New Zealand is the land of birds. With no mammalian predators for millions of years, our birds evolved to be weird and wonderful, with no fear of ground predation. We’re also a seabird mecca, with more species than anywhere else in the world. This gives us no shortage of magical bird-watching spots, where you can get up close and personal with all sorts of species, from secretive kiwi to raucous kākā to soaring gannets. Read on for our favourite places.
See the only mainland breeding colony of Northern Royal Albatross in the world, at the Royal Albatross Centre. Forty-five minutes from Dunedin, on Taiaroa Head, the centre’s indoor glassed observatory allows you to see these giant seabirds up close with their 3-metre wingspans. They are truly incredible to see in the flesh. Hatched in this very spot, they spend 3-5 years at sea in far-flung corners of the world, never setting foot on land, until it’s time to breed. Then, they come all the way back to Taiaroa Head in New Zealand. Spend some time here and you might get to witness devoted parents guarding their chicks, adolescents posturing and displaying, courtships, nest building and all the other behaviours that come with being an albatross.
A visit to us at Gannet Safari Overland gets you within a few metres of gannets in the largest mainland gannet colony in the world! Seeing more than 20,000 of these beautiful birds up close, with their creamy heads, blue eye-makeup and powerful beaks, with the Pacific Ocean behind them far below, is an incredible experience. Watch as they fly in from fishing, find their mate among the seemingly identical birds on nests, and carry out a greeting display – or maybe the males are still gathering nesting material, preparing the nest for the first arrival of their partner, or perhaps you’re there in time to see the fluffy chicks. To get to the plateau where the colony is based, we take you right up in an air-conditioned 4x4 vehicle, driving our way first through a working farm and wildlife sanctuary, with our guides giving an engaging and informative commentary along the way. For something special, there are sunrise tours or private Range Rover tours also on offer.
There’s no cuter sight than rafts of little blue penguins/kororā emerging from the ocean, hurrying back to their burrows for the night. At The Oamaru Blue Penguin Colony, you can see these tiny creatures up close from a purpose-built grandstand, positioned to watch them come home from a day’s fishing. Before they arrive, your guide will talk about the penguins and their conservation (these are the smallest penguins in the world standing 30cm tall). By paying a little more for a premium ticket, you can sit right up close to the gaggles of blue as they scurry past. With no photography allowed (the penguins are very sensitive), it’s a truly magical evening experience to enjoy in the moment. Ticket proceeds contribute to the conservation and research into little blue penguins.
Wellington gives you a chance in an urban setting to experience New Zealand as it was before mammalian predators – the birdsong and birdwatching here is incredible! The world’s first fully-fenced urban sanctuary, Zealandia has been a roaring success since its conception in the 1990s and is the source of all the amazing biodiversity that is spilling over into wider Wellington now. You can wander through much of the 225 hectares and spot takahe, hihi, tieke/saddleback, kaka, kakariki, kiwi and many others. Join an experienced guide for an engaging and informative tour, either during the day, at twilight, or at night, to see different sets of wildlife. To read more about the inspiring work it took to create this ecosanctuary from its original use as the Karori Reservoir, see here.
A restored forest and captive breeding site, at Pukaha Mt Bruce you can see endangered wildlife such as brown kiwi, pateke, whio, takahe, kokako, kaka, kakariki, tuna (eels) and tuturuatu (shore plover). It has grown from just 55 hectares in 1962, when takahe was its first species to be introduced, swelling to 942 hectares when the forest was gifted to New Zealand by local iwi Rangitāne o Wairarapa! As well as a forest packed with birds, there are aviaries for breeding endangered species for release across New Zealand (you can see the chicks inside for yourself). You can book a 1-hour guided tour to get the most out of your visit – or even do a Ranger for a Day experience to get to know the wildlife and captive breeding programmes. There are also night tours available, for glow worm and wild kiwi spotting.
There you have it – we hope you manage to get around some of New Zealand’s best birdwatching sites, and we look forward to welcoming you here at Gannet Safaris Overland.