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

Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Post #153 - Birdwatching in New Zealand, part 1: Background, preparation, and logistics

Quick note
This is the first post in my Birding in New Zealand series. Like the others (linked when completed), it is meant as a permanent online resource, 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 #154 - Birding in NZ, part 2: Endemics and suggested South Island Routes
Post #155 - Birding in NZ, part 3: Stewart Island
Post #156 - Birding in NZ, part 4: Kaikoura and pelagics

Thousands of miles from anywhere but Australia, New Zealand offers great birding and fantastic scenery in an English-speaking and easily-navigable environment - provided visitors are comfortable driving on lefthand side of the road! Few places on earth have better tourist infrastructure, and everyone from backpackers to luxury travelers will find something suiting their budget and needs. I just returned from 17 days on the South Island, and I will use this post to outline some general considerations as you plan your own New Zealand adventures. More birding-specific posts will follow, so be sure to check back for those in the near future. 

Where is New Zealand!?!?

A quick bit of natural history
Originally associated with the Gondwana supercontinent that included South America, Africa, Antarctica, and Australia, Zealandia broke away from those geographies between 65 and 85 million years ago (the split formed the Tasman Sea). Most of the ancient landmass remains submerged beneath the sea, and geology suggests the raised bit we today know as New Zealand was probably underwater for hundreds of thousands or millions of years. Importantly, Zealandia went its own way before terrestrial mammals evolved (~ 50 million years ago), a point I'll consider further below. 

New Zealand and Zealandia

When tectonics and volcanic activity finally pushed a prototypical New Zealand above the Pacific waves, birds arrived from Australia (presumably) and took all sorts of evolutionary forms without the selective pressure of terrestrial mammals. Some species went so far as to dispense with flight altogether. Kiwis are New Zealand's most recognizable flightless birds, but Kakapo, a ground dwelling parrot, and Takahe, a large rail, are other notable examples. The New Zealand Falcon retained flight but oddly nests on the ground. Though bats and seals reached New Zealand, an absence of terrestrial mammals - and a general dearth of reptiles - guaranteed New Zealand's flightless birds thrived in pre-colonial times.

Everything changed when Polynesians and Europeans arrived in the 13th and 18th centuries, respectively. The huge and cassowary-like Moas were quickly hunted to extinction, and many species suffered terminal or -near-terminal declines at the hand of introduced predators such as mice, rats, possums, weasels, stoats, and others. Herculean conservation efforts have been initiated to protect particularly vulnerable species, and the country had set the ambitious goal to be predator-free by 2050.

Moa rendering against human reference

Contemporary avifauna
Though much unique speciation occurred prior to the arrival of humans, New Zealand hosts comparatively few bird species. Approximately 350 species have been eBirded from New Zealand, and a life list of 200 seems quite respectable. However. what New Zealand lacks in numbers it makes up in endemics; ~51 are found on either the North, South, or both, and  ~17 additional are possible when Chatham Islands and the sub-Antarctic islands - Antipodes, Snares, Bounty, Aukland, Campbell - are included. For reference I saw 32 endemics in 17 days (without a ton of effort).

Kea - Nestor notabilis
An endemic and oddly alpine parrot
Canon 100-400mm f/4.5-5.6 IS II on EOS 1DX Mark II
1/1250 at f/5.6, ISO 1600

The country is also fortunate to host an incredible number of pelagic species, and visiting birders are strongly advised to undertake as many pelagic trips as possible. Don’t worry - with deepwater very close to shore, most NZ pelagic trips last 3 to 4 hours and rarely venture more than a few miles out to sea. It's not uncommon to see 6 species of albatross in a few hours. Three species of penguin are possible (even likely) on the mainland, so there's that as well.

Planning your visit
New Zealand is comprised of two major islands, North and South, that are together about the size of the United Kingdom. While there are certainly some differences at the birding level, both islands are wonderful. Spectacular scenery abounds, but the South’s more rugged terrain and thinner population make it more favored by birders and general outdoor enthusiasts. Just 20 miles from the mainland, Stewart Island is a must for anyone making it to the south end of the south island. It's an easy ferry ride from Bluff on the mainland with good pelagic birding en route. The island town of Oban is charming, and the surrounding area is the best place in the country to observe kiwi (Southern Brown). I'll have a whole post on Stewart Island coming soon.

Size comparison of the US, NZ (blue), and UK (pink)

Two considerations make planning a trip to New Zealand is a bit tricky: proximity and size. New Zealand is really far from the West Coast of the United States (and Europe) and offers much more to do that its small size suggests. You will  find most of the key birds on North and South Islands with 2 to 3 weeks, but you'll kick yourself if you spend all your time birding and forgo the hiking, scenic cruises, vineyards, and extreme sports (skydiving, bungee jumping, etc) that make New Zealand one of the world's premier outdoor destinations. You do not want to rush, so I’d advise doing New Zealand in two discrete trips with at least 14 days on each island. I know that’s not possible for most, but shorter trips - especially those visiting both island in under two weeks - will miss the best of what the country offers. 

You want time to explore deserted beaches
like this one on the Otago Peninsula

There are prefabricated/existing birding itineraries - usually 14 to 20 days - that sample the best of both islands (including Stewart and pelagics), but they move around a lot and miss the more generally outdoor awesomeness that is New Zealand. So, you need to decide if you want to go on a whirlwind birding tour or take a slower-paced and more exploratory course on your own. 

Skydiving in Queenstown. We jumped from 15,000 feet.
We had a blast with NZone!

Bonus destinations
Chatham Island, ~500 miles east of the South Island, is home to a handful of highly specialized endemics found nowhere else in New Zealand. However, Chatham requires an additional flight, necessitates complicated logistics, and is very expensive, so it's only for hardcore listers. The sub-Antarctic Islands take those caveats to greater extremes, but know they are there for the uber-adventurous and financially-able!

When to visit
New Zealand is in the Southern Hemisphere, so the seasons are reversed compared the United States and Europe. Spring is September through November, summer is December through February, fall is March through May, and winter is June through August. High season is usually November through March. Summer is the most expensive and crowded time to visit, Christmas being the absolute peak season. The endemic birds are around all year, so you'll see them whenever you come. Pelagic birding is also excellent year-round.

Wandering Albatrosses and Southern 
Giant Petrels squabbling over chum

Avoiding summer gives you more flexibility as places and activities tend to book up well in advance during that most popular season, campsites included. It's really nice to have day-to-dat flexibility depending on what birds you find and what the weather does. Save for the Stewart Island Ferry and our accommodations on that outpost, we didn't reserve anything more that two days in advance. Temperatures on our trip (March, South/Stewart) fluctuated between 75 degree during the day and 45 degrees at night. We had a bit of rain, but nothing crippling.

Fortunately, every season is wine season in New Zealand

Driving and rental cars
Assuming you can manage driving on the lefthand side of the road, driving in New Zealand is a snap, particularly on the sparsely populated South Island. Roads are in fantastic shape, and local drivers are courteous. It’s an incredibly relaxing place to drive, and having your own wheels will let you explore the country’s backroads and deserted beaches. It’s absolutely amazing to have a five-mile beach completely to oneself!

All the major rental companies operate out of the Auckland, Wellington, and Christchurch airports. We flew into the last, rented a small car, and drove ourselves around. It was easy. Gas is expensive, nearly $6 US a gallon, so rent a small and fuel-efficient car. We didn't need high clearance or four-wheel drive anywhere we went.

Our little hatchback did fine everywhere. 
Too bad it wasn't speckled!

New Zealand is very well set-up for camping, and campgrounds and camper van rentals are everywhere. So, those wanting to chart a more rustic or individualized course can certainly do that. Sonia and I lived out of our rental car, camped 8 nights, Airbnb’d 8 nights. It was all very easy. Be advised that New Zealand immigration policy is very strict; given the country's history with introduced species, they are hyper-vigilant about plant and animal hitchhikers. Expect your tent and hiking boots to be thoroughly inspected upon your arrival, and budget extra time (maybe 30 mins) during immigration in Aukland if you have a connecting flight to somewhere else. The Department of Conservation maintains campsites all over the country. There are  also loads of private campgrounds (mostly called Holiday Parks, equivalent to KOA-type campgrounds in US).

Dune camping in Kaikoura

Called ‘tramping’ locally, hiking is a basically a national pastime. There are hundreds of wonderful day hikes, and the more adventurous should lookin into the multi-day Great Walks. Those are really cool since you can stay in established backcountry huts along the way. Those visiting strictly for birding purposes are advised to skip hiking as all the sought birds can be found without the physical exertion the activity demands.

There's no shortage of scenery in New Zealand

Safety is a virtual non-issue. Kiwis are incredible friendly people, and there are always other travelers around to lend a hand. Hitchhiking is common and safe, even for women. We picked up a lovely German woman and had a wonderfully engaging discussion of international politics between Te Anau and Queenstown.

Oh, and unlike neighboring Australia where everything can kill you (crocodiles, spiders, snakes, cane toads, Bundaberg Rum, nothing beyond the occasional mosquitos or sand fly will bother you in New Zealand. There aren't even ticks! You can walk wherever you want without concern. Humans pose more threat to wildlife than the other way around (sadly, probably true everywhere these days), so please be careful wherever you go!

Slow down for kiwis!

Fish and chips are everywhere. Need any thing else? Seriously, though, we ate better in New Zealand than anywhere we’ve traveled. With so many backpackers around, something affordable  and usually decent - is always within reach. There are also many fine dining establishments, so folks with the budget for those will enjoy them. New Zealand wine is apparently fantastic (I don't drink), so try to make time for a few winery lunches. Though the cuisine everywhere is very meat forward, vegetarians should be able to survive, particularly at the many Asian restaurants.

Big Ugly unshaven after 16 days.
When did I get so old?!?!

OK, that's it for the moment. I hope someone finds all this useful! IN the next installment, I'll focus exclusively on the South Island birding. Please come back in about ten days for that....