Birds of the Kepler Track

Birds of the Kepler 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 ninth blog in the series, he reports on the birds encountered while walking the Kepler Track.

A loop walk in the mountains

The Kepler Track is a spectacular alpine track that was developed to reduce demand for the nearby Milford and Routeburn Tracks. Opened in 1988, the Kepler Track is a 60 km loop track easily accessed from Te Anau. The track crosses the eastern sector of the Kepler Mountains and runs along the west bank of the Waiau River (both of which separate Lakes Te Anau and Manapouri), and follows the lower reach of the Iris Burn, which flows into Lake Manapouri.

A view of bare mountain ridges with clouds in the background.
Kepler Track from Mt Luxmore, with Forest Burn emergency shelter in the middle distance. Photo by Daniel Deans, Department of Conservation

The track can be walked in either direction. Lower areas (about 200 m above sea level) are predominantly red beech forest, with some sections having views over Lake Te Anau or Lake Manapouri. The track climbs through mountain beech forest, with about a quarter of the track traversing subalpine meadows above the tree line (i.e. above 950 m asl). Many trampers take a short side trip to the rocky summit of Mt Luxmore at 1472 m.

A view of a large hut on the edge of a mountain top looking out over a valley. The light is the golden hour near sunset.
The view from Luxmore Hut to the Murchison Mountains, Kepler Track. Photo by Daniel Deans, Department of Conservation

Forest birds

The beech forests along the Kepler Track hold a good range of endemic birds, including Rifleman | Tītitipounamu, Brown Creeper | Pīpipi, South Island Robin | Kakaruai, Tomtit | Miromiro, Bellbird | Korimako, and Yellow-crowned Parakeet | Kākāriki. The only Kākā we heard was near Iris Burn Hut, plus we saw a few Kererū | New Zealand Pigeons and Tūī between there and Moturau Hut.

A small green bird with white underneath and sharp military-like markings on its wings is clinging to the side of a mossy tree trunk.
Male Rifleman | Tītitipounamu. Photo by Glenda Rees, New Zealand Birds Online

We walked the track in late December, when both New Zealand cuckoo species were calling. Both species are migratory, returning to New Zealand in spring. They are heard more often than they are seen, but we had great views of a Long-tailed Cuckoo | Koekoeā calling from a mountain beech high above Brod Bay.

A bird with a long tail is in mid-call while sitting in a leafy tree.
Long-tailed Cuckoo | Koekoeā calling. Photo by Adam Clarke, New Zealand Birds Online

Southern Brown Kiwi | Tokoeka are regularly heard from Iris Burn Hut and campsite, from where we heard two pairs duetting, and several more distant males.

A night-time photo of a round kiwi bird with pale, stocky legs and a long beak. It is being lit by a torch and walking away from the camera on bushy undergrowth.
Southern Brown Kiwi | Tokoeka, Fiordland. Photo by Rogan Colbourne, Department of Conservation and New Zealand Birds Online

Birds of the open tops

The feature bird of the subalpine tops of the Kepler Track is the Kea – a large alpine parrot related to the bush-dwelling Kākā, and found only in the South Island. We saw seven (and heard several others), including a bird digging at the base of a tussock.

The camera view is looking down on a large green, blue, and red parrot is in flight over bushy terrain. The red feathers are near it's tail.
Kea. Photo by Mark Fraser, New Zealand Birds Online

The only other endemic bird species seen on the tops were numerous New Zealand Pipits | Pihoihoi, along with a few introduced Skylarks and Yellowhammers.

A brown speckled bird with a white front is standing on brown, dry grass.
New Zealand Pipit | Pihoihoi. Photo by Glenn Pure, New Zealand Birds Online

Lake and river birds

The Iris Burn holds a healthy population of Whio | Blue Ducks, which are protected from stoat predation by a regularly serviced trap line. However, the track rarely provides views of the river, and we were fortunate to see a pair near Iris Burn Hut.

A duck with rusty brown feathers on its front is sitting in still water. The camera is side on.
Whio | Blue Duck. Photo by Tony Whitehead, New Zealand Birds Online

Paradise Shelducks | Pūtangitangi are common along the rivers and lake edges, with New Zealand Scaup | Pāpango (along with introduced Mallards) on the lakes. Australasian Crested Grebe | Pūteketeke can be seen on both lakes – while not an endemic, it still a great bird!

A grey and light cream coloured bird with a very bush-feathered head is sitting in very still water. There are small wakes in the water where it is paddling.
Australasian Crested Grebe, Puteketeke. Photo by Craig McKenzie, New Zealand Birds Online

Endemic birds seen or heard on the Kepler Track

  • Score 5 Southern Brown Kiwi | Tokoeka
  • Score 4 Kākā, Kea, Rifleman | Tītitipounamu, Brown Creeper | Pīpipi
  • Score 3 Whio | Blue Duck, Kererū | New Zealand Pigeon, Bellbird | Korimako, Tūī
  • Score 2 Paradise Shelduck | Pūtangitangi, New Zealand Scaup | Pāpango, Long-tailed Cuckoo | Koekoeā, Black-billed Gull | Tarāpuka, Yellow-crowned Parakeet | Kākāriki, Grey Warbler | Riroriro, New Zealand Fantail | Pīwakawaka, Tomtit | Miromiro, South Island Robin | Kakaruai, New Zealand Pipit | Pīhoihoi
  • Score 1 Shining Cuckoo | Pīpīwharauroa, Little Shag | Kawaupaka, Ruru | Morepork, New Zealand Kingfisher | Kōtare
  • Endemic bird score = 56 points
  • Ranking = 3rd out of 10
  • Additional possible endemic birds (not seen or heard by me): South Island Pied Oystercatcher | Tōrea, Black-fronted Tern | Tarapirohe, New Zealand Falcon | Kārearea, Fernbird | Mātātā

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

Other blogs in this series

1 Comment

  1. I learned a lot about the different species of birds that live in the beech forests and the alpine meadows of the track. I was especially impressed by the photos and descriptions of the Kea, the Rifleman, and the Long-tailed Cuckoo.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *