11,000 images on New Zealand Birds Online – and the Brooks family’s Big Year

The 11,000th image loaded on New Zealand Birds Online was of a rare vagrant Australian duck, and it comes with an inspirational back-story of family-based discovery and adventure.

The image of a plumed whistling duck near Napier was one of more than 70 images that Northland-based photographer Scott Brooks loaded on the website following an epic mission undertaken by him, wife Helen, and young sons Ollie (10), Zef (7) and Jay (4 years old).

Here, in Scott’s own words, is the story behind the image.

Plumed whistling duck

The 11,000th image – a plumed whistling duck at Anderson Park, Taradale, December 2016. Photograph by Scott Brooks, New Zealand Birds Online

Last year we completed a mission that we called ‘Our Great New Zealand Bird Tour 2016’, with a goal to introduce our family to as many New Zealand bird species as we could in the year.

This ended up being the most epic year of our lives, and we finished off the year with an impressive grand total of 153 New Zealand bird species!

Scott, Helen, Jay, Zef and Ollie pose with the godwit sculpture on the Miranda coast, Firth of Thames

Scott, Helen, Jay, Zef and Ollie pose with the godwit sculpture on the Miranda coast, Firth of Thames, May 2016. Photograph by Scott Brooks

We saw it as a way to get out and show the kids our beautiful country. Over the year we’ve had 14 holidays, have travelled from Cape Reinga to Bluff and loads in-between, while still working full-time and the kids going to school (most of the time!).

We visited national parks, swamps, wetlands, rivers, estuaries, forests, coastlines, mountains, water treatment plants, roadsides, went on boat rides, and much more.

Routes travelled and sites visited during the Brooks family’s ‘Great New Zealand Bird Tour 2016’

Routes travelled and sites visited during the Brooks family’s ‘Great New Zealand Bird Tour 2016’. Illustration by Scott Brooks

The idea began when we happened across The Big Year movie last year. The main messages that we took from the movie were the great locations that they went to that are off the beaten track, as well as the thrill of the search and exploring, enjoying wildlife in all its beauty and quirkiness, and also the possibility of encountering some very scarce species.

Barn owl

Barn owl, Kaitaia, July 2016. Photograph by Scott Brooks, New Zealand Birds Online

While we have always enjoyed nature, we had fairly limited bird knowledge when the year began. We set a goal of 100 New Zealand bird species for the year, which added a fun challenge factor to it all.

Once the common, widespread birds had been sighted, that’s when the challenge really kicked in. Finding further species required research and knowledge of location, characteristics, plumage, habits, habitats, rarity, seasons etc., and it’s also when we got hooked.

Ollie, Zef and Jay Brooks match their wingspans with that of an albatross

Ollie, Zef and Jay Brooks match their wingspans with that of an albatross, Taiaroa Head Albatross Centre, September 2016. Photograph by Scott Brooks

We had a rule that at least four of us had to see a bird for it to be counted. While four of us finished the year with 153 species seen, Jay finished with 144 as he was asleep for nine of them!

Jay Brooks searching for a marsh sandpiper

Jay Brooks searching for a marsh sandpiper, Miranda, October 2016. Photograph by Scott Brooks

There have been so many stunning and interesting birds and places – it’s really hard to separate out highlights. Some were:

  • making it to post-earthquake Kaikoura and going out with Albatross Encounters
  • ALL the birds we saw
  • barn owls swooping and screeching overhead in Kaitaia
  • blue ducks on the Tongariro river
  • every visit to Miranda watching the huge flocks of godwits, wrybills, etc. (and the odd surprise like eastern curlew and whimbrel),
  • kookaburras near Tawharanui
  • crakes darting around trying to not be seen
  • overnighting on Tiritiri Matangi and seeing kokako (a bird we’ve always wanted to see)
  • night walks searching for kiwi
  • the stream of rare vagrants that popped up at the year’s end, and the list goes on…

To be honest the year was one great highlight with the reality of work and school interrupting it.

Marsh sandpiper

Marsh sandpiper, Miranda, October 2016. Photograph by Scott Brooks, New Zealand Birds Online

Naturally this couldn’t have been possible without some great resources, including the New Zealand Birds Online website that we learned so much from. It seemed fitting to offer up images that may help others in learning more about New Zealand birds.

Asiatic whimbrel

Asiatic whimbrel, Ngunguru sandspit, Northland, December 2016. Photograph by Scott Brooks, New Zealand Birds Online

Doing this with our children has been extremely fulfilling. They’ve had such a fun, explorative year and have learned so much about New Zealand birds as well as New Zealand geography, environment, conservation, being quiet (ha ha!), and they’ve had the pleasure of discovering the importance of ‘Water Treatment Plants’ around the country!

Kids being kids, they don’t have the longest attention spans. There were times when it was a bit slow for them, e.g. sitting in a bird hide for hours on end while we scanned the waders (Angry Birds on the iPad was helpful for this), or having to keep quiet for extended times (for those skittery birds), but they were always super keen to sight any bird that we pointed out.

And when they were the one to spot something first, they just about exploded with excitement. The boys can rattle loads of birds’ names and facts, and are constantly pointing out birds to us and others. We’re very proud of them and how much they’ve all learned.

Laughing kookaburra

Laughing kookaburra, Campbells Beach, Tawharanui, August 2016. Photograph by Scott Brooks, New Zealand Birds Online

A year is a long time to dedicate to a project as a family. To be honest, when the year ended there was a touch of sadness as we came to the reality that we were no longer in the midst of ongoing exploration, discovery, adventures, all the planning and research involved in the search of our new feathered friends, and all the great, helpful, and friendly people we’ve encountered along the way.

So to sum up – what an incredible year, our best year ever, and to do it as a family was amazing – the memories and time spent together are priceless.

I think this would make a great activity and challenge for any family to do no matter how big an effort you want to make (though we got a bit obsessed as it was so interesting and fun).

Black kite

Black kite, Meremere, December 2016. Photograph by Scott Brooks, New Zealand Birds Online

And it looks like our sons may have an unofficial New Zealand record for being the youngest people to have ever seen more than 150 (or 140) bird species. This was a nice little bonus for our sons for the hard work that we all put into last year’s mission.

We’ve definitely got the birding bug, and there’s still a lot more of New Zealand to see and a lot more birdlife to discover.

If you happen to see a family with three young boys travelling around holding binos and cameras, staring hopefully into fields, sky, mudflats, swamps or any potential habitat, then be sure to give us a wave 🙂

Scott, Helen, Ollie, Zef and Jay Brooks, Our Great New Zealand Bird Tour 2016

Australasian little grebe

Australasian little grebe, Whangarei wastewater treatment plant, February 2017. Photograph by Scott Brooks, New Zealand Birds Online

Scott Brooks has contributed 76 images of 35 species to New Zealand Birds Online, and currently has the master images for Australasian little grebe, black kitewhimbrel and rock pigeon.

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11 Responses

  1. Wendy Lane

    What a fantastic article!! I had the pleasure of hanging out with this cool little family a couple of times when they visited the Miranda Shorebird centre. Their enthusiasm was infectious which was great for me as I had only just started my role as shorebird guide at the hide . I remember them racing off to find the Black Kite at Meremere and their smiles the next day after their success. Cheers! Wendi

    Reply
    • Colin Miskelly

      Thanks very much for your comments Wendy.
      Cheers
      Colin

  2. Rohrerbot

    Excellent stuff! Thanks for sharing!

    Reply
  3. Cassie

    Fantastic guys, what an awesome adventure, and it’s rubbing off on their friends too! Our boys are pretty stoked to see any bird up close and I’m sure it’s part Zef’s influence with his excitement and cool stories!

    Reply
    • Colin Miskelly

      Kia ora Cassie
      Thanks very much for your comment – and great to hear that the Brooks boys are such effective bird ambassadors!
      Kind regards
      Colin

  4. Denis Asher

    Excellent stuff; well done the Brooks’ family! During our recent South Island visit it was pleasing to see so many DOC 200s, etc out and about, and the resulting benefit to bird-life (e.g. lots, relatively speaking, of riflemen up the East Matukituki and en route to Key Summit). Sadly, during a trip around the highly visual Pupu Hydro Walkway, Takaka Valley, what looked like either a feral cat or ferret smartly crossed the track ahead. Lots of DOC 200s there, too. This looked like a trap-shy mammal. A pity also to see the occasional anti-1080 signs out & about. Is it time for counter-signs, like “Anti-1080 protesters are liars”? Or is that counter-productive and would only hype up an already twisted mentality?

    Reply
  5. Rachael Hockridge

    This is such a lovely story and a great way to get your kids to fall in love with the great outdoors!

    Reply
  6. Ian Payton

    Thanks Colin. Really enjoy your natural history blogs

    Reply
    • Colin Miskelly

      Thanks very much for your feedback Ian – though Scott Brooks deserves the credit for this one!
      Cheers
      Colin

  7. Pamela Julian

    I would like to spot more of New Zealand birds. I’ve been to Tiritiri Island. Anything you suggest as a place I can take photos of birds.

    Reply
    • Colin Miskelly

      Kia ora Pamela
      Birds New Zealand has recently produced a set of laminated birding maps covering all of the main islands, and describing how to access 120 important birding sites. Follow the link to the Birds New Zealand website for information on the maps and where to purchase them.
      Cheers
      Colin

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