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WINGS Birding Tours – Itinerary

Cruise: The Subantarctic Islands of New Zealand and Australia

December 2024
with Steve Howell and Luke Seitz as leaders
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The well-named Erect-crested Penguin, one of three penguin species endemic to islands we visit on this exciting tour Photo: Steve Howell

‘Unique’ is an overused word these days, but it can be rightly applied to these remarkable islands that lie between the Subtropical and Antarctic Ocean Convergences south of New Zealand. Each island group has its own character and its own avifauna—an incredible and under-appreciated diversity of life within a small area, akin to the more famous Galapagos Islands but dominated by seabirds.

Breeding species include three endemic crested penguins, nine endemic albatross taxa, six endemic shags, and even parakeets and pipits. The subtropical Chatham Islands have Shore Plovers, Northern Buller’s Albatrosses, and two endemic shags; the stark Bounty Islands hold almost all the world’s Salvin’s Albatrosses; the Antipodes have their endemic parakeet and Antipodes [Wandering] Albatross, plus Erect-crested Penguins; Campbell is home of the Southern Royal Albatross; Macquarie has millions of Royal Penguins, thousands of Southern Elephant Seals and King Penguins; Enderby Island in the Auckland group is a pristine jewel of restored island biodiversity; and the Snares have millions of Sooty Shearwaters plus Snares Crested Penguins.

The relatively short at-sea transits between islands are never dull, with up to ten albatross species accompanying the boat as well as good numbers of many other tubenoses.

Day 1: The tour begins this evening with an informal get-together at the hotel for dinner, where we can meet staff and fellow passengers. Night in Queenstown.

Day 2: We’ll have a chance to explore Queenstown and stretch our legs on land before lunch, followed by transfer to the Port of Bluff where we board the Heritage Adventurer, our home for the next two weeks. As we set sail towards the Snares we’ll encounter the first of many albatrosses and shearwaters that will be our almost constant companions for this remarkable voyage.

Day 3: Named for their ability to snare many ships in days gone by, the Snares are the closest Subantarctic Islands to mainland New Zealand. They are uninhabited and landing is not permitted, but if conditions are suitable we’ll cruise by Zodiac along the sheltered eastern side of North East Island. Here we should enjoy great views of the endemic Snares Crested Penguin, and we’ll keep an eye out for a couple of landbirds: the perky Tomtit and elusive Fernbird. Other nesting seabirds include dapper Antarctic Terns, vast numbers of Sooty Shearwaters, and the handsome Southern Buller’s Albatross, which will just be returning to breed when we visit.

Day 4: Enderby Island, the northernmost island in the Auckland Island group, is a prime example of habitat restoration. Non-native pest species were cleared from the island in 1994, and populations of vulnerable species such as the flightless Auckland Teal and the endemic subspecies of Subantarctic Snipe have since started to recover, along with the vegetation. We plan to land at Sandy Bay, the main breeding ground for the rare New Zealand (Hooker’s) Sea Lion, and from there we have some options to explore the island on foot. Birds we should see range from nesting Yellow-eyed Penguins and Light-mantled Sooty Albatross to ‘bush birds’ such as Tomtit and Bellbird, plus the endemic Auckland Shag, New Zealand Pipit, Red-crowned Parakeet, and perhaps some wintering shorebirds (waders), including the globe-trotting Bar-tailed Godwit and Ruddy Turnstone.

Day 5: Our full day at sea in the ‘furious fifties’ en route to Macquarie Island At Sea will be a great opportunity to see numerous albatrosses, from the majestic Snowy Wandering and Southern Royal to the ‘diminutive’ (for an albatross!) Black-browed and Gray-headed. Add to this numerous petrels, prions, shearwaters, and storm-petrels, plus the chance for a variety of marine mammals,  and this should be an exhilarating seabirding day in the Southern Ocean.

Day 6–7: Macquarie Island, described by Australian explorer Sir Douglas Mawson as “one of the wonder spots of the world,” is a remote Australian territory. We’ll have two days to explore this amazing island, once ravaged by sealers and the rats, mice, cats, and rabbits that came with them. An ambitious program aimed to rid the island of non-native species appears to have been successful, and in 2014 the island was declared pest-free. The resulting regrowth of plant communities, which stabilize the soil, and population increases in breeding seabirds have been heartening to watch. Macquarie is the only place in the world where the beautiful Royal Penguin breeds, along with a true abundance of other Southern Ocean wildlife. As well as many thousands of King Penguins, and smaller numbers of Gentoo and Eastern Rockhopper Penguins, the beaches are often packed with Southern Elephant Seals, their breeding season in full swing during our visit. Antarctic Terns plunge-dive in sapphire-blue waters amid swirling kelp forests, the endemic Macquarie Shag rests on inshore rocks, and we might even find Common Redpoll–a pioneering group of this northern-hemisphere finch reached the island from its introduced populations in New Zealand! We’ll also have a chance to visit with staff of the Australian Antarctic Research Base at Buckles Bay, established in 1947 and one of the longest continually occupied bases in the Subantarctic.

Day 8: Another day at sea, heading northeast towards Campbell Island, and another day full of albatrosses and other tubenoses, likely including some honey-eyed Campbell Albatrosses, a relatively recent species split from the widespread Black-browed Albatross. And of course, there’s always time to relax in the ship’s bar, catch up on your reading in the library, and process your countless photos from the vast ‘penguin cities’ of Macquarie.

Day 9: Back in New Zealand, Campbell Island is the main breeding ground for the majestic Southern Royal Albatross, which arguably has a wingspan fractionally longer than the fabled Wandering Albatross. We’ll drop anchor in Perseverance Harbor and offer a number of options that will enable you to explore the island, which has experienced a checkered human history. Discovered in 1810, Campbell was soon occupied by sealers who introduced rats and cats; farming followed from 1895 until abandonment in 1934; coast-watchers were stationed on the island during the war, after which the New Zealand Metrological Service maintained a station until 1995. In the early 1970s the removal of farm animals commenced and all were eventually removed by 1990. The vegetation recovered quickly and the cats died out naturally, after which an ambitious eradication program by the New Zealand Department of Conservation successfully removed the rats. With the island declared pest-free, the critically endangered, flightless Campbell Teal could be reintroduced, and Subantarctic Snipe recolonized the main island themselves from relict populations on small offshore islets. The vegetation, which the great English botanist Sir Joseph Hooker described in 1841 as a “flora display second to none outside the tropics” also rebounded, and spectacular patches of colorful megaherbs add to the island’s character. During our visit we should see the endemic Campbell Shag and Campbell Teal, and perhaps even the elusive endemic subspecies of Subantarctic Snipe.

Day 10: Back at sea en route to the Antipodes, the seabirds will change subtly as we move slightly farther north, with Subantarctic [Little] Shearwaters, Mottled and White-headed Petrels, various prions (their taxonomy still vexed), and the handsome Antipodes Wandering Albatross, plus a chance for some interesting marine mammals.

Days 11: The Antipodes (literally, at the opposite side of the Earth from Britain) are one of the most isolated, least-known, and rugged of the Subantarctic Islands. Landings are not permitted, so we’ll cruise along the spectacular cliffs coast looking for two endemic parakeets—Antipodes Parakeet and Reischek’s Parakeet—while Light-mantled Sooty Albatrosses wheel overhead in synchronized flight displays and half the world population of Erect-crested Penguins loafs on the shoreline and swims around the ship. Rising steeply from the sea like a lost world and lacking an appreciable coastal shelf means that these islands have no endemic shags.

Day 12: Discovered by Captain Bligh only months before the famous mutiny, the Bounty Islands comprise a few inhospitable, granite islets—another seabird mecca where landing is not possible, and even Zodiac cruising can be a challenge. Countless thousands of Salvin’s Albatrosses wheel around the stacks, and the other half of the world population of Erect-crested Penguins lives here, sharing the rock surfaces with albatrosses, Fulmar Prions (which, unusually, visit during daylight), and the endemic Bounty Shag, the world’s rarest. At-sea species also continue to change, perhaps including Northern Royal Albatross, Soft-plumaged Petrel, Broad-billed Prion, and Gray-backed Storm-Petrel, among many others.

Day 13: For seabird lovers this is a day not to miss—one year on this leg we saw 31 species of tubenoses (a world record?), including ten (!) albatrosses, and in this area we have also seen the very rare Magenta Petrel and Chatham Petrel. In the afternoon we’ll reach the subtropical Chatham Islands, starting with the well-named Pyramid Rock, home to essentially the entire world population of the handsome Chatham Albatross, as well as the recently described Pyramid Prion. We also plan to cruise by Zodiac along the coast of South East Island where we should find the dapper little Shore Plover, the endemic Chatham Oystercatcher and Pitt Shag, and the formally undescribed local taxon of Brown Skua, perhaps another cryptic species in this crucible of seabird endemism.

Day 14: The Chatham Islands represent New Zealand’s easternmost territory, and were originally settled by East Polynesians who became isolated and developed their own distinct culture. In the 1790s the islands were discovered by Europeans, and in the 1830s Maoris from New Zealand invaded the Chathams, killing and enslaving the indigenous people. The impact of all this human turmoil on the native flora and fauna was disastrous, but today the human population has a new awareness and a willingness to be part of a concerted conservation effort. Today we’ll go ashore on the main Chatham Island for a trip by bus to a private bush reserve on the south coast, where we should find the endemic Chatham Pigeon and Chatham Gerygone. We should also see the endemic Chatham Shag, and in late afternoon at sea we have another chance for the sought-after Magenta and Chatham Petrels, which are now breeding in fenced-off reserves on the main island.

Days 15–16. Our voyage to arguably the world’s greatest seabirding region will conclude, appropriately, with two full days at sea on our transit back to Bluff, in mainland New Zealand. En route we’ll cross the Chatham Rise, a large, submerged part of the Zealandia continent which stretches east from near the South Island of New Zealand. Here, nutrient-rich cool waters from the south mix with warm northern waters and consequently there is an interesting mix of pelagic species and the chance of beaked whales. What better way to wind down from a truly amazing voyage that to watch Wandering and Royal Albatrosses accompany the vessel, along with various petrels, shearwaters, prions, and storm-petrels. We’ll recap the highlights of our expedition and enjoy a farewell dinner as we complete the last few miles of our journey.

Day 17: Our adventure ends at the Port of Bluff, where we plan to arrive in early morning. After a final breakfast it will be time to bid farewell to our fellow voyagers and take a complimentary coach transfer to either Invercargill or Queenstown Airports.

Updated: 21 November 2022

Prices

  • 2024 Tour Price Not Yet Known

Notes

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Questions? Tour Manager: Sara Pike. Call 1-866-547-9868 (US or Canada) or (01) 520-320-9868 or click here to email.

* Please see the Tour Information page for cabin descriptions and pricing, deposit requirements, and the cancellation and refund policies applicable to this cruise (FORTHCOMING)

** Posted pricing is a CASH PRICE (check, ACH, bank transfer). Payments on the final balance by credit card are subject to a card fee. Credit cards are OK for deposits.

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