Photographing some of the world’s rarest birds.

Recently Professionalphotos had the privilege to photograph some of the rarest birds in the world on Tiri Tiri Matangi Island. The island is in the Hauraki Gulf, only 45 minutes by boat from Auckland City. While you are on the island, the central city is still visible on the sky line. Notice in the third photo below of the Tiritiri bunkhouse, you can just see Auckland City in the top right, with a rain cloud pouring right over the central city.

The Tiritiri Matangi Ferry with Auckland City in the backgroundtiritiri ferry's wake

This island used to be farmland and a big effort was made in the late 1980s and 1990s to replant the island with native trees. This was a major success and all of the many hours put in by volunteers, has seen a great forest begin to grow again on the Island. It had all pests and predators removed from it and a selection of rare and endangered birds were introduced to create an Island sanctuary. One of a few in the Hauraki Gulf.

The Tiritiri Matangi bunkhouse with Auckland City  and rangitoto island in the background

This island has the endangered Takahe on it and this bird was once thought extinct. It was rediscovered in 1948 in some remote mountains in the South Island and now the population stands at only 263 birds in existence (as of 2013). Some of those birds were relocated to the island in an effort to build up different populations to ensure the survival of the species.

A closeup photo of a Takahis face and beak

These birds are beautiful and are easy to photograph. They walk around on the grassed areas of the island and if they know you, they will come running when called. This makes photographing them so easy that it is hard to believe that this bird that you could almost touch, is so rare. They seem to hang out with a group of pukekos who are not endangered at all and they look similar.


Another very rare bird is the Kokako which is one of three wattlebirds found in NZ. The others being the Saddleback which is also endangered and on the island, and the Huia which is now presumed extinct. The last confirmed Huia sighting was in 1907. The Kokako numbers are estimated at around 750 pairs and there are around 40 on the island.

A kokako in a karaka tree

A closeup photo of a kokako in a karaka tree

A closeup of Nikau Berries

a kokako in a tree with a nikau berry in its mouth

These birds are very hard to photograph and seem to stay mostly in the forest canopy. While they seem to tolerate people, they don’t let you get too close and most of the photographs that I managed to get, were taken from underneath the birds, which is not the best angle. I did manage to surprise a few individuals at the water troughs but they didn’t hang around long for photos.

a young kokako at a water trough

a kokako's head taken through the trees

a kokako calling in the trees

a kokako eating leaves in a karaka tree

The Saddlebacks (Tieke) were the hardest birds to photograph as they are mostly black. Photographing these birds, which are mostly found rummaging around on the forest floor, was so difficult because of the low light where they are found. That and the fact that they are black, means that the camera just couldn’t focus. I also had to use a fast shutterspeed because these birds moved so fast. I started calling them ghost birds because so many of my photographs were nothing more than an out of focus black blur.

a saddleback on the forest floor

a saddleback in grass

a close up of saddleback's face

a saddleback looking for food

These birds are remarkable in the way that they have been pulled back from extinction. The last population in the North Island was down to 500 birds and the last population in the South Island was down to 36 birds in the 1960’s. Rescue efforts have now seen the population pull up to around 7000 birds and hopefully the numbers of this beautiful bird continue to grow.

a saddleback rummaging for food on a log

a saddleback preening in a tree

a saddleback in grass looking for grubs

a saddleback searching for food

Stitchbirds (Hihi) are a small honey eating bird which is slightly smaller than a sparrow. These are believed to be distant relatives to the wattlebirds (Saddlebacks etc). They are colourful and fast flying little birds and are also recovering from near extinction. There are believed to be 2000 – 6000 birds located on Islands free from predators around the North Island of New Zealand. The Island I was on does not have enough mature forest to be able to support the bird population so honey feeders are set up around the island. These feeders are made so that another local bird called the Tui, which is very common, cannot gain access to the food. Thus ensuring they don’t squeeze out the Stitchbird population in competition for food.

a male stitchbird or hihi

a male stitchbird or hihi just about to fly

a male stitchbird or hihi on a branch

a male stitchbird or hihi perched

These feeders made for great locations to camp out with the camera and wait for the birds to fly in. The birds are quite relaxed about people so finding the birds to photograph was not difficult like the previous birds. It is easy to forget how rare these birds are when you see a large group of these pretty birds feeding and being boisterous with each other. No doubt if there were more food sources, they would be harder to find.

A  favorite of mine were the little North Island Robins. These curious little birds would get quite close and stay still for a few moments which made photographing them a real pleasure. While not endangered, they are not common at all. They can be encouraged to come in quite close as they feed on the forest floor. They seem to be one of the birds that the Native Owl or Morepork (Ruru) like to snack on. This is a bit sad when the Robin’s bands can be found in the Ruru’s exrement.

a North Island Robin on the forest floor

a North Island Robin looking for food

A detail of a photo of a North Island Robin

A detail of the previous photo

a North Island Robin perched on a brancha North Island Robin on a tree branch a morepork or ruru

Red Crowned Parakeets (Kakariki). These hardy little parakeets while not endangered, are rare. They are extinct on the New Zealand mainland but seem to be doing well on several offshore Islands. They are quite hard to photograph as they are mostly found on forest floor rummaging in a more systematic way than the Saddlebacks. While Saddlebacks seem to be mostly found in pairs, the Kakariki seem to be found in small flocks. If you know where to find them, they frequent the same or similar spots so you can set up and wait for them if you are patient. I found that moving slowly and catching them by surprise in new locations worked better than waiting for them because they are quite smart birds. They are hard to photograph unless you set up by a water trough. They are such beautiful birds that it is worth taking time to try to photograph them in a natural setting if you manage to.

A closeup photo of a red crowned parakeet kakarikia red crowned parakeet kakariki looking for food a red crowned parakeet kakarikia red crowned parakeet kakariki on the forest floor

Gear – Techniques Used.

Photographing birds is hard and takes commitment and passion. I have seen this in countless bird photographers around the globe and many of them are obsessed. As a result, they capture the most amazing images. I would love to be able to have the time and commitment of these legends, but both my time and my finances are a little limited.

a kereru or NZ wood pigeon

To get the perfect bird photography set up, you would be looking at very specialized gear and that gear can be expensive. As a working photographer, I am always looking for a return on investment, which means the gear I buy should transpose directly into a cash return. This means that personally, I can’t justify buying the best gear. However, if you don’t have the best gear, that does not mean that you cannot still capture breathtaking photographs. Work with what you have and see if you really do need to buy anything else. There are many consumer cameras on the market, that already have amazing zoom lenses built in, that could be a great place to start if you were interested in bird photography.

What I used on this assignment was a Canon 6d with a 100-400mm F4.5-5.6 zoom and some other supporting gear. I also used a Canon 5d Mk3 with a 24-105 F4.0 lens for when the birds were close. Many bird photographers opt for the crop sensor 7d which means you get more out of your zoom lens (times your zoom by 1.6. This means a 100mm zoom is really 160mm). Personally I prefer the full frame 6d over the 7d because the 7d’s that I have used, produce very mushy images, compared to the full frame cameras. View my review of the 7d Mk1 here. I have seen online that many of the 7d Mk2’s have focus issues, so as much as I want to like that camera body, I am simply steering clear.

a tui just after bathing a tuis mouth or beakA closeup photo of a tuis colourful feathers

A photo of a tui

I have a love/hate relationship with the 100-400mm zoom lens. It is a heavy lens to use and you have to know it inside out to be able to get any good results out of it. If you take the time in learning this lens, and you have one of the good versions (unfortunately, they have a tendency to lose sharpness over time.) you can get amazing results for a medium priced lens.

A few people questioned me on using the 6d for the bird photography instead of the 5d Mk3. The 6d’s focus is much more simplistic and supposedly slower than the 5d, with the 6d having 11 focus points vs the 5D Mk3’s 60 odd focus points. To be honest, when photographing birds, I had my cameras set on centre focus because on any other mode, the camera would try and focus on the branches. The centre focus on the 6d is more accurate than the 5D Mk3 and is also more sensitive in lower light. I have to say that the 6d performed very well.

a whitehead on a tree trunka whitehead

Finally the ISO settings used, were pretty high and in some cases even 3200 wasn’t high enough in the low light around the forest floor. That is when you just do your best and hope that you can correct any under exposure in the raw files. This works for a little under exposure, but you begin to get high levels of colour noise in your photos the more under exposed they are. It is better to try and use a speedlite on high speed sync, to balance out the light. The crazy thing is that because the birds move so fast, you need to be photographing at quite fast shutterspeeds to freeze the motion. This is not ideal in low light situations.

 the tiritiri matangi lighthouse at night


This may not come as a surprise to you, but the best way to get into bird photography, is to simply do it with what you have. As you photograph more, you will figure out what works best for you and what equipment you might need to get better photographs. It is tempting to want to go out and buy some beautiful and expensive equipment, but if you do not know the basics, you will find it hard to get good results no matter which gear you use. Take some time to learn your gear and don’t forget to enjoy the great outdoors and the amazing little creatures that you are there to photograph.

If you want specific advice, wish to purchase an image or print, or have any questions please contact me. A big thanks to Chris Hannent, whose passion for Tiritiri Matangi Island is an inspiration. Check out Tiritiri Matangi’s Facebook page here.

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