Thursday, November 18, 2010

Funny Story

Funny story... I was down at the estuary the other day lying face down in the mud (as you do) taking photos of bar-tailed godwits which were feeding on the mud flats at low tide (right). The spot I was in was just off the main road across from some newly built flashy apartment buildings. I was quietly enjoying watching these beautiful birds  through my viewfinder when I noticed that the birds began to stir as if frightened (weird I thought - I was lying motionless and still some distance away it couldn't be me could it?) Anyway I kept snapping for a minute when I heard some footsteps through the mud behind me and before I had a chance to turn around I heard... "It doesn't look good, nah, It doesn't look good!", then I heard a voice call out "Mate can you hear me, are you alright?" It was some poor guy in a suit who thought I was a dead body washed up with the tide!!! Poor guy! He had walked through ankle deep mud to check on me with his good shoes on,."*#@^!" he swore at the fact he got all muddy for no reason! Anyway I thanked him for his concern and he was off on his way - unfortunately I didn't get many shots but I left with a bit of a red face and a funny story hahaha!  

Below are a few photos of birds I've been working on recently (please click on them to view them larger). I've found the New Zealand shovelers (a sub-species of the Australasian shoveler) to be a real challenge photographically... I've found them to be really skittish - making stalking them quite difficult. So I dedicated three afternoons to the shovelers and decided to set up a hide on a small pond which I knew they frequented, and waited for the birds to come to me. On the first attempt this handsome male (below) showed up at the back end of the pond and started dabbling happily away, just out of reach of a good shot - he stayed a frustrating distance away from the camera, as if he knew of the crazed photographer who lay in wait! Luckily for me another male landed shortly after and chased the bird right towards my hide giving me enough time to snap a few pics before flying off. Unfortunately the next two attempts at them didn't yield any better shots :( ... I'll be back out there soon to try again (that's wildlife photography for you).

                                                                                              Male New Zealand Shoveler (Anus variegara)

                                                   Juvenile little pied shag (Phalacrocorax melanoleucos)

                                                                                                       Pied Stilt (Himantopus leucocephalus)

                                        Juvenile Pied Stilt (Himantopus leucocephalus)

                                            The endemic Black-billed gull (Larus bulleri)

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Estuary Royalty

Here are some images from a session I had with the Kingfishers last week.

I was a bit reluctant to go as the wind was blowing a gale, but the time and tides were in my favour so I threw the gear in the car and drove down to the estuary for a session with the kingfishers. I set up the hide (which was flapping violently in the wind) thinking to myself what a waste of time this would be as the kingfishers were probably smarter than me and would be tucked away comfortably out of the elements. Within about 30 minutes of waiting the first kingfisher turned up and landed on the perch in front of me, I don't know how it hung on to the perch with the wind blowing so strongly, although it seemed to be able to hang on and even devour a small mud crab. The winds died down after a while, and I ended up having a great session watching these estuary Kings feed as the sun went down. The photo series on the right shows the kingfisher smashing the legs off the mud crab and devouring it in the windy conditions (notice the rock star hairstyle due to the winds)

The New Zealand sub-species, vagans are said to be a sub-species of Sacred Kingfisher (Halcyon sancta)  which are found in Australia and New Guinea. The New Zealand kingfisher is distinguished from the Australian sub-species by its larger size and broader bill and generally by the distinctiveness of its green and blue colours.

Saturday, October 16, 2010

SPOTLIGHT: Pied Stilt (Poaka)

Pied stilts (Himantopus himantopus leucocephalus) or black-winged stilts as they are also known, are a common native to New Zealand and are also found in Australia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and the Bismarck Archipelago.

Pied stilts are found throughout the world and the classification of these birds can be controversial as they differ  from place to place. Some believe that there are as many as five separate species while others consider them to be subspecies.  Whatever the case may be the pied stilts found here Himantopus himantopus leucocephalus or poaka as the Maori know these beautiful birds are classified by an all-white head, neck white, black behind, open black chest band and usually a white band across upper back.

Pied stilts are found in a variety of habitats such as sheltered marine harbours, wetlands, estuaries, lagoons, riverbeds, waterlogged pastures and lakesides where they use their extremely long and lanky legs (which give them their name) to wade through the water in search of small insects, marine molluscs, worms and crustaceans which are probed out of the sand or mud. In winter many of the birds that breed on Canterbury's rivers migrate to the warmer North Island harbours to feed.

Breeding and nesting can occur as early as July in the northern part of the country and can continue into summer. Nests are usually built on the edge of wetlands/lagoons or above the high-tide mark on sandy beaches and riverbeds. The stilts are very vocal at this time of year and if an intruder ventures too close to their nest or young they make sharp yapping calls and  often feign a broken wing in order to draw attention away from their exposed nest or young. The female usually lays four eggs which are incubated by both parents. Incubation usually lasts for 25 days. The chicks usually leave the nest the same day after hatching and are covered with a soft down with speckled yellow-brown upper-parts and white under-parts. When danger threatens they drop straight to the the ground and remain motionless becoming extremely difficult to detect. 


Above: A young stilt finds its legs on the estuary mud
Right: A pied stilt incubates it's eggs in waterlogged pasture.

Left: A newly hatched chick sits on its nest, stilt chicks usually leave the nest the same day. 

Below: A newly hatched chick soaks up some rays, a relief after being cramped in the egg for 25 days :)

Friday, October 8, 2010

Local wanderings

I'm working on a few photographic projects at the moment and I've been able to spend a fair bit of time down at my local estuary (Avon/Heathcote) here in Christchurch. While some projects are in the making I thought I'd add a few shots that I've taken this week in between photographic ventures. I really enjoy getting to know the ins-and-outs of the estuary and I find that the more time I spend down there the more I learn about the habits and behaviours of my feathered friends :)

Photos from top to bottom. Backlit white-fronted tern. Mallard duckling. NZ kingfisher and crab. Shag Rock a prominent feature of the Avon/Heathcote Estuary (an older photo). 


Friday, October 1, 2010



The white-fronted terns' noisy chattering is a sure sign that spring is underway! From now (October) to January these birds will breed on sand dunes, rocky islets and shingle banks around the country. Males court females by delivering fish held crosswise in their bill. I can't help feeling a little sorry for these small fish which are often still alive and kicking as they are held in the male's beak for a few minutes and then offered as a gift... I wonder what the fish is thinking? 

White-fronted Terns (Sterna striata) are the most common tern in New Zealand. Unfortunately recent counts have shown that their numbers are declining quite rapidly!

The reasons for this are not fully known, although it is thought that disturbances to their breeding habitats such as 4WD vehicles and predation from rats, stoats, hedgehogs, black-backed gulls etc. have all contributed to this decline.

White-fronted terns are also known as 'kahawai birds' as they are often seen feeding with schools of kahawai (Australian Salmon) that push krill and small fish like smelt and pilchards to the surface making it easier for the terns to feed. It is therefore also quite likely that the over-fishing of kahawai may also be contributing to their decline.

Sunday, September 26, 2010

The Red Beak District


Forget 'Fort St' in Auckland or 'Kings Cross' in Sydney, there are far more sinister districts popping up all over the place at this time of year. From August to March every year New Zealand's recreational parks and open fields are transformed into 'Red beak districts' where promiscuity and 'fowl play' is the name of the game!

Pukekos (Porphyrio porphyrio) would have to be the hippies of the avian world, a world that consists of 'free love' and communal living! Group sex, partner sharing, homosexuality and incest are a common occurrence. In fact, in the pukeko world you could say that love is one big 'family affair'.  (Right: No privacy in a pukeko commune)

Pukeko's have a complex social system, and monogamy, polygamy, polyandry,  and polygynandry can occur  within the same population! Females are often hounded by numerous males and can be copulated by up to three different males within a matter of minutes! (Below:  Males hastily pursue an unwilling female)

This kind of libertine lifestyle raises a lot of questions... how could this level of promiscuity benefit the pukeko? Partner sharing seems to go against the evolutionary grain, where it is argued that as a result of natural selection individuals will try and maximize their own genotype in subsequent generations. Although in communal breeding groups it seems that they toss their own interests aside in order to assist the reproductive efforts of others and benefit the group as a whole.

There are many theories as to why these purple clad hippies share mates and participate in incestuous and homosexual activity when it seems detrimental and pointless to their evolutionary success.

When it comes to inbreeding it seems that pukeko have several mechanisms for reducing the disadvantages of incest such as possible gamete selection (the process of determining which egg matures and what sperm succeeds in fertilizing the egg). Other theories suggest that regular inbreeding may have eliminated deleterious generic consequences. Whatever the reason or reasons may be, there have been no obvious harmful effects due to inbreeding observed in pukeko breeding groups. Homosexuality and partner sharing are believed to help synchronize sexual cycles allowing several females to lay in the same nest at the same time.

Although these raunchy rails' sexual habits may seem a little lewd and communal breeding an evolutionary paradox, these districts, believe it or not, are 'family friendly'. In fact these lewd acts seem to benefit the group as a whole, and strengthen family ties. Community breeding offers its fair share of advantages, such as safety in numbers as each 'commune' has several males to defend it. It certainly makes the jobs of nestbuilding (Below), chick feeding/care (Right) and incubation (which is shared by all adults within a group) a bit easier with more helpers around. Due to the fact that males and females mate freely within the group, males have an uncertainty about which chicks they've fathered and this probably ensures that they  stick around and help with the raising of the chicks.

Each female will lay up to 7 eggs, and a communal nest can have eggs from 2-3 females. Unaware of the pukekos communal nesting behaviour early ornithologists were fooled into thinking that some females were highly productive because their nests contained up to 20 eggs. With multiple chick minders each chick may be looked after  by a parent, aunt/uncle or an older brother/sister.

Left: Males and females both participate in nest building, and in communal breeding groups helpers also lend a hand (or a beak).


Right: allopreening. In pukekos, allofeeding and allopreening (where birds will feed and preen one another) is a form of courtship and occurs between all sexually active birds in a group. Male pukeko also hold water weeds in their bill and bow to the female with loud chuckles as a form of courtship. 


Left: A pukeko swimming. Although not web-footed, pukekos are surprisingly strong swimmers.

Below: A pukeko nest  situated in an open field.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Pikitia 2010 postcard range

The NEW Pikitia postcard range is available NOW... 

Pikitia is a small but growing postcard company based in Tauranga New Zealand. Pikitia have just starting selling in Rotorua one of New Zealand's tourist hot spots (no pun intended). They have recently put out a new postcard range (2010 range) in which my photos (above) are included. Pikitia has some beautiful New Zealand images ... check them out at -

Saturday, September 11, 2010

SPOTLIGHT: White-faced heron (Ardea novaehollandiae)

White-faced herons would have to be one of my favourite birds to photograph! (I tend to say that about a lot of birds). Although there aren’t too many birds that can rival the beauty, grace and finesse of the heron, or match the heron’s speed, precision and deadly accuracy. I never seem to tire of watching the herons feed at my local estuary, herons are masterful hunters, and I've seldom seen a heron miss its target. In the above photo a small mud crab hangs onto the heron's beak for dear life!

DISTRIBUTION: The white-faced heron is common throughout most of Australasia, and was self-introduced to New Zealand in the early 20th century. It was first observed breeding here in the 1940s and now breeds in abundance throughout New Zealand.

White-faced herons are very adaptable birds and are particularly successful in New Zealand due to their ability to inhabit almost any wetland environment, from sandy/rocky shores, estuaries, mudflats, lakes, rivers, pastures … in fact white-faced herons are just at home inland as they are on the coast. 

DIET & FEEDING: White-faced herons are now the most common heron species in New Zealand; part of the reason for this success is their varied diet which consists of molluscs, insects and their larvae, spiders, plant matter, small fish and reptiles, frogs, marine worms and even mice. 

White-faced herons stalk their prey by either actively wading in shallow water or standing still and waiting for prey movement. White-faced herons use an assortment of techniques in their feeding repertoire from wing flicking and foot stirring (both used to disturb and subsequently locate small fish and invertebrates) to chasing prey with open wings.

For such an elegant bird the white-faced heron's call has been described as a 'croak', 'gobble' or gutteral "grraaw", which is typically given in flight or during aggressive encounters.

Prior to the breeding season the herons undergo a moult and as a result develop reddish-brown nuptial plumes (breeding plumes) which appear on the foreneck & breast and long blueish-grey plumes on their back. The nuptial plumage is brighter than their basic plumage, for the purposes of sexual display.

BREEDING: The breeding season peaks between October and December where usually 3-5 eggs are laid in a messy nest of sticks high up in a tree. For around 25 days both the male and the female will share incubation duties. Chicks hatch with a white down and will fledge after approximately 6 weeks. The young stay with their parents until the next breeding season. 

So next time you're out and about, keep an ear out for that unmistakable "graaww" and spare a thought for these wonderful birds... chances are there's one near you!

A reef heron (Egretta sacra) stalks its prey in a typical hunched pose in the photo below. Reef herons are a much less common sight here in New Zealand. 


Monday, September 6, 2010

Garden bird survey 2010

This year Landcare Research in association with Forest & Bird and the Ornithological Society of NZ ran its 4th National Garden bird survey. This year has been the most successful survey to date, with approximately 4000 participants, twice as many as last year! 

The survey was created to find out more about the population dynamics of native bird species in our towns and cities, something we know virtually nothing about. The survey takes place in mid-winter every year, when native birds are more likely to visit our towns and cities in greater numbers. The survey took place between the 26th of June and the 4th of July where all willing participants spent an hour recording the highest number of each bird species they saw at one time (birds heard and seen flying overhead were also recorded). 

Although its still early days to show any real long term population trends, there have been some interesting results based on the 4 surveys conducted to date.

Top 10 garden birds compared (2009/2010)

House sparrows & silvereyes have been found to be by far the most common birds visiting our gardens throughout the country; with house sparrows being more common in people's gardens in the north of the country and silvereyes being much more common in the south. Interestingly, silvereyes were more common than house sparrows in 2007 (with an average of 10.2 silvereyes compared to an average of 9.4 house sparrows), while for the last 2 years house sparrows have been the most common garden species due to silvereye numbers crashing, especially in Otago and Southland (Avian pox is thought to have been the culprit, with several people in Dunedin noticing silvereyes with growths around the bill, eyes and legs). This year however results so far have shown silvereyes make a come-back and regain the top spot as the nation's most common garden bird! (See table above)

Other results have shown some exciting visitors to our gardens. Stitchbirds have been recorded in gardens in Auckland and Wellington, close to areas where birds have been introduced like the Waitakere Ranges and Karori Wildlife Sanctuary.

Red-crowned parakeets (Kakariki) were reported in an urban garden in Torbay (15km from Tiritiri Matangi Island) and in a garden in Glenfield (25km from Tiritiri). Some people have also recorded seeing Kaka come into their gardens and feed from feeders.

To see progress results of the 2010 survey as they are entered into the computer please click here

Friday, September 3, 2010

SPOTLIGHT: Grey Teal (Anas gibberifrons)

Often described as plain in colour, I think the grey teal is a beautiful bird, with their mottled brown scalloped plumage, subtle shape and stunning red eye. Here in New Zealand the grey teal has a wonderful success story...

The grey teal (Tete) are probably one of the less thought of birds here in New Zealand, these small ducks are often overshadowed by their rare cousins, the Campbell Island teal (critically endangered), the Auckland Island teal, and North & South Island brown teal.

In fact the grey teal was once itself a rare sight in New Zealand, and R.H.D Stidolph in a 1945 article in the 'Emu', an Ornithological Journal, states his delight in sighting the grey teal..."It has been my good fortune to come across the Grey Teal in three different localities in the Wellington district in the last 14 years...". R.H.D Stidolph also states "The grey teal in New Zealand has always been regarded as a rare bird". I can just imagine Stidolph's jubilation if he were to take a stroll down at the oxidation ponds here in Christchurch and see teal in their hundreds!

The 1950's saw an influx of grey teal into New Zealand due to drought in Australia. Grey teal are nomadic and will often travel great distances to colonise suitable habitat following rain. In an Australian study grey teal were recorded covering up to 343km within hours to occupy a new site and were shown to travel over 2000km in a single year! Since the 1950's the population of grey teal has increased, with more than 50,000 birds being recorded here in 2005.

Grey Teal are now considered a common native and thankfully are protected here in New Zealand and subsequently not hunted as they are in Australia.

The photo on the left shows a grey teal typically dabbling (filtering surface water or mud through their bill) for seed and small insects. Other feeding techniques include grazing on plant material from overhanging plants and upending and feeding from the bottom.

Grey teals prefer to build their nests in tree hollows, although will nest on the ground in a shallow bowl of grass often in the cover of reeds. Six to nine cream coloured eggs are laid and gradually covered in down, the eggs are then incubated by the female for approximately 25 days.

Lets hope that someday New Zealand's other native teal species will follow in the same footsteps as the grey teal, and the oxidation ponds here in Christchurch will be teaming with South Island brown teal!!!