Becoming a bird nerd

Department of Conservation —  20/12/2021

Everyone has their nature favourites. We’re sharing some of ours and are keen to learn yours. Today on the blog, we hear from a bird nerd in training. She shares her tips on how to deepen your connection with nature while out enjoying your nature favourites this summer.

By Ruth McKie, DOC Digital Channels Analyst & keen tramper

My summer tramping favourite – swimming in an alpine tarn.
📷: Jarren Beckett.

Tramping is one of my favourite things. Especially in summer when it’s warmer and a hot sweltering slog up a hill is rewarded by a freezing cold swim in an alpine tarn.

I’ve done quite a few different trips over the years and bagged a fair few huts (haven’t sat down and counted them though). To me tramping is a carefully balanced ratio of good views, food, and people.

Get this balance right and it’s a cracker of a trip. But if that friend who tends to shake the hut with their snoring comes along or the rain covers up my nice mountain views, the ratio for a cracker trip gets a bit out of whack.

My weakness…

One of my weak points is understanding the nature that is around me on my adventures in the hills. We are so lucky to have Aotearoa as our backyard and the incredible species that call the great outdoors their home.

As I said, I’ve done a lot of tramping and led a few groups on trips too. Often people ask me (thinking I’m an all-knowing DOC ranger since I work for DOC) what a bird or plant is and I’ll stumble through an answer based on things I’ve picked up from friends or colleagues in the office, or if I’m lucky there’s a ‘bird nerd’ in my group to fend off the questions.

Recently I went on a tramp, and I decided that this time I would be prepared. This time I was going to arm myself with a bird identifying app and actually put some effort into understanding what I am hearing and seeing in the variety of terrain my trip covered.

I said to myself that it was about time that I learnt the language of the birds – here in Aotearoa we’re so privileged to have such a variety of birdlife and vast outdoor spaces waiting to be explored. The least I can do is take some time to understand this environment, to connect with it in a deeper way and appreciate why we need to protect it.

Me soaking in the views and listening to the birds chattering before it’s both theirs and my bedtime.
📷: Lucy Holyoake

The ‘how to’ of becoming a bird nerd

So, step one in this journey was downloading a bird app. I’m not one to use my phone tramping apart from the occasional photo – mostly because it dies within a few hours (old phone problems). So, I armed myself with a power bank too. I also took some time to google the area and track I was going on to see if there was anything unique to the area I should keep a special eye out for e.g. I know the only place you can see takahē in the wild is on the Heaphy Track or whio/blue duck can be spotted in clean, fast-flowing rivers if you’re lucky.

One thing that I learnt in my bird identification researching is that it’s very important that you don’t play the bird call recordings while out on the track/in the bush. This can distract them and cause the birds to leave their nest, leaving their chicks vulnerable to predators. It also can waste the bird’s energy which they need to get food and carry out their natural behaviours.

So I made sure to study up/play the recordings only when in the hut or use headphones when out on the track if I wanted to double check the call.

Looking for flapping or bobbing

Within 10 mins of walking, I had heard my first bird. So, I stopped, started scanning the trees and sky looking for any flapping or bobbing signs of life. After a minute I was rewarded with a flutter of wings in the bush next to me! I had visual contact.

I took a moment to study the colours – there was a grey head, white/yellowy chest, tiny beak, and heart-meltingly cute. So, I opened the app and started looking through the photos trying to match the bird. I found a picture that looked about right so clicked on it and played the call to myself through my headphones to see if it matched.

Sure enough, it sounded right! I’d made my first friend with the miromiro/tomtit.

Female tomtit – this isn’t my photo, I was too busy identifying and soaking in the moment to get my own photos so this one is taken by a talented friend on one of his trips.
📷: Luke Sutton.

She continued to dance around the branches for a bit and then flew off.

Before I continued, I went through my app again and played a few other bird calls through my headphones to familiarise myself and know what to listen out for as I was walking.

After a bit, I heard some very distinguishable loud singing. I couldn’t get a sighting of it so instead this time had to identify it by sound. After a few tries playing various calls in my headphones, I found it, it was a chaffinch. This was a call I noticed a lot on my trip and every time I heard it, I now knew it was my new friend, the chaffinch.

Chaffinch – the loud singer! (not my picture)
📷: Andrew Walmsley.

The other great thing about the app is it had some basic info about the birds and some fun facts so you learn as you go. Did you know that the titipounamu/rifleman weighs 6 grams, this is roughly the weight of three Maltesers?!

The titipounamu/rifleman, so tiny! (not my picture)
📷: Leon Berard.

Meeting the tuke/rock wren

On my trip, I knew I would be entering tuke/rock wren territory and after reading a bit about them online before going away, I was very keen to meet one. They sound like very cool birds and are quite tricky to spot.

Fun fact, a rock wren nest can be as warm as 30 degrees, when outside it is below freezing!

I was up for the spotting challenge though. I had asked the DOC hut warden where some hot spots might be to keep a lookout so that when I got there, I was ready. I had also used my app to memorise their calls, so I knew what to listen for. No luck in the first spot the ranger recommended so I kept going, tripping up on things on the track because silly me had my eyes glued to the sky not where I was going!

Me tuke/rock wren searching, scanning the hillside for any signs of movement.
📷: Lo Hughes.

After a while I was ready to give up, eyes tired from squinting trying to see small movement among the rocks, but I did one last scan. Then I heard three high pitched notes! I froze and very carefully scanned the rocks around me, sure enough one popped out on the rock in front of me bobbing up and down!

Tuke/rock wren. Again, not my picture my old phone couldn’t get something like this!
📷: Luke Sutton.

He looked at me sternly checking if I was a friend or foe. He bobbed around a bit, showing himself off to me and then once he’d determined this bright blue tramper was safe, he signalled to what looked like his lady friend and she popped out too, flitting round the bushes and rocks. I soaked it all in. I was stoked!

Tuke/rock wren bobbing on a flax bush – can you see how well they blend into their environment?
📷: Ruth McKie

The results…

Because I took time to regularly scan the trees along the track and listen carefully, I saw and heard so many birds! This included the titipounamu/rifleman, korimako/bellbird, pīwakawaka/fantail, riroriro/grey warbler, skylark, toutouwai/robin, tuke/rock wren, miromiro/tomtit, tūī, chaffinch, kākā, kea and more.

The kea – it’s really important you don’t feed these birds but just enjoy their cheekiness from afar. Keep a close eye on your gear as they love to chew it up when you’re not looking!
📷: Luke Sutton.

Taking some extra time on my trip to actively look for birds and understand who was keeping me company in the bush truly enhanced my experience and I came back buzzing. I felt so much more connected to the nature around me.

Typically tramping for me can be about the views, the social aspects of spending time with friends, exploring new places, the rush of busting your gut to bag a peak. Or now with my new bird knowledge, enjoying gingernut apple crumble under the stars listening to kiwi and ruru/morepork calling.

Another summer favourite – when the weather is right, safely climbing peaks with pretty views. Perk of bird nerding – looking for birds gives you the chance to catch your breath on the way up the hill!
📷: Luke Sutton.

Wherever your nature favourites take you this summer, I challenge you to take some time to learn about and listen to the birds from the mountains to the sea that call Aotearoa home. I promise you’ll feel far more connected to nature, get a huge wellbeing buzz, and have a greater appreciation for protecting the great outdoors.

I’ll pop some links below to get you started. Happy bird nerding this summer!

– Your fellow bird nerder (in training!)

When out and about this summer, remember to be safe and respectful of other people, wildlife and places during the summer. Protect our precious native species including kea by not feeding them– even if they ask.

If you want a picture, don’t get close – use your zoom instead. Getting too close stresses wildlife.

Consult the DOC website, pop into the local visitor centre, and know the weather and track conditions before you set off. On the day, tell someone your plans and make sure you pack all you need.

Recommend links:

6 responses to Becoming a bird nerd

    Claudia Mason 06/03/2022 at 1:01 pm

    Fantastic article – really encouraging to bird nerds


    Cool! I’m sure many wishes to enjoy such beautiful moments in life. That place is just pure nature.

    Michael Murphy 21/12/2021 at 8:36 am

    Great article, from fellow bird nerd I recommend getting a decent set of 10×42 binos as they are essential for any serious birder.

    Kevin Deadman 20/12/2021 at 11:07 pm

    I’ve been hunting in the North Island and south ialand for 50years and have never seen a bird watcher. They must be very close to extinction or its to late. They are already extinct.

    Carole Frances Long 20/12/2021 at 11:49 am

    Great article and amazing photos- thanks from a fellow bird nerd 🙂