March 2nd–7th, 2020: North Island, South Island, and open ocean
Day 5, March 2nd: Tongariro Crossing
Today was our first real hike day. We like to walk, but love to hike. Tongariro Crossing is probably the best known hike in New Zealand. I should note that the NZ government is really on top of things when it comes to hiking: great websites and great info all around. And in the case of Tongariro, it was easy to find one of many shuttles to take us to one side of the one-way hike back to our car.
We started the 22km hike mid-morning, wanting to take our time to appreciate the views. (If you’re a seasoned hiker in good shape, you’ll find you can almost halve the time estimates.)
We hiked from west to east (Mangatepopo to Ketetahi). This takes you first through beautiful tussock fields to Soda Springs, a verdant oasis amid the black igneous ejecta.
Then the South Crater (which really looked Martian to me), where you’re looking across at Mount Ngauruhoe (or Mount Doom, if you like Lord of the Rings).
After that is the Red Crater with a shockingly red lava tube and scree from the sharper crater lip.
Then the Emerald and Blue Lakes, dazzling in the sun and ringed by sulphuric yellows.
And finally, back down through more tussock to the carpark, with the winding path below vanishing into the clouds.
It was pretty stunning. Only a few steep bits that were kinda scrambly. Other than that, a pretty chill hike. And we had great weather!
Bird-wise there wasn’t much to watch for. I kept my eyes peeled for Australasian Pipit, since they nest in the tussock and this was my best chance to see one.
I had no luck with the pipits, but got very lucky when a New Zealand Falcon zipped by at eye level during our descent. And I mean zipped by! I saw it for less than a second. It was so heavily shadowed I almost thought Black Falcon (a rare vagrant from Australia). I sprinted around the next corner, but never got another look at the thing. I guess I’d forgotten just how fast falcons can move (eBird list).
With the crossing behind us, we made a stop for one of the rarest ducks by far: Blue Duck. They’re another endemic and they like the mountain streams around Tongariro National Park. We stopped at a few places in Turangi, just north of the park. But no luck. That was a big miss and a bird I was really excited to see. Still, you can never see them all.
Day 6, March 3rd: Taupo to Napier
Today started with a short walk and some coffee in downtown Taupo. It’s a sweet little town on the north side of the huge Lake Taupo: the largest in New Zealand. It even has one of these…
Along the lovely waterfront, I came across more of the usual freshwater birds. New Zealand Scaup, New Zealand Grebe, Little Pied Cormorant, Black Swan, and more of the ubiquitous Mallard X Pacific Black Duck hybrids (eBird list).
We hit the road to Napier, a few hours to the east. Our first stop was at Huka Falls. Not a long drop, but a LOT of water.
We also stopped at a viewpoint for Waipunga Falls on a whim. And an Australasian Pipit was waiting at the carpark for us!
The falls were nice too…
And before we hit Napier, some Mute Swans (the only ones of the trip) kindly made themselves visible in a roadside pond.
Napier is a beautiful town straight out of the 30s. It’s more Art Deco than you’ve ever seen (assuming you’re under 90). And the town really embraces it.
There’s lots of information about the February 3rd, 1931 earthquake that created the need to rebuild. There are also before/after overlays, and even classic cars to complete the image. If you’re interested in architecture, design, and history (like my wife), you’ve got to check out Napier. We stayed at the Art Deco Masonic Hotel.
For dinner, we headed out to Mission Estate Winery. Mission Estate was originally a Mission and was also New Zealand’s first winery. The grounds and wines were wonderful. And the food was truly incredible. While enjoying our tasting and relaxing outside, I even saw some birds (eBird list).
Day 7, March 4th: Ahuriri Estuary
I knew I wouldn’t have a chance to do much shorebirding this trip, so I snuck off on my own this morning to check out Ahuriri Estuary.
It’s a pretty spot with relatively deep, snaking, tidal streams. The tide was pretty low when I arrived and there were lots of raised areas to stand and scope from. There’s also a trail around the outside.
There was more of what I saw at Pukorokoro here, but not in the same numbers of course. Still, I wasn’t in any rush, so it was nice to soak it all in. Bar-tailed Godwit were again most numerous, but there was quite a good mix of birds.
I enjoyed seeing more of the birds I’d seen a few times now. South Island Oystercatcher, Variable Oystercatcher, Pied Stilt, Pacific Golden-Plover, Royal Spoonbill, and Caspian Tern were all kicking around.
And after some careful scanning, I spotted some Red-breasted Dotterel in the distance. They’re a relatively common endemic, widespread across most of New Zealand. But they were new to me!
Then I had a nice walk on the outer trail.
I found plenty of passerines in the fields and trees, and had my best looks of the trip at the many Sacred Kingfisher at the estuary (eBird list).
I didn’t do any more birding after Ahuriri. Instead, we took the late morning and afternoon to check out Hawthorne Coffee Roastery and Elephant Hill Winery. The latter had great wine and exceptional food.
Then we were off to Wellington, stopping only for an incredibly underwhelming visit to “Rivendell” (from Lord of the Rings) in Kaitoke Regional Park. The park was a nice place to stop for a picnic and a walk. Despite the large amount of work the park had clearly put into making Rivendell come to life, it did not. I just couldn’t get excited about how the third tree from the left could be seen in the background of Scene 17. (For the record, I love the books and movies.)
The actual background for the Rivendell sequences is Norway. I looked that up: Norway is literally the antipode for New Zealand. So, while trying to appreciate a tree or two, we could not have been further from Rivendell.
Day 8, March 5th: Wellington
What a nice city. Probably my favourite city on the trip. It has everything: mountains, coffee, botanical gardens, a big wind turbine, estuaries, good food, the Zealandia Ecosantuary, the Te Papa museum, a funicular, and a beautiful harbour. Naturally, we went to everything.
There’d been a recent report of a Shore Plover (very rare endemic) at Hutt River estuary the day before. Naturally, I got up early to head there first. It was a nice spot, but no Shore Plover. I was happy to “settle” for a bunch stunning birds that I’d seen before (eBird list).
So I met back up with my wife and off we went to Zealandia. I was really excited about Zealandia. The ecosanctuary is a relatively recent effort (1999), but it was still the world’s first fully-fenced urban ecosanctuary. The fencing, however, is not like at a zoo: it’s designed to keep things out, not in. While it certainly does keep in the relocated flightless birds (Little Spotted Kiwi and South Island Takahe, for example), it mostly keeps out their invasive predators: rats, feral cats, stoats, and possums.
Their truly dizzying goal was to first build a fence around the square-mile ecosanctuary, replant native plants and eliminative invasives, and then to allow the “real” New Zealand to return over the next 500 years! A noble goal, to be sure.
Anyway, boy was it packed with life! The birds might love it even more than I did. I walked as many of the trails and habitats as I could in the couple of hours we had there. Lakefront, riparian, forest, marshland. Everything I could visit. And I saw some great birds!
There were the native and endemic birds I’d seen before: Brown Teal (the only other ones I saw the whole trip), New Zealand Scaup, New Zealand Pigeon, Little Pied Cormorant, Pied Cormorant, Tui, New Zealand Bellbird, Gray Gerygone, Whitehead, New Zealand Fantail, North Island Saddleback, Stitchbird, North Island Robin, and Silvereye.
But there were also New Zealand Kaka! And lots of them.
There are actually feeders out for these parrots at Zealandia. Not because they need the food exactly, but because it encourages them to breed and nest within Zealandia. Doing so gives their young a way better chance at life because of the lack of nest predation within.
And wow are they loud (you can hear one at the end of the video above). There were plenty of young birds around too, begging and screaming for food.
It was amazing to hear them calling from the canopy and flying high overhead. Then to see them 5 feet away as they grabbed a nut or two. It was impossible to choose just one good photo…
Zealandia also had the first cormorant roost I’d seen up close. It was almost all Pied Cormorants with their young. But there was the odd Little Pied Cormorant hanging around.
I was also happy to see more of the captive-bred South Island Takahe.
And I even managed to catch a Tui singing part of its incredible song!
Perhaps the coolest creature of all was the Tuatara. These reptiles are from the Triassic period. Yup. That’s around 240 million years ago. To put that in perspective: their lineage is about 150 million years more ancient than any of the “famous” dinosaurs you’ve heard of.
Like the South Island Takahe, the Tuatara were saved from the brink. In this case, they remained only on outlying islands and hadn’t been seen on the mainland for many years. They have been quite successful in captive breeding programs around New Zealand. This is important because they don’t mature sexually for 10–20 years and their average lifespan is around 60 years. The eldest Tuatara is “Henry.” He’s still sexually active at 111 years old! Keep up the good work little guy.
Whether you’re a birder or not, Zealandia is a must-visit! My wife will attest to that (eBird list).
We headed next to the botanical gardens. They’re a beautiful intermingling of exotic and native flora from all over.
Wonderfully planned with easygoing, wheelchair-accessible paths in some areas, and more rugged paths around the outside. And it’s all in the heart of the city. Definitely worth a visit.
We headed to the Te Papa museum after the gardens. I could write about the museum for ages. Suffice it to say: it was an incredibly well-curated, fascinating, engaging, and free experience. It’s really the national museum and it’s relatively new. There aren’t any live birds to see, but the taxidermy and natural history are excellent!
After a funicular ride, coffee (The Hangar was great and even gave us free beans!), and a bit of food later, it was sundown and I had one more thing to do today. I had to find a Little Spotted Kiwi and Morepork. (I hadn’t had any pork today; that’s the name of an owl.) It’s rather difficult to find any of the 5 species of kiwi without doing an expensive tour (or just seeing them in an enclosure). Fortunately, Russ came through again and recommended that I walk the outer fence line of Zealandia.
So I headed up into the mountains, parked the car, and headed out for a long walk in the dark. In case looking down on Wellington all lit up at night wasn’t enough, I heard 2 Little Spotted Kiwi and 3 Morepork calling within 15 minutes! That was easy. I had a very brief look into the trees for the owls with headlamp, but no luck. I was never expecting to see these birds. Hearing them was more than enough.
Day 9, March 6th: A tale of two islands…
It was the best of times. I stood on the top of the Interislander Ferry, birding for about 3 hours straight as we left the North Island behind.
I’ve always loved ferries. You get to do some seabirding, and in this case, some proper pelagic birding on open ocean, and you don’t have to get seasick for it.
Heading out of Wellington Harbour was stunning on its own.
The first Spotted Shag I ever saw also decided to accompany us out of the harbour.
As we left the hilly suburbs and harbour behind, the pelagic wildlife really kicked up a notch. I started seeing lots of Short-beaked Common Dolphin in particular.
There weren’t a ton of birds, but they were good ones. I saw a couple of Parasitic Jaeger early on. Then White-capped Albatross started showing up, and there were plenty of shearwater: lots of Fluttering, a few Sooty and Buller’s, and one Flesh-footed.
Then there were the views coming into Queen Charlotte sound. They were extraordinary! In truth, it wasn’t “better” than the BC ferries to Vancouver Island or up to the Sunshine Coast. But it was a different and at least as stunning.
Now we were in Marlborough. And when you hear “Marlborough,” you’ve got to think of wine…and maybe cigarettes and red. In any case, we availed ourselves of the local specialties. Sauvingnon Blanc is best here and happens to be my favourite white variety. I was also driving though (on the left side of the road for several more hours), so two tastings and some food were about all I could do.
We went to Rock Ferry first: a little winery that had been recommended to us when we were on the North Island. Then we visited Fromm. Both were great. And that’s all I’ll say because this is a bird blog. =P
Having indulged in some quasi-elitist palette treats, we headed to the Blenheim wastewater treatment ponds. Now we’re talking!
In fact, there are quite a lot of trails around some beautiful marshland. We didn’t really have time to explore these and it was hot and exposed anyway. I managed to find a vantage to scope the raised ponds and turned up some new birds for the trip: Canada Goose (yup, that was new), Eurasian Coot, and Australian Shoveler. The Blenheim WTP area is well worth a stop for a walk, and not at all smelly (eBird list).
Our last stop of the day was just off the highway at Lake Elterwater. This is a shallow lake, surrounded by grazing land, and some marsh. I was hoping to see the Australian Grebe that had been reported here, but didn’t have any luck.
There were tons of ducks though, including some more Gray Teal. Plus, an exciting new shorebird: Black-fronted Dotterel. They’re most easily seen in the northeast part of the South Island (Marlborough). And as it turned out, I wouldn’t see them again this trip (eBird list).
Day 10, March 7th: Kaikoura pelagic trip
I love pelagic trips. I hate pelagic trips. My feelings about them seem to go on the same journey my stomach does each and every time. The trick, I’ve discovered, is never to go on two of them too close together. That way, you only remember the lasting images of the albatrosses gliding by, and you forget about feeling truly horrible the whole time.
I was totally psyched though. Pelagics are always memorable. And I was sure today would be no different. Not only were there 5+ birds out there that I’d never seen before, there were another dozen I’d only glimpsed before (or seen off the Cape of Good Hope). We’d also always be within sight of land because the shelf drops off so close to shore. In other words, I wouldn’t have to feel sick for 8 hours: it would just be 3 and the birds would be just as good!
We got lucky too. Almost as soon as we left the shelter of the Kaikoura peninsula, we came across a small fishing boat. It was surrounded by birds, and with a little chum over the back of our boat, they decided we were just as good.
There were close to 20 Northern Giant-Petrel, but the kings of the castle were the massive Wandering Albatross. They were so close I could have reached out and touched them. And they dwarf even the Giant-Petrels.
One was particularly nasty. And there were a few of them jockeying for position nearest the chum.
I counted 11 Wandering Albatross in all: a very high number for this area.
Wandering Albatross are insanely cool. First of all, they’re albatrosses. If that isn’t enough on its own, they’re the largest albatross in the world (with the Royal Albatross averaging only slightly smaller). This also makes their wingspan the largest in the world: an average of 3 meters (or around 10 feet), with larger individuals approaching 12 feet! WHAT!? Statistically, that’s about two of you. Watching them take off and land is like watching a Hercules with folding wings and floppy feet.
Like all albatrosses, Wandering Albatross mate for life. They also breed every two years (starting between age 11 and 15) because fetching food for their single nestling is so intense, they have to take a year to replenish their bodies after the fledgling is off on its own. In fact, they need to gather enough food to get their nestling to 16kg or 35lbs! Then the young bird takes off into the wind and plummets down to the ocean, hopefully stopping just short of the water (or it will likely die) and gliding out to sea. Think: every action film involving a plane diving off a precipice and swooping up at the last minute.
Once they’ve taken off, albatrosses spend most of their life at sea. But Wandering Albatross are particularly known for just that. They sometimes circumnavigate the entire Southern Ocean in a single year. That’s 120000km (or 75000mi). So yeah, they’re pretty impressive.
We motored out a little deeper and hit another pocket of birds, including several Cape Petrel (named for the place I last saw them: South Africa).
We saw more variety here. Now there were 4 more albatross species: Salvin’s Albatross, Black-browed Albatross, Royal Albatross, White-capped Albatross.
There were more of the other pelagic bird families too: Short-tailed Shearwater, Buller’s Shearwater, White-chinned Petrel, and Westland Petrel. The latter is an endemic, relatively easily separated form the similar White-chinned Petrel, which is missing the black tip on the bill.
After a lot of pitching and tossing. Pitching and tossing. We headed around to a cormorant roost, packed with Spotted Shag.
Around the other side were some adorable Australasian Fur Seal pups.
Then we were treated to some Hector’s Dolphin feeding right next to us in a sheltered bay they like. These are the world’s smallest dolphins and I have no pictures because I’m certain I would have lost my breakfast. (But I was very pleased to be able to locate the bay again from land so my wife could see the dolphins through the scope.) We didn’t see any other cetaceans on the trip, but I was more than satisfied with these amazing dolphins!
Kaikoura Albatross Encounter was a really great pelagic that I happily recommend (there are lots of options in New Zealand). Our skipper was very knowledgeable and, even though several people on our small boat weren’t birders, they clearly had an incredible time (eBird list).
I spent the rest of the day driving and not quite throwing up as we made our way down the coast to Christchurch. Our only stop was a quick and unsuccessful one to look for Cape Barren Goose at St. Anns Lagoon (eBird list).
Wow. You made it to the end! Stay tuned for Part 3…