May 23, 2014

Auckland Writers Festival 2014: "The Great Avian Chase" with Brent Stephenson

Guest post by Carol, Information Services, Central City Library.

Quite a large crowd assembled outside the doors of the Art Gallery, patiently waiting for opening time. From the buzz of conversation, most were going to attend this session. Snippets of conversation heard centred on their own experiences of bird photography or observation. Could we get any hints from this talk, perhaps?

Brent Stephenson epitomises someone whose hobby became their career. An enthusiastic birder and photographer from childhood, Brent regaled us with stories of his early experiences around Hawke’s Bay. He confesses he was inspired by Geoff Moon’s photography. Included in the commentary were some of his early photographs of birds taken with his mother’s small Kodak camera. “Some of these are not that great," he apologised, as he indicated a smudgy small dot in the middle of a light grey area of sky. “There’s the bird,” he added. Needless to say, his photography is now much better, and he was one of the first photographers in New Zealand to use digital cameras.

Brent has a full-time guiding, photography and birding career, and has done some work assisting the Department of Conservation. He also holds the current record for the most bird species found in New Zealand in a calendar year.

His main passion is seabirds, and he was involved in the recent rediscovery of the New Zealand Storm Petrel. He spent some time researching where the breeding area was, by catching and tagging them. How do you catch birds at sea? With a net gun, of course. It turns out they were breeding on Little Barrier Island, and their entry in Tennyson’s Extinct Birds of New Zealand has now been removed from the latest edition.

The New Zealand biogeographical region has lost 41% of its endemic species, most losses occurring since human habitation. New Zealand developed as a land almost mammal-free. Many of the ecological niches normally occupied by mammals have been filled by birds, reptiles or insects. Because of this, some birds have developed some quasi-mammalian characteristics eg the kiwi, with its coarse, almost hairy feathers, cat-like whiskers and, unusually for a bird, a sense of smell.

Sprinkled throughout the lecture were some gems of information:

  • You would probably not want to have met the Haast’s Eagle – now extinct, this was the primary predator of moa, before humans colonised NZ. It was the largest bird of prey to ever have lived, with talons the size of tiger’s claws, and was able to take prey probably up to 200kg in weight.
  • The little fantail that accompanies you on your walk through the bush is not just being friendly. It stays close by because your large body is disturbing insects and delivering up food.
  • The kea is one of the world’s most intelligent birds – also the bane of South Island car rental companies.
  • The Grey Duck (also known as the Pacific Black Duck) now seems to be extinct in NZ due to hybridisation with the numerous Mallard ducks. However, other birds of this species can be found elsewhere in the Pacific area.
Despite the losses, there have been many success stories : e.g. the Black Robin, Takahē, Kākāpō; the South Island kokako, thought extinct, may still be residing in small numbers near Reefton, as there have been recent sightings. We must celebrate the successes, yet still remember that New Zealand had a much richer biological diversity. We are all interconnected with the environment. Most of these birds have been lost since human habitation due to habitat change, competition and predation from introduced species.

A final word. If you do spot anything unusual, contact the Ornithological Society of New Zealand : They will be able to assist with identification. Did you know that over half of our native birds can be found in the Auckland region?

As I waited in the queue for the author-signing, I flipped through my copy of Birds of New Zealand.  It is extremely comprehensive, listing endemic, introduced, and occasional visiting species. There are notes on identification, behaviour, bird calls, distribution and conservation status. Brent’s photographs make up about 90% of the more than 1000 images in the book. It would be a somewhat weighty tome to carry with you on birding expeditions; however, the information is also available on an app.Visit for more about it.

And Brent’s advice for budding bird photographers? “Just keep practising, and have patience.” Thank you, Brent. It obviously worked for you.

Ditulis Oleh : Karen Craig // 23:39


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