15,000 images on New Zealand Birds Online – the magic of the kōkako

15,000 images on New Zealand Birds Online – the magic of the kōkako

The 15,000th image loaded on New Zealand Birds Online was of an adult male North Island kokako | Kōkako on Tiritiri Matangi Island, taken by Oscar Thomas. Oscar is a university student and author of the 2020 book A Naturalist’s Guide to the Birds of New Zealand. Here, he answers a few questions about how he got involved in wildlife photography, and why he started contributing images to New Zealand Birds Online.

A young man in sunglasses, a beanie, and a blue bushshirt and backpack is looking into the distance while standing in the long grass. There are hills in the background.
Oscar Thomas counting birds at Aramoana, Otago. Photo by Craig McKenzie

When did you first become interested in New Zealand birds?

It was during a school visit to Tiritiri Matangi Island sanctuary in the Hauraki Gulf, when I was 9 years old. The island protects a dozen endangered bird species and gives an idea of what our biodiversity and forests may have looked like before human arrival. In late 2015 I took up volunteer guiding there to share it with others, but the spark soon spread out of control and I became interested in birds in general. It is an amazing feeling seeing a particular species for the first time in your life, but the experience of finding some of the rarer endemics again for a second, third, even hundredth time can be just as rewarding, gaining more insight into their behaviour, interactions, and day-to-day existence. To be expected, I was probably regarded as a bit strange through school. But many people were keen to boost my interests and take me further afield, so I am very grateful to them.

A small light-brown bird with a white head is sitting on a leafless branch.
Whitehead | Pōpokotea. Tiritiri Matangi Island, January 2018. Photo by Oscar Thomas, New Zealand Birds Online

When did you start photographing birds?

The first camera I got my hands on was mum’s tiny silver compact for the trip to Tiritiri in 2010. I then upgraded over the years to dad’s ancient Canon (likely from the 1980s or 90s), then my own superzoom which at age 15 I traded-in for a DSLR, and soon after added a mega 600 mm zoom lens which has come in very handy. I have recently upgraded to a new mirrorless camera. For the most part I am self-taught, and as a result none of the photos turned out any good until relatively recently!

Two birds with dark wings and white fronts have their beaks open at each other. They are in water.
Australasian crested grebes | Pūteketeke, Lake Wanaka, January 2015. Photo by Oscar Thomas, New Zealand Birds Online

How did you learn about / become involved in NZ Birds Online?

As someone who had piles and piles of bird books when growing up, it was exciting to see the launch of an online, free access, continually updated website focused on New Zealand’s unique birds. I wanted to be involved as soon as I felt I had something worth contributing. That was just photographs up until last year, when I wrote the species pages for two new additions to the New Zealand list; black tern and black-naped tern. It is also nice to see that my master images are a mix of regular and very rare species.

A grey-winged bird with a white face and chest standing on the sand. There is a blurry blue background.
Black tern (immature) – first New Zealand record. Waikanae estuary, January 2022. Photo by Oscar Thomas, New Zealand Birds Online

Do you have a favourite species?

North Island kokako. It’s a big charismatic forest bird with a big personality and unique appearance, blue-grey plumage, a black robber’s mask and blue wattles beneath a stout curved bill. Long legs allow it to bound around the bush (preferring not to fly on its small rounded wings), and a melodious yet mournful call that travels for kilometres, best heard at dawn and dusk. What’s not to like? It was another obsession stoked by Tiritiri Matangi Island, and I ended up managing their Bird of the Year campaign in 2015 and 2016, ultimately winning the second time thanks to a well-timed piece on Seven Sharp.

A grey-brown bird with its wings spread is sitting on a branch. It has blue wattles.
North Island kokako | Kōkako. Adult male ‘Hemi’ with wings raised. Tiritiri Matangi, January 2021. Photo by Oscar Thomas, New Zealand Birds Online

The 15,000th image is of Hemi the kōkako, taken in January 2021. Please provide some background info about the image.

Hemi is one of Tiritiri Matangi’s most well-known North Island kokako and the grandson of matriarch Cloudsley Shovell, who was wild caught in the Waikato and the first female kōkako brought to the island in 1997. Her breeding success allowed the species to establish and has made possible the translocations of birds to other sanctuaries across New Zealand. Hemi represents my connection with Tiritiri Matangi Island. I don’t get to visit so often anymore now that I live in Dunedin – once a year if I am lucky. During school I’d try go at least once a month, and more during the break. On this trip I stayed overnight to really put time into getting good shots, and I think it is one of my few kōkako photos I am really happy with.

Do you have a favourite photograph? Or most memorable trip or place to experience wildlife?

A mottled grey and brown bird with a long beak in mid flight.
Hudsonian godwit. Adult entering breeding plumage, in flight. Kaikorai estuary, March 2023. Photo by Oscar Thomas, New Zealand Birds Online

Too many to choose from. I like to think my photography is always improving as well (to justify the purchase of a new camera), so I will single out this recent image of a Hudsonian godwit in stunning breeding plumage, right at the perfect moment to show the diagnostic black underwings of this rare vagrant from North America. One of my favourites in terms of colour coordination is this Pitt Island shag amongst iceplant on Rangatira Island in the Chathams.

A grey bird with a white front and green around its eyes is standing on a green bank.
Pitt Island shag | Kawau o Rangihaute. Rangatira Island, September 2016. Photo by Oscar Thomas, New Zealand Birds Online

Two weeks on Rangatira Island with Chatham Island snipe, black robins | karure and millions of seabirds was definitely a highlight of my life, and I am looking hard for a way to get back there. I am also big into pelagic trips, my favourite spots being Tutukaka in the north and Moeraki in the south, where I organise trips out. One Tutukaka trip we had many unexpected subantarctic seabirds visit after some wild weather, including the rare blue petrel which has only been recorded off mainland New Zealand a handful of times. Once I spotted the bird’s white tail tip in a flock of similar looking prions, I yelled it out to others on board and nearly fell over trying to get a photo (which isn’t spectacular by any means, but it is the master image on NZ Birds Online!). But my legs felt like jelly for a solid 30 minutes after that.

A grey bird with a white face is in mid-flight above the ocean.
Blue petrel in flight off Tutukaka, July 2018. Photo by Oscar Thomas, New Zealand Birds Online

What stage are you at with your university studies?

Last year I graduated with a Bachelor of Science majoring in Zoology and minoring in Ecology, and this year I have started a Diploma in Wildlife Management which will be followed up with a Master’s by thesis next year looking into Southern New Zealand Dotterels. Studying at the University of Otago has definitely put a dent into the time I can allocate for birding. However, it is so refreshing to actually be learning about something I am passionate about (it was a rare occurrence in high school).

A top-view of a grey-mottled bird flying in a blue scale.
Great shearwater off Taiaroa Head, March 2023. Photo by Oscar Thomas, New Zealand Birds Online

Any other info you would like to volunteer for the mix!

I’d like to make a quick plug for a book that I contribute my photographs to. Back in 2018 I provided some photos for the late Liz Light’s lovely book The 50 Best Birdwatching Sites in New Zealand, and she gave my name to the publishers when they decided to add a New Zealand title to their ‘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 images, and I was lucky to be in a position where it was feasible to complete the project when I got the offer. The book was released in October 2020 and proved popular enough that I was asked to revise and update it. The second edition of A Naturalist’s Guide to the Birds of New Zealand will be available in stores later this year, featuring over 200 new photos of 250 of our most commonly encountered and unique avifauna.

Oscar Thomas currently has 13 master images on NZ Birds Online. In addition to three shown above, they are for black-tailed native-hen, South Island takahe, Terek sandpiper, red-billed gull | tarāpunga, northern royal albatross, Cape petrel | karetai hurukoko, thin-billed prion | korotangi, brown creeper | pīpipi, Eurasian skylark | kairaka, and dunnock.

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1 Comment

  1. Great read. All the best Oscar. Will look out for the second edition of your book.

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