By Oscar Thomas
For most of us, publishing a book on our precious native species and visiting some of our hard-to-reach wild places would be accomplishments happily achieved in a lifetime. But for Oscar Thomas, these achievements have been notched up at the tender age of 20, thanks to a serendipitous school trip to predator-free Tiritiri Matangi in the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park/Ko te Pātaka kai o Tīkapa. This sparked a bird obsession, driving him to become an expert photographer along the way. In 2018 he was offered a book deal to add a New Zealand bird title to the popular John Beaufoy Publishing ‘Naturalist’s Guide’ series. And, recently, he visited our precious subantarctic islands, where the power of predator-free islands was really brought home. Oscar tells us about his epic conservation journey thus far, and shares with us his favourite birds of the Gulf.
The first time I took notice of birds, I was 9 years old and on a school trip to Tiritiri Matangi Island Sanctuary. My teacher, Sonya Galbraith, was one of the original Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi (SoTM) members. The group was hands-on involved in the restoration of the island, so it was an eye-opener to experience it through her eyes. Really noticing a bird species for the first time is an amazing feeling (a lifer really), and so the bird obsession began and grew exponentially. Now at 20, I have seen 225 different wild birds in New Zealand and more than 500 around the world – it’s like Pokémon, but in real life! For me, seeing the same birds repeatedly can also be a rewarding look into their day-to-day behaviour and interactions, as they are all different – not just the species, but every individual.
The first camera I got my hands on was Mum’s silver compact, and after a few upgrades I now use a DSLR and a mega 150-600mm lens. My photography is self-taught and none of my photos turned out that well until the age of 15. This coincided with being convinced to join SoTM as a volunteer guide, visiting the island every few weekends.
Visiting Tiri is an unforgettable experience, and different every time. Even after 60 or 70 trips, I still find something new and exciting, whether it’s a tuatara in a kororā /little blue penguin nesting box, a kākā being chased around the lighthouse by a torea pango / variable oystercatcher, a gecko on a rock face, or a wētāpunga (our heaviest insect) on a leaf. It’s an amazing place that everyone should visit at least once. I recommend spending the night to spot a kiwi.
Birds are difficult to photograph for many reasons. Rifleman / titipounamu are our smallest birds, weighing as little as a $1 coin, and to add to this, rarely sit still for the camera! Birds like the Australasian Bittern / matuku-hūrepo are extremely cryptic, blending in masterfully with their wetland surrounds, and if they sense they’ve been spotted, they make a hasty departure.
The book deal came about after I provided some photographs for the late Liz Light’s lovely book “The 50 Best Birdwatching Sites in New Zealand” back in 2018. She passed on my name to the London-based company John Beaufoy Publishing when they decided to add a New Zealand title to their popular ‘Naturalist’s Guide’ series. I had always been interested in the idea of putting together a book of New Zealand’s birds using my own photographs, and the timing was perfect.
40,000 words and 400 photos in 10 months
I was a few months into a year-long Rotary youth exchange to Belgium when I got confirmation to go ahead with the book, writing a good chunk of it while taking the train around the Belgian countryside! Quite a few of the birds in the book I had yet to come across, so I am very grateful to the talented photographers who helped fill in gaps, especially Charlie Barnett, Imogen Warren, and Matthias Dehling. A special mention to Forest & Bird Youth Leader George Hobson for getting his pohowera / banded dotterel on the cover as well. With support from my host-parents, as well as my real parents back in New Zealand, I got 40,000 words and 400 photographs together over a 10-month period, which ended just two weeks into starting university here in Dunedin (I was a bit of a recluse to start off with – great first impression). Seeing it in bookstores was a surreal experience to say the least.
I know we shouldn’t have favourites, but…
My fab-five from the Hauraki Gulf:
Shore plover / tūturuatu: Once found across Aotearoa, it was wiped out by introduced predators except for a tiny island off Rekohu / Chathams. Today, populations are being re-established at Mahia Peninsula in Gisborne and Motutapu Island in the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park. If you see a tūturuatu on the beach, give it some space – although they might come and investigate you themselves!
New Zealand Storm Petrel: Thought to be extinct since 1850 until a dramatic rediscovery in 2003, when an individual flew into a fisherman’s boat at night. The eradication of cats from their breeding grounds on Te Hauturu-o-Toi / Little Barrier is thought to have enabled the diminutive seabird to increase to a detectable level. It’s now easy to come across them on a day trip in the greater Hauraki Gulf, but they zip around so fast, bouncing on the water, that a sharp photograph is a lucky achievement. New Zealand is considered the seabird capital of the world, with 80 species breeding here.
North Island kōkako: My all-time favourite and Bird of the Year 2016 winner! A big forest bird with a big personality, unique blue-grey plumage, with a black robber’s mask and deep blue wattles. Long legs let it bound around the bush (preferring not to fly on small, rounded wings), it has a melodious yet mournful call that travels for kilometres and is best heard at dawn and dusk. Tiritiri Matangi is the best place in the world to view and photograph this enigmatic species!
Pāteke / Brown Teal: Our tiny nocturnal duck has been doing an exceptional job at re-colonising greater Auckland from translocated populations on several offshore islands. Before they could only be found along a stretch of Northland’s coast or in captivity. They are always a pleasure to come across, wandering around island sanctuaries at night on the hunt for invertebrates to munch.
Parekareka / Spotted Shag: Although still common in the South Island, the distinct form in the Hauraki Gulf is under threat from human disturbance, overfishing (reducing key prey species), and mortality through fisheries bycatch – especially in set nets. Fewer than 900 remain, breeding only on a couple of rock stacks east of Waiheke Island. From there they migrate to and from the Coromandel coast. Their mint green faces during the breeding season make them very photogenic.
While the crown jewel of the Hauraki Gulf Marine Park is Tiritiri Matangi, I highly recommend visiting and getting involved with other predator-free islands that are at various stages of restoration to truly witness the process of regeneration. I have visited Motuora Island twice, 8 years apart, and was so impressed at the development, especially in kiwi and seabird population growth. Hearing a resident Pycroft’s Petrel soar over the island at night was magical. Much more ambitious is the restoration of Rangitoto and Motutapu Islands, the largest area to become predator-free in the Park. The potential down the line to provide for 100 pairs of takahē is very exciting. Rotoroa Island is also doing very well, especially with the added challenge of weka roaming free. I love seeing hordes of tīeke / saddleback when I visit, and the odd spotted shag around the coast. An honourable mention goes out to Waiheke Island, where I’ve noticed increasing birdlife thanks to the pest eradication programme, Te Korowai o Waiheke. One thing I really love about the Park’s many island sanctuaries is the interconnectedness. Most of the flighted birds can travel between them as they like, making it one big population for species like kākāriki and korimako / bellbird.
True Young Explorer – an honour and a privilege
Most recently, Heritage Expeditions awarded me a True Young Explorers scholarship, allowing for a discounted voyage southward bound to our precious subantarctic islands. I visited Tini Heke / The Snares and Motu Maha / Auckland Islands, both havens for millions upon millions of seabirds, mega-herbs and even stranger things such as the sneaky Snares snipe / tutukiwi. It was reassuring to see Snares crested penguins and tītī / sooty shearwaters thriving in the absence of mammalian pests, and similarly with the kākāriki, korimako / bellbird, Auckland Island teal and Auckland Island shags on Enderby Island.
However, landing on the main Auckland Island / Motu Maha was a different picture entirely. Very few birds were observed, and the understory of the rata forest was bare, due to the pigs, cats and mice that remain on the 51,000ha island. These introduced pests are known to attack and eat vulnerable albatross chicks. The Department of Conservation (DOC) has a 10-year strategy in the works for the expensive eradication, but Covid-19 has been responsible for an indefinite delay. I hope to one day return to Motu Maha to give something back and help remove pests, so that endangered species from the surrounding islands can return.
To get there, career-wise, I am studying a Bachelor of Science majoring in Ecology and Zoology in New Zealand’s very own wildlife capital, Dunedin. A career with DOC is my main goal at present, but if studies drift closer to the marine science world then I would also consider taking a role in seabird protection, as an observer on fishing vessels for example. In the distant future (when all the world’s problems are solved) it would be awesome to be able to share my passion and become a wildlife guide of some sort.
If you’re interested in getting started photographing birds, I suggest getting out and about into your local green area, snapping pics as much as you can. I also suggest taking part in a mega citizen science scheme – the New Zealand Bird Atlas project, a five-year (2019-2024) nationwide bird survey. Information collected will go on to aid bird conservation at a local and national level.