Christmas trip for long tails 2020 Part 1:The Plans of Mice and Men

As I look back at 2020 it all seems so surreal to me now.
I honestly never thought the pandemic would last this long and rather naively thought the whole world would unite and synchronise against a common enemy and the virus would be defeated relatively quickly.
But here we are heading towards the end of January 2021 and there are more daily deaths being recorded now than when the pandemic first broke out.
However, the various vaccines developed in different countries give us hope that this year we will start to see the light at the end of the tunnel.

Regardless, I hope this post finds my readers alive, kicking and full of wonderment towards our natural world and I pray that 2021 will be much better for us all.

The Plans of Mice and Men

As my longstanding readers will know, each year a friend and fellow fanatical bird photographer Steve Richards and I take off for a few weeks each Christmas. I sleep in my tent and he in his customised 4WD Toyota.
We hit the road hard out, get up early each day and go to bed late. We do our best to come back to our respective homes totally worn out. It is not a holiday for us, its an opportunity to photograph birds we don’t see closer to home. Food, comfort and sleep become secondary issues.

The plan for this year’s summer trip was to hop on the ferry and head to the South Island for a few weeks.
What we didn’t factor into our planning was that with the pandemic raging overseas, Kiwis were not doing any international travelling this Christmas.
The result of this was that when it came to booking the Inter-Islander Ferry we left it too late. It appears that most of our fellow North Island Kiwis had planned to invade the South Island over the holiday period and had already booked the ferry and there was no room on the floating inn so to speak.

The Revised Plan

Sooooooo being unable to swim 11 meters, let alone the eleven miles between the two main Islands of Aotearoa, we decided instead to head north and revisit some of our favourite birding spots that we had not been to in years.
Little did we know that this choice would lead to one of the most exciting and successful trips Steve and I have ever experienced.

Without our plans being restricted by ferry bookings, we were free to fine-tune the launch date for our trip and it was just as well too.
Spring through early summer in the Wellington region was the worst since records began. This pattern did not change leading up to Christmas and into the New Year.
But we now had the luxury to wait for the weatherman to give us some good news.
That weatherman can either be a prophet of doom or an angel sent by God, surely he was going to give us some good news soon?
So we waited with each day was ticking by, hoping for a good report.
The upshot of this was that our proposed pre-Christmas launch eventually became a post-New Year launch.

At Last, We Have launch

On the 3rd of January, the sun rose in a perfect blue sky, Steve fired up the Toyota and we scooted out of Upper Hutt heading north for the little township of Turangi.
On the way, the wind started to pick up and by the time we made our destination, it was making its presence well and truly felt.

Our plan was to spend the first few days of our trip leisurely rowing Steve’s inflatable boat around the edges of Lake Taupo.

Our target species was to be matuku the Australasian Bittern and pūweto the Spotless Crake. Extra bonus points would accumulate for any other species we might surprise as we crept our way stealthily around the place in our little sneak boat. (Please note all links go to my image galleries of the species mentioned)

The Re-revised Plan

Now, however, due to the wind and not wanting to get blown out into the middle of the lake to certain doom, we scarpered our plans and they submerged into the murky depths of disappointment.
Any sneaking around the raupo would have to be from dry land, but we had the perfect spot but did we? Yet again our plans were dashed.

This is a picture from a trip we did a few years ago. We are all set up in a favourite spot for the evening to photograph pūweto or Spotless Crake on the edge of the raupo.

location: Tokaanu Wharf road, Turangi.  Photography by Steve Richards.

However, this year the raupo had encroached all the way to the edge of the grass leaving us with no open water what so ever. So this once very productive spot was no longer an option.

However, not all was doom and gloom. When we booked in at the Turangi holiday park, we had the pleasant surprise of being allocated a tent site right next to a harakeke or flowering flax bush, which had its own resident families of korimako or New Zealand Bellbirds and tūī
The light might have been less than ideal and the wind was whipping the flax stalks back and forth wildly, but the birds were irresistible, so the cameras did what they had come with us to do, clickerty click, click, click.

This juvenile korimako or New Zealand Bellbird is feasting on the orange nectar of the harakeke or New Zealand Flax.


This New Zealand tūī  was feeding off the same flax bush as korimako the Bellbird.

Mr tūī considers this flax bush as belonging to him and being larger than the Bellbirds he spends much of his time attacking them and driving them off. We have awarded all New Zealand tūī the title of self-appointed guardians of the galaxy for reasons that will become clear in the next post.


This adult korimako checks for the tūī first, before diving down and feasting on the nectar. He knows the consequences of getting caught out by Mr tūī.

After an emergency executive meeting to discuss the wind situation, it was decided that our first evening shoot would now be at the old historical wharf at Tokaanu.
We positioned ourselves halfway out on the old wooden structure and tried to make ourselves invisible to any birds passing by. Sometimes this plan works and sometimes it doesn’t.

Those birds that did fly close to us that evening were either flying at 2 gazillion miles an hour with the wind up their backsides. Or else struggling into the wind and being buffeted left, right and up and down and all over the place.
Either way, they were hard to lock onto with the cameras as the camera lenses were suffering the same fate by the wind as the birds.

This kawau paka or Little-shag is making hard work of it into the wind. Likewise, I was finding it hard work keeping him in the viewfinder with the wind whipping the camera in all directions.


This female pāpango, also known as scaup normally fly at warp speed 3, but into this wind, I could kind of keep up with her more or less.

We were rewarded at the end of our first night with a rather lovely sunset with large thunder clouds in the distance.

Thus ended the first day of our trip.

Day Two

The wind had dropped overnight lulling me into a sound restful sleep, but as the sun rose so did the blasted wind again.
When there was enough light We decided to go back to the wharf for a repeat of last night. It was slow going and nothing much stirred so we decided to take a break from the frisky wind and stalk the sheltered bush along the Tongariro river bank at the trout hatchery for one of our favourite birds, the pīpīwharauroa or Shining-cuckoo

pīpīwharauroa the Shining-cuckoo is a gorgeous bird but hated by all the other birds.

Wherever you find good populations of riroriro, the Grey-warbler during the summer months, you will also have a great chance of finding ole pīpīwharauroa, just listen out for their distinctive call.

A riroriro hunting for tasty insects among the blackberry bushes most likely to go back to the nest to feed her oversize pipiwharauroa chick.

The pīpīwharauroa lays its eggs in the riroriro’s nest, then larks around all summer partying till its time to go back to either New Guinea or the Solomon Islands, where it continues to enjoy the partying for the rest of the year as well.

However, not all is lost for the riroriro.  Most riroriro nest two and sometimes three times in a season and have nearly always raised their first family before the pīpīwharauroa arrives in New Zealand for the summer. riroriro is one of the most prolific bird species in New Zealand and inhabits most of New Zealand except for the open grasslands and tussock alpine tops.
If there is sufficient tree or shrub cover, you’re bound to find a Grey-warbler kicking around.

We decided to repeat our first night on the wharf again. The only shot of note for me was this kāhu or Australasian swamp harrier.

With the wind still giving its all, we held another executive meeting and it was decided to cut our stay short in Turangi. We could put the extra day to better use in our efforts hunting long-tail cuckoos in the Pureora forest, so we left the following morning and eventually shook off that blasted wind.

In my next post, the weather starts to be kind to us and things begin to look up literally.

8 thoughts on “Christmas trip for long tails 2020 Part 1:The Plans of Mice and Men

  1. Carole Garside

    Love your shining cuckoo photograph. I have never seen one, only photos. Great narrative too. I look forward to part 2

  2. Michael Woodley

    Your pictures are amazing. My favorite is the pāpango bird. The way these birds fly is funny. I look forward to your next post, and please come out soon


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