A wild kiwi chase

Being chased by kiwi (in my daydreams)

I have been dreaming for some time to see or at least hear kiwi in the wild. I have had one encounter with the little fella at the National Aquarium of NZ in Napier. But that left me a little sad and unfulfilled as it was being kept in a small enclosure behind a glass window.

I left our meeting to chance as they are as elusive as a nocturnal animal could get. Also, not many kiwis have seen them in the wild so I was inclined to think that this was out of bounds. But a random search for hiking trails near me changed everything. I would never again leave my dreams to chance alone.

Rimutaka Regional Park

My heart leapt when I downloaded a map of the Rimutaka Forest Park and a massive chunk of the park area was dotted with little kiwi infographics. That was a nice surprise as I’d had plain simple hiking intentions in mind.

Turns out that there has been a project to re-introduce the North Island Brown Kiwi in the Park for over ten years now. The good news is that the birdies like it over there and the population is on the up. Currently, there are about 100 of them freely roaming an area of over 1,000 hectares, and have even spilled further afield. All of which is great news but makes an encounter pretty fantastical given the size of the area they inhabit. Nevertheless, I was still full of hope that a chance meeting with them could magically occur.

Walking the Whakanui track where kiwi live

View of Wellington Harbour from the Whakanui ridge line

It was early April and the weather had not yet turned so I had the chance to walk the length of the Whakanui track twice (the area with the highest density of kiwi populace, if my reading of the map’s accurate). I approached the track from the Hine Road entrance in the Wainuiomata. For about 30 minutes I went up, up and up (there was no flat) until I got to the ridge line. Quite a fitting location for a squishy squashy little flightless bird (kiwi birds do not have a breast bone which makes them particularly vulnerable to predators).

The track in and of itself is pretty awesome. There were a couple of spots along the ridge line where there were gorgeous views of Wellington Harbour but the rest of the track took me deep into the bush. Simply, loved walking this track as it felt like being in an enchanted forest (as can be seen in the photos below).

Both times I went were during the day so chances of kiwi sightings were very slim. And as expected I didn’t come across any hungry kiwi up for a day snack but at least I had walked where kiwi live. Of course, that was not satisfactory enough. So it was clearly time to up my kiwi stalking game.

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The best locations for kiwi spotting in Aotearoa*

Things were getting serious so I armed myself with Kiwi: A Natural History by Isabel Castro and filled myself in on all matters kiwi. I was intrigued, delighted and elated to learn that in the past ten years there have been tens of projects to re-introduce kiwi in the wild on both islands of the country. Better still they have been rather successful and the population of kiwi in the wild has increased many fold and so have the chances of encountering them in their natural habitat. The hot spots for kiwi across the country go something like this: bottom of the South Island (Stewart Island and Fiordland), bottom of the North Island (Wellington and the Kapiti coast), some islets in the vicinity of Auckland, incl. the Coromandel peninsula, and a fair number of sights across the Far North. Next I wished myself heaps of luck, packed a torch into my backpack and the chase was on.

*not official census data but purely based on my readings and research on the subject matter

Looking for kiwi in Whakatane, the kiwi capital of New Zealand

Through a long series of coincidences one late April day I found myself in the kiwi capital of New Zealand, Whakatane. I was a couple of days late for the monthly night walk organised by the Whakatane Kiwi Trust at the Ohope Scenic Reserve; nevertheless, they have helpfully put together a map for those wishing to do the night walk independently.

I was travelling with my friend Laura who not only put up with my kiwi talk for over a week (I really did try hard not to be over the top) but also drove me from Opotiki to Ohope and walked with me in the dark. Laura, you are awesome and I am so lucky to have you as a friend.

The walk is meant to take an hour. It took us an hour and 45 minutes. We walked very, very slowly and searched every inch of the bush meticulously. We had been walking for about half an hour when the first call came. Just at that moment we came across two other walkers and we all froze in our tracks. Standing still. Holding our breaths. Listening intently. It was loud and clear and there was no mistaking that it was kiwi calling. The kiwi were not near that was clear, the calls were coming from far away, from the opposite side of the bush.

We continued hearing them call to each other periodically and after about another 30 minutes of walking as we were looping back on the track, we got closer and closer to where the calls were coming from. And then there were heavy footsteps in the bush. I imagine having massive, dinosauric feet which weigh a third of your entire body mass would make walking in the dark, impenetrable bush a rather cumbersome task. We crouched and waited, straining our eyes and ears. The heavy-footed thing in the bush went on for about 5 minutes, rummaging through, even sniffing and snorting a few times (Laura did not hear the latter two but I did). The thing never came in our line of sight. It was a kiwi though. How am I sure of that I hear you ask. Well, I ‘consulted’ a kiwi specialist but before I give you the short and long of this consult business, I just want to say a few words about the night walk through the Ohope Scenic Reserve.

It would have really been worth going out even if we did not come across any kiwi calling and rummaging through the bush. As there is very little light pollution in the area, the night sky is spectacular. Also, there are glow worms in few places along the track which were super bright and sparkled like little constellations of stars. It is incredible how much goes on in the bush after dark, all sounds are amplified and the bugs are relentless in their nighttime pursuits. The nigh time walk in the bush was a great experience and I would most certainly do it again given the opportunity.

The Northland kiwi link

Clea, a dedicated kiwi conservationist who has played a key role in a number of kiwi projects across Northland, happened to be staying at the same accommodation in Opotiki as us. As we got back from our nighttime walk our super nice host, Kerry, came out to greet and tell us that he had kindly arranged to have breakfast together with Clea so we could talk all things kiwi. Maybe I was talking kiwi birds way too much but it kind of paid off.

The next morning we met Clea and chatted for about two hours all things kiwi. I will not re-tell our entire conversation but Clea confirmed that the heavy-footed thing we had heard in the bush the night before had been indeed a kiwi. Yay! They are noisy fellows and may sniff and / or snort if they get dirt stuck up their nostrils.

I exchanged details with Clea in case she heard of any projects looking for keen volunteers. I am hopeful that something will one day come up but in the meantime I have had a short trip to a very successful kiwi project at my doorstep.

Zealandia Eco-sanctuary

The iconic lower dam building and the re-generated native side of the valley

Okay, this is in my neighbourhood and they have 140+ Little Spotted Kiwi birds on site. Why did I not start here then. The simple, illogical answer is that it did not somewhat feel wild enough. I know nowhere in New Zealand is really wild, especially the little islands where the birds are being kept until they reach maturity so they have better chances of surviving once returned back, if at all, to sites on the mainland.

Zealandia is an incredible entity, teeming with wildlife and all sorts of rare species. Some time back I figured that a membership was well-worth it for me as it would give me unlimited opportunities for spying on the takahe family et al. Once thought extinct the takahe have managed to make a come back but still there are only 350 of them left. They have a lot of character and their interactions with one another are super entertaining to watch. Sorry this was about kiwi not takahe.

Either Nio or Orbell, the takahe couple of Zealandia

Right so the guided night tour is about 2 hours and a half long and although sighting the Li’l spotted one is a highlight for many there is a lot more to it. There is something very special about being in the bush after dark and not having to fear being attacked by scary animals. The New Zealand bush provides an unique opportunity in this respect.

I was nicely surprised by how bright the stars shone considering that Zealandia is right in the middle of the capital of New Zealand. One more benefit of the hilly landscape (other than making you sound like a locomotive on the way up that lovely hill where your home is perched); them hills are good at providing a natural barrier to light pollution. Also, the glow worms here were shinning a luminous blue.

We had been walking close to two hours when the first call came. It was a male. It was kiwi hour and we were getting closer. Then 10 minutes or so later a big ball of fluff scuttled in front of my very own feet and busied herself with pecking around the shrubbery by the footpath where a dozen of us were standing with our red light torches in hand. That was a female kiwi. She was surprisingly big and seemed completely oblivious to the dozen or so of onlookers following her every move in the bush. We observed her for about five minutes, doing her kiwi things, sensing with her bill in the air, rummaging through the foliage on the ground and just being adorable after which she disappeared into the night.

Back at the visitor centre over a steaming hot cup of kawakaw tea I was talking kiwi birds again (what else) and how awesome it was to finally be able to see one when the tour guide very casually suggested that given my interest I should contact one of the kiwi projects in the region and offer to give them a hand when they go out to do their health checks on the birds. Really!? I will happily lend my both hands to this.




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