What to do in Milford Sound Bird watching

Milford Sound & Fiordland Wildlife

There’s barely a corner of Fiordland and the Milford Sound area that isn’t overflowing with wildlife. And that’s just the plants. There are some very special creatures living in the Milford Sound area…

See Rare Blue Ducks Just off The Milford Sound Road

Driving the Milford Sound Road you will travel through the Eglington Valley, this is one of the easiest places to spot the rare and endangered Blue Duck, because they are usually only visible on much more remote rivers. It shares this river with other duck species, including Mallards, Grey Ducks and the large and eye-catching Paradise Shelduck, the females of which have a distinctive white head.

But if you catch sight of a Blue Duck you’re allowed to get a bit excited. This ancient species only occurs in New Zealand and is one of just three waterfowl species in the world that will only live on rivers – you won’t see it living on lakes, for example, or fiords.

The Blue Duck isn’t the only endangered bird species living in these parts. There is also the Takahe, living back there in the Murchison Mountains close to Te Anau and only rediscovered fifty years ago. It is only one of five flightless bird species that we have living here in Fiordland.

As you may be aware, New Zealand is a land of birds. There are no native land mammals here and so the birds evolved to fill the niche that mammals fill in other lands. There were great big Moa birds, twice as high as a man, and enormous eagles that attacked them.

Although these giants are no longer with us, other ancient and bizarre birds still survive. Over time, some of them forgot how to fly. They had no need to, because there were no humans or cats or rats or stoats running after them. So they nested on the ground, climbed in the trees and got along quite happily until the Europeans turned up, and that’s when our birds began to run into trouble; even some of those that can fly.

These forests protect some of the last populations of many other birds besides the takahe. The mohua, for example, is a small insect-eating bird with a gorgeous yellow head and breast and greenish-brown tail and wings. When Europeans first arrived this bird was everywhere, but it’s now a species in decline, with only a few populations surviving around New Zealand, many here in Fiordland.

Then there’s the kea, a protected species of parrot numbering a few thousand individuals, most of which live in this area. Although there are so few in the world, it may not seem like it in Fiordland, because we see them everywhere! These large, green parrots are one of the most intelligent birds in the world, and they’re not afraid of humans. They have survived so well in these harsh conditions by being inquisitive, resourceful, and able to figure out new ways to get food. And that’s why we see so much of them, because they quickly learned that one of the easiest ways to get food is by hanging around unsuspecting tourists and looking cute and hungry! Sometimes these cheeky creatures will even adopt sneak-thief tactics to pinch your picnic when your back is turned.

But no matter how demanding, cute or underhand they are, please resist feeding the kea. Their natural diet consists of local plants, berries, roots and grubs, and human food doesn’t do them any good at all. It can make them very sick.

The other problem is that if they don’t have to find their own food, the kea end up with plenty of free time on their hands, and a kea with plenty of free time can be quite destructive. Everyday human objects such as shoes, bags, windscreen wipers and anything colourful are tempting playthings to a kea, and they could end up damaging or stealing your property. So enjoy meeting these clever and sociable creatures, but keep your things secure and try not to encourage them.

The kea shares the forest with many other birds, and at various times you are likely to see, or at least hear, morepork, kaka, tui, bellbirds, native robins, riflemen, yellow-crowned parakeets, yellowheads, tomtits, fantails and wood pigeons, among other species.

I can tell you about some of these birds, too. The kaka is another type of parrot, related to the kea, with a red or orange tinge to their underside, and they gather in noisy gangs in the trees around dawn and dusk. This is their party time, and you can’t miss their raucous racket! The morepork is a dark-brown owl that you may hear at night, announcing its presence with a “more pork” call. The tui is a handsome black-and-white bird with a glossy green-blue sheen to its plumage, a little white pompom hanging from its throat and one of the most beautiful birdsongs in New Zealand. So keep an ear out for some of these creatures during your stay in Fiordland.

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As I said we also have five flightless birds here in Fiordland, the rare takahe, the kakapo, the weka and three kinds of kiwi, plus some penguins, which obviously don’t live here in the forest so we’ll coverthem a little later on.

The kakapo is another parrot, but unlike the kea and the kaka, this one can’t fly. It has yellowy-green plumage and an owlish sort of face. Although it can climb trees and tries to escape danger by freezing, it was one of the most vulnerable victims of human hunters and introduced predators, and is even more endangered than the takahe.

Although they were plentiful around here when the Pakeha settlers arrived, there are now only 86 kakapo left in the entire world! You can imagine this makes them very precious, and it’s a real shame that such a unique and intelligent bird is on the brink of extinction. By the 1970s Fiordland was the only place where a handful of them still lived, but sadly, it is unlikely that you will get to see one, because all survivors were rounded up and transported to a couple of local offshore islands. Here the DoC are keeping an incredibly close eye on them, and are managing to bring the population back from the brink at the rate of about 20 new chicks a year. Let’s keep our fingers crossed for them.

The weka is a small brown ground-dweller that’s sometimes mistaken for a kiwi, but it’s a more slimline bird with a shorter beak, sleek feathers and a much more outgoing and curious personality. Although they are threatened themselves, these birds sometimes eat the eggs of other birds, which causes a bit of a problem. It can be quite hard to know how to keep them safe without endangering other threatened species. But the DoC has a program in place to make sure their numbers don’t fall any further.

Finally, there’s the three kinds of kiwi: the spotted, the little spotted and the brown. As you may know the kiwi is our national bird, which we New Zealanders are named after, along with our national currency and a small green fruit! For a bird that’s so prevalent in our culture and iconography, kiwis are actually pretty hard to spot in the flesh. They only come out at night, to forage on the forest floor, and are very shy and quiet creatures. They’re funny-looking birds with hair-like brown feathers, and are actually a distant relative of emus and ostriches. You’re actually more likely to hear one than see one though, but listen out for their “kiwi” calls at night.

Our kiwi are in trouble too, as 95 per cent of kiwi chicks are killed by cats and stoats before they’re six months old, and many of the adults are taken by dogs. We’re doing our best to protect them though, and the DoC has a long-term program in place to raise chicks in captivity before releasing them into the wild, and establishing kiwi colonies on some of our offshore islands where they are safe from predators.

One of the first people to think of this was Richard Henry, who was an Irishman who settled at Lake Te Anau in the 1880s. He was a keen birdwatcher and was concerned about the declining population of some of the local species. When the government decided to set up a nature reserve on one of the islands in Dusky Sound, Henry was the obvious choice for curator. So he went out to this island, built a house and set about catching birds on the mainland and shipping them out in his little boat. It was hard and sometimes dangerous work, but by 1900 he had ferried about 700 live birds from the mainland to several of the islands on Dusky Sound, where the introduced predators couldn’t eat them. As well as kiwi, he transported kakapo and weka, and was pleased to watch them breeding in their new home.

Sadly, Henry resigned his post when he spotted what he thought was a weasel on one of the islands, because it suggested to him that his efforts were in vain. In fact, weka and brown kiwi still survive on those islands, and although the spotted kiwi and kakapo didn’t last long there, he had raised enough awareness of their plight that other conservation programs started up to save them. He’d had the idea of moving endangered birds to the islands, and the DoC continues this work today. So those birds owe him one.

Birds are not the only creatures to live in Fiordland though. The forest is also home to insects, freshwater creatures and our only two native land mammals, the relatively common long-tailed bat and the endangered southern short-tailed bat. The short-tail is a small and ancient bat species unique to New Zealand which the Maori associated with impending doom. They’re not so bad when you get to know them though; they feed of nectar and pollen, are very small and are one of few bats that have learned to clamber around on the forest floor looking for food, as well as fly. Fiordland is home to one of the last surviving wild populations.