New Zealand: Birding Middle-earth

This volcanic archipelago has a long list of selling points, including Tolkienesque fjordlands, open meadows, and breathtaking mountain ranges. For birders, the three endemic families (Kiwis, New Zealand Wrens and New Zealand Wattlebirds), and 61 endemic species are the major highlights. The pelagic seabird experience is hard to beat, with Kaikoura attracting shearwaters, petrels, and albatrosses galore, including the giant Wandering and Royal Albatrosses. Beyond the birds, the stunning coastal scenery and down-to-earth Kiwi charisma (if we trawl enough bars in Dunedin we might even meet Gollum!), make this trip great fun. We’ll be visiting the very different subtropical North Island, temperate South Island, and the smaller Stewart Island, in an effort to bag as many great birds as possible.



The following is a sample itinerary. We can customize the itinerary based on the needs  of your group and the time you have available.

Day 1: Auckland to Dunedin. After arrival in Auckland, we take a morning flight to Dunedin, South Island, for a one-night stay. After lunch, we’ll explore the Otago Peninsula where the immense Northern Royal Albatross can be viewed at its only mainland breeding site. Here we may also encounter Yellow-eyed Penguin and Spotted Shag.

White-capped Albatross
White-capped Albatross (Lee Dingain)

Day 2: Dunedin to Christchurch. In the morning we’ll explore the Waikouaiti waterfowl reserve en route to Christchurch. It’s a long drive, but time permitting we’ll check out the Waikuku estuary before arriving at the spectacularly mountainous Kaikoura, where we spend the next two nights.

Day 3: Kaikoura pelagic. Undoubtedly one of the finest pelagic birding experiences in the world, we head out for what is sure to be one of the major trip highlights, with tons of superb seabirds, and a chance at some cetaceans too. The proximity of the birds to the shore is one of the major appeals here and we need just half an hour to be amongst some of the world’s great oceanic wanderers. Several forms of Wandering Albatross, northern and southern Royal Albatrosses, Salvin’s and White-capped Albatrosses, both Northern and Southern Giant-Petrel, and the rare breeding endemic Westland Black Petrel can all be found here among shearwaters, petrels, and prions.

Day 4: Kaikoura to Franz Josef. Today we drive through the incredible Arthur’s Pass, where vistas of the Southern Alps compete with Keas for our attention. We’ll head out after dark for the very reclusive, recently-split Okarito Brown Kiwi. We spend the night in Franz Josef.

Day 5: Frans Josef to Queenstown. We’ll move south past fantastic beaches and sea cliffs, where we’ll stop for a very strange rail, the Weka. We then enter the southern Nothofagus forests and head through Haast’s Pass. In times past the giant, now extinct, Haast’s Eagle, twice the size of any living eagle, used to hunt moas until the arrival of humans eradicated their prey. The forests still hold some great birds, including the endangered Yellowhead and bizarre little Rifleman. Modern genetics have shown this rather obscure little bird to be basal to the entire Oscine passerine radiation. It is essentially the sister to all other true songbirds, proving that they first evolved in Australasia and radiated out from there. We have two nights in Queenstown.

Weka
Weka (Lee Dingain)

Day 6: Queenstown. Today we drive through to Omarama, scanning for New Zealand Falcon en route, before arriving in Mackenzie Country. Here we’ll search the boulder-strewn rivers for the critically endangered Black Stilt, which numbers less than 80 birds.

Day 7: Queenstown to Milford Sound. Perhaps the most magnificent part of New Zealand, the Fiordland NP is today’s main destination. Massive glaciers and snow-capped peaks surround us and as we head over the superb mountains we are likely to encounter the charismatic yet naughty windshield-wiper-eating Keas. We board our comfortable overnight boat for a tour of this spectacular area searching for cetaceans and Fiordland Crested Penguin, and with luck we may also encounter the rare Blue Duck.

Kea
Kea (Lee Dingain)

Day 8: Milford Sound to Stewart Island. Heading across the strait on the ferry to Stewart Island offers another mini-pelagic. Here we may be lucky with some scarcer species like Buller’s Albatross, Common Diving-Petrel and the highly localized Mottled Petrel. In the evening we’ll make our first attempt at seeing Stewart Island Brown Kiwi, a bizarre, flightless, near-sighted ratite that is ecologically closer to a mammal than a bird. We’ll spend the next two nights on the island.

Day 9: Stewart Island. Today we’ll target Fiordland Crested, and Little Blue Penguins.

Day 10: Ulva Island to Invercargill. Ulva Island is home to South Island Kaka, Stewart Island Weka, and Red-crowned Parrot. We will also look for a handful of seabirds including Stewart Island Shag before we head for Invercargill, where we spend the night.

Day 11: Invercargill to Auckland. We leave South Island and head to Auckland, where we overnight.

Days 12-13: Tiritiri Matangi Island. Located 20 miles (30 km) northeast of central Auckland, Tiritiri Matangi Island is one of New Zealand’s flagship conservation projects, where over 60% of native cover has been restored. Practically an ark for endemics verging on extinction, this predator-free island is a must-see. The cacophony of birdsong here is immediately apparent, much more intense than that experienced on the highly modernized mainland, and as the ferry pulls up, we should hear the tinkling chorus of bellbirds. Among the endemic species are the two extant wattlebirds: the black and chestnut Saddleback and the blue-wattled Kokako. Other great birds include Red-crowned Parakeet, Whitehead, Stitchbird (a potential family split), and the flightless Takahe. This giant rallid, once thought to be extinct, is now so tame that they occasionally try to mate with your shoes! We spend the night in rustic island accommodation in order to search for the strange Little Spotted Kiwi. The next day we return to Auckland and sleep near Miranda.

Day 14: Miranda. Early this morning we hit the mudflats near Miranda. Here we search for the endangered and dainty New Zealand Dotterel and the quirky Wrybill, a shorebird with a bill so bent that it looks like it has been smacking its head against solid concrete. Many other Asia-Pacific shorebirds overwinter here, and we’ll sift through these before returning to Auckland for our final dinner, and transfers for flights home.

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TRIP CONSIDERATIONS

CLIMATE: Mild and pleasant, but cooler in the mountains. Rain is unpredictable and can be expected at any time.

DIFFICULTY: Easy. No long walks, but early starts are required.

ACCOMMODATION: Mostly good to excellent. The night on Tiritiri Matangi is basic, though well worth it.