NEW ZEALAND BIRDING TOUR: DETAILED ITINERARY
New Zealand: Day 1 Our New Zealand birding tour begins this morning at Auckland, New Zealand’s largest city, situated in the northern part of North Island. We will have a spectacular start to the tour at Muriwai Beach, to the west of the city, one of only three mainland breeding colonies of Australasian Gannet in New Zealand, where we can obtain superb views of these spectacular birds at close range without disturbing the colony.
After enjoying the spectacle we will head north to a small estuary, where we should find the uncommon Fairy Tern and the lovely New Zealand Dotterel, before continuing to the beautiful Bay of Islands for an overnight stay at Kerikeri.
Other species we should see today include Great, Pied and Little Pied Cormorants, White-faced Heron, Paradise Shelduck, Pacific Black Duck, Swamp Harrier, Australasian Swamphen, Variable Oystercatcher, Masked Lapwing, Ruddy Turnstone, Bar-tailed Godwit, Kelp and Silver Gulls, Caspian and White-fronted Terns, Sacred Kingfisher and Welcome Swallow.
Rather sadly, and a reflection of how greatly New Zealand’s environment has been modified by man, other new birds likely as we travel through northernmost New Zealand include such introductions as Black Swan, Greylag Goose, Mallard, California Quail, Eastern Rosella, Australian Magpie, Eurasian Skylark, Eurasian Blackbird, Song Thrush, Common Starling, Common Myna, House Sparrow, Common Chaffinch, European Greenfinch, European Goldfinch and Yellowhammer!
This evening we will go out to look for North Island Brown Kiwi. We will have to walk in silence, listening for these extraordinary birds as they wheeze and snuffle through the forest or its open margins. Careful use of a spotlight should enable us to watch one or two of these emblematic New Zealand birds at relatively close range, an utterly thrilling experience. We will surely hear Morepork during our kiwi walk, but we will leave observing this common species for another occasion.
New Zealand: Day 2 Before leaving the far north of New Zealand, we will explore some beautiful native forest close to the Bay of Islands. Here, amongst the magnificent kauri trees, we should encounter several New Zealand endemics including the huge and colourful New Zealand Pigeon, Grey Warbler (or Grey Gerygone), the North Island form of the New Zealand Fantail and Tui. We will also visit an estuary where the uncommon Brown Teal is regularly to be found.
Later we will travel south to Snells Beach, on the shores of the Hauraki Gulf, for a three nights stay. We should arrive in time for a short excursion to a nearby beach for a first chance to look for New Zealand Dotterel.
New Zealand: Day 3 Today we will catch a water taxi to Tiritiri Matangi Island. There is no finer way to see New Zealand’s endangered native birdlife than to visit the island sanctuaries of Northland. Introduced predators on the mainland, including rats, stoats and ferrets, have wrought havoc with the original avifauna, but islands such as Tiritiri Matangi in the Hauraki Gulf provide a last refuge for several vulnerable and endangered species.
While on this wonderful island we shall keep a sharp eye out for the attractive Stitchbird, a species now extinct on the mainland (and the sole representative of its own family, rather than a honeyeater!), and North Island Saddleback, a New Zealand wattlebird now also extinct on the mainland. Both are well established here. We will also keep a lookout for the shy North Island Kokako, a few pairs of which live on the island. Their beautiful calls ring through the island’s woodlands, a sound never to be forgotten.
A small population of Takahe has been introduced and we can expect to see this prehistoric-looking rail as it creeps through the tall grass, or wanders out in the open near the reserve headquarters. Spotless Crakes inhabit the small ponds, while Red-crowned Parakeets also occur in good numbers. The melodious calls of Tuis and Bellbirds fill the woodland air, Whiteheads are positively abundant and other widespread species we can expect to find include Brown Quail, North Island Robin and Silvereye.
The density of passerine birds here is quite extraordinary and gives one an idea of what the native forests on the mainland must have been like before the devastation wrought by introduced predators and other disruptive species. Many of the birds here are extremely tolerant of man and provide superb photographic opportunities.
New Zealand: Day 4 This morning we will be picked up by our charter boat and travel out into the open waters of the Hauraki Gulf in order to look for a fantastic selection of seabirds, including Flesh-footed, Buller’s, Sooty, Fluttering and Little Shearwaters, Common Diving Petrel, Black and Cook’s Petrels, Fairy Prion, White-faced Storm Petrel, Little (or Blue) Penguin and perhaps Pomarine Jaeger (or Pomarine Skua).
Our most-wanted bird will, however, be the near-mythical New Zealand Storm Petrel, which has recently been rediscovered in the waters off Little Barrier Island after a gap of more than a century! Based on recent observations, we have a good chance of success at this time of year.
We may also encounter Short-beaked Common and Common Bottle-nosed Dolphins or even a whale or two.
New Zealand: Day 5 Our first port of call today will be Miranda on the Firth of Thames. The latter is a large bay to the southeast of Auckland where New Zealand’s largest concentration of migrant waders from northern Asia can be found during the southern summer. Bar-tailed Godwits are abundant, but there are also smaller numbers of Red Knots and Ruddy Turnstones, and often two or three of the more uncommon visitors such as Eastern Curlew, Terek Sandpiper, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Curlew Sandpiper and Red-necked Stint.
Of greater interest for us, New Zealand breeding species such as South Island Pied Oystercatcher, Pied (or White-headed) Stilt and New Zealand Dotterel can also be found in this splendid area, along with the strange Wrybill. The Wrybill, which is unique in having a sideways-curving bill, has a population numbering only around 4,000 birds and is declining in the face of introduced predators and hydroelectric schemes.
White-fronted Terns breed on the shell banks at the edge of the firth and Black-billed Gulls and Caspian Terns often roost here, while Royal Spoonbills often forage in the shallows.
Afterwards, we will visit a wetland area near Hamilton, where we should see the rare Australasian Bittern. From there we will drive southwards to Turangi for an overnight stay beside Lake Taupo.
New Zealand: Day 6 The very scenic area around Lake Taupo is one of the best areas in New Zealand for the attractive but elusive Blue Duck. This rare and secretive denizen of New Zealand’s forested rivers, which prefers stretches of turbulent water, is endangered through habitat loss and is now restricted to remote areas, where it can be hard to find.
Other new birds we should encounter in the Lake Taupo region include New Zealand Dabchick, Little Black Cormorant, Grey Teal, New Zealand Scaup, Kaka, Shining Bronze Cuckoo and the North Island forms of Rifleman and Tomtit. We also have another opportunity to look for North Island Brown Kiwi in this area, should we have failed to see it in the far north.
From the Turangi area, we will head south to Paraparaumu and take a ferry across to Kapiti Island for an overnight stay.
Kapiti is a good place to see Long-tailed Cuckoo, and we may well have more encounters with Takahe and North Island Kokako. After dark, we will go out in search of Little Spotted Kiwi, which we have an excellent chance of observing. We are also likely to encounter a few Little Penguins as they make their way to their burrows under cover of darkness.
New Zealand: Day 7 After returning to the mainland, we will drive south to Wellington, New Zealand’s capital city, at the southern tip of North Island.
[If there is any current news about the endangered Shore Plover flying over from Maud Island to feed along the rocky coastline, we will stop along the way in the Plimmerton area, but this is a very rare event.]
We will then take the ferry across to Picton on South Island for a two nights stay. The three and a half hour crossing is quite good for seabirds, but the ferry moves fast and so the observations are nothing like as satisfying as on our various pelagics.
New Zealand: Day 8 During our stay at Picton we will take a boat trip in Queen Charlotte Sound, which is nowadays a hugely important refuge for New Zealand endemic birds.
As we cruise along Queen Charlotte Sound, we will capture the essential essence of the Marlborough Sounds Maritime Park as we journey through this interface between land and sea where forested peninsulas, notched and scalloped by countless bays, stretch out into waters dotted with islands.
An important focus of the cruise is White Rocks with its colony of New Zealand King Shags. Fewer than 800 of this attractive species survive and all are found in the Marlborough Sounds and Cook Strait. After closely approaching the rocky pinnacles where the shags breed we will explore the much-indented coastline.
We will call at Motuara Island, where we should see South Island Saddleback (now treated as a separate species from its North Island cousin) and where some very tame Bellbirds and South Island Robins (likewise now treated as distinct from the New Zealand Robins on North Island) will enthral us. We may also be able to see some Little Penguins.
We will also visit Blumine Island in search of Malherbe’s (or Orange-fronted) Parakeet, a very rare endemic that is generally straightforward to find at this location.
New Zealand: Day 9 After some final birding at Queen Charlotte Sound we will head southwards along a spectacular stretch of coastline to Kaikoura for a two nights stay.
New Zealand: Day 10 The deep waters of the Pacific off Kaikoura hold a remarkable assemblage of marine birds. Today we will travel by boat well offshore and enjoy some superb pelagic birding. Likely species include most of those we will already have encountered off North Island and also the huge Antipodean Albatross (and perhaps also Wandering), the equally enormous Northern Royal Albatross (and perhaps also Southern Royal), Black-browed, Campbell, Salvin’s and Shy Albatrosses, the endemic Hutton’s Shearwater (which breeds at about 1200m above sea-level in the Kaikoura Range), Northern Giant Petrel (and perhaps also Southern Giant), Westland, White-chinned, Cape and perhaps Great-winged Petrels, and Parasitic Jaeger (or Arctic Skua).
Dusky Dolphins are both frequent and extremely tame, whilst if we are fortunate we will see Great Sperm Whale and the endangered Hector’s Dolphin.
Around Kaikoura town, we may see Pacific Reef Egret and the introduced Common Redpoll.
New Zealand: Day 11 Early this morning we will head for the small settlement of Bealey in the Southern Alps. Along the way we will stop to look for Great Crested Grebes of the Australasian population (possibly a distinct species), the strange-looking Cape Barren Goose (it is uncertain whether the New Zealand birds are introduced or naturally occurring) and perhaps Black-fronted Dotterel. We will also enjoy some dramatic scenery as we ascend to Porter’s Pass from the Canterbury Plains.
The Bealey area is home to Yellow-crowned Parakeets, as well as the South Island forms of the New Zealand Fantail and Tomtit, and we will also have a first chance to see a New Zealand Falcon patrolling the wide river valley.
Later on, we will cross over Arthur’s Pass where, if the weather is good, we will enjoy some awesome views of the Southern Alps, right under the gaze of Mount Rolleston, the highest peak in the Arthur’s Pass National Park. We may see our first Keas here too. Beyond the pass, the descent of the steep Otira Valley is also highly scenic.
Eventually, we will reach the Tasman Sea coast south of Greymouth. From here we will head north to Punakaiki for an overnight stay.
The extraordinary rock formations at the aptly-named Pancake Rocks are a well-known tourist destination, and we will have time to admire the dramatic scenery while watching a colony of White-fronted Terns as they squabble over their territories. We may also find our first Weka here, a remarkably confiding and flightless member of the rail family whose populations are now sadly fragmented on the mainland.
After dinner, we will make an excursion in search of the impressive but elusive Great Spotted Kiwi. This is the largest of New Zealand’s kiwis, but also probably the shyest, so we will need good fortune to see one (hearing one is a lot easier). We are also likely to encounter Morepork. Named after its call, this is New Zealand’s only surviving native owl.
New Zealand: Day 12 Today we will head south along the coast to Franz Josef for an overnight stay amidst some awesome scenery. Ancient forests, snow-encrusted peaks (weather permitting!), silver lakes, glistening glaciers and impetuous rivers rushing down to the sea make South Westland an area of outstanding natural beauty.
We will arrive in time to visit the impressive Franz Josef Glacier, and in the evening we will search for the restricted-range Okarito Kiwi. With persistence, we stand a good chance of coming across one.
New Zealand: Day 13 Today we will at first continue southwards towards Haast. The road follows the coast for part of the journey and we will make a few scenic stops en route.
Afterwards, as we head inland to Omarama for an overnight stay, we will break the journey at Haast Pass, where the magnificent forest still holds a population of the endangered Yellowhead.
In the Omarama and Twizel areas, we will search the braided river systems, marshes and inland deltas for a rare inhabitant of the shingle spreads while enjoying some stupendous scenery. The world population of the Black Stilt now numbers under 80 birds, making it one of the rarest waders of all. Resident here in the Mackenzie Country, it has been badly affected by the depredations of introduced ferrets and the population has plummeted. In addition, it has suffered through hybridization with the colonizing Pied (or White-headed) Stilt, resulting in a further diminution of the population. Wrybill can also be found breeding here, while another species typical of these habitats is Double-banded Plover.
We should also find Black-fronted Tern in the wetlands, and New Zealand Pipit amongst the dry tussock grassland. The uncommon and impressive New Zealand Falcon can turn up almost anywhere in South Island, but this area offers one of our best chances.
Provided the weather is good we will enjoy truly spectacular views of Mount Cook (at 3764m, New Zealand’s tallest mountain) and the surrounding snow-covered Southern Alps.
New Zealand: Day 14 After some final birding in the Mackenzie Country, we will continue southwards to Te Anau in Fiordland for a two nights stay. Our journey will take us through Cromwell and decidedly affluent and rapidly-expanding Queenstown.
New Zealand: Day 15 We will spend the entire day in Fiordland National Park. Here in this far-flung corner of New Zealand the ocean and the mountains have created an incomparable landscape – the wildest, wettest, grandest and most remote part of these islands. We will visit the lakes, rivers, fiords and superb subantarctic beech forests that are characteristic of the area in search of their varied birdlife.
Species of interest here include New Zealand Falcon, Yellow-crowned Parakeet, Rifleman (one of the New Zealand wrens) and Brown Creeper (or Pipipi). The secretive Long-tailed Cuckoo can often be heard, and we have a good chance of seeing one here. The Eglinton Valley was formerly well known for its Yellowheads, a species once widespread in South Island but now localized and scarce. However, a recent population decline, probably induced by Stoat predation, has made it very hard to find in this area.
As we follow the road towards Milford Sound we come to the scenic Upper Hollyford Valley with its superb alpine meadows and boulder fields under towering, snow-capped peaks. Along the Hollyford River, we will have another opportunity to find the elusive Blue Duck.
Further up the valley, a small glacial basin at the headwaters of the Hollyford River is one of the few accessible areas in which the delightful Rock Wren can be seen. Undisturbed for most of their lives by humans, these tiny but often elusive birds can be readily approached amongst the spectacular fields of Mount Cook Lilies, New Zealand Foxgloves and Wild Spaniards. As we search for the wrens we will be surrounded by sheer rock walls and some of the most impressive alpine scenery in New Zealand. [This site is currently closed owing to avalanche damage and its date of reopening is unknown.]
We will also be watching out for that large alpine parrot, the Kea, which sometimes pays a visit to rob the unwary of lunch, gloves or lens caps!
Afterwards, we will have an opportunity to admire the spectacular beauty of Milford Sound on a boat trip, and at the head of the sound we will keep a lookout for Fiordland Crested Penguins standing guard along the rocky shoreline.
New Zealand: Day 16 This morning we will drive to Invercargill, at the southernmost extremity of South Island, where we will look for the rather secretive Fernbird.
From Invercargill, we will cross the Foveaux Strait by ferry or air to Stewart Island for a two nights stay at Halfmoon Bay.
In the evening, weather permitting, we will make a boat trip to a remote headland where, after creeping silently through the dense forest, we will arrive after dark at a sandy beach where Southern Brown Kiwis (or Tokoekas) have developed the habit of coming out into the open to feed along the tideline. Our guide knows the birds and the area intimately, so we have an excellent chance of being able to watch one or two at relatively close range.
New Zealand: Day 17 Stewart Island and its offshore islets provide a home for land birds which have become rare on the mainland and for countless oceanic birds. Today we will travel well offshore by charter boat for a full-day pelagic. We can expect some incredible views of albatrosses, petrels and shearwaters all around us, for here we are at one of the seabird capitals of the world. Shy Albatross is numerous and we should also see Salvin’s and Southern Royal Albatrosses, and Brown (or Subantarctic) Skua. There is also a good chance of seeing Buller’s Albatross.
In addition, we are likely to turn up one or two of the rarer visitors such as Mottled Petrel or Broad-billed Prion, or possibly even Antarctic Tern. We should also see some Yellow-eyed Penguins and Fiordland Crested Penguins, both of which nest in small numbers on islets off Halfmoon Bay.
New Zealand: Day 18 Both Yellowhead and South Island Saddleback have been introduced to the predator-free Ulva Island in Patterson Inlet and this morning we will surely encounter both these endangered species, as well as Weka (a bold, chicken-sized rail that has become very accustomed to visitors).
Later we will return to Invercargill and drive north-east to Dunedin for an overnight stay. During the late afternoon, we will visit a remote beach on the Otago Peninsula where the large and impressive Yellow-eyed Penguin nests.
New Zealand: Day 19 This morning we will visit Taiaroa Head at the entrance to Otago Harbour. Here we will see the only mainland colony of the Northern Royal Albatross, one of the largest flying birds on earth. We will be able to watch these huge birds gracefully sailing back and forth as they approach or leave the colony, and watch some of the adults at their nest sites.
Nearer sea-level is a large colony of Stewart Island Shags and smaller numbers of Spotted Shags, which at this time of year will include many birds in full breeding plumage.
Our New Zealand birding tour ends at Dunedin airport around midday.