Although kaka, takahe and kiwi are among the headline
species living at Orokonui Ecosanctuary, the forested valley
also harbours some bush birds that are dainty and intriguing,
writes Neville Peat.
Orokonui Ecosanctuary's bush birds are a diverse lot.
Most visitors would recognise a fantail, silvereye, tui or
bellbird, and some would know a South Island tomtit and its
larger cousin, the South Island robin, if they came upon them
perching inquisitively, at a rakish angle, on a low branch.
A grey warbler's drawn-out, plaintive warble is familiar
enough, too, thanks to the airtime it gets on National
Radio's Morning Report programme. Inside the
ecosanctuary's visitor centre, the bird calls of many of the
birds of the Orokonui Valley forest can be played on
push-button command. That on-call bird-call facility makes it
a good place to tune in before a walk around the
ecosanctuary's network of tracks.
Among the bush birds only a few people might know are two
small species: brown creeper/pipipi and rifleman/titipounamu.
The ecosanctuary is a great place to get to know them because
good numbers of both species live in the forest and
The brown creeper (Mohoua novaeseelandiae) is the
easier of the two species to spot.
Typically, they move in flocks through the forest canopy and
mid-canopy, chirruping cheerfully as they go. Reddish-brown
on the upper parts and light buff below, they are cousins of
the endangered mohua (yellowhead) and the North Island's
whitehead, a long-isolated and old family of New Zealand
Ornithologist Derek Onley, of Waitati, who leads the annual
bird surveys at Orokonui, says brown creepers were already
present in the valley before the predator fence was built; in
fact, they topped the pre-fence averages for five-minute
Bellbird counts have overtaken them on these counts since the
fence was completed.
Despite their adaptive nature (they may be found in pine
plantations) brown creepers are not well known. Derek
believes their name could be off-putting.
"Brown creeper conjures up a little drab, mousey, unexciting
bird that clings closely to tree trunks in impenetrable
In contrast, New Zealand brown creepers are perky, busy
little birds that bounce around, hang upside-down and
investigate every crevice and cranny in a kanuka tree before
If brown creepers are the industrious "elves" of Orokonui,
the rifleman takes on a "fairy" persona. They are almost as
invisible as tree fairies.
The South Island rifleman (Acanthisitta chloris) is
New Zealand's smallest bird, weighing 6g to 7g and measuring
up to 8cm long, with a stunted tail.
Like brown creepers, they lived in the Orokonui forest before
the fence building and the predator removal and they also
remain in good numbers.
Males are a yellow-green above; females a browner shade.
Insect-eaters, they run along branches and up and down tree
trunks like mice, but you need to have a sharp eye to see
them moving through the greenery and even sharper hearing to
detect their calls. Their standard "zipt-zipt-zipt" call is
so high-pitched some people will not hear it.
The rifleman belongs to an ancient and distinctive group of
birds, the New Zealand wrens, of which there are only two
left - rifleman and the mountain-dwelling rock wren. As a
result of their long isolation in New Zealand they have no
close affinity to any other group of birds. They are found in
many forested areas of the South Island, as high as shrubland
above the treeline.
They have a co-operative approach to raising chicks.
Adults other than the parents and sometimes siblings as well,
known as "helpers", are often involved with feeding the two
to five chicks in a clutch. Holes in trees and bank crevices
are their usual nest sites, which they line with feathers,
lichen and leaf skeletons.
Both rifleman and brown creeper have just begun a new
season's breeding cycle, and Derek Onley's band of bird
counters, venturing forth every two weeks until January, will
be checking them out along with 24 or so other bird species
recorded at the ecosanctuary.
Neville Peat chairs the Orokonui Ecosanctuary trust
board. Wild Ways appears in the Magazine section on the first
Saturday of the month.