BirdSpeak: Warwick Allen
Warwick Allen is a birder from New Zealand, currently embarking on a New Zealand Big Year!
WELCOME TO BIRDSPEAK, INTERVIEWS WITH BIRDERS...
BIG DIP BIRDING: Welcome Warwick Allen to BirdSpeak! Let’s get right into it! What can you tell us about Warwick Allen and his birding career?
Warwick Allen: Hi James and the Big Dip Community, thanks for having me! My interest in birds was first sparked through working with little blue penguins at Flea Bay on Banks Peninsula, but I first got into birding as a hobby around four years ago, when I was studying over in Louisiana. My graduate advisor had been birding in every state of the US, which I thought sounded a bit nerdy, but he invited me on a trip to the spring migration in the Rio Grande Valley of south Texas and I happily agreed to come along. We saw 170 species in just four days and visited some amazing birding hotspots which are rated as some of the best in the US. A couple of the State Parks we checked out near the border are now sadly threatened with closure, so that they can be replaced by a wall (Audubon article) – hopefully that doesn’t happen. The sheer diversity in colour, habitat, and life history of the birds I saw on those trips was staggering, and the passion of the birders I met was inspiring and infectious. Since then, I take a pair of binoculars nearly everywhere I go.
When I’m not birding, I’m a post-doctoral researcher in ecology at Lincoln University and enjoy playing sports, hanging out with my friends, and exploring new places.
BIG DIP BIRDING: Now the reason we’re chatting today is that you are undertaking a Big Year in New Zealand. Can you tell us about that?
Warwick Allen: I decided to do my first ever Big Year late in 2018, after I’d organised a month off in March to explore the North Island and attempt to track down several potential lifers. I decided to expand upon this trip and use my weekends and time off to explore all around NZ, simultaneously chasing as many different birds as possible. I’ve also recently bought a new camera, so thought I’d document my NZ Big Year on Instagram for anyone to follow. My goal is to introduce people to the bird species found in NZ and bring awareness to the major challenges our native species face (like introduced predators, habitat loss, disturbance), while improving my photography and science communication skills at the same time!
BIG DIP BIRDING: Is there much of a history of Big Year’s in New Zealand? Any past records you’re trying to conquer?
I’m not trying to conquer any records, but my personal goal is 200 species, which will be very tough! It’ll require significant effort to pick up plenty of rare migrants and natives, a few lucky pelagic trips, and a bit of persistence and travel to achieve. I’m currently at 101 species, with a few nice rarities under my belt. For those who may be interested in previous totals, Wrybill Tours keeps the best records I’ve seen for NZ.
BIG DIP BIRDING: Will you get to all of NZ’s offshore islands and territories?
I’ll visit some very precious predator-free island sanctuaries (Ulva, Bluemine, Tiritiri Matangi, Motutapu), but I unfortunately don’t have any current plans to get to any of the more distant territories, mostly due to the significant cost associated with those trips. For this reason, many NZ birders keep separate mainland totals. I’ll undoubtedly make it to the Chathams, sub-Antarctic Islands, and Kermadecs one day, and I do have some time towards the end of the year where I’d happily volunteer to help any visiting researchers – so if anyone needs a field assistant, I’m more than willing to put my hand up!
BIG DIP BIRDING: Any highlight experiences so far?
I spent 10 days on Stewart Island in the far south of NZ with my girlfriend and friend to kick off the new year. The birdlife there is out of this world and it’s truly impossible to sleep through the dawn chorus! The predator-free sanctuary of Ulva Island is amazing and an easy place to get good views of rare mohua (yellowhead), inquisitive tīeke (South Island saddleback), the beautiful kākāriki (red-crowned and yellow-crowned parakeets), cheeky kaka, and a range of other native forest birds. We also had a fantastic pelagic trip right after a big storm, which produced many albatross and multiple lifers, including korure (mottled petrel), Cook’s petrel, grey-backed storm petrel, and tītī wainui (fairy prion).
It’s also been an excellent season in local birding spots around my home of Christchurch. The Ashley Estuary has turned up a grey-tailed tattler and sanderling, while a Hudsonian godwit, curlew sandpiper, and a flock of five pectoral sandpipers have been around Lake Ellesmere recently. A pair of gull-billed terns have also been spotted there on occasion, but I’m still trying to catch up with them.
BIG DIP BIRDING: Do you have any advice for people consider Big Years?
This is my first big year, so I think I have plenty more to learn than advice to give. I’d say to just go for it and enjoy the experience - who could ever regret the special memories made while attempting to see as many amazing species of bird as possible?
BIG DIP BIRDING: Would you recommend Big Years to other birders?
I suppose that depends on each person and why they enjoy birding. For me, this Big Year is an exciting opportunity to explore all over NZ; the birding is an additional challenge that takes me away from the usual tourist locations and helps me learn more about the wildlife and ecology of the area that I’m visiting.
BIG DIP BIRDING: This is the first time we’ve interviewed a Kiwi on Big Dip Birding. Can you tell our readers a little bit about what makes birding in New Zealand so special?
I’m honoured to be a ‘lifer’ for Big Dip Birding interviewees! Without question, it’s the uniqueness of New Zealand’s native fauna that makes birding here so special. There are three endemic families (kiwis, NZ wattlebirds, and NZ wrens) and many critically endangered and spectacular species, such as kakī (black stilt), kakaruia (black robin), tarāpuka (black-billed gull), kākāriki karaka (orange-fronted parakeet), and tuturuatu (shore plover). Many of NZ’s birds also possess peculiar life history traits, such as a disproportionate rate of flightlessness (e.g., kakapo, the world’s only flightless parrot), gigantism (kakapo like to eat and are also the world’s heaviest parrot), nocturnality (kakapo again), and a preference for mating with reporter’s heads (you guessed it – kakapo!). However, this uniqueness comes with a cost, in that our native birds evolved these weird traits in the absence of mammalian predators (NZ’s only terrestrial mammals are three bat species, one of which is now sadly extinct). This historic lack of ground-based predators means that many of our native species are vulnerable to introduced predators such as rats, stoats, possums, and feral cats. As a result, 48% of our native birds are now of some conservation concern, with 32% of serious concern. Thankfully, many populations are showing signs of recovery thanks to the work of many wonderful conservation organisations and community members throughout NZ.
BIG DIP BIRDING: For those playing at home, how can we stay up to date with your Big Year?
Warwick Allen: You can follow my progress via @nzbigyear on Instagram, where I’ll be regularly posting photos of the bird species I see, their stories, and the beautiful and diverse locations I visit while birding around NZ.
BIG DIP BIRDING: At the end of 2019, what will be next for Warwick Allen? Any plans?
Warwick Allen: Adding new species in NZ becomes significantly more difficult after 200, so it might be time for a new challenge for 2020 – perhaps a visit to Australia?
BIG DIP BIRDING: Thanks for finding the time to sit down with us today Warwick! All the very best for 2019, and good luck on the Big Year! Let's check in again in a few months for an update!
PS. Don't forget to leave a comment!
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*All images provided by Warwick Allen