Written in collaboration with Brent Stephenson and Ian Saville of Wrybill Birding Tours, New Zealand.
New Zealand is one of the world's great hotspots for seabirding, and can legitimately be called the albatross capital of the world, with more breeding taxa of albatrosses than any other country. Furthermore, the rich offshore waters provide habitat for a huge range of additional seabirds, both from sub-tropical and sub-antarctic waters. In reality, New Zealand should quite rightly be called the seabird capital of the world. This brief overview mostly ignores the wonderful endemic landbirds, but details of these can be found in some of the publications and websites listed below.
The only field guide necessary for New Zealand’s birds, as a whole (and the only one endorsed officially by the Ornithological Society of New Zealand), is ‘The Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand’ by Barrie Heather and Hugh Robertson. ‘The Hand Guide to the Birds of New Zealand’ consists of the colour plates and brief species accounts from the Field Guide, and is better suited for the traveller, being more compact and light-weight. Of particular interest to pelagic enthusiasts is the recently published ‘The complete guide to Antarctic Wildlife’ by Hadoram Shirihai. Although it doesn’t cover all seabirds found in the New Zealand region, it covers most of them, and contains excellent identification information and photographs. It gives especially good coverage to the Subantarctic islands, and both the seabirds and landbirds of these areas, as well as the marine mammals, history, and natural values.
While organized pelagic birding is in its infancy in New Zealand, it is starting to develop a core of birders interested in this challenging, but rewarding pursuit. Regular pelagics are now being run on an informal basis from several ports by local birders, including trips into the Hauraki Gulf, off Tolaga Bay (just north of Gisborne), and out of Whitianga (near Coromandel) – all in the North Island. These trips do not have a regular schedule, but are often announced via e-mail to BIRDING-NZ.
Some, such as those from Tolaga Bay and out of Whitianga, are advertised on the Wrybill Birding Tours, NZ website, and trip reports of these and other pelagics are maintained on this site. Of course, the cream of the crop is the Oceanwings operation out of Kaikoura (east-coast of the South Island), see below, but other commercial operations do exist and are covered below. What’s more, most coastal towns and cities are likely to have fishing boat operators who are available for chartering by birders.
and many mentioned through out…..
number of important seabird species breed on the many islands that stud
Hauraki Gulf, and cruising the area can be very productive. However, north
of Auckland there are several other options for seabirding, with Paihia
Bay of Islands having regular ‘sight-seeing’ cruises from which
several species of shearwater and petrel can be seen. Further north, any projecting
piece of land with public access could be worth a bit of time, as the more
species are likely to be recorded, as well as the chance of sub-tropical vagrants.
In the Auckland/northern region, the more common species are Flesh-footed,
Buller’s and Little Shearwaters, Cook’s,
Grey-faced and Black Petrels, and White-faced
Storm-Petrels. The greatest diversity occurs
in spring when
breeders return and wintering species may not have left. There is a large Australasian
Gannet colony at Muriwai
Regional Park near Waimauku, just north of Auckland.
Charters can be found in Auckland Harbour, Karen Baird recommends the Adventure Cruising Company, PO Box 338, Auckland 1, New Zealand (Baird, 1999), and potentially worthwhile are the ferries that run to Great Barrier and Waiheke Islands. SeaLink Passenger and vehicle ferries (formerly Subritzky) runs to both Great Barrier and Waiheke Islands, but check their schedule on-line. Fullers also run to many of the destinations in the Gulf.
The ferry to Tiritiri Matangi Island (one of New Zealand’s most famous wildlife reserves and a birders dream) can also yield some of the more common species. A number of important seabird species breed on the many islands the stud the Gulf, and cruising the area can be very productive. The greatest diversity occurs in spring when breeders return and wintering species may not have left. Breeding species include: Buller's Shearwater, Flesh-footed Shearwater, Sooty Shearwater, Parkinson's Petrel, Cook's Petrel, White-faced Storm-petrel.
There is a large Australasian Gannet colony at Otakamiro Point in Muriwai Regional Park near Waimauku, just north of Aukland.
Tolaga Bay is situated on the east coast of the North Island, just under an hour’s drive north of Gisborne. This tiny coastal town is an excellent location for one of the lesser known New Zealand pelagics. The East Cape area (as it is known) has long been known as a prime feeding ground for many of the gadfly petrels during the summer, and as an area frequented by albatross and more ‘southerly’ species during the winter. Trips taken out of this town since early 2003, organised by local birders, have not disappointed, with sensational summer trips recording long-tailed skua (a major NZ rarity) and large numbers of the common shearwaters and gadfly petrels – mainly Cook’s and Pycroft’s (white-naped petrels have been recorded). Autumn and winter trips have seen large numbers of albatross including Gibson’s, Antipodean, Northern and Southern Royal, Campbell, Black-browed, White-capped, and Chatham. Smaller tubenoses include: Cape Petrel, Grey and Grey-faced Petrel, Fairy and Slender-billed Prion (another NZ rarity), and Wilson’s Storm-Petrel. Other rarities such as South Polar Skua have been seen, and Yellow-nosed and Grey-headed Albatross also recorded. To get involved in one of these organised pelagics, check Wrybill Birding Tours, NZ website. The boat used is available for charter at any time if you are unable to join one of these planned trips, check out CharterFishing, New Zealand.
For those staying in the Picton area,
dolphin (Bottlenose Dolphin, Dusky Dolphin, Hector's Dolphin
and occasionally Orca) and birdwatching tours (native land birds plus
the King Shag roosting site on the White Rocks and to Motuara Island)
of Queen Charlotte Sound are available from Dolphin
between Picton and Christchurch, Kaikoura is a small coastal town on the
of South Island. Until relatively recently (1988-ish) this sleepy seaside town
survived mainly on fishing and crayfishing (rock lobster). However, since
a bustling and unique marine ecotourism centre has evolved. The continental
shelf comes close to shore here, including a series of deep underwater canyons
(up to 5000 ft deep) and the strong currents produce a significant upwelling
of nutrients that attract a huge variety of marine wildlife. The area is
most famous for its marine mammals, in particular Sperm Whales (Carwardine,
1994), along with Dusky and Hector’s Dolphins and
New Zealand Fur Seals.
Hutton's Shearwaters breed on the seaward side of the Kaikoura
Mountains and are common offshore (particularly September – March).
The Seal colony at the end of the Kaikoura Peninsula is a good vantage point
to sometimes see
large numbers of these shearwaters streaming past, and often large numbers
of albatrosses and other seabirds are visible, as well as New Zealand fur
The rocky platforms in the area are often good for waders to – ruddy
turnstones (summer), variable oystercatchers, and banded dotterels can usually
and this is perhaps one of the better places for seeing reef egret and vagrant
wandering tattlers (summer).
However, perhaps the Kaikoura highlight for pelagic birders is the Oceanwings – Albatross Encounters trip. Their website includes a daily record of sightings, a large number of photos and lots of other info. Trips specifically tailored to mammal watching are also available. The Oceanwings trip allows unrivalled views of many of the species in the area, with birds feeding on chum within metres of the back of the boat. A list of species recorded is below, and includes such highlights as Westland Petrels which are common most of the year, but rare in June-August (during the chick rearing period). They breed at only a handful of sites near Punakaiki, on the West Coast of the South Island. Albatrosses are seen on almost all trips, and are particularly common during the winter months.
Depending on season the following species may be seen:
Northern Royal Albatross
Southern Royal Albatross
Wandering (Snowy) Albatross
Buller's Albatross (Feb-July)
Southern Fulmar (May-Nov)
Northern Giant Petrel
Southern Giant Petrel (July-Dec)
Westland Petrel (Sept-June)
White-chinned Petrel (Oct-April)
Cape Petrel (April-Sept)
Grey-faced Petrel (Aug-Dec)
Buller's Shearwater - (Nov-May)
Fairy Prion (May-March)
Black-fronted Tern - (Feb-Sept)
Sperm Whale - (Oct-Dec)
New Zealand Fur Seal
Campbell Albatross (Feb-March)
Short-tailed Shearwater (Oct-March)
Subantarctic Skua (May-March)
Parasitic Jaeger (Nov-April)
-- Rarities (have
been recorded, but exceedingly unlikely)
New Zealand Crested (Fiordland) Penguin
Indian Yellow-nosed Albatross
Light-mantled Sooty Albatross
Alternatively, in the past it was possible to hitch a ride on a local fishing boat, which spends more time at sea and may go as far south as the Banks Peninsula. However, fishermen are often wary about this sort of thing these days due to health and safety regulations.
A quick mention should be made of this famous Northern Royal Albatross breeding colony. In recent years several Southern Royal Albatrosses have bred in mixed pairs. The area around the albatross colony is also good for Stewart Island and Spotted Shags, which breed on the cliffs, and Yellow-eyed Penguins can be seen coming ashore at several of the Bays on the seaward side of the peninsula, at most times of the year. There are several commercial penguin watching operations in the area. Plus you can access more of the pelagic species through a trip with Monarch Wildlife Cruises and Tours.
Once on Stewart Island the best opportunities for seabirding are from boat. Several operations run out of Stewart Island and you could try either Thorfinn or Talisker charters. From boat, several other species are possible, depending on the time of the year, such as New Zealand Crested (Fiordland) Penguin, Antarctic Tern, Subantarctic Skua. Yellow-eyed Penguin and Stewart Island Shag are almost guaranteed. Other species of seabirds are possible including other penguins (Snares’ and erect-crested) but these are rarely encountered. Stewart Island Brown Kiwi and many other endemic landbirds can be easily seen on Stewart Island (Note Stewart Island is NOT the only place to see brown kiwi in the wild – several sites both on the North and South Islands have wild populations, although Stewart Island is possibly one of the best places). For information and Stewart Island tours/trips to see landbirds, check out Ruggedy Range ™ Wilderness Experience’s website.
The Chatham Islands (44 deg. S, 176 deg. W) lie some 870 kms east of mainland New Zealand. A small archipelago, there are 2 main inhabited islands, Chatham and Pitt that are separated by 17 kilometres (12 miles). At present there are around 800 human inhabitants (many involved in a crayfish (rock lobster) and Paua (black abalone) industry) administered by the Chatham Islands Council. Prior to European/American settlement (whaling and sealing), the islands had been home to the Moriori for at least 1000 years. Sadly, no full-blooded Moriori survive. Maori from mainland invaded the islands in 1835 and settled. The archipelago was formed by volcanic up-thrusting. Chatham Island itself is rather flat with a number of small peaks (highest 188m) in the NW, with extensive peat beds and consolidated sand dunes elsewhere. The most striking geographical feature is Te Whanga Lagoon which covers almost 20% of the island. The combination of being in the Equatorial Current and prevailing northerly winds keeping the air and water temperatures moderate. More details of the history, geology, vegetation and animal life can be found on the Heritage Expeditions (NZ) and Department of Conservation’s websites and in Shirihai (2002). The Chatham’s website has good tips on getting there and away, and info on vehicle hire, accommodation, etc whilst there.
Access: The Chatham’s can be reached by air and sea, with
flights taking approximately 1.5 hours. The Chatham’s website has up-to-date
info on flights and one should enquire at Napier and Lyttleton Ports for info
on boats heading to the Chathams.
One should realise that at any time of the year, weather is unpredictable, with alpine type clothes suggested at all times. Once on the Chatham’s getting around can be difficult, but cars are available for hire, and unless going with an organised tour group – several operators run trips to the Chatham’s – then accommodation, etc needs to be booked ahead of time. The Chatham Islands Council (PO Box 24, Tuku Road, Waitangi, Chatham Islands, New Zealand) have recently produced a booklet providing useful info on access to the reserves, tours, and general information, and is similar to that provided at the Chatham’s website.
As well as being a great place for seabirds, the Chatham’s are outstanding for landbirds, as many of the species occurring here are distinct forms of those on the mainland, plus some extras (Chatham Snipe, Shoreplover, Chatham Island Oystercatcher, Chatham Gerygone, Chatham Island Black Robin, Chatham Island Pigeon, and Forbe’s Parakeet). Several of these species are only on some of the outlying islands which have restricted access, and are therefore not possible additions to a trip list. However, many of the species can be found on main Chatham, and a boat from here, or sea-watching from land, would prove worthwhile.
As well as the landbirds, the remarkable geography, and the isolated nature of the group, there’s the seabirds – with at least five endemic breeding seabirds - Chatham Albatross, Chatham Island Petrel (estimates at 800-1000 individuals), Chatham Taiko (Magenta Petrel) (estimated at 120-180 individuals), Chatham Shag (estimated at 842 pairs), and Pitt Shag (estimated at 729 pairs). In addition to this over 95% of Northern Royal and Pacific Albatross breed there, as do huge numbers of Broad-billed Prions, along with Fairy Prion, Northern Giant Petrel, Common Diving-Petrel, Sooty Shearwater, and Grey-backed and White-faced Storm-Petrels. More scarce breeders are Cape Petrel, Black-winged Petrel, the Chatham form of Fulmar Prion, and Little Shearwater. Unfortunately there are no commercial seabirding trips from the Chatham’s. However, chartering a fishing boat is an option, although likely to be expensive. Several of the species mentioned above are unlikely to be seen from sea (Taiko and Chatham Island Petrel) as there are only one or two accepted records of these species at sea. It is unrealistic to think that you will see all of the seabird species mentioned above.
A brief overview of some of the species mentioned above follows:
Chatham Taiko (Magenta Petrel) is perhaps one of the most renowned Chatham seabirds, having been rediscovered 111 years after its discovery, and presumed extinct throughout that time. Only the dedication of New Zealand biologist David Crockett led to it’s rediscovery in 1978. Since then intensive management by Department of Conservation has led to what could be the saving of the species. Unfortunately, this extremely rare species is not likely to be seen by most birders visiting the Chatham’s. Cruises that visit the Chatham's from Bounty Islands may offer a slim chance.
Chatham Island Petrel breeds only on South East (Rangitiira) Island. In the non-breeding season (July-Nov), most of the population leaves the islands, but their winter range is unknown. The population appears to increasing in response to intensive management by Department of Conservation.
Chatham Albatross breeds only on one rock stack, The Pyramid, with a total population of possibly up to 18,000 – 20,000 individuals. During the winter, the birds primarily disperse west towards South America, mainly Peru and Chile, although vagrants have been recorded on the east coast of Australia.
Northern Royal Albatross breeds on Big and Little Sister and the Forty Fours, as does the Pacific albatross. Nearly all of the total population breeds at these three sites.
Pitt Island Shag occurs on the rocky shores around the main Chatham Islands, and are nearly always present near the Waitangi wharf. Chatham shag also nests on the main island, and is also easily seen. Care should be taken not to approach any nesting colonies of these species as they can be badly affected by human disturbance.
Bell, B.D. and C.J.R. Robertson. (1994) Seabirds and the Chatham Islands. BirdLife Conservation Series No. 1: p219-228.
Unfortunately for the rest of these Subantarctic Islands, the only real chance one has of getting near to, or landing on some, (landing without Scientific purpose is not allowed on several of them) is through an organised commercial tour, such as those run by Heritage Expeditions (NZ).
Although landing on the islands is not permitted, it is possible to see the endemic Snares’ Penguin (estimated at 23,000 pairs) on the shore from a small boat (e.g. zodiac). Interesting pictures and more information on this species can be found on Dave Houston's guide to Penguins of New Zealand. The islands also hosts one of the worlds largest concentrations of Sooty Shearwaters (estimated to be 2.75 million breeding pairs in 1969-71, though a c.37% decline was suggested in 1996-2000), along with about 77% of the world’s breeding population of Buller's Albatross, and important numbers of breeding Salvin's Albatross, Cape Petrel, and Common Diving-Petrel. Mottled Petrel also breeds here and around Stewart Island.
Macquarie Island, or "Macca" as it is generally referred to, hosts some 3.5 million breeding seabirds, the majority being penguins belonging to 4 species, the most notable being the King Penguin, an the endemic breeder. An estimated 850,000 pairs of Royal Penguin, 200,000 pairs of King Penguin as well as Gentoo Penguin and Rockhopper Penguin. Over a million penguins nest at Hurd Point at the south end of the island. Nesting albatrosses include, a few nominate Wandering Albatross (c.10 pairs), Light-mantled Sooty Albatross (c. 2000 pairs), Black-browed Albatross and Grey-heded Albatross. This is the only breeding site in the New Zealand sector for Southern Giant Petrel. There is also the endemic Macquarie Shag. Other breeding seabirds include Antarctic Tern. A number of exciting marine mammals occur including three southern ocean Fur Seals (Antarctic, Sub-antarctic and New Zealand Fur Seals) as well as the Southern Elephant Seal (150,000 or 1/7th of the world population), Leopard Seal and Southern Right Whale. Unfortunately, sealers introduced both cats and rabbits to the island and these have an obvious negative impact on the native flaura and fauna. The Tasmanian National Parks Division is running an eradication program, and while rabbits have been severely reduced, cats may well have been eradicated in the last year or so.
Discovered in 1788 by Captain William Bligh on the outward leg of his ill-fated mission to transport breadfruit from Taihiti to the West Indies and named by him after his ship 'The Bounty'. Massive numbers of seabirds breed on the eleven granite stacks. Most notable are more than 28,000 pairs of erect-crested penguins, at least 30,750 pairs of Salvin's Albatross, 29,000 pairs of Fulmar Prion (the most important site for this species), and a mere 500 pairs of the endemic Bounty Shag. Also on the list of breeding species are Cape Petrel and Subantarctic skua. More details and pictures can be found on the Heritage Expeditions (NZ) web site.
Robertson, C.J.R. and G.F. van Tets. 1982. The status of birds at the Bounty Islands. Notornis 29: p311-336.
In addition to the endemic breeding Antipodean Albatross (c. 5,150 breeding pairs, this is their major breeding ground), small numbers of Black-browed and White-capped Albatross breed, and there are large colonies of Rockhopper and Erect-crested Penguins (2/3 of the worlds population of the latter). The island probably has the largest numbers of grey petrel than any other NZ island, and is also an important breeding site for Cape, White-chinned, Soft-plumaged, and White-headed petrels and Little shearwater. Common Diving-Petrel and Black-bellied Storm-Petrel breed in numbers, and the latter is possibly the commonest breeding species. Also home to two endemic taxa of parakeet. Only small numbers of New Zealand fur seal and Southern elephant seal breed here. More details and pictures can be found on the Heritage Expeditions (NZ) web site.
The island is an eroded
remnant of a volcanic dome. The sea has already claimed most of the western
half of the volcano, while on the eastern side of the island, the `drowning'
of radial valleys has created a series of fiord-like inlets separated by
sloping ridges. Cliffs and outlying stacks characterize the coast line. More
details, especially of the history and plant life can be found on the Heritage
Expeditions (NZ) web site.
The island hosts a large
colony of the endemic-breeding Campbell Albatross (19,000-26,000
pairs, formerly considered conspecific with Black-browed Albatross), along with
Southern Royal Albatross (nearly 8,000 pairs representing the
bulk of world breeding population), Light-mantled Sooty Albatross (1600 pairs),
and Grey-headed Albatross (6,000-9,000 pairs). There is an endemic Campbell
Shag (estimated at 8,000 birds). Breeding penguins include, Rockhopper,
Erect-crested, and Yellow-eyed penguins. Of note is the fact that the once massive
Rockhopper Penguin colony (1.6 million breeders estimated in the 1950s) has
declined by 94%, most probably as a result of lack of food, from the southward
shift of the nutrient-rich convergence zone. Breeding marine mammals include
New Zealand fur seals, New Zealand (Hooker’s) sea lion, and Southern elephant
seal (which have also declined dramatically, possibly also due to the shift
in the convergence zone).
Moore, P.J. and R.D. Moffat. 1990a. Research and management projects on Campbell Island 1987-88. Science and Research Internal Report No. 57. Department of Conservation, Wellington, New Zd.
Moore, P.J. and R.D. Moffat. 1990b. Mollymauks on Campbell Island. Science and Research Internal Report No. 59. Department of Conservation, Wellington, New Zealand.
Hosts the endemic Auckland Shag (only 1,000 pairs), as well as the endemic breeder Gibson's Albatross (5,800 breeding pairs, mostly on Adams Island.). In addition, breeders include Yellow-eyed Penguin (rare on main Island, most breed on Enderby Island, and this is an important place for this species), Rockhopper Penguin (colonies on both east and west coasts), Antipodean Albatross (c. 6 pairs nest), Southern Royal Albatross (60 breeding pair on Enderby and Adams Island), White-capped Albatross (65,000 breeding pairs with main population on Disappointment Island, this is their major breeding ground), Light-mantled Sooty Albatross. The islands are also very important for some of the smaller tubenoses – Cape, White-chinned, and White-headed Petrels, Antarctic and Fulmar Prions, Sooty Shearwater, and White-faced, Grey-backed, and Black-bellied Storm-petrels. Both King Penguin and Erect-crested Penguin can occur within the penguin colonies. The Auckland Islands are also the major breeding ground of the New Zealand (Hooker's) sea lion, with c. 14,000 animals. Of concern is the accidental drowning of this species in trawl nets set for squid. You can read more about this problem on the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society web site.
More details, especially of the geology, history and botany can be found on the Heritage Expeditions (NZ) web site.
THANKS! The contents of this page were greatly improved by the detailed comments of Brent Stephenson and Ian Saville, founders of Wrybill Birding Tours, New Zealand.
Page and photos copyright of Angus
Wilson© 2004 All rights reserved.
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