Zealandia is essentially a submerged continent about half the size of Australia. It is a piece of crust that broke away from Gondwanaland, the great southern supercontinent, about 80 million years ago, and subsequently subsided. About 94% of Zealandia lies below sea level. New Zealand, comprising 5.4% of Zealandia, lies about 1300 miles southeast of Sydney, Australia. New Caledonia (0.4% of Zealandia) is about 1200 miles northeast of Sydney, making it about 1500 miles north of New Zealand. Of the roughly 250 families of birds in the world, seven occur only in Zealandia, so this is a critical destination for those wishing to sample avian diversity (the only other similarly sized areas on earth with comparable numbers of endemic families are Papua New Guinea and Madagascar). Seeing these families was the primary goal of our trip.
We traveled with our friends Terry and Rhys from British Columbia, visiting New Zealand with an organized birding tour, and doing New Caledonia with a private local guide prior to the start of that tour. We were gone for just under four weeks, with four days in New Caledonia, nineteen in New Zealand, and the balance in transit. New Caledonia went very well, but New Zealand was rather disappointing. The organized tour was cut short for us because of COVID; five of ten participants and one of two leaders left the tour early. As a result, we effectively had only twelve days of birding in New Zealand, and did not get to explore the North Island. In addition, parts of the tour itinerary involved too much driving and too little birding, which was frustrating.
New Caledonia is essentially an overseas territory of France, and the culture is distinctly French in the southern half of the main island, called Grand Terre. The northern half of Grand Terre is primarily populated by Kanak, an indigenous Melanesian people, and most land is tribal, limiting opportunities for tourism. Our guide in New Caledonia was Isabelle Jollit of Caledonia Birds. She took us all around the southern half of Grand Terre and showed us all 26 avian island specialties (!), 17 of which are endemic to New Caledonia, and 9 of which are restricted to Melanesia. We would highly recommend Isabelle to anyone visiting New Caledonia with an interest in natural history.
On our first afternoon we had a few hours to visit a couple of local spots, where it was fun to see Bar-tailed Godwits on their wintering grounds. This species breeds in the Arctic from Scandinavia east to western Alaska. The Alaskan birds have one of the most remarkable migrations of any animal, flying non-stop to their wintering grounds, which range from eastern Australia to New Zealand. This fall, a Bar-tailed Godwit tracked via a satellite transmitter established a new record for the longest non-stop animal travel ever recorded. It flew from Alaska to Tasmania, covering at 8430 miles in just over 11 days, averaging 32 miles per hour!
The two principal natural history destinations in New Caledonia are Parc Provincial des Grandes Fougeres (Tree Fern Park) and Parc Provincial de la Riviere Bleue (Blue River Park). We spent a full day in each and they were both outstanding. In Grandes Fougeres we hiked a 3-mile circuit through beautiful rainforest featuring spectacular tree ferns from two families, as well as many other interesting plants. We found 16 life birds this day, including the gorgeous Cloven-feathered Dove. But the star of the show was the unique Kagu, the bird that brought us to New Caledonia. Eileen had the thrill of spotting the first couple of Kagus, which crossed the path and allowed a close approach. These birds are essentially flightless, having evolved on an island with no native mammalian predators. They walk along the forest floor, feeding in leaf litter, their unique bill structure preventing soil from entering their nostrils while they probe in the ground. They live in small groups and have dramatic displays involving raised crests and wings. They are the only member of their family, and one of only two species in their order, the other being the Sunbittern.
Riviere Bleue also has some rainforest habitat but much of it is maquis, a chaparral-like shrubland growing on ultramafic soil. The flora is very distinctive, having evolved to survive in the challenging soil, which is poor in nutrients and contains toxic heavy metals, especially nickel. Here we added another 7 life birds, including Crow Honeyeater (in danger of extinction, with only about 200 remaining individuals). We found more Kagu here, bringing our 2-day total to 9 birds. Among many interesting plants, the highlight was an Old World (tropical) pitcher plant, with leaves modified to catch and digest insects. This group is not closely related to our pitcher plants but shows convergent evolution in the development of leaves to trap insects.
On our last day we drove farther afield to chase down the two remaining specialty birds on Grand Terre, New Caledonian Grassbird (seen NE of Bourail) and Red-bellied Fruit-Dove (near La Roche Percee). I had been asking about the most taxonomically significant plant in New Caledonia, Amborella trichopoda, and on the way back Isabelle kindly went out of the way to show us this rarity near Col D’Amieu. This species is the only extant member of the most ancient lineage of flowering plants (angiosperms), a significant distinction in a group that contains on the order of 300,000 species. It occurs only in the highlands of Grand Terre and is being studied to better understand the evolution of flowering plants. Among its interesting characteristics are that individual plants have all male or all female flowers in a given year, but can change sex from year to year.
New Zealand only recently fully opened up to visitors from countries other than Australia, and we found that it really was not yet prepared for tourists. Many establishments were closed or open only for limited hours because of staff shortages. In addition, Air New Zealand, generally regarded as an excellent airline, apparently has treated employees poorly during the pandemic and has lost many key personnel, leading to something of a meltdown. Our experience was bad: it took a total of over 9 hours on hold to reach a customer service representative on the phone, and they issued boarding passes to our friends for a flight that was cancelled many hours earlier, resulting in their missing the next available flight. I would suggest that anyone contemplating a trip to New Zealand consider waiting a year for the situation to improve.
Approximately 56 species of New Zealand birds have become extinct since the arrival of Maori about one millenium ago. There remain on the North and South Islands and nearby smaller islands about 35 species of native landbirds and roughly 60 species of nesting waterbirds. About 10 species have perilously small populations and persist only or principally where heroic efforts have been made to control or eliminate introduced mammalian predators, usually on offshore islands or in fenced enclosures. It can be difficult to decide whether to count some of these species on one’s life list. Eileen and I accept only native species occurring within their original range and having viable populations, meaning that the birds are successfully reproducing and are not substantially dependent on human intervention. We decided before the trip that we would not count Stitchbird, the only species in its family, because all accessible populations depend heavily on supplemental feeding.
Our tour started in Queenstown, in the southwestern quadrant of the South Island, and proceeded to Fiordland National Park on the coast. Highlights here were South Island Wren in high-elevation boulder fields, mischievous Keas (these parrots are notorious for stealing food and disassembling motor vehicles), and beautiful montane scenery, including classic hanging valleys in Milford Sound. We then worked our way to the southern tip of the South Island, seeing the distinctive Hector’s Dolphin, and took a ferry to Stewart Island, which is about 40 miles across at its widest point. It is less beset with introduced predators than the main islands and is the best place in the country to see a kiwi.
Kiwis are a very ancient lineage of flightless birds related to ostriches, cassowaries, emus, rheas, and tinamous. They are unusual in many respects, including laying eggs up to one-fifth of their body weight; having feathers that are almost hair-like; lacking a tail; and possessing only rudimentary wings. They are really rather mammalian in behavior and appearance. We saw Southern Brown Kiwi very well on Stewart Island during a night-time foray. With this sighting, we have now seen all 41 orders of birds in the world!
A boat trip from Stewart Island to predator-free Ulva Island, just 2 miles across, was a special treat. We saw three species of penguins and had more than 50 albatrosses of two species come in when fish were thrown overboard! The landbirding in the forest on Ulva Island was the best of the tour, with Yellowhead and South Island Saddleback being favorites.
We continued north along the east coast of the South Island, then cut across to the west coast via the Mackenzie Basin, where we saw the very rare Black Stilt (about 130 remaining individuals) and the unique Wrybill. This plover has a bill that bends to the right, making it one of only a few animal species I know of that are not bilaterally symmetric. This bill is used to flip over the fine gravel in the braided rivers that it frequents on the breeding grounds. Highlights on the west coast were New Zealand Fernbird and the scenic Pancake Rocks, consisting of highly stratified limestone cliffs and sea stacks.
Returning to the east coast, the tour ended for us at Kaikoura, famous for its pelagic birding. The continental shelf comes to within about 5 miles of the coast here, and a deep submarine canyon approaches the coastline even more closely; both provide upwelling of cold, oxygen- and nutrient-rich waters to the surface, attracting numbers of seabirds. (A similar situation occurs in Monterey Bay, California.) Here we saw four species of albatross, six species of petrels, six species of shearwaters, and Dusky Dolphins. But the ultimate experience at Kaikoura was chasing Sperm Whale.
Sperm Whale is the third largest extant animal, after Blue and Fin Whales. Unlike the latter two, which filter-feed on small crustaceans using their baleen plates, Sperm Whales are toothed whales that feed primarily on squid but also take large fish, sharks, and rays. They dive to great depths (up to 7000 feet below the surface) and can stay under for an hour. They produce extremely loud echolocation pulses to locate prey and communicate. The right and left nostrils have evolved to have different functions, the left serving as the blowhole (through which breathing occurs) and the right being involved in echolocation – another rare example of an animal lacking bilateral symmetry.
Once at sea, the whale-watching boat, a large and fast catamaran, lowered a directional underwater microphone on a pole into the water to listen for Sperm Whale echolocation clicks. One was heard, and the pole was rotated to maximize the volume, from which direction to the whale was determined. The boat then moved several miles and the microphone lowered again. The whale was heard again, but then the pulses stopped, suggesting that the whale was done hunting and would soon be surfacing. The crew spotted it well ahead of the boat and instructed everyone to sit down immediately so the boat could proceed at maximum speed towards the whale. This species typically only spend 5 – 10 minutes at the surface before diving again, so time was critical. After an exciting ride we ran to the rail, and there at close range, in good light, we were able to study a magnificent Sperm Whale for about 3 minutes! It stayed at the surface, with the blowhole, dorsal fin, and back ridge visible. It blew repeatedly, and we could see how the spout was angled to the left by the single-sided blowhole. The whale then smoothly dove underwater, seemingly moving in slow motion due to its enormous size. At last the flukes came clear of the water, providing a thrilling finale to this amazing experience!
In total in New Caledonia and New Zealand, we saw 70 new bird species, 4 new mammals, and 74 new plants. At higher taxonomic levels, we added one bird order, 6 bird families, and a remarkable 17 new plant families.