This is the third of a series documenting our photography trip in New Zealand in 2016.
From Te Anau, we drove east across the Southern Island to Dunedin (duNEEden), on the Eastern coast. The drive took us through some lovely valleys and farmland, and as we went the area seemed to get slightly more populated. The right side image is a shot we took from the side of the road en route. We also stopped several times along the way to shoot new birds that we saw while driving by. In particular we were looking out for a Southern Harrier, but even though we saw many along the way, we were never successful in capturing one up close. Every time we tried, either it would fly right by while we weren’t ready, or it wouldn’t come close when we were.
Royal Albatross Center:Dunedin is another pretty seaside town, but bigger and by the looks of it perhaps older than Queenstown, and with a thriving university scene. Our main reason for going there was the nearby Royal Albatross Center, a protected habitat of (as of 2016) 200 adult Royal Albatrosses and their nests. We had scheduled a visit that afternoon. April was still too early in the year for the chicks to start taking flight, so they had to be fed by their parents, who would individually fly out over the ocean for a few days to fish. Each time, they would bring food back to the chicks, who needed to grow almost twice their weight in order to develop into their long, powerful wings. The frequently returning adults made it an ideal time to see these majestic birds in flight.
There is one observation tower for tourists, overlooking a beautiful scene of the sea and cliffs below. Tour groups pay to reserve a limited period of time on the deck before a new group takes their place. I can’t recall the exact amount of time allowed for each group, but I remember feeling it was a sufficient amount of time with the birds, yet I left still wanting more. I am not sure how many chicks there were total in the area, but from our vantage there were three chicks in view, fluffy and ungainly, occasionally flapping and testing their wings while waiting for their afternoon meal. By this time of the year, their bodies were almost the size of their parents, though they still did not have the sleek feathers or grace of the adults. It is hard to tell in any of these photos, but these adult Royal Albatrosses had wingspans of over three meters, perhaps approaching eleven feet from wingtip to wingtip.When the adult albatrosses came in from the sea, they would be relatively low to the water. In order to get up the cliff to where the chicks were, they rode the thermals upward in long circles that passed right by the tower. We were lucky in that the activity was in full swing, and we saw at least five adults, each one giving us several opportunities to see it up close (and mostly below or at the same elevation as us, which is unusual), before it effortlessly swooped by at fairly high speeds. During the minutes between fly-bys, we enjoyed watching the chicks sitting on the grassy slopes below us.
As a wildlife experience, it was absolutely amazing. As a photography experience, it was tough. Going in the afternoon fortunately meant the sunlight was to our left and not in our faces. The cliffs were a bit shaded, but the sea below reflected sparkles of sunlight back up. Still, even though the day was bright, most of the view was dim enough to require ISOs of 1250-1600 to get the needed shutter speeds for the fly-bys (around 1000th to 1/1600th of a second), which meant the images had some noise, particularly noticeable in the birds’ white feathers. Later in post, I cropped, used Macphun’s Noiseless to clean them up a little, and used Intensify to bring out the feather detail of the birds, but all very sparingly as with all the obstacles to deal with, the images were not tack-sharp as it was.The deck itself had large window panes to look through, but they were a bit scratched and a little dirty, and the bars of the sills prevented uninterrupted tracking. I was at the back at the crowd, standing on a bench about a meter away from the windows and shooting over peoples’ heads, which was awkward but might have actually helped the camera ignore the windows. I had only split seconds to catch a bird as it flew into view to find it in the viewfinder and shoot it before it was gone again. It would have been a difficult challenge even with my Canon 7D Mk II, which I don’t bring on long trips. Instead, I had the E-M1 and the 300mm Pro (no teleconverter needed), which performed as well as I could have expected. When the bird was against the sea, the dynamic range was harsh, though I still did get a few decent images. When it was against the blue sky or the green grass the lighting was much dimmer. I couldn’t pick a wide focus point block, because half my shots were against a land or sea background that might have pulled the autofocus away from the bird. Because of that and the large size of the birds, I decided on either the center focus point or a small center cluster — but that required perfect panning, and the speed of the albatrosses’ close passes made smooth aiming the biggest challenge of all. A few times the image had focused on the background and not the bird, most likely either because I didn’t have the bird center frame, or the camera wasn’t able to focus fast enough during the split seconds when I did. I didn’t have many opportunities to get it right, and I oftentimes didn’t even manage to frame the bird before it was gone. Had my skill or luck been higher, I think the E-M1 could certainly had done its part. However, as I write this so many months later, the E-M1 Mk II C-AF+T’s superior speed and tracking across the frame would have enabled a much easier time of it. The red dot sight might also have helped. I would also advise that a zoom lens would make the task easier in this particular situation. Catching such a large, close-up and fast bird with only split seconds to manage is particularly challenging with a prime lens like the 300mm Pro. I couldn’t zoom out to help tracking or ensuring I had room to get all of the wings in frame. It is possible, though I am not sure, that I would have been better served with the Pan-Leica 100-400mm. While it would have allowed me to pan out, its slower aperture would mean I would have to push ISO even higher than I had. Catherine was using the 40-150mm Pro on the E-M5, and that lens seemed to have an easier time of it, and might have worked best of all with the teleconverter. If I were ever to go back, I probably would use that combo with the E-M1 Mk II and red dot sight.
All this said, it was challenging but certainly not impossible. The birds were so close and the scenery so gorgeous that even through the windows a beautiful photograph was obtainable. I ended up getting several passable images of albatrosses in flight while inside the observatory, the best of which (but still not quite tack sharp) I used as the title picture. When our time was up I was reluctant to leave because I still didn’t think I had managed to get the best possible shot that I could, but I nevertheless had a fantastic time and highly recommend it.After our time on the observation deck was done, we spent about an hour on the cliff overlooks outside of the building to photograph cormorants, gulls, pigeons, and a colony of what were either seals or sea lions (too far away to tell) along the rocks. We even got a few more decent shots of albatrosses at a distance before they seemed to be done for the day. The previous experience aside, this was perhaps the first time I got to really take some time with the 300mm Pro and get a feel for how it helped the E-M1 with bird-in-flight photography. I had the leisure to try different settings and found that, when using all focus points, the camera’s C-AF can capture sharp images of birds against an empty blue sky all day long. However, when shooting down with the cliffs as background, using S-AF and a small focus point still worked better. In these kinds of environments, having presets for both situations would allow me to quickly switch back and forth as needed. I also truly marveled at how sharp the synch image stabilized 300mm Pro images could be even hand-held at such long distances. Catherine also leaned way out over the high cliffs to get some great pictures of cormorants perched in the shadows of the cliff wall. We practiced and shot until my battery died. There is another attraction at the center that only occurs in the evenings: a colony of Little Blue Penguins returning from their day’s fishing. It was not for a few more hours, however, and we wanted to head back before dark, so we opted not to book that tour. The reason we wanted to beat the sunset was because the road to the center was a bit interesting in its own right. It winded and curved with the shoreline, with slopes on one side and water on the other. A beautiful archipelago (if that is the right word) of small islands dotted the bay. Catherine was driving, and the curvy route along sheer cliffs felt more than a little hazardous, and I was still shooting (using another battery), so neither of us wanted to do our parts in the dark. Shore birds were everywhere, and on the way back we stopped several times to photograph them. There were large groups of gulls, cranes, plovers, oystercatchers and even spoonbills (which was the first time we had captured in the wild).
That night, I took notes for this blog — which was a good thing because I am writing this eight months later. I also took stock of my gear. We were only a third into the trip, but I was about halfway done with memory card space. I had been doing too much exposure or art filter bracketing for landscapes and too many burst shots for wildlife. Just going off of the LCD screen, I deleted what I thought was useless, and wondered if I would eventually need to buy another memory card in one of the bigger towns — an expensive proposition in New Zealand.
The next day we started driving north. We were to spend the night in Christchurch, which was going to take us most of the day to reach, but we had several stops planned along the way. The first, up in the mountains just north of Dunedin, was the Orokonui Ecosanctuary — easily one of the major photography highlights of the trip. Another beautiful day, me with the 300mm Pro and Catherine with the 40-150mm Pro, we spent all morning walking the trails of this massive park. Much of the sanctuary is heavily wooded, and a great many types of local birds live there, including several types of flightless birds. Shooting the birds flitting through the dark foliage required high ISOs, and shooting with S-AF+MF helped in dealing with the small branches often in the way. In such conditions there weren’t many opportunities for shooting birds in flight, so we didn’t set our cameras to do so.The park hosts perhaps dozens of varieties of wild birds according to the information center, but we didn’t see even close to everything the park had to offer. Nevertheless, just the few hours that morning alone, we probably saw eight to ten bird species we had never seen before, and were able to get nice shots of almost all of them. The park has several feeding stations at various points, and these were by far the most interesting centers of activity. One of the more common birds we were able to photograph up close was the Tui, a medium sized black bird with purples, blues and greens on its belly and two white balls of feather under its chin. The Tuis were behaving aggressively at the feeding stations, and bullying each other as well as the other birds, and it was entertaining to watch their antics. The image of the Tui I have shown above was intentionally overexposed to bring out the brilliance of its feathers. We also photographed little Tomtits, New Zealand Bellbirds, and Common Chaffinchs. While they are wild, many of the birds frequenting or staying in the area have been tagged with ankle bands. It’s worth mentioning the righthand image of the Tomtit perched on the thorny plant. While the Tomtit is cute enough, the plant is even more interesting. We learned about it earlier in our trip (here), from our tour guide in the Milford Sound. The plant, New Zealand Lancewood, has a completely different look between the juvenile and adult stages of its life. When it is still small and vulnerable to herbivores, its protective, downward-facing, long toothy leaves and scaly trunk make it look more like some sort of tough cactus (I’m fairly ignorant of botany). Fully grown, when it is too tall for its leaves to be easily eaten, it softens up and shape shifts to look just like a regular tree. The theory is that a large flightless bird that is now extinct, the Moa, might have fed on the leaves, prompting the Lancewood’s curious evolution to protect itself from being devoured. This theory seems to be supported by the fact that once it is taller than a typical Moa could reach, it began its transformation. This particular specimen looked a little more spindly and sparse than the fuller ones we saw in the lush Milford Sound area. Perhaps the most memorable moment was when a Kaka, a relative of the Kea parrot I photographed in Milford Sound, flew right to us and alighted on a tree branch, just a few meters in front of us, and let us photograph him as much as we wanted. These birds are supposed to be shy compared to Keas, but this one clearly wasn’t. The Kaka has a lot more red it its plumage, compared to the green and grey of the Kea. The other highlight was tracking down some of the park’s rare flightless birds. The flightless birds in the park were, counter-intuitively perhaps, harder to find, as they tended to hide in the deep underbrush. After a lot of searching and asking a ranger for advice, we were able to find and photograph a pair of painted and awkward-looking flightless birds called Takahe wandering down the trail in the open. There were also Kiwis in the park, but they are nocturnal creatures, and we never spotted one. Many of the bird images we took that day were already shared during my review of the 300mm Pro lens in an earlier post, Olympus Bird Photography: Part SIx — Birding Lenses for Micro Four-Thirds, including different images of a Tomtit, Tui, and Bellbird. I chose to re-use a couple of images from that post here as well, including the title picture of the albatross and one of the images of the Kaka, because these versions are brighter thanks to an update to Apple Photos editing software. As always, you can also see even more images of all of these birds, and all of the other places we visited, on our Flickr page.
Shag Point and the Moeraki Boulders:
After spending the bulk of the morning at the park, the next stop we made was an hour or two further north. We paused for perhaps 30 minutes at Shag Point, and just had a short walk to a sandy overlook atop a rocky cliff shore. There is a nature reserve in the area with fur seal and yellow-eyed penguin colonies. I believe the area is also popular for hiking. We were able to photograph a couple of sea lions sunning on the rocks by the shore below. Apparently, sea lions can be told apart from seals because of their visible ear flaps, which these guys had (though they aren’t visible in the picture). While Catherine shot the above close-up image with the 300mm Pro, I took the opportunity to use the 12-40mm Pro, RRS tripod and Lee filters to shoot some long exposure of the surf, with the sleepy sea lion in the scene, of course.The final stop of the day was at an iconic photography site called the Moeraki Boulders, where we ate a late lunch and took some images of the interesting rock formations on the beach. The boulders were perfectly round, some about two meters in diameter, sitting in the shallows of the beach. The place was crowded, and I had to wait for opportunities between throngs of tourists climbing all over the rocks to get their pictures taken, or just sitting there…to my annoyance. The larger cluster of rocks never cleared of crowds, so I set up off to a side with fewer boulders, in a composition I thought looked pleasing. The lighting was sunny mid-afternoon, with no dramatic sunrise to take advantage of. That nevertheless put the light fortuitously behind me, and despite the crowds I got a few long and short exposures I was happy with. As with most of the shots that sunny day, the image below was only lightly edited later on, and I used Macphun Snapheal to remove some small but distracting natural elements on the left edge of the frame. On the way back to the car, we photographed more birds, including a White-Faced Heron and another one or two New Zealand Fantails. Like the Fantail at Mirror Lakes a few days ago, these were elusive in their wild and swift flight patterns, but I did get an image of one perched on a log. It was well past dark by the time we reached Christchurch, and we were exhausted. I honestly can’t say anything about the town, because we saw almost nothing of it. We only went out to pick up dinner to go from a nice Japanese restaurant near our hotel, and early the next morning we drove to the local airport, said goodbye to our rented bright pink Yaris, and took a short plane ride for the next leg of our journey, beginning in Wellington on the southern tip of the North Island. I will pick up the story again in my next post, starting after we had left Wellington and headed into the center of North Island.
The reason I am skipping over a few days is because we hadn’t planned out our timetable well for this leg of the journey. As a result, it was mostly spent traveling to places without having the time to do anything before it was time to move on again. It was an unfortunate and frustrating mistake in our preparation, though to be fair we hadn’t had a lot of time to research and plan for this trip, and it was easy to want to see and do as much as possible in such an amazing country. When we go back to New Zealand, we will revisit many of the places we weren’t able to enjoy the first time. The story of trip does pick up again, however, as the last several days in North Island had enough interesting points to share in the final two blog posts of this series.