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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Weka occur along much of the Heaphy Track, but are most readily seen on the downs, particularly near the huts.
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.
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.
Other birds species often seen on the downs include New Zealand Pipit | Pihoihoi and the introduced Redpoll (a small finch).
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.
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.
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
- 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 Milford Track