Birds of the Heaphy Track

Birds of the Heaphy 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 eleventh and final blog in the series, he reports on the birds encountered while walking the Heaphy Track.

The longest Great Walk

The Heaphy Track is the longest Great Walk (apart from the Whanganui Journey, where travel is by canoe or kayak). The 78.4 km track links Golden Bay with North Westland, and it is a logistically challenging 463 km by road between the trailheads.

A wooden path is snaking through brown grassy tussocks. There are low, bush-clad hills in the background.
Gouland Downs, Heaphy Track. Photo by Ruth McKie, Department of Conservation

The Heaphy Track traverses a great diversity of wild landscapes. Starting at the north end, the track climbs for 17.5 km (and 780 vertical metres) through predominantly beech forest to the high point shortly before Perry Saddle, where many trampers stay for a night. The next day is across the golden tussocklands of the Gouland Downs to either the Saxon or James McKay Hut.

From there the track descends through tall podocarp forest along the Heaphy River to Heaphy Hut and campsite at the river mouth.

A sunset view of some tall Nīkau palm trees silhouetted against a dusky sky.
Nikau palms, Heaphy River mouth. Photo by Cielle Stephens, Department of Conservation

Dense stands of nīkau palms are a feature of the last leg of the tramp, through coastal forest to Kōhaihai Shelter and the trailhead north of Karamea.

 A bridge across a river in a native bush-clad area at the bottom of a hill.
Kōhaihai River, Heaphy Track. Photo by Richard Rossiter, Department of Conservation

A great diversity of birds (and snails)

The Heaphy Track had the highest endemic bird score of all the Great Walks. This is largely due to the diversity of habitats along the track, providing opportunities to view birds of the forest, subalpine tops, rivers, and coast. Predator trapping,  and occasional 1080 drops, protect many of the iconic animal species along the track, including several species of giant Powelliphanta land snails in addition to the birds described here.

A large brown snail with a shiny brown snail shell is on damp wood.
Powelliphanta annectens land snail, Heaphy Track. Photo by Jessica Reedy, Department of Conservation

An elusive kiwi

The Heaphy Track is a stronghold for one of New Zealand’s most rarely seen birds – Roroa or Great Spotted Kiwi. They are the only one of the five species of kiwi that are not the focus of a commercial nocturnal guiding business. The strident calls of Roroa can be heard at night from any of the huts, and they occasionally walk through campsites.

A light-brown feathered kiwi bird with a long beak and stout legs is walking through dark undergrowth.
Great Spotted Kiwi | Roroa. Photo by Matthias Dehling, New Zealand Birds Online

Roroa are confined to the northwest South Island, and can also be heard along the Paparoa Track.

Birds of the forest

The beech forests on the climb up to Perry Saddle have many endemic forest bird species, including Rifleman | Tītitipounamu, Brown Creeper | Pīpipi, Grey Warbler | Riroriro, New Zealand Fantails | Piwakawaka, South Island Robin | Kakaruai, Tomtit | Miromiro, Tūī, and Bellbird | Korimako.

A small round bird with black and light green feathers has a long-legged bug in its beak. It is standing on a log.
Female Rifleman | Tītitipounamu with harvestman. Photo by Rob Lynch, New Zealand Birds Online

The very confiding South Island Robin | Kakaruai is more readily noticed than other small forest birds, as they seek insects disturbed in the leaf litter by passing trampers.

A small dark-grey bird with a white front is sitting on a fence.
South Island Robin | Kakaruai perched on track sign. Photo by Philip Griffin, New Zealand Birds Online

Kākā are often heard or seen near Perry Saddle, and at times both Kākā and their larger Kea cousins can be seen in flight at the same time here.

The head and shoulders of a parrot with grey-brown feathers and yellow and red feathers near its eyes is surrounded by green bush.
South Island Kaka | Kākā. Photo by Mark Lethlean, New Zealand Birds Online

There are fewer birds, and less diversity, in the podocarp/broadleaf forests down the Heaphy River and along the coast. This is not because the habitat is poorer, but due to introduced predators being more abundant. Ship rat and stoat numbers are consistently higher in these floristically rich forests than in beech forests, and it is predation rather than food supply that limits many endemic New Zealand forest birds.

A streamlined round bird with very neat green and purple feathers, and a white underbelly is sitting in a tree.
Kererū | New Zealand Pigeon. Photo by Ormond Torr, New Zealand Birds Online

However, Kererū | New Zealand Pigeon are seen more often in these west coast forests, which provide more fruit than beech forests.

Birds of the downs

The Gouland Downs are a mosaic of tussocklands and heathlands (mainly Dracophyllum shrubs) carved up by several rocky rivers and streams. Whio | Blue Duck pairs hold territories along the water courses, and are often seen from the track. Although well camouflaged among the river stones, their distinctive calls usually give their presence away.

Two dark-reddish brown ducks with pale beaks are standing in water and looking at each other.
Whio | Blue Duck pair. Photo by Craig McKenzie, New Zealand Birds Online

Weka occur along much of the Heaphy Track, but are most readily seen on the downs, particularly near the huts.

A round brown-feathered bird with a short beak is walking on grass.
Weka by Gouland Downs Hut. Photo by Kate McAlpine

Fernbirds | Mātātā are common in the heathlands, but are heard more often than they are seen. They are easily recognised when they fly, travelling short distances on whirring rounded wings, with their long tails hanging down. Noisy flocks of Brown Creeper | Pīpipi also utilise the taller shrub patches.

A very pale-brown feathered bird with a long tail is sitting on a branch that doesn't have any leaves.
Fernbird | Mātātā. Photo by John Woods, New Zealand Birds Online

Long-tailed Cuckoos | Koekoeā often call from the forests on the edges of the downs in summer, particularly from the ‘goblin forest’ by Gouland Downs Hut and Saxon Hut.

A brown-feathered bird with a long tail is sitting on a tree branch and looking right. Its tail is stripy brown and black.
Long-tailed Cuckoo | Koekoeā. Photo by Duncan Watson, New Zealand Birds Online

Other birds species often seen on the downs include New Zealand Pipit | Pihoihoi and the introduced Redpoll (a small finch).

Coastal birds

The Heaphy River mouth is worth a check for estuarine birds, with several species of gull and tern likely. From here south to Kōhaihai, the most obvious coastal birds are Pied Shags | Kāruhiruhi and Variable Oystercatchers | Tōrea Pango.

Two birds with black feathers and and white-feathered faces and fronts are standing on a sandy beach with foamy waves in the background.
Pied Shags | Karuhiruhi viewed from the Heaphy Track (juvenile on left). Photo by Kate McAlpine

New kids on the block

The Takahē is one of New Zealand’s rarest birds. Twice considered extinct, they have been nurtured back from near extinction since their rediscovery in the Murchison Mountains (near the Kepler Track) in 1948. Since 2018, the Department of Conservation has been attempting to establish a population of Tākāhe in the Gouland Downs on the Heaphy Track. The project had a rocky start, with mortality exceeding productivity over the first four breeding seasons. However, during this time, sightings of this spectacular rare bird were a highlight for many visitors to the heart of the Heaphy.

A very stout bird with green-blue feathers, red legs and beak, and white tail feathers is standing on a dry grassy path.
South Island Takahe | Takahē, Saxon Hut, Heaphy Track. Photo by Bradley Shields, New Zealand Birds Online

Endemic birds seen or heard on the Heaphy Track

  • Score 5 Great Spotted Kiwi | Roroa
  • 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, Long-tailed Cuckoo | Koekoeā, Weka, South Island Takahe |Takahē, Variable Oystercatcher | Tōrea Pango, Yellow-crowned Parakeet | Kākāriki, Grey Warbler | Riroriro, New Zealand Fantail | Pīwakawaka, Tomtit | Miromiro, South Island Robin | Kakaruai, Fernbird | Mātātā, New Zealand Pipit | Pīhoihoi
  • Score 1 Shining Cuckoo | Pīpīwharauroa, Red-billed Gull | Tarāpunga, Little Shag | Kawaupaka, Pied Shag | Kāruhiruhi, Ruru | Morepork, New Zealand Kingfisher | Kōtare
  • Endemic bird score = 61 points
  • Ranking = 1st out of 10
  • Additional possible endemic birds (not seen or heard by me): South Island Pied Oystercatcher | Tōrea, New Zealand Falcon | Kārearea.

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

Other blogs in this series


  1. I enjoy reading about these hikes. Thank you!

  2. Thank you so much for these excellent Great Walk descriptions & accompanying bird photographs. I am a Kiwi ornithologist, ecologist, and tropical Pacific specialist, long gone from the University of Canterbury. My husband, Cameron Kepler & I worked with the (unfortunately late) Don Merton, a very good friend & colleague, in the Murchison Mts., Maud Is. & elsewhere as part of co-operative field work with the US Fish & Wildlife Service Endangered Species Program. Colin – you are doing a fantastic job and seem to be perfect for it. Thank you for your ambitious projects and conservation energy! I have mostly lived in Hawaii for 60 years; seeing beautiful NZ native forest and endemic birds is heartwarming. I enjoy being on Te Papa’s emailing list. Many articles bring back vivid memories of hikes, camping, and research of my younger days. Aloha, Angela

    1. Author

      Tēnā koe Angela
      Thank you very much for your kind feedback. I am pleased to hear how the blogs allowed you to reconnect with Aotearoa.

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