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New Zealand
– Christchurch to Stewart Island Trip Report
The FTB NZ 2007 trip commenced at Christchurch airport with the collection of our keen Aussies: Wendy, Bernice and Rose (birders) and Janene. The trip outline is similar to the 2003 trip, to start at Kaikoura travel down the East coast of the South island (the Mainland) over to Stewart Island and return to Christchurch via Milford, Te Anau and the Mackenzie Country.


Our travel to Kaikoura stopped off at Waikuku beach.  A quick stroll along the estuary of the Ashley River revealed White faced Heron, three gull species Red-billed (Silver), Black- billed and Black-backed (Kelp) Gulls.  Two of the three common tern species Caspian, and White-Fronted Tern were observed.  Bar-tailed Godwits, Pied stilts, both Oyster catchers, South Island Pied (SPIO) and Varied as well as a few Banded Dotterels were roosting on the opposite bank of the estuary and in amongst them was an adult Black Stilt (good start eh?). Kaikoura is about 2.5 hours north of Christchurch along the way many of the introduced passerines were spotted, which we would be seeing regularly and reporting on through out the trip. We arrived safely, if not a wee bit tired due to the travel, time zones and heat. (It was hot for NZ!!)  Other birds seen included:  Bellbird, Welcome Swallow, Swamp Harrier, Pukeko (Purple swamp hen), the omnipresent  Spur-winged Plover (Masked Lapwing ), Paradise Shelduck often with young, Canada Goose, Black Swan, Grey Duck, Mallard, Grey Teal, Little Shag, Pied shag, and New Zealand Scaup.  All up 38 Species.


  The pre breakfast walk revealed Black Bird, Dunnock, House Sparrow, Song Thrush, Yellowhammer Goldfinch, Green finch and Chaffinch. A quail was heard calling but not seen. The real focus for today¹s birding was the Ocean Wings Pelagic trip from South Bay just over the hill from the Kaikoura Township. A brilliant sunny day, modest on-shore NE breeze and gentle 2+m swell set the stage. Gary, the skipper, piloted the launch out towards a fishing boat which had attracted several species. Frozen burly (fish offal enmeshed in a basket) was used to attract and draw birds in for close observations. 17 Species included: 2 Great Albatrosses; Southern Royal and Wandering (Gibson¹s) Albatross, Several small Albatross or Mollymawk:  Black-browed, NZ White-capped, Salvin¹s; Petrels: Giant- Northern, Westland, White-chinned, Cape Pigeon; Shearwaters: Sooty, and Hutton¹s (perhaps 2000+) Cormorants or Shags: Little, Pied. Gulls: Red-Billed and Kelp. Several White-fronted Terns and one lonely Australasian Gannet were also observed.  The wind increased as the morning progressed. Gary spotted a feeding flock of Red-billed gulls and Hutton¹s Shearwaters. Everyone faired very well in the sea, which boded well for later in the as boats were to be an often used mode of transport.  Upon returning to the dock and a quick lunch we headed south to Christchurch stopping along the way at several spots to look for Wrybill, but with the birds are in nesting mode they are hard to find in the coastal areas while nesting up country in the braided rivers. I heard later from a mate, a Grey ­tailed Tattler was seen on the tide pool area of Kaikoura on the 29/11. We did get Reef Heron along the coast Highway and several Southern Fur Seals. At the Conway River we got Grey Warbler, Pied Fantail, and the Shining Cuckoo as well as Banded Dotterels and Pied Stilts. The Waiau River: Pied Stilts, Little Shag and California quail (but not in the river) At the Hurunui River we found Black-fronted Terns and Bernice spotted the first Sacred Kingfisher (Kotare). Saint Anne¹s Lagoon, a pond reserve near Cheviot has a pair of Cape Barren Geese. This species had been missed in Australia by Bernice so the joke became come to NZ to see Aussie birds. As we drove south the traditional spots for Little Owls were not productive, but kept us on our toes looking.  We arrived in CHCH and after a noisy dinner at the Oxford Café (full of Americans however one was a birder) we retired.  52 species today.


A cloudy start and cooler temperatures had the Sydney-siders bundled up for the pre-breakfast walk to the Christchurch Botanical Gardens.  We got excellent views of Green Finch, Chaffinch, a black phase Fantail (an uncommon colour morph) and Silvereye, along with Black bird and Song Thursh.  The most common birds in the urban environment are the introduced passerines (I relearned the thrill and appreciation of viewing chaffinches).   After breakfast Janene left us to return to the airport and home……We were on our own!  I tried a long shot for Wrybill knowing a pair had nested earlier near the Rakaia Gorge Bridge, so we took an alternative route to Peel Forest.  Again no luck with Wrybill, but did see Black-fronted terns.  Two Moa were seen along the road at Alvord Fores…. pity they were made of wire. Our arrival at Peel Forest was in heavy and persistent rain so we opted for an early lunch which was brilliant, but not so good for the weather which was supposed to breakŠ. and didn¹t. A walk in the Totara forest during the rain is nice, but not so nice for birding. We did hear and fleetingly see Bellbirds and little else.  On the road again towards Timaru (birthplace of Phar Lap) and the weather finally breaks. Harriers are a frequent sighting, but NZ is sadly lacking in raptors species with just two; the NZ Falcon and the Swamp Harrier (there has been a solo Black Kite near Blenheim for nearly 10 years but that was not on the route).  A scope stop of the Washdyke Lagoon, north of Timaru   yielded a good wader, Marsh Sandpiper along with Bar-tailed Godwits, both Oystercatchers and Pied Stilts. More Canada Geese, Black Swans and the regular ducks, Mallards Grey duck (Pacific Black and NZ Scaup were also present.
We arrived slightly ahead of schedule in Oamaru and opted for a recon of the blue penguin colony (tour booked for later that evening) as a pre-dinner trip.  We learned of a Yellow-eyed penguin nesting area in close proximity and took a gamble that the weather conditions might bring the birds in earlier than after dark.  This turned out very well as we literally had eyeball to eyeball views of this amazing species. Rose won the eagle eye award for spotting several (up to 8) more Yellow-eyed along the beach and hilly shoreline. We watched one arrive through the surf and emerge onto the beach.  Spotted Shags were added to the list although we would see this much closer later in the trip. The Little Blue Penguin Colony tour is “interesting” as we joined a large crowd including NZ¹s new Minister for Conservation in a grand stand to watch the groups of Little Blue (Fairy) Penguins arrive at the colony.  Lots of noise as the young greeted the returning adults.  Also interesting was lack of understanding of some in the stand of the often repeated request of no photos please. Anyway, late to bed after the tour. Two of the team experienced the unique situation of toilets external to the motel room which in the cool conditions were… Enough about that.  43 species today.

  DAY 4 28 Nov OAMARU to OWAKA

We ventured back in the morning to the Yellow-eyed nesting area but the birds had departed at first light to sea.  After breakfast we are on the road again (the Willy Nelson version did come up from time to time but as I am a terrible singer I choose not to inflect this on the team ) First stop was at the Moeraki Boulders, an interesting geological feature of large spheres littering the beach as they emerge from marine sediments. We just missed Hector’s Dolphins by a whisker some one had seen several just before we arrived.  A quick dip into Shag Point gave us a great view of Bellbirds feeding on Flax pollen and Skylarks.  Rose spotted another Yellow-eyed penguin.  We drove on south towards Dunedin and the Royal Albatross colony at Taiatroa Head. This is one of only a few mainland colonies in the world for the Northern Royal Albatross. This species returns to nest every 2-3 years and plies the Southern Ocean around Antarctica.   Nesting in proximity were Stewart Island Shags (both the pied and bronze form), Spotted shags and Red-billed Gulls. After lunch over looking the sea cliffs we were on the road againŠagain towards Owaka in the Catlins. The drive through rural country side is scenic and the birds sighted were mostly the introduced passerines and lots of sheep. Another Sacred Kingfisher on the wires along the road along with Welcome Swallows and the regular Ducks brought our total species to 35 for the day. Safe arrival at the Catlins Area Motel, which were perhaps the best facilities we had been in thus far. Dinner at Sues Shed was great with free entertainment of watching one of our waitresses herd South African sheep through downtown Owaka. (Don’t Blink).

    DAY 5 29 Nov OWAKA and the CATLINS

The Catlins are really an unspoilt corner of the South Island with lots of history, scenery, wildlife and fantastic forest and coastal settings. We took our pre breakfast trip out to Jackson¹s Blowhole.  A better look at the Kingfisher and Royal Spoonbills were some of the highlights. Tui or Parson bird was spotted and we would see more of these are we ventured south.  Bernice (the team rotated turns in the front) and I nearly stuck a blow for the birds of the area when a stoat dashed across the road in front of the van. We missed!!!  These little varmints are responsible for much of the predation on NZ native bird species. The contrast between areas where predator control and no predator control is dramatic.  Birds seen included: Many White faced Herons, the 3 gulls, the first New Zealand Wood Pigeon (Kereru) Tomtit, Bellbird and the introduced passerines.  We reversed the order of the run sheet to the day’s trips in hopes the weather would improve so we went to the Catlins River Trail after breakfast with the goal of Yellowhead and other bush birds. After some confusion in locating the trail we walked up a reasonably rough track in intermittent rainŠ listening and looking.  Lots of Chaffinches and Grey warblers calling and we came upon a collection of Shining cuckoos.  Tui and Bellbirds, but little sign or sound of Yellowhead or Brown creepers. The impacts of the stoats has prompted DOC (NZ Conservation /wildlife dept) to commence a trapping/bait station control programme in this area. We got great views of Tui hawking insects and very close views of the NZ wood pigeons. The afternoon trip was to Purakaunui Falls (say that fast five times) then out to Nuggets.  We got great looks at Redpolls and Yellowhammers in the grassy slopes above huge Hooker Sea lions basking on the shore below. The wind was up with the strong onshore SE Breeze limiting the time at the lighthouse; however the combination of sea wind and sun presented some awesome views. We saw Stewart Island shags, Red-billed Gulls and Black-backed gulls nesting on different rocks. Sooty Shearwater observed gliding over the waves in large numbers. Back to Owaka fro dinner but no sheep show, just the sheet show this night.  The ladies were amazing as this was a pretty tough day for walking.


The pre breakfast was to a nearby historical site of an old tunnel which was part of the rail system that transported the lumber from the Catlins to Dunedin in the 1800¹s. We got wonderful views of spectacular Redpolls and Chaffinches. Wide spread as they are in the right light they are stunning!!
On the roadŠ againŠ again with the next stop for Fernbirds.  Wendy won the eagle eye award for spotting the first fern bird and also the turn off sign which had been blocked by a digger on the bridge.  The board walk into the Taukuku Estuary is short but a great spot. We saw 6 Fernbirds in total and at close range. Fantastic!!!!! We even located a Fernbird nest.  Tomtits and Brown Creepers were seen in the Manuka scrub with more Spoonbill and White-faced Herons in the nearby estuary.  Our next stop was Curio Bay with its fossil swamp forest aged at 170 million years old. Our luck with Yellow-eyed penguins held with a pair wandering around on the edge of this ancient forest.  Next on to Bluff to catch the ferry to Stewart Island (another boat ride) 55 minutes for 28 kms across Foveaux Strait.  The crossing was really flatŠ good for people bad for birding but we did see Common Diving Petrels and White-Capped Mollymawks, and a distant Prion.. likely a Fairy. We were met at the dock by Lorraine, our host at the Rakiura Retreat and taken to the motel to prepare for the evening kiwi Trip.  The motel is encased in bush with Kaka, Tui, Bellbird , Grey warbler, Red-Crowned Kakariki  (parakeet) Shining cuckoo and at night Morepork the native owl calling.  After the nice dinner Lorraine prepared for us, we assembled at the dock for the trip (another boat trip) out to the Neck for kiwi spotting with Phil Smith.  On the way out we spotted Fiord land Crested Penguins and Little Blue penguins. We have seen 3 Penguin species.  White-headed Mollymawks White-fronted terns and Stewart Island shags were seen.  The wharf that had been on the Neck for years had been destroyed, perhaps by a large trawler illegally moored during bad weather so we had to use a zodiac to get ashore (interesting in the dark) The night was unusually quiet and no Kiwi or Morepork were heard calling but we saw 2 Stewart Island Brown Kiwi feeding on the beach for sand hoppers. All got excellent looks at Kiwi and very amazing bird.  An exciting night, but long day as it was 1:00 am before our heads were on the pillow. 50 Species for today.


Today will be an all day trip via short water taxi to Ulva Island.  Ulva is a predator free sanctuary island in Paterson’s Inlet.  The team navigated the entire trail system some 10 kms with amazing views of Robin, Fantail, Grey warbler, Saddlebacks, Tui, Bellbird, Rifleman, Red-crowned and Yellow-crowned Kakariki, Kaka, Pigeons, and amazing close view of Yellowhead. Rose had a Weka very interested in her lunch and we saw several Wekas with chicks working through the bush.  A fantastic day!!!!  The bird tally was 48 Species including all species possible on Ulva.
 3 species of NZ native orchids: Spider orchid, Bamboo, and one of the green hooded Pterstylis species were also found with the help of a local botanical expert we bumped into.  The contrast of Ulva to other areas of bush highlights the impacts of predation on NZ native birds.  This island gives a glimpse of what NZ was like prior to human arrival. 


Almost a rest day after the pace we have been keeping we were all feeling great but a bit tired so the later start and easier pace was welcome. We walked out to Acker Point to the light house to see what birds were out Wind conditions were such that few seabirds were in close but we did seen White-capped Mollymawks and Stewart Island Shags.  I received a call and text message my daughter Jess was engaged. Berne the potential son-in-law is now the future son-in-law.  It was a lovely story about how he asked her but I will save that one. The Kaka we saw were a delight and entertained us at the Motel. One observed me checking emails on the laptop and flew to the eve tough above the window and hung upside down to look in to see what I was up to. Others on the team had them looking in their windows as will. We navigated a significant portion of the 35 kms of sealed roadways on the island with a trip to Lee Bay to view a private forest restoration project.  The telephone tree has had a reported albino wood Pigeon nearby but it failed to show. Perhaps we needed to call first. The village of Halfmoon bay (Oban) has a resident population of about 500 until summer when it blooms. There were several birding groups including one from the USA teamed with Wrybill Tours from the North Island as well as many couples or individuals from the all over the world. We were to see these groups often over the next few days at Milford and beyond.  Fewer species seen today with the restful tally of 20.


Early start to catch the 7:30 Ferry back to Bluff. Thanks to Lorraine for such excellent care of us. We were greeted in the morning by the Kaka and the sounds of the dawn chorus.  The trip back to Bluff was rougher than the trip over by a long way. High winds and a good swell 4-5 m caused a good many to redistribute their breakfast.  Our team pulled through in fine shape I am happy to report. But there is always an up side, Rose and I stood out on the deck to watch. Bernice and Wendy watched from inside the cabin. The spray was frequent with waves washing the rear deck.  Lots of White ­capped Mollymawks, Sooty Shearwaters, Common Diving Petrels and Prions it was hard to check as any attempt to hold the binos meant you were not as stable. Both Fairy and Broad-billed were present. For those who know how hard it is to ID seabirds when you are on a lurching deck will understands…. but it was good. A Cook’s Petrel was reported by one of the other groups.  We arrived at Bluff about 9:00 and after getting the bus out of the strangest car park system I ever have seen. We were on the Road… Again, again, again and off to Te Anau.  We found a new wetland restoration project with the Southland Fish and Game, the Rakatu wetlands between Tuatapere and Clifton. It will be good to keep an eye on that as more species settle into this area. Bernice wins the eagle eye award with the first NZ Pipit.  At Lunch time we took a walk in the Borland Nature trail, strangely almost eerie silence.  The Red Beech woods were beautiful but we all we stuck by the absence of bird life. We did find Chaffinch, Tomtit, Fantail Brown Creeper and Robin. We also watched Brown Trout in the stream. A quick stop on arrival at Te Anau at the Wildlife Centre did enable us to see what a Takahe looks like but the conditions were less than ideal.  Alpine, a blind female was 25 years old (human years 130) Species total 25.


The road trip to Milford is through some of the most stunning scenery possible with fantastic views of glacial geology, snow-capped mountains and forests. I had assisted DOC with Yellowhead mist netting in mid 1990’s when there were lots of birds around.  We could not find any Yellowheads. We did find Yellow-crowned Kakariki, Robin, Shining cuckoo Grey warblers Tui and Bellbirds.  We added Kea to the species list at Homer tunnel and spent over an hour and half in the attempt to see Rock Wren. We spoke with our colleagues who had spent nearly 2 hours over 2 days and seen one male.  The birds were not calling due to nesting and the one was seen near a large rock which we discretely surrounded at a safe distance and patiently waited.  Have you ever been looking through a spotting scope at rocks when you are asked what you are looking at by some member of the public?   We had several near misses as pale yellowhammers viewed from 100m plus look very similar until the binos squash your hopes of a Rock wren.  I suspect there is but one pair in that basin and at this time of year a heap of luck is needed to see them. We did get another NZ pipit.  We had lots of luck with Fern birds but we dipped out on Rock wren and Wrybill.
Milford was spectacular and clear, we just hit it perfect as it rained the day before and after. Fortunately we had seen the penguins on Stewart Island.  Daily Total 30.

  DAY 11 5 Dec TE ANAU to TWIZEL

This was our long day for travel and got under way a bit early to spend time near Athol for NZ Falcon which we had gotten a good tip on. Got it!!!!!  Fantastic views of a Female Falcon through the scope were had by all. A toilet stop at Garston was interesting for the old photos of Chinese gold miner’s graves stones that Rose was able to translate for us. This added a special bit to the very interesting mining history in that area.  We took a short detour into Queenstown for fuel and were all glad to get out of there.   Lupine while pretty…packs a punch with hay fever and filling in critical nesting habitat for braided river species such as Black-fronted terns and Black Stilts. We found hectares and hectares of the multihued plants.  It was tough going on the eyes near Omarama but we stopped to refresh and rest.  We had lunch at a delightful stream (Wairepo) viewing Chaffinch, Green finch, Yellow hammer Goldfinch, Black-fronted Terns and Pied Stilts.   Just before Twizel a Black stilt was spotted in a paddock with a Pied stilt partner showing in spite of the work to preserve the species, hybridization will still occur.  We looked around the Black Stilt conservation project but did not see any further stilts other than Pied ones.  We observed a Harrier attempting to catch Mallard ducklings. 32 species was our tally.


Last day and the weather is still holding well. The rural fire alarm caused a bit of wonder when it went off at Midnight or so. In the morning we departed Twizel for Tekapo. We went into Lake Alexandra and were delighted to find 13 pairs of the Crested Grebe along with NZ Scaup, Mallards and Swans.  Up the Mt Johns road to the Observatory looking for Chukor, an introduced partridge from Asia. We found 2 on the way down after fantastic views of the lakes and Alps as a backdrop. Earlier we had some great views of Mt Cook.  Lots of Harriers along the road and out of Tekapo we found two feral Turkeys. In to the home stretch, we had one more go for Wrybill on the Ashburton River, but this bird was to allude us again.  A Black-billed Gull colony of nearly 2500+ had been established near the highway bridge due in part to early season flooding in the upper catchment. We saw Little Shag fishing and a number of finches and sparrows.   I dropped the team off at airport with hugs and best wishes and returned our trusty Van.      32 Species for today

       So…….12 Days, over 2000kms, through nearly habitat possible, except desert:   sea level to alpine, in nearly every season in one day, we travelled. New Zealand has a lot to offer in a small space, but sadly the impacts of predation and habitat modification are still being played out on the native bird species.   We saw 96 species in total and were unfortunate to miss on Wrybill and Rock Wren….I get some in a cage for next time.  All in all it was a great trip !!! Janene’s planning and preparations were superb. The facilities and people we stayed with excellent overall.   I would like to thank Wendy, Rose and Bernice for their companion ship and support on this trip. I was most impressed at their strength and interest in the birds of NZ, an 11 day trip is tough and so were these ladies. Happy Birding.

  Rob Lawrence  NZ guide for FTB

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Photos of Variegated Fairy-wren and Little Tern courtesy of Neil Fifer