The cheeky fantails of Lake Rotoroa

Audacity is a trait shared by many New Zealand birds. Here, humans are not just tolerated, but often chased, scrutinized and sometimes hassled—a specialty of red-billed gulls who snatch food off people’s plates at restaurants. Species as different as keas, wekas and fantails (Rhipidura fuliginosa) all share this temerity and insatiable curiosity. Birds introduced from Europe are shy in comparison, save around campsites and touristy areas where they behave like natives.

Rotoroa Lake, Nelson Lakes National Park

Lake Rotoroa in the Tasman region (click on map to enlarge)

Coming from Europe, this remarkable confidence never ceases to amaze me, and my recent interaction with fantails in Nelson Lakes National Park taught me it has virtually no limit. Many fantails have crossed my path since I arrived in New Zealand—the species has well adapted to anthropogenic changes to habitats and is widespread across the country. However, none were ever as cheeky as the couple I encountered on the shores of Lake Rotoroa.

As my partner and I stopped at a picnic table to enjoy the morning sun, sandflies began gathering around us, which I knew would ruin the moment (see end of this post). A couple of conspicious fantails that were foraging in the nearby bushes gave me a good excuse to move around to get a couple photos of them. I decided to try getting their attention, knowing the effort is usually rewarded.

The two fantails were immediately responsive and began skimming around us in swift, erratic twirls only they can perform thanks to their special fan-like tail. The birds would spring across the picnic table, briefly perch on my hiking boots, bag and jacket, sing and preen centimeters from us, not the least disturbed by our mouvements. They seemed to be everywhere at once and it was astounding to see such tiny creatures take whole control of the space around them.

I quickly realized the fantails were devouring the nasty sandflies, their primary motive for such proximity with us.

I believed there was also a share of curiosity in this showy circus, so I dared the birds to perch on me without any bait or trick. I stood next to the picnic table with outstretched arms and waited, repeatedly calling them. Soon enough, one fantail landed on my hand for a few seconds, then took off and went on hunting for bugs. This happened a dozen times in the course of 20 min. The fantails would often land on the grassy ground behind me before flying onto my hand.

The last stop was on my forearm and lasted for a good 15 seconds, a long pause for these bustling birds. The fantail kept moving its little face while staring at me, which I interpreted as a “thanks” and “goodbye” since the birds forever disappeared in the bush after this episode. In total, the two fantails kept us company for about 45 minutes, which was more than any birder could hope for!

The breeding season is now approaching and will hopefully bring more fruitful encounters with these astonishing little birds.

Sandflies: the tramper’s nightmare – If you think mosquitoes are evil, meet the sandfly. New Zealand is home to 13 species of these tiny bloodsucker bugs (2-3 mm). Only two of them bite, the New Zealand blackfly and the West Coast blackfly, and that’s already too many. Both inhabit the South Island where you are sure to encounter them at some point (link to distribution map). Worse than any mosquito bite, sandfly bites involve 3-4 days of swelling, itching, pussing and eventually bleeding as many people cannot resist the urge for scratching, even while sleeping—that is, if you are a foreigner as many New Zealanders seem somewhat immune to the pest. And since sandflies ripp off a chunk of your flesh in the process, it actually hurts when they bite. There is no efficient remedy against them, so befriending a hungry fantail is the way to go!

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