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


  1. Great Post! Its worth noting how far the distances are between locations on South Island (and north, for that matter). I did as much birding as I was able when I visited with my wife but was constrained by time, sight-seeing and the trip not being birding specific. I was still able to get a few of these birds. I got lucky with a couple and unlucky not seeing a few more. Anytime I was traveling by car, we spent hours between locations, especially in Fiordland and Queenstown. For instance, I proposed a trip to Dunedin from Queenstown to see penguins, etc...which was quickly vetoed due to the 4 hours of travel by car and the fact that we had just spent 8 hours (round-trip) the day before from Queenstown to Milford Sound. Nevertheless, the scenery is stunning, the people are amazing and the birding is fun and unique. Loved the post and got me reminiscing about my time in NZ; I would return at the drop of a hat.

    1. Hi Ryan

      As you know, NZ does not have a US-style freeway system, so driving long distances takes significant time. Most roads in NZ are single-lane, and speeds rarely exceed 60 MPH. Travelers should be aware of driving limitations and budget time accordingly. Long driving days are one reason I suggest visiting one island!


  2. Hi Dorian,
    Just a few quick comments, as I'm spending a year in NZ looking for birds:
    - Blumine Island is accessible by water taxi from Picton (King shag and Malherbe's parakeet, hopefully, I may be going on Tuesday)
    - Fjordland crested penguins can be seen at Monro Beach on the West Coast
    - Blue duck is easy at Monkey Creek, in Fjordland, though I can believe one could be unlucky and miss them. Same for rockwrens near Homer Tunnel.
    - Mount Cook village seems good for falcons

    Finally, I'd say it would be a shame to miss the West Coast, birding or not! :o

    If you're interested, I have a lot of stuff on my own blog, though it's not as detailed as yours:

    I'm looking forward to your next installments (I have two more to read already!) :)

  3. Dorian, thanks for all the details you posted and Ryan and Samuel's follow up posts. My trip will probably have to wait for another year or two so I can take the time to enjoy the whole experience as a retirement trip, I'd guess. Great blogpost and wonderful resource!