The aptly named Wrybill - a New Zealand endemic. Photo: Brent Stephenson
A birding tour to New Zealand is packed full of highlights: albatrosses so close you can count the droplets of water on their feathers, the deafening calls of New Zealand Bellbirds ringing through the forest at dawn, a confiding New Zealand Robin standing guard on a forest path, a Kiwi snuffling through the leaf litter. All of these classic images come to life on the remote Pacific islands of New Zealand.
Bordered by the Tasman Sea on the west and the South Pacific on the east, New Zealand stretches almost 1,000 miles north to south. Eons of isolation have given the three main islands and a multitude of smaller islands a unique avifauna, with four endemic families, and more than 15% of the islands’ species are endemic, many of them globally threatened. We’ll visit remarkable sanctuaries, breathtaking scenic parks, and old-growth forests in search of land birds, and sail the coastal waters looking for some of New Zealand’s remarkable concentrations of seabirds and sea mammals.
Day 1: After assembling in Auckland in the morning, we’ll embark on the four-hour drive through the rolling scenery of North Island to Trounson, making several birding stops along the way, including one in a forested area near central Auckland for our introduction to such forest birds as the North Island subspecies of Tomtit, New Zealand Pigeon, Grey Fantail, and Grey Gerygone (Grey Warbler). We’ll then head to the rugged west coast at Muriwai and one of mainland New Zealand’s three Australasian Gannet colonies. We’ll have superb views and great photographic opportunities, and we’ll also look for other common coastal species such as Pied Cormorant, Red-billed Gull, and White-fronted Tern.
Back on the east coast, we’ll pause in an area renowned as the stronghold of the introduced Laughing Kookaburra, then check several wetlands for waterbirds including New Zealand Scaup, New Zealand Grebe, Grey Teal, Australasian Shoveler, Pacific Black Duck, and Paradise Shelduck. We’ll also spend time looking for Buff-Banded Rail in likely mangrove habitat. Continuing northwards, we’ll reach Trounson, where we’ll have time for a rest at our accommodation before an after-dinner walk to see Northern Brown Kiwi. Night in Trounson.
Day 2: After staying out late last night, we’ll make a later start today, heading east to travel down to the Waipu Estuary. This area is one of the best sites to see the critically endangered Fairy Tern, and there should also be a nice selection of shorebirds. We should have time to stop at several other estuaries farther south, and we’ll also look for New Zealand Pipit and Australasian Little Grebe on the way to Warkworth, where we’ll spend the night.
Day 3: New Zealand has long been known as the seabird capital of the world, and today we’ll get our first taste of the diversity and sheer abundance of seabirds around the country’s coasts. We’ll spend the day on the waters of beautiful Hauraki Gulf.
Leaving from Sandspit, we’ll head out towards Little Barrier Island, chumming at several locations nearby. Our main focus will be on those seabird species that are more easily seen in the northern part of New Zealand, among them the New Zealand Storm-Petrel, rediscovered in January 2003 by Brent Stephenson and Ian Saville. We’ll also be looking for Black and Cook’s Petrels, Fairy Prion, White-faced Storm-Petrel, and Buller’s, Flesh-footed, Fluttering, and Little Shearwaters. Depending on weather conditions, we may head out to the Australasian Gannet Colony on Maori Rocks, where Gray Ternlets (also called Blue or Blue-grey Noddy) can be found in late summer. This area is also excellent marine mammal habitat, with Common and Bottlenose Dolphins and Bryde’s Whales; even Killer Whales are seen on occasion. As the Hauraki Gulf is relatively enclosed, we should be able to get out and explore some of the area even if the weather is not ideal. Night in Warkworth.
Day 4: Tiritiri Matangi Island is a gem in New Zealand’s conservation crown, one of the country’s most amazing sanctuaries. The short ferry ride to the island should give us a chance to see Fluttering Shearwater and White-fronted Tern and possibly Parasitic Jaeger. Upon arrival, we’ll be met by Department of Conservation staff, who will introduce us to the sanctuary and its endemics, which include North Island Saddleback, Kokako, Stitchbird, Takahe, Brown Teal, and Red-crowned Parakeet. We’ll also see other, more common forest birds such as Whitehead, Tui, Bellbird, and New Zealand (North Island) Robin, and we’ll wait at one of the small ponds for Spotless Crake to appear.
Photographic opportunities abound on Tiritiri Matangi, and the day will vanish in a melee of new birds and close encounters. But dusk doesn’t have to be the end of our birding: spending the night on Tiritiri Matangi gives us a superb opportunity to encounter some of New Zealand’s most secretive species. After dinner we’ll head out to look for Morepork and hopefully Little Spotted Kiwi. We’ll also spend time looking for the endangered Tuatara, an endemic reptile that resembles a lizard. Night on Tiritiri Matangi.
Day 5: Getting up early to hear the dawn chorus, we’ll have a chance to pick up any species that we might have missed the day before. We’ll depart Tiritiri Matangi mid-morning to head south to one of New Zealand’s premier shorebird sites, the world-renowned Miranda, in the Firth of Thames, listed under the Ramsar Convention as a wetland of international significance. Before we head out to see what’s around, we’ll check into our accommodation near the Miranda Shorebird Center, where we can get information on the latest sightings.
We’re likely to see Wrybill, Bar-tailed Godwit, Red Knot, Red-necked Stint, Ruddy Turnstone, New Zealand Plover, Banded Dotterel, Variable and South Island Pied Oystercatchers, Pied Stilt, Black-billed Gull, and Caspian Tern. During the summer months there are usually a few less common waders present, too, such as Sharp-tailed, Pectoral, Marsh, or Terek Sandpipers, and we’ll be on the lookout for these and other vagrants. Shorebirding here is largely dependent on the tides, so we’ll be working around the high tide, and may visit other nearby areas as time permits. Night in Miranda.
Day 6: After another check of the shorebirds at Miranda, we’ll head east across the Coromandel Peninsula to Whitianga. The afternoon will be spent out on a pelagic trip, looking for Pycroft’s Petrel. This species breeds mainly on the Mercury Islands, and until recently very few people had ever seen this bird at sea. We expect to see Common Diving-petrel; Buller’s, Flesh-footed, and Little Shearwaters; Fairy Prion; Grey-faced, Cook’s, and Black Petrels; and White-faced Storm-petrel. Several species of albatross are also possible. The list of potential species is huge here on the northeast coast; who knows what we may turn up. We’ll aim to be back in port in late evening so that we have the opportunity to see Pycroft’s Petrels rafting up before they head into their breeding colonies. Night in Whitianga.
Day 7: Today we’ll head back across the Coromandel Peninsula. Time permitting we’ll stop at a swamp to look for Australasian Bittern and other waterbirds. Our main focus, though, is the extensive Pureora Forest west of Lake Taupo, one of the best places in the North Island to see the local North Island subspecies of New Zealand Kaka, Yellow-crowned Parakeet, Long-tailed Koel, Shining Bronze Cuckoo, and Rifleman, among other more common forest species. We’ll also be on the lookout for New Zealand Falcon, and New Zealand Pipit may be seen on the roads in the area. In the early evening, we’ll head to Turangi, where we’ll spend the night.
Day 8: Our focus today will be the search for Blue Duck. These extraordinary inhabitants of swift mountain streams have declined markedly, and there are only a handful of locations left where the species can be seen easily. We’ll visit several spots and hopefully spend time watching these remarkable birds. The North Island volcanoes of Mount Ruapehu, Ngaruhoe, and Tongariro will provide the spectacular backdrop to our time here.
Later, we’ll head east to a forested area between Taupo and Napier. The Department of Conservation’s intense efforts to control introduced mammals here mean that the native flora and fauna have been able to flourish at this reserve. New Zealand (North Island) Robin, Kokako, and Northern Brown Kiwi have been reintroduced, and we have at least a chance of seeing the robin and Kokako, along with New Zealand Pigeon, Long-tailed Koel, Whitehead, Tomtit, Tui, Bellbird, and Rifleman. We’ll also spend some time trying to find New Zealand Falcon and New Zealand Fernbird.
We’ll then head down to Napier, and if time allows check out an estuarine area for shorebirds, or several wetland areas for waterfowl and other species. Night in Napier or Havelock North.
Day 9: We’ll take stock of what we have or have not seen to date. We have options for waterfowl and bittern, forest species, or we can take it easy and head slowly to the Manawatu region for more views of Wrybill and other shorebirds. Along the way we can look for the introduced Eastern Rosella and Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, both from Australia. Night in Foxton.
Day 10: Depending on the tides, we’ll visit the Manawatu Estuary, one of the best sites in New Zealand for watching shorebirds. For some reason, the birds here are extremely confiding, and generally allow a close approach at their high-tide roost on a small spit. In addition to relatively widespread species such as Bar-tailed Godwit, Curlew Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, and Red Knot, we may also see locals such as Variable Oystercatcher and Wrybill and winter visitors such as Pacific Golden Plover, Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, and Red-necked Stint.
We’ll then travel south along the scenic Kapiti Coast towards Wellington, making several stops on the way for Black-fronted Dotterel and other waterfowl. The relatively stable platform of the Interisland ferry, which takes us from Wellington to the South Island, is an excellent way to look for seabirds, as approximately half of the three-hour trip is spent on the open waters of the Cook Strait. Spotted Shag, Fairy Prion, Fluttering Shearwater, and White-fronted Tern should be seen, and depending on weather conditions and prevailing winds, a variety of other seabirds are possible, among them Northern Giant-petrel, Westland Petrel, Sooty Shearwater, ‘Gibson’s’ and ‘Antipodean’ Wandering Albatrosses, and ‘Campbell’ Black-browed, ‘White-capped’ Shy, and Salvin’s Albatrosses. Common Diving-petrel and Little Penguin are often seen near the entrance to the Marlborough Sounds (the penguin is often in the calmer enclosed waters of the Sounds, too) and other less common seabirds are often seen in this stretch. After the ferry docks on the shores of the Marlborough Sounds, we’ll have a very short drive to Picton, where we’ll spend the night.
Day 11: We’ll head out onto the Marlborough Sounds for further exploration of Queen Charlotte Sound. We’ll be looking especially for New Zealand King Shag, a rare endemic with a population of only about 650 individuals. We’ll also be looking for two endemic dolphin species, the endangered Hector’s Dolphin and the more common Dusky Dolphin. New Zealand Fur Seals are also present. We have the opportunity to make stops at two small island sanctuaries, where we will try for Orange-fronted Parakeet, South Island Saddleback and New Zealand (South Island) Robin. After returning to Picton for lunch, we’ll journey south towards Kaikoura. Along the way we’ll visit a coastal area in search of shorebirds. There are generally Banded Dotterel, Black-Winged (Pied) Stilt, Black-billed Gulls, and sometimes other vagrant shorebirds. A brief stop on the scenic coast just before Kaikoura will allow excellent views of New Zealand Fur Seals and Spotted Shags, and enable us to ‘forecast’ sea conditions for the following day’s pelagic trip. If time allows we’ll check the surrounding areas for the introduced Cirl Bunting, and after dinner can head out to look for the introduced Little Owl in neighbouring farmland. Night in Kaikoura.
Day 12: This morning will be one of the best pelagic trips you’re likely ever to take part in anywhere in the world. Thanks to the Kaikoura Canyon just offshore, its takes only about half an hour to reach waters that are some 13,000 feet deep, really getting us out among the seabirds. The species list varies over the year, but at any season we can expect to have at least 3 species of albatross around the boat, normally as close as ten feet away, including Northern and Southern Royal Albatrosses. On top of this, we should have Cape Petrel, Northern Giant-Petrel, and the endemic Hutton’s Shearwater and Westland Petrel - the shearwater breeds in the spectacular mountains behind Kaikoura while the Westland Petrel in the west coast’s temperate rainforest. There’s always the potential of other species like Grey-faced or White-chinned Petrels and Sooty, Short-tailed, Flesh-footed, or Buller’s Shearwaters. On our return, the afternoon is available for relaxing and enjoying the scenery, or whale watching, swimming with dusky dolphins, etc. Night in Kaikoura.
Day 13: Leaving Kaikoura, we’ll travel deep into the Southern Alps to Arthur’s Pass, driving through some exceptional landscapes and making several stops along the way. Our target bird will be the Kea, which we should be able to find near the Pass itself. On the way we’ll pass several rivers that are breeding sites for Black-fronted Tern. In the course of the day we should catch up with such South Island forest species as New Zealand Brown Creeper, Yellow-fronted Parakeets, and New Zealand (South Island) Robin. After dinner we’ll head back out to listen for Great Spotted Kiwi. Night in Arthur’s Pass.
Day 14: This morning we’ll head west, up and over the Pass and on to the stunning West Coast. Our birding stops will be dictated by our previous successes; there will be opportunities to look for more South Island endemics such as the South Island subspecies of New Zealand Fernbird and Weka, a remarkably fearless, flightless rail. As we near our destination of Franz Josef, we can head into the glacial valley to admire views of the Franz Josef glacier or go to the coast to see Royal Spoonbill in coastal lagoons. After dinner we’ll venture out to look for Okarito Brown Kiwi; with only 400 surviving individuals, this is the rarest of the brown kiwis. Night on the outskirts of Franz Josef township.
Day 15: We’ll have a late start as we continue towards the township of Haast, stopping at one or two places on the way to look for forest birds, and enjoy beautiful forests. From Haast we’ll head inland through spectacular mountain scenery, with a visit to Haast Pass, home to a number of forest species, including the stunning and endangered Yellowhead. The site is also good for the South Island subspecies of New Zealand Kaka, Yellow-crowned Parakeet, Rifleman, the South Island subspecies of Tomtit, and Long-tailed Koel. We’ll stay as long as we can in this area, making the most of our time in this amazing forest before driving to the very attractive lakeside town of Wanaka, just over an hour away. Night in Wanaka.
Day 16: Today will involve a few hours of driving, but we’ll pass through some of New Zealand’s most spectacular scenery. We’ll stop in the dramatically beautiful alpine landscape to search for the primitive South Island (Rock) Wren, a relative of the more common Rifleman. The day’s stops will largely be dictated by weather and success with rock wren, which is not possible anywhere else along the way. Although the day will be spent in stunning scenery anyway, if time allows we may head through to Milford Sound to view it from the shore. Night in Te Anau.
Day 17: Our main aim today is to catch the late-morning ferry from Bluff to Stewart Island. Depending on the sea and weather conditions, the one-hour ferry crossing can be quite good for seabirds. In addition to second chances at birds we’ve already seen we’ll also see Stewart Island Shag as we leave Bluff or arrive at Stewart Island. After checking into our hotel, we’ll go out to look for the South Island subspecies of New Zealand Kaka, New Zealand Pigeon, and Tui around the township of Oban before heading to nearby Ulva Island via water taxi. Declared rat-free in 1997, Ulva Island was established as an open sanctuary in 2004. Several species of bird have been reintroduced, and the island gives an excellent impression of what southern New Zealand must have been like before the arrival of Polynesian and European settlers. This is a great place to spend most of the afternoon walking, observing, and taking photos. Back in Oban, after dinner we’ll be met by a local guide who will take us out in search of Southern Brown Kiwi, an unforgettable experience. Night in Oban.
Day 18: The main plan today is a pelagic trip. The distance travelled and the areas visited will depend on the day’s weather. This part of the country is prone to stormy conditions and rough seas, but we hope we are able to get to some areas for seabirding. Thanks to the proximity of the Southern Ocean and the presence of large seabird colonies on surrounding islands, we should find an excellent array of species, including good numbers of Fiordland Crested Penguin and perhaps a Fairy Prion. Almost all of the vagrant Southern Ocean seabirds are possible, and we’ll be keeping our eyes peeled for storm-petrels, albatrosses, and petrels, including Broad-billed Prion and Mottled Petrel. If the weather really holds it may be possible to get around the island far enough to find Antarctic Tern. Depending on our success with Southern Brown Kiwi the previous night, we’ll have another opportunity this evening. Night in Oban.
Day 19: We’ll leave fantastic Stewart Island on the morning ferry, and then head northwards towards Oamaru along the weather-beaten Catlins Coast. We’ll stop at one of the beaches along the way to search for the endemic Hooker’s Sea Lion, and at several other places to admire the famous scenery and to look for forest birds. We plan to arrive at Oamaru in the late afternoon to watch Yellow-eyed Penguins come ashore. Night in Oamaru.
Day 20: We’ll visit a very different environment today, this time one of the driest parts of the South Island - the arid Mackenzie Basin. The region features amazing scenery and birds with striking ‘glacial milk’ coloured lakes, mountains, and red tussocks. It is also the last stronghold of the world’s rarest shorebird, the Black Stilt, with a population of only around 100 wild individuals. The area’s lakes are also good habitat for Great Crested Grebe, Common Coot, and other waterbirds, and we’ll also visit a location for the ever difficult Baillon’s Crake. If the weather is clear, we should have views of New Zealand’s highest mountain, Mount Cook (Aorangi). Night in Omarama.
Day 21: Our last day will be spent traveling back to Christchurch. Along the way we may make stops at various braided rivers and wetlands, good breeding sites for Wrybill and Black-fronted Terns, before we reach Christchurch where the tour concludes around midday with stops at the airport or a hotel if you are planning on extending your stay.
This tour is organised by our American partner WINGS
Updated: 17 March 2017