Birds of the Tongariro Northern Circuit

Birds of the Tongariro Northern Circuit

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 third blog in the series, he reports on the birds encountered while walking the Tongariro Northern Circuit.

Spectacular volcanic landscapes

The Tongariro Northern Circuit is a 45 km loop track that is usually walked in 3 or 4 days. Much of the track is open and exposed to the elements, and it is important to check the weather forecast before setting out. Hut or campsite bookings are required between October and April.

A red and grey volcanic mountain top with no trees or grass. In the background land stretches out towards a range of hills.
Red Crater, Tongariro. Photo by Ruth McKie, Department of Conservation

The main attractions of the track are the spectacular volcanic and alpine landscapes. The north-eastern portion of the track is part of the famed Tongariro Crossing day-walk, which can mean sharing the track with more people than is typical on a Great Walk.

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. Photo by Ruth McKie, Department of Conservation

Birds of the blasted wastelands

Much of the walk is across ash deposits from recent eruptions of the Tongariro, Ngauruhoe and Ruapehu volcanoes, where few plants have established. As a result, it is possible to walk long distances without seeing or hearing any wildlife.

A small bird with grey feather on its wings and the top of its head and a white front. There are black stripe markings on its neck and eyes, and a brown patch on its front. It is standing on a rock.
Banded Dotterel | Pohowera. Photo by Ormond Torr, New Zealand Birds Online

One species that can be seen in the open areas is the Banded Dotterel | Pohowera. It is likely that these small ‘shorebirds’ benefit from the scarcity of introduced predators (e.g. cats, stoats and rats) in these open landscapes, and it is likely that they attempt to nest here.

A hawk standing on one foot with the other curled in front of it is watching something off camera. It is standing on burnt wood.
New Zealand Falcon | Kārearea, Photo by Craig McKenzie, New Zealand Birds Online

A predator that is present here is the endemic New Zealand Falcon | Kārearea. We had several sightings of two birds perched on or flying between the sculpture-like rock outcrops in the Oturere Valley, between Oturere Hut and Emerald Lakes.

Birds of the forest and shrublands

We started and finished our walk at Whakapapa Village, where we had a great view of a calling Long-tailed Cuckoo | Koekoeā.

A bird with a long tail is sitting on a leafy branch and is calling with a wide-open beak.
Long-tailed Cuckoo | Koekoeā. Photo by Adam Clarke, New Zealand Birds Online

The track passes through a few patches of native forest, where we observed the ‘deep endemic’ Rifleman | Tītitipounamu and Whitehead | Pōpokotea, and also Bellbird | Korimako, Tomtit | Miromiro, and North Island Robin | Toutouwai among the more common forest birds.

A small grey and white feathered bird with light brown or orange feathers on the top of its head is sitting in a shrub. There are orange grasses in the background and the bird is well disguised.
Fernbird | Mātātā on the Mangatepopo Track. Photo by Kate McAlpine

A highlight on the last morning was several sightings of Fernbird | Mātātā along the Mangatepopo Track, between Mangatepopo Hut and Whakapapa Village. We also saw a pair of Whio | Blue Duck on the Whakapapaiti Stream shortly before starting our walk.

Endemic birds seen or heard on the Tongariro Northern Circuit

  • Score 4 Rifleman | Tītitipounamu, Whitehead | Pōpokotea
  • Score 3 Bellbird | Korimako
  • Score 2 Paradise Shelduck | Pūtangitangi, Long-tailed Cuckoo | Koekoeā, Banded Dotterel | Pohowera, New Zealand Falcon | Kārearea, Grey Warbler | Riroriro, New Zealand Fantail | Pīwakawaka, Tomtit | Miromiro, Fernbird | Mātātā, North Island Robin | Toutouwai
  • Score 1 Little Shag | Kawaupaka, Ruru | Morepork, New Zealand Kingfisher | Kōtare
  • Endemic bird score = 32 points
  • Ranking = 9th out of 10
  • Additional possible endemic birds (not seen or heard by me): Kererū | New Zealand Pigeon, Tūī.

For up-to-date information on hut and campsite bookings on the Tongariro Northern Circuit, see the Department of Conservation webpage Tongariro Northern Circuit.

Other blogs in this series

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