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Canterbury Bird Race

 Ranger team breaks the record for the “extreme sport” bird-racing 

What extreme sporting event involves a 24 hour, non-stop, 1340km marathon from the east coast to the west coast and back? Which sport starts in the seas off Kaikoura; charges through rivers, swamps and estuaries; does circuits around oxidation ponds; visits a haunted house inhabited by owls; climbs over mountain passes; up boulder-strewn cascades; through West Coast rainforest in the dead of night and alpine Beech forests in the mists of morning; then charges on a cannonball run across the plains; trudging through acres of mud on the shores of Lake Ellesmere and ends up in a valley on Banks Peninsula? Surely, there’s no more extreme a sport than a bird race?! – a competition a bit like orienteering except that the distances covered often exceed 1000 km and the controls are free-thinking, flying creatures that can be much, much harder to find than a white post with a red number painted on it. 

Our team going  by the name of “the far rangers” and comprising OSNZers and Christchurch City Council park rangers, Andrew Crossland and Phil Crutchley with CCC Regional Parks summer worker Brendon Kircher and Environment Canterbury park ranger and Irish ornithologist extraordinaire, Niall Mugan decided to go for the South Island (95 species) and New Zealand (100 species) records this year. The rules are basically to see as many wild bird species within a 24 hour period during the month of January and for at least two team members to see and satisfactorily identify each new bird.  

Going into it we had a fair idea of what was needed – we had planned a marathon 17 stop route through the central South Island which potentially could pick up 136 species and two of the members were veterans of winning bird race teams in Ireland and Singapore respectively. But, the sheer energy and concentration required, the lack of sleep, the ever-building time pressure towards the final hour, and the contingencies needed to make up for unexpectedly missed species (such as Shining Cuckoo, Reef Heron, Falcon and Feral Chicken!) made this bird-race one heck of a big challenge! 

Starting with a Grey-faced Petrel 10 miles off the Kaikoura coast at 1:42 PM on Friday 12 Jan and ending with a flock of Sulphur-crested Cockatoos in a Eucalyptus tree on Banks Peninsula at 1:40 PM on Saturday 13 Jan, the team went non-stop for 24 hours, crossing the South Island twice on a quest to beat 100 species and set a new record. 

The team started out in an Albatross Encounter boat off Kaikoura where they spotted more than 25 different seabirds, including 5 different types of albatross. Next was a speedy search along the Kaikoura coastline, followed by a visit to Donegal pub to pick up a number of waterbirds and for Brendon to finish a pint of  Kilkenny he’d left on the bar earlier. Next was a road trip back towards Christchurch, stopping at St Annes Lagoon for Cape Barren Geese and at the Waipara River for Black-fronted Dotterel. A detour to the Ashley Estuary near Waikuku at 7:40 PM struck gold with a trio of rare waders – Black Stilt, Whimbrel and Eastern Curlew – bringing the total to 75 – not bad for the first 6 hours’ effort! 

Next stop was the Bromley Oxidation Ponds and the estuary for a few useful additions, then a trip across town to Halswell Quarry where the target Little Owl was spotted in torch light at 10:45. From there another long road trip lead up to Arthurs Pass where Great Spotted Kiwi were searched for in the wee hours of the morning but missed. However perseverance paid off and at 4:00 am on a bush track near Okarito the team had increased to five members – the four “far rangers” and a Brown Kiwi that spent 15 minutes walking around our feet!  

The 5:30 am early dawn light at Okarito beach failed to provide any new seabirds passing offshore, but it did give us Tui, White Heron, Tomtit, Robin and Fernbird, bringing the tally up to 88.   

With the sun rising, the clock ticking and the car almost out of gas with the service station proprietors at Whataroa and Harihari still fast asleep, a new species was picked up along the road – Kea and another, Kaka, was dipped, because only one team member was confident with the ID . Arrival at Ross at 8:01 am gave the petrol station its first customer of the morning and the search was on for Falcon, Kaka, Long-tailed Cuckoo and Blue Duck – none of which materialised.  

The rain-drenched forests around Otira and Arthurs Pass provided Weka, Brown Creeper and Rifleman with a 12:05 PM stop at Lake Pearson adding species number 94 – Crested Grebe. 

One hour and 36 minutes left and still 6 species needed to equal the record and 7 to pass it – the pressure was on! Species 95 – Kingfisher – was sighted perched on a powerline near Coes Ford at 12:55. Ten minutes later gate at the end of Jarvis Road on the edge Lake Ellesmere was reached and 2000 hectares of mudflat and salt meadow lay before us. The task was simple – spend 20 minutes and find 5 little needles in a very big haystack. The patron saint of the bird race was smiling on us: We found 7 species – all rare migratory waders from Siberia and Alaska, and we did it inside 15 minutes.  

The tally stood at 102 with 26 minutes to go and a new record in hand! Team member Phil Crutchley telephoned his wife at their house in Motukarara to ask if she’d seen any pheasants. The reply was that one was walking through the paddock beside the house as they spoke! At 1:30 PM we had enough of a glimpse of a male pheasant crouching amongst a sea of grass to raise the tally to 103. With the last few minutes counting down, the team raced up to Prices Valley on Banks Peninsula, checking every passing tree for one covered in white dots. Just on 1:38 PM such a tree appeared – an old man eucalypt with 12 noisy Sulphur-crested Cockatoos clinging to its branches: Species number 104 – 4 past the mark and a new record in the extreme sport of the New Zealand bird race. Lets see who accepts the challenge to build an even bigger total next year?! “The wide-rangers will certainly be riding again and our target will be 110 or bust!  

Twitchathon (NZ Birdrace)  Jan 2007 

Team:  “The Far Rangers” 

Members:  Andrew Crossland, Phil Crutchley, Niall Mugan, Brendon Kircher 

1340 km covered  13:42 hrs 12/1/07 – 13:38 hrs 13/1/07 


1. 13:42 Grey-faced Petrel  Kaikoura pelagic

2. 13:50 Southern Giant Petrel  Kaikoura pelagic

3. 13:54 Westland Petrel  Kaikoura pelagic

4. 13:54 White-chinned Petrel  Kaikoura pelagic

5. 13:54 Cape Pigeon   Kaikoura pelagic

6. 13:54 White-capped Albatross Kaikoura pelagic

7. 13:55 Salvin’s Albatross  Kaikoura pelagic

8. 13:57 Northern Royal Albatross Kaikoura pelagic

9. 14:01 NZ Black-browed Albatross Kaikoura pelagic

10. 14:02 Northern Giant Petrel  Kaikoura pelagic

11. 14:05 Fairy Prion   Kaikoura pelagic

12. 14:10 Bullers Shearwater  Kaikoura pelagic

13. 14:25 Sooty Shearwater  Kaikoura pelagic

14. 14:25 Black-backed Gull  Kaikoura pelagic

15. 14:25 Red-billed Gull  Kaikoura pelagic

16. 14:30 Huttons Shearwater  Kaikoura pelagic

17. 14:32 Black-billed Gull  Kaikoura pelagic

18. 14:42 Little Blue Penguin  Kaikoura pelagic

19. 14:48 Short-tailed Shearwater Kaikoura pelagic

20. 14:59 Gibsons Albatross  Kaikoura pelagic

21. 15:15 Arctic Skua   Kaikoura pelagic

22. 15:35 Australasian Gannet  Kaikoura pelagic

23. 15:36 Spotted Shag   Kaikoura pelagic

24. 15:40 Pied Cormorant  Kaikoura pelagic

25. 15:45 Little Cormorant  Kaikoura coast 

26. 15:45 White-faced Heron  Kaikoura coast

27. 15:45 SI Pied Oystercatcher  Kaikoura coast

28. 15:45 White-fronted Tern  Kaikoura coast

29 15:45 Feral Pigeon   Kaikoura coast  

30. 15:45 Black-fronted Tern  Kaikoura coast

31. 16:00 Yellowhammer  Kaikoura coast

32. 16:00 Chaffinch   Kaikoura coast

33. 16:00 Greenfinch   Kaikoura coast

34. 16:00 Goldfinch   Kaikoura coast

35. 16:00 Starling   Kaikoura coast

36. 16:00 Blackbird   Kaikoura coast

37. 16:00 House Sparrow  Kaikoura coast

38. 16:10 Turnstone   Kaikoura Seal Colony

39. 16:10 Banded Dotterel  Kaikoura Seal Colony

40. 16:10 Variable Oystercatcher Kaikoura Seal Colony

41. 16:10 Spur-winged Plover  Kaikoura Seal Colony

42. 16:10 Welcome Swallow  Kaikoura Seal Colony

43. 16:15 California Quail  Kaikoura Seal Colony

44. 16:15 Silvereye   Kaikoura Seal Colony

45. 16:15 Grey Warbler   Kaikoura Seal Colony

46. 16:30 Caspian Tern   Kaikoura Seal Colony

47. 16:50 Bellbird   Kaikoura coast

48. 17:00 Paradise Shelduck  Kaikoura coast

49. 17:05 Mallard   Donegal Ponds

50. 17:05 NZ Scaup   Donegal ponds

51. 17:05 Grey Teal   Donegal ponds

52. 17:05 Mute Swan   Donegal ponds

53. 17:10 Song Thrush   Donegal ponds

54. 17:10 NZ Shoveler   Donegal ponds

55. 17:10 Redpoll   Donegal ponds

56. 17:15 Skylark   Donegal ponds

57. 17:15 Pukeko   Donegal ponds

58. 17:17 Magpie   Kaikoura coast

59. 17:34 Kereru    Kaikoura coast

60. 17:40 Fantail    Conway area

61. 17:45 Harrier    Conway area

62. 18:00 Canada Goose   St Annes Lagoon

63. 18:00 Australasian Coot  St Annes Lagoon

64. 18:00 Black Swan   St Annes Lagoon

65. 18:10 Cape Barren Goose  St Annes Lagoon

66. 19:00 Dunnock   Waipara River

67. 19:05 Black-fronted Dotterel Waipara River

68. 19:05 Pied Stilt   Waipara River

69. 19:40 Black Stilt   Ashley Estuary

70. 19:40 Wrybill   Ashley Estuary 

71. 19:45 Bar-tailed Godwit  Ashley Estuary

72. 19:50 Royal Spoonbill  Ashley Estuary

73. 19:50 Black Cormorant  Ashley Estuary

74. 19:50 Whimbrel   Ashley Estuary

75. 19:55 Eastern Curlew  Ashley Estuary

76. 19:55 Feral Goose   Ashley Estuary

77. 20:05 Feral Peafowl   Brooklands area

78. 20:48 Grey Duck   Bromley oxidation ponds

79. 21:00 Little Black Cormorant Bromley oxidation ponds

80. 21:05 Asiatic Black-tailed Godwit Avon-Heathcote Estuary

81. 22:45 Little Owl   Halswell Quarry 


82. 03:45 Morepork   Okarito Forest

83. 04:00 Okarito Brown Kiwi  Okarito Forest

84. 04:05 Tui    Okarito Forest

85. 06:00 White Heron   Okarito Lagoon

86. 06:00 SI Tomtit   Okarito Lagoon

87. 06:10 SI Robin   Okarito Lagoon

88. 06:20 SI Fernbird   Okarito Lagoon

89. 07:00 Kea    Okarito Lagoon

90. 09:00 NZ Pipit   Old CHCH Road

91. 09:10 Western Weka   Jacksons

92. 10:35 SI Rifleman   Arthurs Pass area

93. 11:50 Brown Creeper  Bealey

94. 12:05 Australasian Crested Grebe Lake Pearson

95. 12:55 NZ Kingfisher   Coes Ford area

96. 13:14 Hudsonian Godwit  Jarvis Rd, Lake Ellesmere

97. 13:15 Pacific Golden Plover  Jarvis Rd, Lake Ellesmere

98. 13:16 Pectoral Sandpiper  Jarvis Rd, Lake Ellesmere

99. 13:17 Sharp-tailed Sandpiper Jarvis Rd, Lake Ellesmere

100. 13:17 Curlew Sandpiper  Jarvis Rd, Lake Ellesmere

101. 13:18 Red Knot   Jarvis Rd, Lake Ellesmere

102. 13:20 Red-necked Stint  Jarvis Rd, Lake Ellesmere

103. 13:30 Pheasant   Motukarara

104. 13:38 Sulphur-crested Cockatoo Prices Valley