New Zealand Highlights Nov 29—Dec 16, 2013

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 ...

Related Trips

Our New Zealand Highlights tour proved to be very successful again this year. A wonderful touring country, with excellent infrastructure, great food, and very friendly people, New Zealand is home to some extraordinary birds.

On the morning of December first we were out with the binoculars at Mangere. Our first stroke of luck was finding a Pectoral Sandpiper that was very close and very tame. Only a very small number of “Pecs” migrate to New Zealand. Sharing the mudflats were a small number of graceful Black-billed Gulls (now an endangered species), numerous handsome Paradise Shelducks, and a sprinkling of Bar-tailed Godwits, Pied Stilts, Pacific Black Ducks, and Australasian Shovelers. We continued driving north across Auckland and navigated through to Pakiri Beach. Here we watched a pair of New Zealand Fairy Terns at a nest. With only 31 adult birds in the population, this is perhaps close to the rarest bird in the world. Sharing the site were several pairs of New Zealand Dotterels, many with recently hatched “fluffball” chicks. Several of the keener participants shed their shoes and socks, waded across the stream, and were escorted carefully by a warden to the perimeter of the protected nesting area. Following a tasty lunch we then moved to Tawharanui Regional Park where we were greeted by pugnacious Tui—one of New Zealand’s many high quality native birds. We managed to locate two pairs of Brown Teal hiding in dense aquatic vegetation—a feature of this largely nocturnal duck. A stroke of luck was finding a Laughing Kookaburra; an introduced species from Australia, it maintains only a very small and elusive population in the North Island. We then settled into the Salty Dog Inn, our very comfortable base for the next three nights.

The rare New Zealand Storm-Petrel off Little Barrier Island.

The rare New Zealand Storm-Petrel off Little Barrier Island.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

The weather gods were shining the next day. In superb conditions we boated over to Tiri Tiri Matangi Island. In the carpark we had the good fortune to find a very obliging juvenile Buff-banded Rail in the saltmarsh: a great start. Once at Tiri we were soon amongst the forest birds locating our first chattering North Island Saddlebacks, scruffy Red-crowned Parakeets, squeaking Stitchbirds, and chickadee-like Whiteheads. Then we heard a Kokako and made a direct beeline towards the powerful song. After a bit of searching we located our first Kokako, and it made for some challenging viewing, buried in thick vegetation, but eventually showing well for all. By the end of the day we had found at least five individual Kokako—this is one of the great birds of the world, in my humble opinion! Further exploration in the forest found the group enjoying translocated populations of Rifleman, Fernbird, and North Island Robin. A brief view of a Takahe was taken, while Brown Quail were numerous and tame.

The weather honeymoon was short-lived and the next day we were on the Norma Jean, skippered by Piers, for our pelagic trip to the Hauraki Gulf. It was a lumpy day at sea with a stiff northeast wind. One interesting experience was watching Ian, especially, and Dion secure the life raft in a hefty swell. We headed straight to Northwest Reef and chummed up big time with spectacular results. Hundreds of White-faced Storm-Petrels and Cook’s Petrels mixed with smaller numbers of Fairy Prions and Fluttering Shearwaters, and Buller’s Shearwaters and Flesh-footed Shearwaters joined the throng at arm’s-length, hoovering up the food. Then a New Zealand Storm-Petrel made a critical appearance, followed by a second individual. They showed beautifully on multiple occasions, clearly hungry. At the last minute a single Black Petrel made an also much needed appearance and showed well at close range. We cruised into the lee of Little Barrier Island, a spectacular and highly important strict conservation reserve in New Zealand. With the weather forecast deteriorating and several participants greener than the New Zealand countryside, we headed back to Sand Spit.

Wrybill at Miranda; the only bird in the world with a laterally curved bill, always to the right.

Wrybill at Miranda; the only bird in the world with a laterally curved bill, always to the right.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

It was an early start the next morning as we attempted to avoid Auckland’s peak hour traffic and connect with high tide at the Miranda shorebird roost. Despite constant rain it lightened off at Miranda and we did very well here. Beyond the thousands of Bar-tailed Godwits and hundreds of Red Knots, White-fronted Terns, Black-billed Gulls, and South Island Pied Oystercatchers, we found an excellent diversity of much scarcer East Asian shorebirds. This included a single Black-tailed Godwit in breeding plumage, a Marsh Sandpiper also in breeding plumage, plus Pacific Golden Plover, Ruddy Turnstone, Red-necked Stint, Curlew Sandpiper, and Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. Best of all were the Wrybills, tame as ever, and showing their asymmetrical right-handed bills to perfection. After soaking up the shorebird spectacular we moved to Whangamarino Swamp. After a shortish search we made the breakthrough, spotting an Australasian Bittern and scoping it well as it adopted a variety of poses. We returned to Miranda in a mercy dash for a pair of Swarovski’s left behind. A bonus from this was spotting a small flock of Rooks. Traveling to Rotorua, the rain returned so we checked in early and then spent the evening at a Maori cultural show that was a bit of fun.

The following day was a very wet affair and we were largely washed out at Pureora Forest, although we spotted Kaka at the forest tower, a pair of soggy Whiteheads, and a North Island Robin. At Takaanu we picked up New Zealand Grebe, one adult swimming towards us and showing beautifully. California Quail, Dunnock, and Eurasian Coot were new for the trip. Heading into the wilds of Tongariro National Park, it was a spectacular breakthrough when a pair of Blue Ducks showed superbly. With relentless driving rain we managed to find a male Tomtit and, amazingly, a high-flying Long-tailed Cuckoo was seen by some lucky folks. There was little else to do except go to our lovely hotel and dry off a bit.

The rain eased off the next day and we were able to get some excellent views of a snow-capped Mount Ruapehu in the morning. We drove south to Foxton and dropped into the Manawatu Estuary for high tide. Looking through several hundred Bar-tailed Godwits and Red Knots produced a small number of Pacific Golden Plovers. Of note were two quite rare visitors in New Zealand, a single Little Tern and single Common Tern. After lunch we followed up on a reported Hardhead, a rare visitor from Australia, but had no luck with this, although we had several very close New Zealand Grebes. We then checked out a tidal lagoon where a short search produced the hoped for Black-fronted Dotterel. These exquisite small plovers are established in very small numbers in New Zealand from their home base in Australia. We drove through to Paraparaumu, our jumping-off base for our trip to Kapiti Island the following day.

Kaka on Kapiti Island

Kaka on Kapiti Island— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

After clearing the biosecurity checks we were on the boat trailered into the ocean off a tractor. After a half-hour crossing we made it to Kapiti Island Nature Lodge and settled in. The weather was typically erratic, although it improved as the day progressed, eventually turning sunny and warm. We explored the network of trails. Birds were abundant including lots of Weka, New Zealand Pigeon, Red-fronted Parakeet, Whitehead, North Island Robin, New Zealand Fantail, Silvereye, Bellbird, and Tui.  We had stunning views of Kaka, a timid pair of Takahe, North Island Saddleback and, with some good luck, a daytime Morepork. Folks out exploring also reported Brown Teal, Tomtit, and New Zealand Pipit. After dark we went out searching for the Little Spotted Kiwi. We found a total of five individuals and everyone who came out secured a good view of this elusive, endangered endemic. We also spotted Morepork again, Brown Teal, and a Little Penguin. All up, a very good result. The food was delicious and the hospitality, as usual, outstanding.

With strong southerly winds peaking in the morning we had to delay our departure slightly, but the captain skillfully picked us up and negotiated the boat back on the trailer in a complicated swell. A short while later we were on the Arahura, the inter-island ferry across Cook Strait, headed to Picton on the South Island. Gale force winds made pelagic birding a blowy affair on the upper decks of the ferry, but those who braved it saw hundreds of Fairy Prions and a small number of White-capped Albatross.

Our morning boat trip on the Marlborough Sound with Captain Paul was by contrast a mirror-calm affair. It was a great trip with point-blank views of Little Penguin, Arctic Jaeger, Fluttering Shearwater, the endangered endemic King Shag, Spotted Shag and, most unusually, a Mottled Petrel. We landed on Blumine Island and had a good look around for Orange-fronted Parakeet which proved elusive. After lunch we checked out a large nesting colony of Royal Spoonbills and then scoped our first Double-banded Plovers, looking smart in breeding plumage. We made it to scenic Kaikoura for dinner.

Mottled Petrel - an unusual discovery inside the sheltered Marlborough Sound off Picton.

Mottled Petrel – an unusual discovery inside the sheltered Marlborough Sound off Picton.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Glassy sea conditions prevailed for our pelagic in the Kaikoura sea canyon—one of the most productive ocean areas on the planet. This was another outstanding trip with 14 species of albatross and petrel giving mega views at often less than arm’s-length. Highlights were many and it was difficult to go past Northern Giant-Petrels fighting over the food and adopting a variety of agonistic postures. These were seen off by a particularly voracious Wandering Albatross while both Northern and Southern Royal albatross and dozens of White-capped and Salvin’s albatross came in for a feed.

Smaller petrels included numerous chattering Cape and White-chinned petrels with smaller numbers of the rare Westland Petrels. We finally caught up with Gray-faced (Great-winged) Petrel that made a few close passes by the boat. At different times Fairy Prion, and Buller’s, Sooty, and Hutton’s shearwaters joined the throng. It was also spectacular to be joined by Dusky Dolphin and New Zealand Fur Seal, and, as a grand finale, the elusive Hector’s Dolphin made repeat approaches around the boat and indulged in some breaching behaviors—a rare event.

After the boat trip we tracked down a male Cirl Bunting that sang from a prominent perch in the scope. A Shining Bronze-Cuckoo was not as cooperative, as it flew past and kept on going. Heading south we jagged a dark morph Eastern Reef Egret flying along the coastal highway. Our usual stop at Cheviot delivered a trio of Cape Barren Geese lurking in the shade, eventually moving into the sunny pasture. We then did some serious miles to spend the night in Twizel in the heart of the scenic Mackenzie Country.

Cape Petrel

Cape Petrel— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Our luck was holding with Mount Cook almost making a complete appearance in the alpine panorama enlivened by glacial lakes and roadside flowering events of showy Lupines. Birds were in good form as we found two pairs of beautiful Black Stilts, several pairs of smart Great Crested Grebes, stunning Black-fronted Terns (sadly in steep decline), and a well-appreciated pair of Chukar that showed up at the last second. It was mission accomplished here, so we motored to Te Anau via Queenstown for our big day in Fiordland and the famous Milford Sound.

The morning started very well with a lovely walk in superb old growth Beech (Nothofagus) forest. We quickly located a pair of Yellowheads and with patience were rewarded with superb views as they foraged low down. They were joined by Brown Creepers, another South Island endemic passerine. Rifleman was in good form too, and we saw two pairs very well indeed. The South Island Robin, tame as ever, gave intimately close views. A pair of Yellow-crowned Parakeets, much desired, fed higher up in the mid canopy and also cooperated well. We drove higher up towards the Homer Tunnel to be greeted by a trio of curious and playful Kea. Our good luck continued when we found a pair of Blue Ducks with a week-old duckling, a rare sight indeed. Arriving at the tunnel itself though, our good luck appeared to be on the wane, as the rain returned with a vengeance and the Rock Wren trail was closed due to avalanche concerns. While the folks sheltered in the vans, Dion and Ian kept an eye on the scree slope. About an hour-and-a-half later a little squeak alerted us to a Rock Wren and we were able to get a good view of this great little bird, bobbing constantly. The folks made a quick dash and success was had by all.

On the other side of the pass it was really tipping down and there was little else we could do except enjoy a cup of hot tea. It eased off for our boat trip on the Milford Sound with many of the peaks like the Mitre coming into view. The hundreds of waterfalls were pumping from the runoff. We spotted a few more birds including the Tomtit which was a big hit. We retraced our steps back to Te Anau.

A rare sighting: a Blue Duck with a week-old duckling in Fiordland.

A rare sighting: a Blue Duck with a week-old duckling in Fiordland.— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

The drive to Dunedin the following day was uneventful. In the afternoon in lovely conditions we commenced exploring the Otago Peninsula. A one-hour boat trip around the Taiaroa Head revealed a dozen or more Northern Royal Albatross nesting and flying around the headland. Large nesting colonies of Bronze (Stewart Island) Shags were humming with activity. With plenty of New Zealand Fur Seals, Spotted Shags, Royal Spoonbills, and a scattering of other seabirds including a White-chinned Petrel, it was a lively trip. Continuing to a private coastal reserve we had superb encounters with 15 or so Yellow-eyed Penguins. These monotypic New Zealand endemic penguins are special birds indeed. We finished up by scoping a Hooker’s Sea Lion—a rare endemic, rather beastly seal that is making a slow comeback in the Dunedin district.

The next morning we explored the Catlins—a coastal mountain range with extensive areas of temperate rainforest. Birding along one forest trail we picked up Yellowheads including a pair feeding chicks in a nest, loads of Tomtits, several Rifleman, Gray Gerygone, Brown Creeper, and our old favorites like Tui and Bellbirds. The major excitement was a good view of a Shining Bronze-cuckoo, surpassing our previous flyover. Michael was lucky enough to pick up a New Zealand Falcon. A few hours later we were in our small planes and heading across the Foveaux Strait to Stewart Island for two nights.

With favorable weather conditions we made the evening journey by boat to Ocean Beach. Right at dusk (that comes at 10:30 pm this far south at this time of year) we connected with a large female Southern Brown Kiwi probing in the seaweed wrack for amphipods. She was not overly shy and gave a lengthy view in the open before retiring back into the forest and a suspected nesting responsibility. Interestingly the Southern Brown Kiwi shares incubation duties—in the other species it is done solely by the male. On the return walk back to the boat we found a second kiwi, this one amazingly tame and probing the soil on a bank less than a meter from us as we filed past. The night was made even more atmospheric as we heard chattering Mottled Petrels flying over us in the darkness.

Buller's Albatross off Stewart Island (a New Zealand breeding endemic).

Buller’s Albatross off Stewart Island (a New Zealand breeding endemic).— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Feeling a tad weary from our late night kiwi excursion, we caught a later water taxi over to Ulva Island. The forest birding here is excellent and we observed numerous Brown Creepers, Yellowheads, the Stewart Island subspecies of South Island Robin, Rifleman, both Red-crowned and a pair of Yellow-crowned Parakeets, mating Kaka, and Tomtit. The main attraction here is the chance to see the rare South Island Saddleback, a species making a carefully managed recovery from the brink of extinction. We ultimately found about five birds including a couple of juveniles, a distinct plumage that was historically described as a separate species of saddleback before the confusion was sorted out. The distinctive juvenile plumage is one of the major differences between the North and South Island saddlebacks.

Our last activity of the tour was a pelagic trip to Wreck Reef and Bench Island. It was a fitting end to our great trip. First, a big bull Hooker’s Sea Lion came swimming around us and hoovered up some Blue Cod scraps. A big turn-up was a pair of Chestnut-breasted Shelducks, a rare visitor from Australia. This species was new even for the resident bird guides! Heading further out, a beautiful Buller’s Albatross came in to the developing albatross throng attracted to the free food. We watched a Southern Royal Albatross literally throttle a White-capped Albatross. Hundreds of Common Diving-Petrels were feeding in rafts, giving views so close you could study their blue feet. Two pairs of Southern Skuas, of the strikingly pale subspecies lonnbergii, came in to be fed, performing graceful acrobatic aerial swoops on airborne fish scraps. Cook’s Petrel of the Codfish Island nesting population gave good views. Other highlights included a juvenile Southern Giant-Petrel, Yellow-eyed Penguin, Stewart Island Weka, and Little Penguin. A Blue Shark swam past us.

Our tour was at an end. It was a great tour with great company. Thank you for traveling with us.

I would especially like to thank my co-leader Ian Southey who worked so hard and whose knowledge of the New Zealand environment and history is so wide. Many other people helped us on tour including Captains Piers, Paul, and Tighe in Hauraki, Picton, and Stewart Island respectively. Special thanks also to Team Kapiti-Manaki, Amo, Lindsey, and Robin for making our stay so great.