Stevensons Island: A small, intimate bird heaven on lake wanaka

Stevensons Island is a hidden gem of Lake Wanaka. Peace and quiet rule this wild island situated just a short boat ride away from Wanaka township (Otago, South Island). The dense native bush vegetation that covers most of the island attracts many bird species endemic and native to New Zealand. And the easy terrain, short trees and small size of the island makes it a perfect birding ground.

Roys Peak overlooking Lake Wanaka, New Zealand

View of Lake Wanaka from Roys Peak (1578m). Stevensons Island lies behind the far right mountain. Credit: Steven Sandner (see his Facebook page for more photographs)

With a surface of 192 km² and depth of 311 m, Lake Wanaka is the fourth largest lake in New Zealand (behind Lake Taupo, Lake Te Anau and Lake Wakatipu). It is fed by the Matukituki and Makarora Rivers and drains into the Clutha River, the second longest and highest volume river in New Zealand. Lake Wanaka lies 300 m above sea level in a U-shaped valley that was carved out through glacial erosion during the last Ice Age, more than 10,000 years ago. There, land and water magnificently intertwine to form a unique landscape beautifully crowned by the misty clouds that frequently form over the jagged summits.

Map of Wanaka, New Zealand

Map of Wanaka showing the location of the three islands. Source: Lake Wanaka Lifestyle Reserve

One of the most remarkable features of Lake Wanaka is the presence of three wild islands uninhabited by men: Stevensons, Mou Tapu and Mou Waho islands. All three have been managed by New Zealand’s Department of Conservation (DOC) as Scenic Reserves since 1988 and are being used for nature conservation programs. Fauna and flora abound on these islands which are a paradise for the amateur birder and naturalist seeking natural solitude, which is increasingly challenging to find in New Zealand due to an exceedingly large number of visitors each year.

There is a tiny fourth island, Ruby Island, that is not managed by the DOC, which means loose control of camping and campfire building. A popular destination due to its proximity to Wanaka township (just 600m), it burned down several times over the past decades due to people’s negligence. It is especially known for the cabaret that was established there for a few years back in the 1920’s. Nowadays, there is an annual swimming race to Ruby Island.

With a surface of 65 ha, Stevensons Island (Te Peka Karara in Maori) is the smallest one. It lies in the narrow south-eastern arm of Lake Wanaka and its highest point is only 60 m above lake level. It is flanked by Mount Gold (1304 m) and Mount Burke (1417 m) to the east and by Stevensons Peninsula, or simply The Peninsula, to the west (see map).

An intimate setting and inspiring landscape

Despite the proximity of Wanaka township (roughly 11 km in a beeline) and the intermittent bleat of sheep grazing on the adjacent hillsides, hiking on Stevensons Island brings a pleasing sense of solitude and feels like exploring virgin territor. There is a good chance to be completely alone on the island. Walking around the island is a matter of a couple hours, but rushing along the short, narrow trails, one would miss out on the discrete local wildlife. Take the time to pause and enjoy the silence in different parts of the island: you are guaranteed to encounter friendly and cheeky birds. Try making your way through the dense vegetation and you will discover some lovely hidden clearings and viewpoints.

The prehistoric appearance of the landscape—rugged with vast stretches of dense, jungle-like vegetation, occasional clearings, rocky shores, water and ominous skies—is compelling.

The current vegetation developed from the early 1900’s, following the latest of the numerous fires that swept down the island in the past. The canopy consists in large shrubs and trees no higher than 6 m, which makes the forest look even when observed from the summits. Mosses, lichens and grasses are widely present in the understory and clearings, growing on and around the many scattered logs and woody debris.

A total of 123 plant species have been recorded on the island, 84 of which are native or endemic.

Dead tree on Stevensons Island, Wanaka, New Zealand

One of the many logs covered with lichens and moss. Credit: Yalakom

The vegetation is dominated by Kānuka trees (Kunzia ericoides), which are endemic to New Zealand. They can live up to 150 years and play an essential role in forest regeneration by recolonizing burned or disturbed ground early on and allowing other plant species to develop later on. They are also a prime component of bird, lizard and insect habitat in New Zealand. Kānuka trees look similar to Mānuka trees (Leptospermum scoparium), famous for the medicinal, antibacterial honey bees produce from their white flowers and also present on Stevensons Island. Other common local trees are Kōwhai and Hall’s tōtara and widespread shrubs include Coprosma crassifolia, kōhūhū, Coprosma propinqua, matipo, Helichrysum aggregatum and corokia.

Powerful, relentless winds have forced trees and bushes into excentric bends, much like the Baltic Sea’s windflüchter. Their tortuous trunks and branches add a fairy touch to the scenery.

Visiting in early fall, colors are an appealing mix of different shades of green, grey, yellow, brown, black and white. Only few colorful berries can be seen at this time of the year.

This inspiring landscape harbours a rich avian fauna in proportion to the small size of the island.

Crossing path with some feathered residents of Stevensons Island

Should it be renamed, Stevensons Island should be called “Tomtit Island”. The density of the endemic South Island Tomtit (Petroica macrocephala) is indeed incredible. Take a short stroll along the Lookout Trail before dusk and you will sure see a few of them, and anytime during the day, males and females will boldly approach you if you stop and sit for a while anywhere on the island. They will hop from branch to branch in a loop around you, gaze at you a lot, and don’t be surprised if they land at your feet.

My frustration from failing to photograph male tomtits in Te Anau instantly vanished now that I could capture them on this glorious little island.

Female tomtits are equally inquisitive, especially juveniles, and take the most adorable poses.

South Island tomtits are year-round residents of Stevensons Island. The breeding season (September through February) should be a particularly good time to observe them raising their chicks. They are great to watch foraging from the bark of trees or skillfully catching insects in flight and on the ground.

Tomtits may be the wardens of the island, but expect to meet many other avian residents as well.

Brown Creepers (Mohoua novaeseelandiae), too, are numerous on the island and conspicuous, especially outside of the breeding season. In autumn and winter, they gather in large, boisterous flocks and often associate with other bird species like silvereyes, grey warblers and fantails, also resident of Stevensons Island.

Sometimes called titmouse or pipipi, brown creepers are endemic to New Zealand and inhabit varied forest-type habitats of the South and Stewart Islands. Males, females and juvenile all look the same. During my late March visit, they could be best observed at dusk, behind the camping ground.

The endemic and emblematic Bellbird (Anthornis melanura) is another vocal resident of Stevensons Island. Bellbirds are widespread in the whole of New Zealand, and like tuis, another endemic New Zealand bird, they contribute to maintain a healthy vegetation. By feeding on flower nectar, berries and fruits, they ensure plant pollination and seed dispersion. Bellbirds also feed on insects (especially chicks whose diet consists almost exclusively of insects) and the honeydew secreted by insects that feed on plant sap.

Bellbirds and tuis have very similar voices, and since Tuis often mimic bellbird calls, it is difficult to tell which one is which.

They are very hectic birds and their olive green plumage perfectly matches the vegetation where they like to forage, which makes them a little challenging to photograph. Bellbirds are easiest to photograph when they fly to low bushes and flowers to eat nectar and pollen.

A much more discrete dweller of Stevensons Island is the South Island Rifleman (Acanthisitta chloris). Weighing only 6 g, it is the smallest New Zealand bird—together with the endemic Grey Warbler (Gerygone igata) that can also be observed on the island, but that I failed to photograph. This minuscule endemic wren will go unoticed unless you keep your eyes wide open and regularly pause along the tracks. You will likely see them before you can hear them; they are pretty quiet and some of their high-frequency calls are inaudible to humans.

The South Island Rifleman is considered at risk and numbers are declining everywhere under pressure from habitat loss and pest introduction. Riflemen mate for life and practice communal breeding, i.e. a few breeding pairs form family groups to raise their young. Males play a very active role, from building the nest and incubating the eggs alternatively with the female (not so common) to helping raise the brood.

Like in many other parts of the South Island, New Zealand Fantails (Rhipidura fuliginosa) and Silvereyes (Zosterops lateralis) are plenty on Stevensons island. Fantails are fun, cheeky little birds that will surprise you at every encounter—click here for more fantail photos taken in Fiordland, Southland.

Buff Wekas (Gallirallus australis hectori) were reintroduced on Stevensons Island in 2002 from the Catham Island population. These birds were indeed extirpated in New Zealand in the 1920’s due to predation by introduced predators, habitat loss and hunting. Stevensons Island is nowadays pest-free following a successful eradication program, yet monitoring continues due to the island’s proximity to the mainland (only 200 m) which makes it easily accessible by stoats and rats.

Despite spending three days wandering around the island, I failed to see any wekas, but scratched ground on the side of the trail proves that they forage in the area. A better spot to observe wekas in Wanaka is Mou Waho Island.

The only resident mammal apparently tolerated on Stevensons Island is the House Mouse (Mus musculus). If you spend the night, be prepared to see dozens of them running around your feet, so store your food away with care. They are totally fearless and easy to catch, but beware, they bite!

Stevensons Island, Lake Wanaka

Camping along the southern shore. Credit: Yalakom

Practical information. Stevensons Island is easy to access from Wanaka by boat, jetski or kayak that you can hire. Otherwise, you might get lucky talking to boat owners at the local marina; it should be a nicer and much cheaper way to get to the island.

Overnight camping is permitted along the small southern beach and there is an outhouse on site. Campfires and dogs are strictly forbidden due to the vulnerability of the vegetation and birdlife. It is not safe to drink water from Lake Wanaka, so bring water or a gas burner to boil it. Since it can be incredibly windy on this island, find the most sheltered tent spot and make sure your tent pegs are well anchored in the ground and your garbage does not fly around.

All bird photos on this blog were taken with a Nikon D3300 mounted with a Nikkor 55-200mm lens. In many cases, I find that there is no need for much more than 200mm to do bird photography in New Zealand as it is a common feature of many native and endemic birds to be bold and inquisitive. They might approach you as close as 20 cm—fantails and tomtits sure will. Since I don’t possess a wide angle lens, I had to use my old Nikon Coolpix S8200 for most landscape photos, which sadly quite distorted the colors under cloudy conditions!

5 thoughts on “Stevensons Island: A small, intimate bird heaven on lake wanaka

  1. Thank you for reading and for your kind comment navasolanature! It is indeed a long long way from Europe 🙂 Things are quite different down here, and not only the nature! It’s ok to remove mouse when they’re causing problems 😉

    Liked by 1 person

  2. great post and photos, especially those Tomtits … sooo adorable! and just to muddy the waters somewhat, we have (the North American version of) a Brown Creeper, too! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Hey, thanks! The tomtits are indeed adorable 🙂 Oh yes and your “brown creeper” is the twin of our “tree creeper”over in Europe! I hope you are well, I haven’t been on top of WP lately, but will check your blog soon!

    Liked by 1 person

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