Photos with this report (click to enlarge)
This report outlines a five week birding trip which I undertook with my wife, Alison Rowntree, travelling from north to south New Zealand, and with a brief stop-over in Singapore. We chose to go in March and April to allow us to combine leave from two different years and maximise our time in the country. Although this meant a few key species were not seen, it gave us a good period of time to see both islands and their birds, in a relaxed fashion, and generally proved to be a good season to visit.
We enjoyed a fantastic trip - great people, some great landscapes, generally easy logistics and some remarkable wildlife. Highlights included: 14 Kiwis of four different species; potentially tricky endemics such as Rock Wren, and Black Stilt found easily, others such as Fairy Tern, Blue Duck, Stitchbird and Kokako seen relatively easily; mind-blowing views of Albatrosses; vast flocks of Wrybills and other waders; both North and South Island Saddlebacks; perched Moreporks; six New Zealand Falcons; mainland Yellowheads; plenty of New Zealand Pipits and Riflemen; two species of Penguins; and memorable encounters with dolphins and a whale.
For further information and / or a map showing locations of sites visited, please feel free to contact me - firstname.lastname@example.org
New Zealand's wildlife is not abundant. Species diversity is low and many endemic land birds are confined to off-shore islands or specially managed mainland reserves. Intense conservation work is necessary to maintain or reintroduce habitat and native birds, and to control predators such as possums and stoats. Introductions (mainly European Species) abound. If you are after a long list of species, you'll be disappointed. But the seabirds and remarkable specialities on the land - many of which are endemics - make up for this and mean New Zealand is a memorable wildlife experience.
We used The Hand Guide to the Birds of New Zealand (Robertson & Heather, revised edition, 2005) which is highly portable and proved perfectly adequate.
I planned our trip using information from a variety of sources. Useful trip reports (from Surfbirds) included: Hemmings 2008, Biggs 2007, Grimmond 2002, Merrill 2010 and Newman 2006. I found the latter particularly well written and informative. Birding World provided some useful tips on finding New Zealand birds and on Kaikoura (volume 18, number 6 and volume 16 number 4 respectively). A number of commercial sources were used and these are detailed in the daily accounts below. The following websites also proved useful:-
• New Zealand - www.nzbirds.com/birding
• Singapore - www.wildbirdsingapore.nss.org.sg
In addition, the Fatbirder website, gives a good overview of both countries.
I knew our trip was outside the usual season for North Island pelagics. But having contacted Kiwi Wildlife Tours (Pterodroma Pelagics) in July 2014, I was able to arrange a pelagic on 19th March 2015 and booked the dates and arrangements for our whole trip around this. In December 2015, I was told it would ...."definitely go ahead...." and in response to me chasing, had another positive email on 6th March. On the 8th March (after we had departed the UK) however, I received an email cancelling, being told that some other people on the trip had pulled out and the rest didn't want to pay extra. An option discussed months before - i.e. shortening the trip - was not even explored. It was too late to organise an alternative. I was extremely disappointed at the service from this company and suggest you don't rely on them. A good alternative would be to contact Detlef Davies (see report below) who organises less commercial pelagics from North Island.
Even if you find a reliable person, weather can be the birder's enemy for pelagics so we recommend booking more than one trip - I booked Kaikoura Albatross trips on consecutive days to cover this possibility. It's also worth thinking about "Plan B" for Kiwi tours and building as much flexibility into your schedule as possible e.g. by booking a Kiwi trip on your first night on Stewart Island and spending two or three nights there.
Kiwi watching is a art all on its own. There are places you can search for them yourself and others where guides are essential. One tactic is to be listen for the rustle as their big feet move through the bush, but scanning with a powerful torch could also locate one. There seems to be different opinions about the use of red or white light torches. Some guides use only red light and swear any white light frightens the birds. Others appear to have mastered the use of a limited amount of white light without frightening them. The latter may be tricky for the novice, so we recommend you take some red cellophane and a rubber band to go over your torch or get one with a red filter.
The time of year of our trip meant we were out of season for the cuckoos (only one brief sighting of Long-tailed by Alison) and Fiordland Crested Penguin. But these minor negatives were far outweighed by the many positives outlined in the daily accounts below. These document the main species seen, although sightings of some introductions and commoner species are omitted. The main sites visited are shown on the maps at the end of this report.
Photos in addition to those with this report can be found on Surfbirds (World Birding, World Rarities and Mammals galleries).
Travel & Accommodation
Our flights were with the excellent Singapore Airline from Heathrow to Auckland via Singapore, returning from Christchurch to Heathrow, again via Singapore.
We hired a campervan for the duration of our trip. This proved to be an excellent way of seeing North & South islands, with plenty of good quality campsites available and the whole country very campervan orientated. Most campsites didn't need booking in advance, which maximised flexibility for unpredictable birding (although a few were full over Easter so travel during public holiday periods may require some pre-booking). In addition the Department of Conservation's (DOC) basic campgrounds offer cheap options often in wonderful spots. Provided you have a self-contained campervan, "free camping" (i.e. on unofficial stopping places without restrictions) is also a good option, which we exploited from time to time.
We pre-booked accommodation on Stewart Island, in Christchurch and in Singapore (see below) which was of all of very good quality. My reviews of these and the campsites we used (also mainly very good) can be found on Trip Advisor ("PlymouthPete19"). In addition, we booked some boat trips in advance to avoid disappointment.
New Zealanders were very friendly everywhere we went with a genuine interest in Britain and great customer care. That's until they get behind the wheel! Overtaking, undertaking and tail-gating is a national sport and patience on the roads is non-existent. Be warned!
Wi-Fi is widely available in New Zealand at campsites and restaurants etc, and we purchased a mobile SIM at the airport on arrival, for NZ$49 which provided plenty of phone and internet coverage for our whole stay, including calls abroad.
There is plenty of good food across New Zealand including vegetarian choices, in both shops and restaurants although prices struck us as being quite high (perhaps at least partly, due to exchange rate).
8th March: Singapore, Botanical Gardens
We arrived at Singapore airport at 07.45 and took a taxi to Lloyd's Inn, just off the famous Orchard Road.
Near the hotel we encountered Common Mynas, a Tree Sparrow and an Oriental White-eye. Around midday, we did a bit of birding in the Botanical Gardens (found easily with the help of one of the free local maps widely available). This is an accessible site with a pretty impressive bird list. Here around the lakes, we saw: White-breasted Waterhen, White-browed Crake, Spotted Dove, Oriental Magpie Robin and a family of Tailorbirds (not specifically identified). In the forest an obliging Laced Woodpecker showed well with a Red Jungle Fowl. Other sightings included Yellow-vented Bulbuls, Scarlet-backed Flowerpecker (3) and Olive-backed Sunbird (4).
9th March: Singapore, MacRitchie Reservoir
After catching up on sleep, we took a taxi to MacRitchie Reservoir in Central Catchment, accessing the site from the car park off Venus Drive (off Upper Thomson Road). This proved a good way in to the South-west corner (if using a taxi, make sure they don't take you to the main entrance for the reservoir which would involve a long walk before getting to the best birding areas).
From here, we followed the Venus Loop and Venus Link trails (west) to the Ranger Station (which provides free drinking water). From here you can take the Pierce Trail to a Treetop Walk but this is closed on Mondays. Unfortunately it was a Monday! So, from the Ranger Station, we took the Sime Track and the Golf Link to the reservoir edge and then turned right on a short path to Lornie Road on the southern side where (after some difficulty) we got a taxi back to the hotel.
Soon after arrival, we encountered a troop of Long-tailed Macaques - some of 50+ which showed well and entertained us, during our walk. But beware - they can get over familiar! As we entered the forest, in a flurry of birds, we found stunning Common Goldenbacks (2+), Banded Woodpecker (2), Pin-striped Tit Babbler (2+), Cream-vented Bulbul, Black-naped Oriole, Blue-crowned Hanging Parrot (2) and in the tree tops, Blue-tailed Bee-eaters.
Later things quieted down but we enjoyed views of an Eastern-crowned Warbler and clocked up at least six Greater Racket-tailed Drogos. As views opened up over the reservoir, we watched a White-bellied Fish Eagle, a Brahminy Kite, a Collared Kingfisher, six Pacific Swallows, a beautiful Red-legged Crake and an adult Purple Heron fishing on the water's edge.
Other birds encountered were - Pink-naped Green Pigeon (3), Yellow-vented Bulbuls, Olive-backed sunbird (3) and Oriental Magpie Robin (2).
10th March: Auckland to Miranda, North Island
We arrived in New Zealand at Auckland airport at 11.30, picked up our campervan and supplies, and drove east to Miranda in the Firth of Thames. Here we checked into Miranda Holiday Park. En route we saw a few of New Zealand's commoner birds - Australasian Harrier (subsequently seen frequently from roads), Black-backed and Red-billed Gull (both proved common), White-faced Heron (later seen quite often) and Pukekos (subsequently seen in abundance).
11th March: Miranda
After a quick dip in the campsite's spa pool, heated by Miranda's hot spring, we headed for Miranda's Shorebird Centre (www.miranda-shorebird.org.nz) just round the corner. We parked in the car park a few kms south of the Centre. Note this is a theft hotspot. We timed it to be there 1-2 hours before and after the high tide as recommended (although some birds are likely to be visible outside this window).
This is the best place in New Zealand to see waders and the spectacle was truly amazing. In scorching sunshine we watching huge flocks of birds wheeling around, feeding and roosting including thousands of Bar-tailed Godwits, hundreds of Knot and 700+ Wrybills (the latter gather on the marsh between the car park and the shoreline at highest tide). Other highlights included an Eastern Curlew, two Red-necked Stints, c100 Banded Dotterels, and 60+ Pacific Golden Plovers. Also seen - Pied Shag, Great White Egret, Royal Spoonbill, and a single Variable Oystercatcher amongst hundreds of Pieds. At least eight Caspian Terns and a White-fronted Tern floated around the bay and the first of many Grey Warblers appeared by the car park. On the roadside pools between here and the Centre, we came across 30+ Grey Teal and c40 Pied Stilts.
During the afternoon we drove south to Rotorua where we stayed in the Top 10 site.
12th March: Rotorua
Rotorua is not a "must do" birding site, but is famous for its spouting hot water and bubbling mud pools. We woke to pouring rain and visited the interesting mud pools in Kuirau Park (entrance free). As we drove off, the gear box on our campervan failed and we spent the rest of the day wandering around the town in the rain, waiting for it to be fixed. No birding done.
Underway at last, we drove to Gulf Harbour on the east coast, north of Auckland, where things started looking up after a beer, Kiwi fish & chips and a lovely free camping spot on the harbour-side!
13th March: Tiritiri Matangi
We woke to a beautiful calm and sunny morning and watched a flock of White-fronted Terns, plus Variable and Pied Oystercatchers over breakfast. Then we took the boat (which we had pre-booked) from Gulf Harbour, to Tiritiri Matangi. This superb predator-free island has well established reintroductions of some of New Zealand's rarest endemic land birds and offers an easily accessible glimpse of the country of old.
The boat trip produced hundreds of Fluttering and at least six Buller's Shearwaters, two Arctic Skuas and a Blue Penguin inconspicuously floating on the sea. It's a good idea to buy a map of the island's trails, while on board.
As we approached the island, Pied and Little Black Shags could be seen on the rocks. On arrival at the Wharf, as soon as the compulsory ranger's briefing was over, we made a bee-line for the Wattle Track, to beat the crowds and maximise our chances of the key birds. The little pool en route, failed to produce either Brown Teal or Spotless Crake as it had dried up.
However, the Wattle Track abounded with calling Bellbirds; we quickly picked up a Stitchbird, and soon saw our first of about eight Tuis with their incredible calls, and of c12 New Zealand Robins. Most birds showed really well. Shortly after we crossed Wharf Road, we connected with a few striking black & bronze Saddlebacks (c15 seen on the island) in the undergrowth and Alison found two Kokakos high in the trees but I dipped! Around the lighthouse and Cable Track we encountered three huge Takahes and a Fernbird before Alison found another three Kokakos. Thankfully this time I connected and was able to watch these blue and grey endemics crashing through the trees before they disappeared.
We ate our lunch to the backdrop of flocks of Bellbirds (50+ counted during the day) around the feeder near the bench on the Kawerau Track; and here four more Stitchbirds appeared affording a good opportunity to watch these attractive and hard to come by, passerines. To round off an excellent day on the island, we enjoyed great views of a roosting Morepork c100m up the Wattle Track (from the Wharf) on the lower slope - apparently a regular spot. Other birds seen during the day included - New Zealand Pigeon (3), Red-crowned Parakeet (12+), Kingfisher (3), Whitehead (c10), Brown Quail (5), Fantail (c5), and Welcome Swallow (3); the latter two species proving common during our whole trip.
The boat ride back produced a flock of c300 Fluttering Shearwaters and three each of Australasian Gannet and Arctic Skua. We then drove the short distance to the beach-side Orewa Top 10 site where we found a Tui and spent the night.
14th March: Waiwera and Waipu areas
After a short drive, we arrived at Strakas Lake, Waiwera (turn off SH1 at Orewa and follow the main route towards the coast and turn right into Waiwera, at a t-junction turn right and loop under the main road, after 1km - just after a sandy bank on the left - park in front of a gate overlooking the lake. Apparently you can also walk along the road to view a second lake behind this one and go up the road a bit further to a drive and a gate where you can just see another one). Here we immediately saw a New Zealand Dabchick, a Kingfisher and c15 Grey Ducks.
A brief visit to the nearby beach produced our first New Zealand Dotterels (6) before driving north to Waipu River Mouth Refuge. Here, scanning with the 'scope, we eventually picked up a single Fairy Tern (well to the right of the end of Johnson Point Road) before it flew past the end of the road and disappeared in the distance to the left. We were a bit late in the season for this mega rare endemic which breeds here, and later heard they had been hard to come by, so counted ourselves lucky! To find this site turn off SH1 (north of Brynderwyn and south of Whangarei) sign posted Waipu; in the town follow signs to Waipu Cove and before you reach it, turn left into Johnson Point Road and park at the end. Here too, we saw - Little and Little Black Shags, Reef Heron, Variable Oystercatcher (12+), Banded Dotterel (c6), New Zealand Dotterel (c10), Knot (c12), Bar-tailed Godwit (c8), Caspian Tern, and White-fronted Tern (50+).
We checked into Kauri Coast Top 10 site (on the east side of North Island) in the afternoon having booked on the guided night walk for Kiwis, earlier in the day. There is some nice habitat around the site but a walk in the woods revealed next to nothing bird-wise. In the site - New Zealand Pigeon (3), Silvereye (20+ - subsequently commonly seen during the trip), Kingfisher and an Eastern Rosella.
No luck with Kiwis on the night walk. The forest in Trounson Kauri Park was rather busy and we felt the guide spent too much time stopping, talking and shining his torch up trees to explain things about the forest, thus not maximising chances of Kiwi. However the site could be accessed without a guide (entrance 4km north of the campsite - turn right and immediately right again from the entrance, and on arrival at the car park, follow the forest walk which loops back on itself). We did however, see some huge Wetas and Kauri Snails, in the forest and, back at the campsite, some glow worms and Long-finned Eels.
15th March: Trounson Kauri Park to Kerikeri
A walk around the Trounson Kauri Park loop revealed little in the way of birds but it was nice to see the giant Kauri trees in the day light. We then continued on minor, mainly unsealed, roads north-east to Kaikobe, seeing our first New Zealand Pipit from the van, and on to Kerikeri in pouring rain. Here we called on Detlef and Carol Davies who run Birder's Rest (www.birdersrest.com). I had been in touch with them in advance and made tentative arrangements for a Kiwi tour but hadn't been able to get hold of them during the past few days.
Detlef & Carol gave us a really friendly welcome, confirmed that despite the rain, we could join their Kiwi tour that night, and invited us to stay in our campervan overnight on their drive. After a pleasant chat and getting lots of tips for seeing birds on both North & South Islands, we returned to our van for dinner. Two Fantails proved so tame they almost joined us in the van! Just before it got dark, Detlef appeared and told us Carol had located the Moreporks in their garden and took us to enjoy fantastic views of these two charismatic birds waking up on their perch.
Then Carol drove us and two other birders to Marsden Cross on the Pureua Peninsula (north-east of Kerikeri) to look for Kiwis. Conditions were atrocious - gale force winds and lashing rain as the tail of Cyclone Pam hit the coast! After nearly three-and-a-half hours with only a couple of distant Kiwi calls and a brief glimpse by Carol in the wood, we headed back for the car. However despite the conditions, Carol did not give up and kept scanning with her torch. Incredibly, just a few hundred metres from the car, she announced "Kiwi" and there in the long grass was a fine female North Island Brown Kiwi which we were able to watch for a several minutes before it disappeared.
Most guides would not have entertained going out at all in those conditions, let alone persevere for so long. But Carol is different and we can only thank her for her dedication which brought us our first ever Kiwi!
16th March: Pukeli Forest, Skudders Beach & Aroha Island
After coffee with Carol & Detlef, and purchasing a copy of Detlef's excellent book, "Where to Find Birds in Far North New Zealand", we headed for Pukeli Forest. This is half-an-hour's drive west from Birder's Rest and recommended by Detlef for Tomtit. En route Alison glimpsed a Long-tailed Cuckoo. Turn west off SH10 just north of Waipapa and follow the road (Punaere Road) to a T-junction, turn left (Waiare Road) and then right at Puketi HQ and follow to a car park at the end by some buildings. Opposite the buildings is a path which immediately forks - follow the right hand one. Just five minutes' walk down here, I found a superb male Tomtit - a typical black & white North Island form - loosely associating with Grey Warblers and Fantails, and a Tui showed there too.
A brief visit to Skudders Beach Recreational Ground near Kerikeri, produced three Barbary Doves and a Kingfisher, but I only heard the hoped-for Fernbird. Turn right at end of Landing Road which is where Birder's Rest can be found - see website - and after c1km, park on the right by a "no exit" sign and walk a short way back up the road and turn right into Titoki Place; follow the path between driveways (it looks like you are going into someone's garden) past a pond and gardens to reach the marsh.
After this, we drove west to Aroha Island (www.arohaisland.co.nz) which, despite the name, these days is reached by a short causeway. This idyllic spot consists of a campsite, which we stayed in, and an interesting Ecological Centre. Here it is a relatively easy to wander round on your own after dark to look for Kiwis.
From the lower camping area, we found at least five Royal Spoonbills, a Pied Shag, and a Kingfisher. In the campsite, a California Quail and Tui appeared. On the east side of the causeway road (on the island side of the small viewing area) I had nice views of the only two Banded Rails of our trip.
Last night's Kiwi sighting had simply whet our appetite for more. So, having been given some useful tips from a member of staff at the Ecological Centre, we set off at dusk in fine conditions, equipped with red cellophane over our torches. Although it's only a small island, finding Kiwis remains a challenge but in about three hours of searching we found two North Island Brown Kiwis. One appeared very briefly at 20.45 half way along the eastern path and the other, which showed a bit better, at Cunningham Gardens at 10.40pm; the latter is considered the island's Kiwi hotspot and easily located if you pick up a map from the Ecological Centre. Both birds were located on the rustling sound before we saw them. We also heard a Morepork.
There's a useful log book in the ecological centre detailing recent Kiwi sightings and you are encouraged to enter your records.
17th March: Helena Bay and Waro Lake
We woke to a beautiful sunny morning and a brief look at the shore confirmed the Royal Spoonbills were still present, this time with a Reef Heron and a Banded Plover. We then reluctantly tore ourselves away from Aroha's charm, driving south to our first stop - Helena Bay. This is a recognised site for the rare Brown Teal and here we found 41+ birds together on the right hand side of the bridge - see directions below. Two Kingfishers showed on the wires.
Turn east off SH1 c20km north of Whangarei, at "Oakura 28" sign (Russell Road). Follow signs to Helena Bay, turning right at the one way bridge just before there, but not the last left to the Bay. Instead, follow Webb Road to Teal Bay, past a left turn to a residential area and towards Mimiwhangata. Look from the small bridge by two signs "Caution at Night, Pateke, Brown Teal" and "Brown Teal, Closed Game Area".
We continued south to Waro Lake where, with a bit of searching, we found singles of New Zealand Dabchick, Australasian Little Grebe and Little Shag. The grebes can tuck in tight to the reedy fringes, so look carefully. About 20km north of Whangarei, turn east off SH1 on King Street (for Hikurangi). After 400m, turn left (sign posted to Waro Lake Scenic Reserve) and follow to the lake edge.
Roadside birds en route today were - New Zealand Pipit (on the unsealed road which cuts the corner off between Opua and Parekura Bay) and Wekas (one on each side of the Opua car ferry). We spent the night at Rama Rama Country Caravan Park, just off SH1 about a hour south of Auckland.
18th March: Waitomo Caves and Pureora Forest
After continuing south, we followed Birding World's (volume 18, number 6) directions to Waitomo Caves in the hope of New Zealand Falcon. We scanned from the Ruakuri car park and nearby roads but drew a blank, before heading east to the Pureora Forest. Here we checked into the DOC Ngaherenga Campground, near Pureora - a lovely spot full of birds on the forest edge.
Shortly after we arrived, to our surprise, a New Zealand Falcon flew over. In and around the campsite we saw: two male Tomtits, two Whiteheads, three noisy Kakas, six Yellow-fronted Parakeets, two New Zealand Pigeons and four each of New Zealand Robins, Bellbirds and Tuis. A Morepork called after dark.
19th March: Pureora Forest, Lake Taupo and Turangi
Taking advantage of our overnight setting, we were up early but generally birds were in shorter supply than the night before. The only additional species was Rifleman, two of which showed on the loop trail (which starts off the dirt road just north of the campsite) picked up initially on their rather crest-like call.
Our next destination was Lake Taupo, to the south, which we viewed at Tokaanu (heading south on road 41, take the first left just before the town and follow the road to the end). Here amongst hundreds of Black Swans, were c120 New Zealand Scaup, 16 New Zealand Dabchicks, and two pairs of colourful Australasian Shovelers. Also present - Pied Stilt (2), Black Shag (2), Little Black Shag (2) Little Shag (50+) and a New Zealand Pipit showed well on the road.
Further south, we arrived in Taupahi Reserve Walk, Turangi, to search for Blue Duck. I walked a good length of the Tongariro River and back and was beginning to think I was out of luck when I spotted a duck floating on the river several hundred meters south of Major Jones Bridge - Blue Duck! Clearly it had been tucked close in to the (western) bank when I walked past earlier and I had missed it, so search the boulders carefully (this species is well camouflaged amongst them). It showed well beside the big rocky "island".
To find this site, heading south on SH1, opposite Turangi town, turn left into Te Arahori St (beside Parklands Motorlodge) turn right and head south on Taupahi Road (which runs parallel to SH1) for a km or two and turn left into Koura St (by a big yellow "TALTAC" sign) and park at the end. Go up the bank to view the river just south of Major Jones Bridge (a metal suspension bridge over the river). This proved to be a very accessible site to see this rare endemic.
We spent the night in Turangi Holiday Park where we came across a Bellbird and a New Zealand Pigeon.
20th March: Turangi and Greytown
After what proved to be the coldest night of our whole trip, we re-acquainted ourselves with the Blue Duck in the same spot as yesterday; this time sitting on the bank and giving even better views in the sunlight.
Heading south on SH1 we spotted two or three New Zealand Pipits between Turangi and Waiouru. We spent the night with friends in Greytown, just north-east of Wellington.
21st March: Greytown area and Wellington
After a very pleasant morning touring the Greytown area and wine tasting at Vynfields organic vineyard, we drove south and checked into Wellington Waterfront Motorhome Park (pre-booked) right next to the ferry port for the following day.
This urban campervan site provided the perfect base for our evening's excursion to Zealandia (ww.visitzealandia.com) a relatively newly created reserve with a predator-free fence, on the outskirts of Wellington. We had pre-booked an evening guided walk with the aim of seeing Little Spotted Kiwis, but because this set off just before dusk, we soon discovered we were in for a few bonuses. By night fall we'd clocked up Kakas (10+), Brown Teal (4), New Zealand Scaup (2), Tui and we heard a Morepork. But best of all, to our surprise, a pair of New Zealand Falcons gave prolonged views calling over the tree tops (unnoticed by the guide!). These birds are not introduced here, they found the area naturally, and are apparently breeding.
The people on the walk had been divided into two groups and much to our approval, our guide was clearly focused on finding Kiwis. Just on dusk, in a spot she knew was a good bet, a Little Spotted Kiwi suddenly appeared running up the track towards us! We then enjoyed good views in red torchlight as it foraged in the bush. The evening got better with more sightings of Kiwis and by the end of the walk we had watched no less than six different birds including a small juvenile and a pair together. We were delighted to get so many views of these fascinating creatures and counted ourselves very lucky when we heard that the other group had just one sighting!
Other wildlife included a Long-finned Eel, three Wekas (smaller than those we saw in Trounson Forest) and six Tuataras of varying sizes.
The reserve may not be first choice for the purist, but effectively the fence merely serves the same function as the sea around Tiritiri Matangi, both sites having had habitat restored and endemic species re-introduced. Surely this is New Zealand's most accessible site to maximise chances of seeing both Little Spotted Kiwi and New Zealand Falcon.
22nd March: Ferry to South Island
In pouring rain, we boarded the morning Bluebridge ferry and sailed for South Island. Having missed out on a North Island pelagic, I wanted to maximise chances of seeing seabirds so spent the whole journey on deck. With the rain gradually clearing, but the weather not too bright, viewing conditions were ideal and birds started to appear. By the end of the trip I had recorded a reasonable selection of seabirds including my only Prions and Flesh-footed Shearwaters of the whole trip; it was also one of only two occasions when I saw Common Diving Petrel. Sightings included: Albatross (presumed 2 Shy and 1 Wandering), Giant Petrel (presumed Northern), Buller's Shearwater (6), Sooty Shearwater, Flesh-footed Shearwater (6+), Fluttering Shearwater (c150), Common Diving Petrel (c20), Westland Petrel (15+), Fairy Prion (5+), Blue Penguin (5), Australasian Gannet, Spotted Shag (3), Pied Shag (3), Caspian Tern, White-fronted Tern (50+), Black-fronted Tern (3), Arctic Skua, Skua sp (2), and Dusky Dolphin (20+).
During the afternoon we drove south from Picton to Kaikoura where we checked into the Alpine Pacific (Kaikoura Kiwi) Holiday Park for two nights.
23rd March: Kaikoura
Up early in flat calm conditions, for the first whale watching trip of the day which we had pre-booked with Whale Watch (www.whalewatch.co.nz). This is clearly a finely-tuned commercial enterprise and we had been warned by other birders that there is limited opportunity to view from inside the largish boat when it's moving. Whilst this is true and the trip is not very bird-orientated, we were pleasantly surprised how much time we were allowed on deck and that we were able to remain there at times when the boat was moving slowly (though this is probably weather dependent).
Using high-tech equipment, the crew soon located a Sperm Whale which we sped towards and enjoyed views of, floating partially exposed and "blowing" on the surface. In all honesty it wasn't much to see at this stage but the creature's real magnificence was revealed as it deep dived showing its classic tail - a memorable sight! A little later, the whale was re-located and we enjoyed the whole experience again, this time - being better prepared - managing to photograph the tail before it disappeared.
Other sightings included a pod of Dusky Dolphins dashing past the boat, New Zealand Fur Seal (2), Wandering (2) and Shy (4+) Albatrosses, Blue Penguin, Westland's (c10), White-chinned, Cape (4+) and Common Diving (c6) Petrels, and Brown Skua (the latter two species were not seen on the subsequent birding pelagics). The crew made little effort to point out any birds.
We enjoyed lunch overlooking the bay on the south side of Kaikoura where Dusky Dolphins were performing party tricks in the distance, jumping out of the water and somersaulting!
Views and numbers of seabirds on the morning's trip, were about to become totally eclipsed by my afternoon's experience - the Albatross Encounter, pre-booked with Encounter Kaikoura (www.albatrossencounter.co.nz/albatross).
This trip uses a smaller boat and is much more birder friendly than the whale one, with the skipper, Gary, having expert seabird knowledge and focused on finding and pointing them out. The trip proved truly amazing and something I'll never forget, with small flocks of seabirds all around the boat including some Albatrosses and Petrels within touching distance, affording unrivalled photo opportunities.
On the way out two Hutton's Shearwaters which breed only in the hills behind Kaikoura, were released from the boat, having been picked up the night before on the road which newly fledged juveniles sometimes mistake for the sea in the dark. They joined a flock of several hundred others sitting on the sea just off shore.
Once stopped, attracted to a bit of food dangled in a net overboard, we were quickly joined by Wandering (Gibson's) Albatrosses (c12) right beside us, with the aptly named, Shy Albatrosses keeping their distance (1 Salvin's and 10 White-capped recorded). Also squabbling for food were 10 Northern Giant Petrels, while 15 beautiful Cape Petrels rested on the sea; a White-chinned and 10 similar Westland Petrels drifted around beyond them. A Blue Shark showed on the surface.
Later we picked up single Black-browed (Subantarctic) and (in deeper water) Royal (Northern) Albatrosses, before visiting a rocky island close to the shore where as well as 100+ Spotted Shags, New Zealand Fur Seals put on a good show with the pups playing and pushing each other into the sea.
On the return journey, a single Fluttering Shearwater was present amongst the Hutton's and a pod of 20 Dusky Dolphins showed in the distance.
Other sightings included: Pied Shag (6), Black-fronted Tern (6+), White-fronted Tern (c20), Little Shag, Buller's Shearwater and Arctic Skua.
These fantastic trips which run all year round, are simply a must for any visiting birder's New Zealand itinerary!
A beer or two in the pleasant bars on Kaikoura's high street rounded off a memorable day.
24th March: Kaikoura & Katiki Point
I took the morning Albatross Encounter trip which produced no further species on the day before, but was just as enjoyable, watching magnificent Albatrosses against the background of the iconic Kaikoura hills, in much sunnier conditions. I also had better views of Westland's Petrels and Shy Albatrosses, with more Salvin's amongst the latter.
Sighting's today: Wandering (Gibson's) (12+), Shy (10 White-capped and 4+ Salvin's Albatrosses; Northern Giant (10+), Westland (5+) and Cape (20+) Petrels; Spotted (c25), Little and Pied (2) Shags; White-fronted (25+) and Black-fronted (4) Terns; Hutton's Shearwater (c200); Dusky Dolphin (15+); and New Zealand Fur Seal (c30).
We spent all afternoon driving a long way south to Katiki Point, Moreraki, a location picked up from Mumsnet by Alison. We arrived just before the reserve closed and managed to see our quarry - two spectacular Yellow-eyed Penguins, standing in long grass right next to the path before we had to leave (see access details below).
We spent the night free camping in a beautiful spot just south of Moeraki, right next to the beach.
25th March: Katiki Point and Taiaroa Head
We arrived back at Katiki Point at 07.35 and headed straight to the point, watching a dozen Yellow-eyed Penguins howling and gradually heading towards the sea - a thoroughly enjoyable and entertaining sight. By 08.15 only a few scruffy moulting individuals remained. At the point, we experienced close encounters with New Zealand Fur Seals, counted over 100 Spotted Shags and watched a Caspian Tern pass by.
Access to Katiki Point (www.doc.govt.nz/parks-and-recreation/places-to-go/otago/places/moeraki-area/katiki-point) is via the unsealed Lighthouse Road, from Tenby Street in Moeraki Village, and is 4km from the village. On arrival, take the path from the car park and after c100m, at a gate, turn right and walk towards the point (going straight on at the gate, takes you to a hide but we weren't there at the right time to find out how productive this is). The Penguins can be anywhere along here between the gate and the beach.
Our experience suggests that for the Penguins, a morning visit is best between opening time of 07.30 and 08.15; and apparently an afternoon visit can be ok from 15.00 until closing time of 19.30 but don't leave it too late as there's a bit of a walk involved.
Next we drove south to Dunedin and on to the nearby Taiaroa Head, seeing three Royal Spoonbills, 12+ Variable Oystercatchers, 30+ Little Shags and two Pied Stilts on the water's edge. At Taiaroa Head, we declined to pay the NZ$45 entrance fee to the Royal (Northern) Albatross breeding colony but saw two birds overhead and out to sea, and at least three Buller's Albatrosses at distance flying around and sitting on the sea. Also here were c10 Stewart Island Shags and an Australasian Gannet.
As we headed south-west, a brief speculative stop at Waihola Lake, next to SH1, produced three Australasian Shovelers and a Bellbird, before we went on to Invercargill where we spent the night at the Top 10 site.
26th March: Invercargill & Bluff
A visit just north of Invercargill, to the Black-fronted Plover site in Newman's report (good directions) produced no more than a black-phase Fantail. In the afternoon we arrived at Bluff on South Island's southern tip. Here, from the Stirling Point distance sign, we watched at least six of each of Buller's and Shy (White-capped) Albatrosses around some fishing boats and 15+ Sooty Shearwaters in the distance. Four Tuis performed in the bushes.
We checked into Bluff Camping Ground.
27th March: Bluff to Stewart Island
We headed for Stewart Island from Bluff on the 09.30 ferry which we had pre-booked - an hour's sailing on this speedy passenger-only boat. Birds seen from the ferry were - Shy (White-capped) Albatross (4), Royal or Wandering Albatross, Sooty Shearwater (25+), Stewart Island Shag (c12), Blue Penguin (5) and Black-fronted Tern (12+).
We were met from the ferry on this friendly, relaxing and enchanting island and after a short tour of Oban, taken to our nearby accommodation - Kaka Retreat - which we'd pre-booked. Here living up to its' name, we enjoyed point blank views of several entertaining Kakas during our stay.
After settling in, we took the short walk to the ferry for Ulva Island and took this little boat in flat calm conditions. This is a fantastic (almost) predator-free island with plenty of native birds. We found the (relatively recently) re-introduced Yellowheads without too much difficulty in calling flocks at the intersection of the Conservation and Nature Walks and c100m from Boulder Beach on the Nature Walk - a total of c25 birds (leaflets showing the island's trails are available locally). Another highlight was four Saddlebacks including two immatures ("jacks"). Other birds which mainly showed well, some being very tame, included: New Zealand Pigeon (2), Red- (4) and Yellow-crowned Parakeets, Brown Creeper (flock of c40), Rifleman, Tomtit, New Zealand Robin (c10), Weka (4), Bellbird and Kingfisher (3). We glimpsed two Blue Penguins from the boat on the way back.
Stewart Island revealed Tui (3), Tomtit, Variable Oystercatcher (6), Bellbird, Kaka (6) and Red-crowned Parakeet.
A call to Phillip Smith of Bravo Adventure Cruises (www.kiwispotting.co.nz) confirmed that our evening Kiwi trip which we had booked well in advance, was on. We boarded his boat at 19.00 in Oban and as we headed out of Half Moon Bay, we came across an impressive flock of Albatrosses - c40 Shys (White-capped) and c30 Buller's - plus 10+ Blue Penguins and c15 Stewart Island Shags. But this was just for starters! We landed after about half-an-hour's trip and following a short prep-talk, took a brisk walk through the bush at dusk to emerge on Ocean Beach - the exact spot that David Attenborough's team filmed his famous beach-dwelling Kiwis. Before long, our guide had spotted the first Southern Brown Kiwi and we got a brief view at the top of the beach. As the evening went on, views of Kiwis progressively got better until we were enjoying prolonged views, this time in a restricted amount of white light, feeding and wandering around, perhaps 15m away. By the end of the evening, we had clocked up four different birds and the views of these fascinating creatures in this environment will stay in our memory forever!
A Morepork called on the walk back to the boat to end a superb day.
28th March: Stewart Island
I spent most of the day walking the trails around Oban including Fuchsia walk, Raroa Walk, Golden Bay / Deep Bay tracks and along the bay front. Species were all repeats of the day before but with more Red-crowned Parakeets (4) and Tomtits (6), and five more Blue Penguins.
29th March: Stewart Island to Bluff
An early morning walk back to Deep Bay produced a couple more Tomtits and a brief sighting of a Weka. After checking out of our accommodation, and lunch overlooking the bay, I walked to Ackers Point where I found over 100 Sooty Shearwaters. A small number of these "Mutton Birds" are still eaten by Stewart Islanders today! Other notable sightings here were a gathering of 16 Blue Penguins, plus six Shy (White-capped) and 12+ Buller's Albatrosses. A few of the latter later followed some boats into half Moon Bay and gave point blank views off the quay, floating on the water.
A few Shy (White-capped) and Buller's Albatrosses and c20 Sooty Shearwaters were seen from our return ferry before arriving on the mainland at 19.00 to check back into Bluff Camping Ground.
30th March: Lake Gunn, Milford Road
We left Bluff in the pouring rain and headed north, eventually arriving at Cascade Creek (DOC) campsite, by Lake Gunn on the Milford Road. Here Riflemen abounded, in the bushes right next to our campervan and hopping around my feet! I counted a dozen birds including some juveniles; a New Zealand Robin and one or two Tomtits were also around.
31st March: Lake Gunn, Homer Tunnel & Milford Sound
A dawn visit to Lake Gunn Nature Walk failed to produce the hoped-for Yellowheads but I found three each of Tomtit and Rifleman, two New Zealand Robins and c30 New Zealand Scaup on the lake. Better luck at the Homer Tunnel where after no more than five minutes searching in the boulders beside the path, I picked up a pair of Rock Wrens, which performed really well just c100m from the car park (east end) on the right hand side of the track. We were able to watch these superb and rare endemics for three-quarters of an hour before they gradually moved several hundred meters further away from the car park. Later on our return journey, another male (confirmed as different from colour rings) showed c100m up the path, but this time to the left. These birds can be tricky to locate so we considered ourselves very lucky! Listen for their mouse-like call.
As we left the Tunnel heading north for Milford Sound, at least eight Keas appeared at the roadside and the world's only alpine parrot entertained us playing with sticks and rocks and pecking at vehicles. Beware they will rip your windscreen wipers off, given the chance! Also a single Tomtit here.
Milford Sound is renowned for its scenery, but we were a little disappointed, and after a short stop watching two Wekas (one dark phase) in the car park and a Great White Egret on the shore, we headed back down this one-way road to Te Anau. Here we spent the night at the Kiwi Holiday Park.
1st April: Queenstown & Glenorchy
A day of glorious sunshine with no wind, saw us driving north-east further inland. After a visit to Queenstown where we saw our only Australasian Coot of the trip (by the pleasure boat jetty) and c10 New Zealand Scaup, we headed for nearby Glenorchy. The drive along Lake Wakatipu was spectacular with snow-capped mountains reflecting on a blue "millpond" lake. The camera kept coming out round every bend! No less beautiful was the freedom camping spot at Glenorchy where we spent the night and enjoyed snacks and wine overlooking the head of the lake whilst mopping up the sunshine. One or two New Zealand Pipits were present in the adjacent car park.
2nd April: Glenorchy to Routeburn Track & Twizel
During breakfast at Glenorchy we watched a Great Crested Grebe and five New Zealand Scaup before driving to the start of the Routeburn Track (27km to the north - turn left then right at the two road junctions). Riflemen (c20) performed at point blank range in the car park getting inside the engines of cars and our van to feed on dead insects!
I walked the start of the Routeburn Track from here (an area where some Lord of the Rings was filmed) taking the short Nature loop trail to the left and back along the Routeburn. On the return, where the two paths meet, I found my target - two or three Yellowheads amongst a mixed feeding flock of commoner birds which also included Tomtit (2), Bellbird (2) and Yellow-fronted Parakeet.
Continuing north-east up the spine of New Zealand, we arrived in Twizel to find the DOC office (where staff can direct you to sites with recent sightings of Black Stilts) closed for the Easter weekend. But luckily, we met a friendly and helpful DOC employee in the shop who gave us this information! We stayed in Twizel Holiday Park.
3rd April: Mount Cook
Up early, we drove north towards Mount Cook in good weather. Following the directions obtained the night before, we headed to the north end of Lake Pukaki - as you go north, just after Glentanner Airfield and a row of deciduous trees, turn right off the road and park by a gate at the head of a 4x4 track. There is a sign here with a Black Stilt on it. Walk down the track, and scan the lake shore and channels.
Here we counted at least five delicate Black Stilts, their iridescent black plumage reflecting the sun, offset by their brilliant red eyes and legs. The best views were in the channels closest to the airfield, but this may be dependent on water levels. Eventually two heavily colour-ringed birds walked within a few meters of me, chasing flies and at one, point mating. In this area too - Pied Stilt, Grey Teal (c100), New Zealand Pipit (3), Banded Dotterel and Australasian Shoveler (6+).
There are a number of potential sites for Black Stilt in the Twizel area but there's no substitute for the up-to-date information the DOC can provide.
Next, we drove to the base of Mount Cook and then visited nearby Tasman Lake, the whole area having spectacular views of snow-capped mountains against the azure-blue lakes in glorious sunshine.
We left Mount Cook, continuing our journey north, stopping in the Fairlie Top 10 site, where, amongst the regular Fantails, was a dark phase bird.
4th April: Arthur's Pass & Hawdon Trail head
As we drove north towards Arthur's Pass, earlier rain cleared but the wind strengthened. We didn't think much of Arthur's Pass (a bit tatty with an over-priced shop) so after seeing a Kea there, we opted to stay in the spacious freedom camping spot at the Hawdon Trail head (turn east off road 73 some 20 minutes south of Arthur's Pass). On rocks by the river, here, I counted no less than nine New Zealand Pipits and the camping area produced a Tomtit; we also heard a Morepork after dark.
5th April: Hawdon Trail
I headed up the Hawdon Trail at dawn hoping to see Orange-fronted Parakeet. A Dutch birder had told me the best site was about two hour's walk up the trail where the cliffs are visible on the left. I walked the woods here for several hours without luck. This is a difficult trail to follow with markers few and far between, lots of boulders to walk over and a number of rivers to cross. You need to be fit and well-equipped. I did however see a New Zealand Falcon (apparently carrying a fish!) on the first section of the walk, two Keas flew over the same area and further up amongst the trees, six Riflemen and four Tomtits appeared; I also heard a Morepork.
There are small ribbons tied to some trees on this trail and some have sightings of Orange-fronted Parakeets written on them; but the ones I read were all quite dated.
We then drove to Greymouth on the west coast, and checked into the Top 10 site.
6th April: Greymouth & Hokitika
We spent the morning killing time in Greymouth waiting to hear whether our recently booked Okarito Brown Kiwi trip was on; which by early afternoon Ian Cooper confirmed, due to the weather, it was not.
So we drove south along the coast towards Hokitika. A few kms north of the town there are some roadside pools where we found a Cape Barrren Goose, Australasian Shovelers (6+), Grey Ducks (12+) and New Zealand Scaup (c20). Over Hokitika we glimpsed another New Zealand Falcon and a Weka appeared on the roadside. We booked into the nearby Shining Star Campsite where after dark I visited the glow worm dell over the road immediately opposite.
7th April: Franz Josef and Okarito
Our 25th wedding anniversary. But thoughts of spending the evening dining a la carte and sipping fine wines, were quickly dismissed after Ian Copper (www.birdingwestcoast.co.nz/birding/Okarito-Kiwi-Tours) confirmed the Kiwi trip was on!
After enjoying views of glaciers in Franz Josef in improving sunlight, we drove to nearby Okarito (another New Zealand Falcon flew over en route) and we self-checked into the Community Campsite in good time for our evening's tour.
On the trail from the car park in the village, I saw Brown Creeper but had no luck with Fernbirds. We started the Kiwi trip from Ian's house in the village. It very quickly became clear that this was going to be a military operation with strict rules (including no cameras nor rustling waterproofs). Ian explained how we had to behave, where to stand; and what else to do and no do. Although most of the Kiwis are radio-tagged and Ian can locate their rough whereabouts in the bush, the task of getting a whole group to see them in the thick west coast bush is far from easy - "near impossible" he said! However his finely-tuned approach has led to a very impressive success rate.
After driving c5km east of Okarito to the Pakihi Track, we walked with Ian while he listened for the birds' locations on his radio-tracker to decide which spot was likely to be the best bet. He decided this was c2km down the path. After a silent wait and constant adjusting of our group's position, as we stood in an obligatory line, side by side, we heard a rustling sound which gradually got louder. Then, on the edge of the bush, there it was just a few meters in front of us - a female Okarito Brown Kiwi, the rarest of all Kiwis! After a short wait this enigmatic creature shuffling and sniffing its way along in mammal-like fashion, walked right out onto the path within a few cms of the row of boots attached to its' admiring observers! The staggering views during this close encounter ranks as one of the highlights of our trip.
8th April: Okarito & Punakaki
Fine rain most of today, but we managed to find three Fernbirds - two close to the car park in Okarito, where the boardwalk starts (leading to a number of the trails) and another at the Pakihi Track car park. Both are apparently regular spots.
We then drove north up the coast, stopping at Punakaki's Pancake Rocks where we admired the rock formations and blow holes. Here we recorded 100+ White-fronted Terns and two Spotted Shags, plus three tame Wekas around the buildings. En route, north of Greymouth, a New Zealand Pipit appeared in a pull-in.
Just north of Punakaki, we then followed Buller Creek Road in the Paparoa National Park, hoping to see Great Spotted Kiwi at the end. But because some flooded spots started to appear on the road, we decided to turn round. Ironically, in doing so, we managed to get the rear wheels of our campervan stuck and had to get towed out! We were very grateful to two birders who we had met a few days before and happened to appear just after we got stuck and who gave me a lift to Punakaki to get phone signal.
Glad to be on the move again, we decided to travel into the evening as we headed cross-country, north-east, for Picton. We spent the night at Berlins Cafe & Bar, near Inangahua, on SH6 (Westport to Blenheim road) in a camping area attached to the cafe. At least two Moreporks were calling here.
9th April: Picton
We continued our journey seeing literally hundreds of Pukekos and a few Wekas beside the road, before arriving at Picton Top 10 site late morning for a hearty brunch.
We took the afternoon birders' trip with Dolphin Watch Nature Tours (www.naturetours.co.nz) from Picton, along Marlborough Sound, which we'd booked the day before. When we booked we made it clear what birds we particularly wanted to see and were impressed when the staff referred to this on our arrival and told us how they intended to try and find them!
The trip proved excellent with friendly, committed guides pointing out key wildlife. Soon they had homed in on a pod of Hector's Dolphins and we enjoyed amazing views of a dozen of these small and endearing endemics right next to the boat playing, splashing and mating - a mixture of adults and immatures. We hadn't realised this species was a possibility on these trips so it was a very welcome surprise!
A short walk on Motuara Island revealed Saddleback, Yellow-fronted Parakeet, Bellbird (4) and in a box which the guide briefly lifted the lid on, two Blue Penguins.
We also made a brief stop mooring just off-shore of Blumine Island, scanning the trees for the very recently introduced Orange-fronted Parakeets, but without luck. Two each of Weka and Variable Oystercatcher were, however, present on the beach. Then on to our final stop beside some rocks we got good views of the top target bird - King Shag. We watched four of these striking birds which are endemic to Marlborough Sound. (Ali and I had in fact, also seen one distantly in flight from the boat on the way out).
Other sightings were: Fluttering Shearwater (30+), Australasian gannet (12+), Pied Shag (2), Little Shag (3), Spotted Shag (20+) and New Zealand Fur Seal (c8). This trip wasn't planned in advance, but we were so glad we did it as it proved one of the most enjoyable days of the holiday.
We spent the night in the Top 10 site again.
10th April: Kaikoura area
Having a couple of days "spare" at the end of our trip, we decided to travel south back down the east coast, and spend a bit of time near Christchurch, our campervan drop off location. A lunchtime stop at the bay immediately south of Kaikoura, produced distant Dusky Dolphins performing their tricks again, single Shy Albatross, Giant Petrel (presumed Northern) and Arctic Skua plus two Variable Oystercatchers and four Pied Shags. In the Goose Bay area a bit further south, we counted at least 70 New Zealand Fur Seals on the rocks and noted six Black-fronted Terns.
After continuing south, we headed out to the Banks Peninsula (south-east of Christchurch) and checked into the Akaroa Top 10 site for two nights.
11th April: Akaroa
A leisurely day wandering around the camp site and the pleasant town of Akaroa, clocked up New Zealand Pigeon (12+), Bellbird (c6), Brown Creeper (2), Caspian Tern and White-fronted Tern (c50).
12th April: Akaroa to Christchurch
Our final day in the van. Driving to Christchurch, we made several brief stops beside Lake Ellesmere where some large flocks of water birds in the distance included: Pied Stilt (400+), Grey Teal (600+), Australasian Shoveler (c150), Banded Plover (6) and a Royal Spoonbill. We dropped off the campervan at lunchtime having clocked up 3,140 km driving, and checked into the Commodore Hotel by the airport. Our last evening was spent visiting Christchurch which is yet to fully recover from the earthquake in 2011. We enjoyed a curry whilst reflecting on the last five weeks of adventure!
13th April: Flight Home
We flew out of Christchurch back to London with a brief overnight stop in Singapore, arriving home on 14th April, having travelled over 26,400 miles in five weeks!