Between November 2023 and March 2024, Natural History curator Colin Miskelly is walking the length of Aotearoa New Zealand on Te Araroa Trail – counting every bird seen or heard along the way. In this first blog of an intended series, Colin explains what the project is about.
The long pathway
Te Araroa means ‘the long pathway’, and is the name given to a 3,000 km walking route that stretches from Cape Reinga to Bluff (or Bluff to Cape Reinga, if you prefer walking with the sun on your face). Walking the trail requires shedding superfluous baggage, including unnecessarily long words.
‘TA’ literature is full of acronyms and abbreviations; I intend to be a SOBO (ELI) thru-walker – which means a south-bound traveller who walks the trail in one go (without taking long breaks between sections), and who walks Every Last Inch, without skipping the boring bits (this is sometimes abbreviated as EFI).
One of the reasons that I intend to be an ELI is that the main goal of my walk is to count every bird encountered between Cape Reinga and Bluff – and that can’t be done to the same level of accuracy from the window of a moving bus or car.
New Zealand Bird Atlas Scheme
The answers to the questions ‘Why?’ and ‘Why now?’ is that the summer of 2023–24 is the final summer of the 5-year-long New Zealand Bird Atlas Scheme.
This citizen-science scheme is based around observers contributing ‘checklists’ of birds counted at sites all over the country, with each checklist including a measurement of effort (time duration, distance travelled, or area covered).
The New Zealand Bird Atlas Scheme has its own portal within the global eBird repository, which is managed out of Cornell University. When compared with the two previous atlas schemes (1969–79 and 1999–2004), the 2019–24 atlas will provide information on the changing status and trends of New Zealand bird populations.
I intend to count birds along contiguous 2 km transects as I walk, plus undertaking point counts of nocturnal species heard calling from each campsite or hut. A GPS-enabled wristwatch will be used to alert me when each transect cut-off is reached, and to provide a midpoint to anchor each transect. The data will be entered into a spreadsheet, and bulk-uploaded into eBird after the trip.
Collating the data as I go will allow me to produce a running total of the number of birds and number of species seen, as well as summary statistics for each section (including the most frequently observed species and the most abundant species).
Each blog in this series will also feature the most unexpected bird(s) of the section, and other highlights (e.g. local rarities, species not seen previously on the trip), and will provide an ‘Endemic bird score’ for each section (as explained in Birds of the Great Walks of Aotearoa New Zealand).
The challenges of blogging from the trail
As I progress south, I intend to produce a blog roughly every week, usually when I reach civilisation (and cellphone coverage). I don’t fancy typing blogs onto a phone (the only device that I will be carrying), so will be writing draft blogs by hand, photographing them, and sending them to my ever-helpful PA (a.k.a. my wife, Kate), who has offered to type them and forward them to Te Papa.
We are deeply appreciative to the many photographers who have contributed images to New Zealand Birds Online and who have agreed in advance to their images being used to illustrate the ‘Birds of Te Araroa’ blog series.
Land of the long black squiggle
In addition to typing blogs, Kate intends to keep track of my progress on our rather daunting new piece of wall art.
As I provide a digital ‘sign’ of my whereabouts by text or phone call, Kate will update the map with ‘Sign here’ post-its and provide a photograph of the relevant map section, to illustrate each blog.
Birding side trips
The bird count statistics will focus on birds seen or heard from the trail. However, I have a few birding side trips planned along the way, to catch up with some special species that I am unlikely to see from the trail.
I hope you find the occasional updates on the Birds of Te Araroa (and Aotearoa) of interest.