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Birds of Te Araroa 19 – Te Anau Highway to Bluff

, Birds of Te Araroa 19 – Te Anau Highway to Bluff, Te Papa Blog, 15 March 2024

Between November 2023 and March 2024, Natural History curator Colin Miskelly walked the length of Aotearoa New Zealand on Te Araroa Trail – counting every bird seen or heard along the way. In this twentieth blog in the series, Colin describes birds encountered while walking the final section, through the Takitimu, Woodlaw, and Longwood Ranges to Colac Bay, then east along the coast to Invercargill, and south to the trail end at Stirling Point, Bluff.Zero day? – or not?

A Department of Conservation ute pulled up beside us as we walked down the long, dusty Mavora Lakes Rd north of State Highway 94. The Takitimu Mountains loomed ahead of us as the DOC ranger lowered his window to offer a lift into Te Anau, and asked if we were planning to take a ‘zero day’ the next day.

A view down a paved road. In the distance are mountains and stormy clouds.
The Takitimu Mountains present a seemingly impassable barrier across Te Araroa when approaching from the north. Photo by Colin Miskelly.

‘Zero day’ is the term used by Te Araroa walkers when they take a day off, whether to recharge their batteries, seek resupplies, or avoid bad weather. As committed Every Last Inch walkers, accepting a lift was not an option, unless we could return to the same spot before resuming our walk. But we were concerned that the ranger thought the impending southerly storm could be bad enough for us to consider spending the next day sitting in a hut.

A forest with mist in the background and rain.
Takitimu forest on a damp morning. Photo by Colin Miskelly.

We decided that there would be enough shelter from the forest and valley floors the next day, and so we sloshed on through the bogs between Princhester and Aparima Huts while being pelted by wind-blown rain and hail that alternated with occasional patches of sunshine. Conditions worsened as we descended from the Telford Tops in galeforce winds the following day, though the blowing low cloud concealed how much snow had fallen on the surrounding peaks.

A photo of a man in shorts and carrying a pack walking on a rocky path on top of a mountain.
Colin Miskelly counting pipits | pīhoihoi on the Telford Tops, Takitimu Mountains. Photo by Gordon Miskelly.

The cloud lifted by the following morning, revealing not only the snow, but also our first glimpse of the sea since Tasman Bay from the Richmond Range, 44 days previously.

A view of a mountain valley with three tents pitched in the foreground and snowy mountain in the background. The sky is a purple colour as it's sunset.
Winter is coming. Dawn at Telford campsite, Takitimu Mountains. Photo by Colin Miskelly.

A day on the farm

After departing Telford campsite, we had the unusual experience of walking for an entire day (28 km) on a single farm. At 12,145 ha, Mt Linton Station is one of New Zealand’s largest privately-owned farms. It is claimed to carry more stock units than any other New Zealand farm, with 3,000 Angus breeding cows plus replacements, and 42,000 Texel-Romney ewes plus replacements.

Black cows in a herd facing the camera. There are mountains in the distance and a blue cloudy sky.
Angus heifers block Te Araroa on Mt Linton Station. Photo by Colin Miskelly.

The warm welcome at Birchwood Station after leaving Mt Linton was a welcome change from the cold, minimalist Telford campsite. A roaring fire and homemade pizzas were much appreciated, plus the owners invited us to call in at the shearing shed before hitting the trail the next morning. They, their staff and the record-breaking Forde Winders shearing gang were part way through shearing 12,000 sheep in the 7-stand Birchwood woolshed.

A view of a sheep shearing shed in action. There are six shearers with sheep and three people on the floor gathering up the wool.
Hard yakka. A shearing gang makes an early start on removing another 2,500 fleeces. Photo by Colin Miskelly, published with the permission of Birchwood Station and Forde Winders Shearing Ltd.

Mud and trail magic in the Longwood Range

From Birchwood, Te Araroa traverses Woodlaw Forest before entering the notorious Longwood Range. For almost the entire length of the country, we had used the 5-point Raetea (Kaitaia) scale to score the muddiness of trail sections. This soon became a subset of the 8-point Longwood scale as we slogged and sloshed for 36 km southward, leaving another 2 points available to be added following significant rain events.

A hiking hut in a forest. In front of the door is very muddy and on the right-hand side there are three chilly bins and two orange buckets.
Mud and magic: chilly bins filled with kindness outside Turnbull’s Hut, Longwood Range. Photo by Colin Miskelly.

About 7 km before the end of the Longwood mud, we were astonished to find another superb example of trail angelism floating in the cesspool outside Turnbull’s Hut. Three large chilly bins labelled ‘TE ARAROA TRAIL MAGIC’ were filled with soft drinks, beer, chocolate bars, and fresh fruit.

Foveaux coast and New River Estuary

Te Araroa rejoins the coast at Colac Bay and follows it eastward for about 35 km towards Invercargill. This includes the Tīhaka Beach Track around the picturesque rocky headlands and embayments southwest of Riverton / Aparima, and about 22 km along the great sweep of Oreti Beach.

The back view of a person walking along a beach carrying a pack. The sun is low in the sky.
Only 65 km to go. Colin Miskelly at the western end of Oreti Beach. Photo by Gordon Miskelly.

Te Araroa trail notes make very few references to birds. However, the notes for the 10 km or so of stopbanks on the east side of the New River Estuary state “you’ll be treated to an area teeming with birdlife”. The sheer number of birds (mainly waterfowl, waders and gulls) slowed our progress towards Bluff, as I made frequent stops to identify birds and estimate the size of flocks.

An estuary view with migratory birds sitting on the water in between long grassy banks.
Part of a large flock of Canada geese | kuihi on New River Estuary. Photo by Colin Miskelly.

The end

Te Araroa runs along Te Ara Taurapa pathway/cycleway beside State Highway 1 for 16 km north of Bluff before crossing the base of the Bluff peninsula to the outer (western) coast at the iconic rusty metal Bluff sign.

A sign made of copper letters on wooden posts saying the word BLUFF.
Bluff sign/sculpture. Photo by Colin Miskelly.

Rather than following the coastal track around to the track terminus at Stirling Point, Te Araroa takes in one last gratuitous summit (Bluff Hill / Motupōhue) before disgorging walkers at the full stop.

A section of a map with red post-it notes pointing to markers on a trail marked out by a sharpie pen.
The nineteenth (and final) section of Te Araroa Trail (red stickers), showing sites where Colin provided digital sign of his presence. Photo by Kate McAlpine.

Birds of the Takitimu, Woodlaw and Longwood forests

The bleak conditions as we traversed these three southern forests likely contributed to the low diversity and abundance of endemic birds counted in about 77.5 km of forest. Tomtit | ngirungiru with 208 birds and bellbird | korimako with 205 were the only species that occurred at a rate of more than one bird per kilometre. Scarcer species included grey warbler | riroriro (62), New Zealand fantail | pīwakawaka (53), brown creeper | pīpipi (36), rifleman | tītitipounamu (13), kererū | New Zealand pigeon (11), tūī (6), and yellow-crowned parakeet |  kākāriki (3). We also heard an additional kākāriki near the southern end of the Longwoods, which may have been a red-crowned parakeet (they are reported to be present in nearby More’s Bush after an illegal aviary release).

A small brown bird with a long tail is sitting on top of a rock.
Black morph New Zealand fantail | pīwakawaka. Photo by Cheryl Marriner, New Zealand Birds Online.

A notable feature of these forests was the higher proportion of black fantails than encountered elsewhere on Te Araroa (15%). Takitimu forest was the only place where another Te Araroa walker commented on seeing a black fantail, asking if it was a different species to the usual pied birds, which have largely white tails (it is not – black fantails are a rarer colour morph of the same species).

Live and dead birds of Jacobs River Estuary (Riverton) and Oreti Beach

Oreti Beach has far more coastal birds than most sandy beaches around the country. The sheer numbers of birds at the western end of the beach and in the adjacent Jacobs River Estuary were a challenge to count into the glare of the low morning sun – especially as there were two species of small gulls and two species of oystercatchers.

The most abundant species counted were 1,170 South Island pied oystercatchers | tōrea, 440 red-billed gulls | tarapunga, 269 black-billed gulls | tarapuka, 132 black-fronted terns | tarapirohe, 72 banded dotterels | pohowera, 67 ruddy turnstones, and 36 each royal spoonbills | kōtuku ngutupapa and variable oystercatchers | tōrea pango.

Eleven birds with brown wings and white undersides walking in the same direction along a sandy beach.
Ruddy turnstones coming into breeding plumage. Photo by Rebecca Bowater, New Zealand Birds Online.

The turnstones were a particular highlight, as Oreti Beach was just the second site where we had encountered them on Te Araroa, after Ambury Farm Park on the Manukau Harbour. They are the third most abundant Arctic-breeding wader species that migrates to New Zealand (after bar-tailed godwit | kuaka and red knot | huahou), and several of the birds had started to moult into their colourful breeding plumage.

The 30 km of exposed coastline between Colac Bay and Invercargill provided a further opportunity to collect data for the New Zealand Beach Patrol Scheme. We found 25 dead seabirds, with little penguin | kororā the most frequent (11 corpses). Like the little penguins, most of the other species found are commonly seen from the coast or in Foveaux Strait (including three fairy prions | tītī wainui, two mottled petrels | kōrure, and one each black-billed gull | tarāpukasooty shearwater | tītīcommon diving petrel | kuaka, and spotted shag | kawau tikitiki. More southern (subantarctic) seabirds were represented by a white-headed petrel and a white-chinned petrel | karetai kauae mā, with the latter being only the third that I have found on a New Zealand beach (and the second for Te Araroa – see: Birds of Te Araroa 1 – Cape Reinga to Kaitāia).

A brown seabird with a yellow beak sitting on the water.
White-chinned petrel | karetai kauae mā. Photo by Scott Brooks, New Zealand Birds Online.

Birds of New River Estuary

If the waders of Jacobs River Estuary were challenging, the waterfowl, waders, and gulls of New River Estuary were almost overwhelming – and required frequent halts to the 5 km/h pace that we could otherwise maintain on the excellent walkways around the estuary.

Two yellow ducks with dark brown speckles are looking in the same direction. They are standing on a piece of wood sticking out of red soil.
Grey teal. Photo by Mark Lethlean. New Zealand Birds Online.

The most abundant species were 2,058 grey teal | tētē -moroiti, 1,489 Canada geese | kuihi, 522 black swans | kakīānau, 304 mallards | rakiraki, 268 spur-winged plovers, 161 black-billed gull | tarāpuka, 144 Australasian shovelers | kuruwhengi, 134 New Zealand scaup | pāpango, and 132 pied stilts | poaka.

A black shag with a white underbelly is sitting on a rock with blue sky behind it.
Foveaux shag | mapo (pied morph). Photo by David Rintoul. New Zealand Birds Online.

A high-flying Foveaux shag | mapo was a highlight as we crossed the isthmus between Bluff Harbour and New River Estuary, and became the penultimate species added to the trip list. Foveaux shags are marine specialists, and I didn’t expect to see one so far from an exposed rocky coast.

The last bird

There are several possible ways to define the last bird of Te Araroa. It could be the last (111th) species to be added to the overall trip list, it could be the final species name that I added to my notebook as part of the final 0.9 km transect as I descended Tōpuni Track from the summit of Bluff Hill / Motupōhue to Stirling Point, or it could be the last individual bird that I saw before lowering my binoculars, announcing ‘Enough!’ and becoming a NAFI*.

A man in hiking gear and carrying a pack is using binoculars to look out to sea.
Colin Miskelly counting muttonbirds (sooty shearwaters | tītī) from Stirling Point, Bluff. Photo by Kate McAlpine.

As it happens, all three definitions produced the same result: sooty shearwater | tītī, the famed muttonbird that is gathered as a cultural harvest from islands around Rakiura / Stewart Island. The annual muttonbird season begins on 1 April. However, Rakiura iwi who hold traditional rights to be muttonbirders are able to access their islands to prepare for the harvest from 15 March, which was only a few days after we reached Bluff. I counted 154 tītī off the Bluff coast during the last 5 km of Te Araroa.

A bird with a long wingspan is flying in a blue sky.
Sooty shearwater | tītī. Photo by David Boyle. New Zealand Birds Online.

Tītī are remarkable birds. In addition to being capable of diving to depths in excess of 60 metres to catch their prey, they often travel 2,000 km each way to the Polar Front when feeding their chicks, and their annual migration to the North Pacific (reaching Japan, Alaska, and California) means that breeding birds can travel 74,000 km in a year (and more than 3 million kilometres in their lifetime), averaging more than 500 km a day.

They are a perfect species to put a mere 3,200 km walk into perspective.

*Not Another F@#%ing Inch

Bird species added since the previous section

Sooty shearwater | tītī, spotted shag | kawau tikitiki, Foveaux shag | mapo, little owl | ruru nohinohi.

Summary statistics for section nineteen (the final section)

Cumulative totals for Te Araroa are given in parentheses.

  • Days on the trail = 9 (124)
  • Kilometres travelled and surveyed = 239.9 (3,225.6)
  • eBird/Atlas checklists completed = 136 (1,790)
  • Number of bird species = 59 (111)
  • Total birds seen or heard = 11,435 (104,429)
  • Most abundant species = (the native) grey teal | tētē-moroiti (2,058, all on the New River Estuary, Invercargill)
  • Most abundant endemic species = South Island pied oystercatcher | tōrea (1,169, all between Riverton and Invercargill)
  • Most frequent species = (the endemic) bellbird | korimako (45.7 % of checklists), followed by tomtit | ngirungiru (34.1 %)
  • Endemic bird score = 53

A man in a blue t-shirt is standing next to a map of New Zealand that has many different coloured postit arrows pointing to a trail that has been drawn on the map with a sharpie that goes from top to bottom of the country.
Colin Miskelly beside Land of the Long Black Squiggle – Signed Out. What next? The answer is a whole heap of data entry. Photo by Kate McAlpine.

Postscript: Gordon and I started our hīkoi at Cape Reinga on 2 November and reached Bluff on our scheduled date of 11 March, which was 5 days before we were due at my son’s wedding near Martinborough, east of Wellington. We hope that Kieran and Tess are not expecting us to bust out any flash moves on the dance floor. We might stick with the Te Araroa Shuffle.