Reasons to go hard for the environment #1 South Island Robin


This is the little South Island robin that blessed us with a 15 minute up close visit on our walk up the Fox River.

In January during the summer holidays, our family spent two weeks in the South Island. We had a very typical New Zealand Summer experience weather wise. We packed up to leave in 34 degrees of hot dry nor’west wind and travelled south into an almost stable 13 degrees, lots of rain, and even a snowfall on the Southern Alps as a southerly blew through. Despite this we had a magic time. A leaking tent at Fox Glacier was no barrier to us enjoying the majestic scenery and showing the kids the glaciers. We were determined to let them see the glaciers before they retreat too far up their valleys to see at all. We wanted them to see what humanity is loosing. Climate change is real and it was graphically clear at Franz Josef Glacier just how far it has retreated in the lifetime of our ten year old daughter. If ever we as a family needed a reminder why we need to go hard for the environment the glaciers were an incredible and terribly sad proof that we (collectively) have to make more effort.

A few days later we drove up to Punakaiki and we got lucky and struck the sunniest and warmest day of our holiday. We headed up the Fox River to walk up the track for a bit and find a swimming hole. On route to find the perfect swimming spot we were blessed by the presence of a South Island robin. I have never seen a South Island robin before (although I have met the closely related North Island robin Mana Island). Our whole family of five sat down and waited to see what this precious little bird would do. I roughed up the leaf litter with my foot wondering if it would see some interesting little bugs. It hopped right up to us and spent 15 mins pecking around, watching us cautiously, and practically sitting on our feet. It was so trusting of us. And it is so unusual that a lot of New Zealanders have never had such an experience. It was so close we could see it’s tiny eyelashes, and watch as it raised it feathers each time we moved. Imagine if we could see these little birds in our back yards. Our native species are often overlooked and forgotten because they are so rare that they are effectively invisible to us as we go about our daily lives.

I find that as I am swamped with the day to day grind of work, housework, the kids sports practices and games, doctor appointments, shopping for the weekly food, remembering to return library books and all the multitudinous things that life throws at me, the environment can get swamped. Sometimes I need a wake up call to remind me what we are trying to do as a family and why it matters. I know I am not the only one to start off with good intentions only to forget in the rush and regret it later. So I have decided to post short blogs on key NZ species (animal, bird, plant and insect) to help act as a reminder why conservation and the environment matter so much. Many animals and insects and plants are suffering because they are not ‘glamourous’ or famous and as a result they are overlooked altogether. Who has time to think about skinks as they rush to get the supermarket before it closes? Many are never seen by most New Zealander’s and perhaps many people, like me just need a reminder why it all matters. Climate change is hurting these creatures as well as us. They have no voice to argue for themselves. Instead they rely on us to value them and speak for them.


Our South Island robin friend watching us carefully to see if we would scuff up any more insects. I love how slender and tall its little legs are.

South Island robin/Toutouwai:

Robins/Toutouwai are very curious birds with intelligent bright eyes and will come really close to you.  As you walk through the forest your feet disturb small insects in the leaf litter and they are attracted to this. They are about the size of a sparrow and stand tall on long legs. There is a North Island robin (Petroica longipes), a South Island robin (Petroica australis australis), and a Stewart Island robin (Petroica australis rakiura). They are all New Zealand robins although, the North Island robin is a completely different species from the other two subspecies.  We met North Island Robins on Mana Island when we visited with our kids and spent time picking up plastic on the beach. An interesting fact about robins is that they are believed to be able to count.

Distribution: The South Island robin is found through both the South and Stewart Islands, although it’s populations are disjointed. The North Island robin is found only in the North Island.

New Zealand status: Endemic

Conservation status: Declining

Threats: Habitat loss, predation.

Predators: Introduced mammalian predators, such as feral cats, stoats, possums and ship rats.

Habitat: Forests with dense even canopies, an open understory, and fertile soils covered with leaf litter. Robins can be found in exotic forest stands. Robins are not found in areas with widely scattered trees and where the ground is covered by grasses or sparse vegetation on stony, droughty soils.  

Diet: Invertebrates including cicadas, stick insects, tree weta and slugs, as well as smaller insects. During dry periods and during summer and autumn they will take small fruits and berries.

How we can help robins in NZ: They are at risk and declining throughout the South Island, which means they could easily become threatened if we don’t help them out. They need us to support predator eradication efforts and to lobby for their habitat to be protected.


A view of the stunning Fox River on the West Coast. This is robin habitat and we need to protect and safeguard remaining habitat and support predator eradication efforts.