Birdwatching in New Zealand – Birding Holidays

Recent surveys have placed New Zealand as one of the most desirable places in the world, and it is currently a “hot” destination with travellers. I am sure that there has been an influence from the amazing film “Lord of the Rings”. Much of this epic production was filmed in New Zealand, and it is no surprise that people have been enticed to make a visit as a result.

Little spotted kiwi by Judi Lapsley Miller / CC BY There are places in the world where you can expect to see 100 species before you stop for breakfast – but New Zealand is not in that league! In fact you would be doing well to see that many in a whole week. The thing that makes New Zealand so special is the fact that over 40 percent of the country’s land birds are found nowhere else on the planet.

Tui by Sid Mosdell from New Zealand / CC BY One of the big mistakes you can make about New Zealand is allowing too little time to see the place in comfort. In comparison to with Australia it is tiny (just 3.5% of the size!) but you will still need three weeks to do the country justice. A week in the North Island and two weeks in the South Island is about right.

A typical day can start with an amazing dawn chorus – and you will find that the species are very familiar. Blackbirds and Song Thrushes compete for your attention, while in the open countryside they are supported by Chaffinch, Greenfinch, Goldfinch, Redpoll and Yellowhammer. All of these were introduced in the late 1800s by societies to remind the European colonisers of their homeland. It is strange that they wanted to do this when New Zealand has its own endemic songbirds. A common bird of the countryside is the Tui. The adult is an unremarkable scruffy black bird with small tuft of white feathers which create a bib. But the Tui’s song is an amazingly rich mixture of fluid melodic notes combined with clicks, coughs, grunts and wheezes! Another impressive songster is the Bellbird. Again, this will not win a beauty contest, but it has a memorable whistling song.

Bell bird by Sid Mosdell from New Zealand / CC BY Any trip to the North Island is likely to take you to Auckland and from here I strongly recommend a day’s excursion to the small island of Tiritiri Matangi. This is a reserve in which the NZ Department of Conservation (DOC) has introduced endemic birds that once used to occur on remote islands around the country’s rugged coastline. Having eradicated all pests the researchers introduced species such as Saddleback, Stitchbird, Takahe, Brown Teal and Little Spotted Kiwi. The latter can only be seen if you stay overnight. To the purist these birds are not wild, but (with the exception of the flightless Takahe!) they can all fly away if they wish.

The town of Taupo is scenically impressive and is a good base to explore the middle part of the North Island. About an hour’s drive away is Pureora Forest – one of the few nesting sites of the Kokako – a crow-like bird that has a very limited distribution, being restricted to the podocarp forests in the North Island. It lives in the tree canopy and has an amazing flutey call that is impossible to describe.

Australasian gannet by Avenue / CC BY-SA A memorable photographic opportunity is offered by the colony of Australasian Gannets at Cape Kidnappers, near Napier. The colony is protected from human invasion only with a rope and so the birds are within just a few feet of you. The birds are oblivious to the tourists that stand around the edge of the colony and you can observe the intimate details of courtship, nesting, feeding and fighting in close-up. The experience is simply unforgettable – as is the stench of guano! The best time for viewing the Gannets is between early November and late February. The first chicks hatch in the first week of November and the last chicks depart the colony during May.

Blue duck by Bernard Spragg from Christchurch, New Zealand / Public domain The South Island is an interesting mixture of flat lowlands around Christchurch and rugged mountains with ice-fields in the remote interior with stunning scenery that is a reminder of the north-west highlands of Scotland. A visit to the fast-flowing rivers around Arthur’s Pass can provide you with an opportunity to see the endemic Blue Duck.

Among New Zealand’s rarest birds is the Black Stilt. Until recently this was heading for extinction due to two reasons. Firstly there was an imbalance in the ratio between males and females, and secondly the more dominant Pied Stilts have managed to infiltrate the population with the result that a number of hybrids have been created.  Fortunately the intervention of DOC has restored the balance and although still rare, the Black Stilt in now not endangered.  A good place to look for the birds is at Lake Benmore.

Northern royal albatross by JJ Harrison (https://www.jjharrison.com.au/) / CC BY-SA A magnet to all visiting birdwatchers is the Northern Royal Albatross colony at Tairoa Heads close to Dunedin. Here you can watch five or more birds incubating their one egg or – more likely – see a fluffy young chick waiting to be fed. The birds only nest in alternate years, and the period from egg-laying to fledging takes an astonishing 45 weeks!

A final recommendation is to take a boat trip out to sea from Kaikoura. This must surely rate as the world’s best sea-watch with up to eleven species of Albatross being in the waters off the east coast of the South Island, including Wandering, Shy, Buller’s, Salvin’s and Black-browed. You might also see a Sperm Whale!

More information

Population: 3.55 million
Surface area: 268,680 sq km
Amount of forestry cover: 38%
Distance from UK: 18,500 km
Birdlist (including the islands): 307 species
Endemics: 57 species

Target List in 3 weeks: 140 species

Silver Travel Advisor recommend New Zealand Sky for visits to New Zealand

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Keith Betton

Ornithologist & writer

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