part two

Franz Josef Glacier just before the downpour!
Kea, pausing during an attack on this car!
Day 10  29th October

White Heron Sanctuary Tour

The departure point for the tour was in Whataroa, a 30 minute drive north of Franz Josef. Our tour was booked for 9am, rain or shine, and the weather didn't look very promising, but we decided to go ahead, as this is the only breeding colony of White Herons in New Zealand. The breeding seaason runs from late October to March.

We left the hotel early and drove north, our route taking us past Lake Mapourika, where we stopped to check out the birds, finding a pair of Australasian Crested Grebes (the same species as the Great Crested Grebe of Europe) and a pair of NZ Scaup, near the Picnic Jetty. As we had plenty of time to spare, we took a detour to Okarita Lagoon on the coast, a few miles to the west. We found a lone White Heron here, and got a good photo (below), and also saw a pair of Paradise Shelducks, 2 White-faced Herons and 2 Variable Oystercatchers. We backtracked to Whataroa, passing Lake Wahapo, where there were 30 NZ Scaup, a pair of Black Swans and another pair of Australasian Crested Grebes.

Day 7  26th October

Queenstown  (in the Southern Alps of South Island)

We flew from Auckland to Queenstown on a morning flight, getting fantastic views of the Southern Alps as we flew down over the South Island. We picked up our rental car at the airport in Frankton, and drove the 5 miles into Queenstown to find our hotel, which was on a hillside giving us beautiful views of Lake Wakatipu and the Remarkables in the background.

The area around Queenstown is very popular for all sorts of outdoor pursuits, and trampers (the NZ word for hikers) are well catered for. Guided nature walks are available in the Queenstown area, but we decided on a self-guided walk from the top of the Skyline Gondola, where we first had lunch in the Skyline Chalet. We spent the afternoon walking back down through the woods into Queenstown. The first bird we saw, was a Yellowhammer, one of the many European introductions the settlers brought with them to remind them of "home". But we did then find several native species: a couple of Grey Warblers, followed by our first 2 lifers of the day: a pair of Brown Creepers and a South Island Tomtit. There were about 10 Silvereyes all in one tree, tiny birds with a very marked white eye-ring, and then later we had good looks at a male Bellbird, with a beautiful glossy purple head.

After arriving back at the car park we decided to have a quick look around the Kiwi and Bird Park, where we saw many of the very endangered NZ endemics in captivity. There were also several pairs of wild Paradise Shelducks by the pond, allowing us very close-up looks and photos. European Song Thrushes, Blackbirds and a Dunnock were also seen in the grounds of the park. On our drive back to the hotel we saw several New Zealand Scaup on Lake Wakatipu, giving us our 3rd lifer of the day.

11 species seen for the day, with 3 lifers.
Day 8   27th October

Glenorchy and the Routeburn Track - Mount Aspiring National Park

At daybreak, from our hotel balcony, we saw the most colourful sunrise and as it got lighter we got our first "wild" New Zealand Pigeon, plus European greenfinches, goldfinches and chaffinches, one of which was tame enough to visit our balcony for crumbs!

We wanted to explore some of New Zealand's native hardwood forest, hoping to get some South Island endemics, so we drove to Glenorchy, enjoying the wonderful scenery along the shores of Lake Wakatipu. The Dart River flows into the lake at its northern end, and we could see the dust clouds blowing up from its braided stream system. We stopped at a DoC tourist information cabin in Glenorchy, to pick up maps and ask the ranger's advice on seeing Yellowheads and Yellow-crowned Parakeets. We also hoped for a NZ Falcon, and were told that although there was a pair nesting in the mountains, they were at least a day's walk away. The Routeburn Track is a 32km (20 miles) trail taking 2-3 days to hike, and links the Mount Aspiring and Fiordland National Parks, via the Harris Saddle (1277m/4,191ft).  There are several huts en route, for overnight shelter, pre-bookable through the DoC. Due to time constraints, we had decided to only walk the first portion of the track that day, from the Routeburn Shelter to the Routeburn Flats Hut and back, a round trrip of 13km (8 miles).

En route to Glenorchy we saw the following species: Tui, Pied Oystercatcher, NZ Scaup, Australian Magpie, Black-backed (Kelp) Gull, Black-billed Gull, Masked Lapwing, Australasian Harrier, Paradise Shelduck, Skylark, Yellowhammer and some Black-fronted Terns, or 2nd lifer of the day.

Near the Routeburn Shelter at the beginning of the walk, we saw our first Yellowheads and Yellow-crowned Parakeets in the woods by the road. The Yellowheads, a rare endemic, are South Island's equivalent of the Whiteheads seen at Tiritiri Matangi Island off the north east coast of North Island. Our next 2 lifers were a South Island Robin and a New Zealand's smallest bird - a Rifleman. There were lots of them running up trees, gleaning insects from the bark. We did not see the Rock Wren in this area, as we were not high enough in the Alpine region, however we did see the more common woodland birds: Fantails, Grey Warblers, Bellbirds, Tomtits, and a Chaffinch.

We had a wonderful day finished off with an excellent roast beef dinner in a pub in Glenorchy. Our most memorable moment of the day was when we decided to try some "pishing" to see what might pop up. Over a few minutes about 30 Yellow-crowned Parakeets and some Fantails flew into the surrounding trees to investigate us. Pity it was a little dark to get good photos!

23 species seen for the day, with 6 lifers.
Day 9   28th October

Drive from Queenstown to Franz Josef Glacier

Our drive took us through some wonderful scenery en route to Haast Beach on the west coast, where we stopped briefly to look at the beach. This coastline is very wild and rugged and we were really surprised to see the amount of lumber debris along the beach. We got two new birds for our list here, a White Heron (not a lifer, as it is Ardea alba modesta (Sibley), a subspecies of Ardea alba, the Great Egret of the N. America) and then a female Redpoll, a European introduction, which was a lifer. We were quite surprised to see the White Heron, as we had read that there was only one breeding colony in the whole of NZ, some 30km (18 miles) north of Franz Josef, where we had planned to visit the next day. Also seen in the area:  Pukeko (Purple Swamp Hen), NZ Pigeons, Black-backed (Kelp) Gulls, Black-billed Gulls, Variable Oystercatcher (an all black one), Tui, and Song Thrush.

Further up the coast we stopped at Ship Creek and followed the DoC walk to Mataketake Dune Lake, a freshwater lake, where we hoped to see the rare endemic Fernbird, but we were out of luck! Walking through the rain forest full of beautiful tree ferns we did see Grey Warbler, 2 Bellbirds, and a Fantail, and later on the beach at Ship Creek, some Black-backed and Black-billed Gulls, and 2 Welcome Swallows. A little further up the coast at Lake Moeraki we saw NZ Scaup, 6 Black Swans and a Little Shag (white-throated phase).

At 3pm we pulled in to the carpark to view the Fox Glacier, and were both surprised and delighted to see Keas, those notorious New Zealand parrots that enjoy destroying your car and other personal property! We had thought they could only be seen in the higher mountain regions, so were pleased to get another lifer. But, considering how destructive they are, we decided we'd better not leave our rental car unattended, so watched a couple of Keas on top of someone else's car for a few minutes, before driving a couple of miles north to look at the Franz Josef Glacier, instead. The weather was closing in, but we walked some way up the outwash fan towards the glacier, and were glad we did or we would not have seen the pair of New Zealand Pipits on the pebbly streambed, our 4th lifer of the day. Also seen in the area: South Island Tomtit, Dunnock, Chaffinch, and Song Thrush.

By 5pm it was pouring with rain, so we headed for our Hotel in Franz Josef, to dry out and plan our next couple of days driving and birding.

23 species for the day, with 4 lifers

We met up with the other 9 people in our tour group, at the White Heron Sanctuary Tours office in Whataroa. The WHST operate under the concession of the Dept. of Conservation, and we therefore had to fill out a DoC Entry Permit for the Waitangiroto Nature Reserve. The cost of the tour was NZ$89 (US$36 in 2000) per person. [2013 rates are NZ$120]. This included the minibus ride, a 20 minute jetboat ride to the sanctuary, a 500 metre walk through the native Westland Rainforest and 30-40 minutes in the viewing hide, looking at the breeding colony. Lifejackets and heavy-duty waterproofs were provided for the jetboat ride, and we sure needed them for the outward journey, as it was really pouring with rain!!

During the minibus ride we saw lots of Pukekos (Purple Swamp Hens), Tui, Song Thrush, Chaffinch, Black-backed (Kelp) Gulls and Black-billed Gulls. Although it was raining hard we saw the following from the jet-boat : Grey Duck, Mallards, Paradise Shelducks, Variable Oystercatchers, Pied Stilt, Masked Lapwing, NZ Pigeon and Australasian Harrier. Along the walk to the hide we had the typical forest birds: Grey Warbler (Gerygone), Bellbird and Fantails.

We had excellent views of the White Heron Colony from the hide, and our guides were very knowledgeable about the colony. There were 34 heron nests, which has been the average over the last few years, whereas in the 1940's there were only 4 nests. Also in the colony were Royal Spoonbills, our first lifer of the day, with 11 nests. They are very striking birds with their white plumage and black spoon-shaped bills. Also using the colony were several Little Shags.
Lake Wakatipu at dawn from our hotel
Red beech forest on the Routeburn Track
We found that all the tramping (hiking) tracks were well maintained by the Department of Conservation and this type of suspension bridge was very typical for river crossings. This one is near the beginning of the Routeburn Track, Glenorchy.
forest on Routeburn Track
Southern Alps of New Zealand
Southern Alps from the aeroplane
Queenstown and Lake Wakatipu from the Skyline Gondola terminal
Pair of Paradise Shelducks - note the dimorphic plumage - the female has the white head
Dust clouds along the Dart River system flowing into Lake Wakatipu, near Glenorchy
We arrived back at the Tour office at about 12:30pm, and had lunch in the café across the street, before resuming our journey up the coast. The scenery on this west coast of South Island is very wild and rugged.  A few miles north of Greymouth, near Rapahoe, we saw some cormorants on a rocky offshore island. We identified them as Spotted Shags, another lifer. We saw more, further north at a place called Punakaiki, where the limestone cliffs have developed a peculiar weathering pattern, giving them the name 'Pancake Rocks'. There was a DoC visitor centre and well-maintained walkways to view the rock formations and blowholes. Other birds seen here were: Black-backed (Kelp) Gulls, Red-billed Gulls, Variable Oystercatchers, Dunnock and White-fronted Terns, which had a nesting colony on the limestone stacks.

29 species seen for the day, with 2 lifers
pair herons on nest
Nesting White Herons and a Royal Spoonbill at the Waitangiroto Nature Reserve.
Little Shags also nest here.
The first White Heron we saw was near Okarito, before arriving at the Tour departure point.
Is it going to rain?
White Herons & Royal Spoonbill at the Sanctuary
Sanctuary Tours office & the nesting colony seen from the hide (blind)
Pancake Rock limestone cliffs at Punakaiki
Rugged scenery on the west coast of South Island
South Island
This page was last updated: October 20, 2013