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February 2015 Issue
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Auckland Island Pipit. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

Three places to see the tiny, sub-alpine-dwelling pipit

Most trampers have seen them; a small dun-coloured bird that alights briefly, dips its tail, then runs off. They seem to fly only reluctantly, despite being perfectly capable of winging it for some distance. Their distinctive tail dipping is sometimes more of a whole body action, performed when poised – often on a rock or somewhere slightly prominent.

Pipits live in the sub-alpine habitat of New Zealand’s mountaintops, but like the kea, aren’t a true alpine bird and spend winters below the bushline. They are also found in a wide variety of other open habitats, including the coast; anywhere they can forage for insects and seeds.

Pipits (Anthus novaeseelandiae) are part of a worldwide Motacillidae family, which also includes wagtails and longclaws. Two New Zealand sub-species are recognised; one on the Chatham Islands  and the other in the subantarctic Auckland and Campbell Islands. The latter are slightly more yellow than the mainland variety.

Pipits are easily confused with Eurasian skylarks, a bird deliberately introduced to New Zealand during the 1860s and 1870s. Unlike the skylark, the endemic pipit rarely flies high above the ground. Skylarks prefer cultivated environments and are now one of the most common birds in New Zealand. They have also reached the subantarctic islands.

Sadly, the pipit seems to be in decline and is rated ‘at risk’. Trampers, however, can see them still in many locations. Ornithologists have described their call variously as ‘a sparrow-like chirrup’, a ‘drawn out tswee’ and a ‘brief unpretentious trill’.

Tongariro National Park

Any of the major tracks in Tongariro National Park make good places to spot pipits; either the Ketetahi approach of the Alpine Crossing, the Mangatepopo Valley, or the tops between Mangaturuturu and Whakapapaiti huts.

Lewis Pass Tops

These accessible tops above Lewis Pass make a great summer destination; tarn-strewn and with great views, they are worth the small effort to climb above the bushline, even if no pipits are in sight.

Auckland Islands

Most trips to the Auckland Islands Nature Reserve visit Enderby Island, which is a bird-lover’s paradise. Pipits are often seen flitting around the grassy, boulder fringes of the coastline. Only DOC-permitted boats are allowed to visit the island.