Albatross, Gannet, and Kiwi: Lazy Birdwatching in New Zealand

A Pegalic Trip for Seabirds

I’m not sure how long I’ve dreamed of seeing an albatross. Probably not since I first read “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” but still a good long time.

Albatross Encounter Kaikoura 3

I finally got my wish in Kaikoura, South Island, New Zealand. I booked the earliest morning tour for Todd and me on Albatross Encounter (9 am in winter and early spring, 6 am in the summer). There were a total of five birders plus the captain. I was glad the family of four didn’t show up, because I thought five was about the limit if everyone wanted to take pictures.

Wandering albatross in front of northern royal albatross.

Wandering albatross in front of northern royal albatross.

We saw 4 species of albatross (wandering, northern royal, Salvin’s, and white-capped), 3 species of petrel (Westland, cape, and northern giant-petrel), thousands of Hutton’s shearwaters, two species of dolphin, and seals.

Albatross Encounter Kaikoura 2

If you go on a pelagic birding trip, be sure to bring your camera even if you don’t have a long lens because the chum brings the birds close to the boat.

Albatross Encounter Kaikoura 1

In some cases, I could have touched the albatrosses, but I wasn’t about to get my fingers close to their wicked beaks. Also, I don’t believe in touching wild animals for my own pleasure.

Banding the Banded Dotterel

Ailsa Howard, a birder and photographer from Kaikoura who was on the boat with us, invited me to go with her and some friends to band the banded dotterel, a type of plover that breeds in New Zealand. She has put together a research project to monitor their breeding success in Kaikoura’s South Bay.

Lindsay preparing a trap around the nest.

Lindsay preparing a trap around the nest (marked by sticks).

Both her friends were named Lindsay: one was a man who has banded birds in the past, and the other was a young woman who plans to get a degree in environmental studies and for now is volunteering on conservation projects. The four of us drove down to the South Bay to look at the nests Ailsa and Lindsay had found the other day.

Ailsa and Lindsay place bands on the bird while Lindsay watches.

Ailsa and Lindsay place color-coded bands on the bird while Lindsay watches.

One nest (marked with sticks) was missing its eggs; probably red-billed gulls ate them. Lindsay managed to band the females at two other nests. The first bird seemed to be quite disturbed by the experience; she flew off and stayed away so long that the male settled down on the eggs. The second banding went more quickly, and the other Lindsay got to hold the dotterel. I was a bit jealous but very glad to have been invited.

Banding the Dotterel 3

Projects like Ailsa and Lindsay’s are an important part of restoration. People who want to protect a species or its habitat need data to support their requests for a listing or a reserve. Ailsa said they plan to collect data for 3 to 4 years; a grant she obtained will help defray expenses.

Banding the Dotterel 5

Gannets in the Hundreds West of Auckland

Most serious birders plan their trips more carefully than I have, but as my excuse I plead the number of countries we’re visiting. After a half-hearted stab at research in the spring of 2015, I decided that I will not obsess over finding the best birding spots. Australia has 800 species or so and Indonesia 1,600, and I am trying to resign myself to seeing a small fraction of those. So far I haven’t used Birding Pal to find local birders, though I still may.

Gannet Colony Murawai 2

I found out about the gannet colony after I arrived in Auckland, but wasn’t sure how to get there without hitchhiking, which didn’t interest me. The buses going that way stop 10 km short of the site—not too convenient. Enter one of Todd’s gaming friends, who drove us out to Murawai, on the west coast of the North Island, to see where gannets breed on the rocks along the coast.

Gannet Colony Murawai 3

It was windy, which seems to be the norm in New Zealand. I don’t know if it’s windy in the summer, but it certainly wasn’t calm in the spring. I pulled my loud hat down on my forehead and reveled in the views out to sea and the cries of the gannets and the white-fronted terns flying in the picture below.

Gannet Colony Murawai 4

Around one corner was a blowhole. You could possibly walk out to it, but I think that would be a bad idea.

Gannet Colony Murawai 1

People fish on nearby rocks, though every year some die when they ignore the tides and get washed off into the ocean.

Gannet Colony Murawai

Otorohanga Kiwi House

This is what I meant by “lazy birdwatching.” I wanted to see a kiwi, but these rare nocturnal birds are very difficult to see in the wild. I could have arranged for a guide to take me birdwatching, but even then a sighting is not guaranteed and I would have spent a lot of the money we saved for travel. So I visited this kiwi house about an hour south of Hamilton on the North Island, where I saw all sorts of rare New Zealand birds for $24NZ. I can’t add them to my life list, but at least I’ve seen them.

The only kiwi I could photograph.

The only kiwi I could photograph.

Otorohanga Kiwi House breeds brown kiwis for release into areas free of introduced predators such as weasels and cats. Four kiwis are kept on display, and to accommodate visitors, day and night are reversed in their enclosures. I went to a 1:30 pm feeding, and it was so dark that I had to be careful moving around until my eyes adjusted. Photographing the kiwis is not allowed.

Otorohanga Kiwi House 3

Red-crowned parakeet. That’s right, none of these pictures have anything to do with the birds I’m discussing, but all these species live at the Kiwi House.

The star is definitely Atu, a great spotted kiwi who likes to claw and “peck” her keepers when they come to feed her. This species lives in alpine areas where predators can’t reach them as easily, so they are not as endangered as the brown kiwi.

The kea, New Zealand's alpine parrot.

The kea, New Zealand’s alpine parrot.

Otorohanga also breeds New Zealand falcons and releases them into the wild. The falcon display had signs mentioning Wingspan Birds of Prey Trust, a group that rehabilitates injured raptors. Birds too badly injured to be released will become foster parents to orphaned falcons, and falconers will teach the young birds to hunt when they are old enough. I thought that was so cool.

I had a long discussion with the man who fed Atu about the difference between a kiwi house and a sanctuary. The latter is a natural area surrounded by a predator-free fence, and he said they are popping up all over New Zealand. I have a feeling that the kiwi house is an old-fashioned concept (Otorohanga opened in 1971) and sanctuaries appeal to people who want a “wilder” experience. Zealandia, a sanctuary near Wellington, does not guarantee kiwi sightings on their night tours, but the website says that visitors will hear them.

Wekas are a flightless bird.

Wekas are a flightless bird.

Why I Titled This “Lazy Birdwatching”

Because I should be going out into the wild to see these birds, not visiting bird zoos. I also wonder if other birders are able to find pelagic birds without using chum to draw them in.

Some other time I will travel around New Zealand doing all sorts of birding in all sorts of habitat.

Mentioned in This Post

Albatross Encounter

Murawai Gannet Colony

Otorohanga Kiwi House

More about New Zealand birds