From ocean-going giants to teeny, tiny rock-hoppers, photographer Edin Whitehead travelled the length of New Zealand and beyond to capture images for new book The Brilliance of Birds. It wasn't all plain-sailing, she tells Kim Knight.
There's a southerly screaming across the Waitematā and the trees on Edin Whitehead's North Shore front lawn are shaking violently. It's weather for taking wing. Bird weather.
The 25-year-old University of Auckland PhD student (seabird population health) opens the door to a flat decorated with fantail cushions and huia tablecloths. That is a storm petrel on her T-shirt.
"I've grown up with birds," Whitehead says. "My dad's a bird watcher and bird photographer. My granddad was a bird watcher and bird photographer. My dad likes to joke that it's a genetic disease."
Whitehead is the woman behind the photographs in The Brilliance of Birds. Written by Skye Wishart, the new book features the science, quirk and beauty of 58 bird species from the common myna to the often-overlooked brown creeper and the gigantic ocean-going albatross.
Whitehead used to draw birds. She did a year's study at Elam School of Fine Arts, then realised she was missing the outdoors and switched to a biological science degree.
"I've always been fascinated by birds that we don't see a lot of. Not because they're rare, but because they live in a habitat that we just don't."
In 2015, she joined a voyage to Antarctica, followed that with trips to New Zealand's Subantarctic Islands and fell in love with being at sea.
"Not seeing any land around me at all and all the species you encounter when you're in that kind of environment. I get to go to these islands where birds are king, birds are dominant. It puts me in perspective.
"We've manipulated so much of this country but there are still these wild places that are the domain of our native species, that are primarily birds and I love that. I love feeling small and out-of-place and surrounded by nature as it should be, completely, unapologetically."
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Photography allows Whitehead to share those unusual experiences but she says the new book deliberately includes New Zealand's common backyard and introduced species.
"We wanted to put in birds that people would recognise. Birds are everywhere. They're always around us and you don't have to go travelling to the mountains or remote islands to see them."
Whitehead has been seriously photographing birds for the last 10-12 years. On a big day, she'll shoot 5000 images. As a scientist, she says she knows she shouldn't anthropomorphise them but reckons they do display distinctive personality differences.
"There are birds that are really bold and curious and they'll come up to you. There are birds that are really shy and they'll vanish at the blink of an eye as soon as they notice you.
"You do end up telling yourself these stories about what they're doing and how they're interacting with one another. We can't avoid that, we're human, we're always going to have a human perspective on what birds are doing and it may not be correct - but you watch them and you think well, there's no way that you guys don't love each other, because there's just no other way of interpreting that.
"They're all individuals and they're all just as unique as we are. We might not be able to capture that when we do research but when you do something like photography, it's really apparent."
It's difficult, says Whitehead, to pick favourites - but she was happy to share some of the stories behind a selection of images.
TŪĪ - Hamurana Springs, Rotorua
That's just summer to me. Christmas. I love this one because it had just landed and this big puff of pollen came off [the harakeke] and the hayfever in me went, "Oh God - but this makes a really good image, so we're just going to cry through it." You quite often see with nectar-feeders like tūī and bellbird, they'll get this dusting of pollen up on their forehead. It'll be bright orange if they've been feeding on flax. Tree fuschia is bright blue, so you quite often see bellbirds down south with blue foreheads. It's not a new species.
AUSTRALASIAN GANNET - Muriwai
I think I have more photos of Australasian gannets than any other bird species, because I spend a lot of time at Muriwai. The smell? I don't mind it at all. I just stopped myself from saying I love it, because I do, but that sounds really weird. I don't know if it's part of being a seabird biologist but I quite like the smell of guano - and it can get pretty wild out there. Definitely go on a downwind day.
Gannets are really into their courtship displays. They point their bills at the sky and make their crazy, crazy call, and they do "bill fencing", smacking their bills together. They're really gentle when they preen each other. I've done a bit of work with gannets and that bill is murderous. It's actually serrated on the inner edge, so if they grab you and pull, it's like being cut with a bread knife. I've got a few scars. You can't grab gannets without gannets grabbing you back.
Just watching them fly - they must have fun doing it. They just soar around and catch updraughts coming off the cliffs and I'm so jealous. I wish I could do that.
TOMTIT - Pomona Island, Lake Manapouri
We pulled up on the island and there were kiwi footprints on the beach. The first time I'd ever seen mohua - yellowhead - was there. That was just a magical experience.
We walked across to a little rocky bay and we'd just had lunch and I think I threw my sandwich on the ground to take that photo, then did a little happy dance when I saw I'd caught it mid-bounce. There was definitely rapidly fire going on there!
Tomtits are so hard to photograph 'cos they're always bouncing around. They always flick their wings out but it's not something we can see with our eyes because it happens way too quickly, which is why I like taking photos with a really high shutter speed. I put quite a lot of photos on Instagram and tomtits are an obsession for some people. People just like really round birds.
GREAT ALBATROSSES - Kaikōura and Campbell Island
I'd been out with Kaikōura Albatross Encounter when I was quite young, probably 7 or 8, and I got horrifically seasick. That boat rolls around A LOT. I remember going, "Oh those birds are so cool, now I need to lie down otherwise I'm going to vomit." Having had a lot more experience on boats now, I can pretty much deal with anything. When I'm taking photos I'm too excited to get seasick.
You hang over the edge of the boat, you trust your body to hold the camera. It was a really flat, calm day and they come really close, because they put the fish chum out for them. Seabirds are very curious, which is probably why they get eaten by predators. They're quite docile. Albatrosses are quite friendly. They have that smile, they've always got that grin.
The other albatross photo is from Campbell Island, with Heritage Expeditions. I was just lying in the tussock and they came up to this nest that they were building and sat down together and started preening and it might have been raining, I might have been crying, who knows. It was one of those experiences that just takes your breath away.
It's them in their habitat. They're not changing their behaviour because people are there. That's what I wanted to capture in this book, the character of our birds, just going about their lives. They have these lives that are completely unknowable to us. There's no way we can conceptualise what it's like for, say, an albatross to spend nine months growing up in this wind-tossed, wet, tussocky island and then, once it fledges, it doesn't come back to land for between six to 10 years. They just spend that time at sea, circling the globe on the roaring 40s and then, when they decide they're ready to breed, they find their way back to that tiny little speck of land. This pair were getting ready to start that cycle again with their own chick.
COMMON MYNA - Myers Park, Auckland
They're very aggressive birds. They're one of the birds we hesitated to put in the book, because nobody really likes mynas. They are really bad for our nesting birds [rated among the world's top 100 worst invasive species, the myna steals other birds' nests, destroys eggs and snatches chicks before dropping them to the ground]. But I think it's important that people know about all our birds, not just our super-rare endangered kākāpō, etc. You sort of get a bird blindness when you're in cities. People are like, "All the birds in the city are crap and they're not interesting." Actually, we have some pretty cool birds in urban areas. Maybe not mynas. I used to live on Queen St and in Myers Park we'd also get kingfishers, kererū - honestly, the middle of Auckland City is actually pretty good for birds.
KĀKĀ - Orokonui Ecosanctuary, Dunedin
People who have fruit or nut trees really don't like kākā, which is fair, because they will destroy your crops. They like chewing things. They're basically just the puppies of the bird world. You see all these tiger-stripe trees -and yep, kākā have been here.
I do like photos on white backgrounds. It's actually quite easy to do against a grey sky. If you've got clouds you can just over-expose the photo - which you need to do to get the bird exposed properly, anyway. Both Dad [Tony] and I have galleries of birds on white backgrounds. His inspiration comes from old bird guides, because you know the plates, the paintings of birds, are always on white backgrounds.
When birds launch they have quite a few heavy, heavy wing beats to get themselves going and that kākā had just flung itself out of a tree. Orokonui has got a good population of kākā and actually just north of Auckland, around Leigh, there is a phenomenal population. Wellington is just spectacular. I love Wellington for its bird life. They've had a kārearea, a New Zealand falcon, right next to Te Papa quite recently. Just sitting in one of the trees around there, which is just ridiculous, because they're one of our most endangered raptors.
KINGFISHER - Whangateau
I was just sort of lying in the mud. I spend most of my life lying in the dirt getting very mucky, photographing birds. I was specifically looking for kingfishers, they're quite wary birds, so you've got to take it real slow. Using a hide works really well but I don't think any of the photographs in the book have been taken from a hide, it's not really practical to carry one around. I find if you're low down and you don't move and you just wait, birds come to you. If you sit down and shut up for long enough. So that's what I was doing. There were quite a few of them just foraging along the edge of the mudflats. They'd be perched up in a big pōhutukawa, see something, dive down, grab a crab go back up, smack the s*** out of it, eat it. Sometimes they came away with nothing. That was a non-successful kingfisher.
ERECT-CRESTED PENGUIN - Antipodes Island
People love penguins. I think it's because they sort of look like us, with their flipper arms and they waddle around ... they're really charismatic. People think they are adorable. They're not when you actually work with them. They are very smelly and angry. They'll give you a good bite and they'll slap you with their flippers. I think they're fantastic, but they also smell really bad. You can always tell a penguin burrow 'cos it reeks like nothing else. Petrels and shearwaters have a certain musky smell that's actually quite sweet but if it smells terrible and fishy and horrible, there's a penguin in there.
Erect-crested penguins only breed on the Antipodes Islands and the Bounty Islands in our Subantarctic region. There's generally one tour ship that goes there every year, so that's pretty much the only way you're going to get to see them ... they nest in colonies all along the shoreline, which is sheer cliffs and rock shelves. They just stare at you as you go past. They don't get a lot of human visitation and it's amazing to just get that glimpse into that life away from humanity.
They can actually flick those yellow feathers up and down. They're the only one of the crested penguin species who actually seem to be able to move their crests. I just think he looks kind of like a bunny rabbit. They're really slick when they come out of the water, like they're encased in glass and then they dry out and they fluff all their feathers up. It's like fur. Furry penguins.
SILVEREYE - Rotorua
Backyard bird photos! Silvereyes are such cool birds and they're self-introduced. They're a relatively recent native but they have such character and they're pretty easy to attract to your garden in winter by putting out balls of fat, which they love when it's cold. They have to keep that little metabolism going. They roam in little flocks. You hear that "pwe-pwe-pwe" and suddenly you're surrounded. There's this big kōwhai tree in my parents' backyard. In spring it is full of tūī but then in winter, when it's all bare, the silvereyes will come and pick through the lichen for insects. I like going out in the evenings, in a good golden light. This one's upside down. Birds just disregard gravity. It's not something they're interested in.
STITCHBIRD - Hauturu/Little Barrier Island
Hauturu was the last place hihi (stitchbird) actually survived in New Zealand until they were translocated to other pest-free islands ... whatever's in the environment there, the ecosystem is intact enough for them not to need supplementary feeding. They are quite difficult to photograph because they are under the canopy and it's quite shadowy and quite dark. Trying to find patches of light and getting the shutter speed fast enough to get a sharp hihi photo is quite difficult. I was probably braced against a tree. I don't tend to use a tripod when I take photos, I like to be able to wander around and not carry anything with me. Basically, I'm just lazy. You want the manoeuvrability of being able to follow something in dappled forest light, which is sometimes a pain to work in. Cameras can't see contrast in the same way we do. They either need to see the light or they see the dark. You've just got to wait until the bird is in the right place. All in the shade or all in the sun. There's no in-between.
BROWN CREEPER - Arthur's Pass
There are three birds in the mohua genus. The whitehead, the yellowhead and the brown creeper and the brown creeper always get forgotten. Nobody seems to know about them. They are such sweet birds and they're really social, so they hang out in flocks.
"I had a lot of fun photographing on Ulva Island, which is where the yellowhead photo was taken. It was winter and there was barely anyone else there. Just me and the birds. In winter they form these big feeding flocks. You could wander around for ages and not see anything and then you'd just be surrounded. Mohua, pīpipi [the brown creeper] red crowned and yellow crowned kākāriki, kāka, tīeke [saddleback], robins, fantails. It would be bedlam and I wouldn't know where to look and and it would all just be happening and then they'd move off and be gone again. It was like I'd just been hit by a tornado of birds.
WEKA - Ulva Island
When I was going over to Ulva island, the Rakiura water taxi guys were like, "Right, you might see a kiwi during the day but if it's got a short beak and it's trying to steal your sandwich, it's not a kiwi." Yep, weka are basically cheeky, budget kiwi.
This is with a wide angle lens, about a 12mm and I was lying about 20cm away. On Ulva Island, they forage along the beach a lot, so they toss through the seaweed. They'll run up to you and you're like, "No, this my morning tea - go and eat some amphipods." This one was foraging next to me, getting closer and closer. So I just lay down and ended up completely covered in seaweed. It was just tossing, digging and flinging seaweed everywhere. I wish I'd taken a photo, because I looked like Neptune. I was absolutely coated in that gritty, golden sand and seaweed and he was having a great time, gobbling up things.
Weka kept me sane when I was going down the West Coast. I drove up Bullock Creek Rd, near Punakaiki. You can hear great spotted kiwi up there at night and I wanted to see what the road was like. I went to turn around and I got my car stuck on the sand. There's no cellphone reception, no one else there. I spent about two hours digging my car out with my hands. My hands were destroyed, I had no nails left. This bloody weka. We played peekaboo around my car. I was digging one front wheel out, wedging big stones under there and I'd go round to the other side and he'd scuttle up the other side and stuck his head out, and be like, "How you doing?"And I'd be like, 'It's okay, I'm just going to dig a bit more and then we can swap places again." We did that for about an hour. I did have to sit down and go, "Right - no panicking." Having that bird there to talk to kept me sane. My beer tasted really good that night.
ROCK WREN - Fiordland
There are a whole lot of breeding pairs just around the Homer Tunnel and they were all nest-building at the time, which is why that female has got a whole lot of rabbit fur in her beak. They make these little dome nests that are woven tussock grass and then they stuff them full of feathers and fur. They're just these beautiful little perfect domes, like an igloo, and then they're stuffed full of warm stuff, in these immense boulder fields. You've got rocks the size of houses and, in the little crevasses, there are these tiny little nests. Their entire habitat is just these huge big boulder fields and these tiny little egg-size birds [about 10cm] are bouncing around these huge rocks.
It was much smaller than I anticipated - you always see really zoomed in photos of them. This one was on the fifth or so day of looking. They have a really distinctive call, which is super-high-pitched. We were hearing them, but just not seeing them. They're surprisingly well camouflaged for tiny little green birds in a boulder field.
The Brilliance of Birds by Skye Wishart and Edin Whitehead (Penguin Random House NZ, $55) is released on September 17.