Finding Feathered Friends

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February 28th 2012
Published: March 12th 2012
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Good afternoon readers, this blog is part David Attenborough documentary, part ecology lesson and mostly promoting two excellent tour operators in the South Island.

I have been doing my favourite thing since I finished work last week and hunting out the local wildlife in a foreign country – not with a rifle sight and snares but with binoculars, infra-red torches and some very helpful, knowledgable tour guides. I have done two very excellent and different tours that I thought I should promote, and also rave about what I have seen!

Rowi/Okarito Brown Kiwis – Ian Cooper at Okarito Kiwi Tours

Kiwis are strange things. In this case I'm refering to the birds not the people, although it is also a pretty strange thing that only 1%!o(MISSING)f Kiwis (the people) have seen their iconic bird in the wild! Then you start learning about kiwis (the birds) and you begin to realise it's probably pretty amazing anyone has seen one at all.

A few things I have learnt about kiwis in the last few days:

• They are birds that are doing their damndest best to be mammals. They may have feathers and a bill
Kiwi in the wild!!!Kiwi in the wild!!!Kiwi in the wild!!!

ok so it's a photo of a postcard, but it is at least the Okarito Rowi kiwi - the type I saw in the wild. We go this photo after our tour, it is actually the last picture of the poor kiwi who snapped her bill and starved to death :(
but that's just about where the bird bit ends. In a country with no native land mammals (apart from bats), birds have adapted to fill the niche. A kiwi's feathers are more like fur, they have bone marrow (other birds have hollow bones), and their body temperature is the same as mammals rather than birds. And as for their wings, I have heard them described as “bloody useless” by a professional and “like tits on a bull” by my mate Jeff! 'Flying' is not in a kiwi's vocabulary.

• They are mostly nocturnal but have crap eyesight. To make up for this they have awesome hearing and smell. They also have whiskers and some funky feelers on the tip of their bill that sense movement, so they can feel a worm moving nearby when they stick their bill in the ground. One poor kiwi died of starvation when the tip of her bill snapped off, that's how important those funky feelers and nostrils are!

• On that note, they are not helping themselves in the race to not go extinct. Obviously humans have helped them even less: destroying their habitats and introducing stoats, dogs and cats

It's impossible to get a photo of them at night without scaring the shit out of them...luckily kiwis are the national emblem of NZ so I found a few stand-in pics for the blog!
that all find kiwis a particularly approachable and tasty meal. Now we are finally doing something about all that and trying to help save the kiwis and it turns out they are crap parents who don't give a hoot if their chicks survive. In order to produce a self-sufficient chick, the Mummy kiwi would rather squeeze out an egg so big it's in the Guinness Book of Records for being the biggest egg to body ratio of any bird, and the Daddy kiwi would rather go hungry sitting on the egg for two and a half months than go out and collect worms for their little one when it hatches!

• To make themselves look really comical they have huge feet and a big fat bum, or maybe that's to balance out the long bill and to accommodate their huge eggs. The thing is scientists have only been studying kiwis for about 40 years so they really know very little about them. They also haven't found many fossils so can't work out if kiwis could once fly or were always this weird. What I can tell you is that they are damn hard to find in the wild

I had to resort to drawing them in the end!
and blooming cute when you do spot one!

So this was the bizarre creature we were searching for as the sun set on the West Coast of New Zealand's South Island a few days ago. To make it extra difficult to find a kiwi we were looking for the rarest sub-species, the Rowi Kiwi, which only exists within ten square kilometres of the tiny village of Okarito, just north of Franz Josef glacier. There are only 385 of this particular species of kiwi alive and they are all hiding out in some very dense forest, so our chances were pretty slim. Luckily for us we enlisted Ian at Okarito Kiwi Tours to help us find them. He has been good friends with these kiwis for more than 12 years and had a nifty radio transmitter ariel to help us track them down. Ian quickly recognised the ecology geek within me and promoted me to assistant guide for the night, presenting me with a red flashlight and a two-way radio. I was rather excited to have this duty until I realised it would all be my fault if we didn't see anything because I'd failed to hear a kiwi

It's impossible to get a photo of them at night without scaring the shit out of them...luckily kiwis are the national emblem of NZ so I found a few stand-in pics for the blog!
in the bush right next to me!

Our hunt for kiwis consisted of 20% marching down forest tracks in the dark and 79% standing stock still, holding our breath in anticipation, trying to ignore mozzies whining around our faces while desperately trying to hear any crackle of leaves in the undergrowth around us. At one point our guide, Ian, left us to go and scan the track ahead and thoughts of horror movies about tourists lured into the woods at night flashed through my mind! After more than 2 hours of waiting most people in our group were shuffling a bit but I was totally wired on the anticipation of seeing a wild creature. Suddenly Ian flicked his red light up onto the track in front of us and there, just a couple of metres from me, was a fat, round ball of furry feathers snuffling around in the fallen leaves – 'Fancy' the kiwi! We got to watch him for a few minutes as he foraged around for food. For a bird with such good smell and hearing he did a terrible job of noticing a huddle of nine tourists staring intently at him!

Seeing a kiwi in the wild was everything I expected and more. They are such bizarre and endearing creatures, so iconic of this country I have called home for the past 5 months, rare and also so poorly understood that the more people that see and appreciate them the better I think.

Royal Albatross, Yellow Eyed Penguins, Blue Penguins – Ben and Donna at Elm Wildlife Tours' Otago Peninsula Encounter Tour – (plus Fur Seals and Sea Lions)

The Otago Peninsular - down near Dunedin, at the bottom of the South Island - is very pretty and more than a little bit special for wildlife. Almost cut off from the mainland, one side of the peninsula is devoid of human habitation, rugged and exposed to the ocean and the winds, it is the last bit of land until Antarctica or South America. This makes it a haven for birds and sea mammals so I took an afternoon trip to see what I could spot hanging out on the peninsula.

Our first stop was Taiaroa Head, the only place in the world where albatross breed on the mainland. Here there is a colony of Southern Royal Albatross, famous for having the largest wingspan of any bird in the world. Their wingspan is regularly greater than 2 metres and can be up to 3.3 metres – twice the height of me! At the moment the juvenile birds are out cruising the skies above the headland, showing off their flying skills to each other like teenagers busting out dance moves at a club, all in the hope of attracting a mate. This makes for fantastic wildlife watching. In a gale-force wind we bent our heads back to watch these enormous yet graceful birds wheel and swoop and hang in the air above us like a mobile above a baby's cradle. The fact that it was a gale only improved the experience - albatross are so large they are afraid of being grounded and starving to death so they only land in places where it is windy enough to blow their bulk back up into the air again!

After the albatross we went in search of considerably less sociable birds: Yellow-Eyed Penguins. They are the rarest of all the penguin species and only found in New Zealand. Apparently they are extremely shy, I think they're just very grumpy. They are so unfriendly to each other that they would rather scale a cliff face with their flippers than roost next to another penguin. They will delve deep into the undergrowth, not to hide from predators, but from their neighbours. The tour company have built two parallel pathways to the beach and the penguins will use both paths just to avoid passing each other. This must also be the only place in the world where you can see a penguin and a sheep in the same field! At this time of year many of them are moulting so they look even more grumpy than usual, sat under a bush all disheveled and unable to swim or feed for a couple of weeks.

In the same area are the much more friendly Blue Penguins. These are the smallest species of penguins in the world and on this tour we only saw them in their burrows where they were cuddling up together. However, a few days before I had been kayaking in the Abel Tasman National Park and a curious Blue Penguin was happy to swim along with us for half a kilometre before he got bored and went back to fishing!

As well as finding feathered friends I saw sealions and seals on this tour. Both were hunted to extinction in New Zealand: the Fur Seal was eradicated from most of New Zealand by European seal hunters last century, while the Hooker Sealion had already been eliminated from the mainland by Maori hunters long before the Europeans arrived. Luckily for them - and me viewing them - both the seals and sealions are successfully making a comeback these days. There is a large population of New Zealand Fur Seals on the Otago Peninsula and we got a birds-eye view of them from the cliff top, looking down to see the new pups cavorting together in the rock pools, playing chicken with the ocean waves, or begging their tired mums for milk.

In contrast to the family fun being had down in the rock pools, the beach around the corner was a true bachelor pad for some fat and sleepy male sealions. Another nocturnal animal, these big boys spend the day fast asleep on the sand. We arrived at sunset and watched as they dragged themselves out of slumber and down into the sea. Like lads after a bender, they
Sea Lion chilling out...Sea Lion chilling out...Sea Lion chilling out...'s hard work walking to the sea, better have a rest here!
stretched and yawned and dozed for some time, made it as far as the 'sofa' in the surf and eventually after a few splashes from the icy waves they revived enough to tackle a night out fishing. Their presence here on the peninsula is pretty impressive. About forty years ago a couple of males made the 800km journey over here from a sub-Antarctic island, realised they were no longer being chased with clubs for their skins, and decided the climate was much nicer for a winter holiday. Over the years the word spread and more males came to hang out in warm and sunny NZ, however they still had to make that massive journey back to their old island to get a bit of action with the females each year. A couple of decades ago they decided that was too much effort and so they kidnapped a female sealion and herded the poor thing back to their northern paradise. There are now 180 sea lions in New Zealand, only 25 of which are female and the majority are descended from that first abducted sealioness! (Of those 180, I saw 6 in one evening, not bad odds really!)

Rare and weird NZ birds...Rare and weird NZ birds...Rare and weird NZ birds...

Clockwise from top left: Kakapo, Pukeko, Tui, Kea, Takahe.

It doesn't get rarer than this...

A few extra birds have slipped into my geeky twitcher sightseeing in the past couple of weeks. On a trip into Fiordland we stopped at a sanctuary where they are holding examples of extremely rare New Zealand birds. Here we saw the Takahe – apparently not 'just a fat Pukeko', although that's what it looked like to us! Without knowing what a Pukeko is this might not help in your understanding of what a Takahe is so:

They are both rotund bluish-black birds with strong red legs and a red beak, but the Takahe is carrying a bit more holiday weight than the Pukeko. Actually they are very good examples of how similar species of birds have colonised New Zealand over many thousands of years. The Takehe arrived thousands of years ago, while the Pukeko only arrived in the past couple of hundred years. So while the Pukeko can still manage to flutter about 50 metres on their rapidly deforming wings, the Takahe has long since lost the power of flight. I have heard it said it only takes about 80 years from a bird species arriving in New Zealand until it

...or just a fat Pukeko!
starts showing signs of becoming flightless – a rather strange and particular trait to NZ considering it is no longer a predator-free sanctuary for birds. On a similar line, New Zealand has several large parrots including the Keas, Kaka, and Kakapo, all in different states of endangered-ness and different levels of cheekiness when it comes to ripping apart backpacks and cars!

One other interesting bird we saw was the New Zealand Wood Pigeon. Not a dreaded pigeon you may cry, but the wood pigeon is the far superior and classy cousin of the dirty city scavenger. They are also incredibly fat, so fat their heads look about five times too small for their bodies. Apparently they gorge themselves endlessly and don't know when to stop – sounds similar to me at a buffet! They are also not that common and play an essential part in the ecology of New Zealand forests. Their enormous girth is actually rather important as they are the only birds big enough to swallow - and subsequently poop out – the larger seeds of many trees and shrubs, acting as distributors for the seeds of many forest plants.

Wow, got a bit
NZ Wood PigeonNZ Wood PigeonNZ Wood Pigeon

look how fat it is!!!!
educational there – goes to show I've been learning stuff along the way and not just hanging about on holiday for the past few weeks though!


If any one is reading this and travelling around New Zealand I highly recommend both these tours. The Kiwi Tour is NZ$75, starts at 7:30pm and last about 3 hours. The Otago Peninsula Tour is NZ$99 ($89 with YHA) and is from approx. 3pm – 9:30pm.

I can't remember the name of the rare bird sanctuary but it is on the right side as you drive out of Te Anau on the road to Manapuri and is entry by donation.

Additional photos below
Photos: 21, Displayed: 21


Yellow Eyed Penguins...Yellow Eyed Penguins...
Yellow Eyed Penguins...

...a rare spot of 2 hanging out together

13th March 2012

Another amusing read - thanks :-) If you're up in Auckland, book ahead for an overnight trip to Tiri Tiri Matangi (an island bird sanctuary). You'd love it!

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