New Zealand Highlights Nov 29—Dec 15, 2010

Posted by Dion Hobcroft


Dion Hobcroft

Dion Hobcroft has been working for VENT since 2001. He has led many tours (more than 170) to Australia, New Guinea, New Zealand, Bhutan, Indonesia, India, China, Southwest ...

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New Zealand certainly lived up to our expectations of stunning scenery, special bird life, tasty food, and friendly people. It was a great trip!

We began in Auckland, convening near the airport and making a first visit to the wetlands at Mangere. We were immediately amongst the birds and enjoyed two notable sightings: a rare endemic Brown Teal was located in a raft of Gray Teal and, amazingly, seen in flight; and a single Black-fronted Dotterel gave us good scope views. We journeyed north and enjoyed a fine view of a New Zealand Grebe transporting its stripe-headed chicks on its back near Orewa. The afternoon was completed with great views of Buff-banded Rail, Fairy Tern, and New Zealand Dotterel—quite the first day!

A day-trip to Tiri Tiri Matangi Island is always a birding highlight in New Zealand. This showcase island sanctuary is a magical spot. Greeted by North Island Saddlebacks at the wharf, we were soon into the forest and enjoying superb views of Stitchbird, Whitehead, North Island Robin, and a trio of Kaka. Flax flowers left golden pollen crowns on Bellbirds and Tuis, while Red-crowned Kakarikis chattered past. We finally located Greg, the 19-year-old celebrity Takahe, and some lucky folks enjoyed a shy Spotless Crake running past.

We had a great day at sea on a pelagic trip to the Hauraki Gulf, heading out to the Mokohinau Islands. Birds in prodigious quantities provided excellent views. Some of the best birds seen included a fine adult Northern Buller's Albatross, one hundred Cook's Petrels, numerous Black Petrels, super views of Little Shearwater sitting on the ocean surface, hundreds of Fairy Prions and White-faced Storm-Petrels, and, with great fortune, a pair of delightful Gray Ternlets. Feeding a Mako shark and watching a school of yellow-tailed kingfish attacking a sunfish like piranha were eye-opening features of the day.

After three comfortable nights at the Salty Dog Inn, we were up early and off to Miranda for the high tide. It was well worth the effort, as we enjoyed some surreal shore birding. Ultra-tame Wrybills kept the scarcer visitors non-alarmed. Searching through, we turned up the long-staying Semipalmated Plover, Pacific Golden-Plovers, a few Curlew Sandpipers, Red-necked Stints, a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, a few New Zealand Dotterels, and an Eastern Black-tailed Godwit—a good spot by Ian amongst the 3,000 or so Bar-tailed Godwits.

At the Miranda Shorebird Center, Keith Woodley gave a fascinating talk on the migration of Bar-tailed Godwits. He demonstrated how satellite trackers had covered some birds flying non-stop from New Zealand to the Yellow Sea and from Alaska non-stop to New Zealand—the longest non-stop flights by any bird!

We made one final birding stop at Whangamarino where after much patient scoping Ian turned up a fine Australasian Bittern. At Rotorua our rooms overlooked bubbling mud and sulfurous geysers, while the evening Maori performance saw us practicing our steps in the traditional war dance called the haka (we particularly enjoyed the "go crazy" step).

Leaving Rotorua behind, we were off to Pureora Forest where we had crunching views of Yellow-crowned Kakariki and Shining Bronze-Cuckoo. At Taupo we continued our good fortune with an excellent Fernbird sighting. Near spectacular Mount Ruapehu and Ruatiti we turned up the hoped-for Blue Duck before covering some serious miles down to Paraparaumu.

With a favorable weather forecast, we were on the boat to Kapiti Island, another famous island sanctuary where we enjoyed sightings of genuinely secretive Takahe, Weka, North Island Saddleback, North Island Robin, Whitehead, Kaka, and dozens of impressive New Zealand Pigeons. But the real performance came only after sundown. It was a tense and nervous search, but we finished with incredible views of the Little Spotted Kiwi—a just reward for our quiet and well-disciplined searching. Little Penguins came ashore, and a New Zealand wattled bat was a real rarity.

We made an early morning dash from Kapiti Island and caught the inter-island ferry to Picton on the South Island. The ferry made for some good seabirding, and with a few stops en route we made it to Kaikoura. Out early, we had a cracking male Cirl Bunting singing away while our first New Zealand Falcon flew past. It was a lumpy first pelagic trip off Kaikoura, with superb views of Southern Buller's Albatross, Gibson's Wandering Albatross, Northern Royal Albatross, and White-chinned and Westland Black petrels among the highlights.

The next morning, on a considerably tamer pelagic trip, we added Southern Royal Albatross, Antipodean Wandering Albatross, and a Short-tailed Shearwater to our seabird haul. Heading south, a quick stop at St. Annes Lagoon produced the hoped-for Cape Barren Geese. Exploring some remote corners of Lake Tekapo we turned up two first year Black Stilts, a Wrybill, displaying Great Crested Grebes, and a most relaxed Chukar.

Exploring the Ohau Delta the next morning at Lake Benmore, we watched an adult Black Stilt, dapper Black-fronted Terns, and enjoyed a flight view of another Australasian Bittern. We also enjoyed the scenic drive, albeit in gale force winds, through the Mackenzie Country, shadowed by Mount Cook through Queenstown and on to Te Anau.

A morning walk through the ethereal red beech forests at Lake Gunn demonstrated the tameness of the South Island Robin feeding right at our feet. Dapper Tomtits, stunning Rifleman, raucous Kaka, and cryptic Yellow-crowned Kakariki kept us on our toes. Finally, a Long-tailed Cuckoo broke cover for a flyover view.

At the next stop, our vans were soon being inspected by the cheeky Keas while a family of Blue Ducks complete with fluffy ducklings provided mega views. A harsh cackling turned our attention to a second New Zealand Falcon. Our next conquest was the Rock Wren. Our strategy of "spread out and wait" finally yielded the hoped-for shout, and there it was—one of New Zealand's great birds. Through the Homer Tunnel and on to Milford Sound, Brown Creepers put on a fine display; unbelievably, we saw even more Blue Ducks; we squeaked up a stoat; and our boat trip was awesome.

From Te Anau to Dunedin we had been so successful that our only possible bird to search for was Little Owl. This bird is not easy to encounter in New Zealand, but as I waited at a railway stop sign, Dave asked me to stop a little bit longer, and there was a Little Owl on the power line. Great work! Our afternoon on the Otago Peninsula showed us Yellow-eyed Penguins with fluffy chicks, a newborn New Zealand fur seal, and an impressive bull Hooker's sea lion, while the strong winds made for a fine performance of the nesting Northern Royal Albatross at Taiaroa Head.

Taking leave of Dunedin we birded our way into the Catlins. With some great guidance by Ian we were into a forest valley, and before long came the staccato chatter of the rare Yellowhead. With a short wait we angled ourselves into view and they commenced feeding over our heads, the wonderful "Bush Canary." A fortuitous stop at Waikawa Bay produced an acrobatic pod of Hector's dolphins, one energetic individual breaching half-a-dozen times in a row. Before we knew it, we were into our small planes and transferred to Stewart Island.

Our final full day of birding in New Zealand on Stewart Island was as good as it gets. We kicked-off in a water taxi to Ulva Island. The South Island Saddleback performed superbly and we observed the distinctive juvenile plumage of this recently split taxon. A mob of chattering passerines put us onto a pair of roosting Moreporks, and several folks were lucky enough to get onto a Southern Brown Kiwi feeding in the day. Picked up by our pelagic vessel, we headed out to deeper water and soon had a cloud of White-capped and Salvin's albatrosses around the boat. We enjoyed several views of Cook's Petrel of the Codfish Island population and were almost hand-feeding Southern Skuas. After dinner we headed out for a final kiwi search and enjoyed the most incredible view of a giant female Southern Brown Kiwi that actually walked between the legs of one participant. It was the grand finale of a great trip.

Many thanks to my co-leader Ian Southey who did such a wonderful job, and a special thank you to all the participants, who made it such a pleasant tour.