New Zealand, 2019 - Alexander Becker

New Zealand, 2019

Published: 12/24/2019

When I traveled to New Zealand previously in early 2018, I learned a couple things: 1) the country is beautiful, 2) the birds are amazingly unique, and 3) the birds are often quite hard to photograph. Plus the people are pretty friendly. So armed with a previous trip under my belt and a year of knowledge of birds, photography technique, some new gear, and a slightly better understanding of New Zealand slang, I was excited to go back. This trip was a bit longer too with three weeks spread out over four parts of New Zealand: Auckland, Stewart Island, Christchurch, and Wellington. 

This trip wasn't exclusively aimed for or centered on photography, but given that my partner is also an avid birdwatcher (as well as incredibly patient!!!), these trips end up often with a significant bird watching / photography component. Click each photo to see it larger.

After landing in Auckland at 6 am it was the age old story of trying to not fall asleep. We took a walk around noon on a sunny day with pretty much no expectation of seeing anything bird wise. I grabbed my camera just in case we saw some birds in the shade given how harsh the light was. Of course pretty quickly into our walk on the beach we saw movement in the water that turned out to be a Little blue penguin. The world's smallest penguin at 1.5 kg, this is a bird that had mostly evaded me on my last trip and is relatively uncommon to see in the day, especially so close to the shore in this area. It was really tough and high tide so our thought was that the penguin had been blown off course. The bird was fighting pretty hard in the choppy water before finally getting to shore and resting for a bit before getting back in the water. Hopefully it made it. I liked this image since it really shows this bird's fight.

One bird I really wanted to photograph that I missed last New Zealand trip was the Sacred kingfisher / kōtare. Kingfisher are inherently charismatic birds and given how challenging they are to approach in North America, I'll take any opportunity to photograph them. The ones in New Zealand apparently come out before and after rain. So the first rain we got, I strapped on my rain gear and headed out. As an aside, for the photographers reading this I really highly recommend getting good rain gear for both yourself and your camera. I love the images I get in the rain and when you have proper gear there really isn't anything to worry about. Just don't point your lens directly into incoming rain :).

It wasn't too long before I found a couple kingfisher on the rocks. From there the main challenge was 1) getting close enough, 2) not getting soaked navigating the wet rocks, and 3) finding a pleasing background / shooting angle. After a learning their body language and getting some wet toes, I was mostly in the groove and given a couple rainy days I got some images I'm really happy with in an array of settings and poses.

My favorite part of rainy day photography is not having to worry about the light angle and the atmosphere the rain drops provide. However, you do miss out on that beautiful am/pm light and how it can light up a bird's feathers. Therefore, the perfect situation is when you have a rainy day that clears up an hour or so before sunset. That rarely happens, but when it does...well you can't ask for much more. Best of all is when it happens just as kingfisher picks an awesome perch and catches a fish.

The same area is also home to a New Zealand endemic -- the Variable oystercatcher, shown below in the rain.

Auckland is also close to the famous Muriwai Gannet colony. I visited this site last trip and focused on in flight images. While I didn't forgo flight shots this time, I focused much more on wide angle images. This seemingly easy task was complicated by 1) uncooperative head angles on the parent, 2) an amazingly uncooperative chick that appeared honestly dead 99% of the time (it wasn't), and 3) tons and tons of tourists! It was somewhat of a madhouse at times. Regardless it all lined up when parent and chick both called at the same time.

After a week in Auckland it was off to Stewart Island -- a large island 30 km south of South Island, making it officially the closest I've ever been to Antarctica. Stewart Island is home to just one town -- Oban, population 400 -- with a couple motels, a grocery store, and a single pub. More importantly, it's a relatively untouched island, allowing for numerous NZ birds and flora to persist, whereas they have suffered elsewhere. Getting off the ferry you immediately notice this by hearing (the eerily similar to Jurassic Park pterodactyl) kaka (pictured below) loudly calling. In fact, even on the (somewhat rough) ferry we saw multiple species of albatross and petrel. 

Once on Stewart Island we did some exploring of local trails before gearing up for our 10:45pm kiwi spotting tour. I didn't bring a camera since it's all at night with a red spotting light, but we ended up seeing two juveniles which came right up to us -- so cool!

The next morning we met up with Matt Jones who guided us around Ulva Island -- a completely predator free island home to many endemics. This island is very old growth forest, and researchers estimate Tiritiri Matangi, where I went last trip, will look like Ulva in about 300 years. Now that is some really pristine forest. 

Like all of New Zealand's under-canopy bird photography, Ulva Island was technically very tricky as you have very small flittering birds in low light. We were lucky enough to have a cloudy day, which is ideally what you want so you don't have extra highlights in the background or the on bird. We had some great sightings and a number of photo opportunities as well. Getting the classic "nice" setting is a challenge in such dense forest, but this kakariki  cooperated just long enough. These are such beautiful birds and I'm thrilled I was able to photograph them.

Fantails are one of my New Zealand "nemesis birds" in that I'm always just taking photos of branches after they've flown off. I'm overall happy with this shot given it was quite low light, but I'm still searching for that "perfectly fanned out tail" shot...

A good, and often rewarding, strategy, when working in dense forests or generally "not ideal" settings (e.g., leaves blocking the birds full body, uneven background / lighting, or messy foregrounds / backgrounds) is to go tight and aim for headshots. Of course the birds need to be close enough to do that, but in predator-free habitats this is often attainable with a long enough focal length.

Here, this incredibly friendly South Island Robin came within minimum focusing distance allowing for a clean background around the head.

Similarly, this Weka was on a beach with a lot of debris which while natural isn't my favorite setting. I waited as this bird walked closer until it was posed in front of a clean ocean background before taking this portrait. A previous wave had just hit the bird, adding some interest with the water on the head and back.

After a great morning and afternoon on Ulva Island, it was back to Oban for dinner and bed. The single pub in town was really nice.

The next morning we were off on a pelagic with the goal of seeing albatross, petrel, and maybe some penguins. It was unusually calm, which meant no possibility of seasickness, but also limited which birds came in. That is still a deal I will take any day of the week! 

Pelagics are awesome since you have multiple passes from birds and they come close! These things in tandem mean you can get flight shots and portraits with a relatively "modest" birding lens (I used my much praised, and reviewed, 300mm f/4 PF lens for this task). Of course, on a bobbing boat, birds in flight becomes a real task! 

This flight image is probably one of my favorite albatross images I've taken with the subtle clouds in the background.

Repeated close opportunities also allow you to get nitty-gritty detail oriented shots as well, both in flight:

And "perched" on the water:

But ultimately the best part of repeat and close opportunities is that it allows you to experiment. Here, I used a slow shutter speed (1/60 s) in contrast to the fast speed I was using to freeze motion (1/4000 s) to bring out a sense of motion while keeping the bird relatively in focus compared to the water. I love the wing tip touching the water here.

Finally, wide angle lenses let you bring in the setting, such as a cool rock island and partially cloudy sky. The albatross isn't too bad either.

By the end of the pelagic it had started to rain when we came across a few Fiordland crested penguins at a distance, too short for my 300mm. I debated back and forth about switching to my (much) larger 500mm as the rock face behind the penguins was quite close. Plus you always have the "big lens surprise factor". When I asked the ship captain if he could wait a couple more minutes while I switched to a bigger lens the conversation went something like this...

"yeah, bigger lens, no problem"

*500mm out*

"holy shit!"

Not what people expect! On the image side of things, exposing for the whites on the bird actually made the background pretty dark (I also lowered it about 2/3rds a stop in post) and really made the bird, and most importantly, the red eye and crest, pop. The raised flipped didn't hurt either!

The next morning it was back on the ferry to Invercargill airport and then up to Christchurch to go over to Arthur's Pass to look for Kea -- the world's only alpine parrot! In Christchurch we stayed in a very cool Tiny House which made a great home base. With a ton of windows it actually felt pretty spacious.

The forecast for our day in Arthur's Pass called for rain and rain it did (albeit on and off)! This is another scenario where I'm really thankful I had good rain gear -- not only do I really like the setting, atmosphere, and super diffused light it gives, but I only had one day to photograph a  rare endemic. Without proper gear, I would have been out of luck and had to stick to shooting out the car window which would have made these shots very challenging to say the least! The bands here, and on other birds photographed on this trip, are IMO just a fact of life for most of these birds. I'd prefer the image to be without them, and I could probably clone them out in Photoshop, but for many of these birds that's just not that realistic.

Kea are one of those weird birds that despite being rare are very approachable, to the point of messing with your car wipers. At one point when I was laying on the ground, one of them came over seemingly to mess with my camera. Working this close of course allows for portrait opportunities, such as below.

Working close and tight with birds also allows for some "near macro" shots using telephoto lenses. Focusing tight on the wing, I was able to highlight the array of colors and feather structure this bird possess, while also using the raindrops to add setting. 

After a successful day with a couple Kea, we met up with our friend Matt for a beer, marking actually the third country that the three of us have had a beer in in 2019 -- USA, Mozambique, and New Zealand. Maybe that will be a trivia fact one day if we all become famous.

Next up -- Wellington! This leg was less photography oriented but Wellington is home to Zealandia, a large fenced preserve in the city aimed at restoring the native wildlife in a predator-free environment.

The setting here was technically similar to Stewart Island (although of course far more recent growth) with dense canopy and variable backgrounds. As I've harped on a couple times now, settings like this can make for really good opportunities for headshots. This kakariki was hopping on low and crowded branches under some diffused light which really brought out the natural shine (read: no flash used) on its green and red feathers. 

Zealandia is also home to some Takahē, the largest living Rail species, and it really is pretty massive. These birds were assumed extinct up until the late 1940s. They are recovering decently with about 300 in the wild. Being able to watch and photograph this bird at close range was awesome. I was thrilled to get the (pretty intimidating) claws up pose here.   

This Tui shot is one I've had in my head for a while now and one that I was able to finally execute in Zealandia. Like the penguin shot above, the black background is naturally occurring and is a result of exposing for the much brighter white bib on the bird which was about one and a half stops brighter than the black. This spotlight effect brought out an ideal exposure on the bib without killing the detail in the darker regions on the bird. Plus it really allowed for the great colors to shine through, especially around the neck. As you can probably guess, I'm very pleased with this shot! 

As you can guess by this point, I, once again, had an amazing time in New Zealand. A big thanks to Pru, Glyn, Tom, Polly, Josh for hosting me and for helping with the many trips to and from airports, Matt Jones from Wrybill Birding Tours for guiding on Stewart Island, and the biggest thanks to Justine for tons of planning, for accommodating packing various pieces of my camera, rain, etc, gear in her carry on, and for being the best company I could ask for.

You can see more of my New Zealand images here, and feel free to follow me on social media (icons at the top of the page).