Kea, the mountain parrots of the South Island high country, may be found looking for scraps at roadside rest spots in the mountains, as well as screeching in flight high overhead. The native falcon usually lives among the crags, and hunts the forest tops for small birds. The tiny rock wren is present only in remnant populations, having been gravely reduced by carnivorous pests.
These are easiest to see on lake shores and swamp margins. In spring, watch for breeding behaviour and for young being fed by adults. Most ducks, herons and swans are easy to approach, but some more secretive species tend to hide in the reeds, and are more often heard than seen. These include the bittern (which has a low, booming call), the fernbird and the crakes.
Variable oystercatchers and the northern New Zealand dotterel breed in summer on open beaches just above the high-tide mark. Colonies of the various terns and gulls may form on sandspits and the broad shingle riverbeds of the eastern South Island. Clifftops and trees near water may be home to colonies of the various shag (cormorant) species.
From spring to autumn, in particular, New Zealand’s shallow harbours and estuaries are home to thousands of migratory wading birds. Thirty-two species have been recorded, many of them seasonal migrants from the arctic tundras of Asia and North America. They come to New Zealand in the summer to fatten up before returning north to breed. Godwits and knots form spectacular flocks.
Late summer and autumn sees an influx of New Zealand species (the South Island pied oystercatcher, pied stilt, banded dotterel and wrybill) once their breeding season is over. Watch for them at roosting places when they are driven off the mudflats by the rising tide.
Some seashore birds migrate between the North and South islands to breed. Both the wrybill and the South Island pied oystercatcher breed inland around the South Island’s shingle riverbeds in late winter, and then migrate mostly to the great northern harbours in summer.
Other birds may move more locally from inland districts to be near the coast – for instance the pied stilt (in summer), and kingfisher (in winter). Gannets and white-fronted terns spend some time on Australian shores when young, but return to New Zealand to breed.
New Zealand’s position in the roaring forties, at the edge of the Southern Ocean, makes it a great place to observe pelagic birds (those that live on the open ocean) – for example migratory shearwaters and petrels, skuas, and albatrosses. More than 30 species of petrel and shearwater breed on New Zealand’s offshore islands. Pelagic birds feed with the whales off Kaikōura in the South Island. Specialist boat operators offer tours for viewing ocean birds.
Rare and endangered birds
Wild populations of some birds, such as kākāpō and New Zealand snipes, only occur in conservation areas that are closed to the public. You can see a number of species – including takahē, saddleback, stitchbird, kiwi and parakeet – in captivity, as part of breeding programmes. But they are better observed in sanctuaries such as Tiritiri Matangi Island off Auckland, Kapiti Island off Wellington’s west coast and Zealandia (Karori Sanctuary) in Wellington city. Endangered birds have been re-released into these pest-free reserves.
Ocean island groups
Millions of seabirds breed around the Subantarctic World Heritage Area, the island groups to the south of New Zealand. Ocean tour parties land briefly at some of them. The more accessible Chatham Islands group has several unique species and subspecies. The Kermadec Islands, to the north, have many subtropical seabird species.