Bird-Watching -- Our bird life is abundant and our native birds (around 250 species) in particular are a rich lot, attracting bird-watchers from all over the world. Because of New Zealand's isolation and the evolutionary patterns that have developed here as a result, many species are found nowhere else in the world. The bellbird, plain of feather and easily missed, is the songster supreme. The handsome inky tui, with his white-tufted neck, comes a close second. The flightless weka is rowdy rather than tuneful, and you'll see him in the bush or poking his nose into campsites. The green-and-orange kea is a cheeky mountain parrot with a reputation for mischief on the ski fields and in high-country camps. Make sure you don't leave any belongings about, as keas love to steal whatever is not locked away. This especially applies to anything shiny. They are notorious for damaging mirrors, aerials, and other attachments on vehicles; and their large, strong beaks will give you a nasty bite, so don't be tempted to feed them.

Seabirds of course abound and you'll be delighted by nesting albatross and gannets, elegant white herons, penguins, and many more. Keen bird-watchers have many choice spots to visit. The Miranda Seabird Coast near Thames on the Coromandel Peninsular is home to 8,500 hectares (21,000 acres) of tidal flats that attract millions of migratory species every year. Farewell Spit northwest of Nelson is another major migratory path; and South Brighton Spit in Christchurch attracts millions of godwits every year on their return from Siberia. You can enjoy seabird tours at Kaikoura; and Otago Peninsular is home to both albatross and penguin colonies, which you can visit. Another not-to-be-missed bird-watching location is Okarito in the South Westland. This is where you'll find the white heron nesting colonies. Keep in mind that the only access to these protected areas is via guided tours. There are several tourism operators offering seabird tours around the peninsular coastline. Stewart Island is another superb destination for bird-watchers. Not only does it have a wealth of pelagic species which you can arrange to see by boat; it also has easy access to Ulva Island, a protected bird sanctuary that is home to several unique species. One of the delights here is the tiny native robins that are surprisingly tame and fearless. If you scratch the ground gently, they will hop right up to your feet, providing you with unforgettable photo opportunities. Stewart Island is also the only place in New Zealand where you can join nighttime kiwi-spotting tours that take you out into the wild to see this native icon. You'll be very lucky to see a kiwi in the wild on your own, as they tend to forage deep in the bush at night, or on remote, often inaccessible beaches.

Birds are easier to spot in clearings or secondary forests than they are in primary forests. Unless you have lots of experience bird-watching, your best hope for enjoying a walk through the forest lies in employing a trained and knowledgeable guide. (By the way, if it's been raining a lot and the trails are muddy, a good pair of rubber boots comes in handy).

As with any form of bird or wildlife spotting, the standard rules apply. Here are a few helpful hints:

  • Listen. Pay attention to rustling in the leaves; whether it's bellbirds up above or penguins on the ground, you're most likely to hear an animal before seeing one.
  • Keep quiet. Noise will scare off animals and prevent you from hearing their movements and calls.
  • Don't try too hard. Soften your focus and allow your peripheral vision to take over. This way you can catch glimpses of motion and then focus in on the prey.
  • Bring binoculars. It's also a good idea to practice a little first to get the hang of them. It would be a shame to be fiddling around and staring into space while everyone else in your group oohs and aahs over a kiwi.
  • Dress appropriately. You'll have a hard time focusing your binoculars if you're busy swatting flies. Light, long pants and long-sleeved shirts are your best bet. Comfortable hiking boots are a real boon, except where heavy rubber boots are necessary. Avoid loud colors; the better you blend in with your surroundings, the better your chances are of spotting birds.
  • Be patient. The forest isn't on a schedule. However, your best shots at seeing birds (or other wildlife) are in the very early morning and late afternoon hours.
  • Read up. Familiarize yourself with what you're most likely to see, and if you plan to study the birds, get a copy of The Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand by Barrie Heather and Hugh Robertson. It's published by Penguin and is the only guide endorsed by the Ornithological Society of New Zealand. The same authors also produce a smaller book, The Hand Guide to the Birds of New Zealand. If you'd like a more colorful reference, get Know Your New Zealand Birds by Lynette and Geoff Moon, published by New Holland. They also produce a small, handbag-size Photographic Guide to New Zealand Birds.

It is also important to remember that you put yourself at grave risk by wandering off into the bush alone. You will have a much safer and more satisfying bush bird-watching experience by joining a guide who knows exactly where and when to go to find specific species. Also check at information centers for the best local knowledge of key bird-watching areas, the species you are likely to see, and tour operators or guides who can take you there.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.