Te Anau is a small town of barely 2,000 inhabitants situated at the edge of New Zealand’s Fjordland National Park. It is erected along the shores of Lake Te Anau, the second largest lake in New Zealand and largest in Australasia by freshwater volume, and overlooked by Jackson Peaks (1622m), the Kepler Mountains and, further north, by the Murchinson Range.Life in Te Anau revolves almost exclusively around tourism, which means only Europeans, Asians and North Americans will cross your path in summertime. Indeed, Te Anau is a popular base to access the hyped Milford and Doubtful Sounds by boat, as well as the Routeburn and Hollyford hiking trails by road. Float plane and heli-tours also daily take off from the lake for an aerial exploration of the fjords. But the most remarkable local attraction is the Kepler Track, a 67 km alpine hiking loop that ranks among New Zealand’s nine Great Walks and attracts many hikers from overseas.
Popular among tourists, Te Anau is also a heaven for birds. The dense, varied vegetation that grows around Lake Te Anau, along the banks of the Waiau River and down the mountain slopes host many endemic, native and introduced bird species. This includes the famous kiwi in parts of the Kepler Mountains, and the critically endangered, prehistoric-looking takahē, recently reintroduced in the Murchison Mountains, which form part of its historic range.
Encountering native and endemic birds along the lake shores and sections of the Kepler Track (which I did not fully hiked) was a fascinating experience. It was delightfully surprising to discover that many New Zealand birds act incredibly bold and curious.
The endemic New Zealand fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa), a hectic, conspicuous little bird, not the least shy comes on top of my list.
The species is called “fantail” because of the way these birds often spread their long tail, like a perfect fan (a beautiful display I yet have to photograph). Fantails are vocal and incredibly curious: if you stop to watch them and try getting their attention, they will approach, flying straight at you or perching on a nearby branch to study the intruder. More than once, I had to zoom out because my subject approached too close too quickly! These birds are aerial acrobats and specialist feeders, mastering the art of catching insects in flight.
The expression on their face when they stare is priceless probably thanks to their strange little eyebrows.
Another remarkable endemic bird is the Tui (Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae). With its gorgeous iridescent plumage and slender appearance, it ressembles a large starling at first sight—starlings were introduced in New Zealand and share Tuis’ habitat.
However, the tuft of white feathers that oddly grows on these birds’ throat, like a bow tie, and the delicate lacelike collar formed by the thin white feathers that grow around their neck instantly tell the two species apart.
Tui calls are hollow and metallic—some Europeans I encountered on my travels called it the “computer bird” for this reason, which I found quite fitting. If you find yourself in Te Anau in summertime, you may hear them sing in unison—together with the endemic bellbirds—at dawn: an amazing percussion concert to start off the day.
Tuis are an emblematic New Zealand bird. A beer was even named after them (see below). These birds, which can mimic human speech like parrots or the voice of other birds, like the bellbird, have the reputation to be quite intelligent.
Although they like to keep to tree tops, Tuis will regularly descend to feed on flax flowers nectar—a native evergreen plant abundant along the shores of Lake Te Anau and in many other parts of New Zealand (the plant is called Harakeke in Maori). It is then possible to photograph these birds at close range since they are little concerned with humans when feeding.
South Island tomtits (Petroica macrocephala)—ngirungiru in Maori—are discrete passerines endemic to New Zealand. Though harder to spot than fantails or tuis, these birds are not shy either and might also decide to come take a look at you if you stop to watch them.
Despite their name, tomtits are related to robins—Australian–New Guinean robins, specifically—which is quite obvious from the way the birds move, much more alike European robins than tits. Sexual dimorphism is strong in this bird species. While females adorn a light grey plumage and creamy underparts, males are dressed in black and white with a pale yellow veil on the chest; both have reddish feet.
I was lucky to encounter two females and a male on the Kepler Track, along the Waiau River trail, on the section between the dam (see last photo below) and Rainbow Reach.
Since the male refused to come down, the photo I took of him is terrible—I shall spare you.