Same same but different: Stickybeak now on South Island

It's early spring in NZ

Early spring in NZ

Having recently relocated from Sydney to New Zealand, we are now stickybeaking around the beautiful South Island!

(possibly while singing this!)

It’s exciting to be exploring a country with such unique and fascinating wildlife, featuring high endemism and iconic bird species such as the kiwi, kakapo, kea, kaka, kokako, kaki, kereru, kakariki, and a few others not starting with the letter K.

First bird seen on arrival - Eurasian Blackbird

First bird seen on arrival – Eurasian Blackbird

Although bird diversity in NZ is lower overall than on the other side of the ditch, since touching down in Christchurch it’s been obvious that birds abound absolutely everywhere we look.

And we’ve noticed that rather a lot of those birds are already familiar to us, but also that some are not quite as familiar as they seem.

It’s striking that much of that avian abundance, especially in the lowlands, is comprised of introduced species. Most of these species were brought from Europe by early colonists in a misguided attempt to replicate the natural history of the motherland. Unlike the disastrous mammal introductions that went a long way towards destroying much of New Zealand’s native fauna, many of the non-native birds seem relatively benign.

Most of the native passerines are forest dwellers and, with large regions having been cleared by early settlers, lowland New Zealand might be eerily lacking in birdsong were it not ringing with the calls of European songbirds. Perhaps due to the lack of competition or predators over here, many of these introduced species are thriving spectacularly in NZ, some much more so than in their native range – Yellowhammers and Skylarks for example are really struggling in the UK.

We have never seen so many Yellowhammers! We counted 455 birds in this flock at Hagley Oval.

We have never seen so many Yellowhammers! We counted 455 birds in this flock at Hagley Oval.

So despite their non-native status, it’s been quite a treat to see some of these species in large numbers here, especially as many are undeniably beautiful birds.

Little ray of sunshine - Yellowhammer

Little ray of sunshine – Yellowhammer

The Yellowhammer's rarer and more twitch-worthy cousin - Cirl Bunting

The Yellowhammer’s rarer and more twitch-worthy cousin – Cirl Bunting

Pretty in pink - male Common Redpoll

Pretty in pink – male Common Redpoll

Larking around everywhere - Skylark

Larking around everywhere – Skylark

This one's not singing - Song Thrush

This one’s not singing – Song Thrush


The next lot of familiar species are those that we already know well from Australia. Some of these were also deliberately introduced, while some have invited themselves over, probably with the help of strong winds blowing them across the Tasman. Some have been here since well before people arrived, and/or long enough to become a separate subspecies, but many are indistinguishable. Only trouble is, many are known to the Kiwis by a different name, so we’re having to re-learn what to call them.

The brown Grey Duck - except orange legs reveal that it's a mallard mongrel

The brown Grey Duck – except orange legs reveal that it’s a mallard mongrel

Australia’s Pacific Black Duck is known here as the Grey Duck, despite actually being brown. We haven’t seen a pure Grey Duck, and given the extent of hybridisation with Mallards there may not be any left.


Cormorants aren’t called cormorants here – we get to amuse ourselves by referring to shags instead. In fact we can look forward to up to 12 shags (7 on the mainland), as NZ happens to be the world’s shag hotspot. Four of Australia’s five species of cormorant are present in NZ, all under different names:

  • Pied Cormorant = Pied Shag (NZ subspecies)
  • Little Pied Cormorant = Little Shag (NZ subspecies)
  • Little Black Cormorant = Little Black Shag
  • Great Cormorant = Black Shag (guess you can’t have a Great Shag here in NZ)

Little Shags here are of a different subspecies to the Aussie Little Pied Cormorant – juveniles are actually all black, and adults can be either white-chinned, fully pied or somewhere in between.

Juvenile Little Shag (short yellow bill shows it's not a Little Black Shag), with adult white-chinned morph (inset)

Little Shags – all-black juv (short yellow bill shows it’s not a Little Black Shag) and adult white-chinned morph (inset)


Among the shorebirds, we find the familiar Black-winged Stilt is known here as the Pied Stilt. Also Double-banded Plovers seen in Australia during their non-breeding season have become Banded Dotterels after returning NZ to breed.

Pied Stilt

Pied Stilt

Banded Dotterel - currently nesting on beaches and inland braided rivers

Banded Dotterel – currently nesting on beaches and inland braided rivers


Two further species have alternative names lacking a habitat association. The Kelp Gull is known instead as the (Southern) Black-backed Gull, which is fitting as the species is widespread, regardless of the proximity to kelp, and is commonly seen well inland.

Southern Black-backed Gull

Southern Black-backed Gull

Harrier Hawk - the common one of only two raptors in NZ

Harrier Hawk – the common one of only two raptors in NZ

Similarly ubiquitous, the Swamp Harrier is more often referred to as the Harrier Hawk and is not tied to wetland habitats. In fact they seem to be just everywhere here, including farmland, upland and even hunting over forest.


And there are other birds that are the same species as in Australia but called a different name here – the bird named as the Great Egret almost everywhere in the world is known as the White Heron here, while the Maori name Pukeko is used in preference to Purple Swamphen (and the birds over here have noticeably darker plumage).

Yet other bird species look extremely similar to Australian species, but we find they’re not the same species at all. Here Red-billed Gulls occur in place of Silver Gulls, but it’s not easy to pick the difference between the two.

Ta da! Red-billed Gulls perform crowd-pleasing stunts outside Dunedin library

Ta da! Red-billed Gulls perform crowd-pleasing stunts outside Dunedin library

South Island Pied Oystercatcher, or SIPO for short

South Island Pied Oystercatcher, or SIPO for short

You’d also be forgiven for thinking those black-and-white oystercatchers are the same as Australian Pied Oystercatchers, but they’re NZ’s distinct South Island Pied Oystercatchers, just as at home on farm paddocks and inland braided rivers as they are on the coast. Meanwhile all-black oystercatchers are not Sooties but Variable Oystercatchers, named for the varying amount of white in their plumage (although the majority of the birds on South Island are entirely dark).

Variable Oystercatchers - don't actually vary that much on South Island, but spot the odd one out.

Variable Oystercatchers – don’t actually vary that much on South Island, but spot the odd one out.


A couple of others have only been recently split from their Australian relatives – these include the NZ Fantail and the NZ Pipit, which display small noticeable differences but are very similar to their familiar cousins.

Much loved - NZ Fantail

Much loved – NZ Fantail

Mainly ignored - NZ Pipit

Mainly ignored – NZ Pipit


So moving from Australia to New Zealand, it certainly seems there’s a lot that is same same but different! However, there’s heaps more that is new and exciting, and we’ll be sticking our beaks into that very soon.

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