A week or so ago (time is flying by so fast these days it may have been months ago or yesterday I’m no longer sure) we were contacted by Duncan Wright, a Wikipedia editor asking us if we’d post an article on 10,000 Birds on the merits of Wikipedia as a birding resource – too which I replied asking doubtfully whether “promoting Wikipedia given the volume of traffic and the ranking you already have seems a bit like a shopkeeper telling his customers to go next door to the supermarket instead” (we’re just the wittiest people in the blogosphere round here I can tell you…)?

To his credit Duncan remained enthusiastic and polite in the face of such extreme verbal jousting – so much so in fact that not only have we agreed to give him a Guest Post on birding in his beloved Wellington (NZ), but I’ve liberally added links to Wikipedia all over the post, have promised that at some point I’ll write a separate post pointing out that Wikipedia is in fact quite useful and not here to steal all readers away from blogs after all, AND even sort of said I might possibly be interested in helping edit a little bit. (And people think I’m a touch protectionist occasionally…)

Anyway, the point really is that this post is really very good, and Duncan sent a pile of photos of birds we’ve never featured (or even seen) before – and if we’re fortunate he’ll feel coerced after all this Wiki-love to write Part Two anytime soon…

Enjoy, and thanks Duncan for being such a good sport!


Birding Wellington
Duncan Wright, August 2009


Whitehead Mohoua albicilla


As all birders know any walk is an opportunity to birdwatch, and my morning 20 minute walk to work is no exception. Last Wednesday was no exception; in fact it gave me something new. Not one hundred meters from my home, on the side of the road not a foot of the ground hung an upside-down Whitehead. Bouncing around with it were a pair of Chaffinches, who saw me and fled, causing the Whitehead to do the same. New not because I had never seen a Whitehead before but I had never seen one out and about in the city. Whiteheads are small insectivorous forest birds variously associated with a range of Australian families such as the whistlers and Australian warblers. When you do see them it is in natural forest in large flocks high in the trees. Were you don’t see them is on roadside kerbs in suburbia. That is, you don’t usually see them there, but there is nothing usual about birding in Wellington.

The reason that Wellington is the place to watch birds in the city in New Zealand was actually not hard to find, all I had to do was spin around. One hundred meters away a stand of hundred year old Monterey pines de-marked the edge of Zealandia, formerly called the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary (a name I much prefer). This large valley on the western side of the city once housed two reservoirs that watered the city until it was realized that the whole valley was a massive rift in a highly tectonically active region. The site was recently converted into a wildlife sanctuary; but in New Zealand this means something different to what it might in the rest of the world. The story of the sanctuary, and the birds of Wellington, is the story of birds in New Zealand in miniature.


Tuatara Sphenodon punctatus


New Zealand was once the land of birds. Horribly cliched, granted, but it is true. Apart from three bats and a few skinks, geckos and the utterly unique tuatara (photo above) all the terrestrial vertebrates were birds, and it had been that was for around 15 million years. Some of those birds have been here since New Zealand broke away from Gondwana, some so recently arrived that they are indistinguishable from their relatives in Australia. The ones that have been here a long time have evolved without mammals. It hardly needs saying that all that changed when humans arrived. First the Maori and later the British came, and they hunted and cleared forest and did all the usual things that cause declines in birds.

Here, unlike many other places, there was an additional element, people brought mammals – rats and cats and pigs and dogs and so on. These introduced mammals meant that, even if there was no hunting and no habitat loss you were still not guaranteed not to have a species declined. Some species were lost entirely, others reduced to tiny islands off the coast that the rats and cats never reached.

To protect birds in New Zealand you need to do more than gazette a portion of forest as a park and stop people logging and hunting. You need to exclude the mammals that in many cases are what cause the problems. The Karori Wildlife Sanctuary is an example of such a project. The whole forest is not only protected but it is in fact fenced off, entirely surrounded by a fence that is 2 meters high. Having built the fence the entire valley was blitzed with mammal-specific poisons, and, having been made safe, birds were moved from those tiny offshore islands to the valley.


Karori Wildlife Sanctuary
Northern lake looking south from entrance


Paradise Shelduck Tadorna variegata
Female Paradise Shelduck Tadorna variegata


brown teal anas chlorotis
Brown Teal Anas chlorotis


The entranceway of the sanctuary is on the northern edge of one of the reservoirs, now a large lake. You’ll often find a few species of duck bobbing around here. If you’re going to see the pair of Paradise Shelducks it will be here. These ducks reverse the usual pattern of plumage, with the females being more attractive than the males. They also reverse the trends of endemic New Zealand birds, having benefited immensely from human changes to New Zealand. The other species often found here was less lucky, the Brown Teal. This diminutive duck is mostly restricted to the district of Northland north of Auckland and Great Barrier Island, but they are common in the wetland areas of the sanctuary.

The trail leads along the side of the north lake. The area is frequented by Weka, large flightless rails descended from the ubiquitous Banded Rail. Unfortunately they are hard to see here, which is unusual as in many parts of their range they are extraordinarily bold and have to be aggressively kept out of your gear. But keep your ears open and you should hear them. On the trail you should also see flocks of sociable Silvereyes, a recent but natural arrival from Australia, and Tui. The Tui are everywhere, loud, bossy, almost to the point of obnoxiousness. A large endemic species of honeyeater that is found from the subtropical Kermadecs to the sub Antarctic Auckland Islands, they are very attractive birds with very dark blue plumage and a stunning pair of white feathers that form a bobble under their chin. You’ll often be startled by them as they shoot past you chasing off rivals or other species, but you can also watch them for hours as they sit and sing from a prominent perch. Their songs are complex and not unlike the throaty wheezing of the European Starling, full of notes beyond human hearing and often ended with a clunking “gronk”. Halfway down the lake is a nesting and roosting area for cormorants. The waters at the end are capped by wetlands and the haunt of New Zealand Scaup, small diving ducks which disappear into the green water by the metal walkway over the lake. The valley sides here are steep, and you won’t have far to go to find a New Zealand Fantail hawking for insects. These tiny little birds are all tail and motion, and sound like a squeaky toy.

Between the two lakes there are a number of trails and more importantly feeders. Many of the smaller feeders are not used in the summer (an ongoing experiment into how these feeders affect the breeding of smaller birds) but the larger ones can usually be counted on to put on the greatest show in the sanctuary – these are the feeders that are for the Kakas. They are the most common of the large parrots found in New Zealand, closely related to the alpine Kea of South Island. Six were released into the sanctuary in 2002 and they have thrived here and now number over 100. You’ll hear and see them flying far overhead, and meet them anywhere in the forest, but large noisy groups congregate around the feeders, chasing off thieving Common Blackbirds and shrieking loudly at each other.


Kaka Nestor meridionalis

North Island Robin
North Island Robin Petroica longipes


Another bird you’ll meet around here is the North Island Robin. Displaying the absolute lack of fear that has doomed so many New Zealand birds it will happily bounce around your feet looking for insects you flush or scuff up, and when trying to photograph this little bird the case is more often than not waiting for it to move far enough away to get it in focus! Such tameness has made it an excellent study species for scientists from nearby Victoria University of Wellington.

Other forest birds are more a matter of luck – give it some time and you should see them. These include two of New Zealand’s conservation success stories – the Stitchbird and the Saddleback. Both are not only endemic species to New Zealand but endemic families, and both were reduced to hanging on in a single offshore island. The Saddleback looks not unlike a black icterid with a maroon coloured back and red wattles hanging from the sides of its bill. It is a loud bird, constantly calling and hammering on branches to break them open, and having heard their calls they are not difficult to locate. The Stitchbird is daintier, resembling a medium sized honeyeater (a group it was thought to belong to until recently) with black, white and yellow plumage. They are best seen by waiting patiently at feeders, where they compete with the more aggressive New Zealand Bellbirds for the sugar water and food provided. The Bellbirds are smaller green and purple relatives of the Tui, and to the uninitiated ear their calls are quite similar.


Female Stitchbird Notiomystis cincta
Female Stitchbird Notiomystis cincta

Saddleback Philesturnus carunculatus


The last two highly sought after species that occur in the sanctuary are a matter of luck and timing. A pair of New Zealand Falcons have moved in, and last year nested for the first time. The sanctuary also has several Little Spotted Kiwis, the only mainland locality for this species. They are only seen at night, but the sanctuary runs night walks to see these and other nocturnal animals, such as the massive wetas (flightless cricket relatives), native geckos, frogs and Moreporks (the native owl).

As good as all this is, Wellington birding doesn’t stop at the fence. The fence keeps the mammals out of the sanctuary, but except for the flightless Wekas and Kiwis it doesn’t keep the birds in! As I type this I am watching a pair of Grey Warblers forage in my garden. One of the commoner native birds, they have been joined in the suburbs and even more developed areas by Kaka, Tui, Moreporks, falcons and bellbirds. In addition to the sanctuary the city council controls introduced pests, allowing more and more otherwise rare birds to been seen in people’s gardens and parks.


All photographs Copyright Duncan Wright (used with his permission and released on a creative commons attribution license).

So, what do we think – want to read a Part Two? Too right we do I reckon…so get writing Duncan!


Karori Sanctuary Trust

“Karori Sanctuary Trust is a not-for-profit community-led organisation with an extraordinary 500-year vision: to restore a corner of mainland New Zealand as closely as possible to the way it was ‘the day before humans arrived’.

The establishment of the Trust in 1995 was a major breakthrough in the conservation and recovery of native wildlife on mainland New Zealand, reversing a decline that has lasted for at least 700 years. It was a radical idea that turned out to be a major breakthrough in the conservation and recovery of native wildlife on mainland New Zealand.

The sanctuary comprises 225 hectares (approximately one square mile) of regenerating lowland forest and wetlands protected by a unique 8.6 km predator-proof fence, specially designed to exclude non-native mammals ranging from hedgehogs to possums. It is the most accessible of New Zealand’s celebrated mainland conservation islands and is a safe haven for some of our most iconic and endangered native animals, including tuatara, little spotted kiwi, saddleback, hihi and giant weta.”

(Text from About Us page of Karori Sanctuary Trust website)


Written by Duncan
Duncan Wright is a Wellington-based ornithologist working on the evolution of New Zealand's birds. He's previously poked albatrosses with sticks in Hawaii, provided target practice for gulls in California, chased monkeys up and down hills Uganda, wrestled sharks in the Bahamas and played God with grasshopper genetics in Namibia. He came into studying birds rather later in life, and could quit any time he wants to.