New Zealand Highlights Nov 29—Dec 16, 2011

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 its great expectations of stunning scenery, special bird life, tasty food, and wonderfully friendly people. It was a great trip!

We commenced in Auckland, convening at the airport and making a short drive to the Salty Dog Inn at Snell's Beach. After lunch we headed to Pakiri where we were soon admiring New Zealand Dotterels with tiny chicks, and then enjoyed a superb view of a Fairy Tern. This was followed by a Buff-banded Rail that decided to take a bath while under scope observation. Next up, a North Island Fernbird perched for a superb photo op. After Pakiri we headed to Tawhrhanoui, a new site for this tour. We were immediately amongst the birds and enjoyed sightings of the rare endemic Brown Teal, Kaka, Gray Gerygone, Bellbird, Tui, North Island Robin, and sneaky glimpses for some of the elusive Spotless Crake; quite the first day.

North Island Kokako

North Island Kokako— Photo: Ian Southey

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 in the forest and enjoying superb views of Stitchbird, Whitehead, North Island Robin, and Red-crowned Kakarikis. Flax flowers left golden pollen crowns on Bellbirds and Tuis. After substantial detective work, we tracked down a North Island Kokako which, after some initial skulky behavior, perched and sang for us at remarkably close range—truly a fantastic experience. We easily located Greg, the 19-year-old celebrity Takahe, and found another pair of Takahe with a delightful black fluffy chick with bright white mandible tips.

A pelagic trip to the Hauraki Gulf heading out to the Mokohinau Islands provided a great day at sea. Birds were in prodigious quantities and provided constant excellent views. Some of the best birds seen included a Black-winged Petrel, a Pycroft's Petrel (confirmed with some great photos), more than two hundred Cook's Petrels, several Black Petrels, super views of Little Shearwater, hundreds of Fairy Prions and White-faced Storm-Petrels, and the amazing total of 16 delightful Gray Ternlets. The major bird of the day, the recently rediscovered New Zealand Storm-Petrel, made repeat appearances, providing crippling views. Beyond the birds, feeding a scrum of bronze whaler sharks was another eye-opening feature of the day.

After three comfortable nights at the Salty Dog Inn we were off to Whangamarino Swamp to try for the threatened Australasian Bittern. After a lengthy search we eventually made a breakthrough with a fine scope view. A Glossy Ibis was a bonus for our trip list. We continued on to Miranda for the incoming tide. It was well worth the effort as we enjoyed some surreal shorebirding. Ultra-tame Wrybills kept the scarcer visitors non-alarmed. Searching through the shorebirds turned up the long-staying Marsh Sandpiper, a Pacific Golden-Plover, and a few Sharp-tailed Sandpipers and New Zealand Dotterels, while the bulk of the migrant shorebirds included a thousand or more Bar-tailed Godwits with a smaller number of Red Knots.

At Rotorua, our rooms overlooked bubbling mud and sulphurous geysers, while the evening Maori performance saw us enjoying the traditional war dance called the haka (we particularly enjoyed the "go crazy" step), a hangi Maori feast (delicious) along with explanation of tattoos, Maori weapons, and the wonderful poi. It made for a lively evening.


Rifleman— Photo: Ian Southey

Before leaving Rotorua behind we visited the sulphurous lakes and had great views of New Zealand Grebe and New Zealand Scaup. Next we were off to Pureora Forest where we had crunching views of a Rifleman at a nest, a flyover Long-tailed Cuckoo, and superb scope views of Kaka. A stop near Foxton produced our first Royal Spoonbills looking great in breeding plumage, with a pair of Australian Gull-billed Terns making a distant appearance. A final stop at Otaki yielded the hoped for Black-fronted Dotterel and before we knew it we were at Paraparaumu.

With a favorable weather forecast we were on the boat to Kapiti Island, another famous island sanctuary. We enjoyed repeat sightings of genuinely secretive Takahe, Brown Teal, Weka, North Island Robin, Whitehead, Kaka, and dozens of impressive New Zealand Pigeons, New Zealand Pipits, and two more flight views (one of these being particularly good) of the elusive Long-tailed Cuckoo. The real performance came after sundown. We started with a bang as we scored a superb view of a Morepork at dusk. We finished with some incredible views of the Little Spotted Kiwi—a just reward for our quiet searching. Little Penguins came ashore at night and distracted us on our kiwi search.

We made a mid-morning dash from Kapiti Island and caught the inter-island ferry to Picton on the South Island. The ferry made for some good seabirding with our first sightings of Hutton's Shearwater and Westland Petrels, and a pod of more than one hundred common dolphins being notable.

A boat trip up Queen Charlotte Sound was very relaxing in glassy conditions. We had incredible sightings of the rare endemic King Shag loafing on the rocks. Our best view of a New Zealand Falcon was made at Long Island, while good numbers of Arctic Jaegers and Fluttering Shearwaters sat on the ocean surface at close range. We made a few stops en route to Kaikoura. At Wairau Lagoon we located another Glossy Ibis, this one in smart breeding plumage. At Lake Grassmere, Double-banded Plovers were in good form with a smattering of migrant waders including an excellent Pectoral Sandpiper and a Red-necked Stint.

In Kaikoura, on a fabulous morning, some folks opted for the early morning whale-watching trip and enjoyed three bull sperm whales at close range with a Southern Giant-Petrel adult being a bit late seasonally. The non whale-watchers had a cracking male Cirl Bunting singing away at close range. We decided to run our two seabirding trips into one extended trip to visit a deep water sea mount. It was a brilliant trip with the usual amazing views of Wandering, Southern and Northern Royal, Salvin's, and White-capped albatrosses fighting for food with Northern Giant-Petrels, and Westland, White-chinned, and Cape petrels joining the melee often less than a meter away. The deepwater strategy started to reel in results with several Cook's Petrels, a Pycroft's Petrel again well-photographed (possibly a first South Island record), a Wilson's Storm-Petrel, several Gray-faced Petrels, and a Short-tailed Shearwater making for a quite a diverse list.

The next morning we were heading south with a quick stop at St. Annes Lagoon producing the hoped for Cape Barren Geese. Another New Zealand Falcon put in a brief appearance for some, while exploring some remote corners of Lake Tekapo turned up three splendid adult Black Stilts, a few Wrybills, displaying Great Crested Grebes, and a most relaxed pair of Chukars. While exploring the Ohau Delta at Lake Benmore, dapper Black-fronted Terns gave us superb views.

We enjoyed the scenic drive (stopping for another Black Stilt, this time in an irrigation paddock) through the Mackenzie Country shadowed by Mount Cook through Queenstown before detouring up to the Routeburn Track via Glenorchy. We enjoyed a particularly lovely lunch at the local café. After a lengthy search we turned up a single Yellowhead, several South Island Tomtits, South Island Robin, and stunning looks of our first cooperative Yellow-crowned Kakarikis. Now it was onwards to Te Anau and the famous Milford Sound.

Yellow-crowned Kakariki

Yellow-crowned Kakariki— Photo: Ian Southey

At the first stop our vans were soon being inspected by the cheeky Keas. 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 collecting feathers for a nest. The pace was maintained soon after when a pair of Blue Ducks provided mega views. Through the Homer Tunnel and onto Milford Sound, Brown Creepers put on a fine display, and a Shining Bronze-Cuckoo was lured into close range for a lengthy sighting. The weather improved for a delightful boat trip on the spectacular Milford Sound.

From Te Anau to Dunedin we drove pretty much straight through, twitching an Eastern Cattle Egret before being delayed by a flat tire in our search for the absent Little Owl. Our foggy afternoon on the Otago Peninsula showed us Yellow-eyed Penguins at close range with fluffy chicks, a bunch of New Zealand fur seals, a couple of impressive bull Hooker's sea lions, and the best sightings of Northern Royal Albatross at Taiaroa Head, sitting on the ocean surface. Stewart Island Shags completed our list of possible endemic cormorants.

Taking leave of Dunedin we birded our way into the Awarua Bay near Bluff. Our major highlight was a great view of a South Island Fernbird and our final New Zealand Pipit. Before we knew it we were into our small planes and transferred to Stewart Island. After dinner we headed out for a kiwi search and enjoyed the most incredible views of two giant female Southern Brown Kiwis; they foraged unconcernedly at close range for as long as we wished. It was the grand finale to a lengthy day.

Our final full day of birding in New Zealand on Stewart Island was as good as it gets despite the rainy and windy conditions that so often dominate the weather this far south. We kicked off in a water taxi to Ulva Island. The South Island Saddleback performed well and we observed the distinctive juvenile plumage of this recently split taxon. Yellowhead, Rifleman, Brown Creeper, Tomtit, and South Island Robin made final appearances, while the cheeky Kaka and both Yellow and Red-crowned kakarikis were always well-appreciated.

Picked up by our pelagic vessel, we headed out to deeper water and soon had a crowd of White-capped and Salvin's albatrosses around the boat. Some absolutely enormous Southern Royal Albatrosses showed their true colors by throttling several of the smaller speedier mollymawks that beat them to the fish scraps. We enjoyed numerous views of Cook's Petrel of the Codfish Island population. Things started to heat up when the first of several Mottled Petrels made repeat appearances followed by at least four Buller's Albatross, followed by at least two Broad-billed Prions. Our final birds for our New Zealand tour were some splendid Southern Skuas that we could hand-feed from the back deck.

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