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Birding alert

Going to the birds on the West Coast

Spotted: Fine feathers and birdwatching tales

Lush West Coast forests, rugged mountain-scapes, wild coastal stretches, verdant wetlands and gardens provide perfect havens for New Zealand native birds.

Ranging 600 km north to south, the West Coast’s varying landscapes, biodiversity and climate support a huge variety of birdlife including some of New Zealand’s rarest and most curious species: kiwi, parrots, penguins and many other fine feathered friends.

Just over 200 breeding species of birds inhabit Aotearoa, and close to 75% of these species have been recorded on the West Coast. An incredible 76 bird species are known to frequent the Ōkārito Lagoon which lies within the South Westland World Heritage Area.

Historic Okarito Wharf shed & Mt Adams. Okarito South Westland NZ. Historic Okarito Wharf shed & Mt Adams. Okarito South Westland NZ.
Ōkārito Lagoon

Idyllic Ōkārito Lagoon — Westland Tai Poutini National Park — is a birding paradise.

Bird central – Ōkārito Lagoon

For some serious bird-spotting, idyllic Ōkārito Lagoon is the perfect destination. This 5000-hectare wildlife-rich coastal wetlands – lapped by the Tasman Sea and within view of the Southern Alps – is a wilderness gem with some of New Zealand’s best wild bird spotting. Many species flock to the lagoon’s waterways, rainforest surrounds and rugged coast. 

The best way to explore is by water and this tiny settlement, mostly made up of weekend cottages, has three passionate tour operators offering nature tours on the lagoon. Take a guided kayak tour (or freedom hire), a slow nature cruise with Okarito Boat Eco Tours or a night tour with Okarito Kiwi Tours

Alongside rowi kiwi in the forest sanctuary, birdlife frequently found feeding in the still waterways includes kōtuku/white heron, royal spoonbills, godwits, oystercatchers and dotterels. On a clear day, the spectacular backdrops include Aoraki/Mount Cook and Mt. Tasman, and Franz Josef Glacier. 

Getting there: Turn off SH6, 15 km north of Franz Josef, and it’s a further 13 km on to Ōkārito. 

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Lake Mapourika, Westland Tai Poutini National Park

Kayaking tour with Franz Josef Wilderness Tours.

Eco tours in Westland Tai Poutini National Park

The forests, lakes and mountains around Glacier Country, in Westland Tai Poutini National Park, offer up some incredible birding opportunities. There’s a multitude of well-formed walking and biking trails to choose from or find a passionate local guide for an expert nature tour. 

Just a bit north of Franz Josef, Lake Mapourika’s sheltered waters mirror mountain peaks, glaciers and lush Jurassic-era rainforests. This is a haven for many forest birds from melodic tui and korimako/bellbirds to piwakawaka/fantails, kererū/wood pigeons and kotare/kingfishers. Take a guided kayak or boat tour with Franz Josef Wilderness Tours for exclusive access into the rowi kiwi sanctuary on the lake’s far shores.  

Glacier Valley Eco Tours, operating from Ōkārito, offer fully guided nature tours and walks in varied spectacular landscapes, ranging from shorter or day walks up the glacier valleys to early morning and sunset rainforest wildlife tours. Tours include the opportunity to give back to nature with native tree plantings for forest restoration.

Getting there: Lake Mapourika is on SH6, about 10 km north of Franz Josef township. Turn off from SH6, 15km north of Franz Josef Township, and a further 13 km on to Ōkārito. 

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Kea, Arthurs Pass (credit RoadyNZ) (1) Kea, Arthurs Pass (credit RoadyNZ) (1)
Arthurs Pass, Southern Alps

The kea is a highly intelligent mountain parrot found only in New Zealand.

Kea – Franz Josef & Fox Glacier Guides

The curious kea — a mountaineering parrot with colourful plumage and a character to match — is a native of the mountains of the Southern Alps. This protected species is a taonga or treasure for the South Island’s Ngāi Tahu people.

Watch out for a flash of red and green in the skies above the mountains, sometimes even down on the beaches, around the glacier region and at Arthur’s Pass Village, the mountain pass between Christchurch and Greymouth. They’re intelligent, mischievous characters with a penchant for stealing tasty morsels or anything shiny that takes their eye.

One of the best opportunities to spot kea in their native alpine environment is on a glacier hike at either Fox or Franz Josef

Getting there: Franz Josef Glacier Guides operate from Franz Josef village; Fox Glacier Guiding is based on SH6 in Fox. 

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White Heron Sanctuary Tours offers tours to New Zealand’s only White Heron nesting site. White Heron Sanctuary Tours offers tours to New Zealand’s only White Heron nesting site.
Waitangiroto Nature Reserve, Whataroa

White Heron Sanctuary Tours offers tours to New Zealand’s only kōtuku / white heron nesting site.

Kōtuku / white heron — White Heron Sanctuary Tours

The wonderfully weird mating antics of the rare kōtuku/white heron are attraction #1 around rural Whataroa — the only New Zealand breeding ground for these majestic white birds. 

Each year, the entire population of around 150 kōtuku returns ‘home’ to the banks of the Waitangiroto River. The September to March nesting season involves energetic courting highlighted with spectacular displays of flowing plumage. Each pair produces up to three eggs per season, and both parents take turn-about on their rough nest.

Whataroa-based White Heron Sanctuary Tours — a fifth generation family business — is the only DOC-approved tour operating in the Waitangiroto Nature Reserve. The 2.5 hour guided tour includes transport to a private viewing hide on the riverbank. The royal spoonbill and the little shag also nest there, and the surrounding kahikatea rainforest is home to many other forest birds. 

Getting there: Find White Heron Sanctuary Tours on SH6, 30km drive north of Franz Josef Township. 

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Franz Josef, Westland Tai Poutini National Park

A young Ōkārito brown kiwi at the West Coast Wildlife Centre.

Rowi / Ōkārito brown kiwi – Okarito Kiwi Tours

The only surviving wild population of the rarest of New Zealand’s five kiwi species, the rowi – or Ōkārito brown kiwi – lives in a forest sanctuary on the shores of the Ōkārito lagoon. Estimated at around 450 - 600 birds, the total population has made some progress from a low of 160, but the rowi remains critically endangered.

Designated as one of five special Kiwi Sanctuaries, the Ōkārito forest is not readily accessible but there’s a good chance of seeing some on an evening nature tour with resident kiwi spotter Ian Cooper of Ōkārito Kiwi Tours — the only guided kiwi tour in the South Island. 

By day, it’s possible to meet some of these incredible survivors at the West Coast Wildlife Centre in Franz Josef which works in partnership with the Department of Conservation and local iwi to save this rare taonga (treasure). Visit the nocturnal bush house or take the backstage pass for a close-up experience of the breeding programme.

Getting there: Find West Coast Wildlife Centre on Cron Street, Franz Josef. For Ōkārito, turn off SH6, 15 km north of Franz Josef, and it’s a further 13 km on to Ōkārito. 

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Punakaiki, West Coast

Rare taiko / Westland petrel breed around the Punakaiki coast.

Tāiko / Westland petrel — Paparoa Nature Tours, Punakaiki

New Zealand is seabird central with more than 80 species, one third of which are not found anywhere else. Standing out among these is the tāiko / Westland petrel — a big black burrow-nester that breeds exclusively in a handful of West Coast colonies around Punakaiki. 

The curious comings and goings of the tāiko are the star attraction at a private wildlife sanctuary near the Great Coast Road where Paparoa Nature Tours offer sunrise and sunset tours. 

The birds are nocturnal, and most active during sunset when setting out to sea and at sunrise when returning to their burrows beneath a coastal forest canopy. It’s a visually spectacular experience observing the ungainly seabirds taking off and crash landing back down through the trees.

Getting there: Paparoa Nature Tours is on SH6, 5km south of Punakaiki. 

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Lake Moeraki, South Westland

Tawaki (Fiordland crested) penguins near Wilderness Lodge Lake Moeraki.

Tawaki / Fiordland crested penguins — Wilderness Lodge Lake Moeraki

The most likely place to catch sight of rare tawaki / Fiordland crested penguins – the third rarest of all penguin species – is on rocky coastal shores in the area around Lake Moeraki, between the glaciers and Haast. 

Tawaki are instantly recognisable with their distinctive facial plumage but with numbers down to under 3000 breeding pairs, they’re hard to find. Beach goers may spot their footprints in the sand between the sea and the coastal forest but these birds are generally very timid and discreet especially when nesting. 

Guests at Wilderness Lodge Lake Moeraki – New Zealand’s foremost eco lodge – can join daily small group tours to observe the penguins at a secret nesting site during the breeding season (September to December). The unmarked trail leads to a little beach in the wildlife refuge that the lodge-founders campaigned to establish. The forests and grounds around the lodge are a sanctuary for many other native bird species.

Getting there: Find Wilderness Lodge beside Lake Moeraki on SH6, 30 km drive north of Haast or 90 km south of Fox Glacier township. 

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Ōpārara Basin, Karamea

The rainforests of the Ōpārara Basin conceal an incredible underground world.

Moa – Honeycomb Hill Caves, Karamea

For a fascinating glimpse of Aotearoa’s unique natural history, there’s nowhere else in NZ quite like Honeycomb Hill. Take a peak back to a time and place where ancient creatures once roamed and observe the country’s largest collection of sub fossil bird bones in-situ. 

This unique corner of Kahurangi National Park lay undisturbed for a million years until cavers rediscovered the 13-km underground network. Among the marvels found were the skeletal remains of nine species of extinct moa and the giant Haast’s eagle (hokioi) trapped inside and fossilised over time. 

Access into this specially protected area is limited to approved guided tours (book at the Karamea Information Centre). The rainforest walk to the caves is often accompanied by inquisitive South Island robins. The Karamea region is also home to kaka, kea, robin, fantail, parakeet, tomtit, NZ falcon, rare whio/blue duck and the great spotted kiwi.

Getting there: Karamea is a 1.5 hr scenic drive north on SH6 from Westport. The Ōpārara Valley is a further 23 km / 30-minute drive north. 

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