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New Zealand - South Island

16 November to 8 December 2012

By Stephen Burch

Unlike some of my recent trips, this was 100% holiday, with no business component at all! With only three weeks available, we decided to concentrate entirely on South Island, as it had the best scenery and probably the best selection of birds. Perhaps we will return to visit North Island one day.

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 etc).

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 one.

We decided to be extravagant and flew Premium Economy with Air New Zealand from Heathrow to Christchurch, via Hong Kong (2 hr stop) and Auckland (again about a 2hr wait). To maximise our time in NZ, we did both the outward and return legs without a stopover. This meant arriving in Christchurch about 30 hours after taking off from Heathrow (and vice-versa)!

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!

Car Hire
I had pre-booked a Hertz hire car for collection and return at Christchurch airport. When costed at a per day rate, this wasn't too expensive - we paid over half the price for just a few days in Finland for example! We had a bright red automatic Ford Falcon which turned out to be quite roomy with a good sized boot that took all our luggage.

We selected a range of grades of accommodation from motels to a couple of luxury lodges. Virtually all were excellent. The motels were particularly good value as they nearly all had well equipped kitchens and laundry facilities. How different from the UK!

In advance I purchased a small scale (1:1,000,000) general map, which was OK for overall route planning in advance but of very limited value once there. Once in NZ, we bought from the first petrol station we tried, an excellent road atlas (Pathfinder) by Kiwimaps for South Island only. This was on a 1:250,000 scale in rural areas but had larger scale maps of many areas and town centres at 1:20,000. Thoroughly recommended, and probably cheaper if bought locally than in 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!

Birding information
For bird ID, I acquired the hefty "The Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand" by Barrie Heather and Hugh Robertson. This was very good, but when in NZ I noticed that the key identification plates were all available in a much slimmer and lighter book which omits the detailed species text (never used). I'm not sure if this is available in the UK, if it were it would be a better buy.

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.

As expected, the weather was quite mixed - the west coast of New Zealand is one of the wettest places on Earth! [Indeed, on our Doubtful Sound trip, we were told that a weather station near to the mouth of this Sound had recorded a total of 16m of rain in one year! If this is a long term average, it would comfortably beat Meghalaya State, India which is considered the wettest place on Earth, but "only" has an average of 11m of rain a year].

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.

All the pics shown below were taken with my DSLR equipment - Canon EOS 7D with EF400mm/f4 DO lens and x1.4TC, generally on a monopod. I also had the EF 400mmf5.6 lens with me for general walks. All pics were taken in RAW format, and I use NeatImage for noise suppression, with PhotoShop Elements 9 for subsequent processing. For further details see the equipment and image processing pages elsewhere on this website. For general shots, and the odd bird pic, I had a new toy - a point and shoot Panasonic Lumix DMC-TZ30, which gave good results, especially at night once I had found the right setting.

I now describe the main sites and areas we visited, in approximate chronological order.

NZ arrival/Ashley Estuary
Arriving at Auckland Airport, we then decided to take the 15min walk to the domestic terminal (there is a free bus as an alternative). Having just flown half way round the world, I was somewhat amused that the first three bird species on my NZ list were (wait for it) - House Sparrow, Starling and Song Thrush! As we soon discovered, over large parts of rural NZ, introduced British exotics are very common. It was amazing how numerous and obvious Song Thushes were given their sad decline in the UK.

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 Heron, Welcome 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 Kaikoura.

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.

Grey Teal
Wrybill - the only wader in the world with a sideways bent bill!
Grey Teal (click to enlarge)

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".

Kaikoura peninsular
The first morning saw us exploring the cliff top path from the car park at the northern end of the peninsula, which provided our first Variable Oystercatchers and Red-billed Gulls. There were several White-fronted Terns offshore as well, and the views were specular in a brief spell of good weather. Exotics such as Skylark and Yellowhammer were also very evident. In the late afternoon, after the pelagic we visited the southern section, from South Bay where there was an estuary with White-faced and Reef Herons as well as more Red-billed Gulls.

Red-billed Gull
Spur winged Plover
Red-billed Gull (click to enlarge)
Spur winged Plover

Two hour albatross pelagic
On our first day, we went on a standard 2hr albatross pelagic, which gave us superb close encounters with albatrosses, petrel and shearwaters. There were nine passengers on this trip, so getting one of the prime spots at the rear of the boat for photography was important. On the way out, we saw a few passing highly localised Hutton's Shearwaters and after only about half an hour, the skipper Gary, stopped the boat and tossed out a tethered package of "albatross food". The birds then began to appear as if by magic, and I took masses of photos with the DO lens, concentrating mainly on flight shots - not easy as these huge birds were often too close, and the boat was bobbing around. Still, I was happy with a small percentage of them shown below. The dominant species on the food was Wandering Albatross, with the supremely ugly Northern Giant Petrels a close second. There were also plenty of Salvin's Albatrosses around and a supporting cast of Cape and Westland Petrels.

Wandering Albatross
Wandering Albatross
Wandering Albatross (click to enlarge)
Wandering Albatross
Salvin's Albatross
Wandering Albatross (click to enlarge)
Salvin's Albatross (click to enlarge)
Salvin's Albatross Salvin's Albatross
Salvin's Albatross (click to enlarge)
Salvin's Albatross Salvin's Albatross
Salvin's Albatross (click to enlarge)

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 pelagic
On our second day, we went on a longer than normal 4hr pelagic starting at 9am. I had requested this several months in advance, and Albatross Encounters were happy to add it to their schedule. In the event, there wasn't a problem with minimum numbers, so the trip went ahead as planned. This pelagic went considerably further offshore than the standard trip and produced a few additional species. Needless to say I was again busy with the camera at back of the boat. This time, we were
able to compare both Northern and Southern Royal Albatrosses, and had brief views of passing Grey-headed, Sooty and Buller's Shearwaters. There was also the southern sub species of Cape Petrel.

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.

Northern Royal AlbatrossNorthern Royal Albatross

Northern Royal Albatross (click to enlarge)
Southern Royal Albatross Northern Giant Petrel
Southern Royal Albatross (click to enlarge)
Northern Giant Petrel (click to enlarge)
Cape Petrel Southern Cape Petrel
Cape Petrel (click to enlarge) Southern Cape Petrel (click to enlarge)
White-chinned Petrel White-chinned Petrel
White-chinned Petrels
Hutton's Shearwater Westland Petrel
Hutton's Shearwater (click to enlarge) Westland Petrel (click to enlarge)

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.

Hinau Track
Inland from Kaikoura, there are some impressive snow capped mountains with some natural forest on their lower slopes. A DOC leaflet had a couple of short walks in this area. After the 4hr pelagic above the weather deteriorated further, but we persevered with a wet walk along the short (1km) Hinau track, hoping for forest birds. Given the awful conditions it wasn't surprising that little was showing and the only endemic passerine we found was a single Fantail (subsequently seen frequently). There was also some song from invisible Bellbirds.

Picton area
We spent only 1 night near Picton, just enough time to go on the Dolphin Watch Ecotours Birdwatchers trip in Queen Charlotte Sound, landing on Motuara Island. When booking this, make sure you specify you want a birders trip, as it is often combined with the standard tourist cruise. But if there are any real birders on board, the schedule is optimised for them!

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!

King Shag
King Shag
King Shag
Pied Shag Australasian Gannet
Pied Shag (click to enlarge)
Australasian Gannet
Fluttering Shearwater Weka
Fluttering Shearwater Weka (click to enlarge)

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.

Variable Oystercatcher
California Quail
Variable Oystercatcher (click to enlarge) California Quail

The next morning we drove to St Arnaud via the bendy Queen Charlotte Sound Drive to Havelock. Along this road, there were several NZ Pigeons. At Cullen Point we stopped to admire the scenery in fine weather and found a very tame pair of California Quail pottering around. We then decided to take a track that said it was a one hour loop. This was a pleasant walk which went down to the Sound and round the headland - and took considerably more than the stated 1hr! It provided good views of Silvereye, Fantail and also Pied Oystercatcher on the shore.

Later on, nearer to St Arnaud, we had our first Black-fronted Terns over bare fields next to route 63.

St Arnaud
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.

Grey Warbler
Grey Warbler Bellbird

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!

Kea (click to enlarge)

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!

Banded Dotterel
Banded Dotterel (click to enlarge)
Tui - for once out in the open
Mt Tasman
Fox Glacier
Sunset over Mount Tasman, from the High Peaks Hotel
The upper slopes of the Fox Glacier - the speck on the right is a helicopter!

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.

Fiordland Crested Penguins (click to enlarge)
Fiordland Crested Penguins
Fiordland Crested Penguins
More Fiordland Crested Penguins
Australasian Crested Grebe
NZ Scaup
Australasian Crested Grebe
NZ Scaup (click to enlarge)

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.

NZ Redcoat Damselfly
Lancer Hawker
NZ Redcoat Damselfly
Lancer Hawker

Haast Pass & Queenstown
Haast Pass is a site for non-introduced Yellowhead, and seemed well worth a stop during our drive from Lake Moeraki to Queenstown. Arriving in the early afternoon there was however little birding activity during our walk along the Bridle track which is on the east side of the road. We eventually reached a viewpoint after having descended quite a long way. On our return, birds were more obvious but it wasn't until I was almost back at the car (within 5 mins of it, maybe less!) that I was very surprised to see a Yellowhead right by the track almost at eye level. Unfortunately the camera was in the rucksack, and the bird had moved off before I had it deployed. Other birds in this general area (within about 400m of the road on the east side of the Pass) included Tomtit and Rifleman - so clearly a good spot.

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.

Te Anau
Te Anau was our base for 3 nights.

Doubtful Sound Cruise
For our Doubtful Sound Cruise, we were fortunate to have a fine, albeit cool day (2 C at the start!). We went on the one day trip with Doubtful Sound Cruise, who I think have smaller numbers on each tour than the other main operator, Real Journeys. Arriving earlier than necessary at the departure point of Manapouri (they tell you to arrive by 07:30, but the boat didn't leave until at least 08:00), there was some compensation in the form of moderately obliging Kingfisher on the posts by the jetty. Thereafter birds that day were sparse, but not without interest, including 2+ Keas from the viewpoint over Doubtful Sound (where the coach stops), and Fiordland Crested Penguins on rocks near the mouth of the Sound, and also in the water about 2/3 of the way along. The approach road to the Sound also had Tomtit and Grey Warbler - seen on the stops the coach makes on the return.

The scenery was also spectacular and the setting very peaceful and relaxing, though the surrounding mountains were lower than we had expected.

NZ Robin
NZ Robin (click to enlarge)

Route 94 towards Milford Sound
On the day of our scheduled Milford Sound cruise we were dismayed to find that the only access road was to be closed all day. Apparently heavy rain some time ago had loosened some rocks above the road and there was a real risk of a further rock fall that day due to the forecast heavy rain, which duly arrived later on.

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 taken.

Te Anau Wildlife Centre
This only has captive birds, but we paid it a brief visit as it was the only way we were going to see a live Takahe, and other difficult natives such as Morepork. The Parakeets comprised only Red-crowned.

Stewart Island
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!

Kaka (click to enlarge)

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.

Ulva Island
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.
NZ Robin
NZ Robin (click to enlarge) Yellowhead

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:

Mottled Petrel
Cook's Petrel
Mottled Petrel Cook's Petrel
Brown Skua
Sooty Shearwater
Brown Skua (click to enlarge)
Sooty Shearwater
White Capped Albatross
White Capped Albatross
White-capped Albatross (click to enlarge) White-capped Albatross (click to enlarge)
White Capped Albatross
Royal Albatross
White-capped Albatross (click to enlarge) Southern Royal Albatross (click to enlarge)
Northern Giant Petrel

Northern Giant Petrel (click to enlarge)
These are all White-capped Albatrosses!

Otago Peninsula
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.

Penguin Place
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!

Yellow-eyed Penguin
Yellow-eyed Penguin
Yellow-eyed Penguins at Penguin Place (click left to enlarge)
Yellow-eyed Penguin
White-faced Heron
Yellow-eyed Penguin at Sandfly Bay  (click to enlarge) White-faced Heron

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!

Black Swan
Pied Stilt
Black Swan
Pied Stilt
Purple Swamphen
White-faced Heron
Purple Swamphen (click to enlarge) White-faced Heron  (click to enlarge)

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.

Blue Penguin
Blue Penguin at night

Return to Christchurch airport
From Otago, we headed north along SH1 towards our overnight stay in Ashburton, en-route back to Christchurch airport and our long flight home. We stopped for a picnic lunch at Shag Point where it was blowing a gale. There were plenty of Spotted Shags flying past, some very close, and we had our best views of Stewart Island Shags on some rocks just offshore. There was little else of note birdwise that day, though the tourist site of Moeraki Boulders was worth a visit - strange round rocks on the beach called concretions. 

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.

Spotted Shag
Stewart Island Shags
Spotted Shag at Shag Point!
Stewart Island Shags at Shag Point!
Silvereye (click to enlarge)

Accommodation Details

Place Comment
Aspen Court Motel, Kaikoura Motel on the seaward side of SH1. Our upstairs room at the back was spacious and well equipped. It had distant views of the sea beyond a railway line, and there was access to the deserted beach nearby. Balcony was good for breakfast when warm enough. Inconvenient basin and some traffic/train noise and some distance outside the town. Somewhere more central overlooking the bay might have been better.
Bay View Motel Waikawa, nr Picton
Nice motel outside Picton in a splendid setting. Grass down to the bay straight from the room with Kingfisher, Spoonbills etc! Parking directly outside the room. Restaurants in Marina about 10mins walk away. Very quiet at night. Recommended.
Alpine Lodge, St Arnaud
Hotel right by road but well set back so no problems with noise. Good food in restaurant. Apparently Kaka can fly over early morning but we didn't see any. There was an interesting marshy area outside our room devoid of bird interest, but Tui and Bellbirds were around. Fine one night stopover in scenic area - skiing in winter!
Arthur's Pass Wilderness Lodge, nr Arthur's Pass
Situated up a remote sideroad well outside Arthur's Pass. Magnificent panorama from our mountain view room (free upgrade). Spacious room with small balcony. Food for dinner and breakfast very good - both included in the room price. Communal dining is encouraged - there were 6 others when we stayed (4 from the USA and 2 Brits). We didn't have time for any of the half day or longer excursions (extra cost) and regretted not going on the complementary pre-breakfast walk which had NZ Falcon and Yellow-crowned Parakeet (but both were v. lucky sightings). Expect to pay substantially more than a typical motel for all this.
High Peaks Hotel, Fox Glacier
Spacious room but with view only of car park, compensated for by restaurant (food on request only) which had splendid views of Mounts Cook and Tasman - cloud clearing as we ate dinner on our first night there. Friendly proprietors. Dinner was good. Recommended.
Lake Moeraki Wilderness Lodge, West Coast
This was more of a true wilderness lodge than their other one at Arthur's Pass and was a great success. Splendid situation by the river coming out of Lake Moeraki, surrounded by rain forest. Very good food. Good birds in grounds/nearby - Fiordland Crested Penguin (good photo opportunities), Fernbird (Kayaking on Lake Moeraki), NZ Falcon over lodge, Shining Cuckoo, Tomtit, NZ Pigeon, Fantail, NZ Scaup in grounds. My wife enjoyed the challenging physical excursions (additional cost) while I birded. A 2 night stay is almost essential to enjoy all this, but is costly. Recommended.
Scenic Suites Apartments, Queenstown Amazing value - extensive suite with separate lounge/kitchen and bedroom. The kitchen even included its own dishwasher, washing machine and tumble drier! Very helpful staff. Free underground garage. Restaurant available for dinner and breakfast but we didn't try it. Very steep walk down into the city was only drawback.
Fiordland Lake View Motel, Te Anau Well equipped room with car parking right be door. Good view of the lake from the lounge area. Full kitchen and helpful staff who found us somewhere else to stay when our stay in Milford Sound had to be aborted due to the closed road.
Stewart Island Lodge, Oban, Stewart Island
Bit of a mixture. This was supposed to be something of a luxury lodge, but didn't really seem to be that. It had fine views of the bay (into which Albatrosses sometimes come), and the surrounding bushes attracted Kaka, Red-crowned Parakeets, Tui, Silvereye etc. Had a nice terrace area with tables but the breakfast was only continental and self service (including clearing away) at that! No restaurant for dinner - need to go into Oban for that. Very steep (but short) walk up from the village (5 mins from the centre, or 10 mins from the pier).
Portbello Motel, Portbello, Otago Peninsular
Another good motel with nice views of Otago Bay from our room, with parking right outside. Small kitchen but fine. Very helpful and friendly English owners. Local eateries within walking distance.
Taylors Motel, Ashburton Booked at last night for an overnight stay en-route to Christchurch. Adequate upstairs room, but no scenic view here of course. Some road and rail noise. Ate over the railtrack at a bistro/burger type place (very busy on a Friday night in the run up to Christmas!).

© All pictures copyright Stephen Burch 


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