Day 1 Chris and I took off from Dulles on Sunday afternoon, flew to LA and thence off to Aukland. We found the signage at LAX to be poor and frustrating, but we did manage to get to the right gate ahead of time. We boarded our Air New Zealand flight, and were just settling in when the woman in the seat in front of us handed me and others a small plastic packet with a red card. In it were two small candies and two ear plugs. We were amazed. What a terrific idea to establish a proactive positive relationship with travelers around a family with a baby. I asked the woman where she had purchased the card and she replied that she had just done it herself. Apparently a personal idea. We were really touched. And OBTW, the child was a perfect traveler. We never heard a peep from her.
After dinner, we pulled up the seat extension that we had paid $200 each extra to have. We tried both of us lying down, spooning to maximize space, but alas, after hours of fitful sleep we decided we just could not get comfortable. So Chris lay down and I sat up and we completed the night portion of the flight. We landed in Aukland on schedule, Tuesday, retrieved our luggage and then had to go through a special customs line because I had two McDonalds size honey packets in my briefcase. They were confiscated.
We found the super shuttle van and after an hour arrived at our hotel, the Rose Park. A great choice by Chris in booking this hotel because it was right across from a lovely rose garden that was just past peak in bloom. We were soon exploring this park and taking a few photos. Introduced birds from the UK were everywhere: mostly Blackbirds, but also Song Thrushes and Spotted Doves.
After a nice walk in the park, we walked perhaps a mile to a commercial district and picked a sidewalk café for lunch. We shared a chicken something and walked back to the hotel. We were both feeling a wee bit tired so decided to lie down for an hour. BIG mistake. Six hours later, at 9PM we awoke to find it pitch black outside. We didn’t have the energy to go far, so went upstairs to the restaurant. It was closed, but there was a guy cleaning up. We must have looked disappointed and so he asked what he could do for us. We told him we would like some soup and an omelet and his reaction was: no problem. Soon we were eating in the dark restaurant. His attitude of helpfulness and cheerfulness were characteristic all over New Zealand we found. We encountered none of the surliness that is common with service people in the US. After dinner we were soon in bed! Again.
Day 2. The following morning Chris awoke early and went out on the balcony and watched the dawn slowly break over the rose garden. It was magical and she repeated this for the next few days. We decided to go an hour south to the Miranda Wetlands, a large tidal area around the Firth of Thames, about an hour south of Aukland. We inquired about transportation and soon determined that the only reasonably efficient and cost effective way to get there was to rent a car. We had determined that the time to go to the wetlands was at high tide, which was shortly before 3PM. We walked around the garden again in the morning and then chilled out. We did see a leucistic Blackbird that I successfully photographed and a kingfisher that I didn’t. I expected to see the latter bird all over the country, but this was the only one that I spotted.
After lunch we walked to the Ace RentaCar which was fairly close. I told the agent there what I wanted: a compact with auto shift. He shuffled around a bit and offered one for $75 for the day. I told him I was going to check elsewhere and he assured me that I would not beat that price. Two doors down from Ace was a repair facility with a small sign that they rented cars. We walked in and could find no office for the transaction, but was directed to a stand up desk. A young woman soon appeared and offered a price of $37 for the day for the same type car! She was making out the papers while we tried to figure out on a map how to get out of the city and south on Route 1. An employee overheard us and asked if we wanted a GPS. Oh my yes. How much? $5. How could we refuse. One of the easiest and best decisions on our trip. Off we went, well, errr, with me driving over the curb on the way out and coming uncomfortably close to cars on my left side. Chris was giving me a good deal of guidance to avoid hitting something! We returned to the hotel, picked up our stuff and were soon headed south with the excellent advice of Gertrude, the GPS!
We experienced a little difficulty when in the immediate area as the Miranda Shorebird Center did not come up on Gertrude. But that was soon rectified and we were at the Center. It was a well-stocked, informative facility, although the man staffing had all the affect of a stone. He did direct us, however, to the two blinds that overlook the mud flats. We were soon at the parking area and walked out to the first and best blind. No one was present, but the birds were WAY out even though it was an incoming tide at about half. An estimated 40,000 birds spend the NZ spring and summer on these flats. Most of the birds present were the most common bird at this location, the Bar-tailed Godwit, a large shorebird. This species makes an incredible non-stop flight from their breeding grounds in Alaska and Siberia to New Zealand. It is, of course, thousands of miles. It is hard to believe any creature can accomplish this.
The quiet of the blind was soon ended, however, by the arrival of four researchers who were in and out of the blind. But horror of horrors, they were soon joined by carloads of school children. About 15-20 in number and about ten years old. They were like most children this age: full of energy and unable to keep either quiet or still. They chatted, they went into and out of the blind, each time with the door making a loud bang, they poked their hands outside the blind and a few went out in front of the blind. I was not amused, although Chris told me that they were just acting like kids their age. I wanted solitude, but they were present for the better part of an hour.
As the tide continued to flow in, the birds moved closer, but when the tide was at full high, the water was still a good distance from the blind. One bird that came closer, however, was the primary target bird for the Miranda trip: the Wrybill. This species is a plover whose distinguishing characteristic is a curved bill. with the curve to the right side. It is the only bird in the world with a bill that curves to the side. There were perhaps six to eight Wrybills on the mudflats between us and the water and a few posed long enough for some decent images. I was shooting with my new 80-400 lens, as I had not brought my big 600mm lens to NZ. In the blind, I wished I had.
The wind was blowing strongly and so it was a bit chilly. I had foolishly not brought my jacket or my fleece along, so Chris loaned me a rain jacket. It was small for me, but did make things more comfortable. When high tide had passed and it was clear that the hundreds of shore birds were not going to get any closer, we were about to leave when something flushed the whole bunch. It was an amazing sight with so many birds in the air at once.
The birds circled around for awhile and then settled back down. It was time for us to go. We walked farther along the path, to the second (old) blind, but nothing much was in front. So we crossed the wire fence (legally) and approached the so-called Stilt Ponds. I was hoping for some rare ducks, but they were not there. Only several dozen Pied Stilts. I tried photographing them with a teleconverter, but the results were not satisfying.
Off we went north on the scenic route. Enroute, we spied our first Pukekos right by the road. There was fortunately a place to pull over and I was able to make some nice images of the bird. These rails look very much like the North American Purple Gallinule. After a few more stops for new birds like the Wattled Plover, we found the seafood restaurant named the Kaiaua Fisheries recommended by friends and shared a delicious scallop dinner. Afterwards as the rain started and the light began to fade, we crawled back to Route 1 and cautiously drove towards Aukland. It was rush hour and we, of course, were not familiar with the road. As we got into the city, the situation was stressful and we were very happy to have Gertrude leading the way. In fact, without her, I think we would still be motoring around the city trying to find the right exit!
Day 3. We took a taxi down to the ferry terminal in the downtown of the city to catch the catamaran out to Tiritiri Matanga Island in the greater Aukland harbor. This 484 acre island is a case study in conservation. It was mostly cleared of trees and farmed for over 100 years. About 25 years ago, some forward-thinking citizens decided to make it a refuge for native New Zealand birds. With some effort, all predators were removed from the island (read exterminated), thousands of native trees planted, and native birds reintroduced. The project has been a resounding success. The birds have flourished.
The island is co-managed by the Department of Conservation and some wise folks decided that it would be open to the public. Private boats can land there and a regular ferry goes there daily, so it gets heavy traffic. The benefits are that people can easily see the native birds that are rare and difficult to find now in most of New Zealand because of the introduced rats, weasels, stouts and ferrets. It has served as a model for other such projects elsewhere in New Zealand the abroad. Another amazing thing on the island are a few very oldtrees that were never removed by the farmers. Some have been found to be over 800 years old. The 100+ year old lighthouse there is now automated, as are most lighthouses all over the world.
We had reserved a place on the boat several weeks before and picked up our tickets at their office on the pier. Soon we boarded the boat along with over 100 other folks and steamed out to the island. Once ashore, we were assembled and given a briefing about the history of the restoration and ground rules for the island. Then we split into groups. We had (in retrospect) foolishly signed up for a guided walk. The problem was that we were in a group of twelve plus the leader. He was good at explaining various aspects of the island and its birdlife, but it was impossible to photograph with all those people around. I did lag behind and got the best image of the excursion of a Northern Saddleback sucking nectar from a flax flower. We ate a boxed lunch up by the lighthouse, close to where a pair of endangered Takahe’s was nesting, but saw neither bird. Their area is roped off to prevent disturbance during nesting season. Soon it was time to go. The guides made it clear that there would be severe consequences of anyone who had not paid to stay overnight to remain on the island. On the path out, our guide pointed out a Morepork, New Zealand’s only native owl, roosting in a palm tree. It was our only sighting of this bird in New Zealand.
Upon docking at the Ferry Pier, we collected our things and grabbed a short taxi ride back to our hotel. We were too tired to venture out from the hotel, so shared a dinner in the restaurant there and caught up on e-mails.
Day 4. We caught the Super Shuttle out to the airport again for $37NZ and soon boarded our JetStar flight down to Christchurch. Here we had the most stressful experience of the trip. We called Ace RentaCar from the terminal and were told to go to the end of the international terminal and up the sidewalk to a spot marked “Car Park.” Here the shuttle driver would pick us up in five minutes. Five went to ten went to fifteen and on to twenty. I returned to the terminal and called the rental car people again. Turns out we had landed in the international terminal, not the domestic terminal, so were on the wrong end. I returned to Chris who was waiting where we first went with our luggage. I grabbed the cart with all my stuff and we legged it out to the proper place. The sign, it turned out, did not say “Car Park,” it said “Long Term Car Park.” Oh well, there was our driver who had been back and forth several times looking for us. We loaded up and went to the office. As I went inside to do the paperwork for the car, Chris supervised the overloading of our luggage. Within minutes, she discovered that her bag was not in the trailer. Mild panic ensued.
The driver took her back to the terminal and they discovered that her bag was not at the pick up point. A check with Security revealed that it had not been picked up. The driver than drove around to our original location and there, sitting on the sidewalk, was Chris’s bag! It had been sitting there for 35 minutes, unattended, yet of the hundreds of people who had walked by, no one touched it! It was soon safely in the shuttle and returned to the office. We completed the paperwork, found that they did not have a GPS to rent us and off we went. We took a wrong turn about two blocks from the office and were lost! We stopped two men on bicycles who, it turned out, were tourists from New Guinea! They had a GPS, but among all of us, we could not find out how to get on Route 1 south. So we retraced our “steps” and soon were on our way down to Oamaru. The trip down was, well frankly, boring. Mostly irrigated farmland with little in the way of geographic features.
Oamaru is a tiny town and we easily found our motel and checked in. We had had a great chicken sandwich on the Jetstar flight that Chris had purchased in the Aukland terminal. For dinner we visited the nearby, errrr, McDonalds! Yes that chain is all the way down in a tiny town on the South Island. The food was about the same, but the prices elevated from what we expect in the US. After dinner we went out to the spot where the Little Blue Penguins come ashore each night. The lady in the motel had told us the location. We expected to sit on the rocks along the shore and watch the show. Wow, were we wrong! Turns out the whole place is now commercialized.
We found a statue outside, a well-stocked gift shop inside, and the whole placed well-fenced. I asked about admission and it cost $24 each for senior passes. After purchase, I told Chris within ear shot of the clerks, that I was going back out to the car to pick up my camera. “Oh no” said one clerk, “no photographs.” What, I asked. I can understand no flash photography, but no photographs at all? The clerk claimed that the Department of Conservation had put a stop to photography because, allegedly, people were jostling for positions at the rail. No one was permitted inside until nearly 8PM. We were among the first to enter. We were dumbfounded to find two bleacher like seating arrangements. One for the regular tourists like us and another for the premium seats. Between was the arrival point. First a shoreline of large rocks, then a flat sandy area, then a boardwalk that led to the premium seats, and on the other side bushes. Turns out in the bushes are artificial nest cavities that the penguins live and breed in. Almost as soon as we arrived, having not yet taken our seats, a couple of earlier arriving penguins showed up on the rocks. They were only twenty feet away from us, in perfect evening light and easy photographic targets. I was very frustrated. Little Blues are small penguins, only maybe 14 inches tall and without any of the bright breeding colors of their larger cousins.
We took our seats as many others arrived in both “bleachers.” Soon an employee took to the mike and started talking about the behavior of the birds. She explained that the penguins would swim in, forming rafts out in the ocean and then as a group climb ashore, walk up the rocks and across the sand and go under the boardwalk to their burrows. As she talked the sun began to set to the west — we were facing east — and the clouds took on a pink glow, while the sky a purplish color. It was one of the most amazing sunsets either of us had ever seen. And we were unable to capture it on film, much to my anger. As the employee spoke, we could see the first raft of penguins well off shore, appearing to be a spot of black on the ocean. Slowly they swam in and finally climbed out on the rocks. But it was not a one stop entrance. Many were tumbled back into the ocean by the waves, but they seemed unfazed and just climbed up again. Amber lights were turned on as the natural light faded, so we could easily see the scene. While we watched, probably five rafts came ashore. Some of the birds lingered, resting, on the rocks, before finally waddling across the sand and underneath the boardwalk. Early on, at least five Japanese tourists pulled out cell phones and tablets and started photographing the birds. I was furious. I told a couple sitting nearby that no photography was permitted, but they just ignored me. The employee made no attempt to stop them until I personally went out of my seat and lodged a complaint. There were signs along the rail showing a camera with a diagnol line through it, but the Japanese pretended to not understand English. I complied with the rules; they got their photos.
When it was pitch black out, we decided that we had seen all that was to be seen, so walked out to our car and started back to the motel. Within fifty yards of our parking space, we were amazed to see penguins right in the road. I stopped, grabbed my camera and got out. Turns out that many people knew about these penguins and were waiting there with their cameras. I turned the ISO on my camera to the absolute max, dropped the apperature to F9 and got myself down on the pavement. There was a group of about six birds standing next to the light pole awaiting a time when they felt safe to cross the road. After a few minutes they did, but my resulting photos just could not stop the movement with just the amber street light. There were townspeople in attendance who stopped anyone from considering flash. I immediately knew that if we were staying another day in Oamaru, I would be here as the sun went down and would be able to photograph the penguins as they exited the water. It was not to be, as we had reservations all along our route.
Day 5. We were up early and after breakfast — I cannot deny it — at McDonalds, we headed off on the penguin road to see what might be about. Sure enough, I was able to photograph some Wattled Plovers in great light. Out at the visitors’ center we photographed each other with the penguin statue before heading south again. The topography had changed dramatically. Now there were high hills, rocky beaches and wild lands. We stopped a number of times to catch images of the scenic shoreline and different birds. As we approached Dunedin, our destination, we saw a sign for the Orokuni Ecosanctuary where we planned to visit the following day. Chris suggested that we check it out now. It was a good decision. Orokuni is a fantastic place. Begun with a dream less than ten years ago, it is now 675 acres of primary forest protected by a 2.2 million dollar predator proof fence which was completed in 2007. The idea was to fence the property and then eliminate every last invasive predator within, creating a place with native birds could flourish. It has worked exceptionally well. There is now a million dollar visitor and education center, a most attractive building, staffed by extremely pleasant folks. There is a small lunch counter with tables to sit and eat or contemplate nature. We had a number of good conversations with staff but chose not to go in this day because there is an admission charge and we were advised to arrive as soon as the center opened at 9AM to maximize our chances of seeing the native birds. As it turned out, it was not a good decision. But more on that below.
After leaving Orokuni, we took a hilly, twisty road that went over the peninsula to the north of the famous Otago Peninsula and passed through the edge of Port Charleston before entering Dunedin. Dunedin is a medium sized city, but a city and we were soon lost. That got corrected and with the help of a friendly female biker, we found our B&B, Arden Street House. We checked in and then decided to go out to the end of the Otago Peninsula to the lighthouse. There is a long road along the coastline that we took which finally climbs up well above the sea at the end of the peninsula. There is a breeding colony of Southern Royal Albatross here, but again, it is a pay proposition. We elected not to take the tour, but did pay the $5 to enter the visitor center. One could see the albies flying in the strong wind from the windows in the visitor center. After having a coffee and a hot chocolate here we went back outside to a point along a cliff face. I wanted to photo the lighthouse, but there was no good vantage point. But while looking, I found a breeding colony of Red-billed Gulls. I had seen them flying around in numbers but did not realize they were nesting. It was easy to photograph the adults and young chicks right beside the path, but at eye level. A couple of my best images of the trip were made here of two males having at each other, probably for the favors of a female!
We departed the point and drove down a few miles to a turnoff for “The Penguin Place.” This is a privately owned property begun some years ago to protect Yellow-eyed Penguins –the rareist penguin in the world – and incidentally make a few bucks. Not a bad combination. We understood that the penguins came out of the sea in the late afternoon/early evening, so booked the last tour of the day. We arrived early, so made a change to the penultimate tour. At the appointed time we boarded buses that took us several miles out through farmland to the parking location. Then we took a trail that overlooked a wide beach and the penguin colony. The colony are all “housed” in man-made A-frames that replicate burrows. Interspersed among the A-frames is a winding covered path that puts you at eye level with the birds. There are holes allowing viewing. People’s faces are easily seen by the birds, but we were told that they do not consider us a predator since they can only see a small part of us. It is quite a st-up.
As we watched from far above, two different penguins, individually, waded through the surf, onto the beach and worked their way through bushes and into the colony. Although it was a long distance, I did made some very nice images of these birds. We worked our ways down to the colony and into the covered pathway. There for probably 25 minutes we watched the penguins from a few feet away. It was easy to photograph, but the birds were not really doing much besides just standing on lying there. But it is amazing to see penguins that close.
We returned to Dunedin via the coast road and had some amazing views of Royal Spoonbills, a White-faced Heron and several Variable Oystercatchers, all of which gave us good photo ops. Close to our B&B we found a Cambodian restaurant with a Filipino waitress who served us dinner. What are the chances of that in New Zealand? We were the last patrons and left a $1 tip even though tipping is not expected in NZ. As we walked out the waitress tapped on the window indicating that we had left money. We had to reassure her that it was for her!
Day 6. After a modest breakfast at the B&B, we drove north to Orokuni again. But today there was a ferocious wind, probably 40 knots and so conditions were unpleasant. Chris was understandably cold and I was barely comfortable. We paid our fees and headed out the path and into the forest. Most of the small birds were hunkered down, as any sentient creature would do. There were some nectar feeders, though, and a variety of birds came to these. Adjacent to the nectar was a nut feeder for Kaka parrots. They sometimes land right on people’s shoulder, but we were not so lucky. They did try to get stuff out of the feeder, however, but the feeder was empty! There were also Tui’s, Bellbirds, and Greenfinch (an introduced bird from the UK) at the feeders. A staff woman at the visitors’ center had told me about a Rifleman’s nest. This bird is tiny and its nest was in a tree limb across the path. The slit entrance was so small one wondered how any bird could get in there. I found this nest, however, and the parent birds were coming every few minutes to feed. I was able to make a number of very sharp images of both the male and female with food (including a rather large spider) in their bills. We also found a pair of New Zealand Pigeons, a very colorful bird, but all they wanted to do was sleep on a limb. I whistled, I made funny noises, I waved my hands. They were not impressed and just sat there, making for very modest images.
We never found the Saddlebacks that we later learned had been introduced here only a few months before. We did check out a colorful statue of Tane Mahuta carved by Alex Whitaker. This is the Maori god of the forest and the father of birds. Nearby was a tiny pond with a Grey Duck busily feeding in it. It paid no attention to us at all. Talk about habituated! After this encounter, we headed out and back to Dunedin, where I took a short nap. That is, after we had moved to the “garage room” which was at one point, a garage. The door was still intact. The room was full of stuffed animals, so it made for an interesting place to sleep. After the nap we went down to the Botanic Gardens in the center of town. What a gorgeous place! Every manner of blooming flower and plant, each prettier than the next. A pond with a Japanese pagoda was at the center. Semi-wild ducks were abundant. Unfortunately, the aviary and the greenhouse were closed, rather early, I might add.
Nearly across the street was the Cambodian restaurant, so we decided to eat there again because of the minimum hassle. After dinner, we asked our B&B host where we could watch the sunset and she recommended Signal Hill overlooking the city. We wound our way up there and found ourselves alone at first. It really was a spectacular view looking almost due west. There was a large statue on top commemorating early settlers in the region. As the sun got lower, many more people arrived, but most came, took a quick look and departed. At one point we encountered two young women who were working at the B&B. We made photos of them and they of us. We watched the sun go down behind a mountain and then packed up to return. The women had walked up that long hill, so we offered a ride back. They jumped at that offer! We slept well that night!
Day 7. The following morning we headed further south on Route 1 until we got to the junction with Route 92 at Balclutha. Here we headed mostly south into the Catlins and our motel at Kaka Point. But shortly before this turnoff, we found three Royal Spoonbills in some wet meadows right by the road. The great thing was that they were each in full breeding plumage which meant they had a number of long plumes coming from the back of their heads. They were quite comfortable letting me photograph them…but of course we were in the car. I suspect if I had gotten out, they would have flown off in a heartbeat. Quite impressive birds!
Not far from this spot there was a sign for “Sinclair Wetlands.” Having no idea what these might constitute and seeing a sign for another wetland, we headed west away from the highway. What must have been 20 kilometers, we came across a rather large lake, but there were only about a dozen scaup on the water. We continued on and found a large sign for Sinclair. It turned out to be a private reserve that was mostly a farm. No one was present except a newly hired young man who had arrived the day before and knew nothing. There was a sign by the buildings that showed recent sighting of a number of good water birds, so we walked on down to a gate. Here we passed through the gate, where there was a donation box asking for $5 each. We paid, only to find that the major pond where the waterfowl were supposed to be was almost dry. There were no birds. We then walked all the way around another “lake” that was heavy with reeds, so one could see almost no open water. We flushed on mallard female, probably off her nest. That was it! Oh yes, we did see one heron out of camera range. Disgusted, having wasted a valuable 1.5 hours, we retraced our steps and headed on down the highway.
As the road went along the coast, we began to find some most scenic spots, so stopped periodically to take photos. The road was passing through numerous sheep farms in the very green, rolling hills of the Catlins. At each turn in the road, we kept saying, “wow, is this beautiful.” And each scene was as pretty or prettier than the previous. Soon we came to Kaka Point, a very small town where we had reserved a motel. It was a three unit, very small motel which we found with no difficulty. The woman owner showed us our room, explained the amenities, etc. She was kind and helpful, but absolutely without any affect. After lunch we backtracked to the main road and visited Parakaunai Falls down a short trail. As we arrived back at the parking lot, Chris found a small bird hawking insects from a post. It was a TomTit. I grabbed my gear and tried to photograph the bird. It kept flying out to the road to grab an insect and then back into a bush just off the road. I made many attempts, but never got a book quality image. Soon we noticed another small bird flitting higher in a tree also alongside the road. It was a Fantail. Both these native forest birds were supposed to be common, but we found them anything but!
After this experience, we drove along the beach and stopped at what looked like an attractive spot. Very close to the road was a sleeping fur seal who finally roused himself and yawned a few times for us. Then lay back down. It was clearly much too much trouble to either bolt to the ocean or do much of anything else. From this spot we could see the Nugget Point lighthouse far away on top of a promatory. The scenery here was beyond description. To close out the day we drove to a spot where there was a blind overlooking a beach where Yellow-eyed Penguins came out of the surf and into their burrows in the grassy hillside. There was no charge at this spot, so we walked the quarter mile down to the blind. There were no benches. It was all stand up and wait. Several couples soon joined us, but after awhile became impatient and departed. After just over an hour, the first penguin waded ashore, right towards us. Ten minutes later a second came in. The first had stopped on the rocks between the beach sand and hillside to preen. The second then ambled over to the first and they interacted. They may have been related. After another twenty minutes of this, we figured we had gotten our money’s worth so departed.
We drove out the road to Nugget Point and then walked out to the lighthouse. Fortunately, there were only a handful of people deciding to do the same thing. The walk was about a kilometer and it was windy and chilly, but well worth it. The lighthouse was built in 1869 and sits 250 feet above the water on a rocky headland. The light was automated 120 years after first lit. The nuggets are rocky islands seaward of the lighthouse, and the home of thousands of fur seals, gulls, gannets and other sea birds. This area is one of the most iconic in all of New Zealand.
At the very end, right next to the lighthouse itself, there was a melodius song in the fading light that turned out to be a Blackbird perched on the top of a fence. This is a thrush introduced by the early settlers from the UK and is now found all over NZ. What a delightful scene! The crashing surf below, the wind whistling by, and salt air, the lovely late light, the deep blue of the ocean, and the singing thrush. If you couldn’t be moved by this, you were emotionally dead!
After walking to the car, we drove back to Kaka and had a terrific seafood chowder at The Point Cafe and Bar. Made by Paddy himself who is quite the charmer! We were the only diners present.
Day 8. We decided to visit several waterfalls and Curio Bay on our wey to Te Anau this day. The first was McLain Falls that required a half kilometer walk. We got there a little late for a great image, because the sunlight was already on the upper, major falls. The best photos of such places are on cloudy days or before the sun hits the water. Along the way to Curio, we kept seeing Magpies, but they were either far off in the field, or so skittish that a photo was impossible. Curio Bay is best known for its petrified logs that are underwater at high tide. It was low tide when we arrived and could see these relics, but they were not as impressive as we expected. We went down the steel ladder to the beach and began exploring. The beach was covered with rock formations and there was interesting green algae on many as well as interesting remains of a kelp like plant. The surf was up, so it was pounding the rocks and splashing high in the air. Someone saw a couple of penguins in the bushes, but they were either back in their burrows or hiding from us. The sky was a nice blue with just enough clouds to made for good photos. I could not resist and made many, some from way out on the rocks where the waves were most impressive.
There was a hill overlooking the beach where camping was permitted and a small refreshment stand was located. We decided to eat lunch here at one of two picnic tables near the stand. Chris had brought along some crackers and cheese purchased the day before and we also had some fruit. We were soon joined by a Red-billed Gull that had obviously been fed by tourists previously. We tossed a few morsels to him and then another flew in. Whew, what a mistake. The first gull aggressively went after the second and chased him away! After lunch we drove around the hill a bit to find several view points of the rocky beach below. These overlooks provided yet another opportunity for photos on a most fetching day.
We then took to the highway and headed to Te Anau. Along the way Chris spotted a pair of Paradise Shellducks with ducklings. I quickly did a Uy and then a second, and made one of the best photos of the trip of this family group.Fortunately there were no cars to disturb us, although the whole thing only took a few minutes before the ducks had disappeared in the grass. We also spotted a large European Hare right in the middle of a bare field. Another Uy, but this time the animal sensed we were after him and bolted off at high speed for cover. No photos. At another location we spotted a lump in the grass that I took for another hare. Another Uy and we watched a New Zealand Harrier take off with prey in its talons, probably a rabbit. Some photos were made, but not good ones. We arrived in Te Anau in the late afternoon. This is a major tourist destination, with lots of places to stay and many restaurants and gift shops. There were a bunch of tourist busses out and about.
We checked in to the Luxmore Hotel. This was a large hotel, with most of the expected amenities, a large lounge with TV’s and a large room for us with two beds. Quite a difference from the small rooms we had been in. Yes, they had internet…for $6 per hour. So we did check our e-mails and catch up with things at home. That night we tried to eat at the Sand Fly, an eatery highly recommended by the Lonely Planet guide, but it was closed. Only open for breakfasts and lunches. So we ate at a Chinese restaurant. I guess they are everywhere. It was not one of our top culinary experiences in NZ!
Day 9. We picked up some victuals at a grocery story and returned to our room to await the arrival of the bus that would take us to Manapouri. Here we would pick up the boat to Doubtful Sound. The bus soon arrived, partially filled with other tourists, stopped at other motels for pick-ups and then made the twenty minute commute to Manapouri. We were soon at the dock, with our ship in front of us. Shortly we were underway with about 100 other passengers out into Manapouri Lake, a fresh water lake about 25 miles long, but 1457 feet deep. Due to glacier carving a very long time ago, 876 feet of the lake is below sea level! The western end of the lake receives 149 inches of rainfall annually, while the eastern end, where people live, receives a modest 45 inches annually. This is a gigantic reservoir of fresh water inhabited by large introduced rainbow and brown trout.
The trip to the western end of the lake took 50 minutes. It was a cloudless day to start and the surrounding mountain scenery was most attractive and pleasant. But while the lake is completely within the Fiordland National Park, there was not a single bird or animal in evidence. This is wild land with no human inhabitants, except on the east end from whence we departed. But there was not a gull, not a raptor, not a duck, nothing. But there are islands within the lake that have not been subject to introduced predators so are sanctuaries for native forest birds. We docked at the west end of the lake and debarked. After a short delay for potty breaks and the like, we were loaded onto a bus and taken into a tunnel in a nearby granite mountain to see part of the Manapouri Hydroelectric Power Plant.
While we certainly did not come to New Zealand to look at machinery, I will have to admit that the story of the construction of this plant was interesting and informative. We learned that the construction was completed in 1961 and resulted in seven huge generators that can put out 850 mw of power, although they are seldom operated at peak capacity. Construction took the lives of 16 men and injured some 1200. As our guide wryly stated, back then health and safety were not big concerns. We were taken to a balcony overlooking a huge room where the tops of the generators could be seen. We were advised that there were two levels below the floor that we were observing. The drop of water through the generators is an amazing 200 feet. Most of the generated power is transmitted to a bauxite processing plant on the west coast to produce aluminum. The hydro plant is operated remotely from Wellington with only a skeleton crew on site.
After the plant tour, our bus took us over a mountainous gravel road to Doubtful Sound itself. We made one stop that overlooked the sound from high above. The sound is actually a fjord, a narrow inlet from the Tasmin Sea and was reportedly named by Captain Cook a few years ago who passed by, but did not enter the fjord because he doubted that he could get his sailing ship out because of the geographic conditions and prevailing winds. We motored to the far end of the sound and briefly entered the Tasmin Sea where there was a rocky island. It provided our first views of wildlife on the cruise, as there were fur seals and gulls present in small numbers. Reportedly the local penguin, the Fjord Crested Penguin, nested on this island, but nesting had finished for the year, so none was spotted.
On the return voyage, the boat captain took us into a side bay where porpoises were known to reside. Sure enough, they soon were found and did what porpoises often do: they came right alongside the ship to check us out. People rushed to the rails and it was very difficult to make any decent photos because of the jostling and limited space. Two proper British matrons with wide brimmed hats did not help! After a few minutes playing with the porpoises, we returned to the main part of the sound and continued to the east. But one of the crew soon spotted a single penguin on a small rocky outcropping. We approached as once again people flocked to the rails. The penguin waddled back into the edge of the forest where another was spotted. The two of them just stood there as we idled off shore. It was a frustrating experience for me. This was a life bird and a photo op — although not a great one — but I could not get a place at the rail and was shooting over people’s shoulders. Oh well, that is the problem with tour groups afloat or ashore and why I usually am alone when I photograph.
The rest of the trip back to the town of Montapouri was uneventful. We debarked the salt water catamaran, took the bus over the mountain to the fresh water lake, traveled the 50 minutes eastward on Lake Montapouri and docked at the pier in the town. Our bus was awaiting and dropped us off at our hotel in Te Anau. It was a long day. We had heard so much about Doubtful Sound, how great it was, how it was something not to be missed in New Zealand and all that, but in reality was somewhat of a letdown for me. Chris enjoyed a relaxing day with no driving in a beautiful scenic area. It was a sunny beautiful day, and yes there were smallish green forest covered mountains on either side of the boat the whole way, but the snow was nearly gone from the mountains. So it was not really a spectacular scene. And, as previously mentioned, no wildlife 99% of the time. Nonetheless not a bad excursion.
Before dinner we went to a “nature reserve” recommended as we passed it by the driver of our bus to Montapouri. I was pretty psyched up to see some native birds after our “dry” day. We found the place without trouble, parked and walked a short ways in. There were plenty of native birds there, as advertised. In cages! It was a freekn outdoor zoo by another name. I was not pleased, but we did get to see a real live Takahe, the large endangered purple rail. It had nested in the enclosure and produced a juvie, or so it seemed. After a quick check of the other cages that included a Morepork, several Kaka’s and some ducks we returned to town. We took dinner at an outdoors restaurant across from Lake Te Anau where we experienced a $3.50 diet coke and a $6.50 garlic roll.
Day 10. The following morning we made it to the Sand Fly Café and had a good breakfast. This is named, by the way, for a very nasty, annoying insect found mainly on the West Coast. They are thick in places and have a voracious appetite for warm human blood! After breakfast, we backtracked east along route 1 to Mossburn where we cut across to Route 6 that headed almost due north to Queenstown. Along the way we began seeing lots of large lupines, some of which demanded a photo. Also we passed by a native area called Red Tussock park for its dominant grass which is, well, reddish colored tusks. Soon we were traveling along the impossibly turquois lake known as Lake Wakatiput. Just east of Queenstown the road goes over a dam in a one lane bridge, with a traffic light on either end. We stopped on the east end, as there was a place to park. The bridge itself had no passenger walk on the downstream side, but between red lights on either end, I ran out on the bridge and made just two images of the river below the dam. Upstream also required photos. The color of this river was even more intense than the lake. I have never seen anything that matched it. There were a half dozen New Zealand Scaup resting near a small island just upstream from the bridge that I photographed before we headed out.
Avoiding Queenstown, just east of the dam the road took a series of hairpin turns climbing high over the flatlands and providing spectacular views below. At one overlooks we found plenty of rabbit pellets but found no animals. After the climb we were on a very dry mountain pass with not much in the way of vegetation. It had its own beauty, however, with snow-covered peaks in the distance. The flax plants were in full bloom, in yellow splendor, but we learned that they are invasives from the UK and not valued by the Department of conservation.
Not far from the tiny village of Cardrona, I looked out the window and there were about a hundred bra’s hanging from a fence. Dozens in all colors and sizes. There was no sign explaining this phenomenon, but we had to stop and photograph the scene. My guess: it was someone’s idea of art. Regardless, it was amusing and colorful. We stopped in Cardrona to use the very clean restroom. This was something we noted all over the country. There were public restrooms, well signed, and very clean, something one does not usually see anywhere. Including the big old US of A.
Arriving in Wanaka, we found our motel rather easily. It turned out to be a room in what appeared to be a condo complex where probably most if not all units were owned, but rented out when not being occupied by their owners. Wanaka is a touristy town, but modest in size and very attractive. It sits right on the shore of Lake Wanaka, with a bathing beach and kayaks for rent. There are many gift shops and cafe’s. It is altogether a charming little town. While Chris undertook some much overdue shopping, I wandered along the beach looking for photographable birds. About the only thing I found were Black-billed Gulls, which, like most beach gulls, had been fed many times by tourists. I went back to the car, picked up some old bread that we had kept from some meal and returned to the beach. The gulls were at my feet in no time. I lay down on the grass to make some images of the birds from a different angle.
We picked up some food at the local supermarket and ate dinner on our balcony. It was crackers and cheese, plus a micro-waved chicken and noodle dinner. The latter was not exactly a gourmet feast and we didn’t finish it. (It was later fed to some ducks at Pearson Lake.) After dinner we drove to a high hill overlooking the town and the lake and enjoyed the last hour or so of daylight. It was magic up there, although not really a sunset spot in the mountains. The wind continued to blow which made it easy to sleep that night.
Day 11. We were up and out pretty early eating our breakfast in the car as we proceeded to Haast Pass and the West Coast. But not before making some final photos of the lake and beachside. North of town the road ran alongside Lake Wanaka and there were many spots for gazing and making photos. Wild roses were common, although these are probably not native to NZ. Yellow Lupines were also present and we were later told that these came from California and were brought in to stabilize beach sand. Once again, the scenes were so overwhelming that it was hard to keep on driving. Every kilometer there was a “wow” to behold, notwithstanding the cloudy skies. Somewhere along this trip we found three magpies that were tolerant of our stop. It appeared to be a pair with one mostly grown juvenile. Fortunately, there was no traffic so I was able to make multiple images. The only problem was that the field was surrounded by a three wire barbed wire fence and I had to get in such a position so that the birds were in the middle between two wires!
As usual, there were waterfalls. Two were adjacent to the road, with small hikes: Fantail and Thunder Creek. Fantail had a rocky beach alongside a stream. We walked the trail to this beach and went out. The stream was pretty low, so a lot of beach was exposed. And here the Sand Flies made there first real appearance. They were all over us, crawling in our sleeves, on the back of our heads etc. We had to break out the Deep Woods Off and lather it on. It worked, but not before we had been bitten a few times.
I think this was the Wills River, but it is hard to tell on a map. In any case, just downstream from Fantail, it went under the road in a dramatic drop of many feet. We stopped and I climbed down a steep trail and went underneath the bridge to photo this scene. It was slippery, as it had rained, but a dramatic drop. Hard to catch the essence on film. Later we walked out to Thunder Creek Falls which was a much higher drop, 28m, and narrow. Here the river is definitely the Haast River and is turquois in color. The river continued to flow towards the Tasmin Sea and before long was wide and flat. We stopped several times to photograph and very close to its end at the ocean was Haast Village. This really is a tiny place of perhaps a dozen houses and stores, maybe a few more. We found our motel without difficulty and tried to check in. But there was no one at the front desk, so we went out exploring the road south along the coast.
Not far out of town we found a small, shaggy pony out in a field. It readily came over when I went to the fence. I petted it a few times on the forehead and then it tried to bite me. Unsuccessfully. There was also a flock of Black-faced sheep nearby and some Pukeos in a field. After a few hours we returned to the motel and checked in. As we were unloading and unpacking we heard some horrible screeches outside. Twice I went out to see what was making the racket and could see nothing. The third time I saw a parrot fly into a big tree right outside our motel room. I grabbed my camera and tried to make shots, but it started to rain and the birds that had landed in the tree were obscured by branches or leaves. Since we were going to be there two nights, I figured “no problem, I will get them tomorrow.”
The Lonely Planet guide recommended eating in a place called the “Cray Pot,” located in the fishing village of Jackson Bay, some 50 km down to the end of the road. The guide says the place is open 11AM-8PM, Nov- March and goes on to say that “this place is just as much about the dining room and the location as it is about the honest seafood.” I had to ponder, what is “dishonest seafood?” But in any case, off we went about 6:15. But then the rain came. Harder and harder, so it was hard to drive. We arrived after 7 and wondered if they would still be serving. The whole village was pitch black and when we stopped adjacent to the Cray Pot, it was dark inside and a sign outside said the hours were 11AM-2PM. We had missed by a long time. And were not happy with the Lonely Planet. We turned around as the rain continued and drove back to Haast Village after an unpleasant drive. We ate dinner in the Hard Antler café, which was a funky local pub. There were a bunch of good old boys, NZ style, having a few drinks at the bar. There were also a bunch of mounted heads of Red Deer, Tahrs and a few other animals. And the usual photos of people with big fish (trout) and “harvested” game animals, looking like this was Wyoming and not New Zealand.
Day 12 It really rained during the night but had stopped when we got up. I walked outside and there in the grass adjacent to the motel were a couple of European Rabbits, looking exactly like our cottontails. And they were relatively unafraid, allowing a number of photographs. After breakfast we headed south on the road to Jackson beach again. I photographed a nice Pied Oystercatcher and we found some Grey Ducks in a small pond. But our objective was Hapuka Nature Reserve, which we had passed the previous day. A book on finding birds in NZ that I had borrowed, it said there were all manner of birds, both forest and water in this refuge, so we were optimistic. But it was also a bust. One reason, at least for the water birds, was that it was high tide. The only water bird we saw was one lone Little Shag, a long way across the water. The only forest bird I was able to photograph was a New Zealand Pigeon that simply would not put his head up or make a nice pose. The tide was so high, that at one place it blocked the path, forcing us to retrace our steps to the car.
After this fiasco, we drove up a tiny sandy access road a few meter to the beach. Chris was not particularly interested so stayed in the car and read. I went out with my small lens to work some huge weathered root balls. One was particularly attractive and I was thinking about working this at sunset. But after wandering around making a few shots — there was a lot of driftwood on the beach — I spied a small shorebird that I was convinced was a Banded Dotterel. I ran for the car and got my 400mm lens and out to the beach. It took a few minutes, but I finally refound the bird and began photographing. He gave me some fine opportunities amongst the detritus on the beach. At one point I found an interesting weather beaten skull lying in the sand. I picked it up and could not tell whether it was a fish or a mammal. I brought it home, declared it at SFO and it was confiscated! I should not have said a thing and it would now be sitting on my piano with other natural souveniers, harming no one.
After lunch we drove across the bridge over the Haast River and stopped at two places. The first, a small nature preserve on the inland side and a beach littered with driftwood. but it was blowing so hard and the rain coming down from time to time, it was most unpleasant and we soon departed and drove back to Haast. Before quitting for the day, we drove south again towards Jackson, but saw only a few different things. One I captured was a Variable Oystercatcher pair mating in plain sight. Perhaps they should have been arrested for indecent exposure. We continued on to the Hapuka Reserve and went all the way around the boardwalk. Results were the same: virtually nothing. The Kaka parrots were screeching again in the late afternoon, but did not linger in the big tree. It was simply raining too hard and they flew elsewhere for some shelter. No photos.
Day 13. The rabbits were back on the grass the following morning, but they had fewer places to graze, as there was pooled water in many locations. There was a LOT of rain during the night. We checked out, grabbed some breakfast to go and crossed the Haast River bridge again. We were pretty disappointed with the Haast stop. Weather was not in our favor. In fact, we never saw the mountains during our two days there. Always cloud covered, so we missed the best scenes that are advertised. We stopped at the small nature reserve, Ship Creek, again and this time, no one was present. The wind was still blowing though. Chris and I both climbed the two ladders in the tower and got a nice view of the beach. This time we went on the Kahikatea Swamp Forest Walk, to see if we could see any forest birds. . We could hear birds, but other than a Tomtit just as we entered, we saw nothing until we were back in the parking lot. There was only our second Grey Fantail if the trip. We were once again amazed at how well this trail was engineered and constructed, so that there was no standing water on the path, even after all the rain of the night before
We headed north again and stopped at Knights Point overlook. This is supposedly one of the most photographed spots in NZ. Unfortunately, the primary overlook was under construction, so we went to a secondary point and made a few mediocre photos. Our destination that day was the tiny beach town of Okarito not far from the very touristy Franz Josef Glacier. Arriving in this town, which was filled with cafes, gift shops and advertisements for helo rides to the glacier, we found the West Coast Wildlife Center, dedicated to raising one of the five species of Kiwi’s. We paid our admission and went into a dark room where there were four or five pens for mostly grown Kiwi’s. We could not see any! Went back out and a staff woman came in again with us and pointed a red light at the birds. There they were! After eating an ice cream the regular tour began and we went into the rearing facilities. There a staff member provided an informative talk about Kiwi natural history and showed us artificial eggs. They were huge for the size of the bird and weighed more than it seemed was possible. We learned that eggs from natural nests are “robbed” and brought to this facility for hatching and raising. After some time they are released on a predator-free nearby island to grow up. When they are adults they are re-captured and released into natural habitat. At this size they can handle the predators. Success with this method exceeds 80% whereas only 5% of chicks survive when raised naturally. A labor intense and expensive process, but well worth insuring the continuation of this species!
We elected not to go to the glacier itself, as we had both been on glaciers elsewhere before. Besides it was expensive and time-consuming. Instead we stocked up on food a the local super market, as there was no grocery or café in the tiny town of Okarito. With food in hand we drove in to the town, found Laura, the operator of Rimu House, a B&B without the breakfast, but with a shared kitchen. She turned out to be a personable woman and we chatted for some time. She recommended checking in with Ian Cooper who would lead us on a Kiwi hunt that night. His home was only a few houses down from Rimu and when we arrived, we found him playing a guitar on his second floor balcony. I asked if he were Ian and his response was, “Who do you think I am?” It was an unexpected wise-ass answer, but I responded in kind. His instructions were to come to his house at 7:55 promptly and not to wear gortex. That latter made scratchy noises that he was concerned would spook the kiwi’s. His only other advice was to bring lots of patience.
Afterwards Chris stayed in the B&B while I went out in the car exploring. At the dock along an estuary, I found a very tame pair of Paradise Shellducks with seven ducklings. The female was guarding the ducklings while the male was resting on a nearby picnic table. Went back and retrieved Chris and together we ogled the birds and took many photos. There were two women from Calgary in the Rimu House and we chatted with them over our gourmet grocery dinner. After dinner at 7:45 we started walking for Ian’s place when we remembered that it might be a muddy trail, so legged it back and got the boots on. When we arrived Ian took our payments of $75 each, 10% of which was donated to Kiwi conservation. He then gave us a ten or fifteen minute “brief” and kept stressing that he could not guarantee seeing birds, but the “team” of seven could. This notwithstanding that the guidebooks say that he has a 90% success rate and we were hardly a “team.” He emphasized that no photography was permitted and said that the government of NZ had to issue a permit to photo Kiwi’s. (Don’t know if this is true.) Ian gave us each a netted hat and a small flashlight. We had brought Off with us, so didn’t think we would need the hats, but put them on anyway. Soon we were in his car together with another person. The others drove their own vehicles.
We parked in a small parking lot and then began walking down a trail into the forest. It was still quite light. Ian had a radio direction finder that looked like an old TV antenna, although a lot smaller. He said that we were going into the territory of two Kiwi’s. Kiwi’s spend the daylight hours in burrows and each in this area has a radio transmitter attached. Ian said that once the Morepork owls started hooting, the Kiwi’s would come out of their burrows and one would come down the hill on the right side of the path. We were all told to listen for the birds as they walked through the vegetation. Then we were spaced out about ten feet apart on the trail for reasons that never became apparent. At just about 9PM, the owls started their hooting and Ian moved rapidly back and forth along the path, with the seven of us all following, all silent. He was pointing his antenna up the hill and tracking one of the birds. Finally he pointed his red flashlight on the trail and there was one of the Kiwis right on the path, only ten or fifteen feet from us. A minute later further up the path the first bird has been joined by his mate (or her mate), so we got to see two Kiwi’s side by side for a few seconds. Then it was over and we traipsed back to Ian’s car, turned in our gear and boarded. On the short ride back to his home, there were mammal eyes on the side of the road. We saw the eyes, but no animal. Ian told us that it was a deer. Since deer or being exterminated by the Department of Conservation, as well as hunted, they are very, very skittish. It was the only wild deer we saw on our trip. Of course there are multiple deer “farms” in NZ where UK Red Deer are raised for venison. Were snug in our bed by 10PM. A strange adventure!
Day 14. I arose early this day and went off to a trail that led from the parking lot through a small marsh on a boardwalk and up into a forest. I was hoping to see some forest birds that had been reported there. I walked in and didn’t see much of anything when I encountered a Dane who had been with us on the Kiwi adventure the night before. He was watching two Grey Warblers and I soon got my look and a few photographs. Although common, these were the first and only birds of this species I saw on the trip. The two of us wandered back down the trail, crossed the marsh and were standing at the end of the brush chatting. I suddenly saw movement in the bushes, put my binocs up and there was as Fernbird, another supposedly common bird that had eluded us to this point. I made some nice photos of the bird that is a real skulker that seldom gives an open look. On our way out of town we spent a few more moments photographing the Paradise Shellduck family that gave us more terrific looks at the ducklings feeding on the grass and in the water.
We had heard before our trip that Hokitika was an artsy town, with lots of gift shops, famous for NZ jade jewelry. This was our aim for the day. On the way north, we spent a few minutes in Ross, the gold mining town of the past. There was a funky house in this town that had license plates from all over the world nailed to a fence. Further north was a nice park where we spent a few more minutes alongside yet another scenic place. The lake there was high, overlapping the shore, from all the recent rain. I dropped Chris off in Hokitika for her to shop while I went further north to check out a couple of sewage treatment ponds that reportedly had an abundance of waterfowl. This turned out to be a bit optimistic, as there were only mallards, Grey Ducks, Scaup and one small family of Black Swans. I tried to photograph the swans, but they were behind two wire fences. I tested the one next to the road and it was electrified. Fortunately the voltage was low, so I was not electrocuted, but that did dissuade me from crossing the fence for a closer photo op of the swans! After this adventure, I tried a few more places to get access to the ocean beaches, but all failed. I picked up Chris at the appointed hour and we went on down to a supermarket to pick up lunch. We got a wonderful sandwich there of turkey, brie and cranberry sauce.
Before leaving the area we decided to check out the Hokitika Gorge that came highly recommended in the Lonely Planet. We had to make numerous turns to get there, which was about 30 km from town, but the road out was well marked. Periodically it began to rain, but then stopped. We kept going until we found a parking lot with a well-marked sign and trail to an overlook and a swinging bridge over the river. Off we went and when we reached the overlook, there was the river, the very milky turquois color that had been promised, running between rocky outcroppings in a most alluring way. The color was supposedly from “glacier flour” or suspended tiny rock particles. We walked further along until we came to the swinging bridge. Both of us crossed it, taking a few photographs as we went. I must say that the wooded structures a the end of the bridge looked like they were rotting, so we were glad nothing untoward occurred when some young people decided to make the bridge rock and roll from jumping up and down. On our way out of this place, we missed a turn and ended up on a gravel road at an impassable dry stream crossing. We back tracked and wound our way back into Hokitika and on north to Kumara Junction where we picked up route 73 to Arthurs Pass.
This road was pretty flat for awhile, passing through more sheep farmland before starting the climb to the pass. Along the way I was carefully searching for the Western Weka’s that reportedly are seen along this road and in the adjacent farmland. I kept asking Chris to keep an eye out for the birds until she got pretty sick of hearing it. We never saw a single one! Much to my disappointment. Soon enough the road became steep and windy until we passed through a tunnel near the top of the pass and found a parking lot at an overpass. We pulled over and got out and very soon we were accosted by five Kea’s, the worlds only alpine parrot. One immediately landed on our car and started pecking on the window trying to get Chris to cough up some food. Another went under another car and was looking for rubber pieces, which they remove for whatever reason. I noticed all the birds were banded. they were very difficult to dissuade from their endeavors which included trying to bite off the rubber gasket material from around the windshield. They were amusing and annoying. I wonder how they can survive eating junk food that people feed them despite the warning signs, and the rubber. Maybe they don’t actually eat the latter, but just like to mouth it, or is that “beak” it?
Arthurs Pass Village is five kilometers beyond the top of the pass and I was afraid that we had somehow missed it. It soon came into view, however, and we found our motel, Arthur’s Chalet without problem. Our room was on the second floor with a view out to the mountains. We ate dinner in the motel restaurant next to the barroom. It was OK, but not really a gourmet dinner.
Day 15. We ate the “free” breakfast at the motel, which was all cold stuff and I went down to the visitors center. Met probably the head guy on the way in and chatted with hime a bit. Very friendly, helpful man. The center was not yet open, so returned a half hour later and interacted with the staff. I wanted to know where I could find the Black-fronted Tern and the Crested Grebe, as well as the aforementioned Weca. The staff said that they had not seen a Weca in over a month, so that looked like a bust. Pearson Lake was the best place for Crested Grebe and perhaps the only place. It was 30 minutes down the east side, while the terns could be seen fifteen minutes down when the Waimekarira River became braided, that is, split into multiple channels.
It was a pretty, clear NZ day as we headed down off the mountain. As reported, the river soon became braided, but we could not see any terns flying about. The scenery, however, was enchanting. We stopped a number of times to make photographs and just breathe in the panoramic sites. And all along the river were patches of lupines, all appearing to be a peak blossoming. After awhile the road leveled out and the topography becamse hills instead of mountains. Fields replaced forests. And there, right where it was supposed to be, was Pearson Lake. the guide book said that the grebes nested at the far western end in the willows. So it took the first turn off towards the western end. It was a farmers rocky, primitive road that soon ended in a small place where we could park. The willows were right in front of us, but we were not at the western end of the lake, which appeared to continue for 300 yards or more. We got out of the car and walked to the lake edge and I scanned the lake. Nothing. There was heavy dew and Chris decided she did not want to try to get farther to the west, so returned to the car. I crossed a barbed wire fence and wandered through the grass along sheep paths. About as far as I could go, I scanned the lake again and there, along the far shore was a bird, diving repeatedly. It was the grebe. Way too far out for a photograph, but at least a look.
I returned to the car and we drove out to the main road and then took another turn into a small camping area. This was the regular access road and we parked there to find a small flock of Grey Ducks that were looking for a handout. They had obviously been fed many times and were aggressive in grabbing pieces of some old bread that we had left in the car. After a few minutes two ducklings also joined the feast. They were of different sizes, however, which is quite strange. There were also three scaup floating nearby who did not come in for tidbits but seemed to care not a whit that we were there. Then out of nowhere an aggressive coot appeared and went after one of the scaup. This was our first view of a NZ Coot and the first coot that I have ever seen that was so belligerent.
We departed, intending to drive farther to the east checking things out. But we soon ran into construction, with one lane blocked and rather than sit there for 30 minutes, did a Uy and headed back west. Parked near the western end of Lake Pearson was a car with two fishermen setting up their gear. I was curious about what fish were in the lake, so stopped and engaged one of the men. He was a very friendly and talkative man who reported that the lake held trout, both rainbow and brown, but also Mackinaw (Lake) Trout. It was, he said, the only lake in NZ with this species. He then told an interesting story about how there was a truck traveling along this road carrying small Lake Trout that broke down a half mile from where we were standing. This is a pretty remote area and the time was some years ago. The two men on the truck knew that without the engine producing oxygen the fish would soon die, so limped the truck to about where we were and carried the fish in pails to the lake and dumped them in. Even though this was not the intended stocking point, the fish survived and are still present. They did not grow to the large size found where they are native in North America, however, because there are no small prey fish for them to feed on. The fisherman reported that he had never caught one. True story? Who knows…
On the way back west, we stopped several times. First to photograph some sheep close to the road, with mountains in the background, sort of the quintessential NZ image, fit for a postcard! Then we found a huge patch of blooming lupines right next to a long bridge over the river. Then on to a parking area with a large stone structure with a big sign announcing Arthur’s Pass National Park. There were lots of lupines here, so plenty of photo ops. I was working alongside the river when suddenly without any warning, a pair of terns flew almost directly over my head! They were the target birds, but I had my little lens on the camera, so no opportunity for a photo. They were the only Black-fronted Terns we saw on the trip! As in many places along this trip, there were several car loads of Asians taking in the scene. Two wanted me to take their photo next to the sign. Of course I agreed and, trying to be social, asked them how long it took for them to fly down from Japan. The woman I was addressing was not at all fluent in English, so did not understand. But another woman nearby piped up and said that they flew from China and it took twelve hours. If there is one thing one does not do in with Asians it is to mistake a Chinese for a Japanese or the reverse. It was not my finest hour of international relations!
A short ways — very short — I spied a patch of purple lupines with some pink stalks that looked very photogenic, so I pulled to a stop again. I was walking rather rapidly towards the flowers when I tripped and fell hard face down. My camera went flying off, as did my glasses. I thought my face had hit a rock it felt so hard, but it was just a hard clump of dirt. I also thought I was hurt worse than I was. Chris came running over and tended to me. Only my lip was bleeding and this not badly. What had tripped me? Turns out there was a strand of barbed wire, undoubtedly sheep wire, mostly buried in the dirt. Probably decades old. One small part of the wire was above ground perhaps three inches and I had never seen it. My glasses were OK, as was my camera and only my dignity suffered some damage. I was a little stiff and sore for the rest of the day, but that was all. I did recover sufficiently at the time to make the photos!
Somewhere along the line we decided to stay another night in Arthur’s Pass rather than go to a motel half way between the Christchurch airport and a big lake. We found a computer in a small closet like room as a part of a hostel, with a donation box alongside, but no indication of what charges were expected. We got our cancelation message out and an update to friends and family. We returned to the visitors center where Chris found a few gifts to purchase and I gabbed with staff about the Kea’s among other things.
We decided to have some ice cream purchased in a combination café and gift shop and went outside to a picnic table to eat. Almost as soon as we sat down a Kea flew down and perched on the table. He ambled over to me and every time I tried to eat, he approached closely looking for a bite. It was an amusing scene, so Chris jumped up with her camera to record the event. She had snapped just two images when the bird ran over and grabbed her paper ice cream cup and flew off. It was almost full so he could not easily fly with the weight. It dropped to the concrete floor, he grabbed a good snoot full and Chris ran over and retrieved the cup. It was all over in seconds, but a hoot to watch. The Kea certainly seemed to enjoy his ice cream!
Following this event, I picked up my camera with the 400mm lens from the car intending to photograph the Kea’s. They had flown off, but we noticed a pair fly across the street and land in a conifer. Over I went when one of the birds landed next to, or on a Flax flower and began eating the blooms. I got my best images of Keas with this bird. After a bit, the bird retreated to a tree where it was unphotographable. We got into the car and drove west to the pass area again, stopping at several overlooks. There were Kea’s in both and once again, all were banded. At one stop a guy started feeding junk to the birds and I mentioned that it was illegal, but he didn’t seem to care. To finish off the afternoon we took a trail our of town that crossed a bridge over the river and into the woods. At the bridge there was as nice view of a high waterfall. We expected to see forest birds in the woods and indeed, once again, we could hear them, but not see them, except for momentary glimses as they flew across the path. We ate a fish and chips dinner at a café and then settled in for our last night in NZ.
Day 16. We awoke to a completely cloudy morning, ate our breakfast in the hotel again and then began the sad job of packing for our trip home. Packed up the car and bid farewell to Arthur’s Pass. By this time the skies were clearing to another sunny day. We could not help ourselves, we just had to stop and photograph lupines once again…at least for a few minutes. And we stopped again at Pearson Lake to feed bread to the ducks again. They were just as eager to eat as the day before. Then we drove out to the main road, past the construction, and on down to the east. We were surprised to find very different habitat that expected. There were mountains, but they were barren. At one point I stopped the car, crossed a barbed wire fence — carefully — to get a better vantage point of the mountains. Then we came to a place that we had seen recommended in the Lonely Planet and been recommended at the visitors center in Arthur’s Pass: the Castle Rocks. This was a revered, sacred place for the native peoples and one can see why. They are huge rocks that pop up out of otherwise flat lands that are now a working sheep farm. We took the path to its end, marveling at the scene. It was such a wonderful day and a great way to remember New Zealand.
After this last scene, we drove on in to Christchurch, found the rental car agency with only a slight detour, turned in the car, completed the paperwork and were driven to the airport. We boarded the plane to Aukland and there opted for what turned out to be a long walk to the international terminal instead of taking the bus. Probably a mile, with me pushing a cart and Chris pulling her suitcase. We went through security to the gate area and then waited. And waited. The plane boarded an hour late, but we were soon in our seats and on the way to SFO. After dinner we were soon asleep and I must say that the twelve hours went by rapidly and without much discomfort. In San Francisco, I foolishly made the mistake of declaring the skull I had picked up on the Haast beach. This delayed us twenty minutes at least. I was sent to a special line and the customs agent there had me open my bag and show her the skull. She “detained” the skull, putting it in a plastic bag and making out paperwork. It was being turned over to the F&WS. (A few days later I called F&WS and found that it was a seal skull and they were going to retain it.) We boarded our flight for Dulles and found ourselves in different rows. I was in a middle seat and the aisle seat was vacant. Until the very last minute when a very large man — probably 300 pounds — boarded late and, much to my horror, sat down next to me. I dreaded the flight. But shortly before take off, a flight attendant noticed the situation and seeing two empty seats two rows forward, suggested to the man that he would be more comfortable there, with an empty seat next to him. He readily agreed and Chris moved next to me. It was a most welcome change!
At Dulles we quickly retrieved our luggage and caught a cab to Darnestown. Our driveway was snowy, but the cab got in all right, we paid him and looked at what awaited us: four inches of snow and ice on our cars and everything else. We wished we could have gotten right back into the cab, returned to Dulles and flown on the very same plane back to NZ!