Tuesday, 16 February 2016

Encounters with Toutouwai, the New Zealand Robin

Just how rare are Toutouwai - New Zealand Robins? Until last week I'd only ever seen South Island robins in the wild.  In remote and beautiful places like the Kahurangi National Park and the Waitutu forest, these robins hop trustingly up to trampers, they'd sit on my boot or scratch around on the path that I'd just walked along. But to see a North Island robin (yes they are a little different) I thought I'd have to take a trip to a sanctuary like Mana Island or Zealandia.

So I was blown away to discover these delightful birds living in the wilderness in Whanganui National Park.

They are easily recognised as they are stand quite upright on long legs, the only other bird that they might be confused with is the smaller tomtit - miromiro - which doesn't stand upright, has shorter legs and white flashes under its wings.

Toutouwai is a great name for them, the first syllables seem to capture their song, and this name makes it easier for me to remember their calls. Here's a bird calling.

Males are territorial, so trampers walking a track, will move from the territory of one toutouwai into the territory of another. Some of the birds we encountered were shy and no amount of ground scratching to stir up insects would lure them down. But we struck lucky one lunch time with a youngish bird that had a sense of adventure. It seemed to like the red tramping pack, landing on it again and again, it tried out my boot but was not impressed. The best was the signpost that was beside the track, which it thought a great vantage point for checking us out and seeing what insects we might have stirred up.

Toutouwai in danger
According to New Zealand Birds Online the habitat of the North Island Robin is limited to mature forests in the central North Island, except of course sanctuaries where there are few predators. Apart from loss of forests, the main issue is predators such as possums, rats, stoats and feral cats. When I read that the female is particularly at risk of becoming a meal to one of these predators, because she sits on the eggs in the nest, it made me wonder whether we were just seeing male robins. The Department of Conservation website says that there ends up being many more males than females as a result of predation. The fact that we saw a juvenile is perhaps some encouragement that the birds are breeding here. A lot of work was going on to reduce predators in the area.

South Island, North Island, Stewart Island robins, what's the difference?
To look at the North Island robin has a much less distinct white patch on its front, in some cases it's almost all grey. South Island and North Island robins are different species, that surprised me as they look so similar. South Island and Stewart Island robins are sub-species so more closely related.

South Island Robin on the Heaphy Track
Are they true robins?
My tramping companion wanted to know whether New Zealand's robins are closely related to European robins. The answer is that they are not, instead they are part of a group of Australasian birds so they have closer relatives in Australia, such as the scarlet robin and the rose robin. Perhaps it was the colouring of these birds and the shape of the bird that inspired European settlers to call them robins.

Writing about robins
When I was writing In the Bush: explore and discover New Zealand's native forests, I made the decision to put the robin in the sanctuary picture and have it on the 'rare forest birds' page, despite them appearing to be 'common' in some South Island forests. That's because most children won't see them on a local bush walk, to see these birds, they'll probably need to go to sanctuary.

Places you might see Toutouwai - North Island Robin:
Tiritiri Matangi, Bushy Park, Lake Rotokare, Boundary Stream Reserve, Kapiti Island, Mana Island, Moehau Coromandel, Zealandia (not a complete list I'm sure, let me know if there are more places to add) and of course Whanganui National Park.

More information: