Highly intelligent, the world's only alpine parrot, the Kea
The smallest penguin in the world, the Blue Penguin

Bird Watching in New Zealand

Article submitted by holidayLOVER

July 18th, 2008

New Zealand was a land of birds before humans arrived on our shores between 800 and 1200 AD. The only mammals found in New Zealand prior to the arrival of Maori were two species of native bats and those that could swim here, for example seals and sea lions. Due to the lack of predators and the relative isolation of the birds in New Zealand, many endemic birds are quite unique.

The lack of predators has led to some evolving into flightless birds, such as the kakapo and the national symbol of New Zealand, the kiwi. This array of bird life has made New Zealand become a very popular holiday for bird watchers and birders a like. Indeed many of our native birds are incredibly rare, so twitchers (those who like to observe as many rare birds as possible, often documenting their sightings with photos) are naturally drawn to this land.

One way of viewing New Zealand’s endemic land birds is to head into their territory on a hiking trail. Hundreds of hiking trails are found all over New Zealand and offer a great escape into our native forests, wetlands, mountains etc. There is plenty of variety in the walks, from short walks, to multi-day hikes (New Zealanders call this “tramping”), and walks catering to differing abilities and fitness levels. New Zealand’s national parks and conservation lands are extremely safe, having absolutely no terrifying “nasties”, such as bears, wolves, snakes etc.

For more information on walks in New Zealand visit The Department of Conservation.

If walking isn't your thing, then don't worry, many access roads lead you directly into our national parks and conservation areas. You will find there are great picnic areas available at a large percentage of these and camping sites at some. You can also access extremely remote areas via helicopter or jet boat.

Not only are the land birds of interest but also our vast array of seabirds. Pelagic seabirds are highly specialised and are a vital component to our fauna. In fact, New Zealand is surrounded by ocean, with the rich Antarctic waters flowing up our shores and has the most diverse seabird community in the world, with over 80 species of seabirds breeding in the region. Of these, nearly half breed exclusively in New Zealand.

To see our seabirds you can view them from onshore or out at sea on a boat. There are a variety of companies offering wildlife cruises all over New Zealand. Many areas of interest for viewing the pelagic birds from the coast have special viewing platforms offering spectacular vantage points or are run as organised tours, such as the Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony.

Below is a list of places of interest, from north to south, for bird watchers and birders in New Zealand:

North Island

Aroha Island Ecological Centre
A mainland island with resident kiwi and other birdlife. North Island Brown Kiwi are found here.

Tiritiri Matangi Island
An open sanctuary managed by the Department of Conservation. It is home to some rare species of birds that can only be seen in sanctuaries or on islands. These include stitchbirds, North Island saddlebacks, takahe, brown teal, little spotted kiwi. More common species like fantails, tui, bellbirds, North Island robins, and native pigeon (kereru) are in great abundance.

Hauraki Gulf
The Hauraki Gulf offers seabird enthusiasts the chance to observe some of New Zealand's unique petrels and shearwaters some which only breed in Northern New Zealand. Perhaps the most exciting is the chance to see the recently rediscovered New Zealand Storm Petrel.

Muriwai Beach Gannet Colony
Located an hour’s drive north west of Auckland on the west coast of the North Island. Australasian gannets breed here on a rock stack off the coast every year from October to March. Viewing platforms on the coast offer a spectacular vantage point of the colony and the coastline. Access is free.

Miranda Shorebird Centre
The Miranda Shorebird Centre is located on the Firth of Thames, one hour south east of Auckland and half an hour west of the Coromandel Peninsula. Birds commonly seen: Wading birds are there all year round, but the main flocks of godwit and knot are on location between September and March. Wrybill and oystercatchers are around from late January through to July/August. Other species regularly seen are sharp-tailed sandpiper, curlew sandpiper, red-necked stint, eastern curlew, ruddy turnstone, New Zealand dotterel, and banded dotterel.

Kiwi House and Native Bird Park, Otorohanga
This is a native fauna and flora park, specialising in kiwi and tuatara. Also has the rare North Island kokako and many species of owls. The large dome aviary has many native birds. Admission fee applies.

Ahuriri Wetlands
Adjacent to Napier city, this estuary supports a large and varied population of birds on tidal mudflats and coastal waters. It is an easy walk, taking about one hour with seating provided at suitable viewing sites. Birdlife commonly seen throughout the year includes South Island pied oystercatchers, dotterels, Caspian terns, gannets, shags, mallard ducks, grey ducks, shoveller and paradise ducks, pukeko and spur winged plover. Sightings of Australasian bittern, white heron (kotuku), egret and spoonbill are augmented from September to March by arctic breeding birds – predominantly godwits.

Cape Kidnappers Gannet Colony
This is a summer breeding ground for a large number of Australasian gannets. It is situated 10km around the coast from Clifton Bay, Hawkes Bay, on the East Coast of the North Island. The colony is occupied from October to March and can be reached either on foot (a 20km return journey along the beach) or by a number of organised tours. Access is restricted to those times of the day when the tide is out, so departure times of tours vary every day.
Gannet Beach Adventures

Manawatu Estuary
Located near Foxton beach. It is notable as being one the most important habitat for wading birds on the west coast of the North Island. Visited regularly by birdwatchers over the past 35 years, the list of birds seen here is one of the longest for any area in New Zealand.

Nga Manu Nature Reserve
About 50km north of Wellington near Waikanae, and about 5km west of State Highway 1. Native birds that may be seen include kaka, kea, kakariki, blue duck, paradise shelduck, shoveller, scaup, grey teal, grey duck, tui, kereru, kingfisher and many more. There is a nocturnal house for kiwi and owls together with special enclosures for tuatara, skinks and geckos (lizards).
Nga Manu Nature Reserve

Waikanae Estuary
The Waikanae Estuary Scientific Reserve is home to over 63 species of birds (at some time during the year).

Kapiti Island
The island is a closed sanctuary managed by the Department of Conservation. It is located a 15 minute boat ride off Paraparaumu Beach (one hour’s drive north of Wellington). Kapiti is home to birds only seen in sanctuaries or on islands including stitch-birds, North Island saddlebacks, takahe and Little Spotted kiwi. More common species like fantails, tui, bellbirds, North Island robins, kaka and native woodpigeon (kereru) are in great abundance. Visitors are limited to 50 per day and bookings must be made well in advance particularly for the summer months.
Kapiti Island Alive

Mt Bruce National Wildlife Centre
The Department of Conservation’s breeding centre for rare native birds including kaka and kokako is located twenty minutes drive north of Masterton on State Highway 2. Also on view for the public are kiwi, takahe, stitch-bird and many more all in a cool forest setting.
Pukaha Mount Bruce

Karori Wildlife Sanctuary
The Karori Wildlife Sanctuary Visitor Centre is the only public entrance to the Sanctuary, which is surrounded by a predator proof fence. It is located at the end of Waiapu Road, Karori, Wellington.
Karori Wildlife Sanctuary

South Island

Farewell Spit
At the north-western-most corner of the South Island Farewell Spit is a wetland of international importance and a Bird Sanctuary of world renown.
Farewell Spit Eco Tours

Marlborough Sounds
There are a number of island sanctuaries for rare wildlife. Predator-free Motuara Island bird sanctuary is located in the outer Queen Charlotte Sound.
Dolphin Watch Ecotours

Kahurangi National Park
New Zealand’s second largest and most diverse park. There is a wide range of habitats from wilderness coast to mountain peaks. Many bird species are to be found, including some of our rare species such as: great spotted kiwi, blue duck, kaka, rock wren, kea, fernbird and kakariki.
Heaphy Track

Nelson Lakes - Rotoiti Nature Recovery Project
Take one of the many walks through the project and you'll see and hear the results of this work; a forest alive with the sights and sounds of birds. Information panels along the way tell the story of the project and the plants and animals that call it home.

It is world famous for its sperm whales, dolphins and New Zealand fur seals. Pelagic bird watching tours are available all year round. Birds you can see include; albatross, mollymawks, petrels, shags, terns, shearwaters, and gulls.
Albatross Encounter

Banks Peninsula
Excellent bird watching along the Banks Peninsula Walking Track.
Banks Peninsula Track

Paparoa Nature Tours
Viewing shelter and walkway within the world’s only breeding grounds of the Westland black petrel.

Okarito Lagoon and the White Heron Sanctuary, South Westland
This is the primary feeding grounds for kotuku (white heron) whose only New Zealand nesting colony is nearby on the Waitangi-roto river.
White Heron Sanctuary Tours
Okarito Nature Tours

Lake Moeraki
Surrounded by towering rainforests and pristine seacoast, join nature guides to explore the lakes, rivers, forests, birds, seals and Fiordland Crested penguins of this area.

Black Stilt Viewing Hide, Twizel
Daily guided tours of the centre for critically endangered Black Stilt. Hide for viewing and photography, landscaped ponds, informative displays overlooking wetlands and breeding aviaries.

Takahe, Te Anau
The takahe was considered extinct until its rediscovery in Fiordland in 1948. Some birds are available for public viewing in aviaries outside Te Anau.

Otago Peninsula
The Otago Peninsula is the only mainland breeding colony for the Royal Albatross. A viewing centre has been set up at the colony, which is located an hour’s drive from Dunedin. It is also home to the Yellow-eyed Penguin, and the Yellow-eyed Penguin Conservation Reserve which is open all year, but particularly 1st October to the end of April.
Royal Albatross Centre
Monarch Wildlife Cruises

Visit yellow-eyed penguin and seal colonies.

Bushy Point Fernbirds. At the southern end of NZ’s South Island, only a 10-minute drive from Invercargill you will find the most accessible site in New Zealand to view Fernbirds.

Stewart Island & Ulva Island
Stewart Island is an absolute haven for native birds and highly recommended. The Southern Tokoeka (species of kiwi) can be found foraging for food during daylight hours. This is the only species of kiwi that is active during the day. Ulva Island is an internationally acclaimed open wildlife sanctuary and only a short boat trip from Stewart Island.
Paterson Inlet Cruises

If you are a bird watcher or full-on birder it would be great to hear what areas of New Zealand you enjoy. Likewise, if you are a tramper / hiker and found some great spots in New Zealand for sighting birds then let others know. Use the comment form below.

Melissa Evans
Melissa Evans

Melissa Evans lives in Sunny Nelson, New Zealand. She divides her time between being Creative Director at SunRoom Web Design Nelson, writing for KiwiWise and being a Mum to Sophia & Nicky. In her spare time she loves to travel, illustrate and read.

Average Rating:   (5 votes)

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  • posted on 1473803019
    Overall Rating: 10.0 / 10

    If you're really interested in seeing penguins you should check out pohatu penguins.co.nz . Located near Akaroa, Banks Peninsula, Christchurch . It is the largest colony of penguins on the main land of new Zealand. The species is little penguins. mostly White Flippered, With a few little Blue. a few yellow eyed penguins are scene almost every night as well. This bay is very isolated and the family of farmers here started penguin conservation 35 years ago on their farm. They started doing small group tours to see penguins the natural bird watching way. undisturbed watching them come ashore at dusk from hides on the side of the hill. with binoculars and everyone is wearing camouflage gear. they do not use lighting and as it gets to dark to see this becomes penguin time and we retreat back to Akaroa. They also do sea kayaking and point out many other native birds in the area along the coast and they have closed up many parts of their farm over the years turning it back into native bush and forest. In this small bay on the east side of Banks peninsula you have amazing bird life because the farmers have been keeping this bay as predator free as possible for so long. The only way to see this place is by doing their tours or the banks peninsula track , but the tours have been paying for all their conservation efforts over the years and allowing these farmers to turn the land back to forest.

  • posted on 1254350898 1
    Overall Rating: 10.0 / 10

    A great website is www.whatbird.co.nz It's very informative. Search for the New Zealand bird you're interested in and it gives you a picture, audio tracks of the call, the scientific name, where it's found etc.

  • posted on 1216584400
    Overall Rating: 9.0 / 10

    The kea is my favourite NZ bird. It's interesting that keas are only found in the South Island, they can see the North Island from the northern South Island mountains but for some reason have decided not to fly across. Keas are cheeky, intelligent and beautiful to watch. If you are interested in seeing keas then you'll be sure to see them if you are here in winter and visit one of the South Island ski fields. I saw a lot while I was staying in Franz Josef village on a recent holiday.

  • posted on 1216433578 1
    Overall Rating: 8.0 / 10

    Walked up Mt Arthur this summer, which is a great 1 day walk by the way.. It was a great viewing spot to see Kea in their natural habitat.. The first part of the walk which is through native bush seemed to lack native birds but we did notice a lot of traps for predators, so hopefully in the future more native birds will be spotted there.