Fernbirds forever

Guest bloggers: Co-campaign managers for the Fernbird, Kent Xie and Michael Coote

We strongly advocate for the Fernbird (Bowdleria punctata to science, Matata, Kotata or Toetoe to Maori, and swamp sparrow to early European settlers) to be elected Forest & Bird’s Bird of the Year.

Fernbird, Craig McKenzie

Fernbird, Craig McKenzie

This endemic, once widespread and abundant bird of wetlands and low tangled scrub urgently deserves more public attention.
About 18 cm in length, the fernbird is rich brown above, paler below, and heavily streaked and spotted dark brown over the throat and breast.  The forehead and crown are chestnut and there is a white eyebrow stripe. Half of the bird’s length is made up of frayed-looking brown tail feathers, which it droops characteristically when in flight.

 Although the fernbird is known as a weak flier, juveniles do travel (not a great distance) to set up new territories. 
Fernbirds live in pairs and from their dense scrub habitat typically call out to each other in a duet, making a high-pitched, metallic “u-u-u tic, tic” sound.
“It’s one of the most beautiful bird calls I can ever imagine,” recalled Matuku Reserve’s Ranger John Staniland (also chairman of F&B Waitakere) of his amazing experience from the Bethells Swamp boardwalk.
“I stood right in the middle between a pair of fernbirds calling out to each other from either side,” he said. “It was such a sensational synchronised duet!”
The fernbird mainly feeds on small insects and both parents feed the chicks.
It is a shy and secretive bird, but this habit of hiding away from threats is probably what has enabled it to survive against horrendous odds where other New Zealand endemic bird species have fallen by the wayside. Sadly its Chatham Islands cousin Bowdleria rufescens is believed to have become extinct around 1900 thanks to bird collecting and habitat destruction.
Although given to hiding, fernbirds are naturally curious and when you click small stones together or mimic their high pitched calling sound in their habitat, they will often poke their heads out of the scrub to have a look and then quickly disappear again.
Maori knew the fernbird as “the wise bird” because of it’s ability to warn them about impending troubles or foretell good fortune depending on how its cry changed (nzbirds.com).
We owe the fernbird a huge debt of gratitude because when government land was being transferred to the then new Department of Conservation, fernbird presence was often the one criterion that allowed wetlands to be conserved.
Nearly 90% of New Zealand’s wetland area has been lost since the early 1800s, and many remaining lakes and wetlands are degraded from the effects of farming: burning, wetland drainage, chemical spraying, and fertiliser runoff from surrounding farmland.
Voting for the fernbird as Bird of the Year is more than just about a bird, it’s about raising public awareness of the unique conservation values of the fragile wetland environments the fernbird lives in.
Putting the spotlight on the fernbird for once could attract much needed attention to wetland protection and restoration. This kind of conservation activity has seldom been seen as glamorous like Kauri forest regeneration, Kakapo breeding, Kiwi monitoring, Kokako releasing, etc.
So let the fernbird have a go at becoming Bird of the Year and the mascot for wetland conservation.
From Kaitaia to Stewart Island, every F&B branch surely has threatened wetlands or low scrublands in its area, meaning every branch is likely to have fernbirds dwelling on its patch.
Vote the fernbird for “Bird of the Year” so we can honour this distinctive endemic species, attract more attention to wetland restoration, and save the threatened fernbird’s habitat before it’s too late!
Kent Xie and Michael Coote

« | »


Leave a comment »

  1. September 15, 2009 11:46 am
    Anne says

    What a bird!! Come on people – we’ve done away with nearly all the wetlands that this little fella lived in, and yet he’s still here – just! And now further road-widening plans in Auckland are threatening even what little of his habitat remains right in the heart of the city. Give him the credit he deserves for survival on his own all this time, and in urban places as well as less-heavily-populated places.
    And for being such a proponent of conservation at the time of lands being identified for going to the then-new Dept of Conservation. We owe him a debt. Vote fernbird and say thanks for all your work, mate!!

    Pity the photo of this bird doesn’t show his glorious tail – his crowning-glory as it were, and why he’s called the fernbird…his frilly tail’s not unlike a fern frond. Very patritoic -two NZ symbols in one – what a bargain!! A picture showing his tail is in the Green Room

  2. September 15, 2009 12:08 pm
    Anne says


  3. September 15, 2009 2:18 pm
    Michael Coote says

    Motu Manawa (Pollen Island) Marine Reserve has been identified as a fernbird habitat smack in the middle of Auckland City. Fernbirds are recorded from Pollen Island and Traherne Island within the marine reserve area. Unfortunately these two islands are right in the pathway of the planned widening of State Highway 16 between St Lukes Road and Royal Road. Indeed the present motorway carriageway bisects Traherne Island and almost touches Pollen Island. Protection of these habitats from motorway widening damage and destruction is a major conservation issue for Forest and Bird to take up. The link to Transit New Zealand’s description of the motorway expansion is attached. A vote for the fernbird is a vote for the preservation of its habitat in the Motu Manawa (Pollen Island) Marine Reserve.

  4. September 15, 2009 2:21 pm
    Michael Coote says

    The link to the Transit New Zealand webpage didn’t seem to come out in my previous posting, so I add it here:


  5. September 17, 2009 7:05 pm
    Anne says

    Interesting precedent – re fernbirds influencing motorway-building


  6. September 19, 2009 8:51 am
    Anne says

    “Bog-dwelling”?(in the voting list description). That has a distinct Northern Ireland tone about it. More Aotearoa is “wetland-dweller”, surely?…

    Also, is there some reason the birds weren’t listed in alphabetical order? Kea won the random draw, obviously.

  7. September 19, 2009 9:49 am
    Mandy says

    I have had numerous calls for me to alphabetise the list, however that means that people will just scroll down to their favourite bird without looking at the other contenders. The kea was the first one to spring to mind, so I added it first – no dirty tricks. I am also campaigning for the albatross and the kokako, which you’ll see are waaay down the list….

  8. September 19, 2009 1:35 pm
    Anne says

    Maybe if you combined them into a ke-alba-kako it’d give rifleman a run for it’s money…
    A snow parrot with an enormous wing-span and cute blue wattles and an amazing resonating birdsong as it rips the rubbers out of your car windows…

  9. September 20, 2009 4:04 pm
    Jo Anne says

    A small colony of fernbirds on Limestone Island, (off the coast of Onerahi, inner Whangarei harbour)harmonising in the lowland shrubs, flying their signature tail feathers; and we could only SMELL the kiwis!

  10. September 21, 2009 10:38 pm
    Tom Tit says

    How can someone with the name Coote be the campaign manager for the fernbird?

  11. October 12, 2009 11:49 am
    David says

    Great work Michael talking Radio Live on Sat. You are right this is more than a bird, it’s about our precious wetland. Nice to have someone to stand out from the rest of the crowd! Vote for fernbird!!! I will tell our school on Monday as the kids return to the class.

  12. October 12, 2009 12:36 pm
    Kent says

    Went to Auckland museum last week to listen to John Ogden, Associate Professor (Forest Ecology), School of Geography and Environmental Science, University of Auckland, about wetland protectino in Great Barrier Island. It was very interesting. Probably about more than 100 people turned up!

    John Ogden’s research specialises in forest dynamics and dendrochronology (the dating of past events by looking at tree rings), but with strong interests in wetlands. He was awarded a DSc from the University of Wales (where he did his PhD) and is a fellow of The Royal Society of New Zealand. John has now spent 20 years working on the wetlands of Great Barrier Island.

    The wetlands of New Zealand represent a series of unique ecosystems and also act as repositories of information about the past. Associate Professor John Ogden from the University of Auckland will talk about the vital processes involved in shifting a landscape from marine to coastal wetland and then to alluvial plain with special reference to Kaitoke swamp and Whangapoua Estuary on Great Barrier Island. Plant colonisation will be illustrated and historical changes on the wetlands described using palynology and the final discussion will focus on the environmental effects of drainage and describe the need to recognise the role of wetland systems in coastal hydrology and carbon sequestration.

    Anyone enjoyed the talk – vote for fernbird, ambasstor for our wetland.

  13. October 12, 2009 1:38 pm
    Dave says

    Kids loved the presentation about fernbird. Some of them will be running a text campaign to get their friends to vote at class.

  14. October 12, 2009 1:46 pm
    Anne says

    .Hi David..Cheers!! Thanks for the support. There’s some really good info about fernbirds and a particular case study near you, and that’s Pollen Island (NW motorway). Info about it is in the Green Room on this website, or in the Central Auckland branch info, including the branch’s latest newsletter (also archived on this website) Please keep in touch if you or your school is interested in any research-work/way to get the kids involved over there. I mean, kids are where conservation is at.
    You’re quite right too, Michael’s interview on radio was compelling indeed.

  15. October 12, 2009 2:19 pm
    Dave says

    Thanks Anne for the information. Your campaign managers have done great job. We only had 64 students came to the class today. Keep those motorway expension under control! We had enough noise for west Auckland.

  16. October 12, 2009 2:26 pm
    Kent says

    Anyone else heard Radio Live in the weekend? Here is the Fernbird call clip. Cheers.


  17. October 12, 2009 2:28 pm
    Kent says

    Boy these school kids made hell of difference :)

  18. October 12, 2009 5:27 pm
    Graeme Hill says

    Hey you Fernbirders. Well done. What a surge! I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a massive jump in BOTY polling in such a short time. Michael Coote made an utterly compelling case for this elusive treasure on Radio Live on Saturday.

    From the Grey Warbler campaign headquarters… hats off.


  19. October 12, 2009 5:47 pm
    Anne says

    From one NZ native to another….Cheers
    And getting kids involved in the voting. Just fantastic!! They’re our future!!
    Go fernbird, and go wetlands!!
    Never say it’s over til the fernbird sings….

  20. October 12, 2009 10:21 pm
    Kent says

    All the voters out there, if your area or someone you know that lives near where wetlands are being distroyed for massive development and motorway expension (particularly west Auckland), ask people you know to vote for fernbird. Give wetland a voice. Protect our Pollen Island marine reserve for fernbirds! Everyday when you drive through SH16 crossing the causeway, look out the window and you know you can make and have made the difference!! Thanks to you all.

  21. October 12, 2009 10:22 pm
    Kent says

    More blog info: http://forum.forestandbird.org.nz/topic/auckland-motorway-expension-vs-conservation

  22. October 13, 2009 2:35 pm
    Kent says

    Thank you all the friends and supporters of the fernbirds out there. —======+++++ Who would have known we can make it to the top 10!!!!! +++++======— Other big and famous birds were laughing out before but let’s wait and see what happens! Protection for our wetlands and help us give fernbird a voice to advocate for Pollen Island Marin Reserve — fighting for a high level of conservation consideration as part of the Northwest motorway widening. Go fernbird!!!!!

  23. October 15, 2009 1:23 pm
    Kent says

    To those of you who responded to our appeal of yesterday and voted for the fernbird in the Forest & Bird Bird of the Year elections, many thanks!

    Your votes helped ensure that the fernbird made it into the Top 10, with most of the other nine birds household names and in some cases national icons. As a consequence, the fernbird was listed in the press release put out by Forest and Bird to announce the results. This is a real publicity achievement for an obscure species like the fernbird. It even aced the fantail, NZ falcon, Pukeko, Kereru, Kokako & Kaka!

    There is method in the madness, as we are involved with the conjoint project of Forest & Bird Waitakere and Central Auckland branches in lobbying Transit NZ to make some conservation and restoration improvements in the Motu Manawa (Pollen Island) Marine Reserve, through which the planned State Highway 16/Northwestern Motorway widening project will run. You may not have heard of the Motu Manawa (Pollen Island) Marine Reserve, but you are driving through it when you travel along the Northwestern Motorway between Waterview and Te Atatu & Rosebank Peninsula. The motorway crosses directly over Traherne Island and runs alongside Pollen Island.

    Our leverage is that the nationally endangered fernbird is recorded as living on Pollen Island and Traherne Island within the marine reserve. The fact that fernbirds live there will oblige mitigation strategies to be included in the SH16 widening, as was obligated when the State Highway 1/Northern Motorway extension was built near Puhoi. In the latter case a viaduct was constructed to carry the motorway, so that local fernbirds could hop blissfully underneath it rather than risk getting killed crossing the road.

    To their credit Transit NZ and DoC are up to speed with the fernbird’s need in the SH16 project.

    Go fernbird!

    The top 10 birds in this year’s poll are:

    1. Kiwi (1586 votes)
    2. Rifleman (1230 votes)
    3. Kea (1093 votes)
    4. Kakapo (829 votes)
    5. Tui (619 votes)
    6. Takahe (571 votes)
    7. Fernbird (462 votes)
    8. Fantail ( 395 votes)
    9. Karearea/native falcon (383 votes)
    10. Pukeko (382 votes)

    Many thanks again for your interest and efforts in the fernbird’s cause. The fernbird thanks you from the bottom of its little heart!

    The Fernbird Team

  24. October 15, 2009 2:31 pm
    Anne says

    If you read this, can you please pass on our thanks to the students. They really kick-started fernbird’s cannonball-run.
    We now continue with the Pollen Island campaign-work re the motorway to do our best to safeguard fernbird’s home there.

  25. January 18, 2010 2:28 pm
    maria says

    Hi reading through about the fernbird,very interesting,its a beautiful bird i just see one last friday didn’t hear the sound of its cry but seening it i like the pretty colours of the body and the tail too.

  26. January 18, 2010 2:31 pm
    maria says

    see this bird at swampy track behind dunedin its nice walk if its beautiful day.

  27. January 21, 2010 3:10 pm
    anne says

    Heard from a colleague who lives in Dunedin that fernbirds can be seen and heard quite readily at Lenz Reserve, although sure they’re lots of other places too.
    They vary quite a bit in colours and markings depending on location throughout the country, apparently.

  28. March 14, 2012 9:33 am
    Leonardo Da Weedy says

    Maui the dainty dolphin

    Amidst the North Island’s Tasman shallows,
    Swims a diminutive global rarity indeed,
    These black, grey and white little fellows,
    Maui the dainty Dolphin tragically recede,
    To save them from the extinction gallows,
    Let us in total diligently strive together I plead,

    The world’s shrinking at an ever accerlating rate,
    To feed the growing billions of ravenous mouths,
    The great stormy southern oceans are being raped,
    Create a marine reserve seems to be the wisest tout
    We’re but an average twenty/twenty innings away,
    From only having Canterbury’s Hector’s in the South,

    Has New Zealand’s environmental image become globally indistinct?
    As humanity seethes and swarms across the shrinking lands,
    Please, I beg of you let’s not let Maui become extinct,
    Their very existence lays cradled in the palm of our hands,

    Leonardo Da Weedy ©2012

    Yellow eyed penguins

    My favourite part of New Zealand when summer comes around,
    Are the sandy strips where everyone goes &the ocean meets the ground?

    Umbrella shading the blanket on the sand and the radio on the Chilli Bin playing cool tunes,
    Look its Yellow eyed Penguins waddling down to the ocean from its home in the sand dunes,

    Although they are only tiny fellows they really do impress,
    Living along our coasts in their snazzy black & white formal dress,

    When you see them, just look but leave them well alone,
    They’re just going fishing to feed the young one at their home,

    Before you go home make sure your patch of beach is clean,
    Because if it’s kept that way the Yellow eyed Penguins in future will still be seen.

    New Zealand’s rapid dweller Whio or blue duck
    Struggles with humanities ever expanding demands
    Like other Kiwi fauna it’s running out of luck
    It’s worth saving our $10.00 its portrait commands

    After 150 years of unconsidered animal importation
    Of rats, pigs, possums cats, ferrets and stoats
    With the natural inhabitants losing the confrontation
    Running rampant from the endless incoming boats

    New Zealand I fear won’t be Godzone any more
    With indigenous inhabitants competition at their side
    However we are not facing alone this ecological war
    To our species disgrace it now endemic world wide

    Leonardo Da Weedy 2012

  29. August 15, 2012 5:56 pm
    Geoff Ray says

    Fernbirds were plentiful and easily observed on Conical Peak Rd. Matakana many years ago but were killed off by [ I believe ] rats. Not usually associated with 300m. altitude.

  30. November 12, 2012 10:09 am
    L.Shannon says

    Mandy, or anyone, my daughter is doing a project on the stewart island fernbird. would appreciated any info . thanks guys.

  31. November 19, 2012 6:47 am
    Lauren says

    Does anyone now how long a stewart Island Fernbird can live for?

RSS feed for comments on this post. TrackBack URL

Write a comment

HTML is disabled, but URLs will be auto-linked. Your e-mail address won't show up on this page. Please note that all comments are moderated prior to publication.

* Required field