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Published: January 24th 2007
Today we walked to Acker's Point, site of Stewart Island's lighthouse and supposedly a good vantage point for spotting seabirds. Except today. The walk was nice enough, along the shoreline road in the drizzle, up and down hills and through scrubby bush in the drizzle, with kaka screeching from the treetops, fur seals lolling on the rocks and a solitary goat standing silently watching us pass. The weather cleared for twenty minutes or so when we reached the lighthouse, but there were few birds in evidence apart for two or three Buller's mollymawks (a type of small albatross). On the return trip we took a detour around Golden Bay where I managed to fall down the wet steps on the track. It was a technique I picked up on the mountain trails in Thailand.
There is an aquarium in Oban, at a pearl shop. We headed over there only to find it closed. We were confused. We checked the sign and discovered that for some strange Stewart Island reason they closed up at 3 o'clock each day. It was 3.08. The building is only small so I think the aquarium is in fact just one single aquarium but we never
got to find out.
That evening we set off on a kiwi hunt. When we'd first arrived we had gone to the DoC office to ask about good sites for kiwi. The girl at the desk there had given us the standard treatment reserved for halfwit tourists who come down here and think they're going to see kiwi bouncing down the high street at noon. Its always been my experience that DoC people generally aren't much help for the wildlife-enthusiast people that they should be encouraging. But we did discover that kiwi were heard fairly frequently along a stretch of back road called Back Road (once again, brilliant minds those Stewart Islanders...). There are also 30 or 40 on Ulva Island but they are almost never seen -- except for recently, when several people have reported seeing them on the trail that runs to Boulder Beach. There are also tour companies that take tourists out to remote beaches in the dead of night, but for two very good reasons we didn't want to do it that way: one, we had no money; and two, its just more satisfying doing it for yourself. We decided to try Back Road tonight
and if we had no luck there, we'd try the next day on Ulva because we were going back there anyway.
The kiwi on Stewart Island are rather odd birds as kiwi go. Instead of being strictly nocturnal as any good kiwi should be, they are often out and about in the morning and afternoon, probably as a consequence of shorter nights in the south. They are also somewhat less skittish than regular kiwi, perhaps to do with their daylight activities. Naturally you can't rely on daytime sightings, so we struck off into the darkness. Actually it wasn't all that dark. We had a big torch but didn't use it except for flashing into suspicious-looking shadows. At 10.30 it was as dark as it was going to get, but you could still just make out that the sky was blue in colour. At 11pm I could still fairly comfortably read the map I had of the roads. And this was a back road with no lighting at all. I guess that's light pollution for you, even down here. We wandered around for a few hours but neither heard nor saw any kiwi. The only thing we did come across
was a very cute morepork hawking moths around a streetlight back in Oban. He perched obligingly on the street-sign, twisting his head in circles as he eyeballed us, then vanished into the night.
With the first kiwi hunt a bust, we landed on Ulva the next morning as early as we could (visitors are only allowed across between 8 and 6). Kiwi weren't the only bird we were after that day, but within half an hour of landing we had our main target. Between route markers 2 and 3 on the Boulder Beach track, the path runs along a sort of ridge overlooking some rather open forest. The last time we were on Ulva I had thought it would be a perfect kiwi-spotting point and so it was. It was 8.30 so the sun was well up but with the forest cover overhead it was still not bright enough for great photos. I wasn't going to use the flash to cut out the blurring from the slow shutter speed, because it was obviously more important for the kiwi to remain undisturbed than to get a few nice snapshots. The kiwi was just ambling along, looking for food, not minding our presence at all. I see captive kiwi all week long at work, but this was my first wild kiwi so it was very exciting.
Not long after the kiwi left, I got the other main bird for which I was searching, the yellowhead. These are very very rare, formerly found all over the South and Stewart Islands but now restricted to just a few sites on the South Island. 27 birds were released on Ulva in 2002 and now this is one of the easiest places to see them; we saw them three times on this day. We also got the riflemen, introduced here in 2003 (they are common in mainland forests) and various other species. Curiously, we saw no tomtits at all, either here or around Oban, and pigeons and fantails were very few in number.
We had been planning on spending another day down here and driving all the way back to Christchurch in one go on Sunday, but we had got all the birds we had been expecting, with the notable exception of the yellow-crowned kakariki, and there were lots of places we had seen on the way down that we wanted to investigate on the way back, so we decided to leave a day early, on Saturday morning.
BIRD OF THE DAY: Stewart Island brown kiwi, of course. Yellowhead coming in close second.
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