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A Report from

New Zealand's South Island: March 17 to April 1 2007,

Duan Biggs

Introduction and acknowledgements

This was my first trip to New Zealand, and I decided to focus on South Island only. The objectives of the trip were to find as many of the endemics and specials as possible whilst enjoying the incredible scenery that South Island has to offer. I would like to thank all those who responded to my request for information for the trip and to Martin Snowball for his company in the field for a day. Anna Carr from the University of Otago gave me some really useful tips and information.

Areas visited:

Christchurch, Dunedin, Otago Peninsula, the Catlins, Invercagill, Stewart Island, Te Anau, Milford Sound, Queenstown, Mount Cook, Haast, Frans Josef and Fox Glaciers, Okarito, Arthur’s Pass, Punakaiki, Picton, Kaikoura

18 March - Christchurch

I spent a morning looking around Christchurch enjoying the sights in the city. Birds recorded were Red-billed Gull, House Sparrow and Welcome Swallow. In the late afternoon I loaded up with groceries for 14 days at the Pak ‘n Save in Christchurch before hitting the road to Timaru, arriving late in the evening.

19 March – Christchurch to Dunedin and Otago Peninsula

On route south I located Starling and Australasian Harrier. At the Blue Penguin site in Omaru I found my first Spotted and Pied Shags, Goldfinches and Black-backed Gull. After some meetings and giving a presentation at the University of Otago I made a visit to the Northern Royal Albatross colony on the Otago Peninsula. Here I enjoyed great views of Northern Royal Albatross as well as Stewart Island Shag, Black-backed Gull and White-fronted Tern. After the Albatross viewing I headed down to Pilot’s Beach where I had Variable Oystercatcher, Dunnock and Little Blue Penguin (these emerged after dark).

20 March – Otago Peninsula, Sinclair wetlands and Roaring Bay

An early morning outing to the Yellow-eyed Penguin colony at Sandfly Bay was very productive. Here I had Blackbird, Yellow-eyed Penguin (had to scan hard for this one), Shy Mollymawk, Sooty Shearwater, White-headed Stilt, Paradise Shelduck, White-fronted Tern, Grey Warbler and Silvereye. After breakfast on the peninsula I headed out to the Sinclair wetlands south of Dunedin where I had New Zealand Scaup, Little Black Shag, Bellbird and Little Shag. Roaring Bay situated near Nugget Point and not far from Owaka is a great spot. I had great views of the Yellow-eyed Penguin here. Roaring Bay and particularly the nearby and very scenic Nugget Point are both great pelagic sites and I had Shy Albatross, Northern Giant Petrel, Sooty Shearwater and Buller’s Albatross here.

21 March – Catlins forests and wetlands and Ferry trip to Stewart Island

Stops in different forest patches on route from Owaka to Invercagill delivered Pipipi, Tomtit and Bellbird. A site just east of the Flemming River Mouth produced Tomtit, Bellbird, Fantail, Black-billed Gull, Pipipi and Grey Warbler. The Flemming River Mouth and estuary itself produced a calling Fernbird (no visual), Pied Oystercatcher, Paradise Shelduck, White-headed Stilt, Bellbird, Pipipi, Fantail and Tomtit. At the Fortrose wetlands I had Paradise Shelduck, Canada Goose and Ruddy Turnstone. The ferry trip across to Stewart Island produced Buller’s and Shy Albatross, Common Diving Petrel and Sooty Shearwater.

22 March – Stewart Island

I started the day with a trip with Stewart Island Adventures which took me around Halfmoon Bay and onto Ulva Island. The scenery was superb and bird species included Buller’s Albatross, Stewart Island Shag, White-capped and Salvin’s Albatross and Sooty Shearwater. I was dropped off on Ulva Island to spend the rest of the day there. Upon arrival I spent some time photographing an Elephant Seal resting on the beach near the boat jetty. New Zealand Robin was common on the island and superbly tame. Rifleman was found on the nature walk to Boulder Beach. The soft and high-pitched call of the Rifleman was very useful in pinpointing this species. Tomtit and Pipipi were also common on the island. I located a group of 5 Yellow-heads on the track to the West End beach. I dipped on Saddleback but a number of other groups that I spoke to on the island had found it on the day. Its territories are focussed on the coastal areas – the tracks leading to Boulder beach, Sydney Cove, Flagstaff point and the History track are very good areas to find this species. In the evening I headed out with Phillip Smith’s outing to locate the Brown Kiwi’s that feed on Ocean beach. The sunset boat cruise was a lovely start to an evening which included sightings of Salvin’s, White-capped and Buller’s Albatross as well as 4 Kiwis. The site Phillip goes to is the beach where David Attenborough filmed his Kiwi scene for the Life of Birds, which in my mind adds value to the experience. For those wanting to save the NZ$95 that Phillip charges the Kiwi’s can also be viewed by spending a night at the hiking hut on the beach at Sawdust Bay (4 hours walk from Oban). They can also be seen in Oban town itself. The Roroa walk that turns off Ayr road to Golden Bay and open fields around the start of the walk are another good site for this bird.

23 March – Stewart Island Crossing, Aurora wetlands and Ian’s Fernbird site

On the crossing from Stewart Island back to Invercagill I had views of Common Diving Petrel and Shy and Buller’s Albatross as well as Sooty Shearwater. An hour spent at the Aurora wetlands produced Banded Dotterel, Paradise Shelduck, Redpoll and Black Swan. From here I moved onto Ian Gamble’s property for Fernbird on the outskirts of Invercagill. Ian and his wife Jenny’s ’s enthusiasm for the Fernbird and its habitat was great to see and I had cracking views of at least 5 individuals. They can be contacted on or website I overnighted at an inexpensive lakeside resort in Te Anau. Here I met up with Martin Snowball who I joined for a days birding to the Homer Tunnel and up to Milford Sound.

24 March – Te Anau to Homer Tunnel and Milford Sound

A pre-dawn departure from Te Anau got us to Homer Tunnel soon after dawn. The attractive, tame and noisy Keas were seen in the parking lot just before the tunnel.  From this parking lot we walked across the rock-screed slopes to the right (facing the tunnel) for about an hour in search of Rock Wren. We returned to the car for breakfast, the Keas had destroyed Martin’s vehicle’s windscreen wipers and we had to vigorously defend our breakfast from the omnipresent and hungry Keas. After breakfast as we were getting to leave Martin did a final scan and located a pair of Rock Wrens on the boulders at the start of the track from the parking lot. We enjoyed spectacular views of both the male and the female. Also seen around the tunnel were Chaffinch and New Zealand Pipit. We continued onto Milford Sound for our boat cruise down the sound. The scenery was truly magnificent and the boat cruise down the sound is highly recommended with the added attraction of potential Fjordland Crested Penguin sightings at the right time of year. The underwater world on the sound seemed poorly maintained and was disappointing. We stopped for lunch on the Totoku river just outside of Milford Sound. We had two fly-over Blue Ducks and I managed to get questar views of the pair by tracking to where they had landed about 2km downstream from the bridge. In the forest around the river we recorded Tomtit, Fantail and Yellow-crowned Parakeet (Martin only). A walk around the forests at Lake Gunn produced Rifleman and New Zealand Robin. Smith’s Creek produced only Fantail. We overnighted at Te Anau.

25 March – Queenstown, Glenorchy and Paradise and to Lake Hawea

I left early for the Queenstown area. The road from Queenstown to Glenorchy and Paradise produced nothing of note birdwise but the scenery was immense. I travelled onto Lake Hawea where I found great value accommodation at the first motel on the right hand side as you enter town.

26 March - Lake Hawea to Mount Cook area

I stopped off in Twizel and chatted to the Department of Conservation (DOC) staff there. They suggested a few spots for the Black Stilt. The first one I tried was at Glentanner on the northern of Lake Pukaiki. I parked at the gate on the gravel track just beyond the airfield and saw Black Stilt on the braided streams towards the northern end of the Lake. I went to Mt Cook town and walked the Hooker Valley trail for New Zealand Falcon but had no luck. I overnighted at the Glentanner Holiday Park.

27 March – Mount Cook area and towards the Haast pass

A dawn start and drive and walk down the gravel track just beyond the airfield to Glentanner delivered crippling views of 7 different Black Stilts including jet black adults and immatures. They seemed to concentrate and the pools and braided streams in the 500m just north of the Lake. In this area I also had Black-fronted Tern, Banded Dotterel, Paradise Shelduck, New Zealand Pipit and Yellowhammer. This is meant to be a site for Wrybill but I had no luck. The other site for Wrybill in the area according to the Twizel DOC staff is the Ben Avon wetlands north-west of Omarama. This is also a site for Black Stilt. I returned to Mount Cook village and managed to pick up on New Zealand Falcon being mobbed by a group of Kea at the White Horse Parking lot. The Tasman Glacier walk delivered Brown Warbler. I left the Mount Cook area mid-morning and made my way up towards the Haast pass overnighting just below the pass at the Makarora Wilderness Camp. A walk around the camp gardens in the late afternoon produced Tui, Fantail and Tomtit. After dark, Morepork (Southern Boobook) was calling from the campgrounds.

28 March Haast Pass, Fox Glacier to Okarito

I started at dawn exploring the historic bridal trail on the Haast Pass. It was very quiet. I continued onto Fox Glacier where I did a memorable glacier walk. I did the famous Reflecting Matheson Lake Walk in the late afternoon. The walk was scenic and the reflection in the lake of Mt Cook and the high southern Alps was exceptional. From here I continued onto Okarito after dark. Between 4 and 7 kilometres before Okarito there is a parking space with a clear large Department of Conservation sign on the right. It is the only clear DOC sign on the right in this area. There is a vehicle track heading in and a trail veering off to the right from the track. This is the area for Okarito Brown Kiwi and they can be found down the vehicle track as well as on the trail at night/dusk/dawn. I located a pair at about 2230 after an hours searching along the walking trail by walking softly and slowly and listening for their feeding activity in the forest undergrowth.  I found them about 500m down the trail from the parking lot. I camped at the communal campsite in Okarito.

29 March Okarito to Arthurs Pass

Today was mainly a travelling day from Okarito to Arthur’s Pass. I found good value accommodation in Arthur’s Pass at the first hotel on the left as you approach Arthur’s Pass from the west coast. I spent two hours on the tracks and side roads in town after dinner searching for Greater Spotted Kiwi without success.

30 March Arthur’s Pass to Punakaiki

I spent 2 hours before dawn searching for Greater Spotted Kiwi without success. Soon after dawn I headed into the Hawden valley, Martin Snowball’s stakeout for the recently split Orange-fronted Parakeet. Turn to the left off the main road in the Corner Knob and Goldney Hill Reserve and follow the signs to the Hawdon valley/Hawdon shelter. At the large bridge crossing the Waimakarriri river I had New Zealand Falcon and Paradise Shelduck. I walked up the Hawdon river and the Sudden Valley stream for a few hours with no luck. After talking to some DOC staff later in the day I found out that to have a chance at the Orange-fronted Parakeet you really need to climb up to the top of the treeline on Woolshed Hill, the mountain to the east of the Hawdon river. The DOC ranger also told me that your best chance at Greater Spotted Kiwi would be to follow the left hand path at Devils Chasm off the main road to the north of Arthur’s Pass and that there are 16 known pairs in the area around the village. From Arthurs Pass I headed to Punakaiki. The famous Punakaiki pancake rocks were impressive but quiet birdwise. After dinner I headed out to Nigel Wheatley’s site for the Greater Spotted Kiwi in the Paparoa National Park. The park is accessed off Bullock Creek road approximately 5km to the north of Punakaiki after crossing the Bullock Creek. I had an enthusiastic Swedish Kiwi-spotter with me that I met at the backpackers in Punakaiki who joined me on the mission. We followed Wheatley’s instructions and parked at the gate 6.3km down the track and walked beyond it for 300m to the start of the three tracks. We heard one Greater Spotted Kiwi calling from the forest edge near the junction. Unfortunately we failed to see it. Overnighted in Punakaiki.

31 March Punakaiki to Picton to Kaikoura

An early start saw me head out to the Picton area and Charlotte Sound which were scenically very spectacular but the rain meant that my birding trip I was booked onto into the sound did not go and I saw very little from the various side roads I explored. The Port Underwood road to the east of Picton was very impressive. After dark I headed south to Kaikoura where I had a 6am pelagic booked the following day. As I entered Kaikoura at about 2300 I took one of the first turn-offs to the left. Here I found a Hutton’s Shearwater on a suburban road about 500m from the beach. The bird probably landed short en route to the ocean from its breeding site in the Kaikoura Mountain Range. As I turned out not seeing Hutton’s Shearwater on the pelagic, this was a lucky find.

1 April - Kaikoura Pelagic, Lake Ellesmere, return to Christchurch

The Kaikoura pelagic is by far the most impressive pelagic birding trip I have done. Seeing such a diversity of pelagic birds so close to the mainland with mountains in the background was one of the highlights of the trip. The fact that we were in a small boat and that the birds were literally at eye level was mind-boggling. We had great views of both Southern and Northern  Royal Albatross, Cape Pigeon, Westland Petrel, White-chinned Petrel, Wilson’s Storm Petrel, Black-fronted and White-fronted Tern, Black-backed, Black-billed and Red-billed Gull, White-capped Albatross, Black-browed Albatross, Northern Giant Petrel and Common Diving Petrel. As soon as I got off the pelagic I headed straight down to Christchurch with the plan of making Lake Ellesmere where the Wrybills had been seen in the past two weeks before my afternoon flight to Brisbane. I explored the mudflats at section of lake at the end of Jarvis road. Within 5 minutes I had found a group of Wrybill and I relished them for 5 minutes together with some Sharp-tailed Sandpipers before racing back to Christchurch to drop off my hire car and onto the airport.


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