A birding and sightseeing trip

20th October - 3rd November 2000

Text by Helen Baines, photos by John & Helen Baines

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This page was last updated on: October 20, 2013

In October and November of 2000 we visited New Zealand to see friends and bird as much of the country as we could in two weeks. We began our trip in the Auckland area, then flew down to Queenstown in South Island, hiring a car and driving back up the west coast to catch the ferry back to Wellington, where we spent our last few days.

Our trip also included several days in Indonesia, so I can't give direct flight details from Texas. On the return home we flew New Zealand Airways to Los Angeles and Continental to Houston.

We stayed with friends for about half of our trip - many thanks to Brett & Chris in Auckland and Richard & Clare in Wellington. The remainder of our accommodation was arranged through a local travel agent in Auckland. We booked a package, which included a very scenic flight from Auckland to Queenstown, hotels, car hire and ferry crossing. With the very advantageous exchange rate at the time, almost NZ$2.50 to US$1, we feel that our costs for the trip were very reasonable.

Books & maps:
Field guide: the Hand Guide to the Birds of New Zealand, by Hugh Robertson and Barrie Heather, published by Penguin Books, 1999. ISBN 0-14-028835-X. This is a much thinner book than the original Robertson & Heather and is meant for easier carrying in the field.
Lonely Planet: New Zealand, 9th edition, published 1998. ISBN 0-86442-565-1
AA map for North Island (bought on a previous non-birding trip in 1993)
Kiwi Pathfinder map for South Island (7th edition 2000)

Conditions in New Zealand:
October and November are spring time in NZ. The weather was very variable and quite cool, averaging in the mid-high 60's (F) most days. It rains a lot on the west coast of South Island, as we found out one day when we foolishly left our rain gear in the car when going on "just a short walk"!!
Driving conditions are good and because NZ has such a small population the roads are not busy. They drive on the left. NZ has gone metric, so all distances and speed limits are in kilometres. The only freeways (motorways) are around the major cities such as Auckland and Wellington.

Areas visited as follows: 

Auckland area:
Tiritiri Matangi Island Nature Sanctuary
Tahuna Torea Reserve, Auckland
Western Springs Park, Auckland
Waiatarua Reserve, Remuera, Auckland
Muriwai Gannet Colony
Miranda Shorebird Centre, Firth of Thames
Waharau Regional Park, north of Miranda

Wellington area:
Kapiti Island
Karori Wildlife Sanctuary

Queenstown area:
Forest walk above Queenstown
Routeburn Track from Glenorchy

West Coast:
Haast Beach
Ship Creek & Mataketake Dune Lake
Lake Moeraki
Fox & Franz Josef Glaciers
Lake Marourika
Okarita Lagoon
Lake Wahapo
Waitangiroto Nature Sanctuary  -  White Herons
Punakaiki  - Pancake Rocks & Blowholes

Westport to Nelson:
Abel Tasman National Park
Cook Strait ferry from
Picton to Wellington

Internet sites for research:
Where do you want to go birding today
New Zealand Birds
Forest and Bird page

North Island
Tiritiri Matangi Island
Fullers Ferries to Tiritiri
Miranda Shorebird Centre
Muriwai Gannet Colony
Karori Wildlife Sanctuary                                                               
Kapiti Island DoC site

South Island
West coast - White Heron Tours 

General tourist information:
Abel Tasman National Park
Queenstown in the Southern Alps
General tours information


19th October:  fly into Auckland from Indonesia, where we had visited Bali and Borneo. This was a business trip for my husband, but we saw a total 39 species of birds.

Day 1  20th October
In the early morning before leaving for our first day of birding, we spotted 2 common birds in our friends' Auckland backyard. The first was a native Silvereye followed by the Myna, a common introduction from Asia. 

Tiritiri Matangi Island lies 4km (2.5 miles) off the coast of the Whangaparaoa Peninsula, north of Auckland. It is one of several offshore nature sanctuaries around New Zealand, where the most endangered species can be kept safe from introduced predators, such as rats, weasels, stoats and feral cats, which are a big problem on the mainland. It is an open sanctuary administered by the Department of Conservation (DoC), but only 150 people a day are allowed to visit, from Thursday to Sunday, and strict measures are taken to ensure that no-one accidentally brings any rodent pests onshore in their baggage! You must bring your own packed lunch and drinks, though there is complimentary tea at the gift shop, where 'birdy' souvenirs are sold to help finance the work on the island. There has been a lighthouse on the island since 1865, and the island was farmed until the 1970's. The replanting programme began in 1994 and the regrowth of native bush is now well under way. The original birdlife almost disappeared during the farming days, but several commoner species have made a comeback, and the endangered birds, which were quickly disappearing from the mainland, have now been transferred to the island.

Our friends booked the ferry and guided tour for the trip prior to our arrival, and drove us to the Fuller's ferry departure point in Auckland for the 9:00 am boat that Friday morning, a beautiful sunny day! The journey took about an hour and a half, with a stop at Gulf Harbour to pick up more people. Here we saw Black-backed (Kelp) Gulls  and a Variable Oystercatcher, which range from all black to varying degrees of black and white. On arrival at Tiritiri, we were met by the resident conservation officers, Mr. and Mrs. Walter, and the volunteer tour guides. We had a short talk about the sanctuary, and then we put our backpacks and lunches in the back of their truck which was going back up to the HQ, while we did the guided tour.

First we were taken to check out several nest boxes constructed of concrete for the little Blue Penguins, and we did catch one at home, viewing it through a window in the top of the box. Then on our way up the track we saw Red-crowned Parakeets (Kakarikis) feeding on the flowers of the native flax plants. Tuis, locally called the parson bird because of the white tufts of feathers on the throat, were seen in the native cabbage trees. We checked out a small pond for the Brown Teal (a rare endemic), which can sometimes be found there, but we were unlucky that day. Further on in the bush we saw a rare endemic Saddleback, a Pukeko (Purple Swamp Hen), a pair of New Zealand Kingfishers flying over and a Brown Quail (a locally common Australian introduction). We heard the beautiful exotic sound of a Bellbird and also got close up looks at a North Island New Zealand Robin, singing for us. Also seen on the guided tour were: Grey Fantail, common throughout NZ, and a pair of Takahe, which allowed us to get some good photos, whilst they fed on the grass by the path. There are several pairs of these very endangered flightless birds on Tiritiri, and our guide identified this pair as Glencoe, and his mate Aroha (which means love in Maori). The species was thought to be extinct, until a small remnant population was discovered in 1949 in a remote upland valley in the Southern Alps of South Island.

Our tour ended at the HQ near the lighthouse, where we had our lunch. Here we saw a soaring bird of prey, which was identified as an Australasian Harrier and also a pair of Australian Magpies, another common Australian introduction. It was nice to see the Tuis coming in to feed from saucers of nectar provided by the staff here. After lunch, we were free to explore the island, so long as we were back at the wharf for the ferry back to Auckland, at 3:30pm. We walked the Ridge Track, hoping to find the rare Kokako, as we'd been told that there were 8 adult Kokako on the island, but the 2 chicks recently hatched had disappeared. Part of the way along the track we heard a strange call, definitely not a Tui or Bellbird, so creeping along very quietly we came upon a Kokako, close enough to see the bands on his legs and get a few photos (see above). Also seen that afternoon were Welcome Swallow, Myna, Whitehead and the very rare Stitchbird. A pair, were feeding on nectar provided in a hummingbird feeder, which was housed in a cage to keep out the larger nectar feeders, such as Tuis. Near the wharf, where the Seacat waited for us was a Variable Oystercatcher, and at Gulf Harbour on the return journey, we saw 2 Caspian Terns, 2 Pied Shags, a Red-billed Gull (Silver Gull), and an Australasian Gannet.

Also seen on Tiritiri were several European introductions, which are common throughout New Zealand, House Sparrows, Dunnock, Skylark and Yellowhammer.

Of the 29 bird species seen, 22 were lifers.
Godwits & Oystercatchers on the shellbanks at Miranda, where the endemic Wrybill can be seen
Gannet colony at Muriwai
New Zealand Scaup in Auckland Zoo
White Heron in breeding plummage
Australasian Gannet colony at Muriwai, seen from a viewing platform
White-fronted Terns at Muriwai
New Zealand (Sacred) Kingfisher at Waharau Regional Park, N of Miranda
Wrybills at Miranda
One of several endangered Takahe in the breeding programme on Tiritiri Matangi Island
The endangered Kokako on Tiritiri
The Seacat waiting for the return journey from Tiritiri to Auckland
Cabbage tree and the mainland from Tiritiri
Day 2   21st October

Tahuna Torea Reserve, Auckland
This small reserve is located on the Tamaki Estuary, in Auckland, and is 25 ha in size. It has mangrove lagoon, saltmarsh and a sandspit beach, providing a variety of habitat for birds. The first birds we saw were a pair of Paradise Shelducks (lifer), a handsome endemic species that we saw frequently throughout NZ. The female is smaller and paler in colour with a white head, but both have large white wing patches in flight. In the lagoon there were several Pied Stilts (lifer) with their very striking long pinkish-red legs!

Our third lifer of the day was a pair of Grey Ducks (Pacific Black Ducks) with young. Both male and female are similar and look very like a female Mallard, except for a striped pale head, grey bill, and green speculum. Grey Ducks freely interbreed with the Mallard, producing paler birds with less distinct facial stripes and a blue speculum. Pukekos (Purple Swamp Hens) were common on the reserve and we also saw a Kingfisher, Caspian Tern, Black-backed Gulls (Kelp), and 2 more lifers: a pair of White-faced Heron on the lagoon, and 50 Pied Oystercatchers, at the end of the sandspit. Out on a post in the water was a small shag, most probably a Little Shag, but too far away for a positive id.

Silvereyes and Fantails were common in the wooded areas, along with the European introductions: Blackbird, House Sparrows, Chaffinch, Goldfinches, Song Thrush and Rock Pigeon (Feral Pigeon).

14 species for the day, with 5 lifers

Day 4   23rd October

Muriwai Gannet Colony is located less than an hour north of Auckland on the west coast in the Muriwai Regional Park. It is a good place to get close-up views of the Australasian Gannets in the breeding season, from September to February. Viewing platforms have been constructed on the cliffs above the colonies, to keep the viewing public at a safe distance. Nesting on the cliffs were White-fronted Terns (lifer), and also seen that afternoon, were Black Shag (Great Cormorant), Tuis, Welcome Swallows, Red-billed Gulls (Silver), Black-backed Gulls (Kelp) and a European Starling. On the journey home we saw Mynas, Pukekos and a pair of Banded Dotterels (lifer).

Total 11 species for the day, with 2 lifers.
Day 5   24th October

Miranda Shorebird Centre is about one hour's drive south-east of Auckland, on a large tidal estuary called the Firth of Thames. Here there are extensive tidal flats and saltmarsh, bordered by a shell bank chenier plain, and where 129 bird species, including 41 waders have been recorded. The Centre offers overnight accommodation in self-contained units and bunk dormitories, and has educational displays and dioramas. It is operated by the Miranda Naturalists' Trust.

High tide today was due about 5pm, so there was not much point in arriving at Miranda much before 2pm, so we travelled further up the coast to spend the morning at Waharau Regional Park. We took the Bush Walk picking up Fantails, Silvereye, Grey Warbler (Grey Gerygone), Australian Magpies, a pair of California Quail, Australasian Harrier and 5 NZ Kingfishers (Sacred Kingfishers) by a stream. Also seen in the park were the European introductions: Greenfinch, several Goldfinches and a Blackbird.

Driving back south along the shore of the Firth of Thames, we saw Black-backed Gulls (Kelp), White-faced Heron, Variable Oystercatchers, Pied Oystercatchers, Pied Stilts and the first lifer of the day: the Masked Lapwing (aka Spur-winged Plover). At 2 pm we walked out towards the hide (blind) on the edge of the shell banks, hoping to see the rare New Zealand specialties, Wrybill and New Zealand Dotterel, as the tide brought them closer to the shore. Indeed we were very lucky, as a pair of NZ Dotterel were nesting on the shell bank right in front of the hide, so we did have great views of them. Also on the shell banks were Black-backed Gulls (Kelp), Caspian Terns, White-fronted Terns, Bar-tailed Godwits, Red Knots, and Ruddy Turnstone. As we waited for high tide, we noticed about 20 Wrybills, as they moved up closer to the hide. These little shorebirds are very unusual as their bills are bent to the right, an adaptation that enables them to flip pebbles over while feeding. We took several photos, but it was very difficult to get a good shot to illustrate the bent bill!

On our drive back to Auckland, we saw Welcome Swallows, Mynas, Australian Magpies, and European Starlings, Song Thrush, Skylarks, Blackbirds and Goldfinches.

Total 28 species for the day, with 6 lifers.

Day 6  25th October

This was basically a planning and packing day, for the flight down to Queenstown the next day. However, we did find time to visit Auckland Zoo and the famous Kelly Tarlton's Underwater World. In the Zoo aviary we saw several endangered endemics which we knew we would have very little chance of seeing in the wild. These were Brown Teal, Blue Duck, Banded Rail and North Island Kaka (a relative of the Kea, which we did in fact get on Kapiti Island sanctuary, at the end of our trip).

The zoo is also home to hundreds of house sparrows, due no doubt, to the abundant food supply. Also lots of blackbirds, goldfinches, greenfinches, song thrushes, and starlings. We also saw one Spotted Dove there, an uncommon Asian introduction, and not a lifer, as we had already seen it in Bali the previous week.

road sign near Okarito, SI