On 9 March 2020, my wife Shirley and I flew to Auckland to commence a 25 day self-drive tour of the North Island of New Zealand. It was to be basically a sightseeing tour with several birding sites included.
NZ does not have an extensive list of endemic birds. Excluding extinct and formerly present, the NZ list is about 369 species. Deducting all introduced, migratory, visitors, pelagic species, and species only found on NZ’s Sub-Antarctic Islands, this leaves about 52 endemics, some of which are only found on either the North or South Island. Not a big list, but if you want to see these endemics, you have to visit NZ.
All the photos were taken by me and when known I have included the Maori name of the bird in brackets in the captions and the text.
Our first birding site was Tiritiri Matangi Island, a 75 minute ferry trip from Auckland. In 1974 the island became a recreation reserve. Since then, 280,000 trees have been planted by volunteers known as the ‘spade brigade’, all mammalian predators have been removed, and a number of endangered bird and reptile species introduced. Twenty NZ bird endemics have been recorded on the island, 12 of these introduced and eight have found their own way. The island is managed by the Department of Conservation in conjunction with the Supporters of Tiritiri Matangi Inc.
On arrival at the island, the visitors were sorted into groups of 10 to12 for a guided tour, led by a volunteer. The first bird we saw on the walk was a male Brown Teal, which was a bit of a surprise as they are described as timid, skulking and nocturnal, with a habitat of tidal creeks, lagoons, swamps and adjacent wet pasture.
Walking along the track there were many smaller birds to be seen such as Silvereye (Tauhou), Grey Warbler (Riririro), Whitehead (Popokatea) and North Island Robin (Toutouwai). There were numerous nesting boxes for Blue (Little) Penguins (Korora), some with glass windows in the top so that the birds could be viewed.
We left the coastal track and started the ascent to higher ground through wet forest, using the extensive boardwalks provided. There were several NZ Pigeons (Kereru) to be seen. Being the only mainland native pigeon, this species has the unique and important role in the forest ecosystem of dispersing the fruits of native species.
Further along the boardwalk we were able to observe a Red-crowned Parakeet (Kakariki) feeding in the leaf litter – they feed from the canopy down to ground level. They are now extinct in the wild on the mainland and rated ‘at risk’.
There are three ‘honeyeaters’ found in NZ. All were present on the island. Feeders were provided. In the forest they were of a clever design with small openings so that the bigger Tuis could not access the food. Tuis had to feed from the flat bed feeders at the feeding station at the Visitors Centre. The two smaller honeyeaters, Stitchbird (Hihi), Bellbird (Korimako) and other smaller birds, were able to feed from the forest feeders.
At the top of the ascent, the vegetation opened up and we walked along a road with wide grass verges. We were excited to see several Takahe – Purple Swamphens on steroids. They are flightless and can weigh up to 3kg. This species was thought to be extinct for about 50 years until a small population was found in the south west of the South Island in 1948. They feed all day on fern rhizomes and leaf bases by pulling them out with their bill. They hold the extracted plant on their feet, macerate the base digesting only the plant juices, not the fibres, which remain as typical green thin sausage-shaped droppings of largely unaltered fibres. Takahes can produce up to 6m of droppings in a day.
We were even more excited to look up a side track and see a North Island Kokako. The bird is shy and our guide was amazed when our bird was on the ground out in the open. There was a South Island Kokako, but that is now extinct. The bird we watched seemed quite content to let us photograph it for a short time, but when it decided to move, it took off and pronked like an antelope with quite high jumps. To see one on the ground was unusual, but to see it pronk, was a real treat.
We lunched at the island’s excellent Visitor Centre. No food was available, but there were numerous outdoor tables and benches, very comprehensive information boards for all the endemics, and flat top feeders that the Tuis had taken over.
On the walk down the hill back to the ferry we had good views of a North Island Saddleback (Tieke) feeding in one of the trees. I think the Kiwis are trying to get their species count up. There is a very similar South Island Saddleback, which is distinguished from the North Island Saddleback by the lack of the narrow faint yellow line on the back between the black and the chestnut.
We left the island and returned to Auckland by ferry. Tiritiri Matangi Island is impressive for the birds and the management and should be No 1 on any birder’s visit to Auckland.
The next site on our list was the Firth of Thames, which is a Ramsar Site. It is a large coastal reserve, bounded by a peninsula and mountains, consisting of shallow marine water, mud, grass flats, mangrove swamp, saltmarsh and swampland. It includes a globally rare land formation of graded shell beach ridges which support grazing. It is an important site for roosting, wintering and staging wading birds. What more could a birder keen on waders want?
We moved to accommodation in Thames, and checked out the west coast of the firth on the first day, plus a brief tour of the Coromandel Peninsula.
We drove around a corner and there was a huge flock of South Island Pied Oystercatchers (SIPOs) with the Maori name of Torea. The flock in the photo extended just as far back to the left. Several cars stopped and many photographs were taken, but the SIPOs just stood there unconcerned. SIPOs breed on the estuaries of the braided rivers on the South Island and migrate to the estuaries of the North Island for the winter. These were early arrivals. My app notes that they occasionally get lost on migration. I looked very hard to see if any of the SIPOs had a red leg flag with 1N (the bird that we, and many others twitched at Jam Jerrup in 2018) but I couldn’t find one.
The SIPO with aberrant plumage definitely stands out from the pack.
We stopped for a picnic lunch at a roadside park, overlooking a spit. There were numerous Red-billed (Silver) Gulls (Tarapunga) and White-fronted Terns (Tara) resting on the spit. The Maori name for this species is only the generic name for Tern. This might be because White-fronted Terns are the most common terns in New Zealand.
The No 1 target species for this trip was a Wrybill. On our visit to the South Island in 2013 we were too late and they had all moved north. People who know me won’t be surprised by the following. I had done my research, and the Miranda Shorebird Centre was an excellent chance. Previous March records indicated good numbers. Either side of high tide was best for viewing. This was not a problem as the trip itinerary had been planned around a mid-morning high tide at Miranda. To make sure of good viewing, a scope and tripod had been booked for hire from Miranda three months previously. On the morning the weather was perfect (not pre-planned), and after picking up the scope we went to a hide overlooking a pond that was covered in waders. There were hundreds of SIPOs, Bar-tailed Godwits (Kuaka), Pied Stilts (Poaka), and of course Wrybills (Ngutuparore) – 1,400 being the official count. There were also lesser numbers of Red Knot (Huahou) and Pacific Golden Plover.
Wrybill is the only species in the world with a bill that is bent sideways, and it always bends to the right. A Wrybill is about the same size as a Sharp-tailed Sandpiper. The Maori name is straightforward (pardon the pun) – ngutu means ‘bill’ and pare means ‘turned to the side’.
We left Miranda very happy and continued on our way, mainly sightseeing, but a bit of birding en route. But on the way to Napier, on Day No 10, we received a text from our elder daughter, quickly followed by a telephone call, advising that due to Covid-19 issues, DFAT was considering closing the border and we should return home. We booked a return flight, departing Auckland early morning Day No 12, and returned to 14 days of home quarantine. So our holiday and birding was cut well short. We loved what we saw and what we did, and hope one day to return and complete our holiday, perhaps including return visits to Tiritiri Matangi Island and Miranda Shorebird Centre.
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I realized that I had not mentioned the feeding technique of the Wrybill and how it uses its specially adapted bill, so I have added this comment, based on information provided in HANZAB.
The bottom third of the bill turns right 15 to 22 degrees, and the tip is slightly upturned. Wrybills have differing feeding techniques depending on the location of the food source. In stony areas, it collects invertebrates from under stones by either probing or moving in a clockwise direction over the stone. On mud flats, with a surface film of water, it uses the bill as a scoop, scything right to left against the curve of the bill, to sieve animals from the soft mud.