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 second blog in the series, Colin starts out on his journey.
The first bird
New Zealand has a greater diversity of seabirds than any other nation. Te Araroa Trail starts and finishes at two prominent headlands, and so it was appropriate that the first bird of the trail be a seabird.
After the obligatory pose and photoshoot by the Cape Reinga signpost, I turned my gaze northwards to the distant Manawatāwhi Three Kings Islands. Using binoculars, I scanned the meeting place of Te Tai-o-Rēhua (Tasman Sea) and Moana-nui-a-Kiwa (Pacific Ocean) and soon picked out small flocks of fluttering shearwaters│pakahā heading east, with one larger Buller’s shearwater│rako among them, and three Australasian gannets│tākapu flying west.
With the first New Zealand Bird Atlas Scheme checklist started in my notebook, we turned southwards and began our peripatetic perambulation to Bluff – which we hope to reach in early March.
Ninety Mile Beach Patrol
The first section of Te Araroa Trail is dominated by the vast sandy length of Te Oneroa-a-Tōhē Ninety Mile Beach. The English name is hyperbolic – its actual length is closer to 90 kilometres – but it is still a daunting distance to walk with a pack crammed with everything you need to survive.
Te Araroa Trail notes suggest that the Ninety Mile Beach section is 85 km of firm sand, best walked near the water’s edge. But the notes were not intended for birders, who know that there is more to find and interpret on the stormline – a treasure-filled zone of loose, dry sand that meanders around the head of each embayment.
My GPS breadcrumb trail shows that I walked 98 kms of soft sand on Te Oneroa-a-Tōhē. Actually, my wristwatch GPS is not that clever – my leg muscles added the extra detail.
I learnt how to identify dead seabirds as a teenager on the long sandy beaches north of Auckland – Muriwai on the west coast and Pakiri on the east coast. The information on birds cast on shore is submitted to the Beach Patrol Scheme managed by Birds New Zealand.
This scheme has been running for more than 80 years and is thought to be New Zealand’s longest-running citizen science project. The same ID skills are useful in my job as a curator at Te Papa, as I often identify fragrant fragments sent in by Birds New Zealand members or the general public.
We found corpses or remains of 122 seabirds of 18 species during our walk (three full days and part of two others).
The most notable find was a long-deceased white-chinned petrel | karetai kauae mā. This large burrow-nesting petrel is characteristic of the subantarctic zone, and I have encountered them on their breeding grounds on the Auckland Islands, Antipodes Island, and Kerguelen Islands, as well as large numbers near South Georgia.
About five are identified on New Zealand coasts each year, and it was only the second I have found in 48 years of beach patrolling.
An uncommon visitor
Common terns are common in Europe, which is where they get their common name. Between one and five common terns are detected in New Zealand each year, often roosting with their almost identical white-fronted tern│tara cousins. The one that we found near Hukatere, Ninety Mile Beach, was among a flock of 304 white-fronted terns.
I took detailed notes of the bird’s plumage and sketched its head pattern, so that I can prepare an Unusual Bird Report to submit to the Birds New Zealand Records Appraisal Committee.
Native species seen live on section one
Paradise shelduck│pūtangitangi, pūkeko, variable oystercatcher│tōrea pango, South Island pied oystercatcher│tōrea, New Zealand dotterel│tūturiwhatu, banded dotterel│pohowera, spur-winged plover, red-billed gull│tarāpunga, southern black-backed gull│karoro, Caspian tern│taranui, white-fronted tern│tara, common tern, Buller’s shearwater│rako, flesh-footed shearwater│toanui, fluttering shearwater│pakahā, Australasian gannet│tākapu, pied shag│kāruhiruhi, white-faced heron│matuku moana, swamp harrier│kāhu, sacred kingfisher│kōtare, tūī, grey warbler│riroriro, New Zealand fantail│pīwakawaka, welcome swallow│warou, silvereye│tauhou, New Zealand pipit│pihoihoi.
Summary statistics for section one
- Days on the trail = 5
- Kilometres travelled and surveyed = 127.3
- eBird/Atlas checklists = 66
- Number of bird species = 41
- Total live birds seen or heard = 2,698
- Most abundant species = white-fronted tern (721)
- Most frequent species = southern black backed gull (83.3% of checklists)
- Endemic bird score = 27
Who gives a hoot?
This blog series is primarily about the birds that can be seen or heard from Te Araroa Trail. However, I have arranged a few off-piste birding adventures as I progress southward. These will be featured in the blogs, but not in the summary statistics.
Before leaving Wellington, I contacted a Kaitaia-based birder to take us looking for one of New Zealand’s least-known bird species. Barn owls are assumed to have colonised New Zealand naturally from Australia about two decades ago. Kevin monitors a small population near Kaitaia.
We headed out at dusk, and were surprised at how many owls we could hear (both barn owl and ruru). We had a couple of brief views of barn owls in flight, and it was great to learn their calls before continuing our hikoi to places we may hear them.