Sub-Antarctic Islands of New Zealand Jan 17—Feb 03, 2017

Posted by David Wolf


David Wolf

David Wolf is a senior member of the VENT staff and one of our most experienced tour leaders. After birding the U.S. and Mexico for over a decade, an interest in the wildli...

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Remote, wild, and infrequently visited, the Sub-Antarctic Islands of New Zealand and Australia support some of the greatest concentrations of wildlife anywhere.  This cruise provided a rare opportunity to visit some of these tiny specks of land, and we took full advantage of it.  Set amidst the stormy latitudes of the vast southern ocean, this is “the seabird capital of the world,” and here we found half of the world’s penguin species, the greatest variety of albatrosses possible anywhere, tubenoses and shags galore, and throngs of seals and sea lions.  We learned about the fragile environments of the islands, each group supporting a unique mix of fauna and flora, much of it endemic.  We also experienced the challenging and at times forbidding climate of the region, from howling gales and driving rain on Campbell Island to calm seas and periods of sunny skies on Macquarie, which is normally gray, windy, and wet.  In contrast, we began and ended our voyage in the milder environs of “mainland” New Zealand, where lush forested slopes plunge to the sea in Fiordland, and the songs of native birds ring from the beautiful forests of predator-free islands like Ulva.  New Zealand has been a pioneer in island conservation and taken great strides to protect and restore these unique places, and by the end of the trip we all felt that we had indeed been privileged to visit a very special region of the world.

Mt. Cook and Lake Pukaki

Mt. Cook and Lake Pukaki— Photo: David Wolf


Our trip began with an all-day field trip into the interior of South Island, to the Mackenzie Basin.  This had been “the summer without summer” in New Zealand, with persistent chilly gray skies and rain, but we couldn’t have been luckier on this first day out.  The sun came out for a day, giving us incredible views of snow-crowned Mt. Cook, New Zealand’s highest mountain, and the indescribable aqua-blue waters of Lake Pukaki.  At the upper end of this huge reservoir, on the edge of the marshes where the Tasman River enters the lake, we readily found our quest bird, the highly-endangered Black Stilt.  Nearby we spotted pairs of South Island Oystercatchers, Paradise Shelducks with broods, and rare Black-fronted Terns, while other lakes in the region yielded great looks at the New Zealand Scaup and a Great Crested Grebe and chick.  En route to the Basin we had an especially fortuitous sighting of a circling New Zealand Falcon that caused us to whip off the road for an impromptu stop to enjoy a rare good look at this uncommon bird.

From Queenstown we traveled to Milford Sound, through pleasant farm country and native beech forests into the sheer mountains of Fiordland National Park.  As we waited to go through the Homer Tunnel, a Kea waddled up to entertain us, and then, after emerging from the tunnel, we suddenly found ourselves descending through jaw-dropping mountain scenery to our first fiord.  By late afternoon we were all aboard the beautiful Caledonian Sky and cruising the sound.  As we neared its mouth, our first albatross, a White-capped, came gliding in to the ship, bringing rousing cheers from the birders.  Here we go!


Kea— Photo: David Wolf


The next morning found us stepping off the Zodiacs onto the dock at beautiful Ulva Island, where a Fiordland Penguin greeted us.  Crouched behind a boulder, under the shelter of overhanging tree roots, this youngster was a special surprise.  It apparently had just come ashore, a rare occurrence at this season when most of these penguins have gone out to sea.  Just ahead, we found ourselves walking through stunning primary forest ringing with the songs of native birds.  With patient stalking we soon found our first “mixed-flock,” with colorful Yellowheads leading it, while fantails and Gray Gerygones foraged higher up, and two species of parakeets slipped around in the canopy.  Then a larger bird silently glided low across the trail and climbed into view in the vines—South Island Saddleback!  Gone from the mainland islands, this species survives only in very low numbers on a few predator-free islands like Ulva.  Here we also enjoyed New Zealand Robins literally foraging at our feet, were shown a roosting Southern Boobook owl by our very able local guide Matt, and laughed at the curious Wekas, large flightless rails, that investigated us as we watched them.

That afternoon we explored quaint Oban village on nearby Stewart Island, especially enjoying the pair of Variable Oystercatchers on the beach that were “teaching” a small chick how to forage by tossing various objects to it!  Colorful New Zealand Pigeons were perched in the trees, while a distant pair of Little Penguins popping up and down amidst the boats in the harbor frustrated us.


Weka— Photo: David Wolf


Our last stop on mainland South Island was a full day in the Dunedin area.  The morning found us at Orokonui Ecosanctuary, in a chilly stiff wind under clear skies.  Here a huge amount of effort and money has been invested in restoring a tract of land with native plants and animals.  Surrounded by a sophisticated predator-free fence, it is now home to native birds like the New Zealand Kaka, Tui and New Zealand Bellbird, while in captive breeding pens they are propagating unique and endangered creatures like the Takahe and Tuatara.  A special treat was in store that afternoon, when we visited Taiaroa Head to view a nesting colony of “Northern” Royal Albatrosses from a well-constructed blind.  Here too were nesting Otago Shags, a proposed split from the Stewart Island Shag, and endemic Spotted Shags roosting on the sheer cliffs above the sea.  A late afternoon watch while cruising the channel from the harbor to the sea produced sightings of White-faced Herons and Royal Spoonbills and a remarkable tally of 405+ South Island Oystercatchers.

The next day was the first of four full days at sea on this voyage, and we spent it watching for pelagic birds, especially studying the many albatrosses and learning to separate them.  This set the pattern for our days at sea and every one of them would prove to be productive, with seabirds with us at all times.  Excellent lectures by the staff filled in the time when we tired of sea-watching.

Dawn in Perseverance Harbor at Campbell Island revealed odd shafts of sunlight filtered through dark clouds and sprays of spume from waves whipped up by a gusty wind.  Landing at the old weather station, we found some rather nasty young sea lions there to greet us, as well as a very bold Australasian Pipit of the endemic race and a pair of flightless Campbell Island Teal, the male foraging along the kelp line just offshore.  These latter two are both conservation success stories, returning to the island when it was declared rat-free after years of effort.  We then began a long uphill hike to reach the nesting grounds of the “Southern” Royal Albatross.  The wind had increased to a howling gale with gusts to 50 knots by the time some of us reached the saddle where the first nests were located.  These were right beside the boardwalk, with the birds hunkered down on them and seemingly resigned to the fierce wind and rain.  Certainly they commanded our respect for living under such harsh conditions—and I would add that everyone who got up here to see them deserves it too!

Northern Royal Albatrosses

Northern Royal Albatrosses— Photo: David Wolf


The storm and seas gradually abated through the night as we sailed westward, so that by early afternoon many of us were out on the stern deck, comparing three species of Pterodroma petrels (Mottled, White-headed, and Soft-plumaged) and enjoying the Royal and Wandering albatrosses that stayed with the ship for hours.  By the next morning we were at Macquarie Island, eagerly awaiting our first landing here.  The weather was great, with scattered high clouds and a light breeze, rare conditions on this remote island in the middle of nowhere.  As we came ashore at Sandy Bay there were literally thousands of King and Royal penguins on the beach to greet us, as well as great sloppy heaps of Southern Elephant Seals to step around.  For the next hours we were treated to what must be one of the greatest spectacles in nature, the antics of tens of thousands of penguins.  Amazing Zodiac cruises in Lusitania Bay took us past “Eastern” Southern Rockhopper Penguins and endemic Macquarie Shags, while our visit to the research station was highlighted by Gentoo Penguins on the beach and the amazing spectacle of a dead Sperm Whale washed up into the rocks, with hundreds of giant-petrels gathering to feast upon it as it “ripened.”  Our time on Macquarie was simply magical, spell-binding, magnificent—adjectives don’t do it justice—and it certainly was THE highlight of the entire trip.

King Penguins

King Penguins— Photo: David Wolf


Upon leaving Macquarie we proceeded to Enderby Island, a small predator-free outlier of the Aucklands group.  What a contrast it proved to be, lush with rata “forest” and ferns, Bulbinella meadows, and even harboring a few landbirds like the Red-crowned Parakeet, New Zealand Bellbird, Tomtit, and Silver-eye.  As we explored the island we watched incoming Royal Albatrosses and displaying Double-banded Plovers, and found a pair of the flightless Auckland Islands Teal well-hidden in a sea cave, with Auckland Islands Shags nesting on the cliff ledges above.  Our landing site here at Sandy Bay is one of the main breeding colonies of the rare New Zealand Sea Lion, and here we watched bulls with their harems and the first pups of a new season.  However, it was the Yellow-eyed Penguins that stole the show.  One of the world’s rarest and most endangered penguins, they are quite different from the others in their breeding behavior, each pair nesting alone in a burrow under the dense scrub.  It was magical to watch them emerge from the trees and carefully waddle down to the beach and swim away.

Yellow-eyed Penguins

Yellow-eyed Penguins— Photo: David Wolf


Unfortunately, the wind came up again as we left the Aucklands and headed north, so that the next day we were only able to do a slow “drive-by” of the isolated and rugged Snares Island group. These pristine islands are home to an endemic penguin (we had to be content with distant views) and the nesting grounds of many Buller’s Albatrosses and immense numbers of other tubenoses.  Sailing north from the Snares, the seas calmed and provided some great pelagic watching, highlighted by multiple good looks at Cook’s Petrels.

Our final full day on board was spent amidst the magnificent scenery of Fiordland National Park on South Island, with great forested slopes and waterfalls plunging to the narrow passages and snow-capped peaks looming in the distance.  Zodiac cruises produced more sightings of the rare Fiordland Penguin and New Zealand Fur Seals, while hundreds of Sooty Shearwaters flushed ahead of us as we left the fiords and sailed for Milford Sound.  All too soon the next morning we were at the Milford dock and the trip was almost complete—but not after gazing in awe at the scenery as we cruised the sound!  It was great to travel with all of you, and I hope we meet again. Special thanks go to the talented Zegrahm staff for making the trip such a special success.