New Zealand Highlights Nov 26—Dec 13, 2016

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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Mark and I were back on the road in New Zealand in December 2016 for our annual tour of this fascinating and friendly South Pacific nation, a country that is always a delight to travel in. This year, just before the tour, a massive earthquake hit the coastal South Island town of Kaikoura, resulting in loss of life, closure of the highway, and extensive destruction in the town. To give an indication of the power of the earthquake, some houses had shifted more than eight yards! Kaikoura is one of our popular stops on this trip, but it was not to be on this tour, and we made new plans that worked out well. Here is an account of our wildlife odyssey through “Ao Tearoa.”

New Zealand Fairy Tern

New Zealand Fairy Tern— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


As per usual we all met up in Auckland, the largest city in the country and the closest for international flights. First stop was Mangere, close to the airport, and we were off to a great start as we scoped our first Wrybills, a pair of New Zealand Grebes, a single Brown Teal, and a pair of Black-fronted Dotterels: all quite scarce and difficult birds on this tour! We enjoyed our first Paradise Shelducks, Australasian Shoveler, and lovely Black-billed Gulls. The high tide roost held several thousand Bar-tailed Godwits, hundreds of Red Knots, a small number of Ruddy Turnstones, endemic New Zealand Dotterels, and a single Red-necked Stint. We drove across the city, settled our luggage into the rooms, and kept exploring, this time to the north. At our first stop we had a pair of Buff-banded Rails cavorting on the edge of a tidal pan. At our last stop we had a trio of Fairy Terns catching fish in front of us and a bonus Pacific Reef Heron. We were definitely off to a great start.

A pelagic trip on the Hauraki Gulf was our focus the next day and, as usual, it did not disappoint. Marine ornithologist and good friend Chris Gaskin came out with us. New Zealand is the seabird capital of the world, and the biomass and diversity of birds in the marine waters of New Zealand really is astonishing. The participants could not believe it as the sea boiled with trevally, huge schools of fish containing many thousands. Attending the fish and plankton blooms were thousands of Fairy Prion, Fluttering Shearwater, Buller’s Shearwater, Flesh-footed Shearwater, Sooty Shearwater, Cook’s Petrel, Common Diving-Petrel, and White-faced Storm-Petrels. Schools of Common Dolphins and plunging flotillas of Australasian Gannets worked on the abundance of protein. Diligent searching produced the rewards of New Zealand Storm-Petrel and Black Petrel, both rare New Zealand breeding endemics. A Short-tailed Shearwater was also notable, as this is largely an Australian breeding species that only occasionally wanders this far east in small numbers.

New Zealand Storm-Petrel

New Zealand Storm-Petrel— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


We caught the ferry to Tiri Tiri Matangi Island the next day and were soon amongst the birds. It took a bit of effort, but everyone finally had a good view of the North Island Kokako, the island’s biggest prize because it is very difficult to see elsewhere. Much more numerous were North Island Saddleback, North Island Robin, and another important species to find here—the Stitchbird. All of these, plus Red-fronted Parakeet, gave great views, as did Whitehead, Tui, New Zealand Bellbird, New Zealand Fantail, and Gray Gerygone. The Takahe were in breeding mode which means they change behavior and become quite secretive. They also like to keep disturbance to these rare birds to a minimum, and although we heard a bird calling, we could not get a sighting. We decided to give Tawharanui a go for the Takahe, but they also held out on us at this location. We did get a bonus, however, in the form of a pair of Laughing Kookaburras, a rare introduced species from Australia.

It was time to begin our southward migration, and an early start had us across the metropolis of Auckland and in place at Whangamarino Swamp—a good location for the endangered Australasian Bittern. It took a lot of searching, but eventually we made the breakthrough and scoped a rather distant bittern. As it moved about, it changed shapes from a rounded ball to an extended neck, giving everyone the chance to figure out it was in fact the real deal! High tide at Miranda produced 5,000 Bar-tailed Godwits and about 1,000 Red Knots. Scattered in this lot, patient searching produced good views of both Curlew and Sharp-tailed sandpipers, some very close Wrybills, and more lovely New Zealand Dotterels. A Great Egret (rare in NZ) was a good pick-up, and we spotted our first Royal Spoonbills. Keith Woodley gave us a talk on the work the New Zealanders are doing to help protect the East Asian shorebird sites that are severely threatened by land-filling operations by the joint Yellow Sea nations. They have even been able to work with North Korea—no easy task. We motored through to Rotorua, our home for the night, and visited some of the thermal springs and bubbling mineral mud pools during our time here.

North  Island Kokako

North Island Kokako— Photo: Gary Small



The following day we commenced proceedings at Pureora Forest, a location of beautiful old growth podocarp forest and giant tree ferns. Working the forest edge we found our first Kaka, Yellow-crowned Parakeets, and a very obliging pair of Fernbirds. Deeper in the forest, North Island Robins were tame; we located our first Rifleman and had fantastic views of Shining Bronze-Cuckoos. After lunch at Turangi we climbed up the Volcanic Plateau towards Mount Ruapehu in the Tongariro National Park. We made a stop for a pair of Blue Ducks with ducklings and, after a patient search and a bit of a walk, we were rewarded with great scope looks at this scarce torrent specialist. We checked into the Chateau Tongariro, reminiscent of the Grand Budapest Hotel where, after dinner, Dion and Mark battled it out in the Trans-Tasman Challenge on a full-size snooker table—Mark narrowly won!

We woke to glorious blue skies and a full view of the big peaks. We drove to the upper reaches of Ruapehu where we enjoyed good sightings of Australasian Pipit. In the primeval beech forests everyone had good looks at the beautiful Tomtit. We drove south again, making a stop at Foxton where a good tide enabled us to study a pair of Pacific Golden Plovers and a somewhat misplaced Little Tern, an annual visitor to New Zealand, albeit in very small numbers. Our traditional pair of Black-fronted Dotterels was located at Otaki.

The weather forecast for Kapiti Island was good, and the crossing was a go-ahead. We found ourselves in the back of a motorboat being reversed into the ocean off a tractor. The crossing went smoothly, and we decided to do an easy hike to explore the north section of the island. Birds were in abundance, with curious Weka mincing past us, New Zealand Pigeons loafing about within hand’s-reach, chattering Red-fronted Parakeets, noisy Kaka, and hyperactive Whiteheads. The best result was a fabulous fly past view right over our heads (literally parting our hair) of the stunning Long-tailed Cuckoo. We waited patiently for the nesting Takahe to make an appearance and, late in the afternoon, our patience was rewarded with good views of both the male and the timid female. On dusk we tracked down a Morepork that showed well for everyone. Then we tried our luck with Little Spotted Kiwi, with most but not everyone getting a view of this elusive bird. A second attempt at 3 am produced very good views, but most people who had missed it found bed too comfortable! The folks at Kapiti Island Lodge did a great job of keeping us well-fed and comfortable, and with more new rooms, all the couples had a room to themselves.


Tui— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


Our return crossing from Kapiti went smoothly, and we spent some time in Wellington taking in a visit to the Te Papa Museum. Things took a dramatic turn when the ferry advised us of a changed departure time, which left us with fifteen minutes until sailing and four participants off shopping. We hastily rounded up our missing folks, and a fabulous run of green lights saw us driving onto the ferry with sixty seconds to spare. Nothing like a bit of adrenalin! From the ferry we spotted some distant White-capped, Salvin’s, and a single Northern Royal Albatross.  There were dozens of Fairy Prions and our first Spotted Shags. We entered the Marlborough Sounds where the glassy waters helped us spot Little Penguins, plenty of Fluttering Shearwaters, White-fronted Terns, and a couple of Arctic Jaegers.

The following morning we were back in a boat, this time cruising the sheltered waters of Queen Charlotte Sounds. Our luck was in and we located a small party of King Shags, a highly localized and endangered relic species restricted to the cold water currents of this remote locality. At Blumine Island we landed and spent a bit of time wandering around forest gullies trying to see the rare Orange-fronted Parakeet. This species has the auspicious title of New Zealand’s rarest forest bird. After no success in our usual site, we wandered up a steep gully. Here we had instant success with a stunning adult that landed in the full sun. We returned to the more level gully and were able to locate a juvenile skulking about. We were happy that everyone had seen both of these parakeets. A Hector’s Dolphin made a brief appearance.

With the earthquake having largely destroyed the infrastructure of Kaikoura, our detour started and we drove through to Punakaiki. On the way we stopped to twitch a flock of four Maned Ducks, a genuine vagrant from Australia. After dinner at the pub we met up with Bruce, a local man who has put in a huge effort to conserve the Westland Petrel. This unique forest-nesting petrel breeds in an area of only five square miles in rugged forests. With the breeding season largely completed, we found two juveniles who were practicing their perilous flight over the forest to the ocean to complete the fledging process. These are tough birds, and their failed attempts and clumsy and often heavy landings did not put them off. It was a great night, and Bruce’s dedication to this species’ conservation was truly impressive—what a great person.

Orange-fronted (Malherbe's) Parakeet

Orange-fronted (Malherbe’s) Parakeet— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


After viewing the Pancake Rocks in increasingly gloomy conditions, we motored up and over Arthur’s Pass. After crossing the pass we left the rain, fog, and wind behind, and as we made it to the Mackenzie Country, the sun began to appear. At Mt. John we scoped a Chukar for several minutes. The big prize came, however, when we located a superb pair of Black Stilts, the views of which were stupendous. Also of note were Crested Grebes, Eurasian Coot, and the fact that Mark let us photograph Lupins, a colorful but invasive weed of the unique glacial braided streams of the Southern Alps. 

We had a go for Baillon’s Crake the next morning and eventually had a single bird calling in a willow thicket. Unfortunately it would not budge into view, and Dion’s best efforts resulted in a free cold bath for him! Beautiful Black-fronted Terns were delightful, one of my favorite New Zealand birds. On the way to Te Anau we detoured into Mark’s home town, Wanaka. Here he had located a nesting pair of New Zealand Falcons. The birds were hyper-aggressive in defense of the nest, and a straying cyclist wore the wrath of the falcons complete with removing his headwear! We suspect the chicks had just hatched, but could not confirm this. Mark and Mary had made a fence around the nest to avoid public disturbance, the nest site being on the ground. The views of this uncommon, largely forest-dwelling raptor were amongst the tour highlights. In downtown Wanaka we enjoyed the nesting antics and display behaviors of the resident Crested Grebes. It was neat to see them carrying the chicks on their backs.

Maned Duck

Maned Duck— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


It is a big day of the tour as we explore from Te Anau to Milford Sound through Fiordland National Park. The weather gods were again shining, and we were soon enjoying a variety of forest birds in the old growth beech forests. Both the South Island Robin and the Tomtit were in good form. We found a New Zealand Fantail of the “dusky morph.” Brown Creepers performed well, especially late in the day, as did Rifleman that came down to eye level for some particularly exquisite looks. Despite some good searching, there was no sign of the endangered Yellowhead. At Homer Tunnel we were entertained by several Keas, the playful alpine parrots even chewing into the tarpaulin of the tradesmen’s Hilux. The localized Rock Wren was really well-behaved this year, and we enjoyed incredible views of them feeding chicks in the nest or adding feather-like vegetation to a nest in progress. After a cup of coffee we went on the late afternoon voyage around the Milford Sound. Our luck was in again, and we found a single Fiordland Penguin loafing on the rocks. The boat’s captain took us in for some good views, much appreciated by all on board.

New Zealand Falcon

New Zealand Falcon— Photo: Dion Hobcroft







We motored south again, this time through Invercargill (where we visited the Southland Museum) to Bluff. Gale force winds had built up as the day progressed, the odd gust reaching 50 knots. Exploring the harbor at Bluff produced our second Little Tern of the trip, this individual really far south. We also spotted our first Stewart Island Shag, this population recently split as the Foveaux Shag after the strait that separates Stewart Island from the South Island.  This split has not yet been adopted by Clements, however. The hour-long ferry crossing was a torrid affair, and it was difficult to seawatch. High tides had canceled our Kiwi watch, so we enjoyed an early night as the Kaka whistled and croaked around our very comfortable rooms.

Next morning Alan took us over on the “Aurora” to Ulva Island. In good conditions the birding was very lively, and we were soon enjoying good views of both Yellowhead and, after a bit of searching, the South Island Saddleback. There were lots of Red-crowned Parakeets, excellent views of a pair of Yellow-crowned Parakeets, dozens of Kakas, inquisitive Wekas, tame South Island Robins, and mixed flocks containing Brown Creepers and Rifleman. Phillip picked us up and we boated out towards Wreck Reef, the strong winds of the previous day having abated considerably, and it was quite comfortable out at sea. The albatross were hungry and we attracted 100 or more White-capped Albatross, 10 Salvin’s Albatross, 10 Southern Royal Albatross, and a timid Buller’s Albatross. Cheeky Cape Petrels joined the throng, as did several Northern Giant-Petrels (a large group of which were attending the carcass of a big male Hooker’s Sea Lion). There were also dozens of Common Diving-Petrels, hundreds of Sooty Shearwaters, and quite a few Cook’s Petrels of the Codfish Island breeding population. We patrolled offshore from Bench Island where we had a real stroke of luck when Phillip spotted a Yellow-eyed Penguin, very much a disappearing bird in serious conservation trouble. Several Brown Skuas were also located. We finished the trip with a further three Fiordland Penguins, following on from several Little Penguins, making it a three penguin day!

Fiordland Penguin

Fiordland Penguin— Photo: Dion Hobcroft


At dusk we boated across to Ocean Beach. On the way we found four Hooker’s Sea Lions involved in some amorous fighting on the beach at Glory Cove. Heavy rain hampered our search for the Southern Brown Kiwi where just a single bird was located in thick cover. With patience just about everyone had a good view, but inexplicably the local guides decided to leave it to find another one which never happened. I will never understand that decision; the girls need to rethink that one!

Our tour was nearly over, and the crossing back from Stewart Island was quite smooth and pleasant. Dion and Nick spent the crossing seawatching and were rewarded with a Mottled Petrel that showed quite well. We drove north to Dunedin and embarked on a boat trip around the Taiaroa Head. It was clear something was up, as there were lots of albatross in the harbor, and they were even joined by a White-chinned Petrel. On the headland were numerous Northern Royal Albatross and dozens of nesting Stewart Island Shags (these belonging to the Otago population of the recent split). We decided to venture offshore, and Mark attracted my attention to a very high flying albatross up in the clouds—a Light-mantled Sooty Albatross! We stopped the boat and threw out some squid, and immediately the LMSA appeared out of nowhere and did several passes around the vessel. It was our lucky day, as this strictly subantarctic species rarely strays this far north, even in the dead of winter, and it is such a special bird. The birds were again hungry, and we attracted dozens of albatross including another Buller’s, lots of Royals of both Southern and Northern individuals, and as we entered the harbor, we had a couple of good views of the elusive Hector’s Dolphin. It was great to end the tour on such a high note.

It really had been a great tour, and I would particularly like to thank my co-leader Mark Ayre with whom we had such a good time, enjoyed so much fabulous local produce, and learned so much about New Zealand. Thanks again Mark!