Birds of the Rakiura Track

Birds of the Rakiura Track

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 eighth blog in the series, he reports on the birds encountered while walking the Rakiura Track.

The southernmost Great Walk

The Rakiura Track is a 32 km loop walk at the northeast corner of Rakiura / Stewart Island, the southernmost of Aotearoa / New Zealand’s three main islands. The track can be walked in either direction, starting and finishing at Oban (the only town on the island), and is usually walked in 3 days.

Six people walking on a beach, away from the camera and towards bush-laden hills.
Trampers on Magnetic Beach, Port William, Rakiura Track. Photo by Department of Conservation

The track is predominantly through tall forest dominated by rimu and southern rata, with the outer coast including two long sandy beaches where forest backs the dunes. On the sheltered southern leg, the track touches on several small bays on the north side of Paterson Inlet.

Some people sitting on rocks in the sun surrounded by bush and by a lake.
Trampers waiting for a water taxi at North Arm, Paterson Inlet, Rakiura Track. Photo by Department of Conservation

Rakiura / Stewart Island is a mecca for bird-watchers, for three main reasons. There are several local-endemic birds (including subspecies of Southern Brown Kiwi | Tokoeka, South Island Robin | Kakaruai and Fernbird | Mātātā), there is a chance of seeing kiwi active in the daytime, and many species of southern seabirds can be seen close offshore, including from the Foveaux Strait ferry.

A large round-backed bird with a long beak and grey and brown feathers in leafy bush.
Stewart Island Tokoeka feeding in daylight. Photo by Ben Ackerley, New Zealand Birds Online

Forest birds

The township of Oban provides a great introduction to the special wildlife of Rakiura. Noisy flocks of Kākā (native parrots) visit many gardens, plump Kererū | New Zealand Pigeons feed in roadside vegetation, and Tūī fly noisily between sources of nectar. However, these species are largely confined to the town and the nearby privately-owned (and predator-fenced) Mamaku Point Conservation Reserve, where they benefit from intensive pest control.

A parrot-like bird is holding something in one foot up to its beak. It is sitting on a bright-green bin.
South Island Kaka scavenging in a rubbish bin, Oban, Stewart Island. Photo by Glenn Pure, New Zealand Birds Online

The diversity of endemic forest birds is much lower along most of the Rakiura Track. Bellbird | Korimako and Tomtit | Miromiro are the species seen and heard most frequently, along with a few Red-crowned Parakeets | Kākāriki and New Zealand Fantails | Pīwakawaka.

A small very round bird with a black head and yellow body is sitting on top of a log.
Male South Island Tomtit | Ngirungiru. Photo by Albert Aanensen, New Zealand Birds Online

I saw one Brown Creeper | Pīpipi near Kaipipi, but they are now rare in the rat-plagued tall forests of Rakiura. For those with time to explore further afield on the island, Brown Creepers, robins and fernbirds are readily seen in the mānuka shrublands between Freshwater Landing and Masons Bay – because rats are scarce in this less diverse habitat. Brown Creepers also occur in higher altitude shrublands on the island (e.g. the upper slopes of Mt Rakeahua on the Southern Circuit tramping track).

A small bird with dark brown feathers on its back and creamy-brown feathers on its underside is sitting in a green, leafy bush.
Brown Creeper | Pīpipi. Photo by Glenda Rees, New Zealand Birds Online

Our group managed to see one kiwi during the daytime on the Great Walk. There is a bit of luck involved, but the average strike rate for most Stewart Island tramping tracks is about one bird every 3 days.

Coastal birds

Most of the birds along the shoreline of the Rakiura track are the same species that you see all around mainland coasts, including Variable Oystercatcher | Tōrea Pango, Red-billed Gull | Tarapunga, and White-fronted Tern | Tara.

A white bird with sharply angled wings, a black beak and black markings on its head is in mid flight in a blue sky.
White-fronted Tern | Tara. Photo by Glenn Pure, New Zealand Birds Online

Keen birdwatchers will want to keep one eye on the open sea, where there is a good chance of seeing the local-endemic Foveaux Shag | Mapo (previously known as Stewart Island Shag).

A black and white bird with a long neck is sitting on rocks with a blue sky behind.
Foveaux Shag | Mapo (pied morph). Photo by David Rintoul, New Zealand Birds Online

Several species of albatross | toroa are readily seen from the coast of Stewart Island, with the most common being White-capped Mollymawk. All the albatross species are most often seen following fishing boats, and arranging a fishing charter (or pelagic seabirding trip) after your tramp is the best way to get a close view of several species.

A white albatross with black wings is sitting on water.
White-capped Mollymawk. Photo by Glenn Pure, New Zealand Birds Online

Ulva Island and beyond

Although not part of the Great Walk, predator-free Ulva Island is easily accessible from Oban, and provides a glimpse of what Rakiura would have been like before rats and cats were introduced. It is the only place where you are likely to see Stewart Island Weka, Yellow-crowned Parakeet | Kākāriki, Rifleman | Tītitipounamu, South Island Saddleback | Tieke, and Mohua | Yellowhead. In addition, Stewart Island Robin | Kakaruai and Brown Creeper | Pīpipi are more common there than on the main Island.

A black bird with orange feathers across its back and start of its tail is clinging on a fern tree that has dead branches hanging down.
South Island Saddleback | Tieke, Ulva Island. Photo by Cheryl Marriner, New Zealand Birds Online

As mentioned previously, the Freshwater Flats (easily accessed by water taxi) are the best place to see the local subspecies of Fernbird | Mātātā, as well as robins and Brown Creepers.

A brown and white speckled bird is standing on dead fern fronds with a bug in its beak.
Stewart Island Fernbird | Mātātā carrying food for its young. Photo by Colin Miskelly, New Zealand Birds Online

Endemic birds seen or heard on the Rakiura Track

  • Score 5 Southern Brown Kiwi | Tokoeka
  • Score 4 Kākā, Brown Creeper | Pīpipi
  • Score 3 Kererū | New Zealand Pigeon, Bellbird | Korimako, Tūī
  • Score 2 Paradise Shelduck | Pūtangitangi, Variable Oystercatcher | Tōrea Pango, South Island Pied Oystercatcher | Tōrea, Red-billed Gull | Tarāpunga, Northern Royal Albatross |Toroa, Spotted Shag | Kawau Tikitiki, Foveaux Shag | Mapo, Red-crowned Parakeet | Kākāriki, Grey Warbler | Riroriro, New Zealand Fantail | Pīwakawaka, Tomtit | Miromiro
  • Score 1 Shining Cuckoo | Pīpīwharauroa, New Zealand Little Penguin | Kororā, New Zealand White-capped Mollymawk |Toroa, Little Shag | Kawaupaka, Pied Shag | Kāruhiruhi, Ruru | Morepork, New Zealand Kingfisher | Kōtare
  • Endemic bird score = 50 points
  • Ranking = 4th out of 10
  • Additional possible endemic birds (not seen or heard by me): Yellow-eyed Penguin | Hoiho, Southern Royal Albatross | Toroa, Buller’s Mollymawk |Toroa, Salvin’s Mollymawk | Toroa

The Rakiura Track scored the same as the Paparoa Track, but edges ahead on a tie-breaker due to the potential to see additional endemic seabird species offshore, including Yellow-eyed Penguin | Hoiho and several albatross species. If Ulva Island is added to the score, the endemic bird score would be a league-leading 66 points!

For up-to-date information on hut and campsite bookings on the Rakiura Track, see the Department of Conservation webpage Rakiura Track.

Other blogs in this series

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