South Island Adventure

Hey everyone, 

I am just back from an awesome trip to New Zealand’s South Island with George Hobson and Eleanor & Sandra Gunby. George will add his photos and videos in the comments below. To make sure this is easy to read, I will divide this report into a section for each day of the trip.

Day One - October 10th - Christchurch to Wanaka

The holiday started for me at 4:30 AM on Tuesday morning, when I woke up in bed and found myself just too excited to go back to sleep. The same could not be said for my birding colleague. George was happily asleep and, if not for our alarms which went off an hour later, would’ve remained that way for some time. As we were flying Jetstar, a lie in was not an option. We got up and raced around to grab our stuff and go.

By 8 we were already at our gate, which then changed to another gate, got delayed, and then reverted to the previous gate once more. Jetstar won me over though as the flight only took a speedy 40 minutes and offered excellent views. Christchurch Airport was easily navigated and before we knew it we were shaking hands with Eleanor in baggage claim. Introductions to our driver Sandra and then we were off.

For a while, the South Island was pretty, well, North Islanderish. There was nothing interesting. No obvious absentees on the bird roll and nothing which even warranted looking out the window. Then Pukeko disappeared. It is rare you find an area so devoid of pukekos as we did in Canterbury, and we were shocked. It was more shocking than seeing SIPO dive-bombing harriers, and more shocking than Black-Fronted Terns flying over fields.

Geraldine for Subway was the only stop for three hours until we turned a corner to see Lake Tekapo glistening in the sun. We were nearly at destination #1: Mount John. After a hefty $8 to gain access to Mount John, we only needed to travel about 400 meters up the road to find our target bird: the Chukor. We pulled in and one lept into the air whizzing away. Two more birds were about ten meters further along, and they stayed put as we watched in awe. Lifer number one is down. 

Hitting the road again, we headed to Wairepo Arm for Crested Grebes. Despite being a little disappointed by their size, one could not be disappointed with their beauty. We had two birds very close in and they were stunners! Plenty of coot and scaup about too.

We moved on after a piece of chocolate (or two or four) and a look at the map to the Ahuriri Delta. Though the site would not be considered a Black Stilt hotspot, we did manage to catch up with two pure birds plus a couple of ‘great’ hybrids. Good numbers of the common waterbirds and Black-Fronted Terns too. I did check some of the local paddocks for Cirls but nothing to be seen.

Now that we had achieved everything we needed to achieve for the Twizel area, we pushed on to Wanaka. Here, we saw the Crested Grebe on the nesting platform, which was exceptionally cool. We saw eggs, plus a swap over between the incubating parents, plus the female waddling about on the platform to fix up the nest. We also checked out some spots around Albert Town for Little Owl, but no such luck. We returned to Wanaka for dinner on the foreshore.

I’d like to give a shout out here for Mountain View Backpackers Wanaka, who offered great accommodation for a low price. Really suitable if you’re only passing through for the night on a birding adventure.

Day Two - October 11th - Wanaka to Okarito

Day two was meant to begin early in the morning. That didn’t happen. At 0800 hours we finally slumped into the car and began on our journey towards the West Coast. Lake Hawea was very quiet: just a few pipits and the like. There was the odd Black-Fronted Tern and South Island Pied Oystercatcher dotted the Makaroroa, but again there was little joy to be had. 

My planning skills then came under attack from George as he didn’t believe the bush walk I’d picked even existed and that I had been mistaken for Blue Pools. I declined such a thought and we carried on. After a while, I began to doubt and so asked Sandra if she could pull into the next bay and we’d inspect the map. The next bay just so happened to be the walk I wanted - Haast Pass Track, You can find it on Google Maps as Haast Pass Parking. As soon as we were out of the car, Brown Creeper called. After a while, they came down and we had some excellent views. Yellow-Crowned Kakariki, Bellbird and Tui called.

Then came a true surprise. Still in the carpark, we were descended on by a small flock of Yellowhead who came right in for awesome views. They hung about for an age. I showed them off to a group of tourists who seemed rather impressed by the small wee things which was nice to see. 

Whilst George continued to photograph the Yellowhead I went after riflemen, crossing the road at least four times tracking their little peeps. I was rewarded with lovely views. We also saw two Yellow-Crowned Kakariki feeding in the treetops to round off a great stop. No walking was involved but plenty of birds!! 

Slightly further down the road the Toyota Estima’s sunroof came into its own as we chucked our heads up to see a falcon cruising at altitude. Awesome sighting and well done to George for spotting it. That was the second falcon of the trip but the better of the sightings. 

We then pulled into Knight’s Point which I had figured would be our best seawatching spot for the trip, For the second time of the day, my planning was marvelous  We had an Antipodean Albatross, White-Capped, Salvin’s and Black-Browed Mollymawks and Sooty Shearwaters literally right off the coast. We couldn’t stay long though as we were starting to lose track of time.

We drove the few minutes down the road to Monro Beach where we took a startling long (45 minute) walk through some very beautiful bush to get to a small beach. Why were we here? The answer was lofting in the breakers. Eleanor spotted it rafting before a big wave smashed it into the beach. It waddled its body and big fat beak into the cliffs never to emerge again (probably came out right after we left). Fiordland-Crested Penguin. Yes!

Upon returning to the vehicle and having another few pieces of chocolate we hit it off to George’s target and primary contribution to the plan - Fox Glacier. I do not believe I would be wrong in saying that it was just a tad disappointing. Whilst it was certainly cool to see the glacier, the length of the walk was not. The most exciting bird was a pipit and rain was starting to set in. The disappointment had made us hungry so we pulled into Four Square in Franz Joseph for a 5PM lunch.

From there it was into Okarito where we checked into our awesome accommodation. If you are travelling to Okarito and want to stay in comfort I highly recommend the Okarito Beach House. It’s top notch accommodation with friendly staff. 

We checked out the southern end of the lagoon where we we had a flyby of c. 150 Bar-Tailed Godwits and a single White Heron. The other usual suspects were about. As darkness descended we climbed aboard the Estima and traveled back up and into the bush. I won’t give away the exact location where we had our Rowi as it was clear that this pair could quickly become a tourist attraction and that would not be in their best interest.

We were walking along the track and George notices a big plump rump thunder away into the bush. Wow. What a sighting. I was already content with the sighting. We saw a Rowi! What happened next was amazing. We turned of the torches and got low. Down the track we heard the thumping of feet getting closer and closer. Suddenly the stopped. It was close. George flicked on the torch and it was right there! Touching distance. It froze and stared into our eyes. We could see its big bald patches as clear as day. She ducked off into the bush. We try the same trick again, and again while the torch was off she came pounding along right up close, this time bringing her smaller male friend with her. We flick on the torch, and they call in the middle of the path! Two distant birds respond. After about five-ten minutes of time with these awesome birds, we head out to give them space. Amazingly, the female escorted us out of the territory walking along the path with us! Eventually she snuck into the ferns. Next to our car, another male walked around in the grass, lifting the count to five kiwi for the night including three seen. From there it was back for the best sleep I’ve had in quite some time!

Day Three - October 12th - Okarito to Wanaka

Day three started too early for George, who was keen to make the most of our accommodation. We had to get a move on though, as we had plenty of ground to cover. We decided to spend the drive to Arthur’s Pass doing a ‘Big Three Hours’, where George, Eleanor and I would count all the bird species we got from the car. It changed the good vibes quickly, with Eleanor often giving smug glares as she entered species into her notepad and George refusing to give comment on whether he’d seen a sparrow. I was interested by the magpie being present on the West Coast, even if in small numbers. I picked up a White Heron just south of Hokitika and Weka were prevalent from Hokitika on. The sunroof again came into its own in Arthur’s Pass where we picked up Kea overhead while waiting at some roadworks.

We tried the Otira and got as far as the bridge. However without local knowledge we began to get concerned we’d lose our way and so turned back Rock Wrenless. I still hugely recommend the walk to the bridge as it provided the best scenery we had all trip and was also a great deal of fun walking. We picked up a few species of short-horned grasshopper too.

We tried a few spots in Arthur’s Pass for Robin, Kea or maybe even a daytime Great Spotted Kiwi which isn’t unheard of. Our luck must’ve been spent on the kiwi (which were far better than any Rock Wren could ever be) and so we began the slow drive back to Christchurch. The excitement must’ve been too much for Eleanor and George to bare and the quickly settled in for a good long nap, leaving me on Little Owl spotting duties. Again, I did not have luck but it is only an introduced species so not too much to dip on.

We proceeded to have afternoon tea with some friends in Christchurch before boarding our flight. I’ve never wanted a plane to be delayed more as the South Island is just too addictive! I hope to be back again soon. A huge thank you to Sandra and Eleanor for dedicating their own time into us and for providing an awesome trip. I’d also like to thank that trusty Estima which got us there