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 third blog in the series, Colin describes birds encountered between the townships of Kaitaia and Kerikeri.
Rainforests of the Far North
From Kaitaia, the Te Araroa trail heads roughly eastwards towards the Bay of Islands. This section is dominated by two forest sections – the high peaks of Raetea Forest, and the streams and ridges of Omahuta and Puketi Forests.
The Raetea Forest section has a reputation among Te Araroa walkers for being gnarly, and many choose to take an alternative route by road through Broadwood. We found the track no worse than many back country tramping tracks, though the level of use means the mud is more extensive than most tracks, slowing our pace to about 1.5 km per hour.
Raetea Forest includes some of the highest peaks in Northland, with extensive views of the surrounding forest.
Puketi Forest included a long climb up through iconic kauri forest, with these massive trees towering over other canopy species. It was also our first encounter with kauri dieback – a fungal disease (Phytophthora agathidicida) that is currently considered untreatable and fatal to every tree infected.
Several kauri forests in the Northland and Auckland regions are now excluded from Te Araroa Trail to reduce the risk of walkers spreading Phytophthora spores to new areas.
Open country, closed roads
The Raetea and Omahuta/Puketi Forests are separated by a half-day of open country walking, and the forests are both a day’s walk away from the towns at each end. The section progresses in alternations of open-country and forest for five days.
The open country sections are walked along road edges and (near Kerikeri) along rural walkways through farm blocks. For 6 km the trail follows an eerily empty SH1, which is closed to through traffic while cyclone-damaged sections through the Mangamuka Gorge are repaired.
The magnificent forests of the Far North are depressingly silent, and have been for more than a century. The ornithologist Sir Walter Buller grew up in Hokianga. When writing in the 1870s and 1880s, he lamented that bellbird | makomako, robin | toutouwai and whitehead | pōpokatea were all destined for extinction. When viewed from a national perspective, his gloomy predictions appear overly pessimistic, as all these species occur further south on Te Araroa Trail. However, if Buller’s musings were based on his own youthful experiences, they are an accurate description of Northland forests, where all these species became extinct.
Buller wrote these predictions before stoats and possums became widespread following their introductions in the 1880s and 1890s. What he was witnessing was the devastating impact of ship rats on the forest birds of Aotearoa – particularly in the warm, resource-rich forests of the Far North.
Ship rats remain the main predator of eggs and chicks of our endemic forest birds, and are almost impossible to control using trapping and grids of poison stations, as found by Kara Macdermid and Zoe Stone in an intensive study near Palmerston North (and presented at the 2023 Sanctuaries of New Zealand hui).
Attempts are made to control rats using trapping grids in Puketi Forest, but to little effect. I encountered tomtits | miromiro at a rate of 0.94 birds per km in Raetea Forest (with no rat control), and 0.85 birds per km in Omahuta/Puketi Forest (with rat control).
The only realistic way to suppress rats in forests of this size is through regularly repeated aerial application of 1080 cereal baits, using two applications of non-toxic pre-feed to overcome bait shyness by rats. If repeated every three years, this regime effectively eliminates ship rats, stoats and possums, allowing a wide range of forest birds to thrive.
Unfortunately, the facts about the benefits of 1080 use have been buried in a mountain of misinformation and disinformation. What we need is mass production of bumper stickers reading “1080 kills everything that eats the eggs and chicks of native birds” to help redress the information imbalance.
I look forward to visiting forests further south on the Te Araroa Trail, where 1080 is used and the forest birds are thriving.
An unexpected find
About a kilometre before reaching Blackbridge Camp in Omahuta Forest, I was astonished to hear the familiar song of a North Island robin | toutouwai. I could scarcely believe my ears, and so left my pack on the trail and dived into a supplejack-filled gully to locate the songster. Eventually I saw him about 20 m up in a huge taraire tree, pouring out his song.
Robins became extinct in the northern forests more than a century ago. A bit of sleuthing the following day revealed that the Puketi Forest Trust Oho Mai Puketi had released robins into Puketi Forest about 14 years ago. I failed to see or hear any there, but did encounter this one bird more than 10 km from where they were released (and in an area with insufficient rat control for it to have any chance of surviving).
A diversity of pigeons and gamebirds
Kerikeri is one of the few places in New Zealand where it is possible to see four species of pigeon in close proximity. In addition to kererū (known as kūkupa in the north), there is an abundant population of Barbary doves, along with the more familiar rock pigeons and spotted doves.
Areas of rough farmland in the north have a greater diversity of ‘upland gamebirds’ than other parts of the country, ranging in size from peafowl and turkeys through the familiar common pheasant and Californian quail to the diminutive brown quail | Kuera.
Brown quail were introduced from Australia and spread throughout much of the North Island before retreating to Northland and a few offshore islands.
Bird species added since the previous section
North Island Brown kiwi | kiwi-nui, black swan | kakīānau, greylag goose | kuihi, mallard | rakiraki, Californian quail | tikaokao, brown quail | kuera, peafowl | pīkao, wild turkey | korukoru, rock pigeon | kererū, Barbary dove, spotted dove, kererū, kukupa | New Zealand pigeon, shining cuckoo | pīpīwharauroa, pied stilt | poaka, little shag | kawaupaka, black shag | māpunga, ruru | morepork, tomtit | miromiro, North Island robin | toutouwai, fernbird | mātātā.
Summary statistics for section two
Cumulative totals for Te Araroa sections completed are given in parentheses.
- Days on the trail = 5 (10)
- Kilometres travelled and surveyed = 115.2 (242.5)
- eBird/Atlas checklists completed = 60 (126)
- Number of bird species = 45 (59)
- Total live birds seen or heard = 2,952 (5,650)
- Most abundant species = house sparrow (403)
- Most abundant native species = paradise shelduck | pūtangitangi (202)
- Most frequent species = grey warbler | riroriro (85.0% of checklists)
- Endemic bird score = 27