First, some background. New Zealand, as most of y’all know, is one of those places that got isolated enough, early enough, that things eveolved a little differently — flightless birds and so on. In fact, NZ separated from Gondwana before mammals evolved, which is why there weren’t any (except for a couple of bats) until people brought them. (What did the owls eat, if there were no mice ? The mouse-sized bugs of course.) A lot of this fabulous wildlife has already been wiped out, and a lot more of it is very nearly gone. It’s easy to understand how flightless birds could have gotten eaten to extinction by cats, rats, dogs, weasels, possums, etc., but plenty of the now-extinct-or-extremely-rare birds fly perfectly well, but have the unfortunate habit of nesting on the ground (even the native hawks and falcons nest on the ground), or worse, in holes in trees. (Weasels, ferrets, and stoats are genetically predisposed to slither down holes looking for something to eat. If you want to trap one, you put the trap in a bit of pipe — you don’t even have to bait it.)
Anyway, part of the effort to keep some of these birds around involves scrubbing all the predators off the outlying islands, and shifting what’s left of the birds there. (Did you know that a weasel can swim three kilometers ?) One of those islands, Kapiti, is just up the coast from us. They only let so many visitors onto the island at a time, so you have to get a permit, which are often sold out months in advance. Stephanie, who wanted to go before she leaves for the US in a few days (wah!), got us all tickets.
After confirming the weather isn’t absolutely horrid, you show up at the ferry — which in this case is a pair of boats on trailers at the local boat club. Those who’ve been following the blog from way back might remember our trip around the coast over in the Wairarapa, through the little town where all the fishing boats are pulled up onto the beach with bulldozers. That’s what you do if you don’t have a pier. So after getting our bags checked for hitchhiking rats, we climbed aboard the boat, the bulldozer dipped the trailer into the water, and off we went.
It was about ten minutes out to the island & as you can see the weather was somewhat gray and blustery.
There was a speil from a DOC fellow that took about a half an hour (and he was talking really fast, too) covering the geology and history of the island, as well as the various birds we could expect to see or look for., and then off we went.
I should note at this point that while many of these birds are rare, they are hardly what you would call elusive:
The first one on the left there is kereru, the wood pigeon, the second largest pigeon in the world (the blue crowned pigeon of New Guinea is bigger). Those live OK on the mainland as well, and are critical for the propagation of a host of NZ plants and trees, being the only bird big enough to swallow the larger seeds. They’ll give you a heart attack if one happens to explode unexpectedly out of a bush nearby. The next three are of the kaka, a parrot relative to the South Island alpine kea, and certainly as curious. And the last two are of the weka, which I can’t help but think of as a sort of poor man’s kiwi, in that they are brown ovoid flightless birds that poke around in the dead leaves looking for bugs, and yet they are diurnal and not nearly as rare, so you can actually see them. These will happily snatch food out of your hands when you’re not paying attention and I’e heard stories of people camping in various wild places discovering that weka had gotten into their food while they slept and eaten everything. Stephanie had to rescue an unattented backpack at the visitor’s shelter from a weka that was industriously attempting to drag open the zippers.
We saw a few other birds as well, including cheeky little black robins with white breasts, and the rarest of the honeyeaters, the stitchbirds, that make a soft purring sound like a sewing machine. A real treat was this one:
This is the takahe, a flightless relative of the pukeko. They thought these were extinct for a while, but found a population in a remote corner of the South Island. There are something like 260 of them today, of which 14 of them live on Kapiti.
Better even than seeing some of these birds was hearing them. We got on the island around 9am, and though it can’t have been comparable to the dawn chorus, there was still an incredible amount of birdsong. Bellbirds and kakariki, the red-crowned parakeet, and of course a whole host of birds we didn’t recognize. We’d been reading settlers’ stories about how deafening the birdsong was in the bush, when the bird populations on the mainlands were still high, but you don’t get that now — most of our morning chorus at the farm is from English songbirds (and, lately, a trio of magpies). The real treat, and the highlight of the trip for me, was hearing the kokako. The kokako is one of the “wattle” birds, like the extinct huia and the also-very-endangered saddleback, that only exist in NZ. There are only about 1800 of them, and those are the North Island ones — the South Island ones they think are probably extinct now. Anyway, it has the most amazing song, kind of like someone playing short experimental notes on a harmonica — it’s quite loud and carrying and the way it echoed through the green misty wood was mysterious and haunting. Very, very cool.
Stephanie had brought a friend from work, Sandy, and the four of us climbed up to the top of the island (even though they both had colds), from which we could see absolutely nothing at all, as the cloud deck had lowered and all you could see was white. We had lunch, fending off a mooching weka, and trooped back down. By this time the birds had mostly gone silent, apart from the tuis.
The pick-up was exciting, as the weather had gotten worse and the strait was pretty choppy. The boat lowered the gangplank and backed up waterline, but the current and choppy waves would drag it along the beach, so you had to be quick and jump on. As it was, we only got half of us on before the driver had to pull away and swing around for another try. Apparently, if the weather is so bad they can’t pick you up, then you get to spend the night in the guest house on the island.
Stephanie and Sandy stopped by the farm on the way back into town, to see the crias.