New Zealand – Custom Tour Trip Report, October 2019

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By Andy Walker

The Kea is the only alpine parrot in the world and is endemic to New Zealand!


This custom birdwatching tour in New Zealand commenced in Dunedin, South Island, on the 19th of October 2019. We birded around the city and the excellent Otago Peninsula (which included nesting albatross and penguin site visits) before commencing our journey south to the bird-rich Stewart and Ulva Islands where we took part in a pelagic trip and a kiwi safari. After our time on these smaller, wonderful islands we gradually worked our way north through South Island (taking in Milford Sound (spectacular), Omarama, Christchurch, and the world-famous Kaikoura for an incredible pelagic trip), before reaching the northern tip of the South Island and the town of Picton. After a boat ride across to Wellington in the south of North Island we flew to Auckland for a short circuit of that island where we took part in a Hauraki Gulf pelagic, visited the Pūkorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre as well as Hobbiton from the Lord of the Rings movies! The tour ended back in Auckland on the 4th of November 2019.

A total of 122 bird species were seen (plus one species heard only), including many New Zealand endemics, as well as a wide range of seabirds and introduced and naturalized species.

Full species lists are provided at the end of this report.

Detailed Report

 Day 1, 19th October 2019. Arrival in Dunedin, South Island

We arrived in the midmorning in Dunedin, South Island, after an overnight international flight from Sydney, Australia, via Auckland, North Island.

After collecting our vehicle we headed along the picturesque Otago Peninsula toward the Royal Albatross Centre, where we spent the majority of the day enjoying the many incredible sights and sounds on offer. The main reason for visiting was for the chance to see the huge Northern Royal Albatross at its only mainland nesting site in the world. After an informative talk on the life history of these birds we headed to the observation area and were rewarded with four birds sitting on the grass. Just a remarkable sight! After enjoying the unique views of these birds we focused our attention on some of the other birds present, such as the endemic and local Otago Shag (a recent split from Stewart Island Shag, which has had an English name chance to Foveaux Shag and would be looked for later in the tour), Silver Gull (of the endemic form sometimes split and referred to as Red-billed Gull), and Kelp Gull.

After lunch we had a look at the nearby sea cliffs, where we found nesting Spotted Shags, Sooty Shearwater, New Zealand Fur Seal, and a patrolling Northern Giant Petrel. We also picked up a distant Northern Royal Albatross flying about; it was magnificent to see its shape cutting across the ocean.

A unique opportunity to observe Northern Royal Albatross on land!

New Zealand has a high number of introduced species of various forms, either brought over by man during the 19th century from the United Kingdom, brought over by man from Australia, or having made their way over from Australia by themselves, and over the course of the day we saw a number of these – in fact while loading our vehicle at the airport we found Song Thrush, Common Blackbird, European Goldfinch, Dunnock, Australian Magpie, Mallard, and Eurasian Skylark! These and other introduced birds would be a feature throughout the tour.

As the afternoon drew on we had one final stop at a private reserve, where we learned about and then saw five of the Endangered (IUCN) Yellow-eyed Penguins, a species in rapid decline globally and a real privilege to see. While here we also saw a couple of the much smaller Little Penguins that were also nesting in the area. A New Zealand Sea Lion was loitering on the beach too, presumably looking for a penguin-shaped dinner snack… As far as first days of a tour go, this was a pretty great start!

It was a real privilege to observe nesting Yellow-eyed Penguin.

Day 2, 20th October 2019. Non-birding morning and afternoon travel to Invercargill

Non-birding morning.

In the afternoon we traveled to Invercargill in preparation for our boat trip the following morning. Along the route we made two stops, the first allowing us our first views of New Zealand Scaup and Black-billed Gull and the second giving us our first native passerines of the trip, Tui, New Zealand Fantail, and New Zealand Bellbird, as well as Australasian Shoveler, Silvereye, Common Chaffinch, and Lesser Redpoll.

Day 3, 21st October 2019. Stewart and Ulva Islands

We left our accommodation at Invercargill and drove the short distance to the harbor town of Bluff, where we met our ferry for the slightly choppy crossing to Stewart Island. A few birds were noted from the boat but it was a little unsuitable for viewing. Once we’d arrived and checked into our accommodation for the next two nights we hiked across the island and caught a water taxi to nearby Ulva Island, a predator-free wildlife sanctuary packed full of rare endemic birds.

As soon as the boat pulled into the tiny harbor on Ulva Island we noted South Island Robin waiting there to welcome us, along with a huge bull New Zealand Sea Lion. As we got our bearings and sorted out our gear we became aware of a Weka (a flightless rail) literally right beneath our feet, totally unconcerned by our presence. As we started our hike we found the huge New Zealand Pigeon sitting low in a giant tree. Over the course of the next couple of hours we found many of our target birds, such as Red-crowned Parakeet, Yellow-crowned Parakeet, New Zealand Kaka, Pipipi (New Zealand Creeper), Yellowhead, Grey Gerygone, Morepork, New Zealand Bellbird, Tui, Tomtit, New Zealand Fantail, and South Island Saddleback. Most of the birds seen were extremely approachable and gave great views. Furthermore the primeval forest was a real joy to walk in, and one could imagine what much of New Zealand must have been like in years gone by.

New Zealand Kaka is a large, endemic parrot that makes some remarkable sounds.

South Island Robin is extremely confiding!

South Island Saddleback was a highlight bird for us during the afternoon, along with a flock of Yellowhead and Pipipi.

Several other birds were noted as we made our way around the island, such as White-fronted Tern, Variable Oystercatcher, Paradise Shelduck, and Spotted Shag.

After dinner we took a night walk around part of Stewart Island and were rewarded first by several Little Penguins and second by our main target, the incredible Southern Brown Kiwi, a huge (for a kiwi), flightless, ancient bird. It was a real privilege to get such amazing views of a pair of birds. Just as we were leaving the area we were treated to a wonderful, clear, southern starry sky.

Southern Brown Kiwi gave outstanding views as one walked right up to us! (iPhone video-grab)

Day 4, 22nd October 2019. Stewart Island

We spent the morning on a boat from our base on Stewart Island, visiting various smaller islands and the seas in between and surrounding them. We found plenty of new birds and several we had seen before, with highlights including our first Fiordland Penguin, Shy Albatross (steadi subspecies, sometimes split and called White-capped Albatross), and Salvin’s Albatross. We also found Brown Skua (two subspecies) , Common Diving Petrel, Foveaux Shag (a new English name for what was previously called Stewart Island Shag after the split of Otago Shag, a bird seen on the Otago Peninsula a few days previously), Australian Pied Cormorant, Little Pied Cormorant, and Spotted Shag. Silver Gulls and Kelp Gulls were ever-present too, and we saw numerous small flocks of foraging Little Penguins.

The New-Zealand-breeding subspecies of Shy Albatross is split by some authorities and called White-capped Albatross. It’s easy to see why in this picture.

Fiordland Penguin was a bonus bird as we were looking for albatross.

As we walked to and from the boat jetty from our accommodation we found several endemic and introduced birds, highlights being Tui, New Zealand Pigeon, New Zealand Kaka, Grey Gerygone, New Zealand Fantail, New Zealand Bellbird, Variable Oystercatcher, and Paradise Shelduck.

Day 5, 23rd October 2019. Stewart Island to Te Anau

We caught the morning ferry from Stewart Island back to Bluff on the southern tip of South Island and then commenced our drive north, which would eventually see us cover the length of this long island.

The crossing was much smoother than the previous trip, and we were able to view some new seabirds along the way, the pick of these being Buller’s Albatross and Black-browed Albatross. We also saw more Shy Albatrosses (the White-capped subspecies again), Sooty Shearwaters, and Common Diving Petrels.

Back on dry land we started our journey towards Te Anau, picking up our first Black-fronted Terns along the way, along with numerous introduced species.

Our afternoon was spent near Lake Te Anau, where we walked through some native forest. Here we found Tui, New Zealand Bellbird, Tomtit, New Zealand Fantail, Grey Gerygone, Sacred Kingfisher, New Zealand Pigeon, Welcome Swallow, and a frustrating glimpse at a Rifleman that was unfortunately flushed by a jogger before we could all get on it.

Day 6, 24th October 2019. Milford Sound area

An early start from our accommodation on the picturesque Lake Te Anau saw us heading to the even more beautiful Milford Sound, which boasts some of the most impressive landscape views in the country.

Our journey started through pastoral farmland, where we found Yellowhammer, South Island Oystercatcher, Black-fronted Tern, and a brief New Zealand Pipit.

We continued through the increasingly beautiful mountains, where a stop at a river gave us our first good views of the endemic Kea, an incredibly tame parrot that seemed intent on wrecking our car, very interesting to watch!

The favorite pastime of the Kea is the destruction of motor vehicles, and we got to witness this firsthand as a flock descended on our car.

Here we also found the Endangered (IUCN) and endemic Blue Duck, a large bird with an interesting foraging habit that was fascinating to observe.

On arrival at Milford Sound the clouds were down, and the view was not as spectacular as we had hoped. However, twenty minutes later, after we had been enjoying views of Weka, Tomtit, and New Zealand Bellbird, the sun came out and the clouds shifted, giving us some seriously spectacular views of the lake and mountains. A tour highlight in its own right!

Weka – another confiding, flightless bird living on the edge

Driving back to our accommodation we stopped in some moss-laden forest and found lots of endemic birds; the pick of these was multiple sightings of Rifleman, tiny birds with an extremely sharp bill and practically no tail, and New Zealand’s smallest (and possible cutest bird). We also found Tomtit, South Island Robin, Pipipi, Grey Gerygone, New Zealand Fantail, Tui, New Zealand Bellbird, New Zealand Kaka, and Yellow-crowned Parakeet.

Day 7, 25th October 2019. Te Anau to Omarama

The morning was spent driving between Te Anau and Omarama, and the route took us through plenty of stunning landscapes.

Our afternoon was spent birding along a braided river in some spectacular scenery. Here we searched for and found our main target for the afternoon, the Critically Endangered (IUCN) and endemic Black Stilt. While looking for the stilt we also found the highly sought-after endemic Wrybill, a unique shorebird with a sideways-curved bill, a very odd-looking bird with a unique foraging technique. Another new bird for us was the rather pretty Double-banded Plover, a New Zealand breeding endemic which migrates to Australia during the non-breeding season. It was rather numerous around the site, where much breeding was in evidence. Other birds noted here included Black-fronted Tern, South Island Oystercatcher, Paradise Shelduck, Swamp Harrier, and New Zealand Pipit.

The distinctive and rather unique shape of the bill of the Wrybill, along with its endemic status, makes is a huge target for visitors on bird tours. We enjoyed excellent, close views of several.

Day 8, 26th October 2019. Omarama to Christchurch

This was essentially a travel day as we made our way to Christchurch from Omarama. A stop at a wetland not far from our accommodation allowed us much closer views of three Black Stilts; it’s amazing to think there are only about 130 birds of this species left in the world!

With its tiny global population it was incredible to spend time watching three Black Stilts at close range all to ourselves in some stunning scenery.

We also saw three Black Stilt x Pied Stilt hybrids. Other birds noted while watching the stilts included New Zealand Scaup, Swamp Harrier, and Kelp Gull.

Our drive was fairly uneventful, with lots of common introduced species noted along the way. A brief walk near our accommodation during the late afternoon gave us looks at New Zealand Pigeon, New Zealand Bellbird, Grey Gerygone, and New Zealand Fantail.

Day 9, 27th October 2019. Non-birding morning, afternoon travel to Kaikoura

Non-birding morning. In the afternoon we traveled to Kaikoura. A brief look off the headland on arrival in Kaikoura filled us with excitement for our trip out to sea the following morning. Thousands of Hutton’s Shearwaters were flying around, and both Shy (White-capped) and Salvin’s Albatrosses were noted, as was White-chinned Petrel. A number of giant petrels were present but a little too far to ID them to species level.

Day 10, 28th October 2019. Kaikoura pelagic

We took a morning boat trip into the bay at Kaikoura. We didn’t have to go far before we started to see some good birds, with Caspian Tern in the harbor, quickly followed by a small flock of White-fronted Terns, our best view to date. As we left the harbor we found our first raft of Hutton’s Shearwaters in much lower numbers than the previous evening but much closer. A little farther and we were suddenly watching Northern Giant Petrel and Cape Petrel, from none to about forty of the latter in no time at all.

Cape Petrel was a constant feature on the boat trip.

With the increase in activity around the back of the boat we then found ourselves looking at a couple of Salvin’s Albatrosses, quickly dwarfed by several huge Antipodean Albatrosses. Westland Petrel put in an appearance, staying on the periphery for the early period. As we moved along a few birds came and went, more Westland Petrels came in, some even coming in quite close, a Grey-faced Petrel performed a fly past, and several boisterous Northern Giant Petrels jostled for position with several Antipodean Albatrosses and one Wandering Albatross.

Several Antipodean Albatross were present on the pelagic trip

Wandering Albatross was a good record for the pelagic.

Two Northern Royal Albatrosses came in, one eventually sitting close to the back of the boat, with the other keeping its distance. A single Shy (White-capped) Albatross came in briefly, with a couple of others noted as we were transiting, but they seemed less bothered about our presence than the other birds. Cape Petrels and Salvin’s Albatrosses were ever-present and gave some incredible eye-level flight views at times. Both Kelp and Silver (scopulinus subspecies, sometimes split as Red-billed) Gulls were present at times too, and another highlight of the trip involved a close and breaching display from a pod of Dusky Dolphins.

After lunch we made the final leg of our northbound journey through the South Island to the village of Picton, our base for the night ahead of our travel to the North Island the following day.

Day 11, 29th October 2019. Non-birding morning, afternoon ferry trip to North Island

Non-birding morning.

In the afternoon we took the 3.5-hour ferry across Cook Strait between Picton, South Island, and Wellington, North Island. During the crossing we saw Fluttering Shearwater, Hutton’s Shearwater, Sooty Shearwater, Flesh-footed Shearwater, Australasian Gannet, Black Petrel, Westland Petrel, Broad-billed Prion, Fairy Prion, Common Diving Petrel, and Shy (White-capped) Albatross.

Day 12, 30th October 2019. Flight to Auckland and birding to the north of the city

We took an early morning flight between Wellington and Auckland, collected our new vehicle, and headed northwest to the coast. The reason for this birding stop was to view a breeding colony of Australasian Gannet and White-fronted Tern. It was rather windy, but we had some really close-up views of hundreds of nesting birds, many sitting on nests and others giving eye-level fly-past views, amazing to see them so close. After enjoying some time watching the breeding activity we continued our journey to the east coast for our base for the next couple of nights. We saw several new introduced species along the way, such as Common Pheasant, Wild Turkey, Spotted Dove, and Common Myna.

Getting to spend time in an Australasian Gannet colony was a nice treat with great flight views on offer as birds came to and from their nests.

Day 13, 31st October 2019. Hauraki Gulf pelagic

The Hauraki Gulf pelagic trip is always a fun day on the water, and today was no exception. Before we left the harbor we were watching close-up Buff-banded Rail, Australian Pied Cormorant, and Caspian Tern. We headed out to sea and soon were watching our first birds, numerous Fluttering Shearwaters and Common Diving Petrels, a few White-fronted Terns, and singles of both Northern Giant Petrel and Little Shearwater. As we moved farther out into the deeper water we started finding Buller’s Shearwaters and Cook’s Petrels. Once we had found White-faced Storm Petrel we started with our chum (food for the seabirds), and the numbers of birds increased, with Flesh-footed Shearwater and Fairy Prion joining the crowd. After a bit of a wait we were rewarded with our main target of the trip, the Critically Endangered (IUCN) endemic New Zealand Storm Petrel. Over the course of the next few hours we saw at least four of these birds, remarkable! Throughout the day we also found a few Shy (White-capped) Albatrosses and singles of Black Petrel and Parasitic Jaeger.

We stopped off at a couple of islands along the way, finding Weka, New Zealand Kaka, Tui, Paradise Shelduck, and Indian Peafowl. New Zealand Plover, Royal Spoonbill, and Bar-tailed Godwit were present on the beach as we came back into the harbor.

The main target of our pelagic trip was the Critically Endangered (IUCN) and very locally distributed endemic New Zealand Storm Petrel.

Day 14, 1st November 2019. Tiritiri Matangi Island

Once our ferry arrived to collect us for our short boat ride we spent the day exploring Tiritiri Matangi Island, a protected haven for endangered species and home to a 150-year-old lighthouse (New Zealand’s oldest operating lighthouse). We had four hours on the island and set off walking as soon as possible to find as many targets as possible. We did quite well despite the island being very busy with people during our visit. Some of our main highlights included Stitchbird, North Island Kokako, Whitehead, New Zealand Fernbird, North Island Saddleback, Brown Teal, and North Island Robin, all new birds for us on this trip with good views of all. Other, more familiar, species included our best views of Tui, New Zealand Bellbird, and Red-crowned Parakeet, along with New Zealand Fantail and Grey Gerygone. We also found a Spotless Crake while eating lunch in a quiet spot.

We were very happy to find the very rare North Island Kokako quietly feeding along the trail.

Stitchbird, a very rare and restricted-range endemic, giving great close views

Before birding on the island we noted Eastern Rosella, Spotted Dove, and African Collared (Barbary) Dove along the roadside, and after birding we drove south through some traffic to Hamilton, our base for the next couple of nights.

Day 15, 2nd November 2019. Hobbiton

A non-birding day exploring the Lord of the Rings and Hobbit film set ‘Hobbiton’ near Matamata. It was a great site to explore, and we had the bonus of a pair of New Zealand Grebes on the village pond outside the Green Dragon Pub!

New Zealand Grebe…. pretty cool to get a lifer while in Hobbiton!

Day 16, 3rd November 2019. Non-birding morning, afternoon at Pūkorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre

Non-birding morning.

After lunch we drove to the Pūkorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre, seeing several Wild Turkeys along the way. Once at the site we spent a couple of hours looking at distant shorebirds and ducks. These were not ideal viewing conditions, but we did get our best looks to date of New Zealand Plover, and our first Red Knot and Pacific Golden Plovers of the trip. A few thousand Bar-tailed Godwits were a bit flighty unfortunately, but we did find a close group that gave some good views. Around 20 Wrybills were present but distant, and we couldn’t better the excellent views from South Island. Ducks were numerous on one of the ponds, and we enjoyed seeing the pretty Australian Shoveler along with Paradise Shelduck and Grey Teal. White-faced Herons were numerous, and their habit of flying low seemed to be one of the reasons the shorebirds were so nervous. Grey Gerygone was in the waterside vegetation, as were Buff-banded Rail and Silvereye. Eurasian Skylarks were abundant and gave some great, close-perched views.

Day 17, 4th November 2019. Pūkorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre and travel to Auckland, where tour concluded

We had a final brief birding session at the Pūkorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre, where we found a Broad-billed Sandpiper (a national rarity) roosting with a flock of over 40 Wrybills. We also saw a Marsh Sandpiper (an uncommon visitor), a family of Buff-banded Rails, and over 50 Australasian Shovelers.

After breakfast we continued back to Auckland International Airport, where this tour of New Zealand came to an end.

Bird of the trip was a tough call, with Kea and New Zealand Storm Petrel coming out on top, but there were several other candidates in the shortlist like Stitchbird, New Zealand Kaka, North Island Kokako, Wrybill, Black Stilt, Blue Duck, and of course the incredible Southern Brown Kiwi encounter! A special mention must also go to some of the most spectacular scenery anywhere in the world; it was a privilege to be birding in such a wondrous landscape. Even if it weren’t for the excellent birds, New Zealand (particularly the South Island) would be worth a visit just to marvel at the scenery.

Please see the downloadable PDF above with the full species lists included.

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