March 8th–11th, 2020: Mt. Aoraki, Dunedin’s Royal Albatross Centre, and Stewart Island
Day 11, March 8th: Mt. Aoraki/Mt. Cook and Hooker Valley Track
We spent the early morning in Christchurch, appreciating how much this city has been revitalized since the devastating earthquake in 2011. You can still see empty lots downtown in odd locations.
But these are easily balanced by a very walkable downtown, many modern buildings, and a bustling nightlife.
We left Christchurch for a big driving day: we were headed to Mt. Aoraki (Mt. Cook) for the amazing view, some hiking, and some leggy black birds. Black Stilt really only live up there in the mountain lakes: nowhere else in the world, and rarely anywhere else in New Zealand. There are hybrids with the Pied Stilt around the islands, but only 93 “pure” Black Stilt remain in the wild.
We stopped at a few viewpoints and I looked for the stilts at each. First was Lake McGregor.
It’s a beautiful stop along the west side of the much larger Lake Tekapo. And it’s a good spot for the Black Stilt, but I didn’t see any here. The lake was loaded with other birds though, and I had my first views of Great Crested Grebe in New Zealand (eBird list).
Next, we swung around the south side of Lake Pukaki. We paused for an amazing view of Mt. Aoraki at the base of the lake. Or, at least, it would have been an amazing view if it hadn’t clouded over and started pouring. There was a small interpretive centre where we stopped though, so we could see images of how stunning the view was supposed to be. =/
Heading up the west side of Lake Pukaki, I kept my eyes peeled for any rocky rivulets emptying into the lake. We stopped a few times to scope here and there, and once to have a good long scope out across the Tasman delta. There sure were lots of birds out there…but I couldn’t find any of the 93 Black Stilt. I was sad not see them, but glad that conservation efforts are still going strong. I consoled myself with the first Lesser Redpoll I’d seen on the trip as they busily foraged in shrubs on the mountainsides.
When we arrived at our hike for the day, the rain had let up a little, but the clouds appeared to stay firmly in place. Still, Hooker Valley track was a great little trail. It’s a pretty flat 10k out-and-back across several suspension bridges.
Bird-wise I didn’t see a ton. But a few new ones showed up! A Yellowhammer (a species of Eurasian finch) popped up out of the scrub and several more Lesser Redpoll were foraging in a small flock.
Plus, I finally had good looks at a Tomtit. And the South Island subspecies is even more beautiful than the northern one (in my opinion). The South Island male’s colour palette is the same as the Stitchbird in broad strokes: black back and bib, white belly and part of the wings, and bright yellow fringe at the base of the bib that makes it look like it’s caught fire in the most astonishing way. These little guys zip around like crazy. But, if you take a moment to really look, you won’t be disappointed. Sadly, I couldn’t snap any photos with the long lens on a rainy hike.
The trail’s end is a stunning viewpoint overlooking Hooker Lake, which ends in an imposing glacier. The whole area appeared to be ringed by towering glacier-covered peaks. I say “appeared” because it remained cloudy and rainy, but we were permitted occasional glimpses of the lofty peaks surrounding us. It was a stunning hike, regardless (eBird list)!
A little more driving (pushing 10 hours today) and we arrived at our overnight spot in Omarama. Anywhere between Twizel and Omarama makes for amazing stargazing, and staying in Omarama cut down on our drive the next day.
Day 12, March 9th: First day of Dunedin and Taiaroa Head
We arrived in Dunedin for lunch after a nice drive along the shore. Our timing and full day of other activities made it impossible to visit the Orokonui Ecosanctuary north of Dunedin. It made me quite sad to miss it: it’s the newer counterpart to Zealandia on the South Island and very much worth a trip if you can squeeze it in.
After enjoying a great lunch and a walk around downtown Dunedin, we headed out along Taiaroa Head (head = peninsula). I set up the scope on a beach to watch for birds returning home to roost as the sun set. My primary hope was penguins, but I struck out there. However, I got lucky and saw several White-capped Albatross following small fishing craft right into the shallows and to port! With the tide ebbing rapidly, I was also able to feast the scope on tons of shorebirds on the appearing mudflats. Nothing new to me, but I sure wasn’t getting bored (eBird list)!
With our rapid pace the past several days, it was nice to turn in early at our lovely cottage in the small town of Portobello.
Day 12, March 10th: Taiaroa Head and Royal Albatross Centre
Today presented some serious excitement. 1) A visit to the Royal Albatross Centre in the morning. 2) Some non-birding fun in the afternoon, including a lovely high tea at Larnach Castle. 3) Sandfly Bay at dusk to watch for the very rare Yellow-eyed Penguin returning to roost. 4) And finally, back to the Royal Albatross Centre’s lower beach at night to see some adorable Little Penguin coming home.
1) Wow. The Royal Albatross Centre doesn’t disappoint! I started with a seawatch in the pouring rain from one of the overlooks.
I had great looks at roosting Royal Spoonbill in trees on the cliff, fur seals playing in tidal pools, several White-capped Albatross gliding past, and my first looks at the Stewart Island Shag (Otago subspecies) before we headed inside (eBird list).
The centre has a strange origin story actually. I won’t delve too deeply here, but the only reason it exists is essentially because of the army. If the New Zealand armed forces hadn’t wanted to protect this area from a potential Russian(!?) threat over 100 years ago, there would almost certainly be no albatrosses nesting on any mainland anywhere in the world. Thanks to the peninsula being safeguarded for military use (rather than developed), Royal Albatross still nest on Taiaroa Head. All other albatrosses nest on much smaller outlying islands, mostly around the Southern Ocean.
A few sentences hardly does any justice to the fascinating history of a strangely beautiful connection made between soldiers and nature, so I highly recommend you check out some history of Fort Taiaroa. At the very least, you’ll learn about some wacky anti-Russian paranoia, how some countries don’t invest all of their money in the military, and see a pretty cool disappearing gun.
And obviously the albatross are something else. The tinted viewing areas are pretty well soundproofed, so you and your guide can converse in high proximity to the albatrosses. But no yelling!
Royal Albatross average only slightly smaller than Wandering Albatross with a wingspan of around 3m/10ft. It was incredible to watch these behemoths soar effortlessly overhead on winds riding up the cliff faces around us.
And there were many visiting their young! Remember, these birds mate for life. It was something else watching birds around my age (the eldest couple on Taiaroa at the moment are 35 and 36 years old) land next to their cute offspring, regurgitate some food, rub beaks, preen each other, and hang out as a family.
Those fluffy, not-so-little nestlings can pass 10kg/22lbs though. That’s more than the adults. The tour actually had weighted fake albatross chicks at various stages of development for guests to hold to make the point.
Our guide was highly knowledgeable, which was lucky for him because we were the only people on his tour (pouring rain again today) and we had lots of questions.
You have to do the tour at the Royal Albatross Centre in order to see the birds, but most of the admission cost goes right into conservation anyway. It was an unforgettable experience (eBird list)!
2) Larnach Castle was nice. We had tea and tiny British sandwiches. A little bit of fun and some colonizing guilt later, we were back outside in the rain.
3) Sandfly Bay is not named for sand flies (phew). It’s called “Sandfly Bay” because it’s windy and that’s what the sand does. It’s also one of the few remaining places where, if you’re a conscientious and respectful nature lover, you might catch a glimpse of one of very few Yellow-eyed Penguin returning for the evening. Unlike the Little Penguin, these guys come home a little earlier, at dusk. But before we came, I learned that there is only one known bird roosting in the whole bay area this year. And, despite my diligent scoping, I did not see it (eBird list). I’d have to hope for one in the Stewart Island area.
4) The last stop of the day was back at the Royal Albatross Centre. And my wife was particularly excited about this one. It was around 9PM when we set out from the centre, walking quietly down the steps to the protected beach with a group of other penguin enthusiasts.
Darkness descended, but there were no Little Penguins…until a tiny glint of white belly appeared in the surf!
It would have been something straight out of a horror movie, the way it emerged out of the waves in the blackness. That is, if it hadn’t been about a foot high, with wings/flippers stuck out awkwardly to either side like a toddler. And if it hadn’t waddled, exhausted from a day of fishing at sea, up to the rounded stones that made what appeared to be the smallest of obstacles between the sand and the grassy roosting area, and then paused, forlorn. You or I could walk over these stones in two haphazard steps. Of course, you and I aren’t a foot tall with 4cm flippers instead of feet. I’d swear the adorable little guy waddled right up the beach, got to the rocks, paused, and thought, “Well, shit.”
More and more penguins started showing up. And a Sooty Shearwater’s underwing glinted for a half a second in the ambient light as it swooped in for the night (well over 1000 nest on Taiaroa Head). Then a few small rafts of 8 penguins or so appeared in the dark. They all paused at the rocks. I don’t know if I’ve ever heard so many “Aww”s (albeit quiet ones) at the sheer adorableness of the scene. And it was thrilling just to be so close to the little guys (eBird list).
The thing I remember most about seeing the Little Penguins up close was the sheer determination and force of will it took to get over those rocks, tumbling onto their little round bellies every step or two. It might be easy to overlook the effort animals expend in their day-to-day lives. Or maybe to think that it’s natural for them and therefore largely easy. It was clearly not easy. And a reminder that protecting these nesting areas is crucial to sustaining their already challenging way of life.
Day 13, March 11th: To Stewart Island!
The drive to Bluff to catch the ferry to Stewart Island was straightforward. Though we took a quick break to visit Purakanui Falls in the gorgeous Catlins Forest Park. There are many trails and sights worth visiting in the Catlins, but we had a ferry to catch!
We boarded the ferry in Bluff and I immediately headed to the back of the boat: the only outdoor viewing area. It was a small, foot-passenger-only craft that probably seated around 80.
While I very much enjoyed the views of the many smaller islands we passed on the hour-long trip to Stewart Island, there wasn’t much bird activity.
Highlights were the sheer numbers of Sooty Shearwater, White-capped Albatross, Little Penguin, and Stewart Island Shag on the crossing.
I also saw the one and only Black-fronted Tern of the whole trip. It zipped by, going the opposite direction and I only managed a glimpse (and a few rapid exposures). I had expected to see several of them along the South Island’s coast and was very happy to come across this one (eBird list).
After settling in at our backpackers hostel (things book up quickly on Stewart Island) and eating a dinner we brought with us, it was time for me to head out on one of the main reasons for coming to Stewart Island: a nocturnal walk to look for South Island Kiwi (Tokoeka).
There are a few tour operators on Stewart Island, but I opted for the Stewart Island Experiences tour. It includes guides for a small number of people and a boat tour of the area on the way to Little Glory. This is important because Little Glory is an area of private land along a peninsula that is inaccessible otherwise.
Our boat route also took us to Bench Island. This is a predator free island with no access. But when we pulled up near to the coast, we could hear a Weka calling from the shore! This was already exciting, but I knew I had a good chance of seeing them on Ulva Island tomorrow.
The real surprise was a Yellow-eyed Penguin!!!! Having looked for them for the past couple of days, I was thrilled to see one, even at distance at dusk. It was perched surprisingly high up on a sandy bluff looking out at us. I was happy to have the extra time to soak up this once-in-a-lifetime sighting, while they made sure those with less keen eyesight were able to find the bird. At close to 3x the weight of a Little Penguin, Yellow-eyed Penguins are still small, and rather tough to see with failing light.
Then we docked at Little Glory at an extremely low tide. We split into groups and followed our guides’ instructions for the kiwi walk: no speaking, shine your (weak) flashlight directly down, keep a steady slow pace, stay silent, don’t breath unless you have to, etc. It was already thrilling just listening and walking slowly in a diligent small group of kiwi hopefuls. You could feel everyone’s excitement.
A couple of Morepork called in the distance… Then we heard it: a male Southern Brown Kiwi (or Tokoeka). It was a long way off, but at least they were out and about. We kept walking, looking, listening, and pausing when our guide thought she heard something. When we arrived at the beach, we saw a red light! This was the sign that a guide had spotted a kiwi!!
The other group and their guide were on the beach. And, as we emerged from the forest, I saw the movement in the sand. A huge, shaggy muppet bird walked/trudged/loped in the sand. Stuffing its huge beak down into the ground to feel for vibrations, before pulling it back up. Then shuffling a few paces, and repeat.
All kiwi species have extremely sensitive organs in the tip of their bills that detect vibrations. So they stick them into the ground to look for food. Worms are particularly good meals, especially since there are a lot of them in New Zealand and many of them are very large. But kiwis also eat lots of insects and other invertebrates. Unfortunately, for them their nostrils are also at the tips of their bills. This means that when they jab their bills in the ground to detect food, they’re essentially forcing dirt up their nose. They then have to expel this dirt in a kind of sneeze.
Oh, and they only lay one egg. And it’s 20% of the female’s weight by the time she lays it! That’s roughly the equivalent of a human woman giving birth to a 6 year old. Of course, there are advantages to this too. First and foremost, the egg is around 65% yolk (as compared to the average of around 35–40%). This means that hatchlings have tons of nutrients to sustain them, even through the first week of their lives. By that time, young kiwi can already largely fend for themselves to the extent that kiwi parents rarely need to feed their young.
This ability for the young to defend themselves has some limits of course. Southern Brown Kiwi are listed as “Vulnerable,” but this is mostly due to habitat loss. The other major issue is the same one as everywhere in New Zealand: invasive predatory mammals: stoats (ermine), rats, possums, and cats. In the case of the pretty large Southern Brown Kiwi, none of these are an issue once they’ve grown a little. Most of the predation is of the eggs. All those yolk nutrients that feed the hatchling kiwi also feed stoats, etc. nicely. And feral cats can kill young kiwis. But adolescent and adult kiwis can fend of all of the predators in the list above. Even the cats. If you saw a kiwi’s foot and claw, you’d see how…
The Southern Brown Kiwi is one of the larger kiwis and was considered conspecific with the North Island Brown Kiwi until around 2000. I knew they were big, but I was still shocked at the size. The bird we were looking at was an adolescent male. This makes him about 2/3 the size of a fully grown Southern Brown Kiwi. Hard to believe they could be substantially bigger than him! (They can get to almost 2 feet long.) And the list of incredible kiwi facts goes go on and on. They certainly are odd and amazing creatures.
I was just in awe the whole time. I’m sure my jaw was resting somewhere on the sand below me. Here was a bird I’d been dying to see for years, foraging about 20 feet from me, oblivious to (or uncaring of) our presence. It was also around midnight and, in this remote area of the world there was very little light pollution. When I dared to look up and away from the Tokoeka, the glowing blanket of unfamiliar stars heightened the exotic, otherworldly experience. Turning right around, I was greeted by a nearly full moon cascading up the gentle tide and creeping up the pristine beach.
Once I had absorbed the stars and the moonlight, I turned back to the kiwi, and tears came to my eyes. Standing here in the dark was perhaps the closest I had ever felt to nature, the earth, the universe. I realize that probably sounds a little extreme. But you’ll have to trust me: it was one of the most unforgettable moments of my life.
Stay tuned for Part 4 of the trip, starting with Ulva Island!