Kaikoura Seabird Spectacular


"What's your favourite birding memory?" I asked my friend Paul Cook recently.

"That morning we spent in Kaikoura," he said, unhesitatingly.

For me, great birding moments and days are, of course, varied and many, but remembering this lad has found a Red-flanked Bluetail, 2 Pallid Swifts and a Booted Warbler in his own garden, this was some major claim to come out with so swiftly. Kaikoura you may, or may not, already know is on the northeast seacoast of South Island, New Zealand, and its reputation as one of the world's great seabird-watching sites has developed in the last couple of years.

Paul and I were there in April 1995. We were on a stopover as part of a round-the-world journey. This had commenced in October 1994 - a birding/photography and cricket-watching tour covering India, Thailand, Australia, New Zealand, Canada, and the States. Already, we had packaged in our memories many moments that would last way beyond the timescale of our intended 12-month trip. One of the Indian highlights was seeing and photographing an extraordinary, obliging, Red Panda, sat in the middle of the day in a bare tree at eye level for a full half-hour or more.

Red Panda: Darjeeling. One of the rarest of mammals. (Photo: Graham Gordon)

Like any journey, some of the events as we went along fell perfectly in alliance with our hopes and expectations, whilst other aspects went slightly awry. The beauty of these 'Round-the-World' tickets that are advertised every Sunday in the quality papers is that they offer an awful lot of freedom and flexibility as far as timing goes. We didn't count on, and therefore didn't enquire when we booked the tickets, needing to change the schedule of our trip in relation to location and flying from one international airport to another. Already, after overspending my budget in Asia, I had to cancel my own plans to see the Melbourne Test Match in Australia and had tried, unsuccessfully, to have my ticket re-routed to Sydney where I had a house and a job waiting for me.

Paul and I parted company on Christmas Eve at Melbourne Airport and he went on to see the Test Match (he counts seeing Devon Malcolm hitting Shane Warne for six up there with his Red Panda recollection). Thereafter, he had flown to New Zealand where he stayed and worked with an old cricketing buddy in Christchurch, while I did the same in Sydney with an ex-pat Scottish birding friend.

After Melbourne we lost touch for five months. Then, miraculously, on the very night I was due to leave Aus for Auckland (I couldn't re-route the ticket to meet Paul in Christchurch - which was over 1,000 km from where I was landing) he managed to leave a message on my friend's answerphone and I was able to take his number and contact him on arrival in New Zealand the very next day.

There was only one thing that attracted me to the idea of birding in New Zealand. It's funny when you spend a lot of time overseas how the play of the 'exotic' and the 'familiar' works within your mind. Having long since given up the idea of having any pretensions of being a 'world lister', endemic 'this' and endemic 'that' exerted no appeal for me whatsoever. There is always, I find, in visiting places abroad some strange magnetic attraction that harps back to Blackbirds and Song Thrushes and Robins and no matter how hard I tried in Australia or New Zealand I couldn't quite find myself getting carried away with developing any sort of long-lasting meaningful relationship with the local avifauna.

I'm not saying anything about the strangeness of seeing Blackbirds and Song Thrushes and the like in the Southern Hemisphere (apparently the ten most numerous landbirds in New Zealand are all British introductions). What I'm getting at is that what I craved most after five months 'Down Under' was a real birding connection with my homeland - in other words, waders and/or... seabirds. Many months before I got to New Zealand, my pre-trip research cared nothing about A Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand but was, instead, solely based on the plates in Harrison's Seabirds - A Guide to their Identification. Okay, I wouldn't have minded seeing a Kiwi or two (I didn't have time) - but Kakas and Takahes and 'what's-the-name-of-that-other-parrot-thing', no thank you: I'll leave them to expire in peace.

Now, the pursuit of seabirds presents a major problem for me in that I happen to be one of the worst sailors in the world! Even the mere thought of going on a pelagic trip was, I'm not exaggerating, enough to give me a sleepless night and inspire sickness many hours before I'd even stepped onto a boat. I've lived next to the sea nearly all my life. I love it. At times I almost can't bear to be away from it. But, to go out in a boat...hang on, I'm starting to feel uneasy just thinking about it. Seawatching from land, yes, I love it. Seabirding from a boat...not if I can help it!

Some of you may have heard of the 'famous' Sydney pelagics (they actually set off from Wollongong, some 70 miles south of Sydney). In 1995 they were certainly among the most famous seabirding pelagics in the world. Over the course of three separate visits to Sydney, my experience was very mixed. On the whole I didn't like them! I did, I admit, have two very good ones upon which I saw a jolly nice mix of albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters, but another six or seven (including one when I actually had five 'ticks' - all of which were badly seen) were, I thought, not at all worth the effort. I was seasick, or at least on the verge of it, almost every single time.

It was on one of those Sydney boats in 1991 that I first got to hear about Kaikoura. In 1993 I gleaned some extra details and was given the contact number of a local fisherman who, it was said, would take you out for the price of a packet of biscuits! Gary Melville - said fisherman - laughed, two years later, the night I telephoned him in New Zealand - the same night Paul and I became re-acquainted after hitch-hiking five hundred miles north and five hundred miles south to meet in the middle.

"I've changed that," he said. "I've upped my price. Get me a bottle of red wine and I'll meet you at the pier at six in the morning."

It was 5 a.m. next day that Paul and myself set off from the Kaikoura Backpackers' lodge to walk the two and three-quarter miles round to the pier, making sure that we got there on time. Gary was cheerful and friendly, but soon left us to our own devices at the back of the boat as he and his son got on and did whatever fishermen do at the front of the boat.

Right from the very start it was an absolutely perfect day. Mild, clear, a little hazy cloud, a few breaths of wind, but not much. The main thing I remember was the colour of the sea. It was an incredible, rich, deep, thick, velvety mauve and it felt like we were gliding along on an oil slick (but much nicer) - such was its texture. Back then I was exclusively a bird photographer (or, I suppose, a 'wildlife' photographer) - as all I had at hand was a 500 mirror lens (not like I am now where I have a smaller lens and actively seek out such dramatic, natural photographic abstractions). Very soon birds started to appear, most of which I'd already seen - like Silver Gulls and Wedge-tailed Shearwaters - but I should have been looking at them. Yet the sea and light were drawing me into a memorised trance. Then Gary switched the engine off and it was time to snap back and remember where I was!

Flesh-footed Shearwater: Kaikoura (Photo: Graham Gordon)

What is unique about Kaikoura - certainly compared to Wollongong (or another awful pelagic I had one day off Brisbane) - is that the 'continental shelf', the area of the water where the warmth of the land meets the cold of the sea, is only a mile offshore. In Sydney, we'd have a few hundred birds (the same species as above) following us out of the harbour and then there'd be several hours of nothing as we motored on up to the 'shelf'; a few more birds there, press on a bit, see nothing, and then turn back and head for home. In Kaikoura, you hit the shelf after about 30 minutes and then you cruise along it, so you're in the richest part of the sea almost the entire time you are on board.

When Gary killed the engine off there was this immediate and dramatic sense of quiet. And then they came. It's funny when you think about it how many birds we actually pick up on their vocalizations a while before we see them. You know, songs and calls. I can only think, perhaps, of some great 'raptor' moments in Israel or the States where the spectacle unfolds with the same stunning sense of silence that accompanied the appearance of these first few seabirds circling around our boat. It seems, in a poetic sense, to add an extra element of awe to the sight of such an aerodynamically well-adapted family of birds that is not in the least compromised by paying attention to their song. "Oh what a lovely voice the Nightingale has!" we say, but we do not rhapsodise about its flight.

Most of these birds were new for Paul, though they weren't for me, but that's not the point. Black-browed Albatross (okay, racially, the ones with the pale eyes were new for me), White-capped Albatross, Westland Black Petrels, Flesh-footed Shearwater, lots of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters too, plus a few Cape Petrels. Then, a big one: the first Wandering Albatross comes in, followed by two more. Now Gary had started to catch and gut his fish and the silence and circumspection were broken. 'All hell' as we say, 'had broken loose'. Suddenly, those menacing, long-winged surveyors of the oceans had turned into a bunch of pathetic schoolkids, fighting and cursing and squabbling over the guts of the cast-off fish. And then, between catches, between scrabbles, they sat there, innocent, soft-faced, demure (the Wanderers, at least, the Shearwaters, too...but not the Black-broweds or the 'Shy's'; they still somehow had that dark-furrowed 'menace') just yards from the boat.

Shy Albatross: Kaikoura (Photo: Graham Gordon)

Wandering Albatross: Kaikoura (Photo: Graham Gordon)

Paul and I, though we liked to take bird photographs, didn't consider ourselves to be real, 'proper', bird photographers. It's not that we particularly lacked the patience or anything, it's just that we were, well, I suppose, opportunistic photographers. We weren't loaded down with bags of film and thousand pound lenses. If the birds were there, big enough and bold enough, then we'd have a go. And Wandering Albatross as you can see fits right into that category. There were now five of them; slightly more Black-broweds and Shys - and they, too, fell right into the range of our cameras. Even more exciting was a Buller's Albatross that flew in for a few minutes (I've got decent pics of that also - but not here to show you) providing these two sons of the Northern Hemisphere with an unprecedented four species of 'albert' in the space of a couple of hours.

We didn't know then that these shots we were taking were to provide us both with our first published snaps at a tenner apiece in A Pictorial Guide to the Seabirds of the World that came out a couple of years later (you can look us up in the index, if you like, and see we've got four each - although one of Paul's is some 'throwaway' shot of some New Zealand Shags that I think he probably only got in 'cos no-one else sent any!). Two things were personally gratifying about this subsequent publication achievement. One these was that, among all these close-up shots of the immature Wanderers, one photo I took almost as an afterthought, of a juvenile I'd been watching more distantly for five minutes, found its way into the selection. And then, some two or three years after my big fat cheque for 40 quid had been frittered away, long after I'd smoked the last cigar and downed the last drops of champagne, I happened to be thumbing through the book in a second hand store in Cape May and it fell open at the frontispiece and there, staring back at me, and I didn't even know this, was, out of a total of some 1500 pictures in the book, my Flesh-footed Shearwater, gliding effortlessly over that velvet calm sea.

And, despite the flatness of that velvet calm sea, both Paul and I managed to cast our half-digested breakfasts on to King Neptune's watery table that morning. Which brings me to the conclusion of why it was such a perfect morning. Neither of us, despite what we were seeing, would have wanted it to go on much longer. "Sorry, lads, it's been too good a morning's fishing," said Gary, "I'm going to have to turn her back to get this lot ashore."

"Aye, aye, skipper, full steam ahead…"

So why now? What possible excuse can I, staring at a blank canvas in the middle of winter, conjure, to justify telling you this tale and show you these pictures from something that happened to me almost nine years ago. Well, to tell you the truth, I've just got the slides back and seen them myself for the first time in six years. You see, some time after they were returned in a box from the publishers of Seabirds (and Paul took care of the arrangements), he, or we, lost them. I'd come back from three years in the States and fancied a look at them and they weren't in my granny's loft where the rest of my slides were and Paul couldn't find them either. He'd moved house twice in the interim and neither of us could remember when or where we'd last seen them. To all intents and purposes, and despite our best efforts, I had to accept and write them off as gone, nothing but memories of an unforgettable morning. And sure, you try to get over it, but some days you're walking down the street and there it is, it just hits you - my best pictures!!! - gone. Lost forever.

Just a few weeks ago I got a phone call from Paul. He still lives in Whitburn where we grew up together and I'm now in Cork but we keep in touch, once a month, especially when one or other of us finds a rare bird. Fair enough, last year, I had Sharp-tailed Sandpiper and Citrine Wagtail to pass on to him but, previously, as I said, the two Pallid Swifts and the Bluetail caught me off guard in the middle of work. (Red-flanked Bluetail in the quarry where I used to bird, religiously...aagh!).

Last year, early October, you've already read, the Booted Warbler, in his own garden. This time, I miss his call; a message, late at night - practically a sleepless one I'll tell you.

"Graham, you'll never believe what I've just found..."

Next morning, I can hardly bear it, but I make the call.

"What is it this time, Paul?" I ask, cringing..."Rubythroat? White's Thrush?"

"Better than that mate!"

"Better than Rubythroat? I don't know. I give up..."

"Well...one of them's a Wandering Albatross..."

Wandering Albatross: Kaikoura (Photo: Graham Gordon)
Written by: Graham Gordon