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New England Seabirds

 Wilson's Storm-petrel  Dave Jones

Birding On My Own
Australia &
New Zealand 2002
Emmalee Tarry
Revised 2015

Trip Reports

Table of Contents

Comments to webmaster

Chapter 18
New Zealand South Island

Fiordland - West Coast

South Island West Coast
Te Anau
Doubtful Sound
Milford Sound
Haas Pass
Alpine Car Eating Parrot
Tropical Penguin
Franz Joseph Glacier
White Heron Colony at Whataroa
Arthur's Pass

Doubtful Sound a fiord on south island west coast.

South Island West Coast

The east and west coasts of south island are separated by a steep mountain range. The southern west coast is cut by deep scenic fiords.  You can see two of the fiords by car and boat. The northern west coast can be traveled by road.

From Invercargill, I drove into Fiordland staying 3 nights at Te Anau and then crossed over the Hass Pass to descend to the tropical west coast at Haas. I drove north visiting Franz Joseph and Greymouth. Then I drove back over the mountains with a night at Arthur's Pass and another at Hanmer Springs. I spent 3 more days at my favorite place on the south island Kaikoura.

There are three penguins on the south island. Two I have already seen: Little Penguin and Yellow-eyed Penguin. The Fiorldland Crested Penguin lives only on the west coast and Stewart Island. And if you don't see it in New Zealand you are not going to see it.

The other target birds are Wrybill, Blue Duck, Yellowhead, Fernbird and the ubiquitous alpine parrot the Kea.

Te Anau

There were several beautiful coastal views on the drive from Invercargill before heading up the mountainous road to Te Anau. I stopped at the Manapouri Power Station on Watau River for the flock of Black-billed Gulls.  Te Anau is a beautiful little town on the edge of a large alpine lake. I registered at the YHA and then signed up to take a tour across the lake to the Glow Worm Caves.

The NZ$45 boat trip starts with a trip across the lake to the entrance of the cave where there is a visitors center. After a short video you hike into the cave entrance along a rushing stream. A short walk takes you get to the boat. The guide propels the boat by pulling on a cable strung across the ceiling. Along the way you see lots of glow worms. Glow worms are insects that live on the ceiling of the cave and emit light to attract other insects. They appear as tiny points of light on the ceiling. Sometimes you can see web like string hanging down to catch the prey. Then you return the same way you came in.

The mountain side above the glow worm cave is the area where in 1948 they found 250 Takehe which until that time were thought to be extinct. This area is now a sanctuary for the Takehe. There are signs about the Takehe, but little chance that you will see one here. I saw the Takehe on Tiritiri Matangi outside of Auckland.

Doubtful Sound
There are two options both expensive for seeing Doubtful Sound. The YHA has special rates on the overnight trip and I was told by a couple that took the trip that it was very nice and they saw the Fiordland Crested Penguin. I took the day trip which cost NZ$190 plus another $19 for lunch.

The trip starts with a boat trip across Lake Manapouri to the power station from the town of Manapouri 22 km from Te Anau. Outside the power station visitors center I saw my first Kea. Notice the long sharp bill on this rather dull bird.

The original plan for the power station was to build a dam to raise the lakes 100m in depth. This would have destroyed this beautiful area. Instead they dug a tunnel into the mountain and put the turbines underground. At the visitors center you board buses for the trip down the tunnel to the power station. For some reason you drive on the right hand side of the road down the tunnel. I am glad I am not driving because once down the tunnel the driver has to turn the big bus around in the narrow tunnel.

We spent some time in the power station looking at the turbines and reading posters describing the project.

The bus trip continues over the Wilmot Pass stopping to look at the moss gardens that grow on the cliffs. At these stops I saw Tomtit and Kea. On reaching the sound at Deep Cove you board the boat for the trip up and back on Doubtful Sound. The sound is very scenic and it is a beautiful restful trip. There is a small island where you can see the Fiordland Crested Penguin coming and going from its nest. We did not see any penguins today. The problem seems to be that the breeding season is almost over and the birds are seen one day and not the next. At the mouth of the sound there is a rock with fur seals. There is also a chance that penguins will be seen on these rocks and the captain did look for them with a pair of binoculars. By that time he knew I was a bird watcher and even said to me "I can't fool you into thinking that gull is a penguin." He was right about that.

On the way back up the sound the boat was followed by a pod of Bottlenosed Dolphins. I pointed them out to the other tourists and everyone on the boat raced to see. The captain reluctantly stopped and let us have a good look at the dolphins. I was most disappointed not to see the penguins.

Milford Sound

Undeterred the next day I drove to Milford Sound as a day trip from Te Anau. The drive goes up the mountain to the Homer Tunnel. The Homer Tunnel would never be allowed in the United States. There are no lights in the tunnel and the tunnel goes downhill. It has two very narrow lanes. I must admit that I was very frightened in this tunnel. Of course you don't realize how frightening it is until you are already in it and then there is nothing you can do but keep going..

The Milford Sound trip was much like the Doubtful Sound trip except that I was on a sail boat. We used the power for most of the trip, but at one point they did unfurl the sail. This time we did not see the penguins and frankly the captain wasn't looking for them. We also didn't see any dolphins.

An optional part of the trip is a stop at the underwater observatory. At the end of the trip the boat pulls up to the observatory and lets the passengers who want to visit off. They return to the dock on another boat. I didn't understand that and left my coat and backpack on the first boat. Fortunately the stuff was still there when I got back.

Tanin in the fresh water flows into the sound and the fresh water floats on the salt water. The tanin blocks the light and allows corals to grown. The underwater observatory is a tower built in the sound with a spiral staircase. As you walk around the tower you can look out the windows and see the coral and the fish. This was really quite nice.

Haas Pass

From Te Anau I drove over the alpine meadows to Queenstown. Outside town I stopped at a bridge to watch the bungy jumping. After watching two jumpers from the spectators platform, I walked out on the bridge to stand behind the jumpers. The jumper was a young woman who was crying and saying "I can't do this." The jump masters almost pushed her off the bridge. After the jump she was extatic. It seems to me to be something you don't want to do so much that after you do it you are exhilarated you don't have to do it again.

Snow capped mountains on the drive over the Haas Pass. There were also flowering meadows, fruit trees and of course sheep pastures.

I stopped at a farm stand and bought some fruit and enjoyed birding at various stops along the road.

Alpine Car Eating Parrot

Parrots live in the tropics and penguins in the snow or at least most of us think so. Not in New Zealand where the Kea, an alpine parrot survives in the snow and the Fiorland Crested Penguin breeds in the tropical woodlands of the west coast.

The Kea is rather dull looking bird except when it flies and shows scarlet underwings.Named for its raucous call given in flight, the bird can be found anywhere tourists stop. Notice the strong bill.

" Don't feed the parrots" signs are posted at every stop along the road and at every stop tourists are cleaning out their cars of cookies, bread, and chips. Here the Kea perches on the car roof while his friends are grabbing handouts from the driver.

And the minute you leave your car and to look at the scenery, the birds attack the moulding around your windshield with their sharp peaks. The owner of a car left overnight can come back to find his windshield on the front seat of his car, . See the two pictures below of the parrots working on the rubber moulding of a car that is not mine.

Tropical Penguin
The town of Haas on the coast is the first stop on the road from the Haas Pass. I stayed here in the Wilderness Backpackers Hostel which is a YHA affiliate. It is brand new and very nice with a covered court yard with fountains and plants. I am amazed at how hot and tropical it is on the west coast after the cool mountains.

In the late afternoon I drove over the Turnbull River and took a left turn to Hakapu Estuary where there is a nice boardwalk. There were lots of birds here, but nothing especially new: Tui, White-fronted Tern, New Zealand Wood Pigeon.

My focus is now on seeing the Fiordland Crested Penguin and my last chance seems to be Monro Beach to which I have only vague directions. I also don't know the technique for seeing this bird. Everything would tell me to get there early in the morning. I started driving north on the coast road looking for Lake Moeraki Wilderness Lodge.

I made several stops along the way. There are some beautiful lookouts on the ocean. One of these is Ships Creek which is a good birding area. You should keep going until you come to the Lake Moeraki Wilderness Lodge. Better yet stay here as the lodge has a bird guide who will take you to see not only the penguin but other birds in the area.

If you want to do it on your own, just past the lodge you will see a road to the left ( coming from the south) to Monro Beach. Park here. Take water, food, insect repellant and hike the track to the beach. Once on the beach follow the signs to the north end and stay back as instructed.. Find a place to sit quietly and hope that anyone else who comes along will do the same. I later learned that the birds come and go all day so you only have to sit and wait.

I never made it to Monro Beach because I ran into a birder from NY who remembered me from one of Bill Drummond's trips to Colorado. She was part of a bird tour group from California and their group would be going on a trip with the lodge that was guaranteed to see the penguin. Perhaps I could get on this trip. I went to the lodge and told them I was pretty desperate to see the penguin and they kindly agreed to take me on the tour for NZ$65.  A little note about these prices all are quoted in NZ$ and at the time of my trip the US $ was worth about 3 NZ $ so to get a better idea of the price divide by 3.

At 10 AM we went back to Ships Creek in the lodge bus and walked the trail. Carl the lodge guide sees Fernbird here regularly, but not today. I never did see this bird. We did see quite a few birds including Wood Pigeon, Tomtit, Fantail, Gannet, Bellbird and Hector's Dolphins from the beach. Carl is a very well trained guide and I enjoyed this walk. He is of Scottish Ancestry and we liked his accent and copied his use of "wee bit".

We then drove back toward the lodge to an unmarked trail south of the lodge where we parked and walked about 30 minutes to the beach. We had to ford the creek about 5 times getting our feet soaked. I would suggest Teva type sandals for this hike. I was wearing my hiking boots which I really needed to keep from turning my ankle. It is not an easy trail.

Once on the beach it is necessary to be very quiet. Walk to the south end and sit quietly in the shade. The penguins nest in burrows in the woods and you can hear them calling to each other. The penguins breed from July to December. It is now the end of November and this has been an early year so many have already left the breeding grounds. They will go to sea for December and January returning here in Feburary to molt. After the molt they return to the sea until time to breed again.

We arrived about 1:26 PM. The first penguin came from the sea about 1:30. He (or she) huddled near the cliff at the south end for some time. Be sure you are sitting back from the water and away from this cliff as the path the penguins will take into the colony is near the cliff. By 2:30 we have seen 14-15 penguins. Most came from the sea, but a few seem to come down from the nests.

There are about 3,000 Fiordland Crested Penguins left. The Wilderness Lodge provides one of the best opportunities to see them in the wild while protecting this colony. They also nest on Stewart Island and in the fiords. I was very grateful for the opportunity to see this bird.

Lake Moeraki Wilderness Lodge

Private Bay 772
Hokitita, NZ
Hosts Simon and Shirley Nikoloff State Highway 6, Haast Postal Private Bag 772, Hokitika
About NZ$250 per person per night.
Phone + 64-3-750 0881 Fax + 64-3-750 0882 Email

Franz Joseph Glacier

After seeing the penguin, I drove on to the town Franz Joseph and the YHA. This is one of the larger and busier YHA and reservations are recommended. It was easy to make reservations one hop in advance and I always did so.

The next day I made the easy 45 minute hike to the face of the Franz Joseph glacier. There were common birds along the way but nothing new.

There are many tours that allow you walk on the glacier itself. I would have liked to have taken one of these trip, but was afraid I would be too slow. From the face of the glacier you can watch the walkers with your binoculars. There is also a helicopter trip which takes you up to the top of the glacier for a walking tour on the upper glacier. Unfortunately the helicopter was grounded because of the weather.

Franz Joseph is a delightful little town that exists for glacier happy tourists. Visit it quickly because the glacier is receding and the river rising. If the present trend continues the town and the YHA may be flooded out of existence.

White Heron Colony at Whataroa
I visited the Okarita Lagoon and Tai Poutine National Park taking a walk up a track to a lookout. This is the last stand of the Great Spotted Kiwi, but of course you cannot see them in the daytime.  I made reservations for the 11 AM White Heron trip at Whataroa NZ$89. The trip starts with a bus trip to the boat dock and a fast ride on a jet boat through the wetland. We saw a Paradise Shelduck with ducklings along the waterway and the male bird chased the boat on the wing.

As you approach the colony the boat slows and it becomes a good birding trip. From the dock a boardwalk goes through the forest to the bird hide opposite the colony.

The White Heron is actually Egretta alba or the Great Egret of Australia. Not exactly a bird to greatly excite a birder who has just seen the Fiordland Crested Penguin, but nevertheless this is a nice trip.

This is the only breeding colony of Egretta alba in New Zealand. Also breeding here are Royal Spoonbills and Little Shags

There were Kingfishers at the nesting colony

The woods and wetland around the colony are probably more interesting than the birds themselves so put your naturalist hat on and enjoy the opportunity to be so deep in a wetland.

Far left picture  is a Green Hooded Orchid blooming along the boardwalk.

This was another plant blooming along the boardwalk. A sign labeled it Kieki or Freycinetia banksii . Named after the French navigator Freycinet. Fruit is edible.

 I would have liked to have spent several hours wandering up and down the boardwalk by myself studying the plants and hoping for other birds. This of course cannot happen because the boat returns after about 45 minutes at the blind. Since the other participants are not birdwatchers they make a great deal of noise on the way to and from the blind. I suggest this trip only if you have time and money to spare.On the other hand I am glad I had the opportunity to see this beautiful area.

White Heron Sanctuary Tours
PO Box 19
NZ$89 2 hours
Phone: 64 3 753 420
Make reservations in Franz Joseph at YHA


I drove on to Greymouth for the night stopping along the way to tour something called Shanty Town NZ$11 which is reconstruction of a gold mining town from the 1860s. They have a working steam locomotive burning coal on which you can take a ride and watch the engineer stoking the fire box. A Weka walked around the train station. There are gold panning demonstration, a fire station with old equipment, and of course shops.

I came to Greymouth to see the Black Petrel colony at Punakaiki 40 Km north. Unfortunately I let the YHA manager talk me out of this. She was sure the reserve was closed. I later learned it was not and that baby Black Petrels were visible on the nest.

When I rented the car I had to give a date for leaving the south island and I am running out of time. I decided to spend the night at Arthur's Pass.

Arthur's Pass
It is the end of November and early summer in New Zealand. It is really uncomfortably hot on the west coast and I am anxious to get back to a cooler place. I drove south from Greymouth to the H73 and up through Otira Gorge stopping to look for the next target bird Blue Duck at every bridge and stream crossing. I had no luck with the duck but did see Black Shags and Redpolls. Of course there are Kea here too.

In Arthur's Pass I checked in at the YHA and went to the information center for maps. I walked the Bridal Falls Track about half way. I climbed up until I found a bench with a view into the upper story and sat down to wait. This strategy turned up the Rifleman and TomTit.

Once over the pass I started looked at braided channels for another target bird the Wrybill. It should be nesting on the many streams. I later realized that it is very hard to see this bird on the breeding grounds because they are very territorial and blend in so beautifully with the white rocks.

At Lake Pearson I had better luck turning up a pair of South Island Great Crested Grebes. There are only 250 of these birds left so I feel very lucky to have seen two.

I stayed at the Hanmer Spring YHA and went to the famous hot springs. For NZ$10 you can bath in the many pools at different temperatures. They advertise a lap pool, but when I got there it was filled with kids jumping in and out so it couldn't be used for laps.

I went on to Kaikoura for three days before driving to Picton and taking the ferry to the north island.

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