This page accompanies our leaflet, Where (and when) to watch birds in Kaikoura
Only so much can be squeezed onto a folded A4 sheet, so this page adds some of the juicy details that we had to leave out. Here we’ll look at each of the local birding hotspots in turn and pass on everything we know, along with a few pretty pictures.
This information is based on our own birding experience in Kaikoura over the last few months, but you can help us keep it up to date by leaving comments and by adding your own observations to eBird. We’ve linked the name of each site to its eBird hotspot page so you can easily check out recent sightings and long-term species records.
With around 150 species of bird recorded here so far, Kaikoura is one of NZ’s top birding destinations. The wonderful array of seabirds just offshore are the jewel in the crown, but there are further avian treasures to be found in the native forests amid stunning scenery. Here is a short guide to the local birding hotspots— happy birding!
(you can also try our clickable Google map of Stickybeak sites here)
Jump to each site:
B. Point Kean
D. Kowhai Bush
F. South Bay
For many birders, Kaikoura’s famous seabirding is the main drawcard, and the easiest way to get a close view is to go on a tour with Albatross Encounter. Their claim that Kaikoura is the best place in the world for seabirds is probably justifiable – not only is the seabird species diversity fantastic, but there can be few other places where satisfying seabirding is so easy. Boat trips with an experienced skipper take you out to the deepwater feeding grounds just a few kilometres offshore. These 2.5-hour tours leave from Encounter Kaikoura on the Esplanade. If your sea legs are wobbly, ask at the local pharmacy for some ‘Kaikoura Cracker’!
Exactly how many separate species of albatross exist in the world is debated, but current consensus seems to recognise 21. Of these, 17 have been recorded in New Zealand, and 14 of them on Albatross Encounter tours – two-thirds of the world’s albatrosses in one spot is pretty exceptional! Species vary seasonally, and each tour is different, but you can expect to see anything from two to six or more species in one trip. The commonest species are shown below.
Although the albatrosses are the main targets on these trips (unsurprisingly), you will also encounter a good variety of other seabirds, including numerous petrels and shearwaters. The slightly grotesque but very characterful giant petrels are always popular. Northern Giant Petrels are common all year, while Southern Giant Petrels only occur in very small numbers, mainly in the winter.
Shearwaters are seasonal, peaking in diversity over the summer months when Sooty, Short-tailed, Buller’s, Flesh-footed (Nov-Mar) and Hutton’s Shearwaters are all present. The latter is Kaikoura’s own special seabird, breeding nowhere else in the world, and they are present here from about September to March, sometimes forming spectacular flocks of thousands just offshore. As soon as the Hutton’s leave town in April, the very similar Fluttering Shearwaters move in for the winter. Rarities have included NZ’s second record of Great Shearwater in February 2010 and sightings of Pink-footed Shearwater on five different occasions, all in summer.
When to watch: great at any time. Tours run daily but book ahead to ensure availability during the busy summer months. In winter demand is much lower and minimum passenger numbers (usually three people) are required for the tour to operate. Some species occur seasonally but the
appearance of rarities seems to be more influenced by luck than time of day. Early morning trips offer the opportunity to enjoy the sunrise as well as the best light for those iconic shots of albatrosses flying past snow-capped mountains. One of the most spectacular sights occurs in October, when large flocks of Hutton’s Shearwaters congregate after returning to breed.
B. Point Kean
Point Kean lookout is great for seawatching, particularly in strong winds when interesting seabird passage can be observed. A telescope is very useful for identifying seabirds offshore. Seabird species seen are pretty much the same as on Albatross Encounter. Views are much more distant, but land-based observation does have some advantages. Passing shearwaters and petrels are not usually interested in the boat, but can be seen from the cliff top, sometimes in spectacular numbers. The best seabird passage usually occurs in windy weather, and boat trips are usually not an option in such conditions. If there are strong winds, especially from the south, Point Kean is the place to be for exciting birding.
The extensive rock platform at the point is great for roosting gulls and terns, as well as foraging oystercatchers, Banded Dotterels and Ruddy Turnstones (in summer). Other migratory waders are very rare here, but do occasionally drop in on their way past. Over the years these have included Wandering Tattler, Grey-tailed Tattler, Whimbrel, Wrybill and Red Knot. Also look out for Reef Herons, which are occasionally lurking around on the rocks.
Point Kean can also be good for cetaceans – Dusky Dolphins are often leaping around offshore and several times we have seen the distant blow of a Sperm Whale. We’ve also been lucky enough to see Orcas passing by close to land here. NZ Fur Seals haul out close to, or frequently in, the car park—remember the 10m rule and give these wild animals their space.
When to watch: Point Kean is a stunning place to enjoy sunrise but the early morning light makes seawatching difficult so for seabirds try late afternoons instead. Southerlies seem to produce more in terms of seabirds, although we’ve had interesting sightings with northerlies too, so it’s well worth a look at any time, and the bleaker the better. During high tide waders move off the rock platform and tend to gather on nearby Jimmy Armer’s Beach so pop in for a look there on your way past.
Thanks to our repeated visits over the last few months, Point Kean now ranks among the top ten sites in New Zealand for the total number of bird species recorded. Between December 2015 and April 2016 we held weekly ‘Saturday Seawatch‘ events – an hour’s seawatching open for anyone to come and share the scope with us. Over the 20 weeks we recorded 17,665 individual birds of 57 species, including 19 species of tubenoses (or 31 species of seabirds including gulls, terns and cormorants), as well as meeting loads of interesting people. Apart from this we’ve rarely seen anyone else seawatching up here, so we’re hoping we’ll encourage a few more people to try birding this rewarding location.
C. Mt Fyffe Forests – Hinau Walk and Fyffe-Palmer Reserve
Lush forest on the slopes of Mt Fyffe offers excellent opportunities for native bush birds: Brown Creepers, Grey Warblers, Fantails and Bellbirds are all common, while South Island Robins, Wood Pigeons, Tomtits, Tuis and Moreporks are also present, as well as Shining Cuckoos in the summer (much easier to hear than see!). Keep an eye out overhead for New Zealand Falcons, which occur in just about any of the local native forests. Little Owls can be seen at dusk along Postmans Road and nearby – check telegraph poles and fence posts.
Try the Mt Fyffe Forest Walk at Fyffe-Palmer Reserve (north end of Mt Fyffe Road), the Hinau track or the start of the Mt Fyffe track. All are easy walking tracks with mixed native forest and beautiful clear streams. This DOC brochure has information about the Mt Fyffe walking tracks.
The walk all the way up to the summit of Mt Fyffe is more than worth the exercise, but with few birds above the bush line except for breeding NZ Pipits (summer), that’s really for reasons other than birding: stunning views of the Seaward Kaikouras and across the Kaikoura peninsula, as well as an interesting peek into the breeding habitat of the Hutton’s Shearwater.
A small number of Keas (the most easterly population of this species) are also present high up in the Kaikoura ranges, but you would be very lucky to encounter them here (we never have).
When to watch: the forests are generally best in the early morning, but evening can be good too. The walk to the Mt Fyffe summit and back takes eight hours or so, so it’s best to start early.
D. Kowhai Bush
This block of native woodland along the Kowhai River is good for Rifleman (listen out for their high-pitched calls) and Shining Cuckoo (present in summer, also easiest to locate by call). Other common native bushbird species are easily seen here too, and squeaky noises are highly effective for encouraging the inquisitive locals to come close. Brown Creepers and Fantails in particular will excitedly investigate loud squeaking sounds.
There are various access points to the Kowhai Bush, but an easy way is at the end of Schoolhouse Road, where several small tracks lead into the bush.
When to watch: there is generally more bird activity in the early morning. Birds breeding here in spring means that babies are abounding by summer.
This is the local hotspot for ducks, including Australasian Shoveler, Grey Teal, NZ Scaup and Paradise Shelducks. And of course, these lucky ducks mingle with many many Mallards. Look closely at any Grey Ducks (Pacific Black Ducks) – almost certainly they will actually be Mallard hybrids, and eBird has a great guide to distinguishing these hybrids from pure Grey Ducks.
To reach the main oxidation pond, turn right off Old Beach Road where the road crosses the stream and park down the small gravel track. Follow the stream to the beach and walk left up the dune to look into the ponds – sneak up stealthily as you near the crest to avoid spooking the ducks.
Pied Stilts, other waders and gulls and terns can also be seen around the adjacent stream and beach. In spring and summer Banded Dotterels nest along the beach, as they do on much of the local coastline. We were more surprised to find South Island Pied Oystercatchers also nesting here, and the appearance of juvenile Pied Stilt chicks on the ponds suggested that they too nested locally. After the breeding season, large numbers of gulls and terns (including the returning Black-billed Gulls and Black-fronted Terns) regularly gather on the beach near the mouth of the creek. When feeding flocks are suitably close to shore, there can be impressive displays of Arctic Skuas chasing them to steal a meal. Congregations of over 100 Masked Lapwings can also be present, with frequent flybys from Swamp Harriers spooking the lot.
When to watch: birds are present on the ponds all day but best viewing is in the morning when the sun is behind you.
F. South Bay
Scenic South Bay lies on the south side of the Kaikoura peninsula and has pebbly beaches with weedy verges, rocky shallow bays with fascinating rock formations, and a dramatic skyline ending in the Shark’s Tooth.
Interesting seabirds can sometimes be found washed up on the tideline. We’ve found an intact Southern Royal Albatross and bits of Fairy Prion and Common Diving Petrel, while the remains of a Blue Petrel were also discovered here a few years ago.
South Bay is also home to beach-nesting Banded Dotterels in spring and summer – if walking along the beach take great care not to disturb them. The nearby racecourse is also frequented by Banded Dotterels feeding in the short grass. Their numbers swell at the conclusion of the breeding season, when flocks of 80 or more can be seen. At this point adults moult into drab non-breeding plumage that makes them very difficult to distinguish from juvenile birds.
Another avian attraction of South Bay is the small colony of Little Penguins. Small groups can often be seen rafting on the water at the end of the day, and patience sitting quietly near the Coastguard station at nightfall can be rewarded with views of penguins returning to their burrows. Alternatively see the small colony up close by joining a PEAP (Penguin Education and Awareness Program), run by the penguin-loving peeps from the Kaikoura Ocean Research Institute. This involves an informative and fun presentation all about the penguins, as well as the opportunity to view birds in purpose-built nesting boxes, and (during the breeding season) watch as they return to feed their chicks. A special viewing area is located under the Coast Guard building, where red lighting allows PEAP-participants to view penguin activity without disturbing them. PEAP proceeds fund free visits for local school kids, so you can help them spread the penguin love even further.
Incidentally, Kaikoura has also been visited by several rare and exciting penguin species over the years, many of them popping up in South Bay. Of these, Yellow-eyed Penguins are the most regular and are seen very occasionally in the summer. Fiordland Crested Penguin and Erect-crested Penguins have been found here in their moulting season (usually February). A Chinstrap Penguin in South Bay in November 2002 was only the fifth ever seen in New Zealand, and an Adelie Penguin back in January 1993 remains the country’s only live record of this species.
In some winters, flocks of Cirl Buntings have been regular at South Bay recreation reserve. We have also seen them feeding among flocks of finches and Yellowhammers along the weedy verge of South Bay Parade. This is a species that definitely seems to be easier to find in the winter, and can be very elusive during the breeding season.
South Bay also hosts large gatherings of gulls, terns and shags in winter. This part of the peninsula often seems to turn up something a bit unexpected. We’ve seen Royal Spoonbills loafing on Baxters Reef (near the wharf), a White Heron (a.k.a Great Egret or Kotuku) fishing by the recreation reserve and a Rook flying over the racecourse – all rarities for this location.
When to watch: penguins come to shore just before nightfall, but can be spotted rafting on the water in the early evening, while you enjoy glorious sunset colours reflected in the bay. PEAPs run in the evening when booked in advance. Contact KORI for more information.
This scenic walkway goes from Point Kean to South Bay, taking about an hour or longer depending on how good the birding is. From the clifftops, watch out for passing seabirds and waders on the rock platforms (as for Point Kean, above). During spring and summer, the South Island’s largest Red-billed Gull colony is a spectacular (and noisy!) sight, alongside the NZ Fur Seal rookery. You’ll also pass a small colony of translocated Hutton’s Shearwaters, protected by a predator-proof fence. Adult birds only visit the colony at night during the breeding season, but interpretative signs explain this interesting conservation project.
The often-sought Cirl Buntings are the rarest of NZ’s introduced species, but easier to find here than they are in the UK! They can be elusive but may be found anywhere on the peninsula, usually in ones or twos – check Yellowhammers carefully, especially where there are belts of pine trees. We’ve had sightings near the Point Kean car park, on the peninsula walkway itself, and on the weedy verge along South Bay parade.
When to watch: if you walk in the morning, the light is better starting from the Point Kean end. Red-billed Gulls nest October to January.
Kaikoura’s pebbly beaches are good for observing resting gulls, terns and shags, while watching out for Hector’s and Dusky Dolphins. Black-billed Gulls and Black-fronted Terns are mainly present from about Jan-Sep, outside their breeding season. Lyell Creek, which passes through town, usually has Pied and Little Shags, and in late spring swarms with ducklings. Most of the ducks are Mallards and grellards (Mallard x Grey Duck hybrids), but Australian Shovelers have also nested on the creek.
Large feeding frenzies of gulls and terns often form around shoals of small fish just offshore, and these gatherings attract marauding Arctic Skuas in the summer months. In 2016 we discovered a nightly gathering of skuas on the north side of the Kaikoura Peninsula. Every evening, flocks of these birds, sometimes numbering over 100 individuals, would gather in rafts on the water, where they were viewable from the car park of Whale Watch Kaikoura with a spotting scope. Such large congregations of skuas were previously unknown anywhere in New Zealand. Our observations are recorded on eBird and also discussed on BirdingNZ.net
Seabirds, including albatrosses and petrels, sometimes follow fishing boats into the bay and good views are possible from the wharf by the aquarium. Spotted Shags often roost on the rocks around this wharf during the day, sometimes in their hundreds. One of the most social shag species, they can often be seen travelling in large flocks, particularly outside the breeding season (spring/summer). An interesting sight in Kaikoura is the nightly procession of Spotted Shags, when hundreds of birds pass by the peninsula as they head south to roost on Barney’s Rock, quite an impressive shaggregation. Smaller numbers may also be seen incongrously perching high up on the cliffs above the south end of the Esplanade
When Hutton’s Shearwaters fledge (Mar-Apr) they can be drawn to the town lights after dark – watch out for crash-landed birds on roads during this time. We have written more about this interesting phenomenon here.
When to watch: Gulls and terns are present in biggest numbers Feb-Sep, outside of the breeding season. In summer, try looking for flocks of skuas in the last hour of daylight.
We hope you enjoy birding in Kaikoura as much as we did! If you’d like any further info or tips, feel free to get in touch.
And if you’re birding beyond Kaikoura, here are some nearby places that are well worth a look:
Heading north: Lake Elterwater is a easy roadside stop for waterbirds on the lake which can turn up some interesting rarities. By late summer the lake can be completely dry. Just up the road is Lake Grassmere, with its large saltworks – the open shallow ponds can provide good habitat for shorebirds. On the outskirts of Blenheim, the poo ponds at Wairau Lagoon and Taylor Dam are worth a look – the latter makes a pleasant stroll to tick off NZ Dabchick.
Heading south – the lookout at Goose Bay (access via the bush track starting near the Omihi campground) is another great seabirding location, looking down onto the deep waters of the Kaikoura’s underwater canyon. Large numbers of feeding albatrosses can be seen (possibly also Sperm Whales), but it doesn’t seem to be as good as Point Kean for other passing seabirds. An hour south on the highway, stop and stretch your legs at St Ann’s Lagoon, where you might pick up Cape Barren Goose, Cirl Bunting or Marsh Crake. Also famous for NZ’s only record of Reed Warbler!