Thursday, September 15, 2011

Flea Bay Penguin Wrestling

The other day we were asked by Alan Clark, a professor from the US, to help out on his penguin research project near Christchurch, at a place called Flea Bay. We jumped at this opportunity, as Sandra has never seen a Blue Penguin up close, and I wanted to see Flea Bay, a renowned penguin colony. The Blue Penguin, Eudyptula minor, is variably named the Little Penguin, the Blue Penguin, the Little Blue Penguin, the Fairy Penguin, and the White-flippered Penguin. The species occurs along the coasts of New Zealand and South Australia.

The name White-flippered Penguin specifically refers to the albosignata race, which is deemed a distinct species by some authors, is endangered, and occurs only along the east coast of the South Island, from Christchurch to the Otago Peninsula near Dunedin. Flea bay has the largest colony of White-flippered Penguins in the world! Now maybe you can see why I was keen to go down there.

Alan's project involved catching, weighing, measuring, plucking feathers for DNA anaylsis, and photographing the flippers. His research aims to assess the links between morphology, plumage colouration, and genetic structure. We were only there for one day, but the sun shone and we were able to open up boxes in which the penguins lay their eggs. Fortunately for us, the pairs were home in their boxes, which meant we could get to them easily and didn't have to chase them in the dark or swim out to net them! In all we processed 35 birds, which was all Alan's permit allowed for. They bite, they bash you with their flippers, and they kick, but I bear them no ill will - I'd do the same if someone turned on the lights, woke me up, grabbed me by the back of the neck, and pulled out some of my feathers!!!

Me with a Blue Penguin

We also spied this much larger bird, the Yellow-eyed Penguin, as it just climbed out of the water onto the rocks.

Yellow-eyed Penguin (Sandra's photo)

Flea bay, as seen from the road in.

Snow had fallen on the hill-tops by the time we left the bay. In the background is Akaroa Harbour, site of the oldest colonial settlement on the South Island, and the only french settlement in New Zealand.

Saturday, September 10, 2011

'course you don't get bloody wafers with it!

Sandra and I were lucky enough to go out on a pelagic trip off the famous Kaikoura Peninsula, on the east coast of the South Island north of Christchurch. There, no more than a few kilometres offshore, the Kaikoura canyon drops down to over 1,000m deep The steep shelf results in an nutrient rich upwelling of cold antarctic water. The area is mostly known as a whale watching site, but where the whales feed, so do the fish and the seabirds. Albatross Encounters has been operating pelagic trips for many years now, and at times see upwards of 12 albatross species in one trip, more than anywhere else on earth!

We went out for only 2.5 hours this weekend, and were treated to some amazing views of these magical ocean wanderers.

Black-browed Albatross (Thalassarche melanophrys)

Gibson's Albatross (Diomedea gibsoni)

And now for something completely different...

Northern Royal Albatross (Diomedea sanfordi)

Salvin's Albatross (Thalassarche salvini)

White-capped Albatross (Thalassarche steadi)

Northern Giant Petrel (Macronectes halli)

Hutton's Shearwater (Puffinus huttoni)

Cape Petrel (Daption capense)

Spotted Shags (Phalacrocorax punctatus)

New Zealand Fur Seals

Sunday, September 4, 2011

The decline of Africa's vultures

Africa's vultures are in a precipitous decline. If there is a lesson to be learned from south Asia, we must stop the decline before the vultures disappear completely.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

The Little Guys

Today's post is an ode to a little bird that I have too often overlooked, and I feel it's time to pay them some respect and feature them on this blog. Actually, I happened to be home today when a group of these little guys got my attention as they chirped away outside our window, providing the perfect opportunity to snap a few photos!

The Silvereye (Zosterops lateralis) is small songbird belonging to a large genus of roughly 75 species found throughout sub-Saharan Africa, southern and eastern Asia, Indomalaysia, and Australiasia. Named for the characteristic white feathers around their eyes, birds in this genus are commonly known as white-eyes. This particular species, the Silvereye, or Waxeye, is found in New Zealand, Australia, and on islands in the southwestern Pacific. When I was young I often encountered the Montane White-eye  (Zosterops poliogaster) in East-Africa, a close relative of the Silvereye and I was very happy when I moved to New Zealand in 2008 to find the Silvereye a common garden bird.

Although Silvereyes are territorial, pair-breeding birds during the spring and summer, in the autumn and winter they form groups of up to 20 that rove through gardens and forests searching for insects, fruit and flowers from which to drink nectar. Their Maori name 'Tauhou' means 'stranger', indicating that they weren't at all common prior to European settlement in New Zealand. They colonized New Zealand naturally in the 19th century from southeastern Australia, and are now common throughout New Zealand in all habitats except open grassland.

When Sandra and I were given two large bunches of small bananas by a friend of ours who grew them here in New Zealand (who knew?!), we were greedily hoping to eat them all. But they weren't as sweet as we had hoped, and so we hung them out for the birds. We had them hanging for weeks outside our bedroom window and we often hoped that some birds would discover them and take advantage of the fruit meal. Well, it wasn't until the bananas all turned black that they were discovered; perhaps as the Silvereyes are also insect eaters and may have been looking for spiders when they found the delicious, soft and now sweet bananas.

There must have been a dozen of these lovely little birds all flitting over the bananas and digging into them. They stayed for about 10 minutes, giving me time to snap a few shots, before a Song Thrush flew past and gave an alarm call, sending the Silvereyes fleeing.

I suppose that I never gave them full scrutiny as they are usually very active and never seem to sit still for long enough to focus my binoculars. A lesson learned - it pays to give your full attention to the small guys sometimes! What stunners they can turn out to be!

Wednesday, February 23, 2011

David Attenborough classic clip

David Attenborough is undoubtably one of my heroes, and so I thought I'd make a quick post with a video I found online today. It's a classic clip of him in Madagascar in the early days of his work as a BBC wildlife presenter, as he explains in the clear and eloquent way that has been the hallmark of his illustrious career about the Leaf-tailed Gecko.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Opua Pelagic trip

Last weekend Sandra and I headed on a 6 hour drive to the northern most extreme in New Zealand, appropriately named Northland. 

After we arrived we set up camp in the town of Kerikeri and got a well earned night's rest. Then were up at 5:30 to head to the jetty in Opua, about 35 minutes south.

We set out from Opua, Bay of Islands, on a very calm and clear morning on a very comfortable boat - a nice combination of conditions...

Our goal was to head out about 30km offshore to a 400m deep canyon that cuts in from the deep blue water much furher out. As our boat was a bit slow it took us about 2 hours to get out there. But we had a good time spotting birds on the way.

We passed huge flocks of Fluttering Shearwaters and even passed a Gannet colony before we got into the open water. But first, here are a few photos...

We stopped on the way out at a small island to pick up an extra person, and the jetty had a few dozen of White-fronted Terns loafing on it.

White-fronted Terns

White-fronted Terns lazing around

As we began to enter more open water a few Arctic Skua flew past (both light and dark phases) as they harried the terns for their lunch.

light phase Arctic Skua

A few Little Penguins floated along as we motored past. Note the typical way of lying low-in-the-water.

Then we started passing a few Buller's Shearwaters...

Buller's Shearwater

...and a few Flesh-footed Shearwaters came in for a closer look at the boat.

Flesh-footed Shearwater
Some even had a go at snorkeling. Haha, nah they're just after the fish bits we threw overboard.

Flesh-footed Shearwater searching for fish scrap

This species can be hard to tell apart from the next one, but look closely at the beak - notice a difference? I'll explain more in a later post about this initially challenging ID.

Parkinson's (Black) Petrel

Parkinson's (Black) Petrel

Parkinson's (Black) Petrel

And of course this beauty should be carefully observed also...


And here was the most enjoyable bird of the trip. Such a dainty bird hardly bigger than a sparrow that seems to hop and skip on the water, gracefully dancing as it searches for krill and other arthropods to feed on.

White-faced Storm-Petrel dancing on the water
White-faced Storm-Petrel dancing on the water
White-faced Storm-Petrel dancing on the water

All in all a thoroughly enjoyable trip! A big thanks to Detlef Davies for organising everything, bringing the burley to attract some of the birds, and for letting us camp in his beautiful garden!