Thursday, December 29, 2011

Stewart Island

Stewart Island is a large Island about 30km south of Bluff. There is a population of approximately 600 people of which 90% live in the main settlement of Oban. This small town located in Halfmoon Bay has basic services such as a small supermarket and a range of accommodation options. Roughly 85% of the Island is set aside as National Park. It's a wild place with unspoilt forests and prolific bird-life. There is about 20 km of road on the island, however walking (tramping) is the way to see this island with walks ranging from a few minutes to many days. Even though walking is the way to see the wild places, in my opinion it's necessary to have some form of motorised transport to get about. I was very grateful for the courtesy car supplied by our motel.
You know that you are going to a special place when the owner of the motel you intend staying at makes a point of meeting you before you even leave for the island.  It's a relatively quick 60 minute ferry ride across Foveaux Strait. I had hoped to photograph a few birds on the way over, however we only got distant views of albatross and petrels.
As soon as we arrived at the motel the local Kakas dropped in to accept what must be the usual handout of peanuts that they come to expect when there are new arrivals. These birds turned out to be great photographic subjects as they were habituated to humans and easy to approach.
The weather was partly cloudy, so as soon as we had settled in we jumped in the courtesy car and headed to Lee Bay where we did a walk along the coast. Unfortunately the weather by this time was threatening, so the walk was cut short. We did however get to see Tui, South Island Oystercatchers, Stewart Island Shags and a very large New Zealand Sea Lion. The following day we decided to do the coastal walk that started just below our motel at Bragg Bay and finished at.Horseshoe Bay, a total of 4 km, I think. Along the way we passed beautiful coastal scenery with the bush right down to the water's edge.
The beaches were mostly deserted apart from a few Variable Oystercarters and Shags. On the track itself we encountered Tomtit, Tui, Kaka, New Zealand Pigeon, Silvereye, Grey Warbler and Fantail. After lunch we headed out to Ackers  Point, a short walk. The same birds were seen here along with panoramic views of Halfmoon Bay. If we had timed the visit to this point for early evening we probably would have seen Little Penguins and Sooty Shearwaters returning to their nesting burrows.

The next day we caught a water taxi to Ulva Island which is a rat free Island a few kms from Stewart Island. It is probably the most pristine of any sanctuary in New Zealand that is open to the public.
Over the last 10 years a number of threatened species have been released here, so it is a very good spot to see and photograph these species. While on the island I was able to photograph Red-crowned Parakeet, Saddleback, Brown Creeper, Kaka, Tui, Bellbird, White-faced Heron, New Zealand Pigeon, Weka and South Island Robin. Seen but  not photographed were: Yellow-crowned Parakeet and Rifleman. We had so much fun here photographing the birds and enjoying the scenery that we extended our visit from a half day to a full day. We were aided in locating some of the species by a helpful guide aptly named Ulva. The South Island Robins here have all been released and are much studied. They all have very visible leg bands,. These birds show no fear of humans and will land at your feet  to pick up any insects that you disturb as you walk.

Grey Warbler
That night we took a guided Kiwi viewing tour. We managed to see two kiwis as they fed on invertebrates on the the beach.
You are not allowed to use flash at all and the tour guide was the only person who could shine a low powered torch at the bird itself. As a result we came away with a lot of blurry underexposed images, fit for record shots only. Not the best photographic wildlife experience I've ever undertaken, however most of the other participants seemed to be happy just to see this unique bird. Apparently Stewart Island is one of the few places that there is the possibility of seeing a Kiwi during daylight. Though I think you would need to go to one of the more remote areas.

Paradise Shelduck
During our stay I organised a few perches around the garden of the motel and used calls to attract  Grey Warbler (Gerygone), Silvereye and Bellbirds for a photographic session. We also had New Zealand Pigeon and Tui in the garden, however they never responded to calls. Tuis were very common, but proved rather difficult to photograph as I couldn't find a flowering plant that they were feeding on.
The Kaka were by far my favourite subjects as they visited us each morning and evening. It was a simple matter to encourage one onto a perch.

 I can highly recommend a visit to Stewart Island, though I doubt that many will be as lucky as we were with fine weather. I also recommend the Motel (Rakiura Retreatwe stayed at for the friendly service and surrounding gardens.