Of all the dangerous sports birders risk their necks in in the pursuit of birds, birding while driving is perhaps the most common threat to the life of a birder of all. I’m sure most birders with access to a car have a story of being driving alone happily only to almost crash after being distracted by something interesting or at least somewhat mysterious. Clearly this is not a particularly good idea, but there are also situations where a birder may be a passenger, and this presents opportunities for a kind of speed-birding, where a trip of a few hours can give you a hasty introduction to an area’s birds. Many a birding trip starts with a longish drive from the airport to the first birding site with these common roadside birds being the first taste you get of a country’s wildlife,  and I feel that many bird trip reports, interested mostly in mega-rarities, gloss over the amazing experience this first drive can give. So, inspired by a similar article on road birding in Thailand, I present road birding in New Zealand.

As with any kind of road birding, birding as a car passenger in New Zealand generally restricts the kind of birds you’re going to see. You aren’t going to tick off many brown skulky types, but New Zealand only has one of them anyway, so there isn’t much lost there. In one big way as well New Zealand is not like most first world countries, there are no real multi-lane motorways. Instead the major cities are linked by slower two-lane roads, which combined with frequently treacherous mountain roads means you won’t be driven along at breakneck motorway speeds. This greatly improves your chances of seeing stuff, and of identifying even smaller passerines. The most common habitat you’ll drive through is modified human farmland, although particularly in the hills you’ll find large areas of forest (although this habitat is typically harder to road bird in.

While there are birds you are likely to see on such a drive, it is possible to see even some rarities. Most threatened endemics are now restricted to protected areas, but I’ve passed a couple of Weka on a country road in Neslon and I saw my first Long-tailed Cuckoo flying across the main road out of Wellington. That said, here are the top birds you’ll see, based mostly on what I’ve seen on around North Island.

1) Australasian Harrier

The Australasian Harrier Circus approximans) by Birds of the South (CC)

The largest and most common of New Zealand’s two birds of prey, you’ll see this guy everywhere. A self introduced native, it is very common in farmed areas and you’ll even have to swerve to miss them as they feed on roadkill! Easily separated from the New Zealand Falcon by its size and wing shape, and the fact you rarely see falcons while driving.

2) Masked Plover

Masked Plover (Vanellus miles) by James Reed.

Also known as the Spur-winged Plover this is another common self-introduction from Australia that has done very well with the clearance of forests. You’ll also see them in larger city parks, and they are willing to nest on roadsides or even in the verges of  car parks. Usually seen in pairs on short grass or flying around noisily. Other wading types birds you can see less commonly are Pied Stilts and White-faced Herons; keep your eyes open as you go past wetter areas.

3) Pukeko

Pukeko, or Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio porphyrio) by Fir0002 (CC)

Another self-introduction, this large and attractive rail is often seen in the damper fields of New Zealand’s farms, and will also come to the road’s edge quite regularly. But these aren’t the only large ground-loving birds you might encounter. I’ve been in a  car that had to break hard for a Indian Peafowl! Feral Turkey are also quite common.

4) Sacred Kingfisher

Sacred Kingfisher (Halcyon sancta)

These little guys, a ntaive species, can be very common – in a three hour trip two weekends ago I counted 21 without really trying, around seven times as many Common Kingfishers as I have seen in my entire life in England. It’s their habit of sitting on wires in open country that makes them easier to see, as well as their more catholic taste in habitats. There is even a pair I see regularly in suburban Wellington.

5) Paradise Shelduck

Paradise Shelduck female (Tadorna variegata)

This species has striking differences between the sexes, with the female sporting bright white head and the male a black one. This New Zealand endemic, more than any other, has benefited from the clearing of forest and pairs are commonly seen everywhere you go in New Zealand, often with their large families in tow. As well as this species you might see Black Swans, Canada Geese and of course Mallards and Mallard/Grey Duck hybrids everywhere as well.

6) Australian Magpie

Australian Magpie (Gymnorhina tibicen) by Kip Lee (CC)

The largest songbird you’ll see on the roads, this Australian introduction demands attention, particularly if you happen to be cycling past its nest during the breeding season! There are plenty of other sonbirds you might identify on the road, particularly Common Starlings, New Zealand Fantails, Common Mynas (assuming you are far enough north) and the only Rooks I have ever seen in New Zealand.

7) Kea

A Kea (Nestor notabilis)

A South Island speciality, this is a roadside bird you’ll pull over for. Having done so the Kea will probably return the favour by jumping onto your car in order to remove any lose bits of rubber or metal it takes a fancy to. That is what happened to us, and we were utterly delighted that this story was true and that we could see it. Then, when we had to return the rental car and were asked about the damage we simply shrugged our shoulders and said “kea”, and this was considered a completely acceptable explanation by the rental people.

So that is birding on the road in New Zealand. What great birds are seen from the road around you?

*Images by author unless stated; please click on photographer’s name for information about applicable Creative Commons licenses.

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.