Monday, February 20, 2012

Rare Animals on the Otago Peninsula

Today turned out to be the most pleasant surprise of the trip. I drove 3.5 hours across the South Island to the city of Dunedin for a collection of wildlife tours on the Otago Peninsula. It was well worth it.

I'll keep the focus on the photographs but some quick fun facts about the animals I met today to match the photos:

+ The Albatross - the bird with the longest wingspan - is much bigger in person than what one would imagine. It stands more than half my height, and with wings outspread, it nearly doubles my height.

After being born, Albatross chicks immediately head out to sea; they spend the next five years circling the south Pacific, eating and sleeping on the water. The first time they return to land is after five years, and that apparently makes for some hilarious crash landings.

The Otago Peninsula is the only mainland location in the entire world where the Albatross breeds. You will see a mother with her chick underneath her here.

+ A nearby beach is a haven for rare wildlife. First there is the Hooker's Sea Lion - the rarest of five species of sea lion in the world. They were hunted to extinction on the mainland by the Maori centuries ago, and they only survived on small islands between South Island and Antarctica. Then some started to repopulate the mainland. 180 live on New Zealand today. Like the penguins below, these were only a few yards away from us.

+ On the same beach there are the Yellow Eyed Penguins - the rarest species of penguin in the world. These guys have little in common with most other penguins. They do not migrate; they return to the same beach every night, where they nest up the hill in secluded homes. They mate for life, but they will not breed if their nest is visible to any other penguins. They also live harmoniously with the sheep on the farm on the hill above the beach.

The penguins were only a few feet away from our path. One of them returned to the beach with an injured right foot and was hobbling around, which was sad to watch.

+ Finally, there were the Fur Seals, also hunted to near extinction on the mainland of New Zealand. Now there's been a huge resurgence. Today we witnessed a breeding colony on the bottom of a cliff. The pups were adorable.

Finally, here are some scenic shots of the peninsula. Thanks for following my blog. I hope you enjoyed it!

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Milford Sound and Glowworms in Te Anau

The 5 highlights:

1. Flying into Queenstown on South Island yesterday morning. It's beautiful. And then picking up the car I rented (a Holden from Australia, the logo is a lion, and it is bright red). I have now mastered the art of driving on the "wrong" said of the road on highways...which is like saying I've mastered the art of high fiving with my left hand. I luckily do not think I will be in many congested areas that will demand lots of turns with traffic in numerous directions...

2. Speaking of which, I think the first sheep farm I saw yesterday (and I saw a LOT of sheep farms yesterday between Queenstown and Te Anau...that's about all there is) had more sheep than I saw cars in total during 4 hours of driving. The stretch of highway from Te Anau to the Milford Sound is about as remote as you can possibly get. I lost cell phone service five minutes away from Te Anau, and it never resurfaced. There are no gas stations, no cafes - basically no signs of human life except for the occasional car, the slightly more occasional tour buses going to and from the Sound, and some campers scattered about.

This is considered one of the most beautiful drives in the world, and it's certainly the most breathtaking stretch of road I have ever been on. Driving back to Te Anau today took about 90 minutes; there are so many places to pull over, however, that yesterday's trip along the same stretch took an extra 45 minutes. Lots of photo opportunities. And although not beautiful, for those Googling pictures of the highway, check out Homer's Tunnel - which goes through a mountain, is one-lane only, and the light to enter only changes every 15 minutes.

3. Look at a map of New Zealand. Look at the area called Fiordland on South Island. It's huge. The settlement at Milford Sound (it does not justify the title of town) tops out at 200 people, and there are only 5,000 maximum in this vast region. There is nothing but forests and mountains and lakes in this area of the country.

With the highway, however, no beaten tracks need be taken to access the breathtaking Milford Sound - which is technically a fjord because it was formed by glacial ice, not a river. The area was first settled by the Maori, who found jade (or greenstone) near where the fjord meets the Tasman Sea, and jade is precious in Maori culture. Then the Welsh came in and hunted the seals to the brink of extinction. A guy named Donald Sutherland (not Jack Bauer's dad) was the first person to really live there permanently, and he set up the first tourism business there.

In the 1950s, the New Zealand government bought the land. A hotel, cafe, bar, and gas station were built. Trucks delivered supplies on a regular basis. The only difference between the 1950s and today is that the hotel is now closed (a small lodge down the street is the only other sign of life in the area), and the gas station has not pumped gas in years; there is also now a parking lot, and a welcome center next to the docks where boats come and go from every day. (Except when avalanches during the winter dump tons of snow on the highway, closing it, and isolating the town for days and weeks at a time.) The Sound gets 6 meters of a rain a year, so they are more than used to bringing tours out in the pouring rain.

4. Speaking of tours, I went on one. And it was amazing. We slept on the boat overnight, and no words or pictures can justify the Milford Sound. (But go ahead and Google'll get a small taste). We had beautiful weather all afternoon and evening, but we all prayed for rain when we went to bed. That's because when it's dry there are 3 waterfalls in the sound. When it rains, hundreds of waterfalls suddenly begin cascading down the steep sheer faces of the towering cliffs and mountains on either side of the water. Sadly, we woke up to rain, but barely a drizzle.

Some highlights within this highlight reel (meta-highlights?) : seeing seals basking on the rocks, spotting a pair of Fiordland Crested Penguin, the third rarest species of penguin in the world, seeing the stars at night (there are a lot of them, and the dipper is upside down), motoring to the edge of the Tasman Sea, and sleeping under Mount Pembroke, which has a glacier on top.

5. These highlights were in chronological order, and the most recent adventure I had was last night back in Te Anau in the Glowworm Caves here. It was a rainy day and night here in the small lakeside village of 1,900 people - the Takahe capital of the country because the species was rediscovered right across the lake in the Murchison Mountains. Anyway, we took a boat across the lake to the entrance of underground caves. What's amazing is that the only reason these caves were found was because Te Anau translates loosely to 'lake with swirling waters.' So a local in the early 1900s set out to find the caves and he did. I cannot imagine how long it took him.

No photos allowed here, but the caves were impressive. You walk through a dark narrow path they've constructed underground, and the water rushing below is so loud it's virtually impossible to hear anything. Then you reach a makeshift dock where a boat is waiting. We all boarded, and then the guide began maneuvering us deeper into the cave by moving hand over hand along a chain link set up above. It was pitch black and I could not see my hand in front of my face. But the glowworms were beautiful. They are all in the larval stage, hanging from the ceiling, and they glow to attract insects to eat; the brighter they glow, the hungrier they are. It looks like looking up at the most amazing night sky, especially in the grotto at the end of the cave. Really cool.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Tiritiri Matangi

*For those interested, I will provide a history of Tiritiri Matangi first. If you are just interested in pictures, scroll down.

It is one thing to manufacture a close encounter at a zoo. (And that is not to diminish meeting a red kangaroo, red panda, and a trio of lemurs – moments I will remember and cherish for the rest of my life.) It is quite another matter to come face to face with animals in the wild.

Tiritiri Matangi is a special place with a history that encapsulates everything New Zealand values as a country keenly concerned with conservation. Like many other small offshore islands, Tiritiri was converted from lush forest to rolling farmland by European settlers. As recently as forty years ago, the island you see below resembled one giant, grassy hill; in an aerial photograph featured in the island brochure, one is hard pressed to even find a single tree.

The replanting began in the 1980s; a core team of dedicated volunteers frequented the island, bringing seeds with them. Any group that was interested in lending a hand – sports teams, businesses, community organizations – joined the effort to generate a new forest.

The result is breathtaking and astounding. More importantly, it is now a sanctuary for endangered birds endemic to New Zealand. Some have been translocated; others have been returned to a tiny plot of land that was once rightfully theirs. This is an ongoing movement in the country: the mammals cannot possibly be eradicated from the mainland, so massive operations are undertaken to clear offshore islands of pests (rats, stoats, etc.) so that birds can flourish freely.
Tiritiri Matangi today

The volunteers at Tiritiri are inspiring. At least a dozen joined the group visiting today, (a single boat goes to the island five times a week, bringing no more than 150 visitors at a time) and they are the reason Tiritiri exists at all: they funded and built the trails, they run the visitors center and gift shop, and they do just about every other task needed to maintain the welfare of the island. They are also experts in local ornithology.

That being said, as soon as I saw groups being divided for optional guided tours, I chose to explore the island for myself. I came to Tiritiri to photograph the wildlife, and the birds were not going to pose as calmly with bunches of ten gathering and gawking.

An amazing decision. I developed bird watching skills on the go, and I am guessing that they were not conventional. I relied on my ears, yes, but the key was not always looking up. Many of the birds hop around on the ground just a few feet away, and others are flightless. Moreover, the shadows of shaking branches and birds flying above were easy to detect on the ground.

The rewards were plentiful. Rarely did five minutes pass without a bird sighting. More often than not, they were only a few feet away, hanging in a nearby branch or bouncing around on the ground. It was like going to the aviary at the zoo, but in the wild and so much better.

The highlights are below. I will provide a brief caption for each, but I do want to add one last more extensive note about three of the pictures. For those of you who read my article before I left, the Takahe has a special place in my heart. It is also one of the rarest bids in the world, and four live on Tiritiri. Today, I met all of them.

An interesting family history. Greg is 19 years old, well exceeding his life expectancy, and now wears a tracker around his body so the park ranger always knows his whereabouts. He is a pesky fellow who is unafraid of humans, but he now spends his time by the shoreline alone.  His mate abandoned him recently for a younger male, and the new pair have violently attacked Greg numerous times. They now live, with their chick, by the lighthouse on top of the island. It’s a sad story for Greg, but ultimately important that the gene pool is diversified.

Fortunately, I had the honor of meeting Greg. Here are the three Takahe picture I would like to share.

Here are North Island Robins; they are extremely tiny, and will not hesitate coming close to humans while hopping around on the ground. The first shot I took when one was sitting right next to me. The other was on a nearby branch.

This is a Bellbird. They essentially initiated me into Tiritiri Matangi. I encountered a group of about a dozen, all together and singing at a high volume. Many were within arm’s reach; they were the most common and uninhibited birds I saw today.

These are Tui. When they mature, they grow a patch if white feathers beneath their bill.

This is a Saddleback, named for the red on its back. I caught this one eating berries in a treetop.

These are Oyster Catchers along the shoreline.

This is a New Zealand Pigeon. It’s impossible to tell from the picture but they are huge; nothing like a city pigeon. Their size makes it difficult to fly, and one often hears their struggles to go airborne before seeing their impressive colors.

Here are some scenic shots. In the first one, you will see Auckland along the horizon. 

Just had a White Lady burger as my final meal in Auckland. The first half of my trip is officially over. Off to South Island tomorrow!

No blog tomorrow night as I will be on a boat in the Milford Sound. That just means more pictures on Saturday...your Friday. Kia ora until then everyone!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

A Day at the Zoo

The much forecasted rain finally showed up today in a series of spurts. (According to Aucklanders, the "problem" with New Zealand is that you can have four seasons in one day.) But it did not get in the way of the most incredible day at a zoo.

The zoo opens at 9:30; I arrived at quarter of 8:00 for the first of three behind-the-scenes tours. After meeting up with the keepers, we headed over to the Aussie walk, a series of environments for Lorikeets, Emu, Wallabies, and a Red Kangaroo. It was our job to feed them breakfast.

One can actually feed Lorikeets at the Philadelphia Zoo, but there you can only feed the rainbow colored parrots for as long as your medicine cap sized cup of nectar lasts. In Auckland, we fed the birds a container of fresh grapes and corn. They swarmed me, landing on my arms and even on my head, using their beaks to tear apart the skin and their tongues to lick out the juicy food inside.

Then it was onto uncharted territory as I met the remaining Aussie animals. Feeding the Emu was a ton of fun; I am thankful that their large beaks have good aim, as they devoured the grapes I offered in my fingertips with a powerful snap.

The highlight of the morning was having the sole Red Kangaroo eat food from out of my hand. The Kangaroo is apparently very shy but will occasionally allow humans to feed her - one out of six visitors they guessed. (The Wallabies, including one with a joey in its pouch, all scurry away when you approach too close.) Shivering under the shelter of a small lean to keep out of the rain, the Kangaroo first sniffed my hand and then began eating. It says a lot about my day that this was not the best moment.

As the rain got heavier, I had a few hours to spare before my next two tours. So after a few quick stops en route, I settled in at the Kiwi house, where I spent the next 90 minutes desperately trying to snap a photo of the elusive bird without using the flash. (Spoiler alert, after frustratingly watching several other people cheat and break the rules with their own flashes, I decided to take one parting shot. It rendered the previous 90 minutes somewhat pointless as this was what I got.)

But a quick camera lesson to convey the difficulty of getting the no-flash shot. Step one: slow the shutter speed a significant amount so enough light can come in to take a picture. Step two: use a monopod to steady the camera. If the camera even moves the slightest bit, the photo appears blurry because the shutter will capture all motion as long as it is open. Step three: have the patience of a saint. The Kiwi has to step into just the right light, at just the right angle - and on top of that, it has to stay still, something the bird does not do well. After taking close to 200 pictures, this was the best shot I got. Not bad all things considered.

Finally it was back outside to meet Maya, the zoo's nineteen-year old Red Panda, my favorite animal in the world. We entered the exhibit with a container of grapes and pear slices, and the hungry creature was eager to greet us. Like the Aussie animals, the Red Panda nibbled grapes out of my offering fingers. It has beautiful brown eyes, and a coat of red fur that has unfortunately led to its being endangered. (The only remaining individuals in the wild live in the Chinese Himalayas.)

When the Red Panda reached out and took my hand in its paws, it was the obvious highlight of my day.

That is not to say that feeding the Ring Tailed Lemurs was a let down in any way. Coaxing them out of the treetops took time, but one by one they finally came down to eat the banana that I had cut up for them. Lemur males always allow the females to eat first, so I am lucky that the ladies were hungry, otherwise I would not have met any of them.

Whereas the Red Panda has clawed paws, the Lemur has small little hands, with fingertips that look like little black balls of gel. By the end, there were three in a branch right next to me, all fighting over the food and pulling my hand to get the last bites of banana. When the bananas were left, they took turns licking my fingers to get the last remaining banana juices.

While I waited for the DVD of photos to be made, I went to hang out with the Kea, the only species of mountain parrot in the world, and a bit of a clown in the alpine regions of New Zealand. Unlike so many other unique New Zealand birds, the Kea can fly, and the plumage on the underside of their wings is stunning - bright orange, metallic teal, and brilliant green. I made it my mission to photograph the bird in flight so I could capture these colors.

My mission is complete, but not truly accomplished. This photo does the Kea some justice, but I am hoping that when I get to Te Anau on South Island, I will encounter the bird once again. It was also a photo nearly 90 minutes in the making.

Tomorrow it is off to Tiritiri Matangi, and island bird sanctuary with some of New Zealand's rarest species, including the Takahe. In the meantime, it is off to grab a bite to eat, watch cricket, and stare out at the sailboats that are still in the water at 8:00 at night. Life here does not suck.

(While the pictures were uploading, I ran out to a place called White Lady to grab what someone told me was "the best burger in the world." It's easily top 5. The joint is a glorified food truck, and it was rated #1 by Lonely Planet as top destinations in Auckland. Definitely know what I'm getting for dinner tomorrow.)

Kia ora everyone! Some bonus pictures for you all below.