21-Day Mega New Zealand Birding Tour
Birding in New Zealand offers the chance to experience the unique, untamed island with spectacular scenery and an official bird species count of over 300.
The wetland birds, seabirds and terrestrial birds account for about a third of the total number of species, in sharp contrast to the composition of global bird species where 90% are terrestrial. We have the fantastic opportunity to see some of the 91 endemic species and 70 globally threatened species. Get ready for the birding trip of a lifetime!
Private and small group, birding tours can be booked on request for your preferred travel dates
Full Itinerary – Mega New Zealand Birding Tour
Arrival in Auckland, transfer to Kerikeri
Welcome to New Zealand! Your fantastic birding tour will start the moment you touch down at the Auckland Airport. You will be met by your Nature Travel guide, who will help load your luggage into our comfortable vehicle before we set off.
The geographically blessed city of Auckland is located on the North Island of New Zealand and is the largest urban area in the country. Auckland is classified as a “Beta+ World City” because of its importance in commerce, the arts, culture, music and education. Landmarks such as the Auckland Art Gallery, the Harbour Bridge, the Sky Tower and many museums, parks, restaurants and theatres are among the city’s significant tourist attractions. Auckland was ranked third on the 2016 Mercer Quality of Living Survey, making it one of the most liveable cities in the world. The Māori name for Auckland is Tāmaki Makaurau, meaning “Tāmaki desired by many”, in reference to the desirability of its natural resources and geography. Auckland is one of the few cities in the world to have a harbour on each of two separate major bodies of water, namely the Tasman Sea and the Pacific Ocean.
One of our first stops will be a forested area near to central Auckland where we will get an introduction to some of New Zealand’s forest species, such as Tomtit (North Island subspecies), New Zealand Pigeon, New Zealand Fantail, and Grey Gerygone. What a start!
We will then head to a spot on the rugged west coast to one of New Zealand’s three mainland Australasian Gannet colonies. Superb views and photographic opportunities exist here, and we will also look for other common coastal species such as Little Pied Cormorant, Silver Gull and White-fronted Tern.
We will then head back across to the east coast, to several wetland areas to look for New Zealand Scaup, New Zealand Grebe, Grey Teal, Australasian Shoveler, Pacific Black Duck, Paradise Shelduck and other waterbirds. We will also spend time looking for Buff-banded Rail in its likely mangrove habitat.
Continuing northwards we are heading for Kerikeri. On the way there it might be a good idea to familiarise ourselves with the “land of the long white cloud”, the Maori name for New Zealand. The country consists of two landmasses, the North and South Islands, along with many smaller islands, in the Pacific Ocean about 2,000 kilometres (1,200 mi) from Australia. Due to this extreme remoteness, the country was among the last places on earth to be settled by humans. Between about 1280 and 1350, Polynesians began to settle in the islands, and then developed a distinctive Māori culture. Europeans only arrived in 1642. In 1841, New Zealand became a colony within the British Empire and it gained independence in 1947.
As you will see over the next 3 wonderful weeks the fauna and flora species of New Zealand are absolutely incredible! Due to the islands’ unique biogeography and isolation for 80 million years, some very unique evolutionary ecology took place here, resulting in an incredible high level of endemism. About 82% of New Zealand’s plants are endemic, along with 70% of bird species, all bats, all amphibians, all reptiles, 90% of freshwater fish and 90% of insects. Incredible! For at least several million years before the arrival of humans, the islands had no terrestrial mammals except for bats and seals, the main component of the terrestrial fauna being insects and birds. Unfortunately since the arrival of Homo sapiens on the islands at least 51 species of birds, 3 frogs, 3 lizards and one bat species have become extinct.
When we arrive in Kerikeri we will check into our comfortable accommodation. Kerikeri, the largest town in the Northland region, has a rich and colourful history, and boasts New Zealand’s oldest building, The Stone Store, built in the 1830s. Kerikeri is widely known for its successful horticulture, excellent oranges, niche food products, fabulous chocolates, boutique vineyards, art galleries, cafes and crafts. Kerikeri means ‘dig dig’, which is apt, as lots of digging goes on around the area’s fertile farmland.
We will enjoy dinner at our accommodation, getting to know each other a bit and hearing everyone’s target species for the amazing trip ahead of us. We will do a post-dinner walk to look for North Island Brown Kiwi. This truly unique bird is New Zealand’s mascot and one of its iconic birds. It is a nocturnal and flightless species, and listed as Vulnerable on the IUCN RedList. We will certainly hear, and may see the strangely-named Morepork as well.
Kerikeri to Warkworth
After breakfast at our accommodation, we will head out for our first full day on this amazing tour.
Firstly this morning we will head east to a small estuary which is one of the best places to see the vulnerable Fairy Tern, as well as other shorebirds, including critically endangered New Zealand Plover, Variable Oystercatcher, Paradise Shelduck, Black-winged Stilt and Arctic migrants such as Bar-tailed Godwit and Red Knot. Other birds we could add to our lists include Australasian Swamphen, Silvereye, colourful Eastern Rosella, Welcome Swallow and European Goldfinch.
Several estuarine areas further south may also be checked depending on time and whether we have been successful in finding Fairy Tern. Other species we could find include New Zealand Pipit, Royal Spoonbill, Australasian Grebe, Sacred Kingfisher, White-faced Heron, California Quail, Masked Lapwing, Tui, Caspian Tern, Common Chaffinch and many others.
We will then further south to our accommodation in Warkworth, where we will stay for two nights.
Warkworth is a small town on the Northland Peninsula in the northern part of the Auckland region. Flowing through the town is the Mahurangi River, which was once the lifeblood of Warkworth. Along the river bank there is a playground, parks and a lovely walkway, and the town’s main street has a distinct village atmosphere. Warkworth has a great selection of shops to wander through and plenty of cafes and restaurants, and is close to good beaches and excellent vineyards.
Some of the species we could see in town and along the river include Mallard, Silver and Kelp Gull, Little Black Cormorant, introduced House Sparrow, Song Thrush, Common Blackbird and Brown Teal.
We will freshen up and get together for dinner. After an evening of relaxing and socialising we will retire for a good night’s sleep. Tomorrow we head out to sea!
Warkworth – Hauraki Gulf Pelagic
We will start our day with an early cup of coffee and then go out for a day that you will never forget. We will spend the entire day out on the water in the beautiful Hauraki Gulf. This will be our first of four pelagic trips on the tour!
Leaving from Sandspit we will head out towards Little Barrier Island and chum at several locations nearby. The main focus of the day will be to locate the seabirds which are most easily seen in the northern part of New Zealand, such as the recently rediscovered and critically endangered New Zealand Storm Petrel. Other species we will look for include Black, Common Diving, Grey-faced, Northern Giant and Cook’s Petrel, Fairy Prion, Shy and Black-browed Albatross, Buller’s, Sooty, Flesh-footed, Fluttering and Little Shearwater, Parasitic Jaeger, Grey Noddy, Little Penguin and White-faced Storm Petrel.
Depending on the weather and sea conditions we may head out to a site where there is another Australasian Gannet colony, and during late summer a roosting site for Blue Noddy.
We will not just be on the look-out for birds, as this area is also excellent marine mammal habitat, with Long-beaked and Short-beaked Common Dolphin being possible. Depending on the time of the year, we may also spot Bryde’s, Blue, Humpback, Common Minke, Sei, Short-finned Pilot, Grey’s Beaked, Sperm or Southern Right Whale. And watch out for Leopard Seal, New Zealand Fur Seal, sharks, turtles, Giant Oceanic Manta Ray and even Killer Whale (Orca).
As the Hauraki Gulf is relatively enclosed, even in poor weather we should be able to get out and explore at least some of the area.
The night will be spent at the same accommodation back in Warkworth after a magical day at sea.
Warkworth to Tiritiri Matangi Island
Our day will start with early morning breakfast, and then we check out and head off.
Today we will enjoy one of New Zealand’s most incredible birding locations. Tiritiri Matangi Island is truly a gem in New Zealand’s conservation crown. It is a wildlife sanctuary and one of New Zealand’s most important and exciting conservation projects. It is an island, located 30km northeast of central Auckland and just 4km from the end of the Whangaparaoa Peninsula. A hundred and twenty years of farming had seen this 220-hectare island stripped of 94% of its native bush, but between 1984 and 1994 volunteers planted between 250,000 and 300,000 trees. The island is now 60% forested with the remaining 40% left as grassland for species preferring open habitat. In conjunction with this planting programme, all mammalian predators were eradicated and a number of threatened and endangered bird and reptile species have been successfully introduced.
A short ferry ride out to the island should give us a chance to see Fluttering Shearwater, White-fronted Tern, and possibly even Parasitic Jaeger.
Once on the island we will focus on seeing all of the endemics on the island, with North Island Saddleback, North Island Kokako, Stitchbird, North Island Takahe, Brown Teal and Red-crowned Parakeet being present. Other more common forest birds such as Whitehead, Tui, New Zealand Bellbird, New Zealand Fantail, Grey Gerygone and North Island Robin will also be seen, and we will also wait for Spotless Crake to appear at one of the small ponds.
The night will be spent in accommodation on the island, with this being limited to a communal bunkhouse, with bunk beds in shared rooms. Although rustic the experience is well worth it, and not to be missed. An overnight bag will be taken with minimal gear, bedding will be provided, but due to the shared nature of the accommodations remember some nightwear!
After dinner we will head out to look for Morepork and hopefully Little Spotted Kiwi. Tuatara, an endemic reptile related to the dinosaurs, are also present on the island and we will spend time looking for these and probably bump into the odd Little Penguin as well.
Tiritiri Matangi Island to Miranda
Getting up early will allow us to experience the dawn chorus, a very special occasion on this stunning island.
We will leave Tiritiri Matangi mid-morning, heading south via Auckland to one of New Zealand’s premier shorebird sites, the world-renowned Miranda, in the Firth of Thames in the Waikato region. The Firth of Thames is listed under the Ramsar Convention as a wetland of International Importance. Miranda is also known for the Pūkorokoro Miranda Naturalists’ Trust, a charitable trust to encourage people to visit the coastline and appreciate its wide range of flora and fauna.
We will check into our accommodation near Miranda, and then head to the Miranda Shorebird Centre (owned and operated by the trust) to get information on the latest sightings and then head out to the mudflats and shell banks to see what’s around for ourselves. Thousands of migratory wading birds come to Miranda at different times of the year. Some come from other parts of New Zealand; others make a remarkable 10,000 kilometre journey from the Arctic Circle.
We are likely to see the strangely unique Wrybill (the only species of bird in the world with a beak that is bent sideways one way, always to the right), Bar-tailed Godwit, Red Knot, Red-necked Stint, Ruddy Turnstone, Curlew Sandpiper, Eurasian Whimbrel, New Zealand, Double-banded and Pacific Golden Plover, Variable, South Island and Pied Oystercatcher, Spotted Shag, Pied Stilt, Black-billed, Kelp and Silver Gull, and Caspian, Black-fronted and White-fronted Tern.
During the summer months there are usually a few of the less common shorebirds that visit our shores, such as Sharp-tailed, Pectoral, Marsh or Terek Sandpiper, and we will be on the look-out for these and other vagrants. Shorebird watching in this area is largely dependent on the tides, so we will be working around the high tide, and may visit other nearby areas if time permits.
After another fantastic day we will return to our accommodation in Miranda for dinner, updating our growing trip lists and good night’s sleep.
Miranda to Whitianga
For the early risers we will be up early to have another quick look at waders around Miranda, before we all head across to Whitianga on the eastern side of the beautiful Coromandel Peninsula.
Whitianga is the main settlement of the Mercury Bay on the peninsula, and is an attractive holiday town with a deep-water harbour. Whitianga has been continuously occupied for more than a thousand years since Māori explorer Kupe’s tribe settled here after his visit in about 950 AD. Te Whitianga o Kupe is the original place name of the town, meaning “Kupe’s crossing place”. These days the town is the focal point for the local fishing, farming and tourism industry. A top attraction is the nearby Te Whanganui-A-Hei (Cathedral Cove) marine reserve and associated famous beach and cave. Cathedral Cove was used in the movie The Chronicles of Narnia: Prince Caspian.
The afternoon will be spent out on another fantastic pelagic trip, specifically to target Pycroft’s Petrel which breeds on nearby islands, but it also gives us a second shot at all the northern breeding seabirds. We will expect to see Common Diving Petrel, Buller’s, Flesh-footed and Little Shearwater, Fairy Prion, Grey-faced, Cook’s and Black Petrel, and White- faced Storm Petrel, with some albatrosses also being a possibility.
Whitianga is where the first sighting that sparked the rediscovery of the New Zealand Storm Petrel was made in January 2003, so who knows what we may see?
We will aim to be back in port in the late evening, so that we have the opportunity to see Pycroft’s Petrel rafting up before heading into their breeding colonies in the evening. We will enjoy dinner back at our accommodation in Whitianga, update our trip lists and then enjoy a good night’s sleep.
Whitianga to Turangi
We will again start our day with an early breakfast and coffee, and then check out of our accommodation.
We will head back across the Coromandel Peninsula making several quick stops including a stop en route at a swamp to look for Australasian Bittern, New Zealand Fernbird and other waterfowl, including Little Black and Pied Cormorant, Paradise Shelduck, Grey Teal, White-faced Heron, Masked Lapwing, Australasian Shoveler, Swamp Harrier, Caspian Tern and Royal Spoonbill.
We then head further south, heading away from the coast. We will drive close by to the Hobbiton Movie Set. It was a significant location used for The Lord of the Rings film trilogy (a film series of three epic fantasy adventure films directed by Peter Jackson, based on the novel written by J. R. R. Tolkien) and The Hobbit film trilogy (also directed by Peter Jackson and also based on a Tolkien novel). The beautifully-preserved set is situated on a family-run farm close to Matamata in Waikato. It is now a Tolkien tourism destination, offering a guided tour of the set.
Just north of Taupo is New Zealand’s most visited attraction, the magnificent Huka Falls, where more than 220,000 litres of water thunder over the cliff face every second!
However, our main focus for the day is the Pureora Forest Park to the west of Lake Taupo. This extensive area of forest (760 km2/290 sq mi) has high conservation value due to the variety of plant life and animal habitats within it. There are some magnificent trees in the rainforest, including an abundance of 1,000 year old podocarp trees. The park is one of the best places on the North Island to see New Zealand Kaka (North Island subspecies), Yellow-crowned Parakeet, North Island Kokako, Tomtit, Pacific Long-tailed and Shining Bronze Cuckoo, Rifleman, and we will also encounter other more common forest species. We will also be on the look-out for New Zealand Falcon which inhabits this area, and New Zealand Pipit may be seen on the roads in the area.
We will head to Turangi in the early evening to our accommodation and overnight stay. Turangi is situated at the southern end of Lake Taupo on the banks of the Tongariro River and offers lake and rivers for all sorts of water based activities, and is world renowned as ‘The Trout Fishing Capital of the World’. The town was built to accommodate the workers associated with the Tongariro hydro-electric power development project and their families. These days it is a sporting and outdoor haven, with many activities available in the vicinity of the town.
We will get together for dinner and have some time to socialise into the night, wondering why it took us so long to come to New Zealand!
Turangi to Napier
We will again start with an early breakfast at our accommodation.
This morning we will concentrate our efforts around Turangi looking for New Zealand’s most extraordinary waterbird, the endangered and endemic Blue Duck. Inhabiting swift-flowing mountain streams these birds’ numbers have declined markedly, even at sites where they were reliable only a few years ago, and there are really only a handful of locations they can be seen without major hikes. We will visit several locations and hopefully spend time watching these remarkable birds.
We will then head east to a forested area between Taupo and Napier. As it is an intensively managed site where introduced mammals are controlled and fauna and flora have been able to flourish, we are likely to see more forest birds here than at other locations in the North Island.
North Island Robin, North Island Kokako, and North Island Kaka have been reintroduced, and we should at least have a chance of seeing these, as well as New Zealand Pigeon, Pacific Long-tailed and Shining Bronze Cuckoo, Whitehead, Tomtit, Tui, New Zealand Bellbird and Rifleman. New Zealand Falcon and New Zealand Fernbird are also in the area and we can spend time trying to locate both of these species.
We will then head southeast to Napier, where if time allows we will check out an estuarine area for shorebirds, or several wetland areas for waterfowl and other species.
Napier is a smallish, charismatic, sunny tourist city located in Hawke’s Bay on the eastern coast of the North Island. It is the nexus of the largest wool centre in the Southern Hemisphere, and also boasts a unique concentration of 1930s Art Deco architecture, thanks to extensive rebuilding following a massive earthquake in 1931.
Napier has some excellent restaurants and there are also some top wineries nearby; Hawke’s Bay is locally known as “the wine country”. It is the first stop on the Classic New Zealand Wine Trail, and is a popular place for bicycle wine tours with many of the region’s 30+ cellar doors, and numerous artisan producers, connected by 200 kilometres of flat, easy bicycle trails.
Napier also has one of the most photographed tourist attractions in the country, a statue on Marine Parade called Pania of the Reef, regarded in Napier in much the same way that the Little Mermaid statue is regarded in Copenhagen.
We will spend the night in Napier after enjoying dinner and updating our trip lists.
Napier to Foxton
We will enjoy breakfast and then head out on our last full day of the tour.
The focus for the morning will depend a little on what we have or haven’t seen to date. There are locations for shorebirds and waterfowl we can have a second go at, forest species where we were the day before, or we can take it easy and head slowly across to the Manawatu region and head to the Manawatu Estuary for more views of the unique Wrybill and other shorebirds.
We will stay the night in Foxton, very close to the Manawatu Estuary, which is one of the best sites in New Zealand for shorebird watching. Shorebirds at this location are often extremely confiding, and we will see Bar-tailed Godwit, Red Knot, Variable Oystercatcher and probably Wrybill. Depending on the state of the tide, and what’s around at the time, other birds like Pacific Golden Plover, Sharp-tailed or Curlew Sandpiper, Ruddy Turnstone and Red-necked Stint may be present.
Foxton is a small town in the Manawatu-Wanganui region on the lower west coast of the North Island on the Cook Strait. The town is located close to the banks of the Manawatu River. Foxton was named after Sir William Fox, and has a history of flax stripping, which was used to make wool packs, matting, and rope. Other industries associated with the town have included clothing manufacture and sawmilling. The town is also known for producing the soda drink Foxton Fizz.
We will return to our accommodation for our official Nature Travel Birding farewell dinner. We will enjoy the food and company and reminisce about our wonderful time here before heading to bed and a good night’s rest.
Foxton to Picton
This morning, we will enjoy breakfast and then check out.
Depending on tide times we will call into the Manawatu Estuary again. We will then head south along the scenic Kapiti Coast towards Wellington, making several stops on the way to see Black-fronted Dotterel and other waterfowl.
Our drive south is about 2 hours long, but well worth it in terms of scenery. We will drive through Wellington, the country’s capital. In terms of international cities it might not be very big or populous (described by Lonely Planet in 2013 as “the coolest little capital in the world”), but it is blessed with museums, theatres, historical buildings, galleries and arts organisations completely disproportionate to its size. The city was ranked first in the world for both liveability and non-pollution by Deutsche Bank in 2017 and 2018. It is also famous for its frequent tremors and windy days! If there is time visit one of the many restaurants, markets or food trucks – Wellingtonians are masters of casual dining!
The Interisland ferry leaves from Wellington, heading across to the South Island via the Cook Strait. From the relatively stable platform of the ferry, this is an excellent piece of water to look for seabirds, with approximately half of the three hour trip spent in open water in the photogenic Cook Strait.
Spotted Shag, Fairy Prion, Fluttering Shearwater and White-fronted Tern should be seen, and depending on weather conditions and prevailing winds, Wandering, Shy and Salvin’s Albatross, Northern Giant and Westland Petrel, and Sooty Shearwater are all possible. Common Diving Petrel and Little Penguin are often seen near the entrance to the Marlborough Sounds, and the latter often in the calmer enclosed waters of the Sounds. Less common seabirds are often seen within this stretch of water, as are dolphins, so it is well worth being on the lookout.
The ferry docks in Picton, and we have less than a 5-minute drive to our accommodation. Welcome to the second part of the tour, on New Zealand’s South Island! This island hosts the purest, most striking natural landscapes you’ll ever experience. It’s not all glacial valleys and snow-capped mountains though, there are also top wineries, star-filled skies and active adventure activities in all forms.
Picton is a town in the Marlborough Region and known as the heart of the Marlborough Sounds. The town is a major hub in New Zealand’s transport network, connecting the South Island road and rail network with ferries across Cook Strait to Wellington and the North Island. The town is named after Sir Thomas Picton, the Welsh military associate of the Duke of Wellington, who was killed at the Battle of Waterloo. This picturesque port town is home to great cafés, restaurants, galleries and specialty shops.
We will get together for dinner after our travelling day and update our lists before heading to bed and a good night’s rest.
Picton to Kaikoura
We will start our day with an early breakfast before we go out to sea.
Today we head out onto the Marlborough Sounds, further exploring Queen Charlotte Sound. Our main target for the morning is the New Zealand King Shag, a rare endemic with a population of only about 650 birds.
We will also be looking for two dolphin species, the endangered endemic Hector’s Dolphin, and the more common Dusky Dolphin, as well as Little Penguin, Fluttering Shearwater, Spotted Shag and Australasian Gannet. New Zealand Fur Seals are also present.
We have the opportunity to make stops at two small island sanctuaries, where we will try for Orange-fronted Parakeet, South Island Saddleback, South Island Robin and other common forest species such as New Zealand Pigeon, Silverye, New Zealand Fantail and New Zealand Bellbird.
Back in Picton at midday, we will grab some lunch and then head south towards Kaikoura, stopping to eat along the way, and then visiting a coastal area to search for shorebirds. There are generally Double-banded Plover, Black-winged Stilt, Black-billed Gull and sometimes other vagrant shorebirds. A brief stop on the scenic coast just before Kaikoura will allow excellent views of New Zealand Fur Seal and Spotted Shag, and enable us to ‘forecast’ sea conditions for the following days’ pelagic trip.
If time allows we will check the surrounding areas for the introduced Cirl Bunting. Other introduced species we could see during our time on the South Island include Common Chaffinch, European Goldfinch, Dunnock and many others.
We will spend the night in Kaikoura, where we will have two nights in the same accommodation. Kaikoura, situated midway between Christchurch and Picton on the east coast of the South Island in the Canterbury region, is a small coastal seaside resort town and a very popular destination for both local and international travellers. Kaikoura is well known for its top quality crayfish (in the Māori language ‘kai’ means food, ‘kōura’ means crayfish) and rich marine life. The picturesque town, with the backdrop of the snow-capped Seaward Kaikoura mountain range, is also famous for whale watching and swimming with dolphins. Kaikoura is part of the popular and scenic Alpine Pacific Triangle, a touring route which links it with the Hurunui district including Hanmer and Christchurch.
We will get together to update our trip lists, have dinner and socialise, maybe discussing our plans for future trips to bird-rich places in the world. After dinner, if everyone is interested, we can head out to look for the introduced Little Owl in neighbouring farmland. Then we are off to bed, for tomorrow we go out to sea again!
Kaikoura, including pelagic
Today we will enjoy an early breakfast before we enjoy another fantastic and famous New Zealand pelagic.
Due to the depth of the Kaikoura canyon just offshore, we are able to be in water 4,000 metres (13,000 feet) deep within half an hour, allowing us to really get amongst the seabirds, and although the species list varies throughout the year, in any season we can expect to have at least 3 species of albatross, normally as close as 5 or 6 feet away; a special and unforgettable experience. Species we could see include Northern and Southern Royal, Antipodean, Wandering, Black-browed, Buller’s, Campbell, Shy and Salvin’s Albatross.
On top of this add Cape, Westland and White-chinned Petrel and Northern Giant Petrel, and the endemic Hutton’s Shearwater, which breeds in the spectacular mountains behind Kaikoura. There is also the potential for other species like Grey-faced Petrel, Southern Giant Petrel, Sooty and Short-tailed Shearwater. Whatever specific species we see, this has all the makings of a truly memorable morning. The area is also renowned for Dusky and Hector’s Dolphin, and we may see these along the way.
The afternoon will be at your leisure, with time for a range of options such as doing another afternoon pelagic, whale watching (Sperm Whales are present year round), swimming with dolphins, shopping or just relaxing and enjoying the scenery. Any activities during the afternoon will be at your own expense.
After our exciting day we will return to our same accommodation, freshen up and have dinner. Remember to look up at the sky tonight before settling in to your room – the stars are truly remarkable out here!
Kaikoura to Arthur’s Pass
We will enjoy breakfast and then check out of our accommodation.
Today is basically a travelling day, a rare occurrence in a smallish country like New Zealand. We will head deep into the Southern Alps through to Arthur’s Pass. The incredibly beautiful Southern Alps run approximately 500 km northeast to southwest on the South Island. Its tallest peak is Aoraki (Mount Cook), the highest point in New Zealand at 3,724 metres (12,218 ft) above sea level. The range include sixteen other points that exceed 3,000 metres (9,800 ft) in height. The ranges are bisected by glacial valleys, many of which are infilled with beautiful glacial lakes. The Southern Alps were named by Captain Cook on 23 March 1770, who described their “prodigious height”.
We will be making several stops along the way, and passing through some exceptionally scenic alpine areas after skirting the coast for much of our 4 to 5 hour journey; get your cameras ready!
Arthur’s Pass, climbing to more than 920 metres (3,020 feet) through Arthur’s Pass National Park, is the highest and most spectacular pass across the Southern Alps. If you’re traveling from Canterbury to the West Coast, this is the road to take. It is a piece of extreme engineering involving viaducts, bridges, rock shelters and waterfalls redirected into chutes. The pass is named after Sir Arthur Dudley Dobson (1841–1934), who led the first party of Europeans across the pass in 1864.
Arthur’s Pass National Park itself is a landscape of two halves. On the eastern side, you’ll see wide, shingle-filled riverbeds and vast swathes of beech forest. Descend the western side and you venture through dense rainforest alongside and over deeply gorged rivers. The park was established in 1929 and covers some 1,200 km2 (465 sq mi).
Our target bird for the day will be the endangered Kea, which we should be able to find near Arthur’s Pass itself. The Kea is a fascinating bird, and the world’s only alpine parrot. While these birds might be pretty to look at, keep in mind that they are notorious for dismantling peoples belongings! The Kea got its name from its “keeeeeaaaa” call, a long, loud, high-pitched cry.
On the way to the town of Arthur’s Pass, close to the pass itself, we will make short stops to break up the journey, including a stop at an estuarine area, where we will look for shorebirds and terns. We may be lucky enough to find what is almost certainly one of the most beautiful terns, the Black-fronted Tern, which breeds nearby.
We should also catch up with some of the South Islands’ forest species, such as Pipipi, Yellow-fronted Parakeet and South Island Robin, before checking in to our accommodation near Arthur’s Pass.
After dinner we will venture out in the evening to try and listen for Great Spotted Kiwi, which are occasionally heard nearby, but is notoriously difficult to see.
Arthur’s Pass to Franz Josef
This morning we will head west, up and over the pass and on to the stunning West Coast.
Our days’ events will be dictated by our previous successes, and we can head to forested areas to look for some of the South Island endemics, such as Pipipi. We will also look for New Zealand Fernbird (South Island subspecies), Sacred Kingfisher and Weka, search alpine areas to look for Kea again, and enjoy the views, making stops to take some fantastic photos.
Nearing our destination town of Franz Josef we can head into the glacial valley to admire views of the Franz Josef glacier, or head out to the coast to see Great Egret and Royal Spoonbill in coastal lagoons. As we will be out late tonight we will try and be at our accommodation around late afternoon for some rest.
Our accommodation is on the outskirts of Franz Josef. It is a small town in the West Coast region of the South Island, named after the Franz Josef Glacier – itself named by geologist Julius von Haast in 1865 in honour of the Emperor of Austria Franz Josef I of Austria. The glacier’s terminal face is 5 kilometres (3 miles) from the town and its accessibility makes it a major tourist attraction and the reason many people visit Franz Josef. The town is within the Westland Tai Poutini National Park, a beautiful area with glaciers, scenic lakes and dense temperate rainforest.
After dinner we will head out to look for the vulnerable and endemic Okarito Kiwi, the rarest of the three brown kiwi, with only an estimated 400 birds remaining. Then we will return to our accommodation in town to rest up.
Franz Josef to Wanaka
We will get together for breakfast, check out and then leave Franz Josef.
Depending on how late we were out the previous night, we will head south towards the coastal township of Haast, stopping at one or two places on the way. Haast is situated in the heart of Te Wāhipounamu UNESCO World Heritage Area. There are national parks to the north, south and east. The region is named after Julius von Haast, a Prussian-born geologist instrumental in the early geological surveys of New Zealand. The main economic activities in the Haast region are farming, fishing and tourism.
During October and November, Fiordland Penguins breed at sites along this coast, and we should be able to see them. Later in the summer our best bet is further south, where we might find one or two birds close to shore.
From Haast we head inland through some spectacular mountain scenery, with our focus being a visit to Haast Pass. This site is home to a number of forest species, and has in the past had the endangered Yellowhead. However, more recently the species has been very hard to find here, with the population struggling to hold its own against introduced predators. However, the site is also good for New Zealand Kaka (South Island subspecies), Yellow-crowned Parakeet, Rifleman, Tomtit, Pipipi and Pacific Long-tailed Cuckoo.
We will stay as long as we can in this area, making the most of our time in this amazing forest.
We will then drive through to the beautiful town of Wanaka, just over an hour away, to our accommodation. Wanaka is a popular ski and summer resort town in the Otago region of the South Island. At the southern end of beautiful Lake Wanaka and surrounded by mountains, it is at the start of the Clutha River and is the gateway to Mount Aspiring National Park. Wanaka is primarily a resort town with distinctly different seasons. Summers are hot and dry – perfect for watersports, hiking and biking. Winters are cool and crisp with four diverse ski areas offering great options for skiers and snowboarders. Spring is the ideal time to get out and explore the lakeside tracks and trails, and the vibrant colours of autumn are perfect for photography.
We will get together for dinner and to check our trip lists, before heading to bed for a good night’s rest.
Wanaka to Te Anau
We will have breakfast and pack our vehicle this morning.
Today will involve quite a bit of driving, but we will be passing through some of New Zealand’s most spectacular scenery, heading towards Milford Sound. This fiord, situated on the west coast of the South Island, is a world-renowned natural wonder with towering peaks, cascading waterfalls and amazing wildlife.
We will pass through likely areas for Kea, Yellow-crowned Parakeet, Rifleman, South Island Robin, Tomtit and Pacific Long-tailed Cuckoo.
Our focus however, will be to make a stop in alpine habitat for New Zealand Rockwren, one of the world’s most primitive passerines, and related to the more common Rifleman.
The day’s stops will largely be dictated by weather and success with New Zealand Rockwren, which is not possible anywhere else along the way. Although the day will be spent in stunning scenery anyway, if time allows we may head through to Milford Sound to view it from the shore. Often acclaimed as New Zealand’s most famous tourist destination, Rudyard Kipling even once called it the eighth Wonder of the World! Milford Sound was formed by a process of glaciation over millions of years and runs 15 kilometres inland from the Tasman Sea at Dale Point, the mouth of the fiord, and is surrounded by sheer rock faces that rise 1,200 metres (3,900 ft) or more on either side. Truly spectacular!
We will spend the night at accommodation in picturesque Te Anau. It is known as a gateway to the glacier-carved wilderness of Fiordland National Park and of course Milford Sound. The region is home to the endangered, flightless South Island Takahe and abundant trout in Lake Te Anau. It is also famous for its many excellent seafood restaurants.
Te Anau to Stewart Island
We will start with an early breakfast and then head off for another exciting part of this awesome tour.
Today we are heading for the third main island of New Zealand, namely Stewart Island. It lies 30 kilometres (19 miles) south of the South Island, across the Foveaux Strait.
After driving down to Invercargill, we aim to catch the ferry from Bluff to Stewart Island late morning. There are options for stopping along the way, but it is likely we will head straight through to Bluff to meet the ferry. Our transport will stay in a secure carpark in Bluff, and we will board the ferry as foot passengers, with an overnight bag and the things we need for our two nights on Stewart Island. We will be staying in the settlement of Oban. It is located on Halfmoon Bay and was named after Oban in Scotland, due to the strong influence Scottish settlers had in the south of early colonial New Zealand. It’s a fishing town that also serves as a base for hikers and birdwatchers.
Depending on the sea and weather conditions, the one-hour ferry crossing can be excellent for seabirds, with albatross (Southern Royal, Shy and Salvin’s Albatross), Giant, Mottled, Cape and Common Diving Petrel, Fairy Prion, Sooty Shearwater and Brown Skua all possible. We will also see Foveaux Shag, either as we leave Bluff or on arriving at Stewart Island.
Stewart is New Zealand’s third largest island (after North and South Islands) and covers 1,746 km2 (674 sq mi) in a triangular shape. The island is generally hilly (rising to 980 metres/3,220 feet at Mount Anglem), rugged and densely forested. It is an important piece of land in Maori culture, with many myths and legends attributed to it. The island received its English name in honour of William W. Stewart, the first officer on the Pegasus, which visited in 1809. In the Māori language, the island is known as Rakiura which means “the land of glowing skies”. You’ll get an inkling why when you see the Aurora Australis which often appears in these southern skies.
Upon arriving we will check into our accommodation, and should be able to see New Zealand Kaka (South Island subspecies), New Zealand Pigeon and Tui around the township of Oban, before heading to the nearby Ulva Island via water taxi.
Ulva Island, a small island (2.7 km2/1.0 sq mi) within Paterson inlet, is a predator-free sanctuary, but home to some of the South Island specialties we may still need. Yellowhead, South Island Saddleback and some of the more common forest species such as Pipipi, Red and Yellow-crowned Parakeet, scotti subspecies of Weka, Tui, New Zealand Bellbird, rakiura subspecies of South Island Robin, New Zealand Pigeon, New Zealand Kaka and Rifleman can all be found in this beautiful, forested spot.
Back in Oban we will have dinner, after which we will head out to search for the lawryi subspecies of Southern Brown Kiwi, another unforgettable experience. Stewart Island is a haven for Tokoeka (the bird’s Maori name), which outnumber humans on the island and are active at night. Then we are off to bed for a good night’s rest, for tomorrow we do another pelagic!
Stewart Island Pelagic
Today we plan to do another exciting pelagic, but this is one part of the world you don’t want to be caught out by weather. Therefore, we will head out to see what we can find, but the distance and direction of travel will depend entirely on the weather. Normally we explore nearby islands and enjoy the spectacular coastal scenery, along with seeing some fantastic marine birds and mammals.
However, if we hit it right, the results can be stunning. With such a close proximity to the Southern Ocean, and large seabird colonies being on many of the surrounding islands we may be able to find an excellent array of seabirds. In particular target birds for the day are Fiordland and Yellow-eyed Penguin, Antarctic Tern, Southern Royal, Northern Royal, Shy, Campbell, Buller’s (Jan/Feb) and Salvin’s Albatross, both Northern and Southern Giant Petrel, Mottled and Cook’s Petrel, Broad-billed and Fairy Prion and Common Diving Petrel.
Other more common species we will almost certainly see are Cape Petrel, Sooty Shearwater, Spotted and Foveaux Shag, Little Penguin, Brown Skua, White-fronted Tern and Silver Gull. Almost any vagrant Southern Ocean seabirds are possible, and we will be keeping our eyes peeled for storm petrels, and other albatross and petrel species. You never know what might turn up!
Depending on our success with Southern Brown Kiwi the previous night, and the possibility of cancellation due to weather, we may head out again after dark as a back-up.
Our accommodation will be the same as last night, in quaint Oban.
Stewart Island to Oamaru
We start our day with an early breakfast in Oban.
We will leave fantastic Stewart Island on the morning ferry, hoping to catch up with a few more seabirds as we head back to Bluff.
We will then head northwards towards Oamaru, taking in the very scenic Catlins Coast during our 5 hour drive. The Catlins comprises an area in the southeastern corner of the South Island, and lies between Balclutha and Invercargill, straddling the boundary between the Otago and Southland regions. It includes the South Island’s southernmost point, Slope Point. This coastal section is renowned for its scenic views and rough weather-beaten coastline.
During a stop at one of the beaches along the way we will search for New Zealand Sea Lion (a New Zealand endemic) which are often found on this section of coastline.
We can also stop off at several other places on route to admire the scenery and look for forest birds. We will also stop at a beach to look for Yellow-eyed Penguins coming ashore. Depending on the weather and prevailing winds, seabirds may also be passing along the coast, with species such as Northern and Southern Giant Petrels and Otago Shag being possible.
Our accommodation for the night is in Oamaru. It is the largest town of the Waitaki District. It boasts one of the country’s oldest public gardens, renowned Victorian architecture, a rich heritage, first-class dining establishments, a craft brewery in front of the harbour, numerous golf courses, walking and cycling trails and a whole lot more… Enjoy!
Oamaru to Omarama
We start our day with breakfast and coffee, and then pack up and head off.
We are heading inland, this time into one of the driest parts of the South Island, the arid Mackenzie Basin. With stunning glacial lakes (including stunning Lake Tekapo), snow-capped mountains and red tussocks, the scenery will be amazing. Historically famous mainly for sheep farming, the sparsely populated area is now also a popular tourism destination. The entire area is called Mackenzie Country, and is frequently utilized as the principal and second-unit location for television commercials, documentaries, and motion pictures, including much of Peter Jackson’s epic The Lord of the Rings film trilogy and The Hobbit film trilogy. It is also a hotspot for gliding and astronomy.
The focus of the day is the worlds’ rarest shorebird, the critically endangered Black Stilt. With a population of just over 100 wild birds, they are a species which has a considerable conservation effort invested in them. Depending on our luck, we may find them easily at our first stop, or they may make us work for it.
Along the way we will be keeping eyes peeled for New Zealand Falcon, which is regularly found in this area, as well as stops for the introduced Chukar Partridge and waterbirds, including Great Crested Grebe, Eurasian Coot and the ever difficult Baillon’s Crake.
On a clear day we should also have views of New Zealand’s highest mountain, Mount Cook (Aoraki), standing 3,724 metres (12,218 feet) tall. A popular tourist destination, it is also a favourite challenge for mountain climbers.
We will spend the night at accommodation in Omarama. Omarama means “the place of light” and glider pilots love the air above the small township near the southern end of the Mackenzie Basin.
We will enjoy our official Nature Travel Birding farewell dinner at a nice establishment in town, reminiscing about our wonderful New Zealand tour and the good times we have had together.
Omarama to Christchurch and Departure
We will have our final breakfast of the tour together in Omarama and then check out and pack the vehicle.
We have a drive of about 4 to 5 hours ahead of us. Heading northwards towards Christchurch we will travel through a lot of agricultural country before hitting the coast and crossing a large number of braided rivers that flow from the majestic Southern Alps to the sea. Many of these rivers are good breeding sites for Wrybill and Black-fronted Tern, and we may makes stops here or at several coastal lagoons, before arriving in Christchurch.
Christchurch is located on the east coast of the South Island. It is one of the world’s most unique destinations, combining urban regeneration and innovation with heritage, culture and exhilarating activity. Picture amazing street art, innovative projects, a booming hospitality scene and state-of-the-art architecture that is changing the way the city looks, feels and functions; all the while staying true to its heritage and traditional English feel. Flat-bottomed punts glide on the Avon River, which meanders through the city centre. On its banks are cycling paths, the green expanse of Hagley Park and the famous Christchurch Botanic Gardens. Christchurch is the basecamp for South Island exploration, with the Banks Peninsula within reach, as well as the stunning Southern Alps and famed Canterbury Plains.
We will end the tour at the Airport in Christchurch around 1pm, or you can we be dropped off at your accommodation should you be choosing to stay on for a few days in this fabulous city. We will say our sad goodbyes after an amazing 3 weeks together in this fantastic country, surely having made friends for life.
Do you have a quick question about this birding tour? Speak to a specialist at