Getting Birdy on Ulva Island

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Today is our last day to enjoy the southernmost part of New Zealand before heading back to the mainland. We wake up early to break camp and are excited for a big day of birding on Ulva Island, a small avian paradise that is just a short boat ride from Oban. 

Native birds throughout mainland New Zealand are struggling to survive against mammals, such as ferrets, stoats and weasels, which have been introduced to the country. By contrast, Ulva Island is a protected natural area that has been declared 100% predator-free , offering visitors the opportunity to see birds free of threat. We have high hopes that this bird haven will prove to be very productive for us.

The water taxi ride from Oban to Ulva Island is only eight minutes, but the water we have to cross to get there looks super rough this morning. The small boat we have booked seats on is no match for the big waves and is slamming up against the dock. In these conditions, just climbing onto the boat without dropping our precious camera gear will be a major feat.

Luckily, we both make it in safe and sound. All of us passengers appear a little nervous about the crossing, but the rough waters don’t seem to faze the captain who is clearly used to conditions like this.

We arrive on the island at 8:30 am and have until 3 pm to walk the trails and look for birds. The view from the dock alone makes us excited for the day we have ahead of us.


There are trails criss-crossing the interior of the island, and we aim to take all of them. For starters, we head out to the beach and spot a tui and a few wekas.

The rain forest on the island is thick and dense, so seeing and photographing the birds is a little bit of a challenge. We always appreciate the brave birds that make it a little easier for us by coming out to pose for their photos. We wish they would all do that!

Before the day is done, we make it to the beach at the opposite end of the island and manage to spot a few more Stewart Island specialties along the way. We see red-fronted parakeets tucked into the bush. We also have a good look at saddlebacks, an oystercatcher with chicks and even a kaka high up in a tree gnawing on the thick trunk like it was a carrot—such strong beaks!

Throughout the day, the weather alternates between rain and sunshine, but we try to make the most of our time here and dress ourselves and our camera bodies for the wet conditions.


The big excitement of the day comes when we dip down into a fern-covered gully. Just as the words, “I bet this would be a good spot for a kiwi” come out of Matt’s mouth, we hear something moving in the ferns right next to us. We stop dead in our tracks and realize that whatever is making the noise is coming toward us.

We have heard that kiwi have terrible vision and that it may even walk right up to us if we stay quiet and still. Of course, we lose our cool and make some noise in our rush to get the camera and tripod set up. The kiwi veers away from us, and the best we can get is a obscured view through the ferns. Oh man, were we bummed. We totally blew that one!


We head back to the dock by 2:45, but our boat is nowhere to be found. We are catching the last ferry back to Bluff tonight, and we are getting a little worried about the time. At 3:30, we ask another boat to radio our captain who must have totally forgotten about us. He shows up just in time because it begins to hail just as we get under the cover of the cabin.

Back in Oban, we race to the SI Backpackers to grab our backpacks and catch the 5 pm ferry back to the mainland just in the nick of time. It’s yet another wild ride, and we do our best to keep our lunches down for the hour-long crossing. We are both definitely looking a little green when we finally dock in Bluff, but we don’t waste any time hitting the road for the final phase of our Kiwi adventure. Catlins here we come! 

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