Thursday, 15 September 2016

Visiting the Wildlife Capital of New Zealand - Dunedin

Dunedin lays claim to the title 'Wildlife Capital of New Zealand'. And while I'd like to think Wellington could compete for this title, I have to concede Dunedin has the edge on us. First, there's a concentration of rare native animals across a range of habitats, all within easy reach of the city.  And secondly, the ratio of people to wild animals is much lower here than in Auckland or Wellington. The landscape of hills and harbour dominate the tiny city. This gives Dunedin a sense of being all about the wildlife.

I started my early spring visit to the wildlife capital with a walk along remote Allan's Beach on the Otago Peninsula. At first it could have been any south facing beach in New Zealand on a spring day - a few human footprints in the wide expanse of sand, shrill oyster catchers, rocky headlands at either end. Then as we walked along, the large mounds in the sand came into focus, several pairs of New Zealand sea lions - mothers and pups were dotted along the beach slumbering in the spring sunshine.
New Zealand sea lion - whakahao

Most beach walking requires a turnaround and return journey, our turning point came when we met the estuary of Hooper's Inlet. Black swans bobbed on the silvery ripples, the sky had that soft southern glow.
Hooper's Inlet

Day two saw the sun come out and the bird song on the peninsula proved that the trapping programmes are successfully removing predators from the landscape.

On the third day,  I headed to Weller's Rock Wharf to take a trip on the Monarch Wildlife Cruise out to Taiaroa Head. Some photographers manage the pitching deck but not me, and especially not when it came to capturing the awesome albatross - toroa.
Taiaroa Head

The Otago Shag colony from a distance
Our captain gave an informative commentary about the wildlife we were seeing.
Otago Shags claiming their nests for the summer ahead

I was interested to hear that the Otago Shags - kawau nesting on these chimney pot style nests are now known to be a separate species from the Stewart Island Shag. And I was amused to have the DOC ranger pointed out as if he was one of the wildlife features of the Albatross colony (and indeed some worry that they are endangered species!).
New Zealand fur seal - kekeno

Curious young seals were exploring the rocks around the heads.
Volcanic rock, Royal Albatross, Spotted Shags - kawau make for a dramatic scene 

A Southern Royal Albatross skimmed the waves, then glided over the boat, then we saw a Buller's Mollymawk, as well as some of the famous Northern Royals coming in to land on the heads. The stormy weather arrived and we returned to the safety of the harbour.

Sadly the wet and stormy weather continued. So on Day 4 my visit to Orokonui Ecosanctuary was in wet conditions. I'm used to thinking of Dunedin's wildlife being concentrated on the Otago Peninsula so it came as some surprise to be travelling to the Port Chalmers side of the harbour and driving up a windy road into the clouds. Being a cloud forest sanctuary there is something to be said for a rainy day visit, being perhaps the perfect conditions. The Orokonui Ecosanctuary is a fenced sanctuary, similar to Zealandia. On our visit we saw Takahe,  Bellbird - Korimako, Tui, Robin - Toutouwai, Brown creeper - Pipipi.

The Takahe were out and about, their feathers ruffling in the wind.

Under the canopy, the Korimako (Bellbirds) were the most numerous I have ever seen.Listen to them at this feeder, while the video doesn't capture the quantity of birds, it certainly captures their song.

This sound that would have greeted the first people to arrive on these islands before the rats took hold.

My final day of exploration was done indoors. I visited the superb Otago Museum, it's 'old style' wildlife exhibits being some of the most informative I've seen in New Zealand.  I'm a big fan of detailed diorama's (as you can probably tell from the cross-section diagrams in my books), to me they convey the complexity of ecosystems in the way that flashy new style displays sometimes miss. Don't get me wrong the museum has up-to-date features too, I enjoyed a visit to the new planetarium, although I'd advise not to go straight after lunch if darkness might make you want to have a nap!

A few days in Dunedin and I felt like I was only scratching the surface of the possibilities. The little penguins and yellow-eyed penguins I'll have to visit another time. Also a visit to the local wetlands to see fern birds and bitterns would be on my list for a future visit. Of course there are some events one just can't plan for and would be down to good luck and timing, if I'd arrived a few days earlier I might have seen (but not touched) the Southern Right Whale that came to the harbour, or perhaps a leopard seal, the list goes on. There's always next time.

Further information about Dunedin Wildlife 
Royal Albatross Centre
Monarch Wildlife Cruises
Orokonui Ecosanctuary
Otago Peninsula wildlife
Otago Peninsula Biodiversity Group
Otago Museum

General information about New Zealand Wildlife
NZ Birds Online
Department of Conservation Marine Mammals