NZ Wildlife part 2 (trip to bird island)

Whilst there’s still plenty of unique natural wonders in New Zealand, thanks to a thousand years or so of human intervention the wildlife is a shadow of its former self, so I wanted to go somewhere as close as it’s possible to get to the way this land was we before humans arrived.

Kapiti is a small, hilly island just off the coast of North Island. In the 19th century European settlers burnt off most of the native bush and introduced domestic animals. However, with typical kiwi foresight, the island was declared a nature reserve back in 1897, so it’s had over a century to recover. The dozen or so people who live there (without phones, TV or mains electricity) are mainly Maori, and consider themselves custodians of the land. Other than the half a dozen dwellings at the north end of the island and a shelter in the reseve at the centre, the place has gone back to nature. Most importantly, humans are the only mammals now, so many native bird species have flourished, some after having been re-introduced from captive breeding programs.

As well as the ubiquitous Tui, I spotted Bellbirds, New Zealand Robins, Bush Canaries, New Zealand Wood Pigeons and the red-crowned parakeet (Kaririki in Maori), a bird which has, as they say, beautiful plumage, in this case a green so bright it looks artifical. Less bright and more irritating were the Kakas, which, along with the Kea, is an example of the New Zealand Evil Genius Parrot. Kaka use team tactics to relieve visitors of their food, one bird distracting the mark with amusing antics whilst the other siddles up to pounce on an unprotected head or shoulder. If the shock doesn’t startle you into dropping your lunch, a sharp nip to the finger or ear should do the trick.   

Evil parrots aside, we typically expect birds to fulfill niches which involve flying and tweeting prettily. Some NZ birds do fly and/or tweet, but with no mammals until the Maori arrived a thousand or so years ago, they’ve had plenty of time to evolve into the not-typically-avian niches. This has sometimes involved foresaking songs in favour of more unexpected noises (see previous posting re: Tui) and in a lot of case, forgetting how to fly. One flightless non-singing bird with its own unique place in the pre-human ecology is the Weka (not to be confused with the Weta, which is a big ugly grasshopper-analogue capable of surviving being deep-frozen). Weka are avian rats. Looking a little like a large partridge, this creature knows neither fear nor common sense. It hangs out anywhere food might be scrounged and will pick up and carry off any likely candidates for edibility. All the houses on Kapiti have Weka-proof half doors. Weka constantly squabble over mates, territory and, of course, food. Disputes are resolved by two of them facing off, fluffing up their feathers till they look like mottled brown beach-balls, and emiting a noise like someone banging an upturned plastic bucket with a rubber mallet. Then they simultanously jump up to collide in mid-air, after which they run off, sometimes with the victor pursuing the loser, but more often in random directions.

Most visitors to Kapiti come for the day, and all the above-mentioned birdlife can be seen in a few hours (in the case of the Weka and the Kaka, you’d be hard put to avoid it). I spent the day at the main reserve, but when the other tourists went home I carried on in the company of Beloved and two friends, to stay over at the tiny Maori settlement of Waiorua. This gave me the chance to eat possibly the best seafood chowder I’ve ever had whilst looking at one of the best views I’ve ever eaten to, back over the strait to the hills of the mainland, and to sleep in one of the most peaceful locations I’ve ever slept in (even if a trip to the loo did require a short walk with a torch). More importantly, I got to see a couple of rare birds hardly ever viewed in the wild any more. Only 200 Takahe exist in the whole world, but about a dozen of them make their home on the island, and one liked to hang around the lodge where we stayed. It looked like a knee-high Dodo, black with a bright red beak. Though a peaceful vegetarian most of the time, it liked chasing Weka. The Weka, for their part, responded by panicking and running round in circles.

And, of course, there’s the Kiwi (the flightless birds, not the people). Kiwis are nocturnal so to see them you need to take a midnight bush walk. Our guide, Robert, warned us to be quiet, as they’re also very shy, though you wouldn’t think so to hear them shrieking at each other in the dark. We crept out of the settlement, straining to see by the light of Robert’s torch (dimmed so as not to frighten the birds off), and trying hard not to make any noise. We had loads of false alarms (once due to a member of our party farting), causing Robert to turn on his flashlight and ply it over the bushes, but no sign of Kiwi. I was still enjoying the walk, listening to the sounds of the bush and watching upside-down Orion wheel above us through the trees. Then, on the way back to the settlemnet, Robert stopped and killed the light. We stopped too, hardly daring the breathe. And we heard it. Something snuffling and sniffling in the undergrowth. Coming closer…and closer. Robert thumbed the flashlight, and there it was. A little spotted Kiwi, not so little when only about three feet away. As soon as the light came on it headed back into the deeper bush, but we waited in the dark for it to return and this time when Robert turned the light on it moved off more slowly, not so much startled as affronted at the damn light. I’d just seen a sight few Kiwis (the people, not the bird) ever see – their eponymous national bird in its natural habitat.

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