Sunday 6 October 2013

New Zealand, new country, new birds!

We arrived at Christchurch and after collecting our hire car, armed with instructions from local scientist and conservationist John Dowding, headed for Black Stilt country, as we sped anxiously through the pastoral landscape that New Zealand’s South Island has become, amazed at the sheer numbers of Yellowhammers we were seeing, we saw our first Wader Quest tick, South Island Pied Oystercatcher fondly known as SIPO to the locals.

South Island Pied Oystercatcher Haematopus finschi.
We arrived at the southern end of Lake Tekapo. As we drove past the first part of the shore visible I spotted two stilts, and they looked dark. Pulling over rather more quickly than normal I soon had my bins on the two stilts, as did Elis, and we found to our consternation that they were hybrids, Black / White-necked Stilts. This is one of the major concerns among those that are trying to save the Black Stilt from extinction, the amount of hybridization that goes on within the two species diluting the pure black DNA.

Our first stilts in New Zealand, hybrid Black / White headed Stilts Himantopus novaezelandiae / leucocephalus.

Hybrid stilt

As we prepared to drive away a movement caught my eye just below the car, on inspection it turned out to be rather more pleasing than the stilt hybrids, a second Wader Quest tick, Double–banded Plover, and what a tick it was, a beautiful bird.

Double-banded Plover Charadrius bicinctus.
From there we headed for Lake MacGregor and seeing nothing remotely stilt like drove on to Lake Murray. At Lake Murray we saw a full White-headed Stilt but no Blacks. Returning to Lake MacGragor we renewed our efforts but still to no avail so we left. Having driven all of 100 yards Elis, as calmly as you like, almost whispered in an understatement to end all understatements “I’ve found your bird.” My first thought was ‘why my bird?’ but without dwelling on this curious statement I leapt from the car in time to see two beautiful black Black Stilts fly across my field of view!

Our first Black Stilts Himantopus novaezelandiae.
This was fantastic and we watched them land again and got some record shots and then saw them fly over some trees to the other side of the road. We followed them but found just one. This individual showed some white feathers in the under tail and around the face. I suddenly became concerned about its ‘purity’.

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I decided the best thing to do was to try and find some more so we headed for Glentanner. Arriving at the site we had been given we noticed a car parked out near the braided river system and a lady walking around, we then noticed that there were several stilts flying around her. We drove down to join her and see what was going on. We found that this lady, Femme by name, was feeding recently released birds as part of the captive breeding programme.
Juvenile Black Stilt
Intriguingly there was an all black adult bird there too, Femme said this was a bird that had been released a number of years ago (not sure exactly how many), but it knew when it was onto a good thing and kept returning for a free feed.

Adult Black Stilt
We talked about the birds we had seen and the concerns I had about them being pure. Femme asked to see the photos Elis had taken so we obliged and she looked with interest at them, comparing them to a chart she had of plumage variations. She seemed to be suggesting the bird was looking good, then she saw the rings. “Its colour-ringed, that means it is 100% pure, they only ring pure birds in the programme, it is probably just not quite a full adult.” We were much relieved to find the birds we saw were pure. Some will argue the ethics of ticking released birds, but for the purposes of Wader Quest, quite frankly who cares? The point is, thanks to wader conservation, they still exist!

'Our' Black Stilt showing its rings.
After enjoying the close proximity of the birds for some time Elis and I went for a wander and, to our complete joy, found a Wrybill pair along the nearest stream of the braided river.

Our first Wrybill Anarhynchus frontalis.
What a day this had been! Our first day in New Zealand and we had seen four of our targets including what is probably the rarest wader in the world, Black Stilt and the incredible, amazing and unique Wrybill.

Wrybill showing that unique curve to the right of the bill.

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