Thursday, May 16, 2019

Post #157 - An update on my book and a bunch of photos!

First, I want to apologize for the lack of recent content. I've been directing all my efforts into my book, and terrible weather since January has reinforced writing as a more productive use of my time than biking, birding, or photographing. I have, however, received several recent inquires about book progress, so I'll use this post to offer a quick update. These questions have commonly taken three forms, so let's start with those, cool? 

1) What is the book about?
2) Why is it taking so long?
3) Do I have a publisher?
4) What is the title?

Since all words and no pictures is no fun, I've interspersed a bunch of pictures I took on Dauphin Island, Alabama where I gave a lecture for the Alabama Ornithological Society in mid-April. It's a great place to photograph shorebirds (and view neotropical migrants!). All of the shown birds are molting from basic into breeding plumage.

***click on all images for larger, higher resolution views***

Short-billed Dowitcher - Limnodromus griseus
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/4000 at f/7.1 ISO 640

1) What is the book about? 
Most generally, this book is about my 2014 bicycle Big Year. However, it is less a bird-by-bird account of my uniquely self-powered effort and more a story of adventure and personal discovery. I use the bicycle as a vehicle to explore physical space (i.e. bird my way around the country), and I augment that primary narrative with a more personal history of my alcoholism and the insecurities which fueled it. My task is very ambitious, especially for a first time writer, but I feel I have finally struck an appropriate balance of biking, birding, character development, observational meditation, humor, and personal introspection. I think my story will have appeal well beyond the traditional birding market, so it's important I take my time and get it right if I hope to align my work with other successful memoirs.

Short-billed Dowitcher - Limnodromus griseus
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/4000 at f/7.1 ISO 640

2) Why it is taking so long?
I worked (and commuted) 60 hours per week in LA during 2015 and 2016, so I made minimal progress in the two years following my adventure. I produced a very poor first draft during that time, largely based on bad guidance, and I scrapped 95% of it when I left LA, moved to SF for my wife's job, and started writing full time in May of 2017. My second version, written from May 2017 to May 2018, was much better, but I did zero work on the book from June to October because of my Colombian consulting gig with Audubon Society. That four-month hiatus was surprisingly helpful, and things really clicked when I began a heavily-revised and structurally-streamlined third draft in October of last year. I've been on a roll since then, and I have 20 of 28 chapters in a form I feel worthy of agent/publisher attention. Writing about my alcoholism - and all the problems it caused - in an open an honest way is also really draining, so I can only stand so much each day.

Semipalmated Sandpiper - Calidris pusilla
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/3200 at f/5.6 ISO 640

3) Do you have a publisher yet?
I am just beginning to think about publishers. I knew writing would be a very protracted process, and I wanted to allow time to find my voice and develop a narrative structure to articulate it. Fortunately, my wife has a great job and has been very supportive, so I haven't needed to rush a substandard product to agents/publishers (which they'd reject anyway). I am currently working with someone who deals with New York publishing houses and knows this literary space very well, so I am hopeful something will pan out. I am confident someone will publish this book; I just have to be patient and connect with the right person if I haven't already found her.

Short-billed Dowitcher - Limnodromus griseus
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II + 1.4x III on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/3200 at f/8, ISO 1000

4) What is the title?
I do, but it's top secret! I will tell you it doesn't reference birds or birding. I have a couple of backups but will ultimately defer to whatever a publisher thinks best.

So, that's my life right now: lots of writing, a bit of birding, and not much shooting since all the shorebirds and ducks have migrated away! I hope to crank out at least more entry this month, so please stay tuned for that!

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Post #156 - Birdwatching in New Zealand, part 4: Kaikoura and pelagics

Quick note
This is the fourth post in my Birding in New Zealand series. Like the others, it is meant as a permanent online reference, is long and detailed, and will be archived in the International Birding Resources tab under the main banner heading. The other posts in the series are:
Post #153 - Birding in NZ, part 1: Background, preparation, logistics
Post #154 - Birding in NZ, part 2: Endemic birds and suggested South Island routes

Kaikoura Overview
If you are fired-up by albatrosses, petrels, whales, dolphins, and seals, then there's no better destination than Detroit! Did I say Detroit? I mean Kaikoura, a small, charming, and stunningly beautiful town 2.5 hours north of Christchurch on New Zealand's South Island. Though this post will feature a heavy birdwatching slant, Kaikoura is one of New Zealand's - and possibly the world's - great ecotourism destinations. There is so much to see and do, and the destination is as popular with hardcore birders as it is families. Birders should definitely keep reading, but I'll point everyone towards Kaikoura's official website for more information. The site is really well done, and I've modified the below map from it. Hopefully they won't give me a hard time considering I'm marketing their ecotourism product!

Why Kaikoura?
Kaikoura is similar to Monterey, California in that it offers very easy access to a deepwater submarine canyon. Life abounds in that pelagic habitat, and nutrient upwellings along the canyon walls attract birds and marine mammals in astounding numbers. The beauty of Kaikoura is that visitors need not reach far from shore to enjoy the ocean's riches. I was into Wandering Albatrosses, Dusky Dolphins, and Sperm Whales just 20 minutes from the dock! Kaikoura is arguably the best and most accessible pelagic birding on Earth.

Why Kaikoura? Because who wouldn't enjoy this?!?!?!

Pelagic birding in Kaikoura
As far as Kaikoura is concerned, you need know only one name: Albatross Encounter (AE), a branch of the larger and more popular Dolphin Encounter with which AE shares a facility (reservation desk, cafe, and gift shop, etc). AE really has their act together as evidence by the eBird Hotspot dedicated to their trips. I took two trips on consecutive mornings and saw Wandering, Royal, White-capped, Salvin's, and Buller's Albatrosses between the two trips. Wandering and Royal were undoubtedly the most impressive. Both have wingspans nearing 11 feet and came into the chum slick at the back of the boat. It's difficult to comprehend such huge birds until the fly past you at distance of fifteen feet!

Wandering Albatross - Diomedea exulans
Photographed off Kaikoura (land in background)
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/5000 at f/5.6, ISO 640

Wandering Albatrosses, Northern Giant-Petrels, 
and Cape Petrels behind our boat
The lighting was really, really bad on both my trips, sadly

Beyond the albatrosses, Northern Giant-Petrel, Cape Petrel, White-chinned Petrel, Westland Petrel, Flesh-footed Shearwater, Buller's Shearwater, Sooty Shearwater, and Hutton's Shearwater all made appearances. The Hutton's is particularly interesting because it nests only the mountains to the west of Kaikoura. It's a New Zealand breeding endemic and would be a full/true endemic if it didn't venture into Australian waters during the non-breeding months. Young and disoriented adult birds are often found in town as they crash out between the mountains and sea, and there is an extensive protocol to rehabilitate and release the birds that are recovered.

Northern Giant-Petrel in flight......

......and up close!

Cape Petrel

Westland Petrel (left), White-chinned Petrel (right)
Westland's black-tipped bill used to distinguish these species.
Lighting was awful for dark birds.

We saw several loads of Dusky Dolphins, some right next to the boat, and even a couple Sperm Whales. Time inshore produced great looks at various shags and New Zealand Fur Seal (photos below). The only regret I have was the the lighting was awful for all but 20 minutes of my two trips, so photos haver zero color and contrast. It was really frustrating, but I couldn't control it.

Adult New Zealand Fur Seal eating octopus (left), pup (right)

You get the idea. Kaikoura pelagic trips are a lot of fun. AE runs up to three trips a day, so contact them and see which trips are going. Everything you might need to know is on their website.

Other Stuff to do in Kaikoura

Dolphin Swimming

Chances are you'll see at least some whales and dolphins on your birding trip, so you might be able to pass on a dedicated whale watch. However, we didn't do dolphin swimming and we kind of wish we had. If you're interested in that, then I'll point you back to Dolphin Encounter as that's squarely in their wheelhouse.

Seal Swimming
This we did do, sort of. The idea is great - get in a boat, go to seal colony,  and swim around with the animals - but it doesn't always come to fruition, mostly because of weather. Outside of hunting/fishing, seals rest/sleep. If it's cool, then they'll lay on the rocks all day. If it's hot, then they'll spend a lot of time paddling about the shallows to stay cool. Since it was cold and cloudy on our day, we struck out on activity. We could see dozens of seals sleeping on the rocks as we snorkeled around the colony, but none of them swam. It was still a cool experience, and Seal Swimming Kaikoura issued us a 50% refund since we didn't swim with seals. They were a really classy operation, and I would highly recommend them. The trick is to pick your moment and go when it's sunny and hot. Also try to pick a windless day as swimming will be easier and underwater visibility will be better (less stirred-up sediment).

Otherwise visitors can rent kayaks and bikes, poke around in tide pools, relax on the beach, and explore the town and its many restaurants and shops. Kaikoura is small, but Sonia and I had several independent strolls along the main drag, usually with ice cream in hand. Of all the places we went in New Zealand, we liked Stewart Island and Kaikoura the best (hence posts dedicated to those place).
If you're a die hard pelagic birder and missed the Stewart Island post (#155), I'll point you there for yet more pelagic info!

OK, that's it for Kaikoura, for now. Not sure what's up next, but check back in a week or so!

Wednesday, April 10, 2019

Post #155 - Birdwatching in New Zealand, part 3: Stewart Island

Quick note
This is the third post in my Birding in New Zealand series. Like the others, it is meant as a permanent online reference, is very long and detailed, and will be archived in the International Birding Resources tab under the main banner heading. The other posts in the series are:
Post #153 - Birding in NZ, part 1: Background, preparation, logistics
Post #154 - Birding in NZ, part 2: Endemic birds and suggested South Island routes
Post #156 - Birding in NZ, part 4: Kaikoura and pelagics

Stewart Island Overview
Stewart Island is located 20 miles off the south end of New Zealand's South Island. It's a wild outpost, and all New Zealand visitors - birdwatchers and others - are encouraged to explore the remote but surprisingly charming destination. With nothing between it and Antarctica but a few tiny and uninhabited island, you'll feel like you're at the end of the Earth. Though the town of Oban is pretty cool, Stewart's real lure - as the rest of New Zealand - is outdoor activities. Stewart is to the rest of New Zealand what New Zealand is to the rest of the world: a wonderful place to unwind and explore nature!

Getting there
There are two ways to reach Stewart Island: ferry and plane, both from Bluff. Neither is cheap, but the boat offers pelagic birding en route. I managed Buller's Albatross, White-capped Albatross, Northern Giant Petrel, Sooty Shearwater, and Common Diving-petrel on my crossings. Birding can be a bit challenging because the boat moves really fast. It can be a bit bouncy but most should survive the hour crossing. Book in advance but watch the weather as your crossing approaches. If the wind is forecast to strengthen through the day, you might want to jump on an earlier ferry if there's space. Ferries are cancelled with some frequency, and it would be a bummer to lose a day on the island if you can't make it out or be forced to scramble for lodging if you can't make it back.

Upon arriving, you'll disembark in the tiny municipality of Oban. There's not much to it, just two blocks of main street and a couple of satellite businesses. Everything you need is right there, so most people stay near the ferry terminal and walk everywhere. We splurged and stayed slightly out of town in an apartment that came with a car, a luxury that let us explore a bit farther afield. ( There aren't but 20 (maybe?) miles of navigable road in/around Oban, so a bike is probably the best way to explore - assuming you're not carrying a ton of camera gear like me! The South Sea Hotel and associated restaurant/bar/patio is the center of activity, and the Church Hill Restaurant is apparently excellent. We, however, found the fish 'n chips at the Kai Kart so good that we ate there both nights (#healthylivingfail).

Things to do
Tourism is Oban's lifeline, and the locals have figured out how to keep visitors busy. Most of the activities are outdoor-oriented, and I will highlight those that will be of particular interest to birders. All the tour operators have offices on the main street, and Department of Conservation visitors center is really helpful if you have questions. Just walk in, they don't bite.

Ulva Island (eBird Hotspot)
Ulva is a tiny predator-free Island in Patterson Inlet (map below) where close views of some of New Zealand's rarer endemic birds are routine. New Zealand Kaka are everywhere, and you should find Yellowhead and South Island Saddleback with sufficient searching. Red- and Yellow-crowned Parakeets are also present, and you might get a daytime glimpse of Southern Brown Kiwi if you're really lucky! The flightless Weka (a large rail) is also present, so don't immediately assume a large brown bird running across the ground is a kiwi. Weka are very curious and will often approach you, particularly if you're eating lunch one of the Ulva's many secluded beaches. Other endemics we observed during our 3-hour walk included New Zealand Pigeon, Variable Oystercatcher, Foveaux Shag, Red-billed Gull, Tui, New Zealand Bellbird, Pipipi, New Zealand Fantail, and the super-tame New Zealand Robin. An incredible 14 of the 17 species we found were endemic!

A number of guided walks are offered (individual and group), but Ulva's Guided Walks are a particularly good place to start. Many operators package a guided walk on Ulva with a pelagic trip and kiwi spotting (more on those in a bit) to maximize the Stewart experience, but it's possible to take a water taxi and wonder around Ulva on your own. The island is small  (~2 miles long, ~1 mile across) and the trails clearly marked, so getting lost in a non-issue. Lower tides are better as more of Ulva's beaches are exposed, but it's always cool. Go. It's awesome. Even more than the fish n' chips.

Wife Sonia birding on Ulva's well-marked trail

Endemics Yellowhead (left) and South Island Saddleback (right)

Beach on Ulva

Pelagic trips
While it's possible to tick a few species on the ferry ride, undertaking a pelagic trip from Stewart/Oban is highly recommended. Most operators use small boats and get you right on top of the birds. There's no need to go very far, and most trips last just 3-4 hours. We went with Rakiura Charters and engineered a 'land & sea' excursion. They dropped us on Ulva at 9am, and we wandered around on our own until 12:30 when we boarded another boat heading directly out to the Muttonbird Islands (where 5 million Sooty Shearwaters nest) and pelagic grounds. It was super easy, and I strongly suggest coupling the two, especially if you have a good weather day to cram everything in. The list of pelagic possibilities is huge. Check out this eBird hotspot!

Foveaux Shag (endemic, left), Brown Skua (right)

Endemic Yellow-eye Penguin from my pelagic.

Most of the pelagics are 'on-demand' meaning they don't run every day. You need to contact the outfit and arrange a trip ahead of time. If there's a booking on the day you want to go, you'll join the existing reservation. If you initiate a new booking, know that a minimum charge of 3 people is usually needed to make the boat go. If you only have two, you'll have to absorb the the cost of a third person unless others join your reservation. If you go November to March, chance are you won't need to worry about having enough people. The cool thing is the boat is really small and only holds ~8 people. You get really close to the birds, especially if it's not windy and the albatrosses are sitting on the water as they were on my day out. I highly recommend Rakiura, but it's worth checking with Aihe or Aurora if Rakiura is booked or not running.

Buller's Albatross - Thalassarche bulleri
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS 5D Mark IV
1/4000, at f/5.6, ISO 640

Kiwi Spotting
This is probably the most popular eco-activity on Stewart Island. The island has a healthy population of the Southern Brown Kiwis, and visitors should find the flightless feather-balls with a moderate amount of nocturnal dedication. We had two nights on Stewart - the intervening day for Ulva and Pelagic - so we decided we'd look for the birds on our own the first night; if we struck out, we'd pay to join a group on the second. The car allowed us a bit of flexibility, so we cruised some of the roads on the edge of town and found one bird along Horseshoe Cove Road. The bird was really mellow and foraged at out feet for a half-hour. It was pretty amazing! 

Southern Brown Kiwi under red light (more on this below)

Beware of getting too close during mating season. The flightless birds possess Lebron James-like leaping ability, and territorial males have been known to jump up and peck people in the face. Short-statured adults and children under 12 should be fitted with protective safety glasses before embarking on any kiwi-spotting venture. Anyone taller than 42 inches should be fine. Still buying it? If yes, I should also tell you about how they use human fingers as chum on pelagic trips. But I digress. No more BS, I promise.

We found two more kiwis on the roadside right in front of our motel/apt on the second night. They are rather noisy as they stomp around and forage, and walking road in the dark and listening for rustling is very effective. You can find these guys just about anywhere, so it's mostly about putting in enough time. Our car helped us get out of town, but you need not venture much more than a mile from the ferry terminal to be in prime kiwi habitat. Traill Park in town is apparently a decent place to find the birds, so you can give that a try if nothing else. If looking for kiwis on your own sound futile, then contact Ulva's Guided Walks or Ruggedy Range and join one of their nighly outings.

Another Southern Brown Kiwi!

We used a red LED headlamp because white light can stress the birds and send them scampering into the brush. With it, we were able to walk right up to the birds once we spotted them.  If you only have a white light, stop into the Department of Conservation (DoC) building on the main street. They will furnish you with a piece of red cellophane you can use to filter a white flashlight. The cellophane is free, but you should return it DoC before you leave the island. This is true, despite my attempts to mess with you earlier! Stewart residents are used to people wandering the roads at night, but please be careful anyway.

While most birders won't have the time or interest for serious hiking, I'll mention it in case anyone not obsessed with birds actually reads this blog. There are a number of short day hikes, and a 10-day loop of the entire north section of the island is possible. But that's only for the REALLY hardcore. More appealing might be the 32km, 3-day loop through the center of the island. The DoC maintains a series of huts with beds and kitchens along the track, so you need only carry a sleeping bag and food but not other backcountry camping clutter like ent, sleeping pad, pots, etc. This is a good place to start for general information about hiking on Stewart Island, particularly day hikes. Otherwise you can just drop into the DoC office when you arrive. They'll be able to answer any questions you have.

OK, that's about it for this installment. Stewart Island is totally worth the visit; between Ulva, pelagics, and kiwis, you won't be disappointed. There are also other activities like kayaking and fishing, so there's no shortage of things to do. Stewart is as much a lifestyle as anything else, and I think any trip to New Zealand would be incomplete without a visit.

Next up? Kaikoura and pelagics!

Saturday, March 30, 2019

Post #154 - Birdwatching in New Zealand, part 2 - Endemic birds and suggested South Island routes

Quick note
This is the second post in my Birding in New Zealand series. It is meant as a permanent online reference, is very long and detailed, and will be archived in the International Birding Resources tab under the main banner heading. The other post in the series are:
Post #153 - Birding in NZ, part 1: Background, preparation, logistics
Post #155 - Birding in NZ, part 3: Stewart Island
Post #156 - Birding in NZ, part 4: Kaikoura and pelagics

I will use this post to highlight New Zealand's endemic birds, specifically those found on the South Island where I recently traveled. Once the key South Island birds are identified, I present a sample itinerary anyone could use as a starting point for his/her own birding adventure. Stewart Island, the large-ish island 20 miles off the south end of the South Island, is lumped it with the South Island, but I will sometimes refer specifically to it. The more distant Chatham and Subantarctic Islands are beyond the scope - and budget - of most birders who visit New Zealand, so I won't discuss them in depth.

Wide view of New Zealand and Subantarctic Islands

Recall from my previous post that only ~350 species have been eBirded from New Zealand, and a life list of 200 is considered pretty respectable (kinda like 700 in the traditional ABA area). The NZ Big Year record is 220 by Brett Stephenson in 2015, and I observed just 92 species in my 17 days on the South Island in March of 2019. Importantly, > 90% of my checklists featured < 20 species.

What does this mean? It means NZ birding is more about chasing down the endemic species than enjoying half days of general birding. You don't need much time at each spot, and the trick is to keep moving to cover as much ground as possible. In that spirit, I'll dissect New Zealand's endemic birds and present a strategy to find those occurring on the South Island in a relatively short time. That will leave plenty of time to sample/enjoy some of the many non-birding activities New Zealand offers!

South Island with key birding areas indicated

Geographic breakdown of New Zealand's endemic birds
As best as I can synthesize from multiple sources, New Zealand has ~68 endemic species. I've parsed them into 4 categories:

Found on North and South (30 species)

Found only on North (7 species, including Shore Plover which is also on Chatham)
Found only on South (14 species)
Found only on Chatham/Pitt and/or Subantarctic Islands (17 species)

So, the North Island hosts 37 endemics (30+7) and the South Island hosts 44 (30+14); together the two islands host 51 (30+7+14). Sadly, another 19 endemics are extinct.

The rationale for the technicolor names will become clear in a moment. I apologize to those reading this in an email versus the web version. The colors look terrible in the email but great on the web where this post will be archived forever!

Found on both North and South/Stewart (30 species)
Paradise Shelduck (widespread, can't miss)
New Zealand Scaup (widespread, Te Anau good)
Brown Teal (super rare on South, better sought on North)
Blue Duck (highly localized)
New Zealand Grebe (common on North, a few round Blenheim on South)
New Zealand Pigeon (widespread, can't miss)
Weka (widespread on both islands, but more on South. Can't miss on Stewart)
South Island Takahe (very heavily managed on both islands)
Red-breasted Dotterel (Northern and Southern populations, best sought on North Island)
Black Stilt (Highly localized, better sought on South. Mackenzie Basin best)
South Island Oystercatcher (widespread, can't miss)
Variable Oystercatcher (widespread, can't miss)
Wrybill (widespread but localized)
Black-billed Gull (widespread, can't miss)
Red-billed Gull (widespread, can't miss)
Black-fronted Tern (widespread on both Islands, more common on South)
New Zealand Falcon (widespread but uncommon)
Kapapo (extreme management, won't see in wild setting, if at all)
New Zealand Kaka (widespread, can't miss on Stewart)
Red-crowned Parakeet (localized, Stewart is best)
Yellow-crowned Parakeet (localized, Stewart is best)
Long-tailed Koel (widespread but localized)
Rifleman (widespread, can't miss)
Tui (widespread, can't miss)
New Zealand Bellbird (widespread, can't miss)
Gray Gerygone (widespread, can't miss)
New Zealand Fantail (widespread, can't miss)
Tomtit (widespread, can't miss)
New Zealand Robin (widespread, can't miss)
Fernbird (widespread but localized. Dunedin to Invercargil best)

Found only on South (14 species)

Southern Brown Kiwi (localized but common on Stewart)
Okarito Brown Kiwi (found in a tiny area most birders won't visit)
Great Spotted Kiwi (Localized on West Coast and Northwest, Arthur's Pass)
Yellow-eyed Penguin (localized between Otago, Dunedin, Stewart)
Spotted Shag (widespread, can't miss)
Otago Shag (localized around Dunedin but common)
Foveaux Shag (localized but can't miss on Stewart)
New Zealand King Shag (highly localized to Cook Straight)
Kea (widespread in mountains. Arthur's Pass and road to Milford Sound are best)
Malherbe's Parakeet (rare, found in tiny area most birders won't visit)
South Island Wren (localized in Fiordland, West Coast, Arthur's Pass)
Yellowhead (localized in Fiordland, West Coast. Stewart is best)
Pipipi (aka Brown Creeper, widespread, can't miss)
South Island Saddleback (highly localized, Stewart is best)

Found only on North (7 species)

North Island Brown Kiwi (widespread but localized)
Little Spotted Kiwi (highly localized, managed islands)
Shore Plover (highly localized, also on Chatham)
Whitehead (widespread, can't miss)
North Island Kokako (highly localized)
North Island Saddleback (highly localized, managed areas)
Stitchbird (highly localized, managed areas)

Found only on Chatham and/or Subantarctic Islands (17 species)

Auckland Islands Teal
Campbell Islands Teal
Chatham Islands Pigeon
Auckland Islands Rail
Chatham Oystercatcher
Chatham Islands Snipe
Snares Islands Snipe
Subantarctic Snipe
Pitt Island Shag
Campbell Island Shag
Auckland Island Shag
Bounty Island Shag
Chatham Island Shag
Chatham Island Parakeet
Antipodes Parakeet
Reischek's Parakeet
Chatham Robin

Endemic Paradise Shelduck - Tadorna variegata
Photographed in Mackenzie Basin
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II +1.4x III on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/2500 at f/5.6, ISO 320

I only visited the South Island on my recent trip, so I am going to restrict my focus to those 44 color-coded species. These - plus a few species I'll mention at the end - are where visiting birders should focus. I have not included pelagic species as they will required dedicated pelagic trips to find. Pelagic trips will be covered in Post #155 (Stewart Island) and Post #156 (Kaikoura).

OK, back to endemics. The color coding for the 44 endemics found on the South Island (including Stewart) is as follows:

The 18 green species are so common you cannot miss them. They require no discussion or dedicated effort.

The 7 yellow species are best sought - and often common - on Stewart Island. Birders will have to go out there for Southern Brown Kiwi anyway, but the island is totally worth the trip regardless of birding. The parakeets can be tricky, but there are back-up spots on the South Island mainland if they're missed on Stewart. All of these birds can be found elsewhere, but they're clustered and pretty easy on Stewart (again, more details in next post).

The 6 red birds come with major caveats, explained below. They can be mostly discounted from your South Island thinking.

Brown Teal (eBird page) has historically inhabited the South Island, but there are only a few (< 10) eBird records from the last decade. This bird is much better sought on the North Island around Auckland or Wellington, mostly in managed areas and on protected islands. Don't waste South Island energy on it.

South Island Takahe (eBird page) was long thought extinct until rediscovered in Fiordland in 1948. Since then the birds have been heavily managed, and visitors cannot expect to see a truly wild bird without serious backcountry hiking. With the North Island Takahe officially extinct (not anticipating rediscovery), the South Island Takahe has been re-introduced in managed and predator-free zones/islands on the North Island, specifically near Auckland (Tiritiri Mangani) and Wellington. The best bet to see this bird on the South Island is to visit Oronokui Ecosanctuary just north of Dunedin. Some people eBird/count the Oronokui birds even though they're basically captive. I did not.

Endemic South Island Takahe - Porphyrio hochstetteri
Poorly lit record shot of bird at Oronokui Ecosanctuary

Red-breasted Dotterel (eBird page) has two subspecies, one quite common on the north end of the North Island and another very rare on the south end of South Island. The South Island population nests in remote parts of Stewart Island, so it's in accessible during the summer months when most birders will come. They winter on the south end of the South Island, so they can be seen at that season. This species is a bit like Brown Teal in that is in technically found on both islands but much better sought on the North. If the populations are split, then it becomes a different story.

Kakapo (eBird page) is much like South Island Takahe because the tiny surviving population is very heavily managed. They are only found on predator-free, restricted-access islands (Codfish off Stewart, Anchor off Fiordland on the South Island, and Little Barrier north of Auckland). You can forget about seeing this bird in a wild/countable setting.

Okarito Brown Kiwi (eBird page) is the rarest and most range-restricted of the 5 kiwi species. It lives only in Okarito on the West Coast, a place most birders won't invest the time to visit. I actually had good looks at the bird by slowly driving the Okarito access road in the middle of the night. For those that want help with this bird, I would suggest Okarito Kiwi Tours. They are the experts and your best chance to find this rare species. The bird is there; Okarito is just too far out of the way for most birders (it's on the West Coast right near Franz Joseph); hence the designation I've assigned it.

Malherbe's Parakeet (eBird page) is another super rare bird about which there is little information. Though Arthur's Pass has produced a few sightings in the past decade, the only other spot for this species is Blumine Island in the Cook Straight, close to where New Zealand King Shag is found. I have no idea how one would get there - or if access is even permitted.

Eliminating the very common endemics, the endemics to be found on Stewart, and the endemics with major caveats, that leaves just 13 endemics on which South Island birders need focus. There are treated individually below. In searching for these birds birders will invariably find everything else.

Endemic Variable Oystercatcher - Haematopus unicolor
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/2000 at f/5.6, ISO 800

Great Spotted Kiwi (eBird page) - Sightings of this bird are concentrated in three places: Paparoa National Park on the West Coast, Kuhurangi National Park at the far north end of the South Island, and Arthur's Pass. The first two are really out of the way compared to everything else, so Arthur's Pass will be the best best (can triple up with South Island Wren and Kea). Seeing this sneaky nocturnal bird is really tough, so most will have to settle for heard-only ticks. Kiwi are most vocal in Spring and summer (Sept - Feb), so keep that in mind.

Blue Duck (eBird page) - Best bet on the South Island for this uncommon bird is to check the creek crossings between Te Anau and Milford Sound in Fiordland. Same goes for creeks/rivers on the West Coast and Arthur's Pass. They like rushing mountain streams - similar to Torrent Duck in South America - so you could run into them anywhere that criteria is met. There are also a lot of backcountry sightings from those willing to hike. I did not find this bird but didn't push that much effort into it since I was doing stuff beyond birding. The North Island is also an option for this species.

New Zealand Grebe (eBird page) - Super common on North Island, this species just reaches across the Cook Straight to the South Island near Blenheim (Taylor Dam, Lake Elterwater). If you're going to the North Island, forget about looking for this bird on the South. If you happen to be in Blenheim - or want to make a day trip from Kaikoura for it - hit the indicated spots.

Black Stilt (eBird page)- With ~130 individual birds remaining, this is the world's rarest shorebird. The Mackenzie Basin below Mount Cook and around Lakes Tekapo and Pukaki is the best place for this species. Glentanner and the Tasman Delta at the north end of Pukaki are particularly good. In the shadows of Mount Cook, the scenery is amazing!

Endemic Black Stilt (aka Kaki) - Himantopus novaezelandiae
Photographed in Mackenzie Basin
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/2500 at f/5.6, ISO 800
*I was in chest-deep water for this shot. It was f'ing cold. 

Wrybill (eBird page) - These guys like braided rivers, so the Mackenzie Basin Black Stilt spots are good. Lake Ellsmere South Of Christchurch is classic area but access can bit a bit of headache from some points. I'm not sure which access point is best. I bushwacked at least a km to reach the store from the end of Clark Road. Note - some/lots/most? of these migrate to the North Island for the winter, so they are easiest on the South Island from Dec-Feb. There are some areas north of Christchurch that can be good at the right time of year. The Coromandel is very good for them on the North Island, especially in winter.

Yellow-eyed Penguin (eBird page) - This rapidly declining bird is the world's rarest penguin and an absolute must see for any visiting birder. The Otago Peninsula is the best bet for this bird. It's possible to run into this bird on any of the peninsula's beaches, but the tour operated by Penguin Place is a good option as they have private access to a stable colony. They also rehab penguins, so your tour fee really helps the species. I'd consult eBird to see where birds have recently been seen. North of Dunedin/Otago, Katiki Point has an easily accessible colony as well. Really, though, this bird could be encountered anywhere along the coast from Dunedin to Bluff (where the Stewart Island Ferry departs). Stewart is also a good spot. I saw one bird on the Muttonbird Islands.

Endemic Yellow-eyed Penguin - Megadyptes antipodes
Photographed at Katiki Point 
Canon 600mm f/4 IS II on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/1250 at f/7.1, ISO 800

Otago Shag (not yet split in eBird, no page) - This species and Foveaux Shag were considered conspecific as Stewart Island Shag until very recently. Otago should be observed while searching for Yellow-eyed Penguin around Otago Peninsula (Forveaux will be found on Stewart Island, as indicated). I saw it (Otago) at the Royal Albatross Center but imagine Penguin Place could be good as well. Might also see on Monarch Cruises. However, there's no need to pay to see this bird, just look around Dunedin/Otago on your own!

New Zealand King Shag (eBird page) - Boat trip into Queen Charlotte Sound from Picton. e-Ko Tours is one option. Beachcomber is another. I've used neither. This Motuara Island Bird Sanctuary looks pretty sweet. Again, I have not visited but did some of searches for you! I imagine you could get really lucky and see this bird from the main Interislander Ferry that goes between the North and South Islands, but I don't know for sure. You're probably going to have to schedule a trip and pay for this bird.

New Zealand Falcon (eBird page) - I'm not sure there's a specific spot for this bird, so you need to keep your eyes open for as you move around. I saw 4 different individuals: one north of Blenheim, two at Trotter's Gorge Campsite near Katiki Point, and one on the Kepler track outside Te Anua in Fiordland. 

Kea - (eBird page) Look in Fiordland (Te Anau, Road to Milford Sound), Mt Cook, and at Arthur's Pass. You'll find it at one of those places, places birding itineraries are likely to visit anyway. These birds are super curious and sometimes land on cars parked on the side of the road. They're usually quite approachable!

Endemic Kea - Nestor notabilis
Photographed at Arthur's Pass
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/500 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

Long-tailed Koel (eBird page- This is a Fiordland/West Coast/Arthur's Pass bird as far as the South Island in concerned. Searches for this and Blue Duck look like they'd be largely overlapping. I didn't see this species (or Blue Duck) and suspect both are more a matter of luck than anything else. It looks like a function of time spent in otherwise very slow-birding habitat. Also on North Island for those headed there.

Fernbird (eBird page) - Should be found between Dunedin/Otago and Catlins Coast south to Bluff/Invercargil, a stretch birders will traverse between Dunedin and Bluff. More often heard than seen. Oronokui Ecosanctuary just north of Dunedin (they have captive South Island Takahe, from above, remember?) is a classic spot. Also on North Island, though rarer. This species is pretty common; it's just skulky.

South Island Wren (eBird page) - Basically the same as Kea, and searches for the species are almost entirely overlapping. This bird is tiny, so you won't be able to spot it from hundreds of yards away like Kea. Best bet is to explore rockslide areas. Bird used to be called Rock Wren for a reason.

Here I want to mention Little (Blue) Penguin and Fiordland Penguin, two New Zealand natives shared with Australia. All NZ visitors are going to want to see loads of penguins, right?

Little Penguin (eBird page)- This incredibly cute bird is common around Christchurch, Oamaru, Dunedin/Otago, and Stewart Island. I highly recommend the evening penguin tour at the Royal Albatross Center outside Dunedin. It was a ton of fun. The birds come within about ten feet of visitors. A similar experience can be had at the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony. If you don't visit an established colony, you're most likely to see them paddling around coastal bays. But you want to see them on land, trust me!

Little (Blue) Penguin - Eudylptula minor
Record shot from tour at Royal Albatross Center
NO FLASH - taken using safe lights center's safe lights

Fiordland Penguin (eBird page) - This species is a nesting endemic and would be a true endemic if it didn't spend some of it's non-breeding time in Australian waters. Most of the birds are in inaccessible parts of Fiordland, so you have to get lucky and have one swim across your path (like on the Milford Sound boat cruise, for example). Stewart Island and the waters surrounding it can be good, and it helps if one of the local tour guides knows about resident pairs/nests. The birds do migrate out to sea for the non-breeding months, so they are hit-and-miss depending on when you come.  Keep your eyes open everywhere along the coast since you never know when one is going to waddle up onto shore.

Lastly, and even though it's a pelagic species to be covered later, I'll mention Royal Albatross because they nest on the Otago Peninsula at the Royal Albatross Center. The only 'mainland' nesting albatrosses in the world, they are a must see at Dunedin/Otago. You'll probably see them on pelagics, but seeing them flying over the land is pretty cool. You can also take tours to see the chicks, so there's that as well.

Suggested Itineraries

The southern third (including Stewart) is the best terrestrial birding on the South Island, and it would be easy to spend two days around Dunedin/Otago, two days on Stewart, and two days in Te Anua/Fiordland/Milford. Throw in a day for partying/skydiving in Queenstown, and you've got a great week! The more time you add, the more you can expand your horizons. In an ideal world, I'd have a day or two at Mt Cook/Mackenzie, a day around Arthur's Pass, and two full days around Kaikoura for pelagics. Kaikoura is an awesome town, and there are all sorts of other things to do like dolphin swimming, seal swimming, and whale watching (sorry, no whale swimming). Kaikoura will be featured in it's own post in about two weeks, stay tuned!

I think you could visit everywhere I've highlighted in 10-11 days, but it would probably be along a southern and one-way trajectory from Kaikoura. As I wrote in my previous post, 14-17 days would be much better since there is so much to see beyond birds. But you really don't need that much time if you only care about birding. To show you what I mean, here is a sample itinerary lifted directly from a well-known tour company. They do North and South Islands in 17 days, so you can see how they integrate the two geographies.

However, it's worth noting how rushed this itinerary is. The only 2-night stays on the South Island are in Te Anau (with intervening day for Milford Sound Boat trip, itself a 4-hour round trip drive) and Stewart Island (not worth it for less than two nights). Otherwise, they move every night. It's a whirlwind with a lot of driving. I don't present this to bash their itinerary but to show you how you might connect the places I've listed. It would be easy to use this as a template and do bits of it slower, particularly if you dispensed with the North Island. One the other hand, if you did the North first, you'd find a bunch of the endemics there and be able to slow a bit on the South. So consider that.

Anyway, I think that's enough at this stage. Between the birds and itineraries, I've given you a lot to think about. In the next installment, I'll feature Steward Island, so be ready for that!

New Zealand Sea Lion - Phocarctos hookeri
Photographed on Otago Peninsula
Canon 600 mm f/4 IS II on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/2500 at f/8 ISO 800