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 tenth blog in the series, he reports on the birds encountered while walking the Milford Track.
An historic trek across the Divide
The Milford Track is the most famous of New Zealand’s multi-day tramps, having been on tourist bucket lists for more than a century. Its popularity means there is high demand for bookings, and so you need to be ready when bookings open!
The track is 53.5 km long, and can only be walked in one direction, starting after an hour-long boat ride to the northern end of Lake Te Anau. The first day and a half is through beech forest alongside the Clinton River and then its West Branch, with the sheer mountainsides encroaching ever closer and higher.
The third day is the highlight for most, climbing up and over the 1154 m high Omanui / McKinnon Pass and down the Roaring Burn, with a side trip to Sutherland Falls.
The fourth and final day is an 18–23.5 km walk through tall podocarp forest down the Arthur River to Sandfly Point, Milford Sound / Piopiotahi (the length depends on whether you are on a guided walk or are freedom walking – there are two different sets of huts).
A trifecta of parrots
The Kea is the best-known bird of the Milford Track – and the only one that the hut wardens issue warnings about! Any footwear left outside the hut, and unguarded, is at risk of being stolen or torn to shreds.
Kea mainly forage above the treeline, while their slightly smaller cousins Kākā are mainly forest dwellers. Kākā are common along the length of the track, though they are heard more than they are seen. We walked the track in late December, when mountain flax / wharariki was in flower on the slopes around McKinnon Pass. Both of these large parrot species were feeding on flax nectar in the subalpine shrub zone, and it provided a rare opportunity to see the two ‘sister species’ in close proximity.
We mainly encountered the much smaller Yellow-crowned Parakeet | Kākāriki in the beech forest along the Clinton Valley – though it was raining as we walked down the Arthur Valley, which may have biased our counts.
We saw and heard Weka all along the track, and were interested to note the variation in their plumage. Weka in Fiordland are darker than those elsewhere in their range, with some birds almost black. We only noticed brown Weka along the Clinton Valley, but started seeing black Weka at McKinnon Pass, and also along the Arthur Valley, which has higher rainfall than the Te Anau side.
In general, Weka are darker in wet environments (and palest in dry environments), but there are many local exceptions to this pattern.
Other forest birds
The beech forests along the Clinton River have a good range of the smaller endemic forest birds, including Rifleman | Tītitipounamu, Brown Creeper | Pīpipi, Grey Warbler | Riroriro, South Island Robin | Kakaruai, Tomtit | Miromiro, and Bellbird | Korimako.
Most of the 31 New Zealand Fantails | Piwakawaka that we saw were the more common pied morph, but we saw one black morph bird along the Clinton River.
Long-tailed Cuckoos | Koekoeā were calling as we walked up the Clinton Valley, where we heard then saw a New Zealand Falcon | Kārearea being chased by three Kākā. Shining Cuckoos | Pipiwharauroa were only heard along the Arthur River.
The only Southern Brown Kiwi | Tokoeka that we heard (and saw) was near Mintaro Hut, but Ruru | Moreporks were heard at night at all three huts, along with Weka, Kea, and Long-tailed Cuckoos | Koekoeā (all of which often call at night).
Lake and river birds
Stoat-trapping has protected healthy populations of Whio | Blue Ducks along much of the track, and we had great views of several birds on the Roaring Burn, below Sutherland Falls, and on the Arthur River near Dumpling Hut. Whio are white-water specialists that feed on aquatic insect larvae in clear flowing streams and rivers.
Other waterfowl encountered along the track included Paradise Shelducks | Pūtangitangi, New Zealand Scaup | Pāpango, and Grey Ducks | Pārera, and introduced Canada Geese and Black Swans, along with a couple of Black Shags | Māpunga.
The Grey Duck | Pārera has become a very rare bird in New Zealand, as it is out-competed by the introduced Mallard, and the two species hybridise extensively. Many of the ducks in urban and rural areas are Mallard x Grey Duck hybrids, or look like typical Mallards. Remote forested headwaters, such as those on the Milford Track, are some of the few places where birds that look like ‘pure’ Grey Ducks can still be found.
Brown Teal | Pāteke have been reintroduced along the lower Arthur River, but we did not see any.
Endemic birds seen or heard on the Milford 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, Weka, New Zealand Falcon | Kārearea, 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, Ruru | Morepork, New Zealand Kingfisher | Kōtare
- Endemic bird score = 56 points
- Ranking = 2nd out of 10
- Additional possible endemic birds (not seen or heard by me): Brown Teal | Pāteke, Variable Oystercatcher | Tōrea Pango, Red-billed Gull | Tarāpunga, Black-billed Gull | Tarāpuka, Little Shag | Kawaupaka, Rock Wren | Pīwauwau.
The Milford Track scored the same as the Kepler Track, but edges ahead on a tie-breaker due to the potential to see the ‘deep endemic’ Rock Wren | Pīwauwau on the McKinnon Pass, and several additional endemic shorebird and waterfowl species.
For up-to-date information on hut bookings on the Milford Track, see the Department of Conservation webpage Milford Track.
Other blogs in this series
- Birds of the Great Walks of Aotearoa New Zealand
- Birds of the Whanganui Journey ‘Great Walk’
- Birds of the Tongariro Northern Circuit
- Birds of Lake Waikaremoana Track
- Birds of the Abel Tasman Coastal Track
- Birds of the Routeburn Track
- Birds of the Paparoa Track
- Birds of the Rakiura Track
- Birds of the Kepler Track
- Birds of the Heaphy Track