Stephen Burch's Birding & Dragonfly Website
New Zealand - South Island
16 November to 8 December 2012
By Stephen Burch
This was an
independent travel trip, booked almost exclusively on the
Internet. As I was accompanied by my wife, it was not a 100%
full on birding/photography trip by any means.
Given the various
"must see" bird and tourist locations in South Island, we
decided upon an anti-clockwise circuit of South Island,
starting and ending at Christchurch airport. This took in
Kaikoura (for the albatrosses), Picton (for King Shag,
Fluttering Shearwater etc), Arthur's Pass (Kea), the West
Coast (a few endemics and scenery), Fiordland (more scenery
and the odd bird), Stewart Island (Kiwi, Penguins, more
seabirds) and the Otago Peninsula (Penguins, albatrosses
In total we drove
2150 miles but we did try to spend 2 or even 3 nights in
some places, to avoid moving on every day where possible.
The roads in most of NZ are very quiet, but not fast, so
traveling 200+ miles in one day can be quiet time consuming
and tiring. Fortunately we only had to do this on a few
occasions. We found independent traveling in New Zealand
very easy and pleasant - nearly everyone we met was
welcoming and friendly, they drive on the left, and of
course there were no language issues!
We had pre-booked
all our accommodation and excursions prior to departure.
Only once did our plans go awry - on the day we were due to visit the road to Milford Sound was closed at Hollyford
because of the risk of a rock fall caused by heavy rain. So
we never made it to this famous tourist location, nor to
some of the higher birding locations en-route.
Broadly speaking, New Zealand lacks a wide
variety of species, especially its native land birds. For
example, it has only one species of Warbler and many have been
decimated by the introduction of mammalian predators - stoat,
rat and even mice. Only in a few places, where mammals are
vigorously controlled (mostly offshore islands and remote
areas in the west and south of South Island) do the forests
contain something of their original bird life. Over most of
the agricultural areas only introduced UK exotics (e.g. Song
Thrush, Skylark, Chaffinch) predominate.
Hence NZ is not a place to go to give a major
boost to your life list - indeed the cost of each tick is
quite considerable! But it does have some pretty special
birds, especially the seabirds which include probably the most
accessible Albatrosses in the world, as well as many petrels
and shearwaters. Three species of Penguin are also available,
provided it is the right time of year for them (which it was
for us). Other notables are of course Kiwi and Kea - the
mountain parrot. Most of these birds are relatively easy to
connect with, provided the right sites are visited. The Kiwi,
being generally nocturnal, is something of an exception and a
guided excursion lasting several hours is essential to see
Being in Premium Economy, with more leg room and plentiful food and alcohol, certainly helped on flights of this length, as the service was pretty good. The flights were on time and generally more survivable than we had feared in advance. However, I found that journeys of this length, combined with a 13hr time difference took some getting over, especially the return. There is no escaping the fact that New Zealand is a very long way from the UK!
For short walks, I found that
the Department of Conservation (DoC) has an excellent website
that has downloadable leaflets for many of the areas we
visited. These leaflets described a good range of walks of
varying lengths, and were much more useful for us than a
walks book that I purchased in advance, and never used!
For site information, I used
"Where to Watch Birds in New Zealand" by Kathy Ombler,
supplemented by various Internet trip reports. In addition,
there was a useful paper from Birding World in 2005 by
Drewitt, Brown and Saville titled "Finding New Zealand's
Landbirds", Vol 18(6) 250-259.
I'd also like to thank Brian
Hawker for the invaluable information and tips he provided
me based on his own experiences from a trip in 2006.
Only in the Picton area did we
briefly have warm weather up to about 24 C, but thereafter
the temperature averaged about 14-15 C, with a fair amount
of rain at times. On one morning in Te Anau there was even a
little ice on the windscreen in the early morning with a
temperature of 2 C. But we did have several fine days, and
may have avoided some of the worst weather. For example, our
Doubtful Sound trip was fine, but we understand there had
been much poorer conditions for several days prior to our
visit. Only on one day in the Te Anau area was there almost
continuous rain all day.
I now describe the main sites and areas we visited, in approximate chronological order.
NZ arrival/Ashley Estuary
After the short internal flight
to Christchurch, we arrived mid afternoon on Sunday, having
departed Heathrow at 9pm on Friday! After collecting the
hire car, we then drove north on SH1 towards Kaikoura.
En-route I was keen to check out the Ashley Estuary that was
mentioned in one or two Internet trip reports. It turned out
the main access to this site is on the south side of river,
just north of Wikuku Beach. But before reaching the estuary,
we came across an excellent spot by the road overlooking
fresh water and meadows behind at 43° 17' 14.45" S, 172° 42'
47.00" E. Here we quickly found many of the common NZ
natives, including Pied Cormorant, Grey Teal,
Paradise Shelduck, NZ Scaup, Coot, Pied
Stilt, Spur-winged Plover, White-faced
Swallow and the first of very many Australasian
Harriers. Of these, we saw all but the Coot frequently
thereafter, but it was good to get so many "under the belt"
so early in our trip.
The car park for the estuary
was a bit further on, at the end of a side road on the left
at about 43° 16' 58.1"
S, 172° 43' 16.63" E. Here there were plenty more Pied
Stilts, Royal Spoonbill, some Bar-tailed
Godwits (amazing they come all this distance from the
arctic!) and, best of all, a small group of Wrybill
out on the mud (the only site we saw these at). After a hour
or so, with fatigue levels increasing, we decided it was
time to get back on the SH1 for the 2hr drive north to
We returned to this site almost 3 weeks later, just before our return home, and saw similar species, but with the addition of Caspian Tern and Banded Dotterel. There was however no sign of the Wrybills.
We spent 3 nights in Kaikoura, which was enough time for two pelagics with the excellent Albatross Encounters, as well as seeing a bit of the immediate area. It was also intended to allow us some time to recover from the long flight out, and to gather strength for the next few days, which were to be all "one nighters".
Two hour albatross
After sometime at this spot, we
then moved further offshore and again the chum was deployed,
bringing in a few new species - the odd White-capped
Albatross and White-chinned Petrels. Shortly,
a Northern Royal Albatross appeared as well.
Four hour albatross
The weather was poorer than the day before, with a fair amount of rain later on which drove me into the cabin for shelter. I hence missed any chance of a photo of the rarest species we found - a lone Cook's Petrel that appeared briefly at the far point. This was sufficiently unusual here to get Gary quite interested - although we saw several later in the holiday around Stewart Island, which gave me an unexpected second chance for a photo.
On our return, we saw a Caspian
Tern with White-fronted Terns which was
unusual, and a small flock of Bar-tailed Godwits
flew by. Gary appeared pleased with our total today,
especially the Cook's Petrel, which showed that
there were definite benefits to this longer 4hr excursion.
This trip was in a
comparatively large boat, and given the more sheltered
waters was a much smoother ride than the Kaikoura pelagics.
The main objective was the rare King Shag which can
only be seen here, and nowhere else in the world. We were
lucky with these, and saw several, with close up views of
the first one especially. The open waters of the sound were
good for Australasian Gannets and also Fluttering
Shearwaters. We also approached closely a beach which
produced Weka that came out to meet the boat!
There was also a 1hr stop on
Motuara Island where all mammalian predators have been
removed, and some of the native birds re-introduced. Here I
spent most of the time near the drinking pool in the hope of
photos while the others charged off up to the top of the
island. The multi-ringed re-introduced NZ Robins were
ridiculously tame, and I also saw NZ Pigeon and had
poor views of a two Saddlebacks. However the
photography was not very successful and I might have done
better sticking with the group. We also were shown a Blue
Penguin in a nesting box! There were no signs however
of Yellow-crowned Parakeets - a species that completely
eluded us unfortunately.
After the boat trip, we headed to our motel overlooking Waikawa Bay. Here there were Royal Spoonbills, our first Kingfisher and Tui, as well as some obliging Variable Oystercatchers in the late afternoon light.
Later on, nearer to St Arnaud, we had our first Black-fronted Terns over bare fields next to route 63.
We spent a night en-route to Arthur's Pass at St Arnaud, as the local lake - Lake Rotoiti was said to be good for native passerines due to extensive predator control. Here we again used a good DOC leaflet to find a short (45min) walk - Honeydew Walk which started by the lake shore. I also visited this spot early the following morning in very dull conditions. The area nearest to the car park (Bellbird Walk) was the most productive, with plenty of Tui, Bellbirds, and nesting Grey Warbler. Kaka are also reputed to be present, but we didn't see any. There was however a Black-billed Gull on the lake.
Lake Rotoiti also provided our first encounter with the fearful sandflies - be warned these small insects, almost like Scottish midges in size, gave effects out of all proportion to their size! Thereafter we were more careful with insect repellant, but by then the damage had been done.
Arthur's Pass & journey
The drive from St Arnaud to Arthur's Pass was probably the longest of our holiday, especially as we decided to take up a recommendation to go on the more scenic but longer coastal route. We stopped at Pancake Rocks on the west coast - a tourist trap with paths to view these strangely flat topped rock formations. Our visit was notable for pouring rain, nesting White-fronted Terns and Weka wandering around the car park, clearly expecting to be fed.
We eventually arrived at the Arthur's Pass area by which time the rain had given way to light drizzle. Stopping at the Viaduct Lookout we were delighted to find our information was spot on - there were about 4 Keas there to greet us, and just waiting to try to attack the rubber parts of the car! The best strategy here is to get the wife to guard the car, while attempting to persuade one of the birds to get off the tarmac and onto rocks for more natural photos!
At Arthur's Pass, we spent one night at the luxurious Wilderness Lodge (we received a small discount, as we were also staying 2 nights at the even more memorable Lake Moeraki Lodge later on our trip). The area around this Lodge was good for various forest birds, including our first Tomtit and also several Rifleman (which I couldn't hear and would have probably never seen without my wife putting me onto them!). Also a Kea flew past the Lodge when we were in the restaurant.
At breakfast the next morning we were dismayed to hear that the complementary pre-breakfast guided walk (which we had decided to skip) had seen a NZ Falcon chasing two Yellow-crowned Parakeets! Our walk that morning up a local hill produced nothing more interesting than masses of Grey Warbler song and a pair of Rifleman on our return. We then had to press on back to the west coast and south towards the glaciers.
Fox and Franz Joseph Glaciers
En-route from Arthur's Pass to Fox Glacier, we made a brief diversion to Okarito and its lagoon. This wasn't very productive and there was no sign of any Fernbirds at both the locations mentioned in the Ombler book. There was however an obliging Banded Dotterel on the beach. Of the famed White Herons, the only hint was an extraordinary series of white plastic(?) heron shapes along the estuary shore - passing in the car I caught a brief glimpse of one and duly ticked off White Heron. It was only when we returned that I noticed the "bird" in exactly the same place and took a slightly longer look, which showed it for what it was!
The Fox and Franz Joseph Glacier area had only a few notable birds, such as Purple Swamphens in the fields near to Lake Matheson, which also had Grey Ducks. The road to Gillespies Beach had Grey Warbler and Tomtit, which we also saw in the Franz Joseph car park. The area did however have some special scenery - in the brief spells of moderately fine weather. The most memorable moment was watching the cloud clear off the highest peaks while having our dinner at the High Peaks Hotel. This was when the zoom on my new Panasonic TZ 30 came into its own - and again the next morning from the glacier lookout spot on the road above Fox Glacier. Thereafter the cloud and rain closed in for the remainder of our 2 night stay here.
Lake Moeraki Wilderness Lodge
I found details of the Lake Moeraki Wilderness Lodge while searching the Internet for Fiordland Crested Penguin sites, and after some e-mail correspondence with the owner, Gerry, we ended up staying there for two nights. Unlike their other Lodge at Arthur's Pass, this is in almost a true wilderness, with no other habitation for miles both north and south, although the main west coast road does run past the place! Its location is superb - right by the river coming out of the lake and surrounded by rain forest (almost reminiscent of the amazon - apart from one big factor - the temperature!). Our stay here was a great success, and was favoured with generally fine weather.
The main draw here for me was the opportunity for close up views of Fiordland Crested Penguin, and I was fortunate to see several birds during my afternoon escorted excursion to photograph them (at additional cost). But this wasn't the only notable bird by any means. There was also a Caspian Tern along the coast while Penguin watching and a NZ Falcon over the Lodge Grounds. The Lodge grounds also had NZ Scaup in the river by the buildings, Tomtit, NZ Pigeon, Fantail etc. I also had a fleeting view of a Shining Cuckoo flying away from a tree just outside the main lodge building - and heard one calling round the grounds on a couple of occasions. Lake Moeraki itself was also good, with pairs of Australasian Crested Grebe (generally regarded as a sub-species of our Great Crested Grebe), Black Swans, and a nice pair of Fernbirds along the southern shore seen while Kayaking (the only way to access this spot)! An after dark walk up the road to see glow worms produced distant calling Morepork - apparently sometimes they are seen on this complementary excursion.
In some almost warm weather, we
had our only Odonata sightings of the holiday in this area,
with New Zealand Redcoat Damselflies and Blue
Damselflies on Lake Moeraki, which also had
some Australian Emeralds, otherwise known as Sentry
Dragonflies - Hemicordulia australiae. Later the
same day we saw a Lancer Hawker at the nearby Ship
Creek, on our way south to Queenstown.
Haast Pass & Queenstown
Even the lake at Queenstown had some birding interest, with NZ Scaup, a very tame pair of Auz. Crested Grebes and many Black-billed Gulls. There was also a NZ Pigeon in the trees by the lake.
Doubtful Sound Cruise
The scenery was also
spectacular and the setting very peaceful and relaxing,
though the surrounding mountains were lower than we had
Route 94 towards
With it being reasonably fine in the morning we drove as far as we could up route 94 toward Milford Sound, and stopped at the Divide to do what turned out to be a very wet walk to Lake Howden. In the car park there were several Kakas flying over, and we got better views of them slightly later from the track up to Lake Howden.
After this walk, we went to the
nearby Lake Gunn and walked the nature trail there, as this
site features highly in the 2005 Birding World article.
However in poor conditions, we saw almost nothing until
right back at the car where my wife spotted a non introduced
NZ Robin hopping around. It then vanished for periods
but re-appeared every so often allowing the pic above to be
Te Anau Wildlife Centre
We spent 3 nights (two full days) on Stewart Island which allowed enough time for the essential activities without trying to cram them all into one day. As the ferry is for passengers only, we were without the car for our stay on this island, which didn't turn out to be too much of a problem.
Stewart Island Ferry
On our outward crossing there was a strong wind and quite rough conditions that were good for birds. Attempting to sea watch from the rear facing outside seats of the heaving boat, I managed to see several White-capped Albatrosses, some Little Auk-like birds that proved to be Common Diving Petrels, many Sooty Shearwaters and some pale Petrels that were almost certainly Cook's Petrel.
On the return, it was much calmer and few birds were seen - just the odd White-capped Albatross, a few Sooty Shearwaters and Common Diving Petrels.
Incidentally, the pier where the ferry berths is a good site for a few Blue Penguins coming ashore at dusk - the small rocky bay by the large white oil storage tanks. We visited it at about 21:00 one evening and saw about 5-6 come ashore in the next 30-45 mins.
Stewart Island Lodge
We stayed at this lodge, which was up a very steep slope from the main village of Oban. Just as we arrived, some other guests helpfully pointed out a Red-crowned Parakeet in a nearby bush but it flew off before I could deploy the camera. The terrace was a good spot for Kaka, which visited in the early morning and late afternoon/early evening. It also had good views of the bay which on one afternoon produced amazingly close views of White-capped Albatrosses that had followed a fishing boat right into the harbour in windy conditions!
Kiwi spotting trip
Well in advance we had reserved places on a Kiwi spotting trip with Phillip Smith, but the booking wasn't for a specific night. Seeing Kiwi on this trip is pretty much guaranteed - they claim a 100% success rate stretching back 4 years, but, as we found, some effort can be required in difficult conditions (basically cold, dark and wet!).
As soon as we arrived at the Lodge a telephone call confirmed the trip was on for the first night of our stay - which was very much my preferred choice. At this time of year, departure isn't until around 20:45 - just as it is getting dark, which gives ample time for a meal before hand but does mean a late return. Leaving Oban harbour at dusk, we had a glimpse of a Stewart Island Shag on a nearby rock and then saw various small groups of Blue Penguin in the water. Arriving at the Kiwi site jetty it was already quite dark as conditions were poor (cool and quite wet). We then had a c. 30min walk along a narrow trail across the peninsula to Ocean Beach. Apparently sometimes Kiwi are seen from this trail, but not tonight.
We then walked along the beach, with our guide using his torch to try to find Stewart Island Brown Kiwi. He seemed very confident, but it took some considerable time and effort tramping up and down the length of the beach at least twice to find one! The initial views were rather brief and unsatisfactory, but eventually one (an immature male we were told) settled down to feed just a few metres from us. Unfortunately it was now completely dark, with the guide's torch the only illumination, and my photography with the TZ 30 was not successful (might have been better on the right setting - more of which see below!). There was however a memorable moment when the clouds briefly parted to reveal the Southern Cross low to the south, while we were watching a Kiwi!
We then returned, arriving back at our accommodation in the pouring rain at about 01:00. Experimenting with settings on the TZ 30 on the return, I found one (High sensitivity in Scene Mode) that looked more promising for night photography than the one I was using for the Kiwis.
The water taxis for Ulva depart not from the main pier in Oban but over a hill - some 20-25mins walk from our Lodge. So we booked some transport to take us there and collect us on our return. We spent around 4hrs on this small island that is predator free and is supposed to be teeming with native birds. We had some early success with some Blue Penguins just off the shore of one of the sandy bays, but thereafter it was quite hard work to find birds and photography was difficult due to the poor light. However, we eventually found a good selection of species, of which only one was new to us - Brown Creeper. There were also some more very tame ringed NZ Robins, a more obliging Saddleback than on Motuara Island, and some unobliging Yellowheads.
Aurora Charters pelagic
The Aurora Charters pelagic which departed around 12:30 and lasted a good 4-5 hrs was another major highlight of our trip - certainly on a par with the Kaikoura pelagics. Their boat is much larger and more comfortable than the Kaikoura one, with a proper toilet! Perhaps unfortunately it was an unusually calm day, so the birding probably wasn't as good as it could be, but it still produced several lifers for me as well as being better for photography.
On the way out, we headed down the north-eastern coast of Stewart Island, and saw our first Yellow-eyed Penguins on a beach, and a breeding pair of Brown Skuas. There were also numerous White-capped Albatrosses and Sooty Shearwaters - even before we got to Ulva. After that the boat headed offshore towards "Wreck Reef" - our most southerly point of the trip.
It was here that we had brief view of a passing Mottled Petrel - one of the sought after specialties of this trip. There were also several Cook's Petrel, and I was fortunate to get respectable pics of both of these. A few Southern Royal Albatrosses appeared as well as the odd Salvin's and one White Chinned Petrel.
On the return, we had reasonable views of Fiordland Crested Penguins and Blue Penguins in the water - making all three NZ penguin species on this one trip! So all in all a very good pelagic, which produced the usual large number of photos:
Journey from Stewart Island
Departing Stewart Island on the 08:00 ferry, we then headed for our last main birding area - the Otago Peninsula, via the "scenic" coastal route. First however we had our second abortive visit to Awarua Bay, south of Invercargill. This was supposed to be good for waders, including non breeding NZ Dotterels, but both our visits were spoilt by high tide and the limited access to the southern shore which is supposed to be the better one.
Just before reaching Nugget Point, we paused at a promising bay at the far end of Catlins Lake which produced our only Australasian Shoveler of the trip and 20+ White-faced Herons. At Nugget Point we walked to the lighthouse to view various fur seals on the rocks below. The best bird here was a Brown Skua that flew in off the sea. There were also nesting Royal Spoonbills and Red-billed Gulls. Out to sea in windy conditions were distant Sooty Shearwaters, and we also saw a probable distant Stewart Island Shag. We didn't have time to take the 500m track to the beach look-out for possible Yellow-eyed Penguins.
Well in advance, we had booked on a 2hr tour of Penguin Place on the Otago Peninsula starting at 17:45 which they recommended as the best time for photography. We were remarkably fortunate to almost immediately come across a "stray" adult Yellow-eyed Penguin right out in the open on a grassy slope. These birds are supposed to be very wary, but this one (unbanded and not part of the breeding colony) didn't seem bothered by us at all. It was almost too close for the DO with x1.4TC fitted. I managed a reasonable number of shots of this, but we were moved on in a what seemed a very short space of time (this was a tour with a definite time limit - even so we overran it). There was also a remarkably tame White-faced Heron just walking around, completely unconcerned by our presence! Thereafter, it was difficult to get "natural" shots of the Penguins, as all those breeding were in mini huts, and viewing was from hides linked by trenches dug into the ground.
I found all this a bit contrived, but if you want close up views, this is definitely the way to do it!
Sandfly Bay and Allans Beach
Sandfly Bay is a well known location for Yellow-eyed Penguins. We approached via a longer but less steep route, reached from a minor road through Sandymount (shown on locally available maps/leaflets of the area). The beach had several Sea Lions, which we gave a wide berth, and after a longish wait we were fortunate to get quite close views of a Yellow-eyed Penguin coming up the beach from the sea. At nearby Allans Beach we had however seen one close to the shore, but as we were walking it retreated back out to sea and was not seen again.
The approach road to Allans Beach went past some shallow lakes and marshy areas and was good for photography from the car. Species included Black Swan, Pied Stilt, White-faced Heron, Purple Swamphen, Auz. Harrier etc. In fact, unusually for NZ, this was a site that actually had a reasonable collection of birds all in one place!
Taiaroa Head Albatross Colony
This is the only mainland breeding colony for albatrosses (I think), but by this stage of our trip we had already seen several Northern Royal Albatrosses, down to a few metres range on the Kaikoura pelagics. Hence we didn't visit this colony (although the tour apparently can provide quite close views of the albatrosses, reports are mixed and others have said it can be disappointing - perhaps it depends on time of year). On the late afternoon of our arrival, there were several albatrosses to be seen soaring over the headland, but they were distant and the light was poor so I didn't try any photography. Strangely when we visited the next morning, none were visible.
We were also somewhat surprised that the visitor centre charges 5 dollars per person for entry into the gift shop, cafe and toilet block! But this place now has another interesting string to its bow - organised night viewing of Blue Penguins coming ashore! Having booked on-line (20 NZD per head), we arrived back at a desolate Taiaroa Head car park at about 21:00 - it was cold, raining hard, with strong easterly winds! We were then led down the walkway to Pilot's Beach, where there was a viewing platform and some illumination. Fortunately there was some shelter from the strong wind. Small groups of Blue Penguins started emerging almost immediately, and kept on coming for at least the next hour and a half. By the time we left, everyone else had already departed. You can get very close to these birds, as some go underneath the viewing platform. They also allow cameras (but not flash) unlike at Oamaru, so I was able to get the photo below with my TZ30 on the right high iso setting.
The next day was
our final day in New Zealand, and we visited Lake Ellesmere
briefly at Lower Selwyn Huts. There were some good views of
Silvereye by the path, and plenty of Black Swans
and some Pied Stilt and Royal Spoonbills
around but nothing particularly notable. Thereafter we
returned to Ashley Estuary which is only a
convenient half hour's drive from the airport. These last
couple of days were something of an anticlimax, and in
hindsight I rather wished we had done a significant detour
inland to the Twizel area for Black Stilt.
© All pictures copyright Stephen Burch