A Trip to New Zealand: The Land Where Birds Rule
(Note: This was originally published in Good Bird Magazine)
Last month, I wrote about my brief visit to Sydney, Australia, where I was able to see wild Sulphur-crested Cockatoos at the botanic gardens and visit the Taronga Zoo. The brief visit to Sydney was a stopover on my way to my final destination, Christchurch, New Zealand. My primary reason for heading to Christchurch was to attend a conference, but I also planned to travel around the country to view some of its fascinating bird life. Because New Zealand is so isolated, no land mammals, besides a pair of bat species, have ever managed to colonize it without human assistance. As a result, many of New Zealand’s bird species have been free to occupy ecological niches normally held by mammals, so a diverse array of unusual, and often unbird-like, birds have evolved there.
While I was in Christchurch, I visited a few places where I could see some native birds in captivity. My first stop was the Southern Encounter Aquarium and Kiwi House, which was near the conference venue. Several freshwater and marine animals, and several species of native reptiles, were on display. There was also a kiwi enclosure housing two North Island Brown Kiwi. Kiwi displays are generally kept dark during the daytime, because kiwi tend to sleep in dens or burrows during the day.
Both kiwi were out when I went in to see them, and they were much larger and even more unusual looking than I had pictured them in my mind. Not only are they flightless, but they have lost their wings completely, and possess only small, clawed stubs in their place. These were hidden well under the kiwis’ shaggy, hair-like feathers. They also have cat-like whiskers on their faces, which seem help the birds find their way around in the dark. Their feet are very large and raptor-like, and have padded toes that allow them to move about silently. Their feet looked strong and the claws sharp, which presumably allow them to dig their burrows and defend themselves from intruders. Despite their sweet appearance, kiwi are very territorial.
While I watched the kiwi, they trudged about their enclosure, repeatedly thrusting their long, slender beaks into the deep soil and leaf litter, sniffing and feeling around for insects. Unlike most other birds, kiwi have a superb sense of smell and their nostrils are on the tips of their beaks, rather than being up at the top, as they are in parrots. Their eyesight is rather poor, which is unusual for a bird, so each kiwi often bumped into the walls of the enclosure. It was no big deal to them; they simply turned around and continued to single-mindedly search for insects. With their nocturnal habits, mainly insectivorous diet, and habit of resting in burrows, they seemed to me like a bird counterpart of a hedgehog.
Later on, I headed to the Orana Wildlife Park, which has many native animals on display, in addition to several other exotics, primarily from Africa. Many of the native birds were in a very large walk-in aviary. Kiwi were housed in a darkened kiwi house, and there were many wild birds in the pools around the park. Of all the birds I saw, the native Tui in the walk-in aviary stood out most. It was a gorgeous, dark, iridescent bird with a white, lacy cape around its neck and a pair of white disks under its throat. However, its song is what really grabbed my attention. It was quite complex, and consisted of some lovely, clear whistles interspersed with other noises, like coughs and clicks. Tui, it turns out, can produce a huge variety of sounds, because they possess two voice boxes. Some of the notes they can produce even go beyond the range of what humans can hear. And, like parrots or starlings, they can mimic sounds very well. However, they are not related to either one, and are part of the honey-eater family (Melphagidae). Some captive individuals even learn to mimic human speech very well. Tui are common and I saw many in the wild later on.
After the conference was over, I headed north to Wellington, which is on the southern edge of the North Island. My main plan there was to head to Kapiti Island, which is five miles off of the coast about a 45 minute drive north of Wellington. The island serves as a haven for several endangered bird species. Offshore islands are often set up as wildlife refuges because they can be cleared of introduced predators. Many of New Zealand’s native birds and reptiles are endangered because introduced rats, cats, possums, and stoats prey on them. Because New Zealand’s endemic birds evolved in the absence of mammalian predators, many of them have no natural defenses against them.
Unfortunately, the ship to Kapiti Island did not sail while I was there. So, I decided to drive about two hours north to the Pukaha Mount Bruce Wildlife Centre. There was a visitor centre there, with many educational displays and a cage of baby Tuataras, reptiles native to New Zealand. There was also a large forest preserve, with some rare birds to view in large, natural aviaries. Many of them are part of breeding programs intended to produce young that could be released back into the wild into the forest preserve or on offshore island sanctuaries.
One of the highlights was the chance to see two Takahe. Takahe were once thought to be extinct, but some were found in 1948 in a remote part of the South Island. Takahe are a species of rail (Rallidae) and are large (63 cm long) and flightless. They are very striking with their dark purpley-blue bodies, moss-coloured backs, large, bright red beaks and matching short, red legs. There are only about 250 of these birds left, mostly on offshore islands and the mountains of Fiordland, in the far south.
The Takahe grazed in their large enclosure while I watched them. In the wild, they eat tussock grass, focusing mainly on the more nutritious base and leaving the tougher tops behind. They’ll also dig for roots and corms. Most rail species are shorebirds, but Takahe are capable of living in a variety of habitats, including alpine regions.
I spent a couple hours walking in the forest, watching and photographing the free-living birds that lived there. These included dozens of North Island Kaka, the large, brown and red forest parrot endemic to the island. Many of them were bred in captivity at the centre. A mix of captive bred birds and wild birds caught elsewhere were first released into the forest in 1996. The population has grown, likely due to predator control programs and the predator-proof nest boxes that were put up for them.
The Kaka weren’t always easy to spot, but I saw several flying above the trees. Their earth-toned feathers make them blend in well with their surroundings, but their loud calls often gave their locations away. Additionally, there was a very large, metal, parrot-feeder set up in a clearing in the forest, which made kaka viewing much easier. The kaka are given supplemental food each day there at three pm. When I approached it around two, several birds followed me, thinking I had their food. I didn’t, but the kakas were very interesting to watch. They are quite acrobatic, and often hung upside-down in the trees. They also gnawed on tree branches a lot, whose bark they can easily tear off with their very large, heavy beaks. They do this to find insects and grubs to eat.
At three, workers came to give the kakas their daily ration of corn and nuts. The Kaka were quite competitive at the feeder and often tried to steal food from each other. Smaller birds also arrived to clean up any bits the kaka dropped to the ground. The kaka were also given a solution of jam and water in a bottle to drink out of. Such a sugary solution is a part of their natural diet, because, like lories, kaka have bristled tounges that allow them to lick nectar off of flowers.
The next day I headed to the Te Papa Museum back in Wellington, which has a large section devoted to natural history. Unfortunately, some of the most magnificent of all of New Zealand’s birds exist now only as fossils or models in museums, because about 40% of New Zealand’s birds went extinct after humans arrived. These include the moa, a group of fifteen or so flightless birds, one of which stood up to 12 feet tall and weighed up to 550 pounds. They were likely hunted to extinction by the Polynesian settlers who arrived sometime between 800 and 1300 AD.
The moa were primarily grazers, with the taller forms being able to browse off of tall trees, like giraffes. They were the bird version of grazers like deer, bison, or wildebeests; or even like rabbits, as some species were small. Of course, where ever groups of large herbivores exist, there will be something around that hunts them. For the moa, this predator was, of course, another bird. It was an eagle – the mighty Haast’s Eagle – which was the biggest eagle to ever exist. They weighed from 22 to 28 pounds and had wingspans of about nine feet. The wingspan was actually somewhat small for its overall size, so they had to flap hard while in flight. They could, however, maneuver through dense forests. The Haast’s eagle probably went extinct when its prey, the moa, disappeared. The museum had a large model of a Haast’s eagle coming down on a giant moa. Models of other unusual, extinct birds were on display as well, which included tiny, flightless wrens, the endemic Whekau (or laughing owl), a huge, flightless goose, and the huia, a large, iridescent blue-black bird belonging to the wattle-bird family (Callaeidae), which is found only in New Zealand. Many of these went extinct after European settlers introduced cats and stoats to the island.
Next, I headed back to the South Island and took the TranzAlpine train across the Southern Alps, from Christchurch, on the Pacific Ocean, to Greymouth, on the Tasman Sea. The journey was awesome. The train first heads over the Canturbury Plains, and then it moves onto the foothills of the Alps. Once in the Alps, the train heads through the mountainous Arthur’s Pass National Park. Shortly after leaving the tiny village at Arthur’s Pass, the train enters an 8.5 km long tunnel. The scenery consists primarily of snow-capped, grassy mountains when the train enters the tunnel, and when it emerges, it travels through a deep green, thick rainforest.
While in the mountains, I tried to picture what the landscape would look like had there still been herds of moa grazing the hills. I also kept a look out for one of the birds that still lives there – a large, olive-colored parrot, reputed to be among the most intelligent of all the birds. These birds – Kea – live only in the mountains of the South Island. Their colours are somewhat drab, except the scarlet-coloured feathers on the underside of their wings. However, their personalities are anything but drab. They are infamous for creating trouble for people by tearing rubber parts off cars, picking through garbage and backpacks, finding their ways into cabins, and even killing sheep.
I rented a car in Greymouth and headed south down the coast. On the way, I did some hiking in the Westland Tai Poutini National Park. Then, it was on to Queenstown, in the middle of the south half of the South Island where I turned south, then West, to get to Te Anau. It was a fantastic drive through some gorgeous landscape, but alas, I saw no Keas. However, many bird species, like Pukeko, a more slender version of the Takahe, and Paradise Shelducks, one of New Zealand’s endemic ducks, were easy to spot. There is a also Wildlife Center in Te Anau, which has many native birds on display in large, outdoor aviaries. Some are animals that were injured and were being rehabilitated for release back into the wild. There was a pair of Takahe on display and an aviary full of Antipodes Island Kakariki. These are similar to the more common Red- and Yellow-fronted Kakariki, although they are a bit larger and are solid green. What makes Antipodes Island Kakariki remarkable is the natural habitat that they manage to survive in. They are native to the subantarctic Antipodes Islands, which lie about 650 km southeast of New Zealand’s South Island. It’s a weird place to find parrots: there are no trees there, and it’s often chilly and windy. The island is uninhabited by people and is classified as a nature preserve, and a permit is needed to land there. They share the Antipodes Island with the Reischek’s Parakeet, Cyanoramphus erythrotis, which used to be classified as a subspecies of the Red-fronted Kakariki.
After Te Anau, I headed north up to Milford Sound. It was there that I found the bird I was looking for. I arrived at the sound and got out of my car to go for a walk. One of the first birds I noted was a beautiful White Heron standing in the water. These heron are very rare in New Zealand; only about 120 live there. While watched the heron, I heard a loud, shrill cry. Kea! There was a family of three up by the parking lot. Kea often hang around parking lots, since the cars make interesting chew toys to them.
The three kea seemed to be a mated pair and their offspring. Juvenile kea can easily be differentiated from the adults because juveniles have some orange color around their beaks which disappears when they hit sexual maturity. The juvenile was extremely noisy and constantly squealed at and bumped into his parents. He tended to approach them in a hunched over posture, because adult kea are very tolerant to juveniles in that pose. However, once he showed the red color under his wings to his parents, the juvenile was quickly pinned and verbally reprimanded by one of his parents. Apparently, showing the red under the wings is a threat, so the juvenile was acting a bit like a mouthy teenager. As long as he didn’t show the red under his wings, nearly anything he did was tolerated by the parents.
Food is tricky for keas to find in the winter, so the two adults spent a lot of time digging in the ground with their long, sharp beaks for roots to eat. Keas are generalists and will eat nearly any edible thing they find. Unlike other parrots, they can actually be carnivorous and will eat the young of other bird species and the carcasses of dead sheep. Occasionally, they will kill adult sheep, by pecking at their backs until they bleed. The sheep may then die of blood loss or an infection.
I watched the keas until it became dark, and then I headed up to the motel. I dragged my suitcase in from the car and spotted a kea underneath a truck. Looking around with the flashlight, I found another two. Were these the same ones from before? At any rate, I was glad I got extra insurance on the rental car, but I wondered if it covered kea damage. I went into the motel room to read, and I could hear the keas running around on the boardwalk outside my room. They squealed a bit too, and when I went to sit outside, they gathered around me and wrestled with each other a bit. They were not shy of people at all.
The next, and final, stop on my trip was to be Stewart Island, a 1746 km2 size island a one-hour ferry ride from Bluff, a town on the south end of the South Island. Stewart Island is a great place for bird watchers, as the island contains no stoats, which are extremely efficient bird predators. It is also sparsely populated, with only 420 people living there, mostly in the town of Oban. As a result, bird life is abundant there.
On the ferry ride to Stewart Island (or Rakiura), I managed to see several mollymawks (medium albatrosses) gliding gracefully over the waters. With wingspans of about two meters, they were a magnificent sight. I also spotted a few seals and shags (cormorants) from the ferry, and there were a few oystercatchers along the beach where the ferry landed. South Island Kaka and Red- and Yellow-fronted Kakariki are easy to find right in the town of Oban, as were Tui and Bellbirds. Tui and Bellbirds have clear, ethereal-sounding voices, so the dawn chorus in the forest on Stewart Island is very beautiful.
From Oban, a five-minute boat ride can take you to Ulva Island, a 266 ha island set up as a bird sanctuary. It has been cleared of introduced predators, and has several walking trails for visitors. I headed over there in the morning and asked the boatman to come back in four hours to pick me up. It really only takes an hour or two to walk all the trails on the island, but I ended up wanting more time there. Birdlife was super-abundant and most of the birds did not seem too afraid of me. The first one I saw was a small Stewart Island Robin, which actually came and tugged on my pants when I sat down to listen for birds. Saddlebacks, rare brown and black birds, would also approach me quite closely.
Weka are common on Stewart and Ulva Island. These are chicken-sized, brown, flightless rails and they are truly fearless. I saw a few along the beach and they treated me as though I wasn’t even there. One picked through a clump of seaweed for food as I sat nearby taking pictures.
Other birds on the island weren’t quite so bold. I saw several Kakariki darting through the trees and foraging on the ground. They have a reputation of being quite active in captivity, and they are like that in the wild, too. They were too fast for me to get any decent photos of. I could also hear the flapping wings of Keruru (native pigeon) from high in the canopy. I could often spot them with binoculars, and they are quite attractive. They are at least three times the size of the rock pigeons that are common in cities in North America, and they are white with green heads and green and purple wings. South Island Kaka were also present on the island. They weren’t always easy to see, but hearing their calls was never a problem, and I also saw a lot of trees with bark that had been peeled away by Kaka.
Later on, I tried to go “kiwi-spotting” along the beaches on Stewart Island during the evening and the following morning by trekking along different beaches. Kiwi are usually nocturnal, but on Stewart Island, they will come out on the beach to forage at dawn and dusk. I did hear a few, as they are quite loud, but I saw none. I did see more Kaka, Kakariki, fernbirds, various seabirds, ducks, raptors, native pigeons, bellbirds, Tui, fantails, white-eyes, and Weka by hiking around.
I took the ferry back to the South Island and headed home. The big disadvantage to traveling to New Zealand is the 12-13 hour trans-Pacific flight. However, it was an excellent trip and one I would definitely recommend for bird and nature lovers.