Birding Adventure II: Penguins!

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An unusual but very legitimate road sign in Omaru, NZ

We had originally planned to visit Fiordland, Mt Aspiring, and continue up the west coast of the South Island.  This itinerary would miss the east coast almost entirely, but after our big trip to Stewart Island we had somewhat limited time. However, after getting a little touristed-out in Queenstown and Wanaka we found a brochure for the Vanished World Centre in Duntroon and decided to change our itinerary.  Duntroon, as you may or may not know, is a very small town with limited accommodation options. Upon advice from the hotel owner in Wanaka, we decided to stay in Omaru.  All of these last minute decisions brought us to one of the best experiences of our entire six week stint in New Zealand.

First of all, Omaru is a lovely town with a variety of tasty restaurants and a quaint Victorian Precinct that reminded both of us of Colonial Williamsburg in the states. Upon arrival, Lauren set Joey up for a nap in the hotel room while Simon visited the front desk.  He came back and enthusiastically laid out the plan – our one night in Omaru was to be spent penguin viewing.

Penguin Watch! Waiting for the yellow-eyed penguins to land on the beach near Omaru
Penguin Watch! Waiting for the yellow-eyed penguins to land on the beach near Omaru

Penguins are well known as inhabitants of Antarctica. However, different species of penguins range as far north as the equator.   There are 17 total species of penguin, of which six live and breed in New Zealand. All penguins are flightless and spend their days hunting in the ocean for krill and fish. They can rest at sea, but most spend the night on land. During nesting season, pairs of penguins build nests in holes in sea cliffs along the beach.  After the chicks hatch, the parents spend many more weeks caring for the baby penguins, hunting during the day and returning in the evening to provide them with food.  Since the penguins only nest at certain beaches, it is possible to witness their return from sea in the evening if you have the patience to sit and wait.

The yellow-eyed penguin landing beach
The yellow-eyed penguin landing beach with one yellow-eyed penguin heading home for the night.

We first set out to search for the extremely rare yellow-eyed penguin. There are less than 500 mating pairs of these birds left in the world, and Omaru is the furthest north that they travel.  We gathered along the top of the cliffs at the yellow-eyed penguin viewing area along with about 100 other excited people with binoculours and cameras. We waited patiently, and had many false alarms from sea lions playing in the kelp.  Finally, an excited murmur ran through the crowd.

Yellow-eyed penguins below at full zoom from the viewing area. After their day-long hunt and battle with the sea and surf, they then must climb up the nearly sheer cliff to their chicks waiting in the nests.
Yellow-eyed penguins below at full zoom from the viewing area. After their day-long hunt and battle with the sea and surf, they then must climb up the nearly sheer cliff to their chicks waiting in the nests.

At the far end of the beach, a penguin was waddling up the beach towards the bush!  It was difficult to see even with our 300mm telephoto lens, but so thrilling to spot one of these rare birds. Thankful that our 5 month old was content to eat and sleep in the ergo front pack, we waited around as dusk approached and saw a total of nine yellow-eyed penguins make the journey from sea to land.  They would be unceremoniously be deposited on the sand by waves, and then make their way up the beach well clear of the surf.  At this point they stopped and preened their feathers, cooling off after burning so many calories swimming and landing on the beach.  They then continued up to the edge of the bush, where you could just make out the tiny sounds of the chicks calling for their parents.  Some penguins continued straight on up to their nests, while others stopped and waited awhile. They gathered in small groups of two or three, perhaps their only social opportunity of the day.

Although photography was strictly prohibited within the designated penguin viewing areas, several stray little blues could be found around the parking lot as we headed home.
Although photography was strictly prohibited within the designated penguin viewing areas, several stray little blues could be found around the parking lot as we headed home.

After enjoying the yellow-eyed penguins, we continued along to the Omaru Penguin Center, which hosts over a hundred nesting boxes for the much more common little blue penguin.  We paid the entry fee and were told many times of the strict no photography rule. We were led to a set of bleachers, from which we again waited while staff periodically shared facts about the penguins and reminded guests that there was no photography. (Flashes confuse the penguins and make it hard for them to see, but we weren’t really clear on why photography without a flash would be a problem). Here instead of arriving one at a time, penguins arrived in ‘rafts’ of up to 25 birds.  They landed a little more neatly and clambered up the rocks towards the tunnel that led to their artificial nesting area. Although we were much closer to the penguins and there were many more of them, somehow this experience didn’t quite compare with seeing the yellow-eyed penguins from afar on an untamed beach.

South of the South Island

South of New Zealand’s South Island is the third largest, Stewart Island. It is off the beaten path because reaching the only town of Oban requires either a really expensive, bumpy flight on a small plane or an expensive, bumpy ferry ride across a rough expanse of sea.  The stars aligned for us a to spend a week there on our most recent visit to New Zealand, and it was well worth the extra effort to get there.

We had three goals on Stewart Island. 1- see live, wild crinoids; 2- take Joey on his first overnight tramping experience; and 3- see live, wild kiwi (birds).

1- Crinoids. Also known as sea lilies, these ancient creatures are of particular interest to Lauren because of their prevalence in the Paleozoic fossil record. They appear in the Ordovician, and show up in marine limestones from then onwards.  As fossils generally only the circular disks of the stem are preserved. These were a common feature in the rocks that Lauren explored on her geology field school in Newfoundland back in the day. Although we’ve been snorkeling and diving in many places, we’ve never seen live crinoids before. Lauren was audibly excited to discover immediately upon disembarking from the ferry that crinoids could be readily viewed in Stewart Island’s clear waters attached to rocks and pilings in the shallows. She didn’t even need a dive mask or to brave the 14 degree C water! This was the easiest by far of the three goals to tick off of our list.

2- Joey’s first tramping trip. See this post for more details, but in short this was the first time we combined hiking and camping with Joey and he loved it! We have always gone on at least one backpacking trip when we visited NZ and decided to continue the tradition with the babs on board.  We walked the Rakiura Track great walk which makes a small loop along the coast and through the jungle of the northwest corner of Stewart Island.  We could hear kiwis in the late night/early morning from our tent, but we didn’t see any.  Simon particularly enjoyed staying at the Port William hut, where he collected cockles and mussels from the intertidal for breakfast.

3- We had heard from various sources to be sure to make a side trip to Ulva Island from Stewart Island. Ulva is a predator-free, uninhabited (by people) island just a five minute boat ride from Oban.  Upon arriving at very low tide, we were excited to see more crinoids growing on the rocks and pier. Walking around was truly delightful because we were constantly serenaded by birds! We became excited when we spotted some small, brown birds picking at bugs on the beach! They turned out to be weka, which are quite a treat to see, but not the same as the elusive kiwi. As we quietly wandered along a path through the bush (Joey was napping on the ergo carrier), we heard a rustle in the leaves. Lauren stopped and pointed towards the sound and Simon pulled out the camera – it was a kiwi! In the daytime no less, which is extraordinary for these rare, nocturnal birds.

Overall we had an amazing week on Stewart Island. The seafood was outstanding, the people interesting, and the birds fantastic.  While the ferry ride to Stewart Island pushed the limit of the sea legs of even our hardiest soul (Joey), the ferry ride back to the mainland was extremely pleasant.  We were regularly surprised at how much we could enjoy an adventure trip with no scuba diving whatsoever.

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Stewart Island Kiwi!
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Joey checks out a weka on one of Ulva Island’s deserted beaches
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The native bird population on Ulva Island is quite fearless
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Lunch break on the Rakiura Track
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Sunset views from a side walk off of Port William Hut, Rakiura Track
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In Oban, we ate copious amounts of delicious fresh seafood at the South Seas Hotel Restaurant

Can You Go Backpacking With a Baby? Definitely.

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Smiles made the heavy packs and long days of walking just a few miles well worth it

*(Excuse us for stating the obvious to those of you saying ‘duh…’. We got a lot of surprising responses and questions about taking Joey on the trail so thought we’d blog about it!)

We are in New Zealand visiting family and friends, and just got back from an amazing couple of weeks on the scenic South Island.  Usually when we visit NZ we go on a dive trip, but that wasn’t logistically possible with a five month old poo machine who requires constant attention.  We thought quite a bit about other adventures we could take on that would include Joey, and settled on a tour of the South Island including two of New Zealand’s Great Walks.  This is the easiest sort of backpacking (tramping, for the kiwis).   The walking trails are well maintained, often paved in gravel with well cut out steps in steep locations.  Campsites include shelters with a freshwater sink and a composting toilet (long drop), or you have the option to stay at a Department of Conservation (DOC) hut with bunks eliminating the need for tents and sleeping mats!

IMG_5099The biggest chunk of our trip was spent even further south on Stewart Island. Sparsely populated, with just one small town, and an abundance of birds rarely seen on ‘mainland’ NZ, this lesser known gem is well worth the traveling effort!  (More about the birds in a later post!) It took two flights from Auckland (to Christchurch then Invercargill) and a ferry ride to get there.  We did the full Rakiura Track loop over the course of four days with Joey in tow, along with all of our camping gear and his extra accessories.  Afterwards we splashed out on a night in a hotel in the town (Oban), and took a water taxi to nearby Ulva Island which is predator-free and has even more birds.

We weren’t sure how this would all pan out.  We did some practice camping in San Diego, which went off very well, but that was already two months ago- nearly 1/3 of Joey’s life!  Would he still like sleeping in the tent?  We knew he loved going for walks in his carrier, but would he love it for 8 hours a day?  With a little bit of patience and pre-planning, the answer was a resounding yes.

IMG_4527We chose the two easiest of the great walks to take on with Joey.  The Rakiura Track on Stewart Island, and the Routeburn Track in Mount Aspiring National Park.  Both were fantastic, scenic, and featured wonderful wildlife.  We took on the Rakiura Track first and learned quite a lot by the time we entered the Routeburn.  Here’s the answers to some of our FAQs, and some pro tips we picked up along the way.

How do you carry the baby? – In an ergo baby front pack. Usually Lauren carried him, but Simon had him for one day on the Routeburn and for some short day trips also.  This was perfect because it didn’t interfere too much with a backpack, Joey was comfy, his weight was mainly on my hips, and it has an integrated sleep hood for nap times.  The only downside was that it got hot.  We countered that by dressing Joey exclusively in merino wool, which wicks moisture and kept his skin dry.

Joey's diaper covers and wool clothing drying on our tent during an overnight hiking trip
Joey’s diaper covers and wool clothing drying on our tent during an overnight hiking trip

What about the rest of your stuff? – The biggest thing we learned on the Rakiura was that we needed to make everything other than the baby as light as possible.  Gone were the days of bringing whole blocks of cheese and cans of tuna for lunch, instead we packed almost exclusively dry food.

What did you bring for the baby? – Joey had two daytime outfits in merino wool.  Whenever we stayed somewhere for more than one night, we washed everything of his and it was dry before we set out again.  He had a separate merino one-piece for night time as well as his normal fleece sleep sack and muslin swaddle blanket. We brought him food, bottles, sun hat, beanie, and lots of socks (also wool!). If it was cold at night we added an adult down vest as his sleeping bag. We used a kidco pop-up play tent as protection from bugs and sun, which was critical and worth its weight. The pad underneath doubled as Joey’s nighttime mattress.

How did you entertain the baby? – He loves being outside so was self entertained almost the entire time.  He did require stretching/play time in his pop-up tent or on one of our jackets every couple of hours.  We usually coupled this with a feeding and diaper change.

IMG_4476Diapers? – We use cloth diapers at home and on routine day trips out. For multi-day trips, we still used our cloth diaper covers (or shells) that could be hand washed and would dry quickly if needed. We had 5 of those, as well as compostable hybrid inserts that could be deposited in composting toilets.  For a longer trip, it would be easier to just bring the cloth inserts that dry quickly and wash them each night.

In general, we found that this was mostly about attitude.  Once we decided to do it, the challenge was just sorting out the logistics.  We always had an escape plan if Joey’s health or happiness were to be compromised.  Our goal wasn’t to walk particularly far or fast, but to enjoy time outside together as a family.  I’m trying my hardest to make this kid a water baby 🙂 but he loved being in the forest even more than swimming or the beach.  There will be more hikes in our near future!