Dunedin is home to a curious range of wildlife all within easy reach from the city centre. Jacqui Gibson takes a tour
I'm squinting through a pair of binoculars questioning how – in a region known for mighty albatross, wild sea lions and the world's dinkiest penguin – it's come to this? By "this" I mean starting a Dunedin wildlife tour trying to spot what looks like a particularly ordinary grey duck bobbing around on a drab suburban lake? Well, explains Lyndon Perriman, my affable guide and DOC ranger of 30 years, the Aussie coot is an excellent reminder Dunedin's wildlife can be found in rugged, coastal locations as well as right here, in a bush reserve a stone's throw from the busy city centre.
What else would I see? That's the question I set out to answer on a seven-hour tour that started at the edge of town and finished on the Ōtāgo peninsula.
It's late afternoon at Dunedin's Ross Creek Reservoir when I land my binoculars on the Australian coot. Lyndon tells me the bird's an interloper from across the Ditch, now embraced as one of our own. He isn't much to look at from this distance. But magnified he's quite remarkable: a slate grey, white billed sort of pūkeko-looking waterbird. Darting about nearby are five or six fast-flying welcome swallows or warou. Their blue-black upper wings and pale buff tummies are colourful enough to make Si, the forensic research supplies salesman beside me, take out his binoculars too. Soon, my niece Holly is doing the same. Unexpectedly, we become fixed on these wetland birds and find ourselves whining: "Really?" when it comes time to move on.
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On the drive to Hooper's Inlet, I realise Lyndon knows pretty much everything there is to know about Dunedin's birds and mammals. Aged 7, he dreamed of working as a wildlife officer. By 17 he'd signed on with DOC, becoming an albatross ranger at Taiaroa Head at 19. Travelling the flat unsealed road, Lyndon points out a family of violet-coloured pūkeko foraging near the roadside. He explains the shallow waters and intertidal mudflats were once the traditional shellfish beds of Māori, but are now home to wading birds who come here to gorge on the bay's crabs, snails and shellfish. From the van, we see spur-winged plover, bar-tailed godwits and, my favourite, the wacky-looking royal spoonbill. Lyndon tells us a few decades ago we'd have been lucky to glimpse the bulky black-billed bird with the raucous white head feathers. In the late 70s, as few as 50 royal spoonbills called New Zealand home. Today, however, the population is healthier, with more than 2300 birds on record.
Our next stop is Allan's Beach, one of Dunedin's famous white-sand surf beaches, stretching nearly two kilometres along the coast. Apparently, it's a great spot to spy sea lions (rāpoka). Though, of course, you have to give them a wide berth (stay at least 10 metres away from sleeping sea lions, says DOC. Make it 20 if they're awake). The beach is empty when we arrive, cameras at the ready, hearts pumping, munching on muesli bars and biscuits. I'm not worried. Instead, we hang out next to sand dunes smothered in pīngao listening to Lyndon tell us how the golden sand sedge became known as the eyebrows of Tāne in Māori lore and raising his own bushy brows to illustrate the point. Driving the coastal road to Taiaroa Head, the last stop on the tour, we see two sea lions pulled up on land sleeping among tangled clumps of seaweed in easy view of nearby cribs and a cyclist wheeling by.
At Taiaroa Head, I'm hyped to see the world's only mainland colony of northern royal albatross. Lyndon's spent much of his career researching and caring for them. He knows exactly what they look like in full flight and guides us to a wooden viewing platform to point out the sculptural seabirds enjoying the last breeze of the day. One by one they lift off and take to the sky, their huge wings steering them out to sea then back to the headland. Pretty soon, the cold chases us inside the Royal Albatross Centre for a short presentation and a cup of hot soup.
Fur seals and penguins
At 8.30pm, we don padded jackets and beanies and make our way outdoors again, down a well-lit path, to Pilot's Beach. The sky is a layer cake of iridescent orange, yellow and grey. It'll be black by the time rafts of tiny blue penguins (kororā) feel it's safe enough to wrap up their day at sea and come ashore. As we wait, New Zealand fur seals (kekeno) and sea lions settle in the rocks and sand. Then it happens. The first raft of six is spotted by Lyndon who points out a circular ripple in the inky-blue water metres offshore. Soon dozens of penguins swim to the water's edge in a tight huddle, eventually jettisoned on to the sand by a breaking wave. As they make the journey to their grass burrows, some wander off course, some bumble past the twitching noses and sharp jaws of sea lions, while others fight to navigate their way around and over impossibly large rocks. Outside, like this, reflecting on my day and watching the world's smallest penguin precariously going about its daily life, I'm convinced Dunedin is a wild place indeed.
How to see Dunedin wildlife
Horizon Tours Wildlife and Wilderness Tour
Explore Dunedin's wildlife with guide Lyndon Perriman on Horizon Tours' small group tours this winter. Book online at: horizontours.co.nz
Dunedin's Wildlife Care Code
Help look after the wildlife you see by following Dunedin's Wildlife Care Code. Read it before you go: dunedinnz.com/visit/see-and-do/wildlife/dunedin-wildlife-care-code