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Feathered encounters

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November 2023 Issue

Whether it’s whio, pīwakawaka, kea, tūī or robins, an encounter with a native bird is a highlight of any trip. By Colin Miskelly

Birds can make any tramp more memorable, especially rare or unusual ones. 

Many trampers will recall their first sight of a whio (blue duck) or rock wren (pīwauwau/tuke). It will stay with them long after other details of the trip have faded.

Some of the country’s birds demand that we pay attention to them simply to avoid vandalism or theft. Kea and weka are bold and curious, and are all too ready to ‘borrow’ an unattended item or to test the strength of tramping gear.

A few trampers will manage facetime with our national bird. Rakiura / Stewart Island is renowned for its kiwi, which venture out in daylight. My own hit rate when tramping there was about one sighting every three days, with several encounters after dark. If you can tear yourself away from the conversations and laughter inside, kiwi can be heard calling at night at many campsites and huts.

An encounter with a native robin (toutouwai in the north, kakaruai in the south) is a highlight of any tramp. Robins have learned that trampers disturb leaf litter as they pass, exposing potential prey. Scraping aside leaf litter with a boot or pole is almost a guarantee of an impending robin encounter. Pīwakawaka (fantails) also approach closely in search of flying insects disturbed as we pass. Unfortunately, there are never enough pīwakawaka to deal to the namu (sandflies)!

Many endemic birds, such as rifleman (tītitipounamu), yellow-crowned parakeet (kākāriki), whitehead (pōpokotea) and brown creeper (pīpipi), are most easily seen in high-altitude beech forests (especially southern beech). 

You may think these birds prefer beech forest, but this is an example of human impacts on our native wildlife. Rats and stoats are abundant year-round in lowland podocarp/broadleaf forests, and many bird species have little chance of nesting successfully there. In contrast, these introduced predators are usually scarce in cold, high-altitude beech forest, their numbers spiking only during heavy beech seed fall, typically every three or four years. This gives the birds a chance to recover from the setback of sporadic high predation pressure.

A visit to Tiritiri Matangi Island, Kapiti Island or Ulva Island – or a predator-fenced sanctuary like Zealandia – will give some idea of how abundant and diverse birds used to be in lowland forests.

Many trampers assist with predator control, checking and re-setting kill-traps spaced every 100m or so along tramping tracks. These traps mainly target stoats, which are present in much lower densities than ship rats. Stoat control can boost survival rates of some large-bodied endemic birds, such as whio and kiwi. However, effective rat control over large areas of forest is much harder, yet is necessary to improve the chances of smaller birds like mohua (yellowhead) and kākāriki. This is why conservationists support the continued widespread aerial application of 1080 bait. Ridding the land of ship rats as well as stoats and possums allows most forest birds to get three breeding seasons in before rat numbers build up again.

When I am tramping, I hear at least 10 times more birds than I see. Learning bird calls is an easy way to increase enjoyment of the outdoors. Often their calls are more distinctive and diagnostic than brief glimpses of a bird moving through the canopy. This is especially true of our two cuckoos, the shining cuckoo (pīpīwharauroa) and the long-tailed cuckoo (koekoeā). Both migrate to tropical Pacific islands in winter and hearing the first whistle of a pīpīwharauroa or shriek of koekoeā can be a delightful joy when tramping in spring.

– Colin Miskelly is a natural history curator at Te Papa, where he created and administers the website ‘New Zealand Birds Online’. Read his blog about the birds found on all 10 Great Walks at tepapa.nz/GreatWalks