Friday, December 30, 2011

In search of elusive New Zealand birds

Royal spoonbills nesting.
New Zealand is populated with birds you will see nowhere else. Until Westerners arrived, bats were the only mammals, a specie of eagle the only predator. Other birds came in all sizes from ostrich-high Moas to wren-small Titipounamu. Many like the Moas and Kiwi, didn't fly. They didn't need to. Freezing in place was their defense against eagles, the only predator.

Once man, especially Western man arrived with dogs, cats, stoats and other predators, that changed. Today many birds are extinct, including all of the Moas (you can see what Moas looked like at the excellent Otago Museum in Dunedin), and many more are in precarious numbers.

Naturally, those are the ones you want to see along with the albatross, gannets and penguins. I saw gannets on the North Island, the others on the South Island.

Frankly, your best bet is to visit a zoo for kiwi, the country's official bird, its colorful parrots and other non-flying birds. However, if you insist on seeing them in the wild, here are some tips.


They are extremely shy and nocturnal. They frequent isolated beaches so Levelers, you'll have sand rather than steps to deal with. Midnight excursions aren't cheap and most New Zealanders have never seen one except in a zoo.
Stewart Island just off the South Island is where many birders go in search of this elusive and shy creature.

Penguin spotted during a Monarch Wildlife cruise.
The tiny Blue penguin is extremely rare but I saw several during an overnight cruise in Doubtful Sound. You might also spot one or two in the water during a Monarch Wildlife Cruise outside of Dunedin.

Juvenile male yellow-eyed penguin, Penguin Place
Yellow-eyed penguins are also endangered. I encountered a few on the overnight in Doubtful and a day cruise in Milford Sound. Also saw a juvenile male and another two at beaches along the Southern Scenic Route. Usually spotted in the morning when the males leave to feed and at dusk when they return.

Tip: Levelers, binoculars and a very long lens for your camera will be necessary to see or capture images from easily accessed overlooks. Otherwise, expect hills, uneven ground and steps.

Female yellow-eyed penguin nesting, Penguin Place.
You are bound to see at least one penguin at Penguin Place, a private conservation effort supported by tours on the Otago Peninsula. What you see depends on the time of year. I was there midday in November during the breeding season which means I saw that exhausted juvenile male, peekaboo glimpses of two females nesting and one injured penguin being rehabbed in the infirmary.

Tip: Find out what season you're in to determine if it's worth the steps and climbs. Take the tour and you'll ride as close as possible in buses, but you will encounter uneven ground, changes in elevation and steps.

Hold your hands out and compare it to this to see just how big an albatross can be.
These magnificent birds frequent New Zealand waters and cliffs to feed and breed. The Royal Albatross Centre is at Taiaroa Head at the tip of the Otago Peninsula, about a 45-minute drive from Dunedin. As the world's only mainland breeding colony of the Royal Albatross it's your best chance to see the birds on land mating, nesting and raising their chicks.

What you see depends on the season.

Viewing site
Viewing is from an old World War II gun emplacement with dirty, cloudy windows and you don't see much unless a pair takes up residence nearby.

Halfway there.
Tip/Warning: It is a l-o-o-o-ng way up from the Centre to the gun emplacement and I wouldn't go all the way up unless the albatross are billing and cooing or the chicks are hatched. You can see the nesting females better from the water on a Monarch Cruise.

Red-billed gulls nesting

Red-billed gulls making chicks.
However, the antics of the breeding colony of red-billed gulls make at least a partial climb worthwhile.

From here you can see Pilots Beach, where a colony of blue penguins live, but the little buggers are so small you probably won't spot them.

White-capped albatross taking a break from fishing in waters between Stewart and Ulva Islands.

I saw and photographed albatross close up on the Bluff ferry to and especially from Stewart Island. 

Takahe at Te Anau Wildlife Centre.
Kaka, Kea, Tui, Takahe, Weka, Parakeets and Pigeons
Saw all of these at the Te Anau Wildlife Centre, a free, self-guided conservation area on Lake Te Anau in the South Island's Fiordland. You may not see all of them; much depends on what the non-aviary birds are doing - or not doing.

World's largest accessible gannet colony at Cape Kidnappers.
The world's largest accessible colony of gannets settles at Cape Kidnappers in the Hawkes Bay area of the North Island.

A big strand of seaweed is the way to a girl gannet's heart.
Tip: Gannet Safaris will take you up the winding, bumpy track to within a foot or two of the birds. After experiencing the climb, it's a bargain.

All in all, even non birding enthusiasts will get a kick out of seeing these winged - or not - species, whether in a zoo or in the wild.

Personally, the more I travel the bigger my bucket needs to be to hold an ever-expanding list. How about you?

May we all have bigger buckets and more fulfilled wishes in 2012.


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