March 12th–16th, 2020: Ulva Island, Milford Sound, Kepler Track, and Queenstown
One last longer post about New Zealand. (Skip to the end if you’re just interested in the trip bird list.)
Day 14, March 12th: From Ulva Island to Te Anau
I woke up early the morning after my kiwi encounter. I had to: it was time to visit Ulva Island! Ulva is nestled within a bay of the much larger Stewart Island. It’s predator free and much more like Tiritiri Matangi than Stewart Island in that it’s packed with birds and walking trails and that’s about it.
A misty rain doused us as we took a small, 20-minute water taxi from Golden Bay wharf at 9AM. We needn’t have worried about weather though. Once we set foot on Ulva the clouds lightened and the relatively dense canopy of native flora absorbed most of the rain. This also meant that I might get some decent photos today.
I had many birding “targets” here. Weka, Yellow-crowned Parakeet, Pipipi, South Island Saddleback, South Island Robin to name a few. But the most elusive and rarest bird here is the Yellowhead. It’s a lot like the Whitehead I’d been seeing all over, except that pretty much the only stable population of Yellowhead in New Zealand (and the world) is on Ulva.
We excitedly strode off onto the most densely forested trails first, getting ahead of some slower groups, and quickly felt we had the place to ourselves. Ulva was smaller than Tiritiri, so we were confident we’d cover all of the trails this morning. The place was packed with birdsong and native flora. Just like Tiritiri, but cooler. I was in heaven.
We didn’t get far before a little brown ball of feathers and fur wandered out of the woods and onto the trail: a Weka! We couldn’t believe how confiding it was. If we moved, it started and recoiled a little. But as long as we stood still, it foraged continuously, apparently oblivious. Again, no predators here: no reason to be afraid.
It turned out we’d see quite a few Weka this morning. They looked to me like a partial step on the evolutionary ladder, either toward or away from kiwi (this impression is not based on biology). Their feathers didn’t look as “furry” as a kiwi’s, but they had a similar manner about them and they look superficially similar. A lot of tourists report seeing a kiwi when it was really a Weka (I walked by someone doing exactly that today).
Immediately after taking our time viewing the Weka, I nearly stepped on a Yellow-crowned Parakeet! It was scraping at the ground with its feet, clawing up grubs and quickly nipping them up out of the dirt. I had to be within 3 feet of the little guy.
We stayed with him for ages. This is a very uncommon endemic bird. There were Red-crowned Parakeets everywhere here (as on Tiritiri). But this was the only Yellow-crowned Parakeet I ever saw. An astonishing experience, thinking back on it.
We left the flatter part of the trail and headed back toward the water and a hillier section of the island with denser, larger trees and more obvious shelter from the wind. Bird numbers picked up significantly here. There were lots of the ever-present New Zealand Fantail, New Zealand Bellbird, Gray Gerygone, Red-crowned Parakeet, and a few New Zealand Kaka.
And wait… That had to be a Rifleman! I couldn’t see it, but I could hear it about 30ft away. Then a flutter in the shade at the back of a huge, leafy tree. Then it popped into distant view for the briefest of moments and I saw all the detail I needed. Yes! These tiny little guys had eluded me the whole trip. I was pretty sure I’d heard them a few times, but they’re about as quiet as a Golden-crowned Kinglet (i.e. very quiet) and more skittish. I was so glad to have finally glimpsed one!
Several South Island Robin also started popping up. Or hopping up, really. Whenever we stopped to peer into the forest or up into the canopy a South Island Robin would hop silently out of the woods and right up to our feet.
They’re not expecting you to feed them exactly. Instead, they look around your boots to see what snacks you’ve rustled up out of the path. I even had one peck at my boot.
It had been a few hours now, so we headed back to catch the 12:15PM water taxi (every two hours) in time for lunch. We even got to spend a little time with a South Island Saddleback on the way to the ferry.
But I was disappointed not to have seen any Pipipi or Yellowhead. We didn’t bring any lunch though…
And then my wife offered to pick up lunch for me on Stewart Island and wait for me at the big ferry back to the mainland. If I caught the 2:15 water taxi from Ulva back to Stewart, I could make the connection. So yeah, I might starve. But when the heck am I ever going to see a Pipipi or a Yellowhead ever again? (The answer is “probably never.”)
So she hopped on the water taxi and I went on a mission. This was serious now. I had two hours to track down a couple of elusive birds that I knew were here, but hadn’t managed to see or hear yet. I climbed up to a viewpoint first. This was the only spot we hadn’t been on the island.
It was at the top of an incline and right near some dense, leeward forest. No sooner had I left the viewpoint than 6(!!!) Rifleman flew in and gleaned along the branches right in front of me! Okay. Consider my hopes “up.”
I heard some other chatter and looked up from the Rifleman to a small flock of other birds, further in. It took me a minute to get any of them in my bins, but once I did there was no doubt: Pipipi! These little tree creeper-like things were busily working their way through the canopy along the embankment in front of me. Their habits somewhere between a Bushtit and a Black-capped Chickadee (not looking much like either). Now, I needed to find some Yellowhead…
I knew I had a little under two hours, so I worked my way along all of the paths again, listening carefully for the trill/chatter of a small Yellowhead flock up in the canopy. That’s how they usually behave. I was down to about 30 minutes and almost back at the taxi dock when I heard it! At least one Yellowhead somewhere WAY back in the canopy.
I struggled in vain for a few minutes, trying to get a glimpse of it/them. Then a small bird with a yellow head popped into view. YES! That was it! I was mesmerized as the small flock worked their way toward me. Soon I was looking at 5 Yellowhead about 10 feet above me. It was awesome.
I was so excited that I had to share my sighting with the kind-looking British man that came up the path and asked what I was looking at. I tend to drift into “bird guide” mode and really try to help people I run into to see the amazing wildlife they might be missing. It doesn’t always work. Our conversation went something like this:
Him: “What are you looking at up there?”
Me: “There’s a few Yellowhead at the back of that tree!”
Him: “Oh yeah. We saw a ton of them on the path coming in.”
Me: (He’s thinking of a different bird.) “Oh. Um. No, I mean the really little ones with the entirely yellow head.”
Him: “Yeah, we saw tons of them, and the red-headed ones too!”
Me: (Oh. He’s thinking of parakeets and there’s no way he saw “tons” of Yellow-crowned Parakeets, so he’s mixing them up with the Red-crowned Parakeets.) “Um. No, these are smaller, like warblers. They’re really rare and hard to see.”
Him: (Still not looking at all where I’m pointing.) “Yeah, they’re great!”
Me: (Okay, I’ve tried pretty hard to show this guy the rarest birds he might ever see in his life, but I’m giving up now.) “………they sure are…”
Anyway, I had found all of my targets for the day and I was starving. Fortunately, the taxi was leaving in 15 minutes and I was nice and close. Or so I thought until I started walking. Somehow the birds had turned me around in the forest and I was actually as far as I could be from the taxi dock. So I started running. I had 15 minutes to cover an hour of trail… I was pretty sweaty and even hungrier when I got to the dock with a couple of minutes to spare. My wife sure was nice about offering to get me a lunch to go, but I don’t think she would have been happy if we’d missed the last ferry back to the mainland. Bullet dodged (eBird list).
As I walked from Golden Bay back to the Oban wharf, I kept thinking about how astonishingly good the birding was at Ulva. “That’s what it’s supposed to be like everywhere in New Zealand,” popped into my head.
Walking now along a (the?) main paved road in Oban (the main town on Stewart Island), I again saw invasive and introduced birds all over. Don’t get me wrong. I get excited about any bird, and wildlife in general. It probably shouldn’t be a simple matter of “valuing” a native life over an introduced one. At risk of oversimplifying it though: when introduced/invasive species decimate entire ecosystems, it seems like valuing a few dozen lives over thousands (or millions) of others makes the case pretty clearly. For the record, humans aren’t immune to this criticism. If you’re a little hung up on this stuff, you might check out “What’s So Good About Biodiversity?” by Donald S. Maier.
Before boarding our ferry back to the “mainland,” I had time to think about a bird I’d really hoped to see on the ferry ride or offshore: Buller’s Albatross. This is another “small” albatross, but with the most stunning matte grey features and a flame-yellow border around it’s bill that it shares with the Indian and Atlantic Yellow-nosed Albatrosses. I was sitting eating my lunch in the tiny ferry terminal and then couldn’t believe my eyes. There was a Buller’s Albatross. Sitting on the water. Right beside the dock. Where am I?! How is the birding THIS GOOD?!?
I took some photos right away, of course. But the bird didn’t even move until after we boarded the ferry and motored right past it! Amazing!
The rest of the day was transit. We saw many more Sooty Shearwater, White-capped Albatross, and Stewart Island Shag on the ferry crossing (eBird list).
After that, it was just a matter of driving up to Te Anau for the night.
Day 15, March 13th: Milford Sound
We were both incredibly excited about today: our only day in Milford Sound. Originally, we had planned for a cruise, kayaking, hiking, and viewpoints along the road out. But a few weeks ago the area got a metre(!!!) of rain in less than 3 days! It completely washed away the road and we wondered if we might have to miss Milford Sound completely (the only option was a chartered flight in). Fortunately, construction crews had been working hard and had reopened the road to twice-daily convoys of tour buses and essential travel only. We were kindly rebooked onto a tour bus and cruise, having sacrificed only our shorter hikes and kayaking.
Having a bus driver and guide had its perks too. We were able to stop at a few viewpoints we might not have.
At Mirror Lakes there was even a pair of pretty pure-looking Pacific Black Duck. Elsewhere they’d all appeared to be hybrids with Mallards. But up in the mountain lakes, there tend to be more “pure” ducks. “Pure,” in this case, being over 90% genetically. The gene pool’s pretty diluted…
And our guide had a lot of information about the area we wouldn’t have known. New Zealand guides are extremely kind and helpful. We never had a bad one and most of them were exceptionally good.
Bird-wise, I’m afraid there wasn’t much to note. We weren’t able to stop at the famed Homer Tunnel lookout to search for the smart, loquacious, and confiding Kea (parrots) or the elusive South Island Wren. Kea even hang around the parking lots and hotel in Milford Sound, but we were shuffled strait from the bus to the cruise. I was disappointed to miss both of these birds. But we were emphatically not disappointed by the views we had of Milford Sound. Actually, it’s a fjord. Milford Fjord. Say that 5 times fast.
Sounds are filled by oceans. Fjords are carved by glaciers. Milford was created by glaciers.
The cruise itself was pretty well packed with people. But it was easy to get views from all sides.
There was nothing new in terms of birds on the cruise. I was watching for Fiordland Penguin and Kea, of course. But no luck. I saw the only Great Egret of the trip on the flats from the bus though (eBird list).
Our bus deposited us back in Te Anau in the late afternoon. But our day was far from over. We took a nap back at our hotel before heading back out on another cruise in the evening.
This cruise was to the Te Anau glow worm caves, just across Lake Te Anau from the town. The sunset boat ride was lovely and the cave tour was fantastic!
There are tons of locations to see glow worms in New Zealand. Including just in a moist, covered area anywhere at night. But the caves around the country host some of the best viewing.
We loved the tour and enjoyed walking/ducking under stalactites and above roaring, cave-making water throughout the cave system. The real highlight of the tour is, of course, the glow worms. And in this tour, that meant getting on a boat with around 6 others and drifting into the pitch black…
Then it was like staring up at the night sky. First, there are only a few stars, before your eyes adjust and the sky is covered with them. Only here, it was glow worms. They were arranged in constellations only inches above our heads in places, using their bioluminescence as bait to snare a fly or rogue moth in their sticky “webs.”
It was absolutely beautiful and entirely strange from a sensory perspective. We could see literally nothing except the blue of the glow worms, the darkness was so perfect. (We later learned that the guide navigated by pulling the boat along chains.) And the roar of the water tearing through the caves was so powerful as to be almost uncomfortable. It was fascinating and a tad disorienting having three senses heavily inhibited: hearing inhibited by water, sight by darkness, and touch thrown off because we were floating.
After exiting the caves, there was a brief presentation about glow worms (New Zealand tours never miss the education component). Spoiler alert: glow worms are actually maggots. But try selling people tickets to “glow maggots.” Anyway, glow maggots only glow in their larval stage (9 months), before pupating (3 weeks), and turning into adult flies (which live for only 3 days to reproduce). The whole glow worm thing was a very unusual experience that I highly recommend!
Whew. What a day!
Day 16, March 14th: Kepler Track
All we did today was hike. It was great! We decided on doing the first part of the Kepler Track: a 30k out-and-back to Luxmore Hut. (The whole trail is a 60k circle route that starts in the southwest corner of Te Anau.)
You start in flat beachfront forest along the southwest shore of Lake Te Anau. (You can skip this part with a water taxi, but why would you do that?)
Several klicks in we started ascending through the forest. And after a little over 10k we cleared the trees.
Wow. Was it ever stunning up there. We could easily see the town and lake of Te Anau, plus mountain ranges on all sides.
When we got to the “hut,” we were amazed to find that it had two different bunk rooms, several bathrooms, and a huge kitchen and eating area. But with 20+ people all hanging around it, we had no doubt it would be well used! I got really excited when I noticed “Do not feed the Kea” signs. But, despite scouring the area and staying around for lunch, I never saw one.
We did a little extra walking for a higher viewpoint and visited the Luxmore Caves before heading back down.
I would love to go back and do the whole trail sometime. We climbed around 800m elevation today and did about 30k. But it was really quite straightforward: good trail, good weather, good rest spots, and plenty of forest birds along the way (eBird list).
Day 17, March 15th: Glenorchy and Queenstown
We started today with a beautiful drive from Te Anau to Queenstown, stopping along the way for some stunning views of the mountains and Lake Wakatipu.
After dropping our stuff at our hotel, we had a quick walk around part of Queenstown. Here, the ubiquitous (but endangered) Silver Gull of the New Zealand coasts had been replaced by the far more endangered Black-billed Gull (eBird list).
After a fantastic lunch at the famous Fergburger (which had awesome gluten-free and vegetarian options), we headed a little further northwest to Glenorchy. It’s not much as a town, but it has some lovely lake-, marsh-, and river-front trails surrounded by stark grey peaks. It reminded me a little of Grant Narrows in BC.
There wasn’t a lot of bird variety in the middle of such a hot day, with wind kicking up dust all around the valley. But we enjoyed stellar views of the area as we walked the Glenorchy Lagoon trail north of town (eBird list).
I can’t believe this was our last full day in NZ…
Day 18, March 16th: Arrowtown and out
There wasn’t time for much today. We decided to head out to the historic, quaint, gold mining village of Arrowtown, where we enjoyed a nice walk.
Next, we did some wine tasting at Amisfield Winery.
Then one last quick birding walk along Lake Hayes to look for a Baillon’s Crake that had been reported there (no luck).
Then only the planes were left: a short flight to Auckland, then right back to Vancouver (and self-isolation for two weeks).
On this last day though, I had some time to reflect on one of the most ubiquitous birds of the trip. For soundscape dominance, New Zealand Bellbird wins the prize. And what a beautiful way to dominant the soundscape. Their crystal clear, ringing song cuts through New Zealand temperate broadleaf forests like butter. Even Captain Cook took a moment to write about these “small bells most exquisitely tuned.”
We heard them outside our hotels at times, in Arrowtown today, and deep in the shade of canopies all over the 5 islands we visited. They’re visually beautiful too. Their olive/emerald green shifts with the light. They’re an almost drab-looking bird when they zip through the shade in the distance, but the sun turns them to iridescent emerald jewels with amethyst face, wings, and tail.
And these birds are actually doing well, still thriving despite so much habitat loss. If you’re looking for an uplifting evening, you don’t want to check the IUCN status of most of the birds I saw on this trip. Like any island, there is a list of extinct species a mile long. It was odd walking through such lush green forests full of bird song and knowing there should be more. It’s an eerie sensation, feeling the absence of life.
Perhaps no absence is more conspicuous than that of the Moa. There were nine species of this huge, flightless, Emu-like bird. The largest got up to 12ft tall! But they were hunted to extinction by the Maori in around 1400 (only about 100 years after they first arrived in New Zealand). What an astonishing time that must have been, watching Moa clear the leaves off of trees like a small giraffe.
In fact, part of the reason I felt the absence of the Moa is that the Lancewood Tree in New Zealand betrays their long existence. Young Lancewood trees actually evolved long thin (unappetizing) leaves with little spines on them to protect themselves from Moa.
But get this: once they reach about 12ft in height, their leaves broaden considerably to take in the nutrients they need and they start looking like a “normal” tree. They can do this because, you guessed it, their leaves are now out of reach of the Moa. So I took a moment at a Lancewood or two to think of this testament to the extinct Moa.
But at least the New Zealand Bellbird looks like it will be ringing for a long time yet.
It’s hard to believe this was not a “birding trip” in the usual sense. To be sure, my wife was extremely patient with all the birding I did do. Even if our focus was often on visiting other attractions.
Here’s a list of the 116 bird species I saw on this trip in taxonomic order with “E” for “Endemic” and “I” for “Introduced” to New Zealand (and its outlying islands). All unmarked birds are either native birds that also live elsewhere or migrant visitors.
Southern Brown Kiwi (E)
Little Spotted Kiwi (E)
Canada Goose (I)
Mute Swan (I)
Paradise Shelduck (E)
Pacific Black Duck
Gray Teal (E)
Brown Teal (E)
New Zealand Scaup (E)
California Quail (I)
Ring-necked Pheasant (I)
Wild Turkey (I)
New Zealand Grebe (E)
Great Crested Grebe
Rock Pigeon (I)
African Collared-Dove (I)
Spotted Dove (I)
New Zealand Pigeon (E)
South Island Takahe (E)
South Island Oystercatcher (E)
Variable Oystercatcher (E)
Red-breasted Dotterel (E)
Double-banded Plover (E)
Far Eastern Curlew
Black-billed Gull (E)
Black-fronted Tern (E)
Yellow-eyed Penguin (E)
Buller’s Albatross (E, breeding)
White-capped Albatross (E, breeding)
Salvin’s Albatross (E, breeding)
Royal Albatross (E, breeding)
Westland Petrel (E)
Buller’s Shearwater (E)
Fluttering Shearwater (E, breeding)
Little Pied Cormorant
Spotted Shag (E)
Little Black Cormorant
Stewart Island Shag (E)
New Zealand Falcon (E)
New Zealand Kaka (E)
Red-crowned Parakeet (E)
Yellow-crowned Parakeet (E)
Eastern Rosella (I)
New Zealand Bellbird (E)
Gray Gerygone (E)
New Zealand Fantail (E)
North Island Kokako (E)
North Island Saddleback (E)
South Island Saddleback (E)
North Island Robin (E)
South Island Robin (E)
Eurasian Skylark (I)
New Zealand Fernbird (E)
European Starling (I)
Common Myna (I)
Song Thrush (I)
Eurasian Blackbird (I)
House Sparrow (I)
Common Chaffinch (I)
European Greenfinch (I)
Lesser Redpoll (I)
European Goldfinch (I)
Well, you made it to the end. Please let me know what you think in the comments. (Too much text? Not enough photos? More non-bird detail?) I’m happy to try different things in future posts so send me your suggestions!
Also, please feel free to ask questions in the comments section. I know some of you were particularly interested in this trip report and I’m happy to provide more info to help you plan your future trip!
I’ll let this spunky little New Zealand Fantail say goodbye.