The Tui is one of many beautiful New Zealand endemics we can see on this tour. Photo: Gavin Bieber
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 an array of endemic species. Thanks to cold and biologically rich waters, the archipelago also supports one of the world’s most diverse collection of breeding and foraging seabirds.
Our 2021 cruise starts and ends in Melbourne, allowing us to cross the Tasman Sea twice at quite different latitudes, as well as covering the entire east coast of New Zealand. We should see over 35 species of tubenose including eight species (and many additional subspecies) of albatross. We’ll traverse these waters aboard a Princess cruise ship, which is, of course, both comfortable and well-appointed but also stable enough to permit telescope use even in rough waters. We feel this cruise offers arguably the best accessible seabirding experience in the South Pacific and probably one of the best in the world.
We should say that, in addition to spending six full days at sea and a day cruising in the world-renowned Fiordland National Park, we’ll arrange land-based expeditions for our five shore days around the North and South Islands of New Zealand. During the course of these excursions, we’ll sample a broad cross section of the birds and habitats available in coastal New Zealand.
We’ll also offer both pre- and post-cruise extensions in Australia, the departure and return point for our cruise. The pre-tour extension, based in Melbourne, will explore the Victorian countryside that may seem reassuringly familiar after two centuries of European settlement…until you look at the birds and other fauna. Large flocks of cockatoos feed along the highways and multicoloured fairy-wrens and honeyeaters fill the woods while kangaroos graze in the paddocks and buzzing flocks of lorikeets visit the treetops. On one day we’ll concentrate on wetland birds with a visit to the fantastic Werribee Sewage Treatment plant, which often hosts mind-boggling flocks of waterfowl and waders, a nice array of loafing terns, skulking crakes, and reedbed birds. The other full day will be spent along the world-famous Great Ocean Road, an incredibly scenic coastal road with sandy beaches, dense heathlands, and rocky bluffs. We’ll also visit some drier inland forests where we should encounter another suite of thornbills, flycatchers, robins, and honeyeaters.
Our post-tour cruise extension will depart Melbourne for the island state of Tasmania for a week’s birding and natural history study in the central highland forests and alpine heath of the island’s interior. We’ll also be treated to visits to the gorgeous southeast coastline, the capital city of Hobart, and the remote and beautiful Bruny Island. In addition to all twelve Tasmanian endemic birds, as well as Tasmanian breeding specialities such as Morepork, Swift Parrot, Pink Robin, and the critically endangered Orange-bellied Parrot (offered as an extra day at the end of the tour), we’ll have excellent chances to see some of the country’s iconic mammals such as the Echidna, Platypus, Tasmanian Devil, and Eastern and Spot-tailed Quoll.
Melbourne Area Extension:
Pre-Tour (1): The pre-tour starts in Melbourne at two o’clock in the afternoon with an excursion to a local park to see our first Australian birds, including Galah, Sulphur-crested Cockatoo, Red-rumped Parrot, and Laughing Kookaburra. In addition to these widespread species, this park has in the past produced less-common birds such as Tawny Frogmouth, Purple-crowned Lorikeet, Crested Shrike-Tit, and Varied Sittella. This day will be a relaxed affair, designed to introduce us to the colours and sounds of Australian birds. Night near Melbourne Airport.
Pre-Tour (2): We’ll visit an area southwest of Melbourne where we’ll start by birding a stretch of the Great Ocean Road, widely regarded as one of the most scenic drives in the world. At Point Addis and Aireys Inlet lookouts, we’ll look for Rufous Bristlebirds as they lurk underneath the dense coastal heath. If conditions are good, we’ll have an excellent chance of tracking down Southern Emu-Wren and Striated Fieldwren around Aireys Inlet. A bit inland from the coastal road we’ll visit an area of much taller and wetter forest where we’ll search for birds such as the jewel-like Spotted Pardalote, the comical Gang-gang Cockatoo, and an array of honeyeaters and thornbills. After lunch near the coast, we’ll head back north to the rolling hills and dry eucalypt forest of You Yangs Regional Park. We’ll pass by agricultural fields that may well hold foraging Galah and mixed flocks of Little and Long-billed Corellas in the shorter grass and perhaps even a pair or two of Cape Barren Geese. We’ll look out too for hulking Wedge-tailed Eagles and perhaps busy groups of Musk, Purple-crowned, and Rainbow Lorikeets feeding in flowering eucalytpus groves. The park itself is excellent for many dry-country birds, and we should encounter Red-rumped Parrot, White-naped, Black-chinned, and Brown-headed Honeyeaters, several species of thornbill, Restless Flycatcher, Rufous and Golden Whistlers, Willie-Wagtail, Magpie-lark, and the perky Scarlet Robin. It will be a whirlwind of a day, with loads of new birds to delight in! Night near Melbourne Airport.
Pre-Tour (3): We’ll venture south again, this time to the magnificent and sprawling complex of wetlands and fields that make up the incomparable Werribbee Treatment Plant. This site combines impoundments, open fields, coastal salt marsh, and beaches and generally acts as a massive refugia for tens of thousands of waterbirds that can linger in the area for months or years as they wait for rainfall in the interior. Although the number of birds present fluctuates from year to year, our visit should coincide with near-peak numbers of shorebirds and waterfowl, and the marshes and hedgerows support healthy populations of rails and passerines. The potential bird list for the day is long, and we may well top a hundred species during the course of the morning. In the early afternoon, we’ll make our way to the ship to commence the boarding process and settle into our staterooms.
Day 1: The main tour begins at 5 p.m. with an onboard meeting and dinner shortly before the ship leaves Melbourne Harbour.
Days 2-4: We’ll wake the next morning east of Australia as we traverse the Tasman Sea over the course of three days. This small sea, roughly 1,250 miles across, stretches between Australia and New Zealand and reaches depths of over 17,000 feet. If you are used to small-boat-based pelagic adventures, where the horizon is constantly dipping in and out of view and it’s hard to hold on to the railings while operating binoculars, the experience of birding and of telescope use from the comforts of Deck 8 on a large and stable cruise ship with ample space is a dream. Generally, we can find a protected area near the bow during all but the roughest sea conditions, and there are always endless opportunities for non-birding entertainment and food (or simply a comfortable bed) just metres away from our birding platform. Three days of seabirding will familiarize us with the different kinds of seabirds found in this region, as we transit from the cooler waters off southern Australia to the warmer subtropical waters off the northern New Zealand coast. Five or more species of albatross are possible on the first day, including Gibson’s Wandering, Northern Royal, Buller’s, Tasmanian Shy, and Salvin’s. Among the Pterodroma petrels, we should see mostly Cook’s and Gray-faced Petrels, and - moving north - we hope to spot some rarer ones like the beautiful Black-winged or the scarce White-necked Petrels. With the larger Procellaria petrels, we’ll learn how to spot Parkinson’s among the common White-chinned Petrels. We should also see a variety of shearwaters, including Flesh-footed, Buller’s, and Sooty, plus the fancy White-faced and possibly White-bellied Storm-Petrels. Other possibilities on this little-known route include Little Shearwater, Kermadec, and Gould’s Petrels, and perhaps even the rare little New Zealand Storm-Petrel once we near the North Island. Cetaceans can be plentiful in these waters as well, with about 35 species recorded. We’ll certainly keep an eye out for surfacing whales, and - with a bit of luck and some quick photography - may even be able to record a few rare Beaked Whales among the more common species. Nights aboard the ship.
Day 5: We’re scheduled to dock mid-morning, allowing us to disembark for a half day of birding near Auckland. We plan a short drive north to the coast near Muriwai, where an impressive colony of Australasian Gannets will be on display against a scenic backdrop of seaside bluffs, sand beaches, and coastal heath. A short boardwalk to a viewing platform allows visitors excellent views of these smart-looking birds, and - given the timing of our visit - there should be a lot of chicks on display as well. The coast here should support a few other species of interest such as Variable Oystercatcher, White-fronted Tern, and perhaps the large and colourful Tui - one of two species of Honeyeater native to New Zealand. Along the roadsides we’ll also experience a wealth of non-native species that now dominate much of the open landscapes of the country. We should see Eurasian Skylark, Song Thrush, Eurasian Blackbird, Chaffinch, European Greenfinch, European Goldfinch, and Yellowhammer in the hedgerows. We might also see wide-ranging Australasian birds such as Swamp Harrier, Masked Lapwing, Welcome Swallow, Australian Magpie, Sacred Kingfisher, and Purple Swamphen. Some native songbirds are possible, too, and we’ll keep an eye out for our first Grey Gerygones and New Zealand Fantails. On the way back to Auckland, we’ll stop at a few wader spots in search of the scarce New Zealand Dotterel, Double-banded Plover and perhaps even the iconic Wrybill. As the day draws to a close, we’ll board our ship in time for dinner. Night aboard the ship.
Day 6: We’ll dock at the harbour near Tauranga in the early morning and will soon be away on our minibus bound for the Whirinaki Conservation Park. Although the drive is long, it’s scenic, and the birding rewards once we’ve reached the forest make the trip well worth it. This protected area encompasses tracts of ancient Podocarpus totara trees and is widely considered one of the largest and most ecologically important forest reserves in the country. We’ll spend much of the day exploring some of the many trails through the reserve on the lookout for the scarce Yellow-crowned Parakeet, garrulous Kaka, North Island Robin, Tomtit, Tui, Shining Bronze and Long-tailed Cuckoos, and the diminutive Rifleman. Some of the birds that have been reintroduced to Tiritiri Matangi Island are still existing in the preserve as well, and we may encounter New Zealand Bellbirds, Whitehead, and Grey Gerygone here as well. The drive to and from the forest will certainly have birding possibilities, including wetlands harbouring the local New Zealand Grebe and handsome New Zealand Scaup and we’ll keep a sharp eye out for New Zealand Falcon - always a tough bird to encounter throughout the country - as we drive back in the late afternoon to Tauranga to board the ship. Night aboard the ship.
Day 7: We’ll be at sea today, this time travelling down the length of the coast of New Zealand’s North Island. The waters east of New Zealand are rich in seabirds, even only a short distance from shore, and this could be a busy day of seabirding or a chance to relax after our day on land. Depending on how far offshore our transit takes us, species possible today include Australasian Gannet, Salvin’s, Buller’s, Royal, and Campbell Albatrosses, Northern Giant Petrel, Fluttering, Little, Buller’s and Sooty Shearwaters, Fairy Prion, White-faced Storm-Petrel (a different cryptic species from the Australian birds), Parkinson’s Petrel, and perhaps the challenging-to-identify Pycroft’s Petrel among the very similar Cook’s Petrels. Night aboard the ship.
Day 8: We’ll berth in Wellington, the capital city of New Zealand, which sits near Cook Strait, nestled in a dramatic landscape of forested peninsulas, seaside cliffs, and the sandy beaches of the Kapiti Coast. We’ll disembark and meet our driver, who will take us to the nearby Zealandia Ecosanctuary. This 225-hectare, fully fenced preserve serves as a testament to the perseverance of the country’s conservation community. New Zealand stands apart from the rest of the world in its proactive and intense efforts to save its remaining endemic species, remove introduced predators and plants, and restore as many of the historic ecosystems as possible. This park is the world’s first fully-fenced urban sanctuary, with many endangered species being reintroduced or protected inside the predator-proof fencing. The managers of the park claim to have a 500-year plan to restore the region to as close to its pre-human state as possible. Admittedly this makes the area feel a bit like a giant zoo exhibit, but the wildlife contained within are safe from the ravages of cats and possums. The populations of several bird species here have increased dramatically, leading to a corresponding increase in sightings around greater Wellington. We should locate Brown Teal, North Island Saddleback, Stitchbird, Kaka, Red-crowned Parakeet and perhaps even Takahe. We might even spot a Tuatara (a very ancient lizard relative that is endemic to New Zealand) or huge cricket-like Weta, as we walk on the park’s trails. We’ll likely spend the entire morning here, stopping for lunch in Wellington. For those who wish it, some free time will be available in the afternoon to explore the city. Night aboard the ship.
Day 9: We’ll wake at Akaroa, a popular tourist destination at the base of the volcanic Banks Peninsula. The city was founded and largely settled by French whalers, and its francophone roots shine through unmistakably with its excellent French cuisine and architecture. We’ll disembark shortly after docking and set out to explore the adjacent rugged coastline and the shores of the vast Lake Ellesmere. Our chief goal here is the bizarre Wrybill. These small plovers possess one of the oddest bills of any bird, bent sideways to the right at a shockingly abrupt angle. They use this unique bill to probe underneath large, rounded stones in braided rivers and rocky shorelines. It’s a scarce bird with an estimated population of only a few thousand. Here, too, we should see a selection of wintering northern hemisphere waders such as Bar-tailed Godwit, Sharp-tailed and Curlew Sandpipers, Red-necked Stint, and large numbers of Pied Stilts and Double-banded Plovers. We’ll look as well for the delicate Black-billed Gull among the throngs of Silver (Red-billed) and Kelp Gulls. After our stops for waterbirds we will head inland to the mountains visible on the horizon, it is admittedly a bit of a drive, but our chief target here; the garrulous and charismatic Kea is well worth the effort. After exploring a bit of the beautiful foothills we’ll return to the town of Akaroa and then back to the ship in the late afternoon. Night aboard the ship.
Day 10: We’ll depart the harbour at Port Chalmers (just outside of Dunedin) and venture out to the Otago Peninsula. We’ll start the day at the Orokonui Sanctuary, a wonderful fenced reserve just a few kilometres out of the port. Here we will have another chance to immerse ourselves in native forest, with a heavy presence of native birdlife. Tui and New Zealand Bellbird are common here, and we have excellent chances at also encountering Pipipi (New Zealand Creeper), South Island Robin, Rifleman and Tomtit. There is also a small population of the often very skulky New Zealand Fernbird here, which we were lucky to see on the 2020 cruise. After Orokonui we’ll enjoy a picnic lunch near the idyllic Hawkesbury Lagoon, which supports large populations of Paradise Shelduck, Black Swan, wading birds and other waterfowl. Our final birding stop for the day will be at Katiki Point, a small promontory that supports a population of endangered Yellow-eyed Penguins, as well as a large breeding colony of Red-billed Gulls and often loafing New Zealand Fur Seals. The peninsula, in general, is regarded as one of the top wildlife-viewing destinations in the country, and doubtless we’ll return to the ship in the afternoon with our cameras full of fabulous photos. Night aboard the ship.
Day 11: Today we’ll be cruising in the amazingly beautiful Fiordland National Park. New Zealand’s largest national park was formed millennia ago by massive glacial flows that carved deep fiords into the coast of South Island. At the heart of the park lies the deep-water Milford Sound. The sound cuts through the Southern Alps, and the shores are lined by towering cliffs that soar nearly a mile above the surface. Rainforest clings to the cliffs, and dozens of graceful waterfalls cascade into the ocean. The day will be filled with incredible scenery, but we will, of course, keep a watchful eye on the waters for seabirds as well. The endangered Fiordland Penguin is a distinct possibility here, though it will take sharp eyes to pick them up in the water, and with some luck we might spot a Southern Giant Petrel or dapper Cape (aka Pintado) Petrel. Bottlenose Dolphin and loafing New Zealand Fur Seals should be regular sights throughout the day, all set against one of the most scenic backdrops imaginable. Night aboard the ship.
Days 12-13: We’ll again have two full days at sea, as we sail back across the Tasman Sea between the South Island of New Zealand and Melbourne. As this crossing will take place over very deep waters, the seabird quantity will not be as impressive as at the edge of the New Zealand or Australian shelf, but we should have regular encounters with Wandering (Snowy), Shy, and Campbell’s Albatross, as well as Gray-faced, Gould’s, and White-headed Petrels; Short-tailed Shearwater; and perhaps a Gray-backed Storm-Petrel. Nights aboard the ship.
Day 14: We’ll arrive back in the port of Melbourne during the night and will disembark the ship early in the morning. Those opting to take our post-cruise extension, which explores the wilds of Tasmania, will transfer to the airport for a mid-morning flight to Hobart, Tasmania. Those participants ending their trip at this point will be shuttled to the airport or into Melbourne.
Post-Tour (1): After leaving the ship, we’ll transfer to the Melbourne airport for our short, late-morning flight to Launceston, the second largest city in Tasmania. On arrival we’ll make our way inland to our accommodation in Leven Canyon, our base for the first two nights. On the way, we’ll stop to familiarise ourselves with some of Tasmania’s common open-country birds and, time permitting, will visit a small reserve where we’ll have an excellent chance of seeing Platypus in the wild. We’ll arrive at our accommodation near the Leven Canyon Regional Preserve in the late afternoon. This accommodation has been chosen as it offers a chance of seeing the increasingly rare Tasmanian Devil - one of Australia’s most threatened and charismatic mammals - in the wild and at close range. Here, the owner places meat down for the devils at dusk and, with any luck, they will come in to feed after dark. Spotted-tailed Quolls also come to the verandas to feed, and this is an excellent opportunity to view and photograph these elusive creatures. Night in Leven Canyon.
Post-Tour (2): We have a full day to explore Cradle Mountain. The large Cradle Mountain-Lake St. Clair National Park is part of the Tasmanian Wilderness World Heritage Area, and it protects a large tract of the central highlands of Tasmania, including vast amounts of alpine heathland, temperate rainforests, and southern Beech forests. It’s an excellent area to look for most of Tasmania’s endemic bird species such as the retiring Scrubtit, Green Rosella, garrulous Black Currawong, sprightly Tasmanian Thornbill, and often confiding Tasmanian Scrubwren. Here, too, we may well encounter a trio of wonderful Australian robins - the endemic Dusky, the electric Pink and luminous Flame - as well as an array of Honeyeaters, including Crescent, Yellow-throated, and Strong-billed. In addition to the great birding, we’ll investigate some of the interesting plants found here. Notable ones are ancient rainforest species and Gondwana relics such as Pencil and King Billy Pines, Myrtle, and the famous Fagus (Nothofagus gunnii), which is Tasmania’s only deciduous tree. This is also a good area to view the portly Common Wombat. If time permits, we’ll visit the replica of “Waldheim,” the home of the Austrian Gustav Weindorfer, whose love of the area inspired the establishment of the national park. Tonight, we have another chance to see a Tasmanian Devil at our accommodation and, if luck is with us, might also encounter a Morepork (the Southern Boobooks of Tasmania have recently been reassigned to this species) around the cabins. Night in Leven Canyon.
Post-Tour (3): We’ll depart early and head southward. This will be a travel day, but there will be time to visit Mount Field National Park, which is an excellent backup site for our endemic target species, notably Scrubtit and Black Currawong, and is also a great place to experience a range of habitats from fern gullies with waterfalls to alpine heathland and cool temperate rainforest, boasting some of the tallest eucalyptus in Australia. In the late afternoon, we’ll make our way out of the park to a nearby settlement where we’ll overnight. Night near Mount Field National Park.
Post-Tour (4): We’ll spend the early morning revisiting the Mount Field National Park, then head to the coast a bit south of Hobart where we’ll board the small car ferry that plies the narrow pass between mainland Tasmania and North Bruny Island. During the 15-minute crossing, we’ll keep an eye out for perched Black-faced Cormorant on the harbour pilings, a passing White-bellied Sea-Eagle, and perhaps a nearby pod of dolphins. All of Tasmania’s endemics occur on Bruny Island, most of them on the property owned by our local guide, Tonia Cochran. We’ll spend the afternoon walking around her private estate, looking in particular for Green Rosella, Dusky Robin, and the true speciality of her property, the highly endangered Forty-spotted Pardalote. Night on Bruny Island.
Post-Tour (5): We’ll spend a delightful day exploring the forests and farmland of Bruny Island, searching for any remaining endemics such as Tasmanian Scrubwren, Scrubtit, Tasmanian Thornbill, and Strong-billed and Black-headed Honeyeaters. We’ll also search for a number of species that are easier to find in Tasmania than on the Australian mainland, including Hooded Plover, Brush Bronzewing, Swift Parrot, Flame Robin, Crescent Honeyeater, and Forest Raven. Because it has fewer introduced predators than Australia, Tasmania is famous for having a more intact marsupial fauna, so after dinner there will be an optional night drive mostly in search of mammals, including Bennett’s Wallaby, Rufous-bellied Pademelon, Long-nosed Potoroo, and Eastern Quoll. We’ll also visit a bustling Little Penguin and Short-tailed Shearwater breeding colony. Night on Bruny Island.
Post-Tour (6): We’ll have the morning to see more of Bruny Island, including parts of the North Island, and then make our way to Hobart with the opportunity to visit various birding locations on route. Once we reach Hobart, we’ll drive to the top of Mount Wellington at an elevation of about 4,150 feet, which offers spectacular views of the city and surrounding landscape on clear days. Here, we’ll also walk through a fern glade with towering tree ferns where we’ll have more chances to see the endemic and rather shy Scrubtit, as well as Tasmanian Scrubwren and the stunning Pink Robin. Depending on the mood and weather, we may opt for some spotlighting after dinner in a Hobart reserve to search for Southern (Tasmanian) Bettong and Eastern-barred Bandicoot, both of which originally had a southeastern Australian distribution and now occur almost exclusively in Tasmania. In our searching, we may also encounter Tawny Frogmouth and, if we are very fortunate, Masked Owl. Night near Hobart.
Post-Tour (7): Participants opting to end the tour this morning will transfer to the airport to catch flights back to mainland Australia and home.
Melaleuca Charter option (Ext Day 7): Those who wish to extend their Tasmanian journey a little bit more will board our chartered plane for the southwestern corner of the state. It is a spectacularly scenic hour-long flight, which takes us to the remote gravel airstrip near the former settlement of Melaleuca. This truly remote location is inaccessible by road and is famed not only for its truly unspoiled wilderness and amazingly wonderful hiking trails but also for its birdlife. Our chief objective here is to have an opportunity to see one of Australia’s rarest birds, the critically endangered and beautiful Orange-bellied Parrot. The wild population of parrots that are still actively migrating to and from their natural breeding grounds in Tasmania is highly monitored and numbers now only about two dozen adult individuals, making this species undoubtedly one of the most endangered species of bird in the world. Apart from the Orange-bellied Parrots, the habitat here supports several other species of interest to the visiting birder, and we’ll spend some time looking for the often-elusive Eastern Ground Parrot, Olive Whistler, Striated Fieldwren, and Beautiful Firetail. The area is also rich in human history, and we will learn of the fabled adventurers who braved this region in a bygone era. In the mid-afternoon, we’ll board the flight back to Hobart, where we’ll enjoy a final dinner near the scenic downtown harbour. Night in Hobart.
Post-Tour (8): The post-cruise extension concludes this morning in Hobart.
Updated: 17 November 2020