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|A Report from birdtours.co.uk|
New Zealand, 12 January to 15 March 2006,
Our visit to New Zealand coincided with the end of Steve’s full-time job in Nottingham in December 2005, and was partly a celebration of this. We’d both been to New Zealand before, but on a business visit in 1990, which was mostly spent in cities, and we got only 24 hours on the South Island (in Christchurch). We’d been to Rotorua, and done the ethnic culture bit, so we were able to skip those this time. Our 2006 visit was also the counterpart to the 12-week spell we had spent in Australia in 1991 immediately before moving to Nottingham. However, in Australia in 1991 we were travelling for a mixture of business and pleasure, while our 2006 visit to New Zealand was the first time we had been away for so long just on vacation.
Steve’s change of work pattern allowed us to spend 9 weeks in New Zealand. Although a lot of travel is needed to see all the special birds, it needn’t take this long. However, we wanted to see the country properly, and not have to rush around like crazy. It proved useful to have some spare days built into the trip as it gave us extra time to search for elusive species.
New Zealand fauna and flora
New Zealand’s birds are a strange mixture of endemics, seabirds, and introductions. The balance of nature has been badly upset by the arrival of man (especially Europeans) and the animals and plants he has brought with him. But the endemics and seabirds are often very special birds, and what may be lacking in quantity and variety is more than made up for in quality. The special birds are often not easy to find, and you have to be in the right place at the right time to see them. Therefore to bird New Zealand thoroughly, it is necessary to travel large distances to find everything. While we shouldn’t enthuse too much about the introduced species, it would be good to see flocks of House Sparrows and Lesser Redpolls in the UK like those we saw regularly.
The number of introduced mammal species (particularly possums) was very striking, as were the roadside flowers, which consisted mostly of familiar British species, with exotics like Agapanthus and Montbretia. However, the native yucca-like Green Flax is very widespread. While we seemed to see few species of native wildflowers, the native forests were spectacular. The most common butterfly appeared indistinguishable from the familiar Small White, but from time to time we saw other species including Monarchs.
We managed to see all the target birds, with the exception of some Hauraki Gulf specialities (most notably New Zealand Storm-Petrel) which we had hoped to see on a Pterodroma Pelagics outing. Over all, we were well satisfied with our final species list. However, we came very close to missing two of the key targets (South Island Wren and Southern Brown Kiwi). Two birds we expected to see and/or hear, but didn’t find, were Shining Cuckoo and Common Diving Petrel, but presumably we were a bit late in the season for both species. We had learnt the song of Shining Cuckoo before going to New Zealand, but we didn’t hear one singing. Fortunately we had already encountered the species in Australia.
New Zealand has many nature reserves run by the Department of Conservation (DoC). This organisation is not universally popular. While there is much interest and local pride in the native wildlife of New Zealand, we rarely saw any other genuine birdwatchers, and only one who was New Zealand based.
We flew from London to Sydney by British Airways, which allowed us to cash in Steve’s accumulated air miles, and after an overnight stop, we continued by Qantas to Auckland. On the return journey we spent four days in Sydney before leaving for London.
In New Zealand, we stayed almost entirely at medium grade motels, which proved to be of somewhat variable quality, but mostly good. We booked all of these in advance before leaving the UK, either by e-mail or via websites. Most motels proved to be family-run, single storey, and consisted of 8 to 12 rooms. We opted for units with simple (and generally not ergonomically designed) kitchen facilities, which allowed us to largely self-cater. This made for a healthier diet than if we had relied on restaurants, and of course worked out a lot cheaper. In the boot of our car, we carried a small cardboard box throughout the trip, filled with herbs, spices, couscous, rice, pasta and other staples. Supermarkets proved to be very good, and even small convenience stores carried a wide range of products.
New Zealand has an excellent tourist infrastructure, and people are generally very helpful. Roads outside the major cities are largely empty, but while most sealed roads have good surfaces, they are often twisty, and road works with speed restrictions are common. The maximum speed is 100 kph, and it pays to allow plenty of time for journeys. There are many speed cameras – see the Tips section later on in this report. Good quality gravel roads are frequent, and not just in remote areas.
Our car for the trip was a rather battle-weary Mitsubishi Lancer from Maui Car Rental, which was big enough to fit all our bags in the boot. It had automatic transmission, which we had requested specially, but this is not standard for New Zealand cars. One useful feature of Maui is that they will let you take the car on the Inter-island Ferry. When we enquired of Avis, they insisted we drop off one car at Wellington and transfer to another at Picton, which would have been inconvenient. Unfortunately Maui gave us one bald tyre and a spare with a slit in it. We should have spotted this when we picked up the car, but we were too busy logging all the dents and scratches on the bodywork. Eventually we got the tyres replaced very efficiently at a small garage with a Maui contract, and we didn’t have to part with any money in the process. Otherwise, the car performed faultlessly, and we did a total of 9652 km (3780 km on the North Island and 5872 km on the South Island).
The weather was a very mixed bag. It began hot, sunny and humid in on 12 January in Auckland, but as we moved into the late summer and autumn, and simultaneously began to travel south, predictably things changed. Once we were in the South Island it was noticeably more windy, and over on the west coast we saw much more rain. Once we were down on the south coast, it was consistently windy, sometimes quite wet, and often pretty cold. Once we moved back up north again towards Christchurch, it got warmer, and our final birding day on 14 March was in shirtsleeves.
Keeping in touch
During the trip we kept in touch with family, friends and work in the UK by telephone and e-mail, although the latter proved harder than we had expected. Steve’s laptop developed a tendency to crash in warm environments. Additionally, we had problems trying to use several wireless systems in different motels, and sometimes our dial-up programme didn’t work because of apparent incompatibilities with old telephone systems. Fortunately, internet cafes are plentiful and cheap in much of New Zealand, so sometimes we used these.
Planning the trip and information sources
A variety of information sources proved invaluable in planning the trip. We were particularly grateful for detailed information from our friends Peter and Brenda Wilson, and Thomas Lindblad (now available on birdtours.co.uk). Several other trip reports published on the internet (surfbirds.com) proved very useful (David Ferguson 2000, Brad Robson 2001, Robert Grimmond 2002, Graham Talbot 2004). We are grateful to all these people for the information they provided. The recent paper in Birding World on finding New Zealand’s land birds proved to be an excellent resource. In 1990, we had bought a copy of Chambers’ bird locality guide, and we didn’t obtain a copy of the more recent update. Perhaps we should have done so, but with all the other information at our disposal, we seemed to be well covered already. In retrospect it is unlikely that a revised edition of Chambers would have helped us find any more birds.
While cumulatively these sources provided the information we needed, individual pieces of information sometimes proved to be misleading, vague, out-of-date, or occasionally plain wrong. Robertson and Heather’s Hand Guide proved invaluable, but Parkinson’s field guide to NZ seabirds proved less useful than we expected, since most of the illustrations are photographs of perched birds. We based our trip list on the taxonomy in Clements’ “Birds of the World”, except that we have treated Lesser Redpoll as a separate species. Clements split Lesser Redpoll and Common Redpoll in 2000, but then lumped them again in December 2003.
Main reference books used
Chambers S. Birds of New Zealand, a locality guide. Arun Books, 1989.
Clements J. Birds of the World: a checklist, 5th edition. Ibis Publishing, 2000.
Drewitt A, Brown A, Saville S. Finding New Zealand’s landbirds. Birding World 2005; 18: 250-259.
New Zealand Travellers’ Road Atlas. Kiwi Pathfinder Maps.
Parkinson B. Field Guide to New Zealand Seabirds. New Holland Press, 2000.
Robertson H, Heather B. A hand guide to the birds of New Zealand. Oxford University Press, 2001.
Thurs 12 Jan (Auckland airport to Orewa)
We arrived in Auckland at 12.30 after a 24 h stopover at an airport hotel in Sydney. Having picked up our rental car, things looked alarmingly familiar – driving on the left, cars we recognised, BP garages with Wild Bean Cafes, a supermarket with brands we buy at Sainsburys, plus House Sparrow, Starling, Skylark, Blackbird and Goldfinch amongst the first birds. Had we been delivered back to the UK by mistake? But Welcome Swallow, Red-billed Gull, Kelp Gull and Common Myna served as a reminder that we weren’t in the UK after all. After a 70 km drive across Auckland, noisy flocks of Silvereyes greeted us on arrival in Orewa.
Fri 13 Jan (Orewa, Wenderholm Regional Park)
Before breakfast, there were African Collared Doves at the Orewa Motor Lodge, one sitting on a TV aerial. We went to Wenderholm Regional Park just north of Waiwera for an introduction to local birds. However, we were unable to find the Strakas Refuge, which some reports claimed to be “right next door”. At Wenderholm, native species started to appear, with Grey Fantails, Purple Swamphens and Tuis plentiful. We went to the beach on the east side of the park, where there are fenced off areas for breeding NZ Dotterel, with several birds present at close range. On the beach were about 25 Pied Oystercatchers plus 2 black-phase Variable Oystercatchers, noticeably bigger than the Pieds, and with thicker, less tapered, bills. There was also a single Whimbrel (the only one of the trip) and 2 Caspian Terns. The mixture of native and exotic species continued, with Grey Gerygone, NZ Pigeon and White-faced Heron, plus Song Thrush, Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Eastern Rosella and California Quail. We saw both Pacific Black Duck and Mallard, and several other ducks that looked like hybrids. The scenery was startling similar to the area just north of San Francisco – rolling brownish grass-covered hills.
Sat 14 Jan (Tiritiri Matangi)
To Tiritiri Matangi via Kawau Kat ferry from Gulf Harbour ($ 26 pp). They have taken over the service from Fullers. We departed at 9.50 from Gulf Harbour. On the crossing there were a few Australasian Gannets and White-fronted Terns, plus a raft of about 500 Fluttering Shearwaters and a single Buller’s Shearwater. On arrival at Tiritiri, we were greeted by the wardens, and then those of us who had booked a guided walk were split into groups. Our group of 8 people was led by Carl, who was a bird expert, and had been leading groups for 20 years as a volunteer. Almost the first bird seen was a Takahe (apparently named Greg) right down on the wharf. We saw it at point blank range. The morning was spent walking the Kewerau Track, and seeing virtually all the specialties – numerous Saddlebacks (North Island race), Bellbirds and Stitchbirds (especially numerous at converted hummingbird feeders), NZ Robin (North Island race), Whitehead and Red-crowned Parakeet. There were several more Takahes around the picnic area at lunchtime, after which we had about 90 minutes to search for other birds before the ferry departed at 3.30. We went to an area of the Wattle Track recommended by Carl for Kokako, where it crosses the road from the wharf, and although we saw many of the morning’s birds again plus Brown Quail, we only heard Kokako calling from the bush nearby. On the way back to the wharf we saw 3 Brown Teal and a Spotless Crake at the tiny pond next to the road about 200 yards up from the wharf. This was a great conclusion to our visit to this amazing place, although we were disappointed to miss Kokako, and we started to plan a return visit to find one.
Sun 15 Jan (Muriwai Beach, Lake Kerata)
We headed west from Orewa to visit the Australasian Gannet colony at Muriwai Beach, which is well signposted, and which can be viewed with ease from the cliff-tops. The colony is in several parts – on the cliffs of the mainland, a rock stack about 50m offshore, and an island about 500 m out to sea. The breeding season was in full swing, with most nests containing a large grey juvenile, some still downy. After this, we headed north to Lake Kerata, which is north of Helensville – take the road to North Head for 17.4 km, then turn left onto Wilson’s Road to view the lake. It was shallow and reedy, with several New Zealand Grebes, many Black Swans, and a flock of Paradise Shelduck. Also, there were the first sightings for the trip of both Little Black Cormorant and Little Pied Cormorant. Swamp Harriers soaring overhead were causing regular panics among the Masked Lapwings. The whole area had plentiful open country birds, although the most prominent species were introduced finches. Our first Grey Teal were in a small marsh on the east side of the lake.
Mon 16 Jan (Strakas Reserve, Kawau Island)
For the previous three days we had been trying unsuccessfully to get in touch with Karen Baird and Chris Gaskin of Kiwi Wildlife / Pterodroma Pelagics to confirm the starting place and time of the Hauraki Gulf Pelagic trip scheduled for 16 Jan, on which we thought we were booked. As it turned out, the trip had been cancelled, but we didn’t hear from them until several days later. In the end we made alternative plans. Our first stop was at the Waiwera River, where we saw many Grey Teal, Paradise Shelduck and Pacific Black Duck on the oxidation ponds. These were reached by going east off SH (State Highway) 1 at Waiwera, and then back under the SH 1, heading due west. We also found a nice reedy pool, close to the new motorway extension, just inside the drive of a house called “La Verna”. This might or might not have been the area called Strakas Reserve in some accounts, although the Straka property was several 100 m away on the road from Waiwera. The pool contained our first NZ Scaup and Australian Shovelers, and several NZ Grebe. After a lunch-time visit to Goat Island Marine Reserve (nice views but no birds of note except Australasian Pipit), we booked on the 2pm Kawau Kat ferry from Sandspit to Kawau Island ($33 pp). On the ferry across, there were 3 Arctic Skuas, probably looking to harass the White-fronted Terns. We landed at Mansion House, and almost immediately found our target bird – the North Island race of Weka. They seemed to like open grassy areas, but we also saw them in the pine forest. On the way back to Sandspit we passed a raft of 500+ Fluttering Shearwaters.
Tues 17 Jan (Waipu Cove, Trounson Kauri Park)
We left Orewa at 9.10, and headed for Waipu Cove, arriving about 10.45. We parked at the end of Johnson’s Point Road, and walked north along the beach for about 200 m. On a sandbank was a mixed flock of Bar-tailed Godwit and Knot, with about a dozen NZ Dotterel. There were also around 75 Variable Oystercatchers, easily the biggest group seen on our trip, sometimes feeding on a nearby field. After a few minutes, the target bird – Fairy Tern – was spotted on the shore of the big spit that borders the east side of the lagoon, which is where they nest. Over the next hour we saw 4, sometimes flying over to land on the sandbank near to us. Apparently there are only 40 of the NZ subspecies in existence, so we saw 10 % of its population.
We drove to Kai Iwi Lakes area, staying at a very nice cottage in a tropical garden. In the evening, we went to Trounson Top 10 Holiday Park for their 9 pm guided walk. A mini-bus took a group of about 10 of us to Trounson Kauri Park, and then we followed the loop trail. We finished at 11.45 pm, and they only charged $15 pp. We were the only birders, and the other people seemed more interested in looking for creepy-crawlies. Up to six North Island Brown Kiwi were heard (4M, 2F), with the closest rustling leaves no more than 20 feet away just behind the toilet block 50 m from the car park when we returned there. However, try as we might, the vegetation was too dense to spot one. Up to five Morepork were heard, including the “squersh” call of juveniles. The best sightings were of Kauri Snails, Cave Wetas and Glow Worms.
Wed 18 Jan (Waipoua Forest, Trounson Kauri Park)
The main activity during the daytime was a walk at Waipoua Forest and another on the loop trail at Trounson Kauri Park. These were good, but produced no birds of note. The commonest forest bird proved surprisingly to be Common Myna. We visited Tane Mahoute, the largest Kauri tree, thought to be 2000 years old. In the evening, we returned to Trounson Kauri Park for 10 pm, in order to search for North Island Brown Kiwis, but this time we weren’t in a group. Immediately on crossing the entrance bridge, we heard a Kiwi rustling and snuffling in the bush on our left. Although we turned on our high powered torch, we didn’t see it, but it must have been no more than 15 ft away at its closest. The night was clear but rather windy, and wasn’t as good as the previous night for calling birds.
Thu 19 Jan (Kai Iwi Lakes to Paihia, via Helena Bay)
The first rain of the trip, and it was a cloudy day with periods of rain throughout. We took about 7 h to travel to Paihia. At Helena Bay, we saw about 55 Brown Teal, along the stream (actually at Teal Bay). We drove 20 km from SH 1, turned right at the Helena Bay settlement, and then viewed the stream after about another 2.5 km. The birds were easy to see upstream of the bridge, and as there was no fence to the field, we walked about 100 m to the edge of the stream to view the birds more closely. Arriving in Paihia, we had dinner at Only Seafood, which proved to be one of the gastronomic highlights of the whole trip.
Fri 20 Jan (Bay of Islands)
Took the Fullers “Cream Trip”, which does the mail run through the Bay of Islands, departing Paihia at 10.00, and returning 4.30 ($90 pp). It was sunny, but windy, and therefore cool away from land. The disappointment of missing out on a Hauraki Gulf Pelagic was significantly assuaged, as we encountered a huge flock of feeding tubenoses near the Hole-in-the-Rock. Buller’s Shearwaters were the most common, but with lots of Fluttering Shearwaters and a few Flesh-footed Shearwaters. There were also some Fairy Prions, which were very nice to see. In the same area, there was a single Little Penguin. Australasian Gannets and White-fronted Terns were seen all day. In the evening we drove up to Mt. Bledisloe, and arrived at the lookout before dusk, hearing Peafowl calling distantly. As it got dark, Moreporks started to call, followed by a couple of male North Island Brown Kiwis. Rain started to fall, but we were able to spotlight a Morepork, calling from a bare branch on the edge of the car park, before even heavier rain terminated the proceedings.
Sat 21 Jan (Bay of Islands)
A day of walking, in the morning on the mangrove boardwalk trail starting at Waitangi, and in the afternoon from Kerikeri bridge to Whakapure Falls. A Buff-banded Rail was heard in the morning, and there was a Turnstone on the estuary at Paihia. In the evening there were 12 NZ Dotterel there. At dusk, we went back to Mt. Bledisloe, and saw the same Morepork in the same tree, but only heard a single calling North Island Brown Kiwi quite close by.
Sun 22 Jan (Paihia to Papakura)
A day of travel, from Paihia to Papakura on the southern outskirts of Auckland – little of note on the bird front. An evening walk at Duder Regional Park near Clevedon produced several NZ Dotterel.
Mon 23 Jan (Day trip to Great Barrier Island)
Having missed out on the organised Hauraki Gulf pelagic, we hastily arranged a DIY trip, by taking the Auckland to Tryphena (Great Barrier Island) car ferry. This gave 9 hours on the water, with a half-hour turn round at Tryphena at lunchtime. The ferry is run by SeaLink, and the trip cost $ 95 pp. There is a faster catamaran service, but that wouldn’t have been as good for birding. The trip was very good value, although our back-to-back outward and return journeys seemed to perplex the crew and office staff. Leaving Auckland, there were several Arctic Skuas harrying the terns and gulls. Australasian Gannets, Buller’s Shearwaters and Fluttering Shearwaters were seen throughout the journey. Things started to get really interesting after an hour or so, when we saw our first Black Petrels around a fishing boat. After 2h, we went through the middle of a big feeding flock – mainly Australasian Gannets, but also with some Black Petrels, Flesh-footed Shearwaters and Short-tailed Shearwaters. The Black Petrels then became regular, sometimes with one or two following the boat. After 3 h, White-faced Storm Petrels started to appear in small numbers, and finally, within site of our destination, a few Cook’s Petrels came past. The return journey gave the same mix of species, but the gulf specialities were seen even better than on the way out. This was an excellent way of seeing the commoner seabirds of the Hauraki Gulf, and if we missed other birds expected on the Pterodroma Pelagics trip, it was a lot cheaper and probably a lot more comfortable.
Tue 24 Jan (Miranda)
Steve visited Miranda, on a really wet and windy day, while Ann went into Auckland for some emergency dental repairs. Steve was stationed in the hide at the south end of the shell-banks from 2.5 hours before high tide until 0.5 hours after. This produced a fine spectacle in front of the hide, mostly of Bar-tailed Godwits, Knots and Wrybills, but also with smaller numbers of Pacific Golden Plovers, and a couple of Red-necked Stints and Terek Sandpipers. The first Black-billed Gulls of the trip flew past, but the flock was disturbed by a passing Arctic Skua, and all the birds moved to the pool behind the hide (Stilt Pool), where they became hard to see well because of the wet and windy conditions. Steve returned to our motel at Papakura via Whangamarino Swamp, where a brief listen for Australasian Bittern failed to produce anything.
Wed 25 Jan (Tiritiri Matangi)
We made our second visit to Tiritiri Matangi, with the specific intention of catching up on Kokako. As the previous day had been very wet and windy, we weren’t sure if the boat would go, and in the end a bus was used to get us from Auckland to Gulf Harbour. The prevailing conditions and mid-week timing reduced the numbers of people going to the island, so that it was very quiet and pleasant. This time we went straight to the Wattle Track, ahead of the guided groups, and almost immediately got 2 Kokako by the Stitchbird feeders, about 50 m from where the Wattle Track crosses the road to the wharf. They were initially in the canopy, and then came onto the ground about 10 ft from us. Not only was it great to see them, but a big relief, because it meant that we wouldn’t have to get up in the middle of the night to try to see them at dawn in Pureora Forest. We then went to the area of bracken just up from the wharf, and had brief views of Fernbird. The target birds having been seen, we then went for a long walk to the north end of the island, getting caught in a couple of heavy showers on the way back. There was a pair of Brown Teal on a small pond on the East Coast track.
Thu 26 Jan (Papakura to Taupo, via Miranda)
We had another try for Australasian Bittern at Whangamarino, but 45 mins looking and listening from an overlook on Falls Road produced nothing. The water levels were much higher than 2 days previously, which made it less likely that one would be standing out in the open. We went on to Miranda, to find that at low tide there is a quite different cast of characters on view compared to high tide. On leaving the car we immediately had excellent views of 3 Buff-banded Rails on the edge of the mangroves. Double-banded Plovers were numerous, and we had 8 Sharp-tailed Sandpipers on the mud in front of the hide, as well as single Terek Sandpiper and Curlew Sandpiper on the Stilt Pool. We had to leave well before high tide to drive to Taupo.
Fri 27 Jan (Tongariro National Park)
A morning walk at Lake Rotopounamou produced many Whiteheads, NZ Robin, and an extraordinary chorus of up to 20 Long-tailed Cuckoos. The cuckoos were in the canopy, and only a few of them could be seen. Their collective calling was unexpected, and we couldn’t remember encountering anything similar involving a cuckoo species before. We went on south-west, but were unable to access the site on the Whakapapa River where Pete and Brenda Wilson had Blue Duck – the site at the water extraction point to the west of SH 49 proved to be on private land now bearing “No Trespassing” signs. Continuing on the Whakapapa Visitor Centre on the slopes of Mt Ruapehu, we found a family of Rifleman within feet of our car on the edge of the car park. All day we had great views of the three massive volcanos that dominate the landscape, and the area looked to be an appropriate choice for Mt. Doom in the Lord of the Rings film trilogy.
Sat 28 Jan (Pureora Forest)
Visited Pureora Forest, concentrating on the canopy hide where we picked up Kaka and Yellow-crowned Parakeet. We also saw Tomtit on the entrance walk, and another couple in the forest. The Totara walk produced many Whitehead. Being Saturday, the Visitor Centre was officially closed, but it was occupied by several unenthusiastic and not very helpful staff. The infrastructure had a rather run down feel to it, and we were glad we weren’t staying there in the bunkhouse. We looked for NZ Falcon along the Link Road back to SH 32, especially around the campsite at the south-east end, but without success.
Sun 29 Jan (Kaimanawa Forest Park)
We drove down Frethey Drive just north of Turangi, which has access to the lake shore, and parked to listen and look for Fernbirds. We could hear several chipping in the reeds and bushes on either side of the road, and it wasn’t long before we got excellent views of one. Several hours were then spent looking for Blue Duck at various sites in Kaimanawa Forest Park along the Tongariro River – the power station, Pillars of Hercules (where Thomas Lindblad had been successful a year previously) and Potuo Dam. We didn’t see any sign of the ducks, despite searching hard. In the evening we went to the Craters of the Moon near Taupo, and saw the fascinating fumeroles and mud-pools. We got the Australasian Pipit promised by the 2005 bird finding article in Birding World.
Mon 30 Jan (Ruakari Scenic Area)
Today we made a 2h-drive from Taupo to the area of Waitomo Caves to look for NZ Falcon at a site said by Birding World to be reliable. The site proved to be the car park for the Aranui Caves in the Ruakari Scenic Area. Initially we turned left at the Waitomo Caves roundabout (probably onto Ruakari Rd), and after 3 km took a side turn to the Waitomo Waterfall Rest Area which is on a hill. Here we heard a falcon calling, and then saw one soaring over a ridge. On the way down from the rest area we saw another soaring. Finally at the car park, one gave great views as it soared overhead and then flew away to the north.
Tue 31 Jan (Taupo to Wanganui)
On our way down to Wanganui, we called at the Manganuiateao River, which seems to be accepted as the best site for Blue Duck. We were a bit apprehensive, as the various accounts we had read all differ about the distances you have to go from SH 4. So we carefully noted the km readings – all distances below are measured from the SH 4 turn off. At Orautoha (12.2 km), we turned left over a white bridge over a stream, to find on our left a house called “Blue Duck Cottage” (encouraging). At 13.1 km, we suddenly met the river, where there were clear views up and down stream. Immediately, a Blue Duck flew from downstream, calling “whio” like a Wigeon, and joined its mate on stones on the opposite shore. They gave great scope views. Our luck continued, as we spotted another pair with ducklings downstream from the same spot. At 15.9 km we had another pair with one duckling, and then at the bridge over the river (16.7 km), another pair plus downy juvenile. That made a total of 12 birds. We headed for the Ruatiti Domain (17.5 km), which is not at Ruatiti, where there was a nice picnic area, but no more ducks. The man living in the cottage at the domain told us there was a family of NZ Falcons in the area, but we didn’t see them. Heading back again to SH 4 later in the day, we only saw a couple of ducks, so clearly they can be elusive. Overall, it was a very satisfying experience, and seeing the ducks at this site proved much easier than we had feared.
Wed 1 Feb (Wanganui to Wellington, via Foxton Beach)
A good collection of shorebirds was seen at Foxton Beach between Wanganui and Wellington – a similar mix to those at Miranda, with 20 Wrybill, 28 Pacific Golden Plover, 8 Sharp-tailed Sandpipers, and a single Far Eastern Curlew being highlights. Birds seem to gather on an incoming tide either on a beach area near the end of the estuary, or on a spit observable from a viewing platform next to the Foxton Beach Motel on Dawick Rd. There were three distant Cattle Egrets across the estuary, two in full breeding plumage. We visited Lake Papaitonga near Levin, but it was rather disappointing with only distant views. In the evening, we had an excellent seafood meal at Shed 5 at Queen’s Wharf in Wellington.
Thu 2 Feb (Waikanae Beach, Karori Reserve)
At Waikanae Beach we got our first decent views of Royal Spoonbill, and our first Black-fronted Tern. The nearby Nga Manu Sanctuary was a bit like Slimbridge – close up views of common birds, but more a centre for education than for birding. In the evening we took an evening walk at the Karori Reserve in Wellington where an astonishing 8.5 km-long $2M fence has been used to create a predator-free “island”. The highlight was a Little Spotted Kiwi, which we spotlighted after hearing rustling nearby. We also saw Kaka and Brown Teal, and heard Morepork and Weka. In addition to the birds we also enjoyed Glow Worms, Tuatara (ancient lizards) and Tree Weta. We didn’t visit the sanctuary in daytime, so we’ve no idea how easy it would be to find the Saddlebacks, Stitchbirds and Wekas that have been released there. The night walk ($ 45 pp) is highly recommended, and was expertly led.
Fri 3 Feb (Wellington)
No birding today, but we did sightseeing in Wellington. The restaurant at the top of the cable car gives spectacular views over the city, and serves a nice lunch. In the city there was the extraordinary sight of many noisy people in fancy dress on the way to a Rugby Sevens championship.
Sat 4 Feb (Wellington to Picton)
We took the Inter-islander Ferry from Wellington to Picton in fairly calm and sunny conditions, and we positioned ourselves on deck for sea-watching. This proved to be an anti-climax, because although it produced four Shearwater species (Fluttering, Buller’s, Flesh-footed and Sooty), these were in rather small numbers apart from Fluttering, and there was no sign at all of any Albatrosses, Prions or Petrels. This was rather disappointing, but we were told that it was not un-typical for that time of year.
Sun 5 Feb (Queen Charlotte Sound)
We went on the Dolphin Watch Birdwatchers’ Special on Queen Charlotte Sound, departing 1.30, returning 6.00, with an hour ashore at Motuara Island. Of the 20 people on the trip, there was only one other birder, and calling the trip a Birdwatchers’ Special is really stretching the vocabulary a bit, because a lot of (very enjoyable) time was spent looking for seals and dolphins, while some interesting birds such as Black-fronted Terns and Arctic Skuas were ignored. We had made the organisers aware that we wanted to see King Shag, and while the weather was too rough to allow a visit to their breeding site on the White Rocks, 2 birds were found with ease at known feeding grounds in the outer sound, one on the water, and another with Spotted Shags on rocks. The same areas also gave us good views of NZ Fur Seal and Hector’s Dolphin. On Motuara Island, we were advised that the best way of seeing NZ Robin and Saddleback (South Island forms) was to wait beside a tiny drinking pool by some wooden steps about 100 m along the track from the wharf. This proved to be a successful strategy, although the rest of the group who went up to the summit of the island also had both species along the trail. We also saw an NZ Falcon, one of a breeding pair on the island.
Mon 6 Feb (Blenheim area)
At Blenheim Sewage Lagoons we saw many Royal Spoonbills, Black-fronted Terns and Paradise Shelducks. This area is next to the Wairau River Lagoons walk, which takes 2 hours across the saltmarsh to a wrecked ship (the Waverley). Apart from more Royal Spoonbills, there was little of note from a birding perspective on the walk. In the Awetare River valley behind Seddon we saw large numbers of introduced finches, but couldn’t find any Cirl Buntings that are said to be in the area.
Tue 7 Feb (Blenheim to Kaikoura)
We arrived at Kaikoura at 11.00, and went straight to the Albatross Encounters HQ on the Esplanade. Although there wasn’t a cloud in the sky, it was very windy, and the forecast for the next two days was continuing windy and with rain as well. We had booked in advance morning trips on the Wednesday and Thursday, but in view of the weather we changed our plans and decided to go for the boat going out in 2 hours time. This proved to be an amazing experience, especially since the boat went no more than 5 km off shore to the 1000m-deep trench, departing from the slipway on the south side of the peninsula (South Bay). Within 5 minutes of departure, Cape Petrels and Northern Giant Petrels were following the boat, and chumming rapidly produced several Wandering Albatrosses (Gibson’s), both Northern and Southern Royal Albatrosses, and Shy Albatrosses (mostly Salvin’s with a few White-capped). It was fantastic to be able to see these birds at point-blank range, and despite a heavy swell, we got some great photographs. Several White-chinned Petrels and Westland Petrels also showed up, and single Buller’s, Flesh-footed and Hutton’s Shearwaters passed but didn’t stop. A visit to Barney’s Rock on the way back gave us nice views of Eastern Reef Heron and NZ Fur Seals, and we also met a friendly pod of Dusky Dolphins. Having done well, we decided to quit while ahead and cancelled our booking for the following day. We took our usual sea-sickness regimen of hyoscine, ginger tablets and acupuncture wristbands, and we were OK, but only just. It was Steve’s birthday, and the seabird spectacular was a nice birthday present.
Wed 8 Feb (Kaikoura, St Anne’s Lagoon)
We did the cliff-top walk on the Kaikoura peninsula, seeing many unidentified small seabirds not far off shore (most were probably Cape Petrels). Round at South Bay we had close up views of a feeding Eastern Reef Heron. We then drove down the coast to St. Anne’s Lagoon just north of Cheviot which is well signposted from SH 1, and which has good picnic areas and views of the water. Amongst the commoner waterfowl were two Australian Shovelers and a single Common Coot. We had read that Cape Barren Goose occurred in the area, and one account referred to a pond just south of St. Anne’s Lagoon which we couldn’t find. However, 1.5 km south of the turn to the lagoon we found two geese in a grassy field right by the highway, giving excellent views. In the evening we had a delayed birthday meal for Steve at the excellent White Morph restaurant right next door to Albatross Encounters HQ.
Thu 9 Feb (Kaikoura)
Steve went on a morning Albatross Encounter, while Ann took the time off. The birds were more numerous and more varied than 2 days previously, with all 3 subspecies of Wandering Albatross quickly alighting round the boat in the first chumming session, and with a Buller’s Albatross doing a couple of fly-bys. Later, a Southern Giant Petrel joined a throng of Northern Giant Petrels at the stern of the boat, with its green bill tip clearly distinguishing it. Despite predictions to the contrary, the swell seemed worse than before, and it was very touch and go whether the medication regimen would hold – in the end it did, but it was a relief to get back to shore. However, feeling bad was a small price to pay for such a fantastic spectacle – this is something that should be seen by anyone with even a passing interest in wildlife, and not just by birdwatchers.
Fri 10 Feb (Kaikoura to Greymouth)
Drove across from Kaikoura to Greymouth via Lewis Pass. Just west of the pass, the big beech forests began, in which we found NZ Robin (one tame enough to perch on the car), NZ Bellbird, Kaka, Tomtit and Rifleman. In Greymouth there was a Great Egret in the tidal lagoon behind the town (Lake Karoro), with some Australian Shovelers. The egret was also there on the next two nights.
Sat 11 Feb (Lake Kaniere, Punakaiki)
At Lake Kaniere, we found a couple of Weka along the north shore of the lake, and a Fernbird in a small marsh, but attempts at a walk on the Lake Kaniere Walkway were thwarted by heavy rain. Driving up from Greymouth to the Pancake Rocks at Punakiaki, we found more Weka by the roadside. We knew of a possible site for Great Spotted Kiwi in the forest behind Punakaiki, but the information we had was insufficient to be sure of finding the location unaided after dark, and also as the weather was turning wet we decided to give this a miss.
Sun 12 Feb (Arthur’s Pass)
Day trip from Greymouth to Arthur’s Pass. It rained all day in the mountains, mostly heavily, but despite this we found Keas with ease at Arthur’s Pass Village, where they perched to have their photos taken (often on cars and rubbish bins) by coach loads of tourists from Christchurch. Continuing on south a little way, we stopped to eat our picnic lunch at Klondyke Corner, next to some very nice forest, which gave us our first Pipipis. Otira Gorge is a site for Blue Duck, but as it was now raining cats and dogs, and since we had already seen the ducks well, we decided not to scan the river too hard. The Visitor Centre mentions some of the footpaths around Arthur’s Pass Village as being a site for Great Spotted Kiwi, but it would be necessary to stay there in order to have any chance. Coming back to Greymouth, we found those two UK stalwarts Common Coot and Great Crested Grebe at the reedy Lake Poerua.
Mon 13 Feb (Greymouth to Franz Josef)
At Lake Mahinapua, we took the forest walk on the south side of the lake through some really nice forest habitat on a fine sunny morning. Tomtits were plentiful and tame, and there were some more Pipipis. Passing Lake Ianthe on the way south-west we were amused to see adverts for boat trips to see “rare birds”, which turned out to be Great Crested Grebes. Having viewed the impressive glacier at Franz Josef, in the evening we drove up to Okarito, where there was a nice reedy pool just behind the beach, allowing us to have some fun with the local Fernbirds. Although the pool was only small, there were several calling, and they responded to pishing by half-shinning up the reeds to give us reasonable views. Eventually, one came right out in the open, and ran across some open ground only a few feet away like a mouse. We’d been given a tip by a NZ birder we met earlier that it was possible to see Okarito Brown Kiwi along the road to Okarito, and the motel owner in Franz Josef told us that they had been seen (and run over) in the car park to the Pakihi trail, midway from SH 6 to Okarito. Additionally, we had read that Birdquest groups see them along the Okarito road. So we went there at dusk, listened for a while, and then drove slowly along the road, without any sign of one – none were calling. However, there were several Moreporks calling, which was some compensation. It seems likely that the Kiwis are spread thinly over the area, so catching up with them is likely to be tricky.
Tue 14 Feb (Franz Josef to Haast)
A wet morning, and a good opportunity to get our dodgy front tyre changed. Having done that, we took the walk to the glacier face at Fox Glacier, a spectacular but cold place. Birds were unremarkable, except that we saw a flock of 35 NZ Pigeons passing over the car park at the glacier, which was good for a species we had been seeing mostly in ones and twos up to then.
Wed 15 Feb (Monro Beach, Jackson’s Bay)
At Monro Beach north-east of Haast, we walked to the beach through some very nice forest, which was thick with the commoner bush birds, particularly Tuis, Tomtits and Grey Fantails. The beach is a breeding site for Fjordland Crested Penguin, and while they are gone after December, some apparently return to moult in February, so it was worth a look. However, despite getting our boots and trouser legs soaked in the surf, we couldn’t find any birds amongst the rocks. At Jackson’s Bay south-west of Haast we finally caught up with a black morph Grey Fantail. At both Monro Beach and Jackson’s Bay there were Shy Albatrosses and Sooty Shearwaters not far off shore. The section of the road to Jackson’s Bay between the Arawhata River and Hannah’s Clearing has DoC signs denoting a Kiwi Zone, but presumably the birds are thinly spread here like at Okarito.
Thu 16 Feb (Haast to Queenstown)
Arriving at the top of Haast Pass, we immediately heard Yellowheads calling in the inaccessible forest on the west side. On the first two hundred metres of the Historic Bridle Track on the east side of the pass, a few could be heard singing and calling, and having recently mugged up the vocalisations on a CD, we were able to compare Yellowhead and Pipipi at first hand. However, this is a difficult area to bird, as the best area seems to be close to the road and there is regular noisy traffic coming up and down the steep grades of the pass. Both species seemed to favour the very tops of tall beeches. So we didn’t get satisfactory views, or really any kind of view at all, but we saw many Rifleman at close range, and had a great view of a NZ Falcon perched below us on a dead tree. Later in the day we saw two more NZ Falcons in the Cardrona Valley as we headed down to Queenstown.
Fri 17 Feb (Routeburn, Lake Sylvan, Glenorchy)
Having been given a tip that the first part of the Routeburn Track north of Glenorchy was good for Yellowhead, we drove up there, and on getting out of the car in a very full car park at the south end of the track (27 km from Glenorchy), we heard them calling straight away. This time they were low down right on the edge of the forest, and by ducking under low branches we got them a few feet away feeding on fallen logs. There were several family groups, and others higher in the trees, making about 30 birds in all. Soon after, they moved further into the forest and seemed to go higher up, so we were lucky to catch them when we did. This is a very nice area of beech forest in glorious scenery, and we could see why it was used as the site for Lothlorien in Lord of the Rings films. To avoid the crowds, we took a walk to Lake Sylvan, getting more Yellowheads with a Pipipi flock on the way to lake, plus many tame and inquisitive Rifleman, NZ Robins, Tomtits and Bellbirds.
Sat 18 Feb (Queenstown to Te Anau Downs)
No serious birding today as we moved from Queenstown to Te Anau Downs, but we spent some time admiring the Kingston Flier preserved steam railway.
Sun 19 Feb (Homer Tunnel)
We spent from 9 am to 3 pm searching unsuccessfully for South Island Wren in the Alpine Nature Walk at Homer Tunnel, in scree by the meteorological station 200 m further down the hill, and on the first section of the Gertrude Saddle Track, which starts about 1 km lower down. This included climbing over boulders to get to likely areas of boulder scree, and getting onto the scree itself. The weather was fine and the setting spectacular, the Alpine Nature Walk being located in an amazing rock amphitheatre. We had to bird in relays, because at this site, it was wise for one person to defend the car permanently against attack from Keas. They still managed to peck some plastic off our car while we weren’t looking. The Gertrude Saddle Track produced only Yellowhammers, Lesser Redpolls and Chaffinches.
Mon 20 Feb (Homer Tunnel, Milford Sound)
We were booked on a 10 am Milford Sound cruise in order to beat the crowds that arrive by coach later in the morning, and we decided to go very early and try again for the South Island Wren beforehand. Arriving at Homer Tunnel at 7 am, it was drizzling slightly and the light was poor, and it stayed that way until 9 am when we had to leave to go through the tunnel. This time Steve scrambled further up the scree, but was only rewarded with wet feet again. As yesterday, there were no calls audible that could not be ascribed to common introduced species. Continuing to Milford, it was raining harder, and the visibility was poor, but the drive down to Milford and the cruise itself ($50 pp by Redboats) were impressive anyway. The Sound is not very birdy, but we looked hard for Fjordland Crested Penguin, and eventually connected with three on a small beach on the north side between Harrison Cove and Bowen Falls as we returned into Milford. Birding was impossible for the rest of the day because of heavy rain.
Tue 21 Feb (Homer Tunnel)
The day started fine, but wet weather was forecast for the Wednesday, so we decided to head up to Homer Tunnel again to have a last try for the Wren. Arriving there at 2 pm, we diligently scanned the rocks, clambered up more scree and patrolled the Alpine Nature Walk, all to no avail. Finally, just before 4 pm, Steve decided to make one final circuit of the Alpine Nature Walk loop, leaving Ann to guard the car from two lurking Keas. No more than 200 m from the car park, and before the start of the loop itself, there was a sudden rather quiet and very high-pitched seeping call from the dense vegetation on the right of the track, very reminiscent of a mouse or vole on a walk in the UK. But since any mice up there were unlikely, this suggested we might be on to something, and almost immediately a male South Island Wren appeared at the base of a big rock just below the track and no more than 20 ft away, and made its way to the top of the rock, bobbing up and down at eye level. It was very bright green above, with short white supercilia and bright yellow flank feathers that blew in the breeze. Very soon, its mate also appeared close by. The problem now was to make sure Ann saw them as well. Since the birds were close to the car park, she was within hailing distance, and she made her way over to the spot quickly. The birds performed well for about 10 minutes, before disappearing into the thick vegetation again. So our sighting was a very satisfactory culmination of about 10 hours of searching, spread over 3 days, and we were successful at the very last throw of the dice. This episode reminded me that the motto of my old school was “perseverantia”.
On our way back to Te Anau Downs, we had a good walk at Lake Gunn, where the nature trail through some excellent beech forest with mossy growth all over fallen trees produced more Rifleman, Yellow-crowned Parakeet, Tomtit and Robin.
Wed 22 Feb (Te Anau area)
The day was mostly wet, so no serious birding was possible, but we enjoyed some large flocks of House Sparrows and Lesser Redpolls in weedy fields just north of Te Anau.
Thu 23 Feb (Te Anau Downs to Invercargill)
It had snowed overnight on the mountain tops, so the first part of Southern Scenic Route from Te Anau to Invercargill was particularly impressive. On reaching the coast, we encountered thousands of Sooty Shearwaters at Colac Bay and Riverton Rocks, presumably driven close inshore by strong south-westerlies. Our first two Stewart Island Shags turned up at Colac Bay – both pied phase juveniles. From other trip reports, we had learnt of a site for Black-fronted Plover nearby, and headed there. From Wilson’s Crossing on SH 6 about 15 km to the north of Invercargill, we went west along Wilson’s Crossing Road, over a cross-roads onto a dirt track which went over a white wooden bridge across a dyke down to the river. At the river there was an open gate, with a small sign presumably from the landowner, inviting you to park your car there, but only to progress further on foot. The gravelly river was immediately beyond this point. For a while we found only Double-banded Plovers, Black-fronted Terns, White-headed Stilts and a Caspian Tern, until a single Black-fronted Plover arrived on the bank opposite us, and gave excellent scope views.
Fri 24 Jan (Invercargill to Stewart Island)
Heavy clouds, strong wind and driving rain accompanied us, as we drove south to Bluff for the 9.30 ferry to Stewart Island. We stayed outside on the back deck of the ferry to birdwatch, but there was a 2.5-metre swell, so all we could do was hang on. A number of people were ill during the 1 hour crossing. There were over 500 Sooty Shearwaters, and many Albatrosses, most of them distant, but some Shy and Buller’s Albatrosses coming close enough to identify. In mid channel, an unidentified pterodroma petrel (most likely Mottled) made a rapid fly-by, but it was impossible to get our binoculars on it. Immediately on arrival, we were able to get access to our room, one of the modern motel rooms at the back of the South Sea Motel, which proved to be a very comfortable and convenient place to stay, the restaurant serving mountains of mostly good food. The main target species on Stewart Island was Southern Brown Kiwi, which can be viewed on a trip with Philip Smith of Bravo Adventure Cruises in his big launch Wildfire ($95 pp), so we called them as soon as we were settled. They had been out the previous night and seen three Kiwis (but apparently had seen none the night before that). It was no surprise when the rough weather put paid to any trip that night. However, we were scheduled to be on Stewart Island for another four nights, and were very hopeful of getting to see the Kiwis.
Sat 25 Jan (Stewart Island)
We’d arranged a water taxi from Golden Bay to Ulva Island, but the skipper wasn’t willing to put to sea as the water in Paterson Inlet was so rough, with the wind expected to rise to 40 knots later in the day. So we walked to Acker’s Point instead, and spent several hours watching seabirds in windy but sunny conditions. As well as hundreds of Sooty Shearwaters, it was now possible to see the Albatrosses properly, and we were quite surprised to find that the majority were Buller’s, with the rest Shy (White-capped). We didn’t positively identify a Salvin’s at any time during our stay on Stewart Island. There was a single Northern Giant Petrel, a few Little Penguins, and a distant diomedea Albatross, probably a Southern Royal. It was also nice to see a Weka by the Ackers Point lighthouse, one from a recent re-introduction scheme. Stewart Island Shags were much in evidence, mostly of the pied form. In the evening (and each subsequent evening), there was a noisy gathering of Kakas behind the hotel, putting on a good show. The Kiwi trip was off again because of rough seas.
Sun 26 Jan (Stewart Island, Ulva Island)
The seas were calmer, so we got over to Ulva Island, although the 5 minute crossing was very bouncy. Memories of Tiritiri came flooding back, as we were soon among Saddlebacks (South Island form), NZ Robins (Stewart Island form) and Red-crowned Parakeets, as well as Rifleman and numerous Pipipis. The introduced birds are all over the area covered by walking tracks, but are most densely concentrated just behind Post Office Cove where the boats land, on the History Walk and the Conservation Walk. The one bird we failed to find was Yellowhead, for which we searched hard. Having seen them very well at Routeburn, it wasn’t a problem, but we were glad we weren’t relying upon finding them on Ulva Island. Wekas were numerous, and rather too tame – they were intent on sharing our lunch on Boulder Beach, and we had to gently push them away with our boots. One took a stab at an apple in a plastic bag while we weren’t looking. The Kiwi trip was off for the third night running owing to the wind – apparently Philip Smith had been unable to tie his boat up at the quay near Ocean Beach during the afternoon. So we had a nice fish dinner at the Church Hill Restaurant overlooking Halfmoon Bay, watching the cruising Albatrosses in the bay, and listening to The Eagles on the restaurant’s CD system – bliss!
Mon 27 Jan (Stewart Island)
There was steady rain all morning and afternoon, but with much calmer seas, but we walked over to Horseshoe Bay anyway, getting rather wet in the process. At 6.30 pm, we spoke with Philip Smith, who was pessimistic about getting out that night, but miraculously at 7.00 the rain stopped, and there were patches of blue sky, so we were on, and instructed to meet at the wharf at 8.10. We were among a group of 14 participants for the 35 minute journey across Paterson Inlet to a small jetty where Philip tied up the boat. There were good views of Stewart Island Shags and Little Penguins en route. We walked in the dark along a rather slippery path for 500 m to Ocean Beach, searching for Kiwis in the bush as we went. A Kiwi-like call from not far away was identified by Philip as a Yellow-eyed Penguin, but in fact we didn’t hear any Kiwi calls all evening. Fears that we might have made the trip, but wouldn’t see a Southern Brown Kiwi, were quickly dispelled when one ran across the beach as we arrived there. It was a male that had been feeding on sand hoppers, and we were able to spotlight it disappearing into the bush. Despite further searching, and examination of recent tracks, we didn’t see any more Kiwis on the beach. There were a couple of brief showers, but then the stars came out, and we were able to get excellent views of the Southern Cross, Orion upside-down, and both Large and Small Megallanic Clouds. On the way back to the boat we found two more Kiwis, a female and then another male, giving better and better views, the last one being only a few feet away on the track. We got back into Halfmoon Bay at 12.30 after an amazing and surreal evening, and as the next night was windy, we were very fortunate to have got over to Ocean Beach at all during our five-night stay.
Tue 28 Jan (Stewart Island)
We decided to walk over to Ackers Point again, but the weather was calmer than on our previous visit, so there wasn’t the variety of birds at sea. The highlight was a feeding raft of 2 to 3 thousand Sooty Shearwaters just off the point, whipping the water to a frenzy as they dived for fish. Later the whole flock seemed to have moved into Halfmoon Bay to digest their meals, quite close to the wharf. In the evening, we went to an excellent talk by the local DoC representative about their work and the activities of the local community, geared towards reducing pests and re-introducing Wekas. Apparently, now that it is considered antisocial on Stewart Island to let your dog roam, Southern Brown Kiwis have been seen in local gardens (notably the policeman’s cabbage patch), and there is a vision of getting rare native species such as Saddleback into the Halfmoon Bay area within the next few years.
Wed 1 Mar (Stewart Island to Nuggett Point)
We left Oban on the 8.00 ferry back to Bluff, and were sorry to say goodbye to Stewart Island. The conditions were wet and a bit misty, and apart from lots of Sooty Shearwaters, we didn’t see much birdlife from the back of the boat. But at least the conditions weren’t as rough as on the journey out, and nobody seemed to be ill. Generally, the wet and/or windy conditions hampered us on Stewart Island, and we didn’t seriously contemplate a pelagic trip. Picking up our car again, we drove through the Catlins, mostly in the rain, to Nuggett Lodge near Nuggett Point. The Lodge has only 2 flatlets, but both have sea views, and the property is run by penguin enthusiasts Kath and Noel Widdowson. We were quickly watching the Sooty Shearwaters and other seabirds off the point from the bedroom window. At 7.30, we went down to the hide in nearby Roaring Bay, to look for Yellow-eyed Penguins, and were rewarded with excellent views of a couple at the base of the cliff. Then freezing horizontal rain coming straight from the Antarctic, and blowing horizontally into the hide, sent us scurrying back to the car.
Thu 2 Mar (Catlins)
Rain all day, never very heavy, but combined with strong south-westerly winds. At Surat Bay, we suddenly found that an apparently inanimate object close by on the beach was actually a very large dozing male NZ Sea Lion. At the Tautuku Estuary (Fleming River) Boardwalk there was an interesting collection of native bush birds including Pipipis and a black morph Fantail. We also heard two Fernbirds in the reeds at the end of the boardwalk, but they were staying well down in the windy conditions. Although the conditions were unsuitable for going out in the evening, very comfortable sea-watching was possible from our bedroom at Nuggett Lodge, to see a big passage of Sooty Shearwaters and Shy Albatrosses, plus a few Buller’s Albatrosses and Australasian Gannets. Hundreds of Spotted Shags were coming back to the headland to roost.
Fri 3 Mar (Catlins)
It was wet and windy again all morning, so we pottered about Catlins area, visiting waterfalls and the impressive Cathedral Caves. In the afternoon, the weather improved, so we went down to the lighthouse, where there were thousands of Sooty Shearwaters off the point, along with Shy and Buller’s Albatrosses and a single Northern Giant Petrel. Sea-watching wasn’t easy there, as the lighthouse is rather high above the sea. A large group of Seals and Sea Lions was entertaining, as they climbed up rock stacks and swam in pools. At the end of the afternoon, Kath Widdowson showed us a Fjordland Crested Penguin with a damaged foot that she had in care, and which she was planning to release once it got stronger. In the evening we went to Roaring Bay again, but it was very windy, so we just stopped long enough to see a couple of Yellow-eyed Penguins.
Sat 4 Mar (Nuggett Point to Dunedin)
Heading for Dunedin, we called at Sinclair Wetlands, which are really an eastwards extension of Lake Waihola. Fernbirds could be heard ticking not far from the visitor centre, but they showed poorly, with only a couple giving brief views. The waterfowl were rather disappointing, with only a large flock of NZ Scaup being notable.
Sun 5 Mar (Otago Peninsula)
We spent the whole day on the Otago Peninsula, driving the backroads, viewing the inlets, and finally visiting the Albatross Centre at Taiaroa Head. Birdlife was prolific with hoards of gulls, including our largest count so far of Black-billed Gull. Papanui Inlet was also very birdy at low tide, with Royal Spoonbills being the highlight. But the best spot by far was the Albatross colony. The Royal Albatrosses can be seen soaring from the Albatross Centre car park, and from a small viewing area just to the east of the car park we also had Sooty Shearwater, Shy and Buller’s Albatrosses, and a Giant Petrel sp not far out to sea. The only way of getting close to the Royal Albatrosses, and of seeing their nests, is to book a guided tour ($ 28 pp). This gave us a short video with narration by Sir David Attenborough, a talk by a guide about breeding ecology, and then a walk up to the viewing hide. The Albatrosses are said to be most active in the late afternoon. Getting to the hide was a challenge because the wind was gusting to 60 knots, and the staff were near to closing the path to the hide entirely. Once in the hide, we saw a 6-week old chick on a nest being guarded by an adult, with another six birds soaring over at close range. Great stuff. Also impressive was the Stewart Island Shag colony just below the hide, where many birds were sitting on cylindrical mud nests. The Albatross Centre has an excellent café, which serves much better food than Nature’s Wonders café just back along the peninsula. Another tip for the Otago Peninsula – birders may prefer to avoid Larnach Castle (and its Scottish piper) which was knee deep in tour buses, probably from a cruise ship. Although the windy conditions were a bit of a nuisance, they were nothing compared to problems experienced elsewhere on the South Island that day, resulting in cancelled ferries, and one Wellington / Picton crossing that apparently took 8 h.
Mon 6 Mar (Otago Peninsula)
We visited Penguin Place to see the Yellow-eyed Penguins. This tour lasts 90 min, and at $ 33 pp it is good value. We were taken by mini-bus across some farm land to a dune area where the penguins breed. All the chicks had now gone to sea, so we only saw five adults in various stages of moult, but some were only a few feet away. The area comprises a bizarre arrangement of tunnels and trenches leading to hides, rather like something out of All Quiet on the Western Front. We were told that at this time of year when birds are moulting, the time of day doesn’t make much odds, and we opted for the first tour of the day at 10.15 am. The rest of the day was wet and windy, but we managed a walk to The Pyramids beyond Papanui Inlet, to find that on the far side it consisted of hexagonal-shaped basalt columns sticking out into the air.
Tue 7 Mar (Dunedin to Oamaru)
Travelling to north Oamaru, we stopped at Shag Point, an excellent spot where there was a single Yellow-eyed Penguin on the beach, lots of Spotted and Stewart Island Shags, tubenoses at sea, and even a Fernbird calling in a little gully. At Katiki Point near Moeraki, there was yet another Yellow-eyed Penguin colony, with a small hide and information board, from which 35 chicks had fledged this year (a good tally), but there were none at home when we called. We followed this with a walk along the beach to see the unusual Moeraki boulders. This was really “Penguin Day”, because we had signed up with Bruce Daniell of Penguin Express to see both penguin species at Oamaru. His trip is excellent value at $ 25 pp, because it includes motel pick-up and drop-off, plus a tour of the fascinating historic sector of town by night to see the fine old limestone buildings dating from the 1860s and 1870s. At Bushy Beach, we saw three Yellow-eyed Penguins coming in from the sea, and three others moulting in the bushes, and then at the Little Penguin colony, a total of 51 birds came in at dusk in four or five groups, and scuttled across a floodlit area overlooked by a grandstand, to reach their nesting holes. To finish the evening, it was Census Night in New Zealand, so we did our duty and filled in a form provided by our motel.
Wed 8 Mar (Oamaru to Twizel)
Travelling to Twizel, we began our search for Black Stilt. We had read that the Ahuriri River immediately north of Omarana was a good spot, but the areas close to the river on each side of the bridge crossing SH 8 seemed inaccessible, and viewing from the bridge was difficult because of passing traffic. We decided to try an area just NW of Twizel where our friends Pete and Brenda Wilson had been successful. This is reached by driving out of Twizel on Glen Lyon Road for about 8 km until it reaches the wide and surprisingly blue Pukaki Canal. There is a sealed road along the south side of the canal, but by taking the unsealed road running along the north side and heading north-east, it is possible to look down on some gravelly pools. At the extreme east end of Lake Poaka, we found five Black Stilts (2 pure black adults, and 3 immatures with a small amount of white at the base of the bill and some white mottling on the underparts). These immature birds were all radio-tagged, presumably from the local captive breeding programme. At the same pools there were also a couple of Black / White-headed Stilt hybrids, with black breast-bands. The Black Stilts were relatively short-legged, and distinctly recalled breeding plumage Spotted Redshanks.
Thu 9 Mar (Twizel area)
At Glentanner, on the way to Mt Cook, we found three more Black Stilts by driving less than 0.5 km past Glentanner airfield buildings, and taking the second track on the right leading towards the Tasman River delta at the top of Lake Pukaki (the first track leads to some stock pounds). There was a gate about 30 m from the road at which we parked, and then we walked down the river for about 1 km to view the birds. We could almost certainly have driven past the gate and along the river without anyone being concerned. The day was sunny and clear, so we had great views of Mt Cook all day, and finally got to see the Southern Alps properly. However, both the Hooker Valley car park and the Mt Cook village area were seething with visitors, so we decided not to attempt any birding there, and opted to return to the peace and quiet of the Twizel area.
Fri 10 Mar (Twizel area)
We tried a couple of other possible Black Stilt sites, but didn’t find any new birds. These sites were pools adjacent to the Pukaki canal to the west of Lake Tekapo township, and the Cass River delta on the west shore Lake Tekapo. The Cass River delta is difficult to reach, because you get there via a dirt track road, which ends at the Cass River bridge at Godley Peak Station, and shortly after it becomes a private road. The delta itself can be seen very distantly from the bridge, but is several km away. A local man said that with a 4WD you can take a track starting about 100 m south of the bridge, which goes out most of the way to the delta, and that he had seen two Black Stilts there the previous day. However, it was clear that our saloon car wouldn’t make it that far. Also, the rough windy weather had returned, which actually made getting out of the car a challenge. At Lake McGregor, a small lake immediately east of Lake Alexandrina, there was an excellent collection of water birds, with lots of ducks, Common Coots and Great Crested Grebes. Some male Australian Shovelers were coming out of eclipse plumage, allowing us to see them in more or less their full glory. Lake Alexandrina, despite claims that it is very birdy, seemed virtually devoid of birds, and very little of it can apparently be accessed easily.
Sat 11 Mar (Twizel area to Christchurch)
A travel day, so after a final look at the Black Stilts at Lake Poaka, we left the High Country, and moved to Christchurch, our final port of call in New Zealand.
Sun 12 Mar (Christchurch)
After a morning catching up on some work issues, we took a drive along the hills overlooking Lyttleton Harbour, which gives impressive views. We passed the Sign-of-the-Takahe, a historic landmark where we had lunch in August 1990. Some Royal Spoonbills at Bromley Oxidation Ponds as we came back to town was the birding highlight.
Mon 13 Mar (Banks Peninsula)
We drove out towards Akaroa on the Banks Peninsula via SH 75, passing some very large concentrations of water birds at the eastern ends of both Lake Ellesmere and Lake Forsyth. Lake Ellesmere had about 300 Royal Spoonbills, thousands of Black Swans and single Mute Swan, while Lake Forsyth had more than a thousand Paradise Shelducks, and two Great Egrets. On arrival at Akaroa after a spectacular drive across the Banks Peninsula, we learnt that the Blackcat Group wildlife cruise on which were booked had been cancelled due to technical reasons. We were hoping to see the white-flippered form of the Little Penguin in the Cathedral Cave area, but apparently they are few and far between at this season, with only the odd one on the water being seen. We were led to understand that we stood as much chance of seeing one as watchers on a Swimming-with-Dolphins trip, so we opted for a trip going out in a few minutes time (same price as the wildlife cruise, $49 pp). In retrospect, this wasn’t a very good move, because while we saw Hector’s Dolphins shooting past, and saw people swimming in wet suits, we didn’t really see the two together. The boat went well out into the open ocean, but there were very few seabirds about, the highlight being a single Yellow-eyed Penguin.
Tue 14 Mar (Lake Ellesmere)
We spent our last birding day around Lake Ellesmere. To start with, we reached the shore on the north side of the lake by parking at the end of Embankment Rd and walking, but the shore was actually pretty distant and birds were wary (perhaps because it’s an area used for shooting). Black Swans and unidentified brown ducks were abundant, but we were able to pick out several Australian Shovelers, hundreds of Grey Teal, a few Bar-tailed Godwits and over 50 Double-banded Plovers. Going round to the west side of the lake, we found Harts Creek Reserve just north of Lakeside, which consisted of a pleasant walk through some rather English farmland to a hide overlooking an inlet. It was a nice spot, but there was nothing very remarkable about, with Great Crested Grebe probably being most notable species. Attempts to find access to the lake on the north-west side weren’t very successful, as most roads terminated short of the lake, which anyway seemed virtually birdless in these areas. Finally, we got down to Lower Selwyn Huts (vaguely reminiscent of bungalows on the Essex coast), but that proved not to be a very birdy area either. In the evening we had an excellent (but rather expensive) end-of-trip dinner at Pescatore restaurant in the George Hotel in Christchurch. Walking back across Hagley Park at dusk, we got our final species for New Zealand – two Little Owls calling.
Wed 15 Mar (Christchurch to Sydney)
We said goodbye to our faithful car and to New Zealand, which had been our home for 9 weeks. Heading out over the Tasman Sea to Sydney, there were spectacular views of the Southern Alps and distant views of the Mackenzie District Lakes.
16 to 20 Mar (Sydney)
We had decided to spend 4 days in Sydney before making the long journey home, and the time in the city made an interesting contrast to the more rural parts of New Zealand. The Harbour provides plenty of opportunities for half-day trips or whole-day trips, and it was possible to get a Daytripper ticket for $15. This was great value, as it gave access to buses, to trains in the greater Sydney area, and to virtually all harbour ferries. Chinatown was particularly enjoyable, especially the Asian Food Court on Level 3 of Market City. We spent a very nice half-day in Centennial Park, about 5 km from the city centre, where there are some excellent lakes with a good variety of wetland species, the best of which were two Latham’s Snipe. A ferry to Manly gave us a small group of Wedge-tailed Shearwaters following a fishing boat, and we saw White-bellied Sea-Eagle just upstream of Sydney Harbour bridge. On our final day we took a train to Waterfall, about 40 km south of Sydney, where walking tracks gave access to some good bush and an excellent range of species in Heathcote NP. This served to remind us how bird-rich Australia is compared to New Zealand, and got us thinking about a return visit to spend some time in parts of Australia we hadn’t previously visited.
Finally, at 16.25 on Sunday 19 March, we left Australia, and returned to London via Singapore, arriving at London Heathrow at 4.45 am next morning. All in all, it was a fabulous trip, which fully met our expectations.
On the basis of our experiences, we can offer a few suggestions or tips for birders planning a trip to New Zealand.
Arrival in New Zealand
The Biosecurity people at the airports are extremely vigilant, which probably has nothing to do with members of Franz Ferdinand trying to smuggle in an orange. They may want to look at walking boots in order to disinfect them, so it might save time and inconvenience to be wearing them on arrival, rather than having to extract them from luggage.
The New Zealand Police are very hot on speeding, and although we did our very best to stick to the limits, we received a letter three weeks after our return informing us that we’d been logged doing 62 kph in a 50 kph zone near Greymouth. This resulted in a fine of $ 80 (fines are proportional to the excess speed) plus an administration fee of $ 60 from the car rental company. Fortunately, it seems that they don’t award penalty points for low-speed offences. In some areas there seems to be a problem with seriously excessive speeding, and the growing fast car culture may not mesh well with relatively “liberal” drink-driving rules, so it pays to be alert, especially if you have to be on the roads on a Friday evening.
Special trips should be booked in advance. In some cases, reservations should be made either via the internet or by e-mail well ahead of time, before leaving home. These include Tiritiri Matangi (www.tiritirimatangi.org.nz), Kiwis on Stewart Island (e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org), the Cook Strait ferry (www.interislander.co.nz), Karori Reserve in Wellington (www.sanctuary.org.nz) Foveaux Strait ferry (www.stewartisland.co.nz) and Queen Charlotte Sound (www.dolphinwatchmarlborough.co.nz).
Booking other trips can probably wait until closer to the date, e.g. Kaikoura Pelagics (www.oceanwings.co.nz), Bay of Islands cruises (www.fullers-bay-of-islands.co.nz), Milford Sound cruise (www.redboats.co.nz), Royal Albatross colony (www.albatross.org.nz) and Penguin Express at Oamaru (www.coastline-tours.co.nz). We booked all of these by phone once we had reached New Zealand.
It’s difficult to know what advice to offer about Pterodroma Pelagics (www.nzseabirds.co.nz), other than keeping in touch on a very regular basis if you’re planning a trip with them. If we made a mistake, then it was not e-mailing them sufficiently regularly, but we thought we were following their instructions. Taking the Great Barrier Island ferry from Auckland seems to be a reasonable fall-back option (www.greatbarriernz.com).
Rental cars are in relatively short supply, so a reservation should be made well before leaving home.
On our first visit, we booked a guided tour, but in retrospect this may have been a mistake. Although the leader of our group was knowledgeable and interesting, he didn’t actually take us to the best birding spot (the Wattle Track). This wasn’t his fault, as some groups were scheduled to go to the Wattle Track on the guided walk, while others went to the Kewerau Track. The leader advised us to go to the Wattle Track after lunch. As a consequence, we missed Kokako and had to go back for a second visit. When we went back, we got Kokako and all the other specialties along the Wattle Track within minutes of arrival. Therefore, if you are only planning to spend one day on Tiritiri, it may be better not to go on a guided tour. If you do go on a guided tour, make sure it’s going straight to the Wattle Track. Avoiding the weekend might also be useful. It’s possible to join the boat to Tiritiri either in Auckland or at Gulf Harbour.
We didn’t stay at the Shorebird Centre, but perhaps we should have done. It’s certainly worth spending enough time at Miranda to see the area at both low and high tides. At high tide there was a tremendous spectacle of Bar-tailed Godwit, Knot and Wrybill, but at lower tides, it was easier to find other less common species that were present in much smaller numbers. It’s a good idea to go to the Centre on arrival for up-to-date information.
Bearing in mind how easy it proved to see Blue Ducks at the Manganuiateao River south of Tongariro, our suggestion would be to head for this site first before trying to find the ducks elsewhere.
Homer Tunnel area
Eventually we found the South Island Wrens, having concluded that we were fated not to see them. The difficulty is knowing where (and possibly how) to search for them. Previous reports had suggested boulder scree close to the tunnel entrance, the big rocks at the far end of the Alpine Nature Walk, and even that the birds were higher up on the scree itself at this time of year. In all, we searched for 10 hours before finding them, eventually locating them from their quiet and very high-pitched mouse-like calls. By the time we actually saw the birds we felt that all possibilities had been exhausted, short of dangerous climbing and scrambling. Robertson and Heather say that the Wren should be found a short distance up the Gertrude Saddle Track, but we found the track difficult going over boulders, and at times it seems to disappear. It takes a while to get into suitable habitat along this track, so going a “short distance” is a bit optimistic. To tackle this area, we thought we’d be canny and stay at Te Anau Downs, 28 km north of Te Anau, but we still had to go back into Te Anau to refuel and buy groceries, as there is no petrol station or shop north of Te Anau. Staying at Te Anau Downs was an excellent move however, as it is a very tranquil spot. The Homer Tunnel area seems to the share the very wet climate of Milford Sound, and the weather can deteriorate quickly as you go north up the Eglinton Valley.
We tried several places for the Yellow-eyed Penguin, and were successful at most of them, but it was coming to the end of the breeding season, and birds were getting into their moulting period. Penguin Place on the Otago Peninsula is the best spot to see this species close up, but probably the best over-all penguin trip was with Penguin Express at Oamaru, where both Yellow-eyed and Little Blue Penguins could be seen with ease. If you have limited time and want to see both species, then the Penguin Express trip is the one we’d recommend. We were probably a bit too late for the white-flippered form of the Little Blue at Akaroa (and there was a problem with the Blackcat boat). We were out of season for Fjordland Crested Penguin, although we were very fortunate to see three of them on a beach at Milford Sound.
It would have been embarrassing to have gone home without seeing a kiwi. The North Island Brown Kiwis at Trounson Park were vociferous, but proved impossible to see, even at a range of only a few feet. However, people do see them there regularly, and it’s really a matter of luck. The Little Spotted Kiwis at the Karori Reserve in Wellington were much more obliging, as were the Southern Brown Kiwis on Stewart Island. However, even though we stayed 5 nights on Stewart Island, we nearly failed to get an opportunity to see them because of the difficult weather conditions. Philip Smith has come in for some stick in previous reports because of cancelled trips on apparently flimsy pretexts, but we had no complaints on this score because we could see how difficult the conditions were. Boatmen including Philip have to think not only about getting you there, but also about getting you back in constantly changing weather.