Friday, October 5, 2012

Wings on the Water

When a birder is asked what their favorite bird is, they generally respond along the lines, "I don't have one/I have many favorites/it would be impossible to single one out from the many beautiful and amazing ones that I have seen". A perfect answer, and if you had asked me that question I would have said something very similar....... that is until February 14, 2012. Even as of 8:30AM that morning, I still would have said the same thing. Four hours later, I was singing a different tune. Here is a tale from the southern oceans off the coast of New Zealand and of how I came to have a favorite bird.

Kaikoura is situated off the east coast of the south island of New Zealand. From here it is only a 15 minute boat ride into the Pacific ocean to the edge of the continental shelf. As the underwater terrain plunges into the dark abyss, the water teems with life as nutrient-rich cold water is brought to the surface to mix with warm water. Plankton flourishes and with it, the rest of the marine food chain, including our feathered friends. Fourteen different species of albatross occur in these waters throughout different parts of the year, as well as a host of petrels, shearwaters and other seabirds. With its incredible diversity and accessibility, Kaikoura is dubbed the Albatross and Seabird capital of the world. It is also the reason three road-weary companions found themselves in this small coastal community half way across the world from their home.

Myself, Nicole and Francois were 13 days into a 24 day worldwind road trip of New Zealand. With the North Island traversed, we were starting our south island tour with a bang. We had arranged to go on a pelagic trip with Albatross encounters and excitement was running high that morning. We were 7 in total, including the captain, setting out.

With the mountains fading behind, and the ocean rushing up to meet us I took a deep breath and soaked it all in! The sun piercing the grey clouds in small rays, the smell of salt in the air, it was perfect. 

Kaikoura Mountains from the boat

Within minutes, Cape Petrel appeared. These black and white beauties roam all the oceans of the southern hemisphere, and would be our constant companions on this trip.  While still trying to process these new birds, it happened. Looking behind the boat, there it was. With a fourteen foot wingspan and a penchant for frozen fish liver, it was on to us like a Texan at a steak buffet. The Wandering Albatross. Well technically it's a Gibson's Albatross, Wandering having been split into four separate species. Nevertheless, there it was in all its glory. Honestly it took my breath away. When you're younger, and reading about birds from far off places, you picture them in your head, never fully believing you'll actually see them. Yet somehow, there it was and there I was. Hopefully the pictures below will capture some of its character as it's hard to describe in words. Elegant, curious, and hauntingly beautiful come to mind.  

Gibson's Albatross

Gibson's Albatross
Gibson's Albatross
Cape Petrel

Cape Petrel on the water

As the trip progressed, the action kept shooting upward. Buller's Shearwater, Hutton's Shearwater... then Salvin's Albatross! White-capped Albatross! Black-browed Albatross! Southern Royal Albatross! Buller's Albatross! For those who bird with me and know my sayings this was a 'Holy Shit' moment. And it continued, White-chinned Petrel, Westland Petrel, Northern Giant Petrel and Flesh-footed Shearwater.

Northern Giant-Petrel

Buller's Shearwater
Salvin's Albatross

White-chinned Petrel

As we stopped and dropped a chunk of frozen liver over board we were treated to close ups of the birds, shuffling, fighting, sitting and simply being awesome.

Shuffling and fighting
Our friends following the boat

Huge wingspan

At the center of it all was the Wandering (Gibson's) Albatross. One in particular stole the show. A female, banded on the Chatham Islands 800 km away, was as interested in us as we were her. Staring up at us with those eyes I could not help but be moved beyond words. I felt connected to her like I never knew I could.

This is incredible, is it real? I later got the story on this particular bird which made things feel even more special. A year ago, they had found her in the water struggling. She was entwined in fishing line and exhausted. Springing into action they grabbed her and went to work. Working away, they freed her and off she went. Now she plys the ocean on those giant wings, soaring effortlessly, a captain of her domain.

So beautiful
She's curious about us

Captain of her domain!
With the trip coming to an end, and the choppy waters taking their told on even the most sea-worthy of us, we headed toward shore. The birds had stayed with us most of the ride but stopped at the unseen barrier of the continental shelf as we headed back. 
Chasing after the boat
Stopped at the continental shelf

When will I have this experience again I thought. As always, I turned to my companions and stated, "I'm doing this again next time I'm back!"

Continuing with the excitement and not to be outshone by the birds, in the near shore waters, Hector's Dolphin, one of the rarest caetacens in the world, checked out our boat. These tiny dolphins with their little round fins capped off an boat ride I won't soon forget.

Once safely on land, and enjoying a cup of hot chocolate at the cafe, we tried to digest the spectacle we had witnessed. Most people are lucky to even see one or two albatross their whole life. We had been treated to six different species alone!

I'm not sure when it dawned on me that I now had a favorite bird. That somewhere, deep inside, I had been profoundly moved by these creatures. Nevertheless it happened. My favorite bird is the Wandering Albatross!


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