generally, this book is about my 2014 bicycle Big Year. However, it is less a bird-by-bird account of my uniquely self-powered effort and more a story of adventure and personal discovery. I use the bicycle as a vehicle to explore physical space (i.e. bird my way around the country), and I augment that primary narrative with a more personal history of my alcoholism and the insecurities which fueled it. My task is very ambitious, especially for a first time writer, but I feel I have finally struck an appropriate balance of biking, birding, character development, observational meditation, humor, and personal introspection. I think my story will have appeal well beyond the traditional birding market, so it's important I take my time and get it right if I hope to align my work with other successful memoirs.

Short-billed Dowitcher - Limnodromus griseus
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/4000 at f/7.1 ISO 640

2) Why it is taking so long?
I worked (and commuted) 60 hours per week in LA during 2015 and 2016, so I made minimal progress in the two years following my adventure. I produced a very poor first draft during that time, largely based on bad guidance, and I scrapped 95% of it when I left LA, moved to SF for my wife's job, and started writing full time in May of 2017. My second version, written from May 2017 to May 2018, was much better, but I did zero work on the book from June to October because of my Colombian consulting gig with Audubon Society. That four-month hiatus was surprisingly helpful, and things really clicked when I began a heavily-revised and structurally-streamlined third draft in October of last year. I've been on a roll since then, and I have 20 of 28 chapters in a form I feel worthy of agent/publisher attention. Writing about my alcoholism - and all the problems it caused - in an open an honest way is also really draining, so I can only stand so much each day.

Semipalmated Sandpiper - Calidris pusilla
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/3200 at f/5.6 ISO 640

3) Do you have a publisher yet?
I am just beginning to think about publishers. I knew writing would be a very protracted process, and I wanted to allow time to find my voice and develop a narrative structure to articulate it. Fortunately, my wife has a great job and has been very supportive, so I haven't needed to rush a substandard product to agents/publishers (which they'd reject anyway). I am currently working with someone who deals with New York publishing houses and knows this literary space very well, so I am hopeful something will pan out. I am confident someone will publish this book; I just have to be patient and connect with the right person if I haven't already found her.

Short-billed Dowitcher - Limnodromus griseus
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/3200 at f/8, ISO 1000

4) What is the title?
I do, but it's top secret! I will tell you it doesn't reference birds or birding. I have a couple of backups but will ultimately defer to whatever a publisher thinks best.

So, that's my life right now: lots of writing, a bit of birding, and not much shooting since all the shorebirds and ducks have migrated away! I hope to crank out at least more entry this month, so please stay tuned for that!

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Post #156 - Birdwatching in New Zealand, part 4: Kaikoura and pelagics

Quick note
This is the fourth post in my Birding in New Zealand series. Like the others, it is meant as a permanent online reference, is long and detailed, and will be archived in the International Birding Resources tab under the main banner heading. The other posts in the series are:
Post #153 - Birding in NZ, part 1: Background, preparation, logistics
Post #154 - Birding in NZ, part 2: Endemic birds and suggested South Island routes

Kaikoura Overview
If you are fired-up by albatrosses, petrels, whales, dolphins, and seals, then there's no better destination than Detroit! Did I say Detroit? I mean Kaikoura, a small, charming, and stunningly beautiful town 2.5 hours north of Christchurch on New Zealand's South Island. Though this post will feature a heavy birdwatching slant, Kaikoura is one of New Zealand's - and possibly the world's - great ecotourism destinations. There is so much to see and do, and the destination is as popular with hardcore birders as it is families. Birders should definitely keep reading, but I'll point everyone towards Kaikoura's official website for more information. The site is really well done, and I've modified the below map from it. Hopefully they won't give me a hard time considering I'm marketing their ecotourism product!


Why Kaikoura?
Kaikoura is similar to Monterey, California in that it offers very easy access to a deepwater submarine canyon. Life abounds in that pelagic habitat, and nutrient upwellings along the canyon walls attract birds and marine mammals in astounding numbers. The beauty of Kaikoura is that visitors need not reach far from shore to enjoy the ocean's riches. I was into Wandering Albatrosses, Dusky Dolphins, and Sperm Whales just 20 minutes from the dock! Kaikoura is arguably the best and most accessible pelagic birding on Earth.


Why Kaikoura? Because who wouldn't enjoy this?!?!?!

Pelagic birding in Kaikoura
As far as Kaikoura is concerned, you need know only one name: Albatross Encounter (AE), a branch of the larger and more popular Dolphin Encounter with which AE shares a facility (reservation desk, cafe, and gift shop, etc). AE really has their act together as evidence by the eBird Hotspot dedicated to their trips. I took two trips on consecutive mornings and saw Wandering, Royal, White-capped, Salvin's, and Buller's Albatrosses between the two trips. Wandering and Royal were undoubtedly the most impressive. Both have wingspans nearing 11 feet and came into the chum slick at the back of the boat. It's difficult to comprehend such huge birds until the fly past you at distance of fifteen feet!

Wandering Albatross - Diomedea exulans
Photographed off Kaikoura (land in background)
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/5000 at f/5.6, ISO 640

Wandering Albatrosses, Northern Giant-Petrels, 
and Cape Petrels behind our boat
The lighting was really, really bad on both my trips, sadly

Beyond the albatrosses, Northern Giant-Petrel, Cape Petrel, White-chinned Petrel, Westland Petrel, Flesh-footed Shearwater, Buller's Shearwater, Sooty Shearwater, and Hutton's Shearwater all made appearances. The Hutton's is particularly interesting because it nests only the mountains to the west of Kaikoura. It's a New Zealand breeding endemic and would be a full/true endemic if it didn't venture into Australian waters during the non-breeding months. Young and disoriented adult birds are often found in town as they crash out between the mountains and sea, and there is an extensive protocol to rehabilitate and release the birds that are recovered.

Northern Giant-Petrel in flight......

......and up close!

Cape Petrel

Westland Petrel (left), White-chinned Petrel (right)
Westland's black-tipped bill used to distinguish these species.
Lighting was awful for dark birds.

We saw several loads of Dusky Dolphins, some right next to the boat, and even a couple Sperm Whales. Time inshore produced great looks at various shags and New Zealand Fur Seal (photos below). The only regret I have was the the lighting was awful for all but 20 minutes of my two trips, so photos haver zero color and contrast. It was really frustrating, but I couldn't control it.

Adult New Zealand Fur Seal eating octopus (left), pup (right)

You get the idea. Kaikoura pelagic trips are a lot of fun. AE runs up to three trips a day, so contact them and see which trips are going. Everything you might need to know is on their website.

Other Stuff to do in Kaikoura

Dolphin Swimming

Chances are you'll see at least some whales and dolphins on your birding trip, so you might be able to pass on a dedicated whale watch. However, we didn't do dolphin swimming and we kind of wish we had. If you're interested in that, then I'll point you back to Dolphin Encounter as that's squarely in their wheelhouse.

Seal Swimming
This we did do, sort of. The idea is great - get in a boat, go to seal colony,  and swim around with the animals - but it doesn't always come to fruition, mostly because of weather. Outside of hunting/fishing, seals rest/sleep. If it's cool, then they'll lay on the rocks all day. If it's hot, then they'll spend a lot of time paddling about the shallows to stay cool. Since it was cold and cloudy on our day, we struck out on activity. We could see dozens of seals sleeping on the rocks as we snorkeled around the colony, but none of them swam. It was still a cool experience, and Seal Swimming Kaikoura issued us a 50% refund since we didn't swim with seals. They were a really classy operation, and I would highly recommend them. The trick is to pick your moment and go when it's sunny and hot. Also try to pick a windless day as swimming will be easier and underwater visibility will be better (less stirred-up sediment).

Otherwise visitors can rent kayaks and bikes, poke around in tide pools, relax on the beach, and explore the town and its many restaurants and shops. Kaikoura is small, but Sonia and I had several independent strolls along the main drag, usually with ice cream in hand. Of all the places we went in New Zealand, we liked Stewart Island and Kaikoura the best (hence posts dedicated to those place).
If you're a die hard pelagic birder and missed the Stewart Island post (#155), I'll point you there for yet more pelagic info!

OK, that's it for Kaikoura, for now. Not sure what's up next, but check back in a week or so!

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Post #155 - Birdwatching in New Zealand, part 3: Stewart Island

Quick note
This is the third post in my Birding in New Zealand series. Like the others, it is meant as a permanent online reference, is very long and detailed, and will be archived in the International Birding Resources tab under the main banner heading. The other posts in the series are:
Post #153 - Birding in NZ, part 1: Background, preparation, logistics
Post #154 - Birding in NZ, part 2: Endemic birds and suggested South Island routes
Post #156 - Birding in NZ, part 4: Kaikoura and pelagics

Stewart Island Overview
Stewart Island is located 20 miles off the south end of New Zealand's South Island. It's a wild outpost, and all New Zealand visitors - birdwatchers and others - are encouraged to explore the remote but surprisingly charming destination. With nothing between it and Antarctica but a few tiny and uninhabited island, you'll feel like you're at the end of the Earth. Though the town of Oban is pretty cool, Stewart's real lure - as the rest of New Zealand - is outdoor activities. Stewart is to the rest of New Zealand what New Zealand is to the rest of the world: a wonderful place to unwind and explore nature!



Getting there
There are two ways to reach Stewart Island: ferry and plane, both from Bluff. Neither is cheap, but the boat offers pelagic birding en route. I managed Buller's Albatross, White-capped Albatross, Northern Giant Petrel, Sooty Shearwater, and Common Diving-petrel on my crossings. Birding can be a bit challenging because the boat moves really fast. It can be a bit bouncy but most should survive the hour crossing. Book in advance but watch the weather as your crossing approaches. If the wind is forecast to strengthen through the day, you might want to jump on an earlier ferry if there's space. Ferries are cancelled with some frequency, and it would be a bummer to lose a day on the island if you can't make it out or be forced to scramble for lodging if you can't make it back.



Oban
Upon arriving, you'll disembark in the tiny municipality of Oban. There's not much to it, just two blocks of main street and a couple of satellite businesses. Everything you need is right there, so most people stay near the ferry terminal and walk everywhere. We splurged and stayed slightly out of town in an apartment that came with a car, a luxury that let us explore a bit farther afield. (http://www.stewartislandmotels.com/) There aren't but 20 (maybe?) miles of navigable road in/around Oban, so a bike is probably the best way to explore - assuming you're not carrying a ton of camera gear like me! The South Sea Hotel and associated restaurant/bar/patio is the center of activity, and the Church Hill Restaurant is apparently excellent. We, however, found the fish 'n chips at the Kai Kart so good that we ate there both nights (#healthylivingfail).




Things to do
Tourism is Oban's lifeline, and the locals have figured out how to keep visitors busy. Most of the activities are outdoor-oriented, and I will highlight those that will be of particular interest to birders. All the tour operators have offices on the main street, and Department of Conservation visitors center is really helpful if you have questions. Just walk in, they don't bite.

Ulva Island (eBird Hotspot)
Ulva is a tiny predator-free Island in Patterson Inlet (map below) where close views of some of New Zealand's rarer endemic birds are routine. New Zealand Kaka are everywhere, and you should find Yellowhead and South Island Saddleback with sufficient searching. Red- and Yellow-crowned Parakeets are also present, and you might get a daytime glimpse of Southern Brown Kiwi if you're really lucky! The flightless Weka (a large rail) is also present, so don't immediately assume a large brown bird running across the ground is a kiwi. Weka are very curious and will often approach you, particularly if you're eating lunch one of the Ulva's many secluded beaches. Other endemics we observed during our 3-hour walk included New Zealand Pigeon, Variable Oystercatcher, Foveaux Shag, Red-billed Gull, Tui, New Zealand Bellbird, Pipipi, New Zealand Fantail, and the super-tame New Zealand Robin. An incredible 14 of the 17 species we found were endemic!


A number of guided walks are offered (individual and group), but Ulva's Guided Walks are a particularly good place to start. Many operators package a guided walk on Ulva with a pelagic trip and kiwi spotting (more on those in a bit) to maximize the Stewart experience, but it's possible to take a water taxi and wonder around Ulva on your own. The island is small  (~2 miles long, ~1 mile across) and the trails clearly marked, so getting lost in a non-issue. Lower tides are better as more of Ulva's beaches are exposed, but it's always cool. Go. It's awesome. Even more than the fish n' chips.

Wife Sonia birding on Ulva's well-marked trail

Endemics Yellowhead (left) and South Island Saddleback (right)

Beach on Ulva

Pelagic trips
While it's possible to tick a few species on the ferry ride, undertaking a pelagic trip from Stewart/Oban is highly recommended. Most operators use small boats and get you right on top of the birds. There's no need to go very far, and most trips last just 3-4 hours. We went with Rakiura Charters and engineered a 'land & sea' excursion. They dropped us on Ulva at 9am, and we wandered around on our own until 12:30 when we boarded another boat heading directly out to the Muttonbird Islands (where 5 million Sooty Shearwaters nest) and pelagic grounds. It was super easy, and I strongly suggest coupling the two, especially if you have a good weather day to cram everything in. The list of pelagic possibilities is huge. Check out this eBird hotspot!

Foveaux Shag (endemic, left), Brown Skua (right)

Endemic Yellow-eye Penguin from my pelagic.

Most of the pelagics are 'on-demand' meaning they don't run every day. You need to contact the outfit and arrange a trip ahead of time. If there's a booking on the day you want to go, you'll join the existing reservation. If you initiate a new booking, know that a minimum charge of 3 people is usually needed to make the boat go. If you only have two, you'll have to absorb the the cost of a third person unless others join your reservation. If you go November to March, chance are you won't need to worry about having enough people. The cool thing is the boat is really small and only holds ~8 people. You get really close to the birds, especially if it's not windy and the albatrosses are sitting on the water as they were on my day out. I highly recommend Rakiura, but it's worth checking with Aihe or Aurora if Rakiura is booked or not running.

Buller's Albatross - Thalassarche bulleri
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/4000, at f/5.6, ISO 640


Kiwi Spotting
This is probably the most popular eco-activity on Stewart Island. The island has a healthy population of the Southern Brown Kiwis, and visitors should find the flightless feather-balls with a moderate amount of nocturnal dedication. We had two nights on Stewart - the intervening day for Ulva and Pelagic - so we decided we'd look for the birds on our own the first night; if we struck out, we'd pay to join a group on the second. The car allowed us a bit of flexibility, so we cruised some of the roads on the edge of town and found one bird along Horseshoe Cove Road. The bird was really mellow and foraged at out feet for a half-hour. It was pretty amazing! 

Southern Brown Kiwi under red light (more on this below)

Beware of getting too close during mating season. The flightless birds possess Lebron James-like leaping ability, and territorial males have been known to jump up and peck people in the face. Short-statured adults and children under 12 should be fitted with protective safety glasses before embarking on any kiwi-spotting venture. Anyone taller than 42 inches should be fine. Still buying it? If yes, I should also tell you about how they use human fingers as chum on pelagic trips. But I digress. No more BS, I promise.


We found two more kiwis on the roadside right in front of our motel/apt on the second night. They are rather noisy as they stomp around and forage, and walking road in the dark and listening for rustling is very effective. You can find these guys just about anywhere, so it's mostly about putting in enough time. Our car helped us get out of town, but you need not venture much more than a mile from the ferry terminal to be in prime kiwi habitat. Traill Park in town is apparently a decent place to find the birds, so you can give that a try if nothing else. If looking for kiwis on your own sound futile, then contact Ulva's Guided Walks or Ruggedy Range and join one of their nighly outings.

Another Southern Brown Kiwi!

We used a red LED headlamp because white light can stress the birds and send them scampering into the brush. With it, we were able to walk right up to the birds once we spotted them.  If you only have a white light, stop into the Department of Conservation (DoC) building on the main street. They will furnish you with a piece of red cellophane you can use to filter a white flashlight. The cellophane is free, but you should return it DoC before you leave the island. This is true, despite my attempts to mess with you earlier! Stewart residents are used to people wandering the roads at night, but please be careful anyway.

Hiking
While most birders won't have the time or interest for serious hiking, I'll mention it in case anyone not obsessed with birds actually reads this blog. There are a number of short day hikes, and a 10-day loop of the entire north section of the island is possible. But that's only for the REALLY hardcore. More appealing might be the 32km, 3-day loop through the center of the island. The DoC maintains a series of huts with beds and kitchens along the track, so you need only carry a sleeping bag and food but not other backcountry camping clutter like ent, sleeping pad, pots, etc. This is a good place to start for general information about hiking on Stewart Island, particularly day hikes. Otherwise you can just drop into the DoC office when you arrive. They'll be able to answer any questions you have.

OK, that's about it for this installment. Stewart Island is totally worth the visit; between Ulva, pelagics, and kiwis, you won't be disappointed. There are also other activities like kayaking and fishing, so there's no shortage of things to do. Stewart is as much a lifestyle as anything else, and I think any trip to New Zealand would be incomplete without a visit.

Next up? Kaikoura and pelagics!