Flights of fancy bring birders to Dunedin

Our avian friends come in all shapes and sizes around Dunedin, the wildlife capital of New Zealand.

Nestled between bush and hills and girdled by food-rich offshore currents, Dunedin has achieved the reputation as the wildlife capital of New Zealand. In addition to its flagship penguin and albatross residents, the city and environs offer the visiting birder a diverse mix of avifauna – whether endemic, introduced, or migrant. 

Two hotspots close to the city are Otago Peninsula, with its thriving menagerie of seabird species, and Orokonui Ecosanctuary, an avian oasis where resident bush birds rub wingtips with rare and endangered newcomers in a visitor-friendly environment.

Otago Peninsula – Albatross city

With its unique ‘megafauna’, Otago Peninsula has long been top of any birder’s bucket list. Heading the tally is the northern royal albatross colony at Taiaroa Head, the only mainland albatross colony in the world and wonderfully accessible to visitors. 

This is truly an albatross city, where birds pair up, breed, produce young and leave on their grand circumnavigations of the Southern Ocean, only to return and repeat the whole cycle. The colony resembles a busy airport, and there is always something to see as these giants of the sky lumber into the air or lower their landing gear for touchdown. When a nor’easterly is blowing, a watch on the sea cliffs below the visitor centre is sure to be rewarded with the sight of a great white shape sweeping past as it glides along the approach path to the nesting grounds on 3-metre fixed wings.

Spotted shags nest on these same cliffs, well within camera range, and the mounded nests of colourful Stewart Island shags can be seen from the albatross observation area. To get to the viewing site, visitors walk through a chaotic breeding colony of red-billed gulls – a declining if not yet endangered seabird. 

Penguins at Pilot’s Beach

At the base of Taiaroa Head, at Pilots Beach, is a burgeoning colony of little blue penguins; in the evenings, guided tours allow visitors to see hundreds of these charismatic seabirds swarming ashore under special lights. But, there is so much more to see in this bird-rich place. 

Each spring, millions of sooty shearwaters – muttonbirds or titi, as Māori call them - pass off the coast in endless waves. A great place to observe them – as well as passing shags, Australasian gannets and other seabirds – is the Mole, directly across the harbour entrance at Aramoana.

Otago Peninsula’s other avian superstar is the yellow-eyed penguin, which nests on bushy headlands on the ocean-facing side of the peninsula and is best seen in the late afternoon when the adult birds begin to come ashore after a day out fishing at sea. 

Visitors can take a tour run by tourism operators like Penguin Place, or visit beaches in the region and be rewarded with encounters with New Zealand sea lions as well as returning yellow-eyes. Nothing comes closer to the spirit of the peninsula than trudging back from an isolated beach at dusk, with the haunting calls of penguins echoing across the dunes.

Birds of garden and bush

A European birder taking a stroll through the city would find its avifauna surprisingly familiar – house sparrows nesting in the eaves, blackbirds, starlings and thrushes on the lawns, mixed flocks of finches scouring weedy corners for seeds in the spring. Those taking the short drive to view the city from the Signal Hill lookout may do so to the accompaniment of a skylark serenade mingled with the wheezy notes of yellowhammers.

As well as species introduced to New Zealand in the 19th century by nostalgic British settlers, there are self-introduced species from Australia of which the most familiar are the welcome swallow, white-faced heron, royal spoonbill and – in damp paddocks and playing fields – the spur-winged plover (a lapwing species). In spring, kowhai trees clothed in bright yellow flowers are a magnet for the tiny silvereye, another Australian guest that found a niche here alongside our two native honeyeaters, the bellbird and the tui.

These three sweet-tongued residents can be found in the Dunedin Botanic Garden, where several other native birds such as the fantail, grey warbler and our large wood pigeon can usually be spotted. The Botanic Garden is also a good place to see ¬– or more likely, hear – the shining cuckoo, which announces its arrival from its Melanesian wintering grounds each September with characteristic slurring notes. Along with the long-tailed cuckoo, it is New Zealand’s only land-based migrant.

Orokonui Ecosanctuary

Forest remnants around Dunedin are well supplied with small bush birds; in addition to those listed above, they include the inquisitive tomtit and robin (now confined to a few favoured locations), and the brown creeper that flits around the canopy in small flocks and will encourage the passing bush walker to “move right along” with their noisy chatter. 

The Racemans Track and the Chalkies in the Silver Stream catchment near Mosgiel are good places to see all these species, as is the spectacular bush along the Waipori River near the start of the Government Track. (There is road access from Berwick, and visitors can lunch in the picnic grounds or even take a dip in the river.) In more open scrubby areas, such as the Flagstaff walkway on the hills above the city, listen for the “tic” of fernbirds as pairs make contact with each other.

If you are interested in forest birds, and only have time to visit one spot, then Orokonui Ecosanctuary is a one-stop birding shop. A 30-minute drive from the city via the Northern Motorway, this is not a zoo but 307 hectares of wooded river valley protected by a predator-proof fence in which birds and other creatures range free.

A convenient place to see all the bush birds mentioned above, which thrive here, Orokonui is also a Noah’s Ark for several treasured species that otherwise survive only in isolated pockets on the mainland or a few island sanctuaries. These include kea – New Zealand’s forest parrot – Haast kiwi and saddleback, not to mention three special reptiles – tuatara, Otago skink and the mottled green jewelled gecko, a southern speciality.

Wetland birds and beyond

No visiting birder should neglect the area’s abundant wetlands and coastal wildlife. Several estuaries – most notably Blueskin Bay, the Waikouaiti River at Karitane, Aramoana and the Kaikorai Estuary – indent the coastline close to the city and all are rich feeding and roosting grounds for a variety of seabirds and waders. 

A walk along Warrington Beach (on Blueskin Bay) at high tide during summer will reward visitors with the sight of a mass of field-grey bodies enlivened with splashes of russet plumage – these are bar-tailed godwits which arrive here in their thousands each spring from Alaska after making the longest unbroken migration of any bird. Smaller groups of pied oystercatchers and variable oystercatchers – another southern specialty – huddle round them at the roost, and Caspian terns are often seen in the area, with white-fronted terns and the occasional gannet fishing offshore.

Another good spot for water birds are Hoopers and Papanui Inlets, two lagoons scooped out of Otago Peninsula which are havens for ducks, shelducks, black swans and an array of wading birds. White-faced herons, pied oystercatchers and pied stilts probe the shallow waters and are joined in summer by bar-tailed godwits and increasing numbers of royal spoonbills in elegant breeding plumage. Swamphens or pukeko pick and bob in damp paddocks and creeks, and where a freshet flows into Hoopers Inlet beside the road, southern black-backed gulls, spur-winged plovers and – occasionally – Caspian terns can be seen bathing. In winter, sacred kingfishers flash down from the telephone wires to catch crabs at low tide or decorate the roofs of boatsheds at the start of Allans Beach Road.

Other wetland areas well worth a visit include Hawksbury Lagoon on the coast near Waikouaiti, where spoonbills work the shallow margins, and large flocks of ducks gather on the open water, although binoculars are need to tell the Australasian shovelers from the grey teal and rafts of grey duck (now almost always hybridised with the introduced mallard). White-faced herons and pied stilts are easily seen here, along with freshwater shags and introduced black swans and Canada geese. Abundant cover makes the lagoon a good spot for photography. The Waihola–Waipori wetlands are another rich source of native ducks, and were hunted here by early Maori, and secretive fernbirds breed in abundance at the Sinclair Wetlands near Berwick. 

Fernbirds also breed in the hills above the city – Swampy Summit is a good place to look out for them -and those prepared to put on a pair of boots will encounter some of the birds of open country such as wheeling harrier hawks and native pipits flitting through the tussocks. Further out, on the Taieri Plain and the neighbouring ranges, you might be lucky enough to hear the shrill “kek kek kek” of a New Zealand falcon and glimpse it speeding overhead on rapid, sickle-shaped wings. Further out still, in the Strath Taieri catchment, pied oystercatchers, black-backed gulls and banded dotterels breed on the rugged high tops of the Rock and Pillar range.

Although not as rich in bird species as some other parts of the world, Dunedin and its environs offer diverse habitats and landforms in a small compass, as well as the chance to see marine mammals – including dolphins and whales – at close quarters. The area has good roads and well-made walking tracks, and good coffee and muffins are on hand to fortify those wanting to explore the albatross colony at Taiaroa Head or the Orokonui Ecosanctuary.