Bird Watching Round the Shores of Otago Harbour, New Zealand

From rocky shoreline to sandy beaches to grassland, the area round Otago Harbour, in the south-east of the South Island of New Zealand, provides a range of habitats for birds. It is a safe haven and breeding ground for many sea and shore species. Some are New Zealand natives; others fly in at various times of the year or stop over on their migrations.

Dunedin, the city at the head of Otago Harbour, is an ideal base for bird watchers to stay while they explore the area. A road runs along the shoreline, right out to Taiaroa Heads at the harbour entrance, so there are many places for bird watchers to stop and observe different avian species, in places that are easily accessible.

And only a short drive from the city centre are the homes of two rare birds – the Royal Albatross and the Yellow-eyed Penguin. Being able to see these (on pre-booked tours) is a special chance to visit the world’s only mainland albatross colony, and the world’s rarest penguin.


Here is a sampling of bird species that can be observed in the area around Dunedin:

Spotted Shag (Stictocarbo punctatus)

The Spotted Shag is a common sight in the harbour. Large groups of them often congregate during the day on jetties and posts along the water’s edge.

When breeding, the adults have distinctive crests and green facial skin with black spots on their backs. At other times, the plumage is paler and no crests grow. Their feet are yellow.They build large, untidy nests of sticks and vegetation on rocky platforms in coastal cliffs. Usually three eggs are laid.

When Spotted Shags move between their nests and feeding grounds, they fly quickly in long straight lines, close to the water’s surface. Their food consists mostly of small fish.

Stewart Island Shag (Leucocarbo chalconotus)

A colony of rare native Stewart Island Shags has established at Taiaroa Heads. They live at the bottom of a steep, bare slope, nesting close together on the rocks. They can be seen, through binoculars, from the Royal Albatross Centre’s observatory.

These birds are larger and heavier than the ones that live further south, round Stewart Island. They have yellow feet and are a bronzy-green colour.

Royal Spoonbill (Platalea regia)

Originally from Australia, these striking-looking birds breed on islands off the Otago coast and come into Otago Harbour to feed in the shallows. As they walk, they sweep their bill from side to side. They eat small fish, crabs and other marine invertebrates.

The Royal Spoonbill is a large, all-white bird, with long black legs and a distinctive, long, flat, spoon-shaped, black bill. It is a wading bird. Although heron-like in appearance, it flies with its neck outstretched, not tucked in as a heron does.

Blue Penguin (Eudyptula minor)

The Blue Penguin is New Zealand’s smallest species of penguin. Its plumage is slate-blue in colour with white chest and wing edges. It likes shallow coastal waters so is often seen in Otago Harbour.

Blue Penguins come ashore in the evenings. They nest in burrows, often several hundred metres away from the shore. Sometimes they take advantage of houses built near the beach and nest underneath them. This is unfortunate for the house owners, as the Blue Penguin is one of New Zealand’s noisiest birds, particularly at night! Its vocal repertoire ranges from ear-piercing screams to deep growls to trumpeting!

At the Royal Albatross Centre’s observatory, a link to a CCTV camera in a Blue Penguin’s burrow allows visitors a rare chance to see these birds’ natural behaviours underground.

Other birds commonly found around Otago Harbour are Red-Billed Gulls (Larus novaehollandiae), Black-backed Gulls (Larus dominicanus) and White-fronted Terns (Sterna striata).

Whatever time of the year bird watchers visit Dunedin and the area around Otago Harbour, they can be sure to see, at close quarters, many interesting species of birds.