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Birds of mountains and open country

by  Christina Troup

New Zealand’s alpine parrot, the kea, is well known for its comical and destructive antics, tearing wiper blades off cars and disembowelling backpacks. The tiny rock wren is a member of the ancient New Zealand wren family, and the pipit is found in open areas from beaches to the high country. The welcome swallow is a recent arrival which builds distinctive mud nests.


Open country environments

New Zealand’s open environments include alpine and subalpine zones, tussock grasslands, wide stony riverbeds, shorelines, shrublands and farmland.

The amount of open country has varied over time. For most of New Zealand’s 85 million years as an independent land mass, all the land – except coastal zones and the edges of wetlands – was low-lying and covered in thick forest.

Increased open spaces

As mountains formed during the last 5 million years, more open country has emerged. The area of open country was largest during the ice ages of the last 2.5 million years.

Today, mountain areas above the treeline (the natural upper limit of trees) are inhabited by birds that have either spread from open coastal habitats or evolved from forest-dwelling ancestors. Since humans settled in New Zealand around 1250–1300 AD, they have cleared land and created more open areas, allowing open-country species arriving across the Tasman Sea from Australia to become established.

Birds of open country

  • The kea, an alpine parrot, is the best-known bird of the New Zealand mountains.
  • The tiny rock wren lives in crevices between large rocks, where it shelters from winter snow.
  • Pipits can be found from high country tussock grasslands to the coast.
  • Welcome swallows – recent arrivals from Australia – swoop over open ground and still water.

Other birds found in open country are gulls, terns and wading birds of wide river beds and coasts, as well as the swamp harrier, a bird of prey. Most parakeets are forest dwellers, but Antipodes Island and Reischek’s parakeets have successfully adapted to open grasslands on treeless subantarctic islands.

Introduced species

A number of introduced species, including the skylark and several game birds, have also colonised open country since the 1850s. Others, such as starlings, magpies and finches, inhabit both open areas and bush edges.

Extinct species

Until about 500 years ago, several species of moa roamed in open and semi-open country, as did flightless North and South Island geese. The New Zealand quail was very common in grasslands and scrub. The New Zealand raven frequented coastal and open country, while the laughing owl lived in both open and forested areas. These birds are all now extinct.


Kea – the mountain parrot

The call of ‘ke-aa’ ringing through the air is deeply evocative of New Zealand’s Southern Alps. Kea (Nestor notabilis) are parrots that have adapted to life in the mountains. Their intelligent curiosity equips them well for the harsh conditions in which they live.

Māori would have encountered kea when crossing the Southern Alps in search of pounamu (greenstone), and named the bird after its call. To some tribes, kea were seen as kaitiaki (guardians). However, there is little mention of kea in Māori poetry and tradition, compared with their more widespread forest relatives, kākā (Nestor meridionalis).

Appearance

As kea fly overhead, they show flashes of the bright red and orange under their wings. Seen from above, their colours are duller – probably to avoid attracting the attention of birds of prey.

The kea’s topside is mainly green with some brown, yellow and red, and blue-green on the outer wings. Juveniles have a yellow cere (fleshy pad above the bill) and eye-rings, both of which are grey in adults. Males weigh around 1 kilogram and females 800 grams. Like all parrots, they have two toes pointing forward and two back.

Distribution

Kea are endemic (unique to New Zealand), and are found only in or near the mountains of the South Island. Where these are close to the coast, kea may travel down to sea level. They live in high-altitude beech forest and open subalpine herbfields, up into snow country. Fossil remains of a kea found in a cave near Waitomo indicate they were in the North Island during the last (Ōtira) glaciation – at which time the South and North islands may have been joined.

Group activity

Kea often move about in groups – flocks of a dozen or more are not unusual. Adults and their young stay together for a year. Then young males tend to hang about in groups until they reach breeding age – three years or older.

Numbers of kea

The overall size of the population is difficult to estimate. Kea tend to have a clumped distribution, rather than being evenly spread throughout their habitat. Their tendency to fly long distances in flocks makes them more difficult to count.

Kea are more common in areas of human activity, scavenging for easy food near ski fields, mountain huts, hotels and rubbish dumps. This can give a false impression of substantial numbers. Estimates of the total population vary from 1,000 to 5,000. Scientists suspect their numbers are declining.

Breeding and life expectancy

Kea usually nest in cavities among large boulders, logs or tree roots, close to the upper limit of beech forest. The female lays up to four white eggs any time between July and January, and is fed by the male as she incubates them. Males are sometimes polygamous, bringing food to each of their mates at their respective nests.

In captivity some parrot species can live to 80 or older, but the oldest known age for a wild kea is 20 years.


Kea and people

Kea antics

Kea are either loved for their elaborate antics or disliked for the damage they can do. Pranks include sliding down hut roofs before dawn, knocking over a ski to ride downhill, or stealing metal objects such as nails – which the birds leave in a hiding place, sorted by size. They can solve complex intelligence tests.

Snow sports

One winter a group of kea at a Craigieburn Range ski hut came up with a new prank. A small gang of birds waited on the snow-covered roof over a doorway. They were alerted by a nearby sentry each time an unsuspecting occupant was about to exit the hut, and with precision timing would kick snow onto the person’s head, cackling raucously. By the following winter, the trick had spread to Arthur’s Pass, 30 kilometres away.

Kea-proof?

Kea investigate anything and everything with their immensely strong beaks, tongues, and hand-like claws. They work out how to open all sorts of containers, particularly rubbish bins, in search of titbits. In mountain huts and villages it is a challenge to devise a kea-proof container. Residents who leave doors open may return to find upholstery and mats shredded.

Climbers and trampers learn that unguarded tents, packs, boots and clothing are at risk. Rubber wiper-blades and door seals of cars are a source of playful delight to a kea. Unfortunately many of the synthetic materials they swallow do them more harm than good.

Wild foods

Natural foods include nectar, flowers, fruits, seeds, roots, stems, leaves and buds of many plants from beech forests and alpine areas. A lot of these foods are low in energy, but grubs and other invertebrates provide a boost of fat and protein. Kea also feed on carrion and sometimes live prey. They may have eaten moa, flightless geese and other dead or dying large birds before these were exterminated by early Polynesian settlers (the ancestors of Māori). Kea numbers probably fell as a result.

Kea and sheep

When runholders began farming sheep in the high country from the 1870s, there were rich pickings for kea. Due to a combination of poor farming practices and severe winters, there were many dead sheep to scavenge, as well as live animals trapped in snowdrifts. Kea were seen on the backs of live sheep, pecking fat from around the kidneys. This higher-energy diet meant that their population increased considerably.

Killing kea

Kea were blamed for low productivity on farms, although plagues of newly introduced wild rabbits and pigs were a major factor. A government wanting to be seen to act introduced a bounty on kea, providing an easy way to make money during the economic depression. Kea gained full legal protection in 1986 – but by then an estimated 150,000 had been shot. Some farmers would leave out poisoned sheepskins or other harmful materials such as fibreglass insulation to kill the birds.

Today farmers are encouraged to contact the Department of Conservation, who will take away individual birds identified as serial offenders.


Rock wren

Tiny rock wrens or pīwauwau (Xenicus gilviventris) are found above the treeline, between 900 and 2,500 metres’ altitude. They live under large boulders at the foot of screes and rock falls.

In summer rock wrens hop and buzz about on short rounded wings, feeding on insects or collecting materials to build their nests. Once winter snows arrive, they survive in pockets of space in their rock or scrub shelter. Rock wrens fly close to the ground, their flights rarely exceeding 30 metres. They move astonishingly quickly, diving in and out of crevices. On the ground they bob energetically up and down, flicking their wings.

Description

A rock wren is 10 centimetres long, from its bill to the end of its short tail. The topside colour of males varies regionally from green to brown. Females are brown above, tinged with yellow. Both sexes have yellow flanks, a pale underside and long cream eyebrow lines. They have slender black bills and, like others in this family, long toes and short wings. Females weigh 20 grams and males 16 grams.

Distinctive family

Rock wrens belong to a special group – the endemic New Zealand wrens, which form the ancient family Acanthisittidae. Part of the large group known as passerines or perching birds, they form a suborder distinct from all the others (which are oscines or songbirds).

The rock wren and the rifleman or tītiti pounamu (Acanthisitta chloris) are the only surviving members of this suborder. They are not closely related to true wrens.

Distribution

Rock wrens are confined to separated pockets in the mountains of the South Island – in north-west Nelson, the Victoria Range, and on eastern and western slopes of the Southern Alps down to Fiordland. The population is small and in decline, as they are vulnerable to predators, including stoats and mice. A 2008–10 attempt to establish a population on predator-free Secretary Island in Fiordland appears to have been successful.

Feathering its nest

In the 1920s, ornithologist Herbert Guthrie-Smith counted 791 feathers lining one rock wren nest on the Mackinnon Pass, Fiordland. Most belonged to weka, but there were also many kiwi and kākāpō feathers, and a few from kea and pigeons. Guthrie-Smith noted that the nest was fresh and dry, despite recent deluges.

Breeding

Rock wrens build elaborate nests in rocky crevices, either at ground level or up in bluffs, or sometimes tucked under subalpine scrub. They excavate soil, and build a bulky structure of dried grasses, moss, skeleton leaves and tussock, which they line with feathers. The nest is fully enclosed except for a tiny side entrance tunnel. The male feeds the female as she prepares to lay three or more cream-coloured eggs, usually in October or November. Both parents incubate the eggs, and take turns feeding the chicks.

Diet

Rock wrens eat a variety of invertebrates, including beetles, spiders, flies, caterpillars and caddisflies. They also eat berries and grass seeds.


New Zealand pipit

New Zealand pipits or pīhoihoi (Anthus novaeseelandiae) are lively insect-eating birds that live in open country throughout New Zealand. Similar in appearance to introduced skylarks, they can be distinguished by their constant bobbing action as they run or stand, flicking their long tails. The name pīhoihoi refers to this rapidly repeated movement.

Pipits are a greyer brown than skylarks, and have prominent white eyebrows. They weigh 40 grams and are 19 centimetres long.

Feigning flight

Mimicking a pipit's movements, Māori warriors sometimes used a tactic known as manukāwhaki (decoy bird). They would pretend to retreat, and lure the enemy into an ambush.

Habitat

Pipits live near beaches, in rough grasslands, on verges of unsealed roads, on open river beds, and in high-country tussock grasslands. Some fly to lower country for winter, while others maintain their breeding territory year round.

Foods

They mainly eat invertebrates, especially beetles, wasps, flies, spiders, crickets, grubs and other larvae. Beaches are a source of sandhoppers, and seeds form a minor part of their diet.

Breeding

The female pipit builds the nest, a bulky cup made of grass, tucked amongst tall clumps of grass, bracken or scrub. She lays about four eggs – cream, blotched with brown. Chicks are fed by both parents, who raise up to three clutches between August and February.

Population changes

The habitat for pipits would have increased considerably as forest was cleared, allowing the population to grow. However, their numbers declined in the 20th century, as once-rough pasture became more intensively managed, leaving little cover for nests. Meanwhile, increased use of agricultural insecticides reduced their food supply. Pipits are vulnerable to rats and other predators, especially while nesting. Their numbers increased enormously on subantarctic Campbell Island following rat eradication.

Once thought to be the same species as Richard’s pipit in Africa, Europe, Asia and Australia, the New Zealand pipit is now considered a distinct endemic New Zealand species. There are four subspecies, one in each of the following regions:

  1. North, South and Stewart islands, and nearshore islands
  2. Chatham Islands
  3. Auckland and Campbell Islands
  4. Antipodes Islands.

Welcome swallow

Welcome swallows (Hirundo neoxena) are a new addition to New Zealand’s native fauna. Known only as occasional vagrants before the 1950s, they were first noticed breeding near Kaitāia, Northland, in 1958. Since then they have spread throughout the mainland, except for the central South Island mountains. They are also found on the Chatham and Kermadec islands.

The welcome swallow also breeds in Australia and New Caledonia.

Description

Welcome swallows are small, slender birds with finely pointed wings and distinctive forked tails. They are deep blue on the head and back, with dark chestnut wings and tail. From the face to the chest they are orange-red – more intense during the breeding season – and off-white below. They are 15 centimetres long and weigh about 14 grams.

Feeding

Insects such as blowflies, midges, beetles and moths are most often taken on the wing. Sometimes aquatic insects are caught from the surface of streams and pools.

Flight patterns

During courtship, pairs hover and flutter, then pursue each other high into the sky. Once there are young to feed, adults dart swiftly from the nest, flying in long arcs to and from favoured feeding sites – often over water or grasslands.

In winter, large numbers of swallows flock together and head for reliable food supplies. They move southwards to Otago and Southland, and northwards as far as Norfolk Island. Rows of swallows are often seen perching along fences or power lines during the day. Mass overnight flocks may form in raupō (bulrush) swamps.

Nesting

Welcome swallows’ distinctive mud nests hang from vertical or near-vertical surfaces under a roof or overhang, such as walls of caves, outhouses, barns, or under bridges and jetties. The nest resembles an upside-down igloo, made of beakfuls of mud strengthened with dry grass stalks. Starting from the base, the birds build out in curved tiers, creating a cup, which they then line with grass, rootlets, wool and feathers.

Breeding and life expectancy

Females lay four or more pink eggs with red-brown flecks, raising up to three broods between August and February. Only the female incubates and broods, but both parents feed the chicks. The oldest swallow found in New Zealand was six years.


Hononga, rauemi nō waho

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How to cite this page: Christina Troup, 'Birds of mountains and open country', Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, http://www.TeAra.govt.nz/mi/birds-of-mountains-and-open-country/print (accessed 18 June 2019)

Story by Christina Troup, published 24 Sep 2007, reviewed & revised 17 Feb 2015