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Sunbird – Itinerary

The Tasman Sea: Cruise around New Zealand and Australia

Monday 30 December 2019 to Monday 13 January 2020
New Zealand Pre-tour extension from Thursday 26 December
Australia Post-tour extension to Saturday 18 January
with Gavin Bieber and Fabrice Schmitt as leaders
Wednesday 27 January to Tuesday 9 February 2021
with Gavin Bieber and Steve Howell as leaders

Maximum group size: 14 with leaders

The 2021 cruise routing is different; the cruise will begin and end in Melbourne.

Updated itinerary for 2021 coming soon.

2019 Cruise and Land Excursions: : £2,700

  • New Zealand extension : £2,700
  • New Zealand ext. single room supplement : £230
  • Australia extension : £2,110
  • Australia ext. single room supplement : £330
  • Plus flights estimated at : £1,200

* The cruise price noted above covers only the seven land excursions during the cruise plus the leaders’ time on-board ship.  It does not include your berth on the Ruby Princess, which must be booked directly with Princess Cruises. Details on booking space with both WINGS/Sunbird and Princess Cruises can be found here.

The Tui is one of many beautiful New Zealand endemics we can see on this tour. Photo: Gavin Bieber

The cold and biologically rich waters around New Zealand and southern Australia can claim several superlatives for a visiting naturalist. 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 percent of the islands’ species are endemic. The archipelago further supports an excellent array of breeding and foraging seabirds, making the region one of the world’s most diverse locations for tubenoses. Our cruise will cover the entire East Coast of New Zealand and then cross the open Tasman Sea en route to our first landings in Australia. This itinerary should allow us to see over 30 species of tubenose, including an amazing 8 species (and many additional subspecies) of albatross. We’ll cover all of 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 turbulent waters. We feel this cruise offers perhaps the best accessible seabirding experience in the South Pacific and probably one of the best in the world. 

In addition to spending five full days at sea and a day cruising within 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 and from Hobart and Melbourne in Australia. During the course of these seven excursions, we’ll sample a broad cross-section of the birds and habitats available in coastal southern Australia and New Zealand.

The short pre-tour extension offers four days of land-based birding around Auckland, with highlights including an opportunity to look for North Island Brown Kiwi near Kerikeri and a day to visit to the famous Tiritiri Matangi Island where the forests ring with a choir of native birds.

Our post-tour extension will depart from Sydney after we have visited the justifiably famous Royal National Park and then we will wind inland through the Blue Mountains and Capertee and Hunter valleys. This loop drive will allow us to access a wonderful array of habitats in a short time. Over five full days, we’ll see an amazing variety of birdlife including such quintessentially Australian species as Laughing Kookaburra, a dazzling array of cockatoos, parrots and honeyeaters, Satin Bowerbirds, charismatic Fairy-Wrens and perhaps even Paradise Riflebird – a true bird of paradise.

Details on booking space with both WINGS and Princess Cruises can be found here.

PRE-TOUR EXTENSION – Around Auckland, New Zealand:

Day 1: The tour starts with a 6:00 p.m. introductory meeting at our hotel in Auckland. Night in Auckland.

Day 2: We’ll head north out of Auckland to the wild and cliff-laden West Coast. Here we should find a large colony of impressive Australasian Gannets crowding the sea stacks and coastal cliffs near Muriwai. Further along the shoreline we’ll stop to look at our first New Zealand Dotterels and both Variable and South Island Pied Oystercatchers. White-fronted Terns and Red-billed and Kelp Gulls should be plying the surf or loafing on the beaches, and with some luck we’ll encounter one or two diminutive Fairy Terns (a local subspecies that numbers only a few dozen). Ponds along the roadway should hold New Zealand Grebe, pairs of Brown Teal and New Zealand Scaup and the brightly-patterned Paradise Shelduck. We’ll make our way towards the northern tip of the North Island and the town of Kerikeri, arriving in the late afternoon. We’ll  check into our hotel, eat an early dinner, and then set off in search of perhaps the country’s most famous avian inhabitant – the enigmatic, charming and utterly unique North Island Brown Kiwi. By quietly walking with red-cellophane-covered torches and carefully listening for their snuffling in the understory, we hope to enjoy views of these nocturnal birds at close range. We might also encounter a calling Morepork which are relatively widespread across much of New Zealand. Night in Kerikeri.

Day 3: We’ll head back southward, stopping along the way to admire our first gaudy and impressively large New Zealand Pigeons, an endemic landbird that is happily still quite widespread. Wetlands should hold many of the same birds as on Day 2, perhaps with the addition of a Royal Spoonbill, White-faced Heron, Pied Stilt, Black Swan or Australasian Shoveler. Open fields and coastlines should reveal a host of introduced birds, a group of species that actually dominate large portions of the developed parts of the islands. Skylarks, House Sparrows, European Goldfinch and European Starlings are frequent sights along the hedgerows, while California Quail, Eurasian Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, Dunnock and Yellowhammers are sometimes a bit more circumspect. Stops along the East Coast of the peninsula should produce Great, Little Black and Little Pied Cormorants and Pacific Reef-Heron, as well as a few more waders such as Double-banded Plover and perhaps migrants such as Bar-tailed Godwit or Red Knot. Doubtless we will also encounter a few Tui, a large and common endemic honeyeater with a dazzlingly reflective plumage and wispy white neck plumes. Sacred Kingfisher might brighten up a small creekline or fencepost, and we’ll look out for sprightly New Zealand Fantails in groves of native vegetation or perhaps a hunting Swamp Harrier in the open agricultural areas. We should arrive at our hotel in the late afternoon allowing plenty of time to prepare for our trip to Tiritiri Matangi the next morning. Night in Warkworth                                                                                 

Day 4: We’ll board the ferry to Tirtiri Matangi, a wildlife sanctuary located a few miles off the coast of the Whangaparaoa Peninsula. The roughly 220-hectare island was historically farmland with very little native vegetation remaining. In the mid-1980s a massive revegetation effort began and those efforts have borne extensive fruit. Along with the revegetation, the New Zealand Department of Conservation has removed all the non-native predators and reintroduced a suite of endemic forest birds. A trip to the island by boat may reveal our first Fluttering or Buller’s Shearwaters or Arctic Skua. Once on the island we’ll be treated to an aural soundscape that must have dominated much of mainland New Zealand for millennia. The haunting tones of New Zealand Bellbirds, cackles of North Island Saddlebacks, emphatic whistles of Stitchbirds and vaguely humpback whale-like wails of Kokakos will ring through the forested sections of the island. Hulking Takahe, the world’s heaviest rail, might stalk the edges of the trails through the grassy knolls, and in the understory we should locate the North Island Robin and busy little groups of Whitehead. In short, it will be a day filled with a forest full of native birds, a testament to the efforts and successes of the Department of Conservation and a model for island conservation worldwide. We’ll return to the mainland in the late afternoon with a much better appreciation for the native forest birds of New Zealand and cameras full of pictures of some of the most threatened birds in the world. Night in Albany.

Day 5 (Main cruise Day 1): We’ll spend the next morning birding around Auckland, now much more familiar with the common birds of the region. Our actual destinations will vary depending upon the possibilities for new birds. After lunch we’ll make our way to the harbour to check in and embark the ship, which departs at 6:00 p.m. Night aboard the ship.


Day 1 (Extension Day 5): The main tour will begin with an onboard meeting and dinner at 5:00 p.m., shortly before the ship casts off from Auckland Harbour. Our birding experience will begin once our vessel is underway, as the first two hours after leaving Auckland may be our only opportunity to see species like Pycroft’s Petrel, which is restricted to the northern tip of New Zealand, or with great luck perhaps even the very rare New Zealand Storm-Petrel. It will be a nice introduction to seabirding from the ship, with views of our first Flesh-footed or Fluttering Shearwaters, Parkinson’s or Cook Petrels and maybe even a few elegant White-faced Storm-Petrel! Night aboard the ship.

Day 2: We’ll dock at the harbour near Tauranga in the early morning, and will soon be away on a private minibus bound for the Whirinaki Forest Park. Although the drive is long, it is quite 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, Shining Bronze and Long-tailed Cuckoos and the diminutive Rifleman. Some of the birds that have been reintroduced to Tiritiri still survive in the preserve and we should encounter New Zealand Bellbirds, Whitehead, Grey Gerygone, Tui and perhaps even Kokako as well. The drive to and from the forest will certainly not be without birds, and we will keep a sharp eye out for New Zealand Falcon, always a tough bird to encounter throughout the country, as we drive back to Tauranga to board the ship in the late afternoon. Night aboard the ship.

Day 3: During our first full day at sea, we’ll familiarise ourselves with the different kinds of seabirds found here: albatrosses, shearwaters and petrels belonging to the genus Pterodroma or Procellaria, among others. We will see no less than five species of albatrosses today, including Wandering (Gibson’s), Northern Royal, Buller, Shy and Salvin’s Albatross. Among the Pterodroma petrels, we should see mostly Cook’s and Gray-faced, and we hope to spot some rarer ones like the beautiful Black-winged Petrel. With the larger Procellaria, we will learn how to spot Parkinson’s Petrel among the common White-chinned Petrel. We should also see a nice variety of shearwaters, including Flesh-footed, Buller’s and Sooty Shearwaters and maybe even a few Common Diving-Petrels and White-faced Storm-Petrels. Night aboard the ship.

Day 4: We’ll be berthed 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 wildlife sanctuary. This 225-hectare fully fenced reserve 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 much 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 to the wildlife contained within it is a haven 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. Here we should locate North Island Saddleback, Stitchbird and perhaps even Takahe – on a mainland site rather than the more isolated Tiritiri. We might even spot a Tuatara (a very ancient lizard relative endemic to New Zealand) or huge cricket-like Weta as we walk on the park’s trails. We are likely to 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 5: Our shore excursion today will be a bit different from our previous ones. We’ll dock in Picton, a small city at the head of the long and picturesque Queen Charlotte Sound. The region is world famous for its extensive vineyards and amazing scenery, but our day will involve taking a much smaller boat into the sound to several small islands near Cape Jackson. Making landfall on these islands will allow us to seek out birds such as South Island Saddleback, South Island Robin, Weka and perhaps (with great luck) the critically-endangered Orange-fronted Parakeet. Along the rocky coastlines we may see Spotted and King Shags, the latter endemic to the waters around the Marlborough Sounds and numbering fewer than 1,000. Marine mammals are common in the area as well, and we’ll keep a look out for the tiny endemic Hector’s Dolphin as well as the more widespread Bottlenose and Dusky Dolphins, Orca, and New Zealand Fur Seals. We’ll have a bit of time ashore in Picton, providing an opportunity to sample some of the wines that have put this small corner of the country on every oenophile’s map. Night aboard the ship.

Day 6: We’ll wake this morning 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 in the harbour and set out to explore the adjacent rugged coastline and the shores of the vast Lake Ellesmere. Our main goal here will be to encounter 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 migrant 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 also look for the delicate Black-billed Gull among the throngs of Red-billed and Kelp Gulls. After a full morning birding around the base of the Banks Peninsula, we’ll return to the town of Akora with a bit of free time to explore the town before heading back to the ship. Night aboard the ship.

Day 7: Our shore excursion today will depart the harbour at Port Chalmers (just outside of Dunedin) and venture out to the Otago Peninsula and Taiaroa Head. Here we’ll be treated to views of Northern Royal Albatrosses breeding on coastal bluffs at the only mainland colony in the world. Although the species will be familiar to us from our days at sea en route to Dunedin, the chance to see these huge and beautiful birds at close range on land is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Our day will also include seeking out Yellow-eyed Penguin and Stewart Island Shag around the peninsula and possibly spotting one of the few endangered New Zealand Sea Lions that have recolonized the area. 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 full camera cards. Night aboard the ship.

Day 8: 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 plummet 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, as are Sooty Shearwater and White-capped Albatross and, with some luck, we might spot a Southern Giant Petrel or dapper Cape Petrel. Bottlenose Dolphins 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 9-10: We’ll have two full days at sea as we sail across the Tasman Sea between the South Island of New Zealand and Hobart in Tasmania. 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 Shearwaters; and the tiny Black-bellied or Gray-backed Storm-Petrels. Nights aboard the ship.

Day 11: This morning we’ll make our first port of call in Australia. Hobart is the capital city of Tasmania, founded in 1804 and scenically nestled in the fertile Derwent Valley under the shadow of Mount Wellington. The island state of Tasmania has 12 endemic species, and all but one are generally findable within a short drive of Hobart. The city sits on a steep rainfall gradient which produces a remarkable array of forest types within a short distance. As it will be our first day in a new country, and one with a remarkably high percentage of avian endemism, today will perhaps be one of the most exciting of the trip. We’ll meet our local guide and have a full day to explore the diversity of habitats close to the city. In the wet forests of Mount Wellington, heavily laden with a dense mossy rainforest on the lower slopes, we’ll look for Tasmanian Scrubwren, Tasmanian Thornbill, the sometimes elusive Scrubtit and the charismatic Black Currawong. In the drier forest closer to town, we’ll seek out Yellow-throated, Strong-billed and Black-headed Honeyeaters; Dusky Robin; and Green Rosella, as well as the impressive Yellow Wattlebird (Australia’s largest honeyeater). In the more open country with extensive tidal flats, open bays and beaches, we should find Tasmanian Native-Hens and Forest Raven, a nice selection of new waterfowl such as Chestnut Teal, the bizarre Musk Duck and Australian Shelduck and our first Sooty and Pied Oystercatchers. In the late afternoon we’ll head back to the ship with perhaps our largest bird checklist to date. Night aboard the ship.

Day 12: Between Tasmania and Melbourne we’ll be sailing in much shallower water than the previous days and will encounter a very different set of seabirds. We can expect to see Short-tailed Shearwaters in large numbers, amongst which we’ll look for Fluttering and Hutton’s Shearwaters. Fairy Prion should be common, as should Common Diving-Petrel, but we’ll need a bit more luck to find the elegant Yellow-nosed Albatross. Sailing relatively close to the continent and islands, we’ll also find some less pelagic species such as Australasian Gannet and Greater Crested Tern. Night aboard the ship.

Day 13: Today we’ll dock at Melbourne’s huge Port Phillip Bay and disembark for a day’s birding to the west of the city. Melbourne is Australia’s second-largest city, supporting a population of nearly five million people and serving as a hub for the countries artistic and gastronomic advances. We’ll head out of town for a morning birding in the amazing Werribee Sewage Works. The expansive ponds and shoreline at this surprisingly natural facility hold a wealth of species. We’ll have our fill of waterfowl and waders, perhaps including some of the rarer ones such as Freckled and Musk Ducks, Fairy Tern or Banded Stilt. Raptors are in evidence as well, with Swamp Harrier, Whistling Kite, Brown Falcon and Nankeen Kestrel all regular. In the saltbushes and reedbeds we should find Striated Fieldwren and Australian Reed Warbler, and along the muddy verges we might spot an Australian Spotted Crake or flock of Black-tailed Native-hens. Brolga are possible out in the open fields and, with luck, we might see a Banded Lapwing. In the afternoon we’ll head west to the rolling hills and dry eucalypt forest of You Yangs Regional Park. We’ll pass alongside agricultural fields that may hold our first flocks of Galah or mixed flocks of Little and Long-billed Corellas foraging in the shorter grass. We’ll look out for hulking Wedge-tailed Eagles and perhaps foraging flocks of Musk, Purple-crowned and Rainbow Lorikeets. 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, 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 digest as we head back to the ship in the late afternoon.

Day 14: As we’ll be sailing close to the edge of the continental shelf, the seabird diversity and abundance should be excellent, and our last day of the cruise may provide the best seabirding day of the trip! Of course, many of the tubenoses we’ll see today will now be “old friends,” such as Gray-faced Petrel, Fluttering Shearwater and Black-browed Albatross, but we’ll never stop enjoying these beautiful and elegant seabirds. Today will also be the best day to look for Providence and White-necked Petrel, two beautiful Pterodroma Petrels that reach their southern range limits in these waters. Night aboard the ship.

Day 15 (Extension Day 1): In the early morning our ship will dock at its berth in Sydney. For those not taking the post-tour extension, the ship’s service will provide transportation to the international airport and flights home.

POST TOUR EXTENSION – Around Sydney, Australia:

Extension Day 1 (Main Cruise Day 15): For those taking the extension, we’ll head to the nearby Royal National Park for the day. We’ll leave today’s schedule flexible so we can make use of up-to-date information provided by our local leader, but it is sure to include a search for Superb Lyrebird, one of the world’s most accomplished mimics. The walk along the scenic Hacking River should reveal family parties of Variegated and Superb Fairy-Wrens, singing Golden and Rufous Whistlers, hulking Green Catbirds and perhaps a sparklingly blue Azure Kingfisher sitting just above the creek bed. A trip out to the stunning coastal heathlands may well reveal New South Wales’s only endemic bird, Rock Warbler, as well as heathland specialities such as Southern Emu-Wren, Chestnut-rumped Heathwren and Tawny-crowned Honeyeater. We’ll look for a wide cross-section of Australian species such as Yellow-tailed Black Cockatoo, Little and Red Wattlebirds and New Holland Honeyeater. In the afternoon we should be able to track down a roosting Powerful Owl, perhaps the most impressive of the suite of Australian owls, near the park boundary. Night near Sydney.

Extension Day 2: We’ll wake within the remarkably scenic Greater Blue Mountains World Heritage Area. We’ll look for some of the signature mountain birds that breed in the wet forest gullies, such as Pilotbird, Satin Flycatcher, Red-browed Treecreeper, Crescent Honeyeater and the gorgeous Gang Gang Cockatoo. A visit through the mountains wouldn’t be complete without a quick stop at the world-famous Three Sisters rock formation, before winding our way west to the Capertee Valley. Blue-billed, Pink-eared, Musk and, if we’re lucky, Freckled Ducks can all be seen on our route through Lithgow, as well as Great Crested Grebes with young. The critically-endangered Regent Honeyeater is unequivocally the bird to see in the Capertee area, so that’s where we’ll begin on our arrival. They can be scarce at this time of year, but with a bit of local knowledge we should be successful. Before the day is finished we’ll have a good suite of western species under our belts, such as Speckled Warbler, Crested Shrike-Tit, White-backed Swallow, Brown Treecreeper, Hooded Robin, Jacky Winter, Plum-headed Finch and Diamond Firetail. In the evening, we’ll offer an optional outing to search for Barking Owl, Australian Owlet Nightjar, Southern Boobook and Eastern Barn Owl and hopefully hear, and see, the wonderful White-throated Nightjar. Night in the Capertee Valley.                                                                

Extension Day 3: The Capertree Valley hosts a good numbers of honeyeaters and we should see Black-chinned, Brown-headed, Fuscous, Striped, Yellow-tufted and maybe even the elusive Painted Honeyeater. Additionally, we’ll look for Scarlet Robin, Spotted Quail-Thrush, Painted Buttonquail and the stunning but rare Turquoise Parrot. Leaving the valley we’ll drive north along the scenic back roads to the upper Hunter Valley. Along the way we’ll look for three species of woodswallow, White-backed Swallow, Spiny-cheeked Honeyeater, Rufous Songlark and Red-capped Robin. Night near Cessnock.

Extension Day 4: We’ll seek refuge from the warm lowlands and drive a bit further north into the foothills of the Barrington Tops World Heritage Area. The area’s fantastic rainforest and tall eucalypt forest marks the southernmost distribution of many more northern species such as Paradise Riflebird, Russet-tailed Thrush, Noisy Pitta, Spectacled Monarch and Pale-yellow Robin. The area can also be excellent for a selection of doves and bowerbirds. Leaving the mountains behind in the early afternoon, we’ll wind our way south through the grassy foothills around the town of Dungog, along the way looking for Pheasant Coucal, Tawny Grassbird, Red-backed Fairywren, Brush Cuckoo and Grey Goshawk. An early evening visit to a local swamp will give us a good chance for crakes as flocks of waders and ducks wheel around preparing to roost and avoiding being snatched by the local Black Falcon! Night near Cessnock.

Extension Day 5: For our final day we’ll check on the local tide tables and time a visit to a local coastal wader roost where we should encounter a representative sample of East Asian Flyway species such as the endangered Eastern Curlew, Pacific Golden Plover, Terek Sandpiper, Grey-tailed Tattler, Curlew Sandpiper and Black-tailed and Bar-tailed Godwits. From here we’ll do a loop of the lower Hunter Wetlands which hold a superb array of birds, with key species including Wandering Whistling Duck, the odd lumbering Magpie Goose, impressive Black-necked Storks (locally known as Jabirus), Intermediate Egret, White-breasted Woodswallow, White-fronted Chat and Mangrove Gerygone. We’ll aim to arrive back into Sydney by the late afternoon for a farewell dinner. Night in Sydney.

Extension Day 6: This extension concludes with flights home.

This tour is arranged by our American partner WINGS

Updated: 28 September 2018