New Zealand: Birding the edge of the world

Imagine standing in a humid temperate forest dominated by towering Nothofagus beech trees. An immense moa browses the leaves overhead as a smaller kiwi nearby probes into soil for earthworms. In the background the amazing piping of a talented Tui adds atmosphere to the misty air. A shadow against the sun, initially ignored by the monstrous moa, grows larger until it takes shape as a gigantic Haast’s Eagle stoops on the larger herbivore. With bone-crunching power, the eagle takes down the moa, and mantles it with its wingspan of more than eight feet — almost the size of the giant eagles who repeatedly rescued the protagonists in the Lord of the Rings movies!

Milford Sound
Milford Sound, photographed by participant Diana Bradshaw
Tui (or Parsonbird, for that neck tuft) by guide Phil Gregory
Tui (or Parsonbird, for that neck tuft) by guide Phil Gregory

This scene is not fiction however; it no doubt happened more than once before the islands were first discovered by the Polynesians who colonized them over a thousand years ago! Of course, shortly after humans arrived, they probably decided that a high priority was to eliminate a predator that had evolved to eat six-to-ten-foot-tall bipedal organisms! So we won’t have to be looking over our shoulders as we bird the islands. But still present in this island paradise are a number of impressive and unusual birds that evolved in isolation from terrestrial mammals — and indeed in many cases, evolved to fill the niches normally held by mammals!

New Zealand, now famous for being the backdrop for the scenic and absorbing Lord of the Rings movies, for producing the musical comedy duo Flight of the Conchords (if you haven’t already heard of these guys, do yourself a favor and look them up on Youtube!), and for having a lot of sheep, is an important destination for birders.

The "cheeky" Kea, by participant Linda Nuttall
The “cheeky” Kea, by participant Linda Nuttall

Nearly all of its landbirds, and many of its waterbirds, are endemic. Kiwis, Stitchbirds, and Saddlebacks (in endemic families!), and Yellowheads and others are viewable on offshore islands from which various introduced mammalian predators have been eliminated. Meanwhile, on the main islands, flightless Takahe (a husky Purple Gallinule relative) and Weka (an oversized rail) still patrol the understory of woodlands where the beautiful voices of Gray Gerygone and Bellbird pierce the silence.

The unique Rifleman and the mischievous Kea are found in treeline habitats of the picturesque Southern Alps. Seabird colonies on the coasts and offshore islands still teem with breeding penguins, albatrosses, shearwaters, and petrels. Coastal estuaries of the islands are of global importance as wintering sites for Palearctic (and even Nearctic) wintering Bar-tailed Godwit, and also host several endemic, or nearly so, oystercatchers, gulls, terns, stilts, the unique Wrybill, and even the attractive Royal Spoonbill.

White-capped Albatrosses, by participant Diana Bradshaw
White-capped Albatrosses, by participant Diana Bradshaw

Of course, a highlight is the opportunity to participate in what may be the “easiest” pelagic trips in the world — where we are only on the water for a few hours, but can see several species of albatross, including several forms of the Royal and Wandering species complexes, among the largest flying birds in the world), petrels, and perhaps (if really lucky) the New Zealand Storm-Petrel, a species thought to be extinct for about a century!

As if all this were not quite enough to tempt birders to visit, New Zealand also has famously friendly people who speak English (of a different subspecies!), serve sensible tea, provide very hospitable lodging, and offer some delicious food! Now, what more can you ask? Doesn’t spring (ahem, “autumn” for those of us from the Northern Hemisphere) in New Zealand sound like a great getaway? Come join me in this land at the edge of the world in November, and we’ll explore it together!

Join Dan in New Zealand November 3-21 this fall. Visit our tour page for more information, including a complete itinerary and past triplists.

Landscape near Homer Tunnel on the South Island (Photo by participant Linda Nutall)
Landscape near Homer Tunnel on the South Island (Photo by participant Linda Nuttall)