New Zealand Highlights Nov 29—Dec 16, 2012

Posted by Ian Southey

Ian Southey

Ian Southey is a New Zealander with a strong interest in the natural history of his country, particularly birds and their evolution, history, ecology, and conservation. He ...

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Our tour began with a drive through Auckland and out to Tawharanui Regional Park where we found many boisterous Tuis feeding on the spectacularly flowering Pohutukawa, or New Zealand Christmas Trees. A few Bellbirds tried to sneak past them. The elusive Brown Teal and Buff-banded Rail were easily seen. After a relaxed picnic lunch, we headed across to Pakiri Beach. There we found a pair of the New Zealand Fairy Tern, now the rarest bird in the country with only about 35 of these tiny terns alive at present. Also present were several pairs each of New Zealand Dotterel and Variable Oystercatcher at all stages of nesting. Small oystercatcher chicks on the path led us to detour around them and we then watched the parents vigorously attack the next people who did not divert. Nearby we found several North Island Fernbirds.

A small part of the massive flock of Fairy Prions with some Buller's Shearwaters off Fanal Island on the Hauraki Gulf pelagic trip.

Fairy Prions with some Buller's Shearwaters off Fanal Island— Photo: Ian Southey

The ferry to Tiritiri Island was cancelled due to high winds, but we enjoyed another day of local birding in nice forest, finding a very confiding North Island Robin and a more difficult North Island Tomtit. The highlight was a visit to a colony of Australasian Gannets where we were met by the sights, sounds, and smells of about 4,000 birds tending their eggs and young, squabbling, displaying, or gracefully gliding by.

With the wind easing we embarked on a full-day pelagic trip on the Hauraki Gulf for our introduction to the wealth of seabirds for which New Zealand is well-known. Almost as soon as we cleared the heads we had good numbers of birds, and this continued throughout the day. We found all of the usual species including New Zealand Storm-Petrel along with two pods of common dolphins, but the highlight was the very large feeding flocks of Fairy Prions working hard over schools of trevally; just before lunch we sat amongst about 10,000 of them either feeding in a tight group or sitting on the water. A lone Gray Ternlet came calling overhead, the first of the season. We stopped in at Kawau Island on the way home where we watched a family of the flightless North Island Weka and reached the wharf knowing we had had a full day.

An early start saw us at Miranda well before the high tide. This famous site did not let us down as we watched thousands of Bar-tailed Godwits and Red Knots come in to roost. A handy flock gave us great views of Wrybill, and they were later joined by Sharp-tailed and Curlew sandpipers. Black-billed Gulls were gathering nesting material nearby for a colony forming on the shell bank with White-fronted Terns. A quick stop at Whangamarino Swamp gave us good scope views of two Australasian Bitterns, and then it was on to Rotorua. The hotel overlooked the thermal area with a boiling mud pool out the window and a steaming geyser beyond. We wound up the day with an entertaining and informative Maori cultural evening before sharing a meal cooked in the hangi, a traditional earth oven.

North Island Kaka on Kapiti Island.

North Island Kaka on Kapiti Island.— Photo: Ian Southey


It was a damp, gray day at Pureora Forest, but the primary rainforest there was magnificent. Unfortunately the light was poor and most bird sightings were near-silhouettes, but we viewed North Island Kaka and Yellow-crowned Parakeets. During a quick stop at the Otaki oxidation ponds, New Zealand Grebes and Black-fronted Plover were the highlights.

With better weather than expected, we embarked on the boat for Kapiti Island hoping to see some of the North Island forest birds we had missed or seen poorly. A vigorous climb brought us to the higher parts of the island with flowering Rata where large numbers of Tui, Bellbird, and several Kaka squabbled over the abundant blossoms. We had close views of Stitchbird and Saddleback before hurrying down to meet the boat to our accommodation at the north end. At the water's edge we had a brief but very close view of Long-tailed Cuckoo. We were shuttled to our accommodation where we were warmly received and very well fed. There, wild birds live as they should with Weka on the deck, Red-crowned Parakeets and New Zealand Pigeons on the lawn, and a pair of Takahe amongst others. Short local walks gave good views of the forest birds we had not yet seen well, and the night walk produced a Morepork and a Little Penguin, but unfortunately not the Little Spotted Kiwi this time.

The weather forecast was not good, nor was the view out the window, so we packed for an early departure and returned to the mainland. We visited the Waikanae Estuary and found a pond with waterfowl sheltered from the wind. Less sheltered places were not comfortable so we opted for a long early lunch. The strong winds suggested a productive crossing of Cook Strait, but they eased and there was little variety in the seabirds, although two White-capped Albatrosses and large numbers of Fairy Prions were seen. In the sheltered waters of Queen Charlotte Sound we had distant but clear views of three Rough-faced Shags, a very rare and highly localized endemic.

South Island Saddleback.

South Island Saddleback.— Photo: Ian Southey

A fine and calm day greeted us for a cruise on the Marlborough Sounds. We saw Spotted Shags and then 24 Rough-faced Shags at roost before proceeding to Blumine Island. There we sat just off the beach watching Weka when calls alerted us to the presence of two Orange-fronted Parakeets, which gave identifiable views of this critically endangered bird. On Motuara Island we walked to the summit, getting good close views of South Island Saddlebacks, Yellow-crowned Parakeets, and a first year New Zealand Falcon. On the return leg a pod of 6–8 Orca was viewed from fairly close quarters. We reached Kaikoura with comfortable accommodation and a fine meal in the evening.

Another pleasant morning saw us birding around Kaikoura, spending time with common finches and also finding a striking male Cirl Bunting. On the coast we explored rock platforms and visited the Red-billed Gull colony, watching unconcerned parents with chicks at close range. On an afternoon pelagic trip, good sea conditions and a willing skipper allowed us to head further out than normal with good results. In the cooler water we saw quite different birds from those farther north including four species of albatross and many other species in a scrum around the chum ball, or flying by, notably including a Gray-backed Storm-Petrel. We also saw a group of birds feeding on freshly dead whole squid.

At St. Anne's Lagoon we expected a Cape Barren Goose, and found six. At Tekapo we took our lunch to Lake Macgregor for a picnic. Amongst the other waterfowl were a pair of displaying Great Crested Grebes and we later saw their nest nearby. There was an adult Black Stilt on the shoreline and nearby we found 3 more of them, comparing one to a Pied Stilt in the same scope view. We also found a Wrybill and several Banded Dotterels before moving on to the hotel.

Great Crested Grebe on the nest at Lake Macgregor.

Great Crested Grebe on the nest at Lake Macgregor.— Photo: Ian Southey


At the Tasman River Delta we found Banded Dotterels with very small chicks but few other birds. At Mt. Cook we saw several forest species including Rifleman and a pair of South Island Fantails that included a black morph bird characteristic of this subspecies. A short hike allowed us to view the Tasman Glacier. Having not had satisfactory views of Black-fronted Terns, we tried several places before finding them at Ahuriri River where we had lunch while watching them feeding over the river and the grassland, sometimes at close range, before we headed on to TeAnau.

Along the road to Milford Sound we stopped for forest birds where the highlights were Yellow-crowned Parakeets seen well twice and a close fly-by from three Kaka. At Homer Tunnel we had some teasing glimpses of Rock Wren, but then found their nest and were rewarded with good views of the pair carrying food in. We had good weather for a cruise on the spectacular Milford Sound in the afternoon. On the return trip a Kea, which had evaded us, was easily found sitting for good views on a road sign, but Blue Ducks remained elusive as we returned to TeAnau.

We arrived in Dunedin in time for lunch and an early check-in before heading out to the Otago Peninsula in the afternoon. A short cruise around Taiaroa Head showed us Northern Royal Albatrosses at their best. There were many cormorants around including our first Bronze Shags on their chimney pot nests. We then moved on to the Yellow-eyed Penguin colony, watching these birds coming out of the water and climbing the hill face to their nests. Two bull New Zealand sea lions patrolled the shore and emerged from the sea for a brief stand-off before one returned to the sea. We then viewed a New Zealand fur seal colony with many newly born pups.

A flightless Stewart Island Weka catching a crab on Ulva Island.

A flightless Stewart Island Weka catching a crab on Ulva Island.— Photo: Ian Southey

We visited the Catlins in high winds, but found a sheltered corner where we saw a Shining Cuckoo, and keener members of the group earned their serious birder's badge to get close looks at two Yellowheads. We drove south through rain, but the weather began to improve again as we traveled to Stewart Island, so we had a late but successful night with good views of two Southern Tokoeka, watching one feeding at very close range.

We spent a relaxed morning on Ulva Island—a great day—with excellent encounters with all the key species including the endemic subspecies: Stewart Island Robin and Stewart Island Weka. After lunch on the wharf we were picked up for an afternoon pelagic. We started with good views of a pair of Brown Skuas and then searched the coast unsuccessfully for penguins, but found two sea lions. Farther out, hundreds of Sooty Shearwaters flew past and a chumming session brought in five species of albatrosses and other seabirds. Nearing home, the skipper and one of the party glimpsed a Fiordland Crested Penguin that dived just ahead of the boat, but it could not be found again. A tired but happy crew of birders ate their last supper fairly quietly and slipped off to an early bed after a great day.