New Zealand birds to see at sea
Gannets, Albatross, Penguins
It should be no surprise that New Zealand is a paradise for seabirds. But you may be surprised to learn that it holds the most diverse seabird community on Earth, with over 80 species breeding here. For birders, the best thing about seabirds in New Zealand is that it’s very easy to see them. Famous sites like the royal albatross colony at Taiaroa Head near Dunedin (the only mainland breeding colony for royal albatross in the world) and the gawking gannet colony at Muriwai are well set up for visitors, meaning you don’t even need to be a hard-core bird watcher to enjoy observing their entertaining rituals.
And let’s not forget about penguins. New Zealand can plausibly claim to be the penguin-watching capital of the world, as it’s home to more penguin species than any other country, and 13 of the world’s 18 penguin species have been spotted here. The three main species breeding on mainland New Zealand are the yellow-eyed (hoiho), Fiordland crested (tawaki), and the little blue penguin (kororā) – the smallest penguin on Earth at little over 20 cm tall at maturity. Little blue penguins can be spotted on coastlines all around the country, as far north as Auckland. The South Island is their main stomping (or breeding) ground, though, with substantial populations in the Marlborough Sounds, Banks Peninsula, Catlins, Timaru, and Oamaru – which, dubbed ‘Penguintown’ by some, has a great visitor centre and viewing platform to observe them, quietly, at dusk, when they return from a day fishing at sea to their burrows between the rocks.
New Zealand birds after a breathe of fresh (alpine) air
Kea and Takahē
If you spend a day at one of the South Island’s many world-renowned ski fields, you might wonder why kea are an endangered, protected New Zealand species – you often see them scavenging food or ripping metal and rubber off cars, which leads many people to see them as pests. In fact, they are very special, and very threatened. The kea is the world’s only alpine parrot and one of the most intelligent birds you’ll ever find – a kea famously figured out how to turn the water tap off and on at Mt. Aspiring Hut camping ground. Kea’s natural habitat is mountainous, forested areas all around the South Island, but they are threatened by stoats, cats, and human activity – such as lead poisoning from eating metal car parts (whose sweet taste attracts them) from ski field car parks.
Another native New Zealand bird that has made its home in the mountains is the precious takahē: a flightless bird which some people conflate with the much smaller and less colourful pūkeko. The takahē was thought to be extinct until 1948, when a small population of survivors was discovered in the Murchison Mountains of remote Fiordland. The harsh mountains are not their natural habitat, and DOC have since set up a number of takahē breeding sites to help get this iconic bird back from the brink.
Rare wonders: Precious New Zealand birds
Kiwi and Kākāpō
You can’t finish an article about birds of New Zealand without mentioning the iconic kiwi – unfortunately, however, you probably shouldn’t bank on seeing a kiwi before finishing a trip to New Zealand, either. Kiwis are special and unique (their closest remaining relatives today are elephant birds in Madagascar), as well as shy and nocturnal, making them hard to spot. They have good reason to be cautious, since we lose about 2% of our wild kiwi population every year.
It’s a similar story for kākāpō, one of New Zealand’s rarest and most curious native birds. Large green parrots that can’t fly, but rather waddle and climb trees, the kākāpō is the heaviest parrot species in the world. It’s also one of the world’s oldest-living birds, reaching ages up to 90 years. Sadly, kākāpō have all but disappeared from mainland New Zealand, where they once thrived. Hikers in remote parts of Fiordland or Stewart Island, however, are encouraged to report any signs of kākāpō feathers, droppings or tracks (you can find a guide here) to the Department of Conservation. Only a handful, through closely-monitored conservation projects, survive on a few tiny islands.
Bird-watching with Pelorus Eco Adventures
Tui, Kererū, and New Zealand Kingfisher
The Pelorus river in Marlborough is rich in native flora and fauna, and a kayak tour with Pelorus Eco Adventures is a surefire way to see some fantastic native New Zealand birds in their natural habitat! First of all, this beautiful stretch of water is home to plentiful populations of Kererū (the native New Zealand pigeon, with its distinctive kitchen-apron white front), tūī (New Zealand’s acclaimed forest songbirds, with their noticeable white fluff on the neck), and kōtare (the very colourful native New Zealand kingfisher). Secondly, kayaking offers a very quiet, stealth mode of transport which means that you won’t scare off the birds as you get close. This is a huge advantage over motor boats and land vehicle bird-watching tours, which give the birds plenty of warning and time to run away before you get to see them. Book in a kayak tour with Pelorus Eco Adventures to see for yourself!
If you’d like to read more about native New Zealand birds and the work done to try and save them, visit the Department of Conservation website. For more information on bird-watching tours, see the official NZ Birding website.