New Zealand Highlights Nov 28—Dec 15, 2015

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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We all met up mid-morning in Auckland, at a hotel close to the international airport. On the road quickly, and although the tide was not perfect, we stopped by the near Mangere Wetlands and were soon starting our list of New Zealand birds. The best were four Brown Teal, one of the rarer endemic ducks hidden amongst a throng of more common waterfowl like Black Swan, Gray Teal, “mongrel” Mallards, Australasian Shoveler, and the showy Paradise Shelduck. Driving north of New Zealand’s largest city, we had a very enjoyable session at Tawharanui Regional Park, a predator-proofed peninsula that goes from strength to strength in conservation value. The great news is that Takahe, the giant endemic flightless swamphen, has recently been liberated here, and we were fortunate to find a pair, as they can be quite timid at this time of year when they are nesting. The views were excellent, as they were for the delightful New Zealand Dotterel that was nesting on the beach. In the forest we found our first North Island Saddleback, fly-over Red-crowned Parakeets and Kaka, and Whitehead amongst an abundance of Tui and Bellbirds. A surprise New Zealand Pipit was found bathing where the stream met the beach, and it flew up to the group to dry off and preen. It was time for lunch, where a lovely café stocked with fresh local produce did the trick, a theme that would be played out on a daily basis—delicious! We moved along to three different sites before we made the breakthrough with the ultra-rare New Zealand Fairy Tern. This is an extremely rare bird, 40 individuals in the entire global population, only 9 females. Any sighting is lucky, particularly after this largely failed breeding season.  We checked in to the Salty Dog Inn for a three-night stay. In the evening we could hear the Cook’s Petrels calling in flight as they commuted to their nesting colony at Little Barrier Island.

South Island Takahe

South Island Takahe— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

Our second full day in “Enzed” was dedicated to a pelagic trip on the seabird-rich Hauraki Gulf. Aboard the Assassin with Captain Brett, we made our way in a fairly lumpy swell beyond the Mokohinau Islands. This is one of the great pelagic birding days on the planet, seabirds in an abundance and diversity unparalleled anywhere. Hundreds to thousands of Buller’s Shearwaters, Cook’s Petrels, White-faced Storm-Petrels, Fluttering Shearwaters, and Fairy Prions can conceal smaller numbers of scarcer seabirds. We had a great run, finding at least four of the rare and recently rediscovered New Zealand Storm-Petrel, while the Black Petrel provided the largest turnout in years, more than forty birds being logged. Also recorded were Little Shearwater, Common Diving-Petrel, Northern Giant-Petrel, Campbell Albatross, White-capped Albatross, Gray-faced Petrel, Sooty and Flesh-footed shearwaters, Little Penguin, and a single Pycroft’s Petrel confirmed retrospectively from photographs. We had an amazing Blue Shark encounter while a pod of Common Dolphins cavorted at close range.

We were off to Tiritiri Matangi Island on a rather busy commercial ferry with school groups and day-trippers to this very interesting sanctuary. Heading out on the trails, the bird life and bird song were impressive. Stitchbirds gave great performances—what a stunning bird. Our first Kokako slinked around, giving several folks less than satisfactory views. Some urgent shouts from Mark brought us in his direction, thinking he had relocated the Kokako, but it was in fact something much more rarely encountered, especially in the daytime—a giant Tuatara. This living fossil reptile which dates back more than 200 million years is amongst the Holy Grail species in field herpetology. With gastral ribs, a pineal eye, 15-month egg incubation, a serrated dorsal crest, powerful jaws, and a longevity exceeding one hundred years, this is one bizarre ectothermic beast. It was an incredibly lucky break. The birds continued to perform well with great sightings of North Island Saddleback, North Island Robin, Red-crowned Kakariki, flocks of Whiteheads and, after a patient wait, superb views of the extraordinary Kokako. As a grand finale we enjoyed a Morepork, the small chocolate-brown hawk-owl that was located roosting near the track on the return walk to the ferry. Again we had done very well on this day.

New Zealand Dotterel

New Zealand Dotterel— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

It was time to start motoring south, and an early start meant we avoided the worst of the Auckland peak hour traffic. Before long we found ourselves overlooking the Whangamarino Swamp, where in record-breaking time we had located two Australasian Bitterns in two minutes. It does not always happen like this! The second bird was quite close, and the views in the scope were excellent. We watched it strike various poses as Swamp Harriers flew over it. On one occasion it adopted the classic neck upright posture. We moved along to the shell beaches of Miranda Shorebird Centre where, after an excellent talk from Keith on New Zealand shorebird migration and ecology, we went to take in what the high tide would produce. With some 4,000 Bar-tailed Godwits and 400 Red Knots present, there were plenty of birds to search through. An Arctic Skua put the flock to flight and that was quite the spectacle. Eventually they re-settled and we found a flock of Wrybills, two Curlew Sandpipers, a Red-necked Stint, and a sprinkling of Ruddy Turnstones. This followed on from a trio of Sharp-tailed Sandpipers and a stunning Marsh Sandpiper, rather unseasonably being in complete breeding plumage. This Marsh Sandpiper, a rare bird in New Zealand, has been present now for three years! We drove through to Rotorua, climbing up the Volcanic Plateau. At Rotorua we were greeted by sulphurous springs and geysers, not to forget our first New Zealand Scaup.

The next morning we were enjoying morning tea on the edge of the Pureora Forest, an outstanding example of the temperate rainforests that used to dominate the Volcanic Plateau before massive habitat destruction took place. The forest edge was lively and we added Yellow-crowned Kakariki, Tomtit, and an excellent fly-over Long-tailed Cuckoo to our account. Eventually a Shining Bronze-Cuckoo was lured into view. Next a pair of New Zealand Falcons started cackling, sending alarm calls from Tui, Kaka, and Australian Magpies resonating through the forest. Being in the forest interior, however, did not help our cause, and the falcons disappeared unseen. We continued south, making an essential stop at Lake Taupo where right on cue a Fernbird popped up in a dense flax/raupo thicket and proceeded to pirouette on the stems for an absolutely fabulous encounter. Proceeding on to Mount Ruapehu, we made another stop, this time in deteriorating weather of showers and increasing wind. Undaunted we explored down to a beautiful stream where, after a bit of a search, we found a pair of Blue Ducks with five recently hatched ducklings—all very cute! To make matters even better we enjoyed two fly-overs by a New Zealand Falcon, the second view even allowing some good color to be seen. A large Rainbow Trout was spied in the clear river.  Our home for the evening was the posh Chateau Tongariro, reminiscent of the Grand Budapest Hotel, a lot of fun with fine dining.


Stitchbird— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

From the Chateau we proceeded to the ski fields at the end of the road towards the summit of Ruapehu. A pair of New Zealand Pipits frequented the carpark. The spectacular scenery here was utilized in the filming of Lord of the Rings. From here it was all downhill to the Kapiti coast, from 9,000 feet to sea level. En route we had a small flock of Rooks, a corvid introduced from Eurasia and subject to eradication orders from agricultural authorities. At the Manawatu Estuary we found our first South Island Pied Oystercatchers, often affectionately called SIPOs. A severe wind was now howling along the coast. We made a stop at Otaki and the gale had one benefit: it pushed a Black-fronted Dotterel into the close corner of the ponds right next to us for a lovely encounter. The New Zealand Grebes were equally confiding. We drove to Paraparaumu and held our breath for the crossing to Kapiti Island.

After being on again, off again, and on again, it was ultimately off again and we cancelled the Kapiti crossing when it seemed a severe “southerly buster” might keep us on the island. This was a shame, but the fickle weather of New Zealand will influence every tour. Hasty plans unfolded. First though, a visit to Waikanae produced a lovely Double-banded Plover in breeding plumage, an increasingly scarce bird on the North Island. We made a visit to Some’s Island in Wellington Harbour. It was home to quite a bunch of Red-fronted Kakariki, our first Spotted Shags and, interestingly, some quite scarce New Zealand reptiles (Spotted Skink and Matua Gecko) and endangered invertebrates (Cook Strait Giant Weta). In the evening we tried for Little Spotted Kiwi at Zealandia Sanctuary, a predator-proofed water catchment area in Wellington. Although we heard the kiwi at close range, and heard its footsteps in the forest, it proved ultimately frustrating. Highlights of our night walk were a pair of foraging Brown Teal, a giant Short-finned Eel more than a meter in length, and a sighting of a Tuatara at its burrow entrance. The work they have done to bring back the biodiversity to this part of New Zealand is highly commendable. Tui, Kaka, and Morepork are amongst their amazing successes at this site.

With a largely free morning in Wellington and having cleaned up the possible diurnal birds, we freed up the morning to have a bit of a lie-in. A visit to the excellent Te Papa Museum was really insightful with exhibitions ranging from Gallipoli, tectonic plates, and New Zealand marine and land life to Maori history and immigration. The screaming southerly as predicted had arrived.  Lunch proved quite complicated due to a medical emergency. With the situation resolved we caught the ferry to the South Island. Seabirds were quite good with good numbers of Shy Albatross, Fluttering Shearwater, and Fairy Prion. We found our first Salvin’s Albatross and Northern Royal Albatross, plus at least three Arctic Skuas. We arrived at Picton and enjoyed a feast of Terakihi, Greenlip Mussels and pate.

South Island Rock Wren

South Island Rock Wren— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

A stunning blue sky and windless morning greeted us in Picton. We were aboard the E-ko with Tristan at the helm and motored out into the placid waters of the Queen Charlotte Sounds to try our luck. Somewhat late this year, several nesting Spotted Shags were still in breeding condition with the emerald facial skin and crest. We spotted a pod of Hector’s Dolphin, a New Zealand endemic diminutive dolphin with lovely patterning and an unusual rounded dorsal fin. At another location we found a flock of King Shags loafing on a point before heading out to search for fish. This relict giant cormorant has a tiny population of only some 800 birds found only in these waters.  Landing on Blumine Island we were greeted by a pair of Wekas. The birdsong and birdlife was prolific with abundant Tui and Bellbirds. Eventually the rare Orange-fronted Kakariki was heard chattering and seen in flight a couple of times, but proved impossible to pin down in the steep, thickly forested terrain for a perched view. Back on board we enjoyed a pod of Dusky Dolphins, some females with tiny calves. Heading south to Kaikoura we made a stop at Wairau Wetlands, home to a large nesting colony of Royal Spoonbills. Jane asked, “What is this black bird with a short decurved bill?” It was, in fact, a fledgling Glossy Ibis, barely capable of flight and the first confirmed breeding record for New Zealand no less! We motored through to Kaikoura where Mark made friends with the local police constable, kind of! We had a magical experience watching pup New Zealand Fur Seals frolicking in a clear freshwater rainforest torrent. On a balmy evening we had dinner at the pub.

The next morning we were skippered by Tracy aboard the Albatross Encounter to the world-famous Kaikoura sea-canyon. In a close cross swell we cleared the peninsula where the swell evened out comfortably and the jet boat lived up to its name. We were joined by a throng of albatrosses including Wandering, Northern and Southern Royal, White-capped, and Salvin’s for unbelievably close views. More than forty Northern Giant-Petrels came in to food and indulged in a lot of aggressive, agonistic postures and the occasional fight. Numbers of dapper Cape Petrels increased as the morning progressed and included a single ”Antarctic” bird with its whiter plumage amongst its duskier “Snares” relatives. Both White-chinned and Westland petrels gave great views, and we had four species of shearwaters with good views of Hutton’s being important here. Back onshore we chased around for Cirl Bunting unsuccessfully until, just as we were leaving town, a fine male was spotted singing on a phone wire. Just in the nick of time! We swept into Christchurch Airport where our now recovered participant rejoined the tour. Hooray for this! We then did some serious miles before gaining altitude into the scenic Mackenzie country with the Southern Alps in view and the turquoise-blue water of Lake Tekapo.


Kea— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

We tried for Chukar the next morning, but despite some solid searching came up empty. Our first Great Crested Grebe went down well. Our next stop was terrific as we had a pair of Black Stilts at close range that interacted with a pair of Pied Stilts before upping and leaving in a huff. With the rare Black Stilts was a scene of Double-banded Plovers, South Island Oystercatchers, Black-billed Gulls, and the beautiful Black-fronted Tern, an insight into the unique braided stream environments of New Zealand’s South Island. These streams are now much degraded by weeds (like Lupins), hydro programs, feral predators, intensive irrigation, and agriculture. The endemic birds are still surviving, but in the case of the Black Stilt only just! The lakes and mountain scenery here are quite stunning. With the birds on the trip list we again had to travel a distance to make it through to Te Anau, crossing alpine passes along the way for a two-night stay. En route we studied nesting Great Crested Grebes at Wanaka that indulged in some excellent behavior.

Our day in Milford Sound dawned sunny with light wind: a glorious day in this neck of the woods. It stayed positively glorious all day. Our birding began at Nobb’s Flat in mixed Beech (Silver, Mountain, and Red) forests. Both Rifleman and Tomtit were in excellent form. The nationally threatened Red Mistletoe (Peraxilla tetrapetala) was in full bloom. Greenhood orchids (Pterostylis) grew in abundance on the forest floor. At our next stop, South Island Robin produced the usual exceptionally tame behaviour, and a pair of Yellow-crowned Kakariki gave a good view. We made a stop near the Homer Tunnel for the Rock Wren. Alpine fields of flowers (like the showy Ranunculus) and tumbled boulders are the home of this scarce endemic. It took a while but eventually everyone managed a good view of this tailless sprite. Through the tunnel to Milford we found our first Kea, the cheeky parrot proving to be a big hit with both the group and tourists in general. On towards the main fiord, we lost Barbara not once but twice! We did, however, locate the Brown Creeper (and Barbara not once but twice!). The boat trip was excellent in sheltered waters, towering cliffs, and dramatic peaks with waterfalls in abundance. It is an amazing location, especially on a bright day like this. We had another stroke of good fortune when we spotted a pair of Fiordland Penguins up on the rocks. They even called and displayed for us. This is quite a rare event, as most have finished breeding at this time of year. We returned to Te Anau, finding a further three Keas, tired but happy. We enjoyed a few laughs with Paolo the waiter!

Black Stilt

Black Stilt— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

A fairly straightforward drive from Te Anau to Dunedin had us in the latter town by lunch. The main highlight was spotting a “Goron” and a Barbary Dove. In the afternoon we headed out to Penguin Place where Kate gave us an excellent presentation on the rare endemic Yellow-eyed Penguin. We headed out via the trenches to the nesting sites on the bush regenerated coastline. We were in luck as we saw four adults and at least three restless ashy-gray chicks at close range. Yellow-eyed Penguins continue to decline, and only about 700 birds nest in the South Island currently. This is nearly a 50% decline in three years, the cause of which has not been fully understood but seems multifaceted.  After enjoying the penguins we went on a boat trip around Taiaroa Headland, famous for its “mainland” nesting colony of Northern Royal Albatross. In the strong wind the albatross were in flight mode, with other birds paired up and “sky-calling.” There were lots of nesting Stewart Island Shags of both plumage morphs. There was a definite “subantarctic” feel in the air with the chill, wild seascape, and albatrosses and penguins at hand. Let’s go further south.

This was a day of gales, bright sunshine, hail, sleet, and horizontal driving rain. The morning was quite sunny, and we had some superb scenery along the Catlin coast at Nugget Point and Kaka Beach. We also found a female Hooker’s Sea Lion hauling up the beach, a subantarctic New Zealand endemic. The weather turned ferocious shortly after. After lunch at the Southland Museum, amidst piles of hail and sleet we hopped in our puddle jumper plane and made the short flight across Foveaux Strait to Stewart Island for a smooth landing. New Zealand Kaka was present in good numbers around our hotel, landing on balconies of the various comfortable, warm rooms. In the evening Philip and Greg decided to run the kiwi tour to Ocean Beach. After some patient waiting and searching after dark, we had absolutely cracking views of two female South Island Brown Kiwis as they foraged on the beach, the first individual wandering up to the group very closely of her own volition. It was great. Mottled Petrel could be heard chattering overhead in the darkness and now once again, deteriorating weather.

Fiordland Penguin

Fiordland Penguin— Photo: Dion Hobcroft

The final full day of the tour proved to be a rather difficult day in the “office.” Gales and driving rain were pretty much constant. We caught a water taxi across to Ulva Island. A family of Wekas were present to greet us. In the forest, birding was slow in the conditions. With time and persistence though, we made the breakthroughs with both South Island Saddleback and the delightful Yellowhead and had excellent views. Thank goodness for this; it tidied up all the extant New Zealand mainland endemic passerines. There were plenty of South Island Robins, Brown Creepers, and a nesting pair of Rifleman. After lunch we rejoined Philip and Greg on the boat and did a bit of exploring offshore, mostly in the lee of the Titi Islands where it was not too rough. There were plenty of birds about including, best of all, several Buller’s Albatross, the Codfish Island breeding Cook’s Petrel, and nesting Southern Skuas. There were hundreds of Common Diving-Petrels and Sooty Shearwaters; Mark spotted a Broad-billed Prion some folks were lucky enough to get on to; and there were plenty of White-capped Albatross and a few giant Southern Royals. It was off to the pub for tea. The following day we flew from Stewart Island back to Invercargill and on home after our fabulous New Zealand odyssey.