Birds of the Whanganui Journey ‘Great Walk’

Birds of the Whanganui Journey ‘Great Walk’

Aotearoa New Zealand has ten official 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 second blog in the series, he reports on the birds encountered while paddling down the Whanganui River.

An anomalous Great Walk

The Whanganui Journey is the odd one out in the Great Walk network. It is the only one that is traversed by boat rather than by boot. The journey is either 3 or 5 days in duration, depending on whether the starting point is at Whakahoro, or further upstream at Taumaranui.

A calm river that is reflecting the bush-clad banks and the blue sky.
Whanganui River. Photo by Justin Rihia, Department of Conservation

We started at Whakahoro and followed the river as it meandered through dense forest and below towering cliffs, to the exit point at Pipiriki, 88 km downstream. Apart from two overnight stops close to the river, the only time we left the river was to walk 3 km (and back) to the infamous Bridge to Nowhere.

Several people are standing in several places on a stone bridge over a river surrounded by bush and tall ferns.
Bridge to Nowhere. Photo courtesy of Department of Conservation

This bridge is a poignant reminder of a post-World War I attempt at settlement and farming in the Mangapurua catchment. By the time the bridge was completed in 1936, most of the families had departed, penniless.

Birding while paddling

Travelling by canoe or kayak restricts bird-watching opportunities in several ways, and contributes to the Whanganui Journey having the lowest ‘endemic bird score’ of the ten Great Walks (see Birds of the Great Walks of Aotearoa New Zealand for an explanation of the scoring system).

A man is canoeing down a calm river that has steep bush-clad banks.
Paddling on the Whanganui River. Photo by Laura Honey, Department of Conservation

The first restriction is that the route followed can only sample a single habitat type – a river with forested margins. The second is that river noise, and the sounds generated while paddling, mask many of the bird calls that may be emanating from the forest.

A white-fronted bird with blue-green wings and the top of its head sits on a branch. It has a pointy beak.
New Zealand Kingfisher | Kōtare. Photo by Bartek Wypych, New Zealand Birds Online

The river itself has relatively few wetland bird species on it, and those we saw scored zero or one on the bird endemism score (these included Little Shag | Kawaupaka, Black Shag | Māpunga, Mallard | Rakiraki, and New Zealand Kingfisher | Kōtare).

Whio | Blue Duck is in its own endemic genus (= a score of 3) and breeds on many of the tributaries of the Whanganui River catchment. They are occasionally reported on the main river, but we did not see any during our 3 days of paddling.

A bird with a long tail is in mid-flight against a blue sky. It has its beak open.
Long-tailed Cuckoo | Koekoeā in flight. Photo by Adam Clarke, New Zealand Birds Online

A few forest birds were seen flying across the river, with a highlight being the distinctive silhouette of the often-heard but rarely-seen Long-tailed Cuckoo | Koekoeā.

Forest birds

When we were able to venture into the forest, we were able to find several other endemic bird species, including the ‘deep endemic’ Rifleman | Tītitipounamu and Whitehead | Pōpokotea.

A brown bird with a white head is sitting in a leafless branch.
Whitehead | Pōpokotea. Photo by Oscar Thomas, New Zealand Birds Online

North Island Brown Kiwi | Kiwi-nui can be heard at some of the camp sites and huts along the Whanganui River, but we did not hear any.

However, a non-bird nocturnal highlight was several Long-tailed Bats seen at dusk at John Coull hut.

Endemic birds seen or heard on the Whanganui Journey

  • Score 4 Rifleman | Tītitipounamu, Whitehead | Pōpokotea
  • Score 3 Kererū | New Zealand Pigeon, Bellbird | Korimako, Tūī
  • Score 2 Long-tailed Cuckoo | Koekoeā, Grey Warbler | Riroriro, New Zealand Fantail | Pīwakawaka, Tomtit | Miromiro, North Island Robin | Toutouwai
  • Score 1 Shining Cuckoo | Pīpīwharauroa, Little Shag | Kawaupaka, New Zealand Kingfisher | Kōtare
  • Endemic bird score = 30 points
  • Ranking = 10th out of 10
  • Additional possible endemic birds (not seen or heard by me): North Island Brown Kiwi | Kiwi-nui, Whio | Blue Duck, Paradise Shelduck | Pūtangitangi, Ruru | Morepork, New Zealand Falcon | Kārearea.

For up-to-date information on hut and campsite bookings along the Whanganui Journey, see the Department of Conservation webpage Whanganui Journey.

Other blogs in this series

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