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Around the World in 27 days - wildlife photography

A holiday of a lifetime - some wildlife highlights ...


Grey Whale heads south



The best laid plans for a lifetime bucket list trip around the world, were left in tatters when our booked and paid for dates in 2021, were hit with a global pandemic and the subsequently impenetrable international borders.


Refunds received and pandemics endured, we set about re-booking our trip.


With son Joe and his girlfriend Kate having moved to live and work in Los Angeles, it made sense to set off this time in a westerly direction, for a few final winter northern hemisphere nights, before heading south.


Of course, winter in LA is an entirely different proposition to the wet and cold fare on offer a British January. Staying with Joe and Kate in their amazing Marina del Rey apartment, allowed for warm walks along the beach, al fresco t-shirted brunches and further outdoor Dinners, albeit with a fleece required once the suns warmth had disappeared below the horizon.


It was from one of those lovely walks along the beach (Dougie the Dog leading the way) ...



.... that we got perhaps our most spectacular (but not the closest) views of Dolphins.


We tracked a pod heading up the shore towards Venice Beach, playing in the gentle swell and surf as they went; sometimes completely breaching before landing with a theatrical splash amongst their family.





Whilst not quite spring (even in LA!) the local birdlife put up a decent show alongside their mammalian neighbours, the distinctive Pelicans enjoying a quick surf too.




Shorebirds were great to see both along the entrance waterway to the huge Marina and also where the waves lapped, exhausted with their efforts, on the sandy Pacific coast.


Willet, Black-necked Grebe, Grey Plover, Sanderling and Marbled Godwit (below).



Surf Scoter group gather for a gossip, just beyond the breakers



Behind the shoreline sits a network of inland waterways known as the Venice Canals, a great place to walk and talk and watch the wildlife that lives there, going about it's business.


Great White Egret and Little Egret, American Widgeon and a Bufflehead running take-off on Venice Canals



We visited LA in the Grey Whale migration season - the pic at the top of this Blog, being the best shot from a fun Whale Watching trip from Long Beach, LA.


The sun may have set on the LA leg ....




.... but it was time to head South for the winter, er .... make that summer!


A long flight to Auckland and a short hop further south to Queenstown and 'suddenly' the dawn was breaking on a warm summer morning.



Queenstown made a great base to start our exploration of the south of South Island. The hotel was a lovely 45 minute lake-side walk into Queenstown itself. Wildlife camera more often than not stowed in a backpack in a perpetual state of just-in-case', our iPhones bore the brunt of the holiday snaps and landscape view capture.


New Zealand is a uniquely remote collection of islands where its multiple millennia long separation from other major landmasses, meant that the faunal diversity thrived without the dominating presence of mammals.


As a consequence, the avian, reptilian and other lifeforms developed in a comparatively long-lived, mammalian predator free, bucolic garden of eden.


The endemic wildlife filled the mammalian evolutionary hole with huge flightless birds (the Moa), flightless alpine parrots, the charismatic Kiwi bird, tiny Penguins and all manner of specialists exploiting the undisturbed eco-system.


What this peaceful place was not prepared for was the arrival of two waves of a particularly challenging mammal - homo sapiens. First arriving from Polynesia were a people who were to become the Maori nation and then with an even more devastating impact, were Europeans on ships a few centuries later.


Whilst it's believed that the human population had a material hand in many endemic species extinctions, it was the other mammals who either hitched a ride with us, or were introduced deliberately by us, that have had a more devastating (and harder to reverse) effect.


We were struck by how ... empty ... we found New Zealand on our drives through both South and North Islands. It was only at the ocean shoreline and out at sea, that you could feel the weight of life other than human, (millions of Sheep not withstanding!)


Whilst often looking like a supercharged version of a UK landscape, the skies were almost empty of the raptor numbers you could expect on Europe, with the notable exception of the Swamp Harrier (Kahu) that managed to evade my frequent roadside stops and efforts to get any kind of picture successfully, the whole time we were there!


Walks along the lake shoreline and for that matter, almost everywhere else too, were punctuated with traps intended to capture the Rats, Stoats and Hedgehogs introduced by man and devastating the endemic population, of almost everything!


Shoreline walk to Queenstown



Nonetheless .... it was possible to still get views of endemic species, ears pricked by a strange unrecognised alien call; the Tui being a great example, just underneath our Hotel gardens.



This honeyeater, in iridescent blue green and bronze plumage and characteristic white throat tuft (or 'poi'), could be found everywhere where the flora reflected how New Zealand used to be and also in places where it didn't!



It was possible to catch sight of more common birds on our walks around Queenstown too.


The Silvereye (Tauhou) below, was a constant companion more or less.



Finding the rare endemic species in the wild, was not the focus of this holiday really. How convenient that a rainy morning 'what can we do' activity led to a fun couple of hours in the Kiwi bird sanctuary, located under the gondolas soaring up to the mountain tops above Queensland.


Kea, Red Crowned Parakeet and Pukeko (all endemic, all captive, all endangered)



Perhaps the only serious disappointment of the whole holiday, was the weather driven cancellation of a flight/boat trip to Milford Sound. Always vulnerable to the weather in one of the wettest places on earth, it shouldn't have really been a surprise when we got the call to say 'sorry, but we can't fly today ... or tomorrow ... or the day after etc', but it was still disappointing.


A quick chat with the concierge at the hotel and we were booked on a 'what else could we do today?' steamboat lake trip with the promise of a cracking barbecue thrown in.


It's funny how the last minute spur of the moment activities can turn out to be real belters!


Beautiful weather, vintage vessel, incredible scenery, just absolutely stunning food in a beautiful setting. This is a wildlife blog and not a holiday story, so I'll spare you the holiday snaps, however we did get a view of the famous Puteketeke as we disembarked the steamboat before Dinner.


Some readers might recall a small social media 'storm' created by an British / American comedian John Oliver who hosts some kind of American TV show and who successfully championed this bird to be voted New Zealand's 'Bird of the Century'.


Looking remarkably like (exactly like in fact), the bird we know as a Great-crested Grebe here in the UK, this Australasian Crested Grebe achieved celebrity status around the world, or at least '5 minutes of fame'. With only an estimated c 3000 individuals in the whole of New Zealand, I guess we were lucky to get this view - the Puteketeke looking suitably lonely against the dramatic Southern Alps back-drop in this shot.



Time then to start our South Island road trip.


Anyone who has spent any time at all driving through the South Island landscape will know only too well how quickly the most used word each day is "wow", as you turn another corner to find yet another astonishing view.


Our next stop was the unbelievably beautiful Lake Pukaki, an astonishingly blue glacial lake at the foot of Mount Cook which yielded little in terms of wildlife, but lots of stunning views.


Views from our accommodation




Famous as a 'dark sky' location of global importance, we were too early in the year to see the Milky Way in all its glory, however a quick stab at some night sky photography yielded some kind of success.



A familiar sight flitted around the wild grounds of the accommodation - a Greenfinch



Just time for a quick holiday highlight?


How about a fixed wing small plane flight around the peaks around Mount Cook and then .... incredibly ... landing on the Tasman glacier, plane 'ski-turn' to stop on landing, included? What an experience!



Our road trip was headed for the east coast via an overnight stop in Christchurch.


We arrived in Kaikoura after a spectacular drive for what I hoped would be the wildlife highlight stop of the holiday. I was not to be disappointed!


Another incredible place to say overlooking the Tasman sea, all eco lodge luxury and great design and all within a 10 minute drive of one the worlds wildlife hot spots, due a deep ocean trench edging almost all the way to the shore.


We arrived just after lunch time and headed straight for a point which some pre-travel research had indicated was a good place to see the New Zealand Fur Seals, returning having been displaced in recent seismic disturbance that had raised to shoreline buy up to 7 metres.


Able to walk on what was previously sea-bed, we soon caught sight of the Fur Seal colony and, observing the distance guidelines carefully, got great close-up views.



My holiday Zoom lens makes the seals look much closer than we were, however it was still a thrill to watch the family groups including some very new youngsters! The white-rock illustrating the extent of the sea-level change due to the earthquake.





With this smashing afternoon under our belt, we were already looking forward to the next day's whale watching trip and hoping that the weather wouldn't interfere, we checked in to our trip grateful that the sunny morning was just a little windy, but acknowledging the warning that there was a high risk of seasickness.


Fortunately, both Sarah and I are really good sailors and as the boat host said as greeting, we were able to 'strap down our breakfast' and enjoy the trip out to the deep water trench, where we hoped to find the resident Sperm Whales.


Sperm Whale



(you can see the huge fluke, just under the water)



Success!


It might not have the same drama as a breaching Humpback off the Californian Pacific coast, but the huge Sperm Whale was still a sight to behold.


We had seen Albatross from the whale watching boat - a lifetime first for me - and I noticed that there was a small boat Albatross watching trip, available the following day.


It meant a 05:00 alarm and a pre-dawn drive into Kaikoura and launch out onto an even bigger swell than the previous day!


Grateful for my 'iron-stomach' (the other half a dozen people not quite so lucky !!), we sailed out into the Southern Ocean sunrise for what proved to be a truly magical few hours!





Albatrosses!


Oh my word, what a morning!


The boat sailed into the swell, finding the deep water trench, providing photo opportunities on the way (if you could stand on deck without falling in!), and then stopped to throw some chum into the water around the boat.


Albatrosses have followed fishing vessels for as long as there have been fishing vessels and benefit from the extra food available, by tracking the boats for the discard catch.


Soon we were surrounded by 5 different different species of Albatross!


It was challenging to get the shots, with a significant swell moving the horizon at crazy angles, but I managed to click away in the hope that I would be able to identify what I was seeing when the world was not throwing me around quite so much.



Incoming Salvin's Albatross




It's hard to convey just how massive these birds are when seen at close quarters.


They landed (often clumsily), alongside to small boat, the sounds they made, the interaction between them and the other species there was something to behold.




Northern Giant Petrel squabble




Southern Royal Albatross wing tip dip



There were Petrels and Shearwaters too ... Northern Giant Petrel, Westland Petrel, Buller's Shearwater, Cape Petrel - (all ID are a 'probably' from this non-expert!)



What an amazing end to the 'wildlife stop' on our road trip. A quick late breakfast back with Sarah and it was time to move on and head through the verdant green heart of South Island and into, one of the worlds greatest wine producing regions.


Staying in another super place near Blenheim, you'll be wholly unsurprised to learn that wildlife photography took a back seat to a dedicated focus on the acres of vineyards that surrounded us - say no more!


Two short flights, into and then out of Auckland took us to the far northern tip of North Island and to the aptly named, Bay of Islands.


Sub tropical, warm and humid when we arrived, we looked forward to a few relaxing days in the sun. Somehow however, we seem to have lost the knack of lounging around and ended up walking over 40 km in the 3 days we were there.


There were still sights to see everywhere we walked.


Sacred Kingfisher, Weka and Eastern Rosella



Perhaps the sighting of this leg was on (another!) boat trip out of Russell.


A pod of lively Bottlenose Dolphins did what Dolphins do, riding the wake and leaping out of the water, so close to us that Sarah got better shots with her iPhone than I did with my zoom lens, this one being my best effort.



A chance to snorkel off one of the more sheltered islands gave me an up close and personal view of a huge stingray as it cruised nonchalantly below this slightly startled but thrilled, British tourist.


Petrels and Shearwaters - Bay of Islands



Perhaps the best (and most tiring) day, was a ferry, then walk over to the Waitangi grounds followed by a 20km walk through beautiful woodland and Mangrove swamp to see a waterfall.



All of this on perhaps the hottest day of the holiday, we really earned our Dinner that day!


White-fronted Tern, Masked Lapwings, White-faced Heron, juvenile Pied Shags in the nest



There were more holiday highlights to come of course; 3 nights in Sydney and two in Singapore, full of friends, fabulous food and fun. But that's a story for a different day in a different place.


As for the wildlife around the world in 27 days? Well it may not have been at the centre of the holiday, but it as ever, the wild world added some amazing highlights to what was truly, a holiday of a lifetime.


The sun may have set on this trip, but the afterglow will remain with us both for the rest of our lives.




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Fantastic write up Andy, I enjoyed reading through this lifetime experience of yours, really lovely photos and an entertaining read that took me out of this cold English evening for half an hour,

Thanks mate

Craig

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