Coastal Birds

  Australasian Gannet

  This magnificent bird can be seen soaring effortlessly on the wind currents in coastal areas throughout New Zealand as it looks for shoals of small fish for which it dives for from a huge height. By stretching its wings out behind its body, it is able to turn itself into a streamlined torpedo for maximum penetration through the water. It looks very much like a common seagull but is distinguishable by its bright yellow head and upper neck together with its much wider wing span which can reach 1.8m. The overall colour is white with the trailing edges of its wings and a varying proportion of its central tail feathers being black.

  Sightings - From most coastal locations throughout New Zealand with the largest mainland nesting site at Cape Kidnappers (5000 breeding pairs). Smaller sites at Muriwai and Farewell Spit.

  Interesting snippet - A juvenile’s first flight from the nest will take it 2000km to Australia, returning after 2-6 years.

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  Royal Spoonbills

An unusual looking bird, the Royal Spoonbill is a gregarious creature usually seen in small groups feeding along the margins of shallow brackish coastal lagoons and tidal estuaries. When feeding, Spoonbills walk along in shallow water using their spatulate or spoon shaped bill (slightly open) in a smooth sideways sweeping motion using the water movement to gather and filter out the small invertebrates, fish and frogs that they consume.

  ‘Spoonies’ are an elegant bird much the same size as our iconic White Heron and can be mistaken for such when seen at a distance. The Spoonbill is however slightly ‘chunkier’ with a black bill and legs. It also has a crest of feathers at the back of the neck or nape which grows up to 20cm long in the breeding season. Breeding birds also have a lovely bright yellow patch above their dark red eye.

  Sightings – Resides and breeds in both main islands and distributes widely after the breeding season. Most birds inhabit estuaries preferring fresh to salt water but able to inhabit both.

  Interesting snippet – groups of birds tend to fly in ‘V’ formation like geese.

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  Variable Oystercatchers

  Variable Oystercatchers are often seen in pairs busily fossicking and probing for shellfish, invertebrates and molluscs along beaches or estuaries. They can be quite aggressive towards humans around breeding time with loud screeching dive bombing (sometimes with contact) not unusual.

    The Variable Oystercatcher is a predominantly black, heavily built bird with a long, very conspicuous bright orange bill and strong pink legs. The other very obvious and quite striking feature is their vivid red iris and orange eye ring. Being very similar in size and shape to the ‘South Island Pied Oystercatcher’ they are commonly mistaken as being two colour phases of the same bird – in fact they are two different species.

  Sightings – Variable Oystercatchers occur around much of the coastline of the North, South and Stewart Islands but at lower average densities on the west coasts of the two main islands.

  Interesting snippet – Variable Oystercatchers favour bivalve molluscs which are opened either by pushing the tip of the bill between shells and twisting or by hammering.

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Bush Birds


  These delightful little forest dwellers are New Zealand’s smallest bird. (The equally light weight Grey Warbler has a longer tail). They are constantly on the move with a characteristic ‘wing flicking’ movement while foraging up and down tree trunks. Their high frequency ‘zips’ and ‘pips’ are often the first clue to Riflemen being nearby and it is easier to pinpoint them using your peripheral vision to detect their constant movement.

  Males are smaller than the females with a bright green on the head and back while the females are mainly yellow-brown with darker speckles on the head and back. Both have black, slender and pointed, slightly upturned bills and grey under parts.

  Sightings – Found in predominantly mature forests now confined to mainly higher altitude areas in both the North and South islands. North island distribution is patchy being limited to geographically isolated populations with only three populations north of Pureora Forest - Warawara Forest in Northland and on Little Barrier and Tiritiri Matangi Islands. In the South they are less common on the east side.

  Interesting snippet - Riflemen are a monogamous species with long-term pair-bonds, only replacing a mate if one of the pair dies.

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  Grey Warbler

  As mentioned, the Grey Warbler vies with the Rifleman for the country’s smallest bird weighing a mere six grams. They are New Zealand’s most widely distributed endemic bird having been able to maintain their distribution in pretty much all habitats, (rural and urban), despite human colonisation. They occur wherever there are trees or shrubs.

  The Grey Warbler is an olive-grey colour above with a grey face and off white under parts. Legs are black and very slender and the bill is fine and pointed. Its one outstanding and quite beautiful feature is its very bright and vivid red eye.

  Sightings – Living right throughout New Zealand they are usually found only in woody vegetation at mid to high levels in the canopy making sightings difficult. They usually associate in pairs (and not always close together) which adds to the observation difficulties.

  Interesting snippet - Grey warblers often harvest insects from the outside of the canopy while hovering which no other New Zealand bird does.

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  Although widely distributed the Fernbird is far more often heard and not seen. They are a very secretive bird preferring to live amongst very tight and thick trees, shrubs, scrub and reeds acting very much like a mouse the way it scrambles through the dense foliage. However, they do on occasion approach observers closely, especially in response to mimicked calls.  

  Fernbirds are a sparrow-sized bird ‘streaked’ brown above and pale below. This lower pale area is ‘dotted’ with dark brown flecks. The tail is relatively long with a decidedly tattered look to it.

  Sightings – Widely distributed throughout New Zealand but absent from southern North Island and Canterbury. They occupy dry shrub land habitat and tussock areas to low wetland areas but always in dense and tight vegetation such as thick scrub, reed beds and Kiekie.

Interesting snippet – Early Europeans used to call the Fernbirds ‘Swamp Sparrows’.

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Alpine Birds


  The kea is the only true alpine parrot in the world. Instinctively curious, the Kea is attracted to people whenever they enter their alpine world and is often a prominent feature at South Island ski-fields and back country huts. They were un-liked by early settler farmers for their attacks on sheep with many reports of them perching on the backs of sheep and digging through the skin and muscle to reach the fat around the kidneys. They are one of New Zealand’s true real character birds.

   Keas are a large strong flying, olive green parrot with a slender grey black bill. The under side of their wings is a brilliant scarlet red. The only other similar bird is the Kaka but it is slightly smaller, olive brown and seldom seen above the bush line.

  Sightings – Unfortunately for North Island trampers, Keas are only found in the South Island from Farewell Spit down to Waitutu in Fiordland and in the Kaikoura ranges. The can inhabit areas from coastal dunes to high alpine peaks but are more synonymous with the alpine environment.

  Interesting snippet – The bounty paid for hunting Kea to protect sheep was only outlawed in 1971.

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  I’m picking that the New Zealand Pipit has been seen by many trampers but not recognised as such. The reason being that they are so much like the common Skylark in appearance. The most recognisable difference between the two is that the Pipit lacks a crest of feathers at the back of the head which the Skylark does possess.

  Pipits can be approached relatively closely being quite a confiding bird and will walk away just in front of you (rather than fly) keeping a safe but close distance.

  They are streaked grey-brown above and off-white below with brown streaks on the chest. The eye has a prominent pale eyebrow stripe. Like most birds of the ‘wagtail’ family Pipits characteristically flick their tail when they walk.

  Sightings – Pipits are very widespread throughout New Zealand and range from coastal and river areas to farmland, right up to tussock and alpine areas. They prefer rough open habitats but will vacate zones that have been overtaken by heather.

  Interesting Snippet - Their diet is almost exclusively invertebrates such as beetles, sand hoppers, wasps, flies, spiders, crickets and grubs.


  New Zealand Falcon

  Smaller than our common Harrier Hawk and with less of a wingspan, the Falcon is a phenomenal aerial acrobat easily able to keep up with the fastest of prey species. Incredibly aggressive, Falcons will more often than not make contact on any humans silly enough to threaten their nests. When they do so they hit the head with an outstretched foot raking with their talons.

   Roughly the same size as a magpie the Falcon is largely dark brown on the back with a cream chest flecked with lovely rich brown dots, streaks and speckles. Legs and eye ring are yellow while the face has a distinct almost ‘Mexican’ style moustache running vertically down from the back of a strongly hooked bill.

  Sightings – Widely distributed in both main islands where habitat is suitable but absent from Northland. The Falcon is adaptable in that in can live in a variety of habitats from the coast to alpine areas including native podocarp and beech forest, tussock lands and commercial pine forests.

  Interesting Snippet – Falcons feed almost exclusively on live prey and can reportedly reach speeds of 230 km/h.