Stalking the Wild Kiwi

Currently, I’m in New Zealand on a 21-day birding tour, travelling from the northern tip of the north island to the southern end of Stewart Island, and just about every major bird habitat in between. One of the goals of this tour is to see or at least hear all five kiwi species. Kiwis are, of course, nocturnal, so this makes for some late nights.

On the very first night of the tour, we headed to the northeast to the Trounson Forest for a guided night walk. Kiwis were the highlight of the walk, but there was a lot else going on as well, including the call of Morepork (native owls, which we saw later that evening), native trees and the forest to learn about, glowworms, and fish and crayfish in the streams. We had our some of our best looks at a kiwi that first night, right out in the open probing the earth with its bill, finding an earthworm and then throwing it up into the air to catch and swallow. That was exciting and a very good start (normally if you’re very lucky you see a bit of a kiwi skulking in the deep underbrush or darting across a path).

Our second try was on Tiritiri Matangi island, an island that has been completely restored from farming and all non-native predators removed. We stayed in the bunkhouse with the researchers and had wonderful access to the island when the day-trippers were not there. However, we were pretty exhausted by a rescue at sea the night before (more on that later), and most of us just gave up after about 10:30. The kiwis were out – no-one saw them but we heard them calling about 1-2 am. And to see them, we would have had to get up and disturb the researchers.

The third try was on the northwest coast of the south island, searching for the Great Spotted Kiwi – a bird that basically no-one ever sees. We started out the evening well by seeing a Weka – a giant rail. Later we were standing around silently in a clearing, and a clearly confused young bird darted out to see us and then zipped back into the forest. Once located, we got several good looks at it, a fact that our guide couldn’t resist mentioning to every other tour group we ran across, since none of them have ever seen it. It was even a lifer for our guide, which doesn’t happen often.

Then followed the death march of kiwi hunting. This is one of those things no non-birder would understand. The Okarito Kiwis are the most endangered of all the species, and we went out with a local ranger to see them. He handed us vests, flashlights, gloves, and mosquito nets, then forbade us to make any sound, drilling us in precision maneuvers (not kidding here) to make sure everyone could see a bird if we had a chance. The mosquitoes were fierce and we had to be absolutely motionless and silent or risk a talking to. We were out until midnight and did eventually see a single kiwi run across the clearing…

Lastly, the reward for all our travails. On Stewart Island, we took a beautiful boat ride across the bay, seeing blue penguins and a yellow-eyed penguin on the way, to walk across a little peninsula. There we saw many kiwis feeding on little amphipods in the seaweed on the beach, right out in the open beside the crashing waves, in a beautiful moonlit night. That was pretty magickal.

So, in the end, 4 out 5 wasn’t bad. If we’d known we’d do so well, perhaps we’d have tried harder for the 5th – but that’s another story.

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