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ZEISS DTI thermal imaging cameras. For more discoveries at night, and during the day.

New Zealand November-December 2008: The Lost Land of the Kiwi (1 Viewer)

Andrew Whitehouse

Professor of Listening
Hmm, slightly daft title. Sorry about that. This is another one of those 'work trips' I do from time to time. Admittedly the first week isn't really work at all though. Anyway...

Day One: 23rd November 2008

Auckland and Invercargill

I arrived into Auckland at around 10:30 and stumbled over to the domestic departures terminal for my flight to Invercargill via Christchurch. The first birds were deeply familiar: House Sparrow, Starling and Song Thrush. The domestic terminal proved a bit more interesting, with distant views over the nearby mudflats. The best bird was a lovely hunting Australasian Harrier, looking sort of like a cross between male Hen and Marsh Harriers. A couple of distant Pied Shags flew over the mudflats and I also managed to ID some Spur-winged Plovers, or Masked Lapwings if you prefer to give them a less confusing name. There were quite a lots of waders on the mudflats but they were too distant to ID, and also a few Black-backed Gulls, or Kelp Gulls if you prefer to give them the name everyone else does.

I arrived into Invercargill late in the afternoon to rather warm and pleasant weather. After settling into my accommodation (at Living Space in the city centre). I headed down to the estuary for an evening walk. The clouds thickened and there were regular spots of rain, but nothing too terrible. The birds were rather good though. I walked along the path from Stead Street wharf (basically south from the bridge over the river on the city side) and there were several hundred birds either on the mud or on the rather new looking lagoon. Most numerous were Pied Stilts (or should I be calling them Black-winged?), Bar-tailed Godwits, Black Swans and Masked Lapwings. There were small numbers of South Island Pied Oystercatchers, which look an awful lot like, well, Oystercatchers. I thought they sounded subtly different though. Three immature Spotted Shags were resting by the bridge and a couple of Little Shags flew over. There were some Black Shags too, which sound exciting until you realise they’re really just Great Cormorants. A Welcome Swallow was darting about under the bridge, where it seemed to have a nest, and another Australasian Harrier glided over the grass. There were several White-faced Herons feeding at close range in the muddy creeks and small numbers of Red-billed Gulls.

One of the birds I was particularly hoping to see here was Royal Spoonbill, and I wasn’t to be disappointed. At least fifteen were scattered across the mud, most busily feeding in small groups, sweeping their bills from side to side. Rather smart birds they are too, with a deep black mask and bill. The lagoon held hundreds of ducks. Many were Mallards but there were a hundred or more Australasian Shovelers, some delicate looking Grey Teal and a few pairs of very fine Paradise Shelducks. I also saw a couple of what seemed good candidates for Grey Duck. These hybridise quite a bit with Mallards so they’re a bit tricky. I assume they derive their name not from being grey but from being a bit of a grey area. Also on the lagoon were hundreds of dainty Black-billed Gulls, looking paler and smaller than their Red-billed cousins.

Passerines were an altogether more British affair, with the trees and grassland swarming with Blackbirds, Song Thrushes, Starlings, Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Goldfinches, Redpolls, Yellowhammers, Dunnocks, Skylarks and House Sparrows. Of more interest were a few Silvereyes, with their whinnying calls. A lovely cascading whistle in the pines caught my attention and I was soon watching a pair of Grey Warblers flitting about at close range. As the night closed in, a Caspian Tern flew downstream, adding to the list of continents in which I’ve seen this bird.
I cannot wait to go back and was this time planning to explore more of south island and your descriptions have whet my appetite ...
Nice one Andrew. Looking forward to seeing what you see, as we're arriving in South Island on Dec 16. Are you going to be still around then?
Nice one Andrew. Looking forward to seeing what you see, as we're arriving in South Island on Dec 16. Are you going to be still around then?

Sadly I shall be on my way home around then. Hope you have as good a time as I've been having.

In answer to Martin's question, I think my year list is a little bit over 1100 at the moment. Apologies for not updating this recently. I've been a bit too busy travelling and seeing birds. I'm currently enjoying a post-albatross beer in Kaikoura.
Only 1100? Thats more species than I have seen in 30 years birding!

Wheres the updates dude? No, I'm out-birding excuses - it gets darK doesn't it, Oh wait, Kiwis, seabirds... Shit!..

There, look what you made me do, swear on you new, probably great thread. And look,no smiley!

Cheers G
Day Two: 24th November, to Stewart and Ulva Islands

Well, I suppose I really should try and finish this trip report, and now that I've finally finished editing some stunning photographs I'll try and get on with it.

I was caught the bus from Invercargill to Bluff early in the morning. The weather was lovely and calm, which augered well for the boat trip across the Foveaux Strait to Stewart Island. At Bluff harbour I soon saw a few of the commoner coastal birds of New Zealand, such as Variable Oystercatcher and White-fronted Tern.

The crossing was really very pleasant and calm, and this afforded good views of birds on the sea even if everything seemed rather becalmed. Albatrosses soon began to appear, mostly just sat about on the water. All seemed to be New Zealand White-capped Albatrosses (one of the 'Shy Albatrosses'). Eventually one passed the boat at close range. The water was strewn with innumerable Common Diving Petrels: tiny auk-like seabirds that scuttled off as the boat bombed through them. There weren't many other tubenoses but I saw one each of Cape Pigeon and Sooty Shearwater. Briefly I caught sight of a Yellow-eyed Penguin barrelling through the surface. As the boat approached Stewart Island I began to see a few Stewart Island Shags, both the pied and dark 'bronze' phase.

After arriving in Oban, I settled into my room at the Southsea Hotel and started birding from the balcony. There were several Tui fluttering about over the village and giving a startling array of calls. Then a group of half a dozen Kereru, or New Zealand Wood Pigeons, arrived in to feed on some flowers. These are heavy birds with implausibly small heads and very smart green, reddish and white plumage. Then I noticed a Kaka feeding among some flowers and these remarkable parrots proved to be a common sight around the township.

In the afternoon I headed off on a boat to Ulva Island, an island sanctuary in the Paterson Inlet. On the crossing over I saw three diminutive Blue Penguins, which I saw frequently during my stay on the Island. Just before landing on Ulva I noticed a chicken-sized Weka walking along the beach. Within twenty metres of getting off the boat I'd also seen a pair of New Zealand Robins and, very briefly, a Saddlback. A short walk up the hill and I'd had some good views of a couple of Red-crowned Parakeets feeding in the foliage and a Bellbird. Lots of native landbirds and almost no European birds.

In Sydney Cove there was a touch of home though, when I watched a distant pod of Bottlenose Dolphins. The forest wasn't too busy, except for the numerous Tui, but I had some good but brief views of a tiny Rifleman. Eventually I enjoyed close views of some other native passerines: Tomtit, Fantail and Brown Creeper. Kaka were making some incredible sounds. At Boulder Beach at least five Weka were feeding along the shoreline or amongst the strandline debris. Nearby I got some incredibly close views of a New Zealand Robin as it foraged on the forest floor. A couple of Saddlebacks included an immature, the distinctive 'Jackbird' of the South Island form. More of all of these species were seen during the rest of the afternoon.

Some shots from Ulva (will the quality improve after this: stay tuned to find out):

1. A non-red-breasted New Zealand Robin
2. A fuzzy Saddleback
3. A Red-crowned Parakeet, hiding in the leaves.
4&5. Weka wackery on the beach


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Kiwi spottery

That evening I was booked on a kiwi watching trip with Phillip Smith. With the rain still falling and the wind beginning to pick up I was a bit worried the trip might get cancelled but I set off with a boat load of people around nine in the evening. A few Sooty Shearwaters cruised around the outer part of Halfmoon Bay as we travelled past Ackers Point. The rain actually stopped after a short time and the remainder of the evening was cloudy but calm, which proved a good combination of conditions.

Eventually we anchored off a small bay and went ashore in a small boat. By now it was properly dark and we continued on foot through some bush until we reached another beach. Although there were chances of seeing kiwi in the bush, it was at the beach that our hopes were highest. We walked behind Phillip and up the beach and, after several minutes, stopped. In front of us a kiwi, or more specifically a Southern Brown Kiwi of the Stewart Island subspecies, was probing about the sand for sandhoppers. We watched it for some time, and it continued probing despite several people standing just a few metres away. I think it's probably stating the obvious but kiwis are a bit weird. It was more like watching a mammal than a bird in many respects. As well as the hairiness, I was particularly struck by the thickset legs and feet.

We continued up the beach but didn't find any more. When we returned the same bird was still present and we watched it for a bit longer before continuing along the slippery path and back to the boat. So I'd been to New Zealand and seen a kiwi, and seen one fantastically well.

The return journey was just as eventful. Soon after leaving for Oban, several seabirds started buzzing the lights of the boat. I wasn't too sure what they were but Phillip told me they were Mottled Petrels. A quick check of the books made this pretty obvious, with the combination of a black band on the underwing and dark belly very distinctive. An unidentified prion joined the petrels briefly. Phillip said he normally only sees the petrels on calm and cloudy nights, so we were very fortunate.

We got back to the harbour well after midnight, but having seen a couple of very special birds.
Day Three: November 25th, Stewart Island

The weather wasn't too good the following morning, with brisk winds and steady rain. I'd tentatively planned to go on a pelagic trip with Ruggedy Range tours that morning but Furhana Ahmad, who runs the company, dropped by my hotel in the morning to suggest we postpone it till later in the day. Instead I decided to head around Halfmoon Bay to Ackers Point in the hope of seeing some more native birds in the forest and a few seabirds offshore.

The forest was quite interesting, particularly within the fenced off reserve towards the end of the headland. Kaka were common and there were also Tui and Fantails. I had some good views of Brown Creeper, a bird I didn't see after I left Stewart Island, and a couple of Tomtits. A Weka, which I think have only recently been reintroduced to the reserve, walked across the track at one point.

Seawatching was interesting without being spectacular. A few White-capped Albatrosses drifted by and there were occasional Stewart Island and Spotted Shags. On the sea were a couple of Blue Penguins and a Common Diving Petrel.

By the afternoon the weather had cleared up and, although it was still breezy, the wind was not too bad. I got in touch with Furhana and we set off into Paterson Inlet for a three-hour pelagic trip. The trip was enjoyable but not totally successful. We enjoyed some very close views of more White-capped Albatrosses and saw lots of Blue Penguins but, despite our efforts, we couldn't find any other penguins or albatrosses. A pair of Brown Skuas were marauding around one small island and we saw lots of New Zealand Fur Seals and a single New Zealand Sealion hauled up on a beach. The only new bird for me was a quick view of a Sacred Kingfisher flying offshore. So some good birds to see but I suspect we needed to go further out to really hit some seabirds. It seems that no companies on Stewart Island regularly offer the sort of longer pelagics that would produce a wider range of seabirds. Furhana hoped that she might be able to develop such a trip in the future but demand is currently rather low and too many other companies offer short pelagics, making longer trips less viable.

I got back to dry land expecting to catch the evening ferry back to the mainland. But, despite the now relatively calm weather in Halfmoon Bay, the ferry had been cancelled so I had to stay on the island for another night. By now I was pretty tired and booked in to Bunkers Backpackers for a long sleep.

Here are some more of my own trademark high-quality pictures:

1. A New Zealand White-capped Albatross
2. A colony of Stewart Island Shags
3-5 A well-known Brazilian footballer


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Day Four: 26th November, Stewart Island - Invercargill - Te Anau

The following morning Halfmoon Bay was like a millpond and the early morning ferry set off on schedule, with me on it. The first Australasian Gannet of the trip drifted calmly overhead and a few Blue Penguins were on the calm waters. The waters were less calm once the boat headed out of the bay and into the Foveaux Straits. If there's a more turbulent stretch of sea on the planet, then I haven't been there. The swell was stomach-content challenging and this made birding quite tricky. Amidst the chaos I picked out a few more White-capped Albatrosses, lots of Common Diving Petrels and a few Cape Pigeons. A couple of Fairy Prions drifted low and fast over the water. Fortunately the stayed alongside the boat for long enough to be identified.

My breakfast was under threat of re-emergence but remained intact till the boat reached Bluff, from where I headed back on the bus to Invercargill, seeing a single Royal Spoonbill at the roadside on the way.

The previous night I was supposed to stay at Bushy Point Fernbirds B&B, run by Ian and Jenny Gamble. The cancellation of the ferry, the reasons for which had now become more apparent, meant that I hadn't been able to get there but I called Ian and Jenny and arranged a day time visit in the hope of seeing Fernbirds in the small nature reserve adjacent to their home. Jenny picked me up from the i-Site in downtown Invercargill and we headed off to Bushy Point.

Jenny took me along the boardwalk, which runs through native woodland, scrub and rushy marshland, in rather unhelpful breezy conditions. She instructed me to make soft whistling noises, which encourage the skulking birds out in the open. It took a long time but eventually we had very close views of a Fernbird. These are warblers of a sort, but, like a lot of New Zealand birds, they seem to behave more like small mammals than birds, scuttling mouse-like through the rushes. After lunch I saw another, which came as close as a couple of metres. There were quite a few other native birds at Bushy Point, including lots of Bellbirds, and a few Tui, Fantails and Grey Warblers.

Jenny dropped me back at the i-Site, where I spent an enjoyable half-an-hour looking at the captive Tuatara in the museum. These are the 'living fossil' reptiles that are native to New Zealand. They look like lizards but aren't, and one of the animals at the museum is over a hundred years old.

I caught the Intercity bus to Te Anau, which presented my first extended opportunity to see the Southland countryside. From the bus I saw several
Australasian Harriers and Australian Magpies, a couple of Pied Stilts and small numbers of South Island Pied Oystercatchers, Masked Lapwings and Paradise Shelducks. Closer to Te Anau the rocky rivers held some colonies of Black-billed Gulls and I briefly saw a few Black-fronted Terns. I arrived in the beautiful lakeside town of Te Anau early in the evening, with the weather now pleasant and sunny. This was good news as the following day I was heading for the Homer Tunnel, a place notorious for bad weather.

Some nice pictures from Bushy Point:

1&2 Fernbird, not to be confused with Fern Britton
3 a Bellbird, complete with a pollen-dusted forehead from feeding on nectar


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While I think of it, here are a couple of recordings from Stewart Island.

1. New Zealand Robin singing on Ulva Island. One of the less wacky sounding NZ birds.
2. A group of four Kaka at Acker's Point. These are a bit wacky.


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Day Five: 27th November, Homer Tunnel

The next morning was bright and clear and I was up early to catch a Tracknet minibus from Te Anau to the Homer Tunnel. On the way to the bus I had good views of a drake New Zealand Scaup close to the shore of Lake Te Anau.

The journey to the tunnel became increasingly spectacular as the road wound through luxuriant forests and hills. On arrival at the car park one of the 'target birds' was soon encountered, a Kea perched on the bonnet of a car as the occupants looked on. The other target, Rock Wren, was to prove a little trickier.

I began my search by looking around the boulder field in the valley above the car park. Nothing moved and nothing made a sound. Eventually I had some good views of a pair of New Zealand Pipits, which was a good bird to get under the belt. After an hour or so searching I headed back to the car park and spent some time taking pictures of the group of four Kea that were now investigating some discarded rubbish with great intensity. Then I headed down the road to the weather station, which I'd read could also produce wrens. There were none, but I did get some good views of Tomtit and Grey Warbler.

By early afternoon it was quite warm and there were plenty of people around the car park, most of whom were busy photographing Kea. I had until around 2.30 to find a Rock Wren before the bus arrived to take me back to Te Anau. By this stage I hadn't heard or seen a thing, except for one promising squeak that was followed by several minutes of silence. I began to wonder if Rock Wrens live underground. At around 2pm I was investigating the upper part of the valley above the car park when I heard another squeak. It was a little bit distant but I clambered over the boulders to where I thought the sound was coming from. Then another squeak, a bit further over still. Then I saw a small bird drop down from a boulder. Getting closer nothing was apparent but I tried a bit of squeaking of my own. Suddenly a male Rock Wren appeared just a few metres away, scuttling into the open before disappearing again. I tried a bit more squeaking and soon it came out again, almost dancing at my feet. I watched it for several minutes at close range before I headed back to the car park. Six hours of searching and I'd finally had great views of a Rock Wren. They really are fantastic birds too - sort of like a phylloscopus warbler with long legs and no tail. And, like Fernbirds, they seem to think they're rodents, scuttling very quickly around the stones.

After watching a Kea do its party piece of knawing at the rubber around a car windscreen I got back on the bus to Te Anau, where I ate ice cream in the sun whilst waiting for the bus to Queenstown. The bus was fifteen minutes late, which was a bit worrying. The driver told me he'd been driving around town looking for me, which I thought was rather amazing. Not something many bus drivers in the UK would do. It was a beautiful and rather relaxed journey to Queenstown, the adrenalin capital of New Zealand and another stunning lakeside settlement.

For those who may have visited Homer Tunnel in less clement conditions, this is what the area looks like when it's sunny (first three pictures). Then there are a couple of shots of alpine flowers, which I started to photograph at the point I was beginning to give up hope of Rock Wren.


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The boy

Here a some shots of the Rock Wren, another New Zealand bird that doesn't seem to do wings (first 3 shots). Then Tomtit and Grey Warbler.


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Kea antics

Rock Wren was probably bird of the trip, but if there's a more characterful, entertaining and intriguing bird on the planet than Kea than I'm not yet aware of it. Here's some action from the car park at Homer Tunnel.


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Homer Tunnel Kea...instant memory of ex-pat Brit birder in camper van which had pet cat inside...the Kea sliding down the van's windscreen much to the irritation of the trapped feline...sort of made up for 3 days sodden dipping of the wrens...hours I spent there and Arthur's Pass to no avail...
Day Six: 28th November, Twizel

I caught an early morning Intercity bus from Queenstown to Twizel and my concession to being in the adrenalin capital of New Zealand was that I had to rush my breakfast in order to get to the bus stop in time. I really embraced the fear as I struggled into town with my backpack, I can tell you. The birds were similar to previous journeys with small numbers of Black-fronted Terns near to Twizel and a group of Wild Turkeys.

After I arrived in Twizel I headed off on foot, again in warm, sunny weather, towards Lake Poaka, a known site for Black Stilt, the world's rarest wader. This is actually a series of small lakes that, I guess at least, were formed through the building of the Twizel Canal. I had quite a long walk through the surprisingly arid and steppe-like farmland of the Mackenzie Basin until I reached the canal. The small lakes near the bridge and the canal itself held quite a few New Zealand Scaup, Grey Duck, Grey Teal, Masked Lapwing and families of Black Swans and Paradise Shelduck. I soon began seeing Banded Dotterels on the shallow gravelly pools and there were a mixture of Pied Stilts and some tantalising hybrid PiedxBlack Stilts. On the subject of hybrids, I was reasonably convinced of the purity of most of the Grey Ducks in Twizel, particularly as I only saw one hybrid Mallard in the area.

Eventually I reached the shallow, gravelly pool at the western end of Lake Poaka. There were lots of Banded Dotterels, Pied and Hybrid Stilts but no Black Stilts. I also got good views of some Black-fronted Terns. I was sort of giving up hope with the stilts but then found that there were more lakes further to the east. These were much deeper and less promising. There were no stilts at all. Except, of course, for a cracking pair of Black Stilts that I saw on a patch of vegetation emerging from one of the lakes. They stayed for a minute or so before flying off. After some searching I relocated them on the first lake, where they fed apart from the Pied and Hybrid Stilts and drove them off when they came into contact. They seemed to be subadults, with a little bit of white immature plumage showing around the bill. Lovely elegant birds though, slightly longer billed and stockier than the Pied and Hybrid Stilts.

On a rather sour note, I saw a Little Pied Shag sunning itself on a log in the middle of one of the lakes, then a little later I heard a gunshot. On returning to the same area I saw the shag floating in the water. The lake is heavily fished and it seems that some fishermen in New Zealand don't want to share the fish with anything else, even if that means breaking the law.

Also on Lake Poaka were several Grey Duck, 6 GreyTeal, an Australasian Shoveler and the first Coot of the trip.

Pictures as follows:

1. Twizel Canal. The water really is that colour.
2. A view over Lake Poaka.
3. Didymo is a significant problem in this area. And a great schoolboy joke goes global.
4. The family of Black Swans on the canal.
5. A pair of 'good' Grey Duck.


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Last edited:
1. A drake New Zealand Scaup
2&3 Some Black Stilt goings on


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Oh Andrew - reminds me of my visit in 2006......love the photos ....
I thought the South Island was just stunning!

The Robin and Tom tits were pretty cute - those Kea's are a menace!
Cant recall Homer Tunnel looking like that!
Glad this is bringing back memories for Corrina and McMadd. I think I got pretty lucky with the weather at Homer Tunnel. I was nervously checking the forecast for days beforehand though! I think the good weather made me more worried about missing the Rock Wren - I knew I couldn't use the weather as an excuse anyway.
Im off there for February and hope to catch up with some of these especially the Black Stilt as the last time I didnt see any. Fab country you seem to have a great time.
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