Published: September 22nd 2012September 13th 2012
So nothing much was happening in the first two days of our Auckland trip, but that was about to change. At the start of August an Australian pelican had been spotted at Kerikeri, way up in the far north of New Zealand. This is a most unusual vagrant for New Zealand, and it caused a bit of a stir in the birding community because there haven’t been any seen here since the 1970s. Then a week later a flock of fourteen pelicans was filmed by a barge operator in the upper Kaipara Harbour a bit further south. This was even more unusual. One of the older records was of three birds but all other vagrant pelicans have been singletons. This was the first time an actual flock had been recorded in the country, possibly even one with the potential to establish as a breeding population. Another pelican was then photographed in early September at Whangamai to the east of the Kaipara, and then at Ruakaka, but no-one is sure if that was a sixteenth/seventeenth bird or one of the others (i.e. the Kerikeri one) on the move. Naturally enough before the trip had even started I had set to pondering on
how I could get myself a pelican sighting. The Kaipara is about an hour and half drive north of Auckland and there are no buses to where the pelicans were. Fortunately a friendly local birder called Kerry had already offered to drive Andy and myself to a couple of other birding spots, and it turned out he was also keen to have a crack at the pelicans.
We had to change hotels on the third morning before going after the pelicans. I had booked a hotel for most of the stay but there wasn’t a free room at that one for the first two nights, so Andy had booked those ones at a hotel he always stays at which he swore was amazing. He was wrong. I’ll let the photos of the view from each room speak for themselves.
Anyway, once the move was completed we drove out of town towards Northland. A male ring-necked pheasant walking across a roadside field was added to the year list along the way. The spot where the pelican flock was hanging out was near Ruawai, on a tidal river that flows into the north end of the harbour. There are a
few different points where roads meet the river, but we decided to start with the northernmost one where they’d been seen, the Naumai Wharf Road. We drove to the end, parked, and walked over the stop-bank to see.....nothing. There was a rough path snaking off along the bank through the mangroves, so we headed that way, avoiding a half-hidden ditch and a stinking calf carcasse, and found a plank walkway to a little platform. And from that vantage-point we saw, waaaay down the river, maybe half a kilometre distant, a flock of thirteen pelicans!! They were busy fishing, and they appeared to be heading our way, so we sat and waited. And we didn’t have to wait too long either. A man came rowing out from the end of Naumai Wharf Road to check his set-nets in the river. Immediately eight of the pelicans took to the air, flew straight up the river, and then started circling right over our heads. It was pretty spectacular and really more than we had hoped for. After what seemed like several minutes of circling, the pelicans flew back down-river to tell the others what they had seen, and then all thirteen of them
made their way slowly up-river, fishing for mullet along the way. Very rarely do you see vagrant birds in New Zealand in a flock situation. Usually it is one lone duck or ibis, looking pretty sad and lost, but these pelicans just looked “right”, behaving perfectly normally, on a muddy mangrove-lined river. Perfect. What wasn’t so perfect was that they then started trying to steal fish out of the set-net. Hopefully some angry fisherman isn’t going to end up shooting them. I heard second-hand that one has already been tangled in a net while stealing fish (but was fortunately released unharmed). Once the pelicans had either cleaned out the net or failed to get any fish (we couldn’t really tell one way or the other) they swam further up-river and out of sight. And if you’re wondering about the flock we saw only having thirteen birds in it, the fourteenth one was way back down-river because some other people saw him down there all alone earlier in the day.
As well as pelicans, there was also reportedly a large flock of cattle egrets in the area, down one of the other roads. Cattle egrets are winter visitors to New
Zealand from Australia. They haven’t stayed to breed here yet but it seems likely that eventually they will. I think the total number of egrets every winter is around 3000 or something like that, but I have only ever seen them overseas. I just never seem to be where the egrets are when they are in New Zealand. Neither Andy nor Kerry had seen New Zealand cattle egrets either, so we headed to the road and kept our eyes peeled on the neighbouring fields as we drove along it. Almost at the end of the road, and Andy and I both spotted the flock at much the same time, on top of a bank at the back of one of the paddocks. We had to keep going to the river to turn the car around, and when we got back and got out to scan the flock with our binoculars, we saw another car coming from the other direction. This car slowed and then stopped, and we assumed they were waiting for us to move so they could pass, but then we saw a man get out with binoculars. There was a farm-house next to the paddock and the newcomer
talked to someone there and then they drove up the drive towards the egrets. So we did the same. The young Maori guy seemed a little nonplussed at this influx of weirdos wanting to look at a bunch of white birds – I think he just wanted to get back to his P pipe – but he said we could drive up there as well. The other birder was out of his car again, walking towards the egrets and we hoped he wouldn’t flush them, but he then used a tractor as cover to take photos from behind. So far so good. We got out of our car and started over – and then the man just walked straight out towards the flock and they all took off and flew away. All I got was a couple of out-of-focus rapid-fire shots of the flock leaving. We were not impressed!!! The egrets landed in another field more distant, amongst a herd of cattle, but having been spooked once there wasn’t any chance we’d get close to them so we just left them to it. We managed to see them alright from the road before they had flown, but still not very
satisfyingly. I won’t say the name of the man who scared them away, but suffice to say he is someone who should have known better!
There are more photos below