February 27th–March 1st, 2020: A wonderland of endemics from a predator-free island to an incredible shorebird preserve
After about a month hiatus, I’m excited to get back to the weekly blog! My wife and I were in New Zealand for 3 weeks and, after sorting through tons of photos and getting used to the post-trip self-isolation (thanks, COVID), I’m excited to share some highlights. True to form, I’ll highlight only one bird in each of the 4 parts of this trip report. But don’t expect me not to talk about all the other wonders of New Zealand! You can also expect my NZ posts to be considerably longer than usual.
If you have any questions or if you’d like more info for a future New Zealand trip. Let me know in the comments! =)
Day 1, February 27th: Shakespear Regional Park
After arriving at 5:30AM, grabbing our rental car (and constant companion for 3 weeks), and settling into that left-side-of-the-road business. We headed around an hour north to Shakespear Regional Park.
I know what you’re thinking. And yes, it’s spelled without an “E” at the end. Shakespear Regional Park is around an hour north of Auckland and seemed like a nice place to take a load off and relax, hike, and/or swim. As it turned out, we did all three…and birded of course.
Shakespear is really a stunning park, located out on a peninsula north of Auckland. It has a lot of trails, camping, and beach. Bird-wise it was great because of a mix of grassland (very dry in the current drought), coastal, and woodland habitats.
We were pretty exhausted after the flight, so we took our time getting our bearings in the car. I saw my first new birds of the trip as we drove slowly through parts of the park. Our first stop was at the northern coast, where we dug into some breakfast.
No sooner had we stopped, then I looked out over the water to see thousands of shearwater, terns, gulls, and cormorants! I cracked out the scope (which I was so glad to have brought) and started to soak it all in: I was on an island in the middle of the ocean, staring at pelagic birds from a random parking lot. Life was good. =)
The shearwater were all Fluttering Shearwater. But there were a mix of other species with or near to them. The Silver (Red-billed) Gull were the next most common. They’re the most numerous gull you’ll see down there, hanging out on rooftops in town, and eating garbage. Sadly, despite their apparent abundance, they are highly endangered because of their reduced breeding areas.
Kelp Gulls (the locals call them Black-backed), White-fronted Tern, Great Cormorant, and Pied Cormorant were all part of the feeding frenzy. Perhaps most exciting (though I’ve seen them often before), was a Parasitic Jaeger that streaked through the fray harassing some of the terns.
After soaking up the amazing sight of so many birds feeding just offshore, I had to remind myself to go eat something… Okay, I promise I will right after I have a look at these Australian Magpie over here…
We drove a little further into the park, first crossing paths with an Australasian Swamphen (an abundant, purplish-blue, marsh chicken) and pausing to have a look at the some of the open grassland.
The fields were pretty full of the swamphens (despite looking sere in the drought), but also held several Masked Lapwing and a few Rock Pigeons for good measure.
Moving on, we came to camping area: open lawns with some isolated copses of native trees as you approach the beach.
Here were many of the introduced species I’d see lots of on the trip: Common Myna (North Island only), European Starling (also only North Island really), House Sparrow, Eurasian Blackbird, Song Thrush, European Goldfinch, a Spotted Dove calling in the distance.
I didn’t turn up many shorebirds here. But a Variable Oystercatcher gave me a great view and some Welcome Swallows turned up to give me just that!
After realizing we’d get scorched in the increasing heat, we headed for some hiking trails in the wooded area of the park. This was the first time we came across a fenced and gated enclosure, where we had to scrape off our boots and step onto a grate that sprayed them to keep out invasive bugs, seeds, etc.
And wow did things ever pick up once we left the 27-degree sunshine and hit the shade. Unfamiliar, native birdsong was everywhere and pouring into my ears for the first time. Is there any experience like that? It’s dizzying when you’re not sure what it all is, but thrilling because of the auditory puzzles and mysteries to be solved.
In the next 20 minutes, I saw several more endemics. The elegant and portly New Zealand Pigeon:
A chatty, spunky, and incessant New Zealand Fantail:
Some wacky and extravagantly vocal Tui:
And several skulky, loquacious Whitehead way back in the brush:
Other colourful surprises were Sacred Kingfisher, Eastern Rosella, and Silvereye.
The real treat was on the way back though. My wife spotted a medium-sized brown and black bird on the ground. A North Island Saddleback! They’re doing better now and reestablishing footing on the NZ mainland, but I wasn’t expecting to see one today!
And we didn’t just get good looks! It also performed it’s characteristic “laugh” (probably my favourite bird sound of the trip), posed briefly, and hopped around so close I could barely focus on the thing. I’d been told that birding was comparatively “easy” in NZ, but this was nuts!
Thinking I’d better have a quick look into a reedy-looking area before we left, I peered across a very small marsh. It was the only habitat like it that we found in the park. Despite there being only a tiny visible area of stagnant water and some mud, there were a couple of Paradise Shelduck, a White-faced Heron, and two Brown Teal! The latter is a very uncommon endemic, easily identified at distance by its white eyering. Wow. This was great stuff (eBird list).
I thought I’d better give this lonely wet spot another couple of minutes to see if anything else was around. And I swear the thought was barely formed when a Spotless Crake walked right out into the open. A rail in the open?? This must be New Zealand!
It was a lot of excitement for one morning. After some lunch and a quick dip to cool off, we drove back to Auckland for an early check-in downtown and a good night’s rest.
Day 2, February 28th: Tiritiri Matangi
If you ever find yourself in New Zealand, you simply must go to Tiritiri Matangi. But only after you thoroughly clean your boots and check your gear for insects, lizards, mice, etc. It’s possible to stay overnight on Tiritiri (for the kiwi), but I already was too late to book when I tried 4 months ahead of time.
We took the ferry early in the morning from downtown Auckland. It was a beautifully calm morning. As usual, I seemed to be about the only person actually looking for wildlife. (I don’t mean to be negative, I’m just a little puzzled at how many people seem either to not care or, more often, seem to expect that someone else will point it out. I mean, you won’t see anything if you don’t look…) Anyway, that changed when I started pointing out penguins. There were loads of them in the water that morning: all Little (Blue) Penguin. I counted 40 of them, plus a few other new seabirds (Australasian Gannet, Flesh-footed Shearwater, and Little Pied Cormorant) by the time we arrived at Tiritiri.
Tiritiri was truly something else. It was incredibly hot, yes. And many of the trails were exposed. But there was dense old-growth forest too, towering cliffs, open grasslands, beaches, and always the ocean lapping at the craggy, ostentatious outcroppings along the shoreline.
Bird-wise it was out of this world. The second we stepped into the forest, it was cacophony.
Sure, it was mostly New Zealand Bellbirds (I counted 91 on the island, conservatively). But Tui, North Island Saddleback, and Whitehead were happily singing away all over the island.
I was most excited about a few birds, for which Tiritiri would be my best and possibly only chance: Stitchbird, North Island Robin, New Zealand Fernbird, South Island Takahe, and North Island Kokako.
We saw all of them in the first hour! It was crazy! The Stitchbird are a somewhat understated, mostly black-and-white passerine with a splash of a bright yellow bib on the males.
The North Island Robin is an unassuming bird. And one that’s amazingly confiding if you’re patient.
The two New Zealand Fernbirds I “saw” were nothing more than a flash of brown with a stripy face in the bracken. They were incredibly skulky, despite my patience. But I was still thrilled to see them!
The South Island Takahe were where they were supposed to be, in two spots on the island. They even had young with them, which was a special treat.
I should take a moment to note that when one sees “wild” birds in New Zealand, the term often has to be used a little differently. It’s not like they’re clipping their wings or forcing them to stay. But, when you’re relocated and you’re flightless, that’s that. When there are lots of feeders out for you, it’s probably pretty hard to leave too.
But conservationists are quick to note that the feeders encourage them to stay in a place where either fences (as at Zealandia and Orokonui sanctuaries) or water (as at Tiritiri Matangi and Ulva islands) keep predators away. Stoats (Ermine), rats, possums, and feral cats love to eat the birds and their eggs. Such precautions seem sensible to me, and we got used to seeing mammals traps all over the place. They’re really working hard to protect their native wildlife.
Anyway, I spent some time appreciating that these Takahe were, at some point, moved from the Murchison Mountains near Te Anau at the south part of the South Island. This was where they were found after being thought to be extinct. From that population, they’ve established several protected areas for these beautiful, fat, dinosaur chickens.
The only other bird on today’s wish list was the North Island Kokako. We were walking through dense forest when I thought I might have heard one and my wife pointed way up: “What’s that!?” I might have swore I was so excited…I don’t remember. But there it was…
It was singing away; sounding like the syllables “Ko-ka-ko” run through one of Daft Punk’s voice modulators before the drop. What a sound! And there was it’s mate. I couldn’t believe it. The sound was oddly tough to locate initially. I had thought it was further away and couldn’t believe it when my wife pointed just above us. They even let me take a short video:
The Kokako, also called “Blue-wattled Crow” (though it’s not a corvid), were common only 100 years ago. But the usual culprits (habitat destruction and introduced predators) made quick work of them starting in the mid-1900s. Such quick work that the South Island Kokako is extinct. Kokakos are a particularly easy target because of their long 50-day egg incubation period. But with renewed efforts in habitat protection and pest trapping, the North Island species is rebounding in some of the North Island’s old-growth forests. They’re still easiest to see on Tiritiri.
Needless to say, I was pretty excited, happy to have already at least had glimpses of all of the birds I’d hoped to see today (except the tiny Rifleman and Tomtit), and looking forward to hiking the rest of the island.
One of the things that Tiritiri seems to instill in everyone is an appreciation for nature. There was a lot more than just birds and I know I barely scratched the surface.
We had stunning views of all sides of Tiritiri as we pretty much exhausted the entire trail system before our late afternoon ferry back to Auckland.
By the time we boarded the boat, we’d seen loads of other birds. The plethora of Red-crowned Parakeets and a quick flyover by a Long-tailed Koel (an endemic species of cuckoo) were two of the other highlights on a long eBird list.
Time for another beautiful ferry ride at the end of an amazing day!
Day 3, February 29th: Pukorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre, etc.
I was excited to link up with an exceptionally skilled birder from BC: Russell Cannings. He was a good friend of some of my good friends for many years before moving to New Zealand. Sadly, he’d departed BC back before I was really even a birder, so I’d never met the guy. Time to fix that!
We met up at the Pukorokoro Miranda Shorebird Centre, located on the southwest side of the Firth of Thames. (Try common up with a more British name than that!) Even as I approached the preserve, I could see thousands of Bar-tailed Godwit in small pools on the roadside, occasionally taking to the air in huge numbers. Funny to think how exciting it is to see just one of these birds in Vancouver, when there were probably 10000 of them here.
Russ met me with a smile and an obvious local’s knowledge and experience. We didn’t have to walk far to get to the first of a few hides. Scopes set up, I set to IDing the birds I could see. But not as fast as Russ was pointing them out. He knew all the local birds (and birders) like the back of his hand and spent most of his time trying to find some rarer ones (as any good shorebirder does).
We managed this with Lesser Sand-Plover, an uncommon migrant widespread across Asia. We were scouring the mudflats for this guy (who’d been kicking around for a little while) and both came to it in our scopes at the same time. The Lesser Sand-Plover is just a little grayer, with a less upright posture than the common Double-banded Plover, but it was easy enough to pick out. Still, I’m not sure I would have turned it up without Russ’s reminder on the field marks. Thanks, Russ!
But I’m getting ahead of myself here. Even the abundant Double-banded Plover were new for me! They are, after all, one of the native New Zealand birds shared only with Australia (where I’ve never visited).
There was an amazing, colourful carpet of birds all across the flats, many of them new to me. There were tons of South Island Oystercatcher, Pied Stilt, 3 Far Eastern Curlew, and a good 2500 of the incredibly strange Wrybill. The latter is a small shorebird with a bill that curves to the right, and only to the right. There has not been a single documented case where a bill curves to the left. This is unlike crossbills, where the top mandible (or maxillary rostrum if you’re fancy) can cross to the right or the left in different birds. A very cool example of external asymmetry, quite uncommon in the natural world.
There were lots of other great birds that I’ve managed to have seen somewhere else before. Sharp-tailed Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone, Pacific Golden-Plover, Bar-tailed Godwit, Red Knot, and Caspian Tern.
On top of that were a few more native New Zealanders that were new to me. There were Royal Spoonbill, Black-billed Gull (now one of the most endangered gulls in the world), Black Swan, and Gray Gerygone (eBird list 1, list 2). The last is a ubiquitous warbler that you hear everywhere in NZ.
Pukorokoro definitely lived up to the hype! It’s hard to find a better all-round shorebirding spot in New Zealand. I was very glad to have had some time there with Russ.
There was still lots in our day after the shorebird centre, but not much birding. We headed up to Cathedral Cove for a short hike and some views.
I did encounter a few more new New Zealand birds that have been introduced to the island. There were lots of Common Chaffinch and some California Quail with adorable fledglings, among others (eBird list).
After Cathedral Cove we headed down the coast to stay overnight in Tauranga. On the drive, I managed to spot some other introduced birds: Eurasian Skylark, Wild Turkey, and Ring-necked Pheasant.
Day 4, March 1: Rotorua and Te Puia
After a quick scope of the bay from the hotel (eBird list) and the call of an African Collared-Dove (you probably figured out they’re not native), we headed for Rotorua. Today was our first day to learn about and experience some of Maori culture and do some short walks around geothermal hotspots.
As we got to Rotorua, we stopped at Sulphur Point to quickly scope Lake Rotorua. This is one of the best spots in the area for freshwater birds.
And I wasn’t disappointed. The lake was loaded with birds, including a few exciting new endemics!
New Zealand Scaup were the most numerous.
But there were also Gray Teal, Little Black Cormorant, and some elegant New Zealand Grebe with young (eBird list).
After Sulphur Point we headed down to Te Puia to see a Maori cultural performance and tour the museum. Both were excellent! The performance was particularly captivating and, even to an outsider, the performers’ skills were evident. They performed a welcome (video below), ballads, numerous varied songs and dances, and of course the famous Haka (you might know it as the aggressive-looking dance the New Zealand All Blacks perform before games).
The museum also houses part of an arts apprenticeship program, so we were able to see Maori creating traditional works of art right there and learn about how skills unique to their tradecraft.
Te Puia also has several geysers, bubbling mud, and boiling pools that were fascinating on their own.
But they became more compelling when we learned how the Maori, who had settled the area hundreds of years ago, used them to cook in different ways.
After Te Puia, we enjoyed a nice afternoon walk in a California Redwood forest (not really any birds in the non-native trees). Then we headed to Taupo to try to work off the rest of the jet lag before tomorrow’s hike.
Check out Part 2 of my New Zealand Trip!