Birds of the Great Walks of Aotearoa New Zealand

Birds of the Great Walks of Aotearoa New Zealand

Aotearoa New Zealand has many great walks. However, as of 2023, only ten of them qualify as capital-letter Great Walks. Te Papa natural history curator Dr Colin Miskelly has walked (or paddled) them all and kept records of the birds that he encountered along the way. In this initial blog in a series that will cover them all, he describes what Great Walks are, and the system that he developed to compare and rank their birdyness.

What makes a great walk a Great Walk?

The Department of Conservation developed the Great Walk network in order to promote some of Aotearoa New Zealand’s most iconic back-country routes, and also to manage demand for them through a booking system.

The network is expected to expand to include additional tracks. However, at present (June 2023) it includes nine tramping tracks and one river journey (which is a ‘great paddle’ that is managed as a Great Walk).

A calm lake reflecting the snowy mountains and banks and blue sky surrounding it.
Harris Saddle, Routeburn Track. Photo by Ruth McKie, Department of Conservation

The Great Walk concept was introduced in 1992 and initially included eight multi-day tramping tracks. Most of these were high-profile and long-standing – with the Milford Track in Fiordland National Park having been a destination for trampers for more than a century. In contrast, the nearby Kepler Track was opened in 1988, and the Rakiura Track (on Rakiura Stewart Island) was opened just in time for inclusion, in 1992.

From north to south, the eight original Great Walks were:

  • Lake Waikaremoana Track
  • Tongariro Northern Circuit
  • Abel Tasman Coastal Track
  • Heaphy Track
  • Routeburn Track
  • Milford Track
  • Kepler Track
  • Rakiura Track
View of a river that is reflecting the tree-lined banks and blue sky above.
Whanganui River, Whanganui Journey. Photo by Justin Rihia, Department of Conservation

The Whanganui Journey (a paddle down the Whanganui River) was added to the Great Walk booking system in 1993, and the Paparoa Track in 2019.

Great birds on the Great Walks

All of the Great Walks traverse wild landscapes with largely intact natural vegetation – or naturally absent vegetation in the case of the volcanic landscapes of the Tongariro Northern Circuit.

All of the Great Walks are great places to see great birds, particularly species that inhabit native forests or mountain tops. However, have you ever wondered which of the Great Walks is the best for seeing native birds?

A bright green lake with two smaller lakes next to it on barren high-altitude and mountainous land. There are clouds low down on the hills in the background.
Emerald Lakes, Tongariro Northern Circuit. Photo by Ruth McKie, Department of Conservation

There are many reasons why people undertake Great Walks – and why they are so popular. Collectively, the Great Walks are best known for their spectacular natural scenery, with most of them having little evidence of human presence.

Our native wildlife is part of the attraction of Great Walks, and even the least observant tramper could hardly fail to notice such bold and inquisitive birds as Kea and Weka along the way.

Two dark green parrot-like birds close together on the forest floor. One has it's wings open showing orange and yellow feathers.
Juvenile Kea on the Routeburn Track. Photo by Ron Enzler, New Zealand Birds Online

Some of the Great Walks are home to the most iconic of all Aotearoa New Zealand birds – kiwi. Three of the five species of kiwi occur along or near one or more of the Great Walks. Kiwi are one of the most distinctive birds in the world, instantly recognisable, and quite unlike birds found in other countries. They provide a great introduction to the scoring system that I have developed to rank the birds of the Great Walks.

A round and brown-feathered bird with a long beak walking on the leaf-covered ground.
Stewart Island Brown Kiwi | Rakiura Tokoeka. Photo by Dave Saunders, New Zealand Birds Online

Levels of endemism

Aotearoa New Zealand is a remote island nation, and this is reflected in our bird life. Some of our birds have been isolated from their nearest relatives for tens of millions of years, while others are very recent arrivals.

The recent arrivals include species introduced by people, and also those that continue to fly here naturally, mainly from Australia.

A small green bird with a white face and white markings on its wings.
The ‘deep endemic’ Rifleman | Tītitipounamu on the Routeburn Track. Photo by Glenn Pure, New Zealand Birds Online

The length of time that a bird has been in Aotearoa New Zealand, isolated from its nearest relatives, is closely correlated with its level of endemism.

Recent arrivals are identical to populations elsewhere (e.g. in Australia). In contrast, other species have gradually diverged from their relatives over thousands or millions of years to become increasingly distinct.

A small grey bird with a green head and green feathers on it's wings and white around its eye is sitting on a branch.
Silvereye | Tauhou – a recent arrival from Australia. Photo by Tony Whitehead, New Zealand Birds Online

The length of time that a bird has had to evolve in isolation can be referred to as its depth of endemism. Kiwi are one of the best examples of a ‘deep endemic’, and are placed in their own order – indeed they are the only living bird order that is confined to New Zealand.

The next level of deep endemics are birds that are placed in endemic families. These include Kākā, Kea, Rifleman | Tītitipounamu, Rock Wren | Pīwauwau, and Mohua | Yellowhead among those that can be seen on Great Walks.

Next are birds that are in endemic genera (the plural of genus), including Whio | Blue Duck, Kererū | New Zealand Pigeon, and Tūī. More recent arrivals in Aotearoa may be recognised as endemic species within genera shared with Australia, and include such familiar birds as New Zealand Fantail | Pīwakawaka and Grey Warbler | Riroriro.

A small brown bird with long tail feathers that spread out in a fan sitting on a branch with orange-brown spiky leaves.
New Zealand Fantail | Pīwakawaka. Photo by Tony Whitehead, New Zealand Birds Online

These different levels of endemism are the basis of the system that I have used to compare the birds of the Great Walks.

The scoring system

Each bird species was assigned a score between 5 (if it is a member of an endemic order) and 0 (if it is considered identical to populations found in other countries). The six levels of scores are:

5 = endemic Order, 4 = endemic Family, 3 = endemic Genus, 2 = endemic Species, 1 = endemic Subspecies, 0 = not endemic at any level.

Endemic birds that it is possible to encounter on one or more of the Great Walks include:

Score = 5

  • North Island Brown Kiwi | Kiwi-nui
  • Southern Brown Kiwi | Tokoeka
  • Great Spotted Kiwi | Roroa

Score = 4

  • Kākā
  • Kea
  • Rifleman | Tītitipounamu
  • Rock Wren | Pīwauwau
  • Whitehead | Pōpokotea
  • Mohua | Yellowhead
  • Brown Creeper | Pīpipi

Score = 3

  • Whio | Blue Duck
  • Kererū | New Zealand Pigeon
  • Bellbird | Korimako
  • Tūī

Score = 2

  • Paradise Shelduck | Pūtangitangi
  • Brown Teal | Pāteke
  • New Zealand Scaup | Pāpango
  • Long-tailed Cuckoo | Koekoeā
  • Weka
  • Takahē
  • Variable Oystercatcher | Tōrea Pango
  • South Island Pied Oystercatcher | Tōrea
  • Banded Dotterel | Pohowera
  • Black-billed Gull | Tarāpuka
  • Black-fronted Tern | Tarapirohe
  • Northern Royal Albatross | Toroa
  • Buller’s Mollymawk | Toroa
  • Fluttering Shearwater | Pakahā
  • Spotted Shag | Kawau Tikitiki
  • Foveaux Shag | Mapo
  • New Zealand Falcon | Kārearea
  • Red-crowned Parakeet | Kākāriki
  • Yellow-crowned Parakeet | Kākāriki
  • Grey Warbler | Riroriro
  • New Zealand Fantail | Pīwakawaka
  • Tomtit | Miromiro
  • North Island Robin | Toutouwai
  • South Island Robin | Kakaruai
  • Fernbird | Mātātā
  • New Zealand Pipit | Pīhoihoi

Score = 1 

  • Shining Cuckoo | Pīpīwharauroa
  • Banded Rail | Moho Pererū
  • Red-billed Gull | Tarāpunga
  • Little Penguin | Kororā
  • White-capped Mollymawk | Toroa
  • Little Shag | Kawaupaka
  • Pied Shag | Kāruhiruhi
  • Ruru | Morepork
  • New Zealand Kingfisher | Kōtare
A small greenish bird with a yellow head and chest is looking down at the mossy green branch it is standing on.
Mohua | Yellowhead on the Routeburn Track. Photo by Ron Enzler, New Zealand Birds Online

The score for each Great Walk is the sum of the individual species scores based on the species that I saw or heard while walking the track (or paddling down the river, with occasional stops). It did not matter how many times each species was encountered – a single bird of a species scored the same as if the species was common all along the track.

Fine-tuning and a tie-breaker

On a few Great Walks, it is possible to see two species from the same endemic family: Kākā + Kea, Rifleman + Rock Wren, and/or Mohua + Brown Creeper. If raw scores were applied, each of these pairs would score 8 points (4 + 4).

However, this obscures additional deep endemism within the New Zealand wren family, as Rifleman and Rock Wren are each in their own genus (Kākā and Kea are in the same genus as each other, as are Mohua and Brown Creeper). This anomaly in the scoring system was fixed by scoring each level of endemism once only for each Great Walk: family + genus = 7 for Rifleman and Rock Wren, and family + species = 6 for the two other species pairs.

A small green bird with yellowish-green feathers and white feathers on its 'eyebrow' standing on a branch of a tree.
Rock Wren | Pīwauwau. Photo by David Boyle, New Zealand Birds Online

If a pair of Great Walks ended up with identical scores based on my own observations, I then looked at additional species that it could be possible to see on those tracks (i.e. species that I missed). This tie-breaker was applied to two pairs of tracks. I’ll discuss these two examples (and what the additional species were) within the individual Great Walk blogs that follow.

Ranking the Great Walks based on their endemic birds

The next ten blogs in this series will present information on each of the Great Walks and the birds that I encountered along them. The series will start with the Great Walk with the lowest ‘endemic bird score’, and end with the track with the highest score.

The blogs will also include commentary on bird distribution patterns within and between the Great Walks, exploring the reasons why some Great Walks have a greater richness of endemic birds than others.

A man in a cap, t-shirt, shorts and gators on his boots is standing on a platform in a field looking through binoculars at something off camera.
The author searching for Whio | Blue Duck on the Heaphy Track. Photo by Kate McAlpine

I hope you enjoy this journey of discovery as much as I did!

Other blogs in this series


  1. This blog is a fantastic introduction to the birds of the Great Walks in Aotearoa New Zealand. I appreciate Dr. Colin Miskelly’s expertise and dedication in documenting the bird species encountered on these iconic tracks.

    The scoring system based on endemism levels provides a unique perspective on comparing the bird biodiversity of each Great Walk. It’s fascinating to see the range of endemic species, from the distinctive kiwis to the colorful parakeets and wrens. The photographs included in the blog beautifully showcase the natural beauty of the tracks and the birdlife they offer.

    I’m excited to read the upcoming blogs in this series, which will provide more detailed information about each Great Walk and the bird species encountered along the way. The commentary on bird distribution patterns will be particularly interesting, as it will shed light on the factors influencing the presence of endemic birds on different tracks.

    Thank you, Dr. Colin Miskelly, for sharing your knowledge and experiences. I look forward to joining you on this journey of discovery through the Great Walks and their avian inhabitants.

  2. Excellent initiative, Colin!

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