Ulva Island bird sanctuary

The water taxi drops us off at the jetty, and as we walk up to the small shelter where we’re due to meet our guide we’re greeted by a giant cartoon rodent inviting us to check for rats and seeds. It’s a reminder – if one were needed – that we’ve landed in a very special place.

Hint: this is a very special island!

Ulva Island, weighing in at 267 hectares (660 acres, or just over one square mile) is one of the jewels of New Zealand conservation. Here’s what the Department of Conservation has to say about it:

Listening to the bird song on Ulva Island/Te Wharawhara is like stepping back in time, to an era when New Zealand’s bird fauna was still largely intact. This predator‑free island, located in Paterson Inlet/Whaka a Te Wera, Stewart Island/Rakiura, is not only a bird enthusiast’s paradise; it is also one of the few offshore islands with a largely undisturbed podocarp forest. This mature forest distinguishes Ulva from other sanctuaries such as Kapiti and Tiritiri Matangi, which are largely covered in regenerating vegetation.

SOURCE: Ulva Island brochure, retrieved 10 December 2019

PHOTO CREDIT: By en, [CC BY 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Cats, possums and stoats – three of the main predators that threaten native birds – have never made it to Ulva, but rats were a big problem. An eradication programme that ran between 1992 and 1997 successfully got rid of them, but constant vigilance is needed to ensure they don’t make an unwelcome return.

Temperate rainforest, raindrops sparkling on the leaves

Similarly, efforts to keep the seeds of introduced plants off Ulva help protect the primeval vegetation. There are almost no non-native plants here on Ulva.

The trees come in all shapes and sizes

Before we move off into the forest we’re pleased to see an old friend, the weka, searching for insects on the kelp washed up along the beach. He’s intent on lunch, and untroubled by our presence. We’ve seen these flightless birds at several places during our New Zealand travels, although the plumage of those from Stewart and Ulva Islands is a slightly different – chestnut – colour.

File:Stewart Island weka.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: Skyring [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)%5D

We set off on our walk, along well maintained tracks that were first carved out of the undergrowth in the 1880s. Unsurprisingly the bird watching is challenging, as it always is in forests. Bird listening is easy – they’re all over the place, singing their little hearts out – but can we see them? Of course not, the little buggers are keeping their heads down amongst the foliage. All except, that is, the Stewart Island Robin.

Stewart Island Robin

The Stewart Island Robin, or toutouwai as the Maori call it, is small, primarily grey and sports a white breast. It is ludicrously tame, approaching our party fearlessly, hopping between and over our feet. Given its trusting nature and habit of nesting close to the ground it fares badly wherever rats are present, so here on Ulva is one of the few places where it continues to thrive.

Stewart Island Robin on the forest track, just inches from our feet

That the robins are here at all for us to enjoy is thanks to a reintroduction programme. Following the eradication of the rats, 18 birds were brought in from another population on Stewart Island. These quickly settled in, and numbers have since grown steadily. We find them – or, to be more accurate, they find us – at various points along our walk through the island, suggesting they are now very firmly established here.

Yellow-crowned Parakeet

As we walk on we’re delighted to see some more old friends, kaka, or forest parrots. They inevitably remind us of dear old Lady Kaka, the feisty bird that lives, loves and squawks loudly on the porch of our accommodation on Stewart Island. But there’s another parrot too, or more correctly a parakeet. The Yellow-crowned Parakeet, or kakariki, is a noisy chap who spends most of his time flitting around in the forest canopy. Luckily one drops on to a low-hanging bough for a few seconds, giving Mrs P a chance to fire off a quick shot.

The variety of vegetation is immense

It’s not all about the birds, though. The variety of vegetation, all of it totally unfamiliar to a casual visitor from the UK, is immense. Our guide knows her plants however, and shares her knowledge of bush-lore. Amongst the most interesting things she tells us about is the Muttonbird Scrub Leaf.

Photo of an original letter written on a Muttonbird Scrub Leaf

Until the 1970s it used to be entirely legal to pluck a leaf from this plant, write a (short) message, whack on a postage stamp and send it through the New Zealand mail. Also, when you’re caught short in the bush, the leaf makes excellent toilet paper. We’re told that there is a similar species found further north in New Zealand which has the consistency of two-ply toilet paper. However down here they do things a lot better: Ulva’s Muttonbird Scrub Leaf is four-ply quality. Oh, such luxury!

South Island Saddleback

But perhaps the greatest thrill of our visit to Ulva Island is to catch a glimpse of the South Island Saddleback. In 1964 this bird was confined to Big South Cape Island, and down to just 36 individuals due to the arrival of rats. Those few birds were moved to pest-free islands, and in due course some were brought to Ulva where they are flourishing. It’s another encouraging example of how, with hard work and sufficient resources, threatened birds can be brought back from the brink.

Rare blossoms amongst the foliage

Ulva is an inspiring place, a hint of what all of New Zealand must have looked and sounded like before humans arrived with their alien species of mammals, birds and plants. In one sense I suppose it’s like a museum, but a living museum, teeming with life, exuberant, vibrant and colourful. It’s most definitely a must-see destination for visitors who seek an understanding of New Zealand’s unique natural heritage.

The Stewart Island story

New Zealanders we’ve met on our travels have been impressed that Stewart Island is on our itinerary. Although tourism is a major part of its economy that’s not saying much for an island with fewer than 400 permanent residents. Few New Zealanders appear to have made the trip, although many speak wistfully of popping over “one day”. It’s a classic bucket list destination.

Ulva Island viewed from Observation Point

So what’s the attraction of Stewart, the third, smallest and most southerly of New Zealand’s main islands? Visitors who cross the 30 kilometres of the Foveaux Strait mostly make the journey to go tramping (hiking). There’s a lot for them to have a go at.

At 1,680 square kilometres (650 square miles) Stewart Island is about the size of Greater London. Most of it is a rugged land of undulating hills and low peaks cloaked in pristine, primeval forest and bush growing down to the sea’s edge. Offshore is a scattering of small, picturesque islands and rocky outcrops.

Today 85% of the island is protected as a National Park, and much of the rest is uninhabited and owned by the Rakiura Māori Land Trust. The Stewart Island wilderness remains almost as it was before the first Polynesians – predecessors of the Maori – arrived in the late 13th century.

Leask Bay

A small part of me wishes we could visit Rakiura National Park, that we could do what all the fit young things with their enormous rucksacks come here to do, which is to tramp off into the bush and have an adventure in the land that time forgot.

But that’s not going to happen, partly for health reasons but mainly because life’s too short. And anyway, there’s plenty to see and to admire in the small bit of the island that’s accessible to non-trampers like us.

Halfmoon Bay, Oban. The red-roofed building on the right is the hotel.

Most of Stewart Island’s residents live in the township of Oban, on Halfmoon Bay. I guess the best word for it is quaint, just a scattering of buildings along a few roads, a tiny supermarket and a hotel that acts as the social centre for islanders and visitors alike. There’s even a giant outdoor chessboard, in case anyone gets bored.

Stewart also boasts a library, a sports and community hall, and a museum. The latter will soon be replaced by a brand new, purpose-built multi-million dollar building, the result of years of fund-raising. Given its tiny population the island has a surprising wealth of facilities that would not look out of place in a town many times its size.

On the hill overlooking Halfmoon Bay stands Oban Presbyterian Church. Being Presbyterian the church, like the name ‘Oban’, is a clue to the Scottish heritage of many of the early settlers here. Wooden and built in 1904, it’s one of the few buildings of any note in the island.

Oban Presbyterian Church

Unsurprisingly the church doesn’t have a resident minister, but worshippers benefit from various visiting preachers including Baptist, Salvation Army and Methodist as well as Presbyterian. This flexible approach to religious observance is, I suppose, another example of the compromises that have to be made in such a remote corner of New Zealand.

There’s evidently a strong sense of community: they’re all in this together, Stewart Islanders, living the dream in New Zealand’s very own “lands end.” Inevitably in a place so small everyone knows everyone else, and nobody locks their doors except the tourists. It’s a friendly, peaceful island, an improbable yet welcome escape from the hurly-burly of the modern world.

In the early decades of European colonisation whaling and sealing were mainstays of the local economy, but thankfully those activities are now but a distant memory. Fishing once employed much of the population, but modern techniques require fewer workers, so it’s left to tourism to pick up the slack.

But most of the tourists are away in the bush, doing whatever it is that trampers do, so there’s little to spoil the tranquillity of Oban other than the occasional stag party attended by mainlanders out on the razzle.

Giant chessboard on the seafront, and behind the dock from which the ferry to the mainland departs

For us Stewart Island’s most attractive feature is its birdlife. Many native New Zealand birds thrive here due to the absence of stoats and other mammalian predators. Outlandish though it may seem, to help ensure the island remains a safe haven for birds dogs must attend ‘kiwi aversion’ classes, where they are trained not to pursue these flightless New Zealand icons.

But the battle against predators hasn’t been won. Rats remain a significant problem, and while they don’t appear to threaten the adult kiwi, they prevent other native birds spreading from Stewart’s offshore sanctuary islands and gaining a foothold here.

In response, several years ago the US-based Dancing Star Foundation purchased an area of land at Mamaku Point. They enclosed it with state-of-the art predator-proof fencing, eliminated the rats and reintroduced some long-absent bird species.

Ugly but effective: part of the predator-proof fence at Mamaku Point

The Mamaku Point Conservation Trust has recently taken over from Dancing Star, and has exciting plans for its “mainland island” reserve.

The trust’s primary objective is to continue Dancing Star Foundation’s successful efforts to conserve and enhance the health and diversity of the native flora and fauna within the reserve, and the secondary objective is to facilitate education, research and public awareness of the importance of these activities.

We’re also focused on making sure the trust and reserve are as financially and environmentally sustainable as possible. In this respect, we’re working with local eco-tourism operators to develop exciting eco-tourism opportunities that will make the property accessible to the public.

SOURCE: Statement by Auckland businessman Roy Thompson, owner of the site, quoted in an article in the online news magazine Stuff, 2 August 2017, retrieved 6 December 2019.

It sounds like a brilliant initiative, which will presumably result in the creation of a reserve with similarities to the one we visited at Bushy Park a few weeks ago. Although it’s a pity we’re not able to visit the reserve, it’s encouraging to learn that there are wealthy New Zealanders prepared to support important conservation initiatives with hard cash.

Lady Kaka and other parrots on my porch

She’s perched on the railing that guards the edge of our veranda, or porch as they call it in North America, staring into our room through the full length glass sliding door. I’m staring out at her, captivated by her audacity. We’re separated by no more than a couple of metres and a sheet of glass. She can see me but is totally un-phased.

Even when I slide the door open and step closer she’s untroubled, and simply watches me calmly. She doesn’t need reassurance but I offer it anyway, whispering to her, telling her that I find her beautiful and won’t ever harm her. She tips her head to one side quizzically, weighing me up.

I can read her mind. Are you for real? she’s asking herself. Why do you people always act so weird around me? She’s plainly in charge of this encounter, which is like a thousand others meetings she’s had before with guests occupying this room.

I, however, haven’t read the script. I’m lost for words, unsure what to do next. Wild birds aren’t meant to be like this. Is she ill? Or mad? Or am I the crazy one, standing here in awe of a big parrot with olive grey plumage, yellow sideburns and a bloody enormous beak?

I watch her intently, and she watches me back. It’s a Mexican standoff, and neither of us wants to make the first move. Finally she gets bored – I’ve obviously buggered up the audition – and utters a piercing, eardrum-exploding squawk as she flies off into a nearby tree. Lady Kaka has left the building.

The kaka is one of three species of parrot in New Zealand, and is still relatively common on Stewart Island. This is a good thing, as – along with most of the country’s endemic birds – on the mainland it’s in big trouble due to mammalian predation and habitat loss.

Although kaka are doing quite well here, we’d expected to have to work hard to see one. We certainly hadn’t imagined one would come down to our accommodation to say hi. And it’s not just one: in all, during our three days on Stewart, no fewer than four kaka make themselves known to us on and around our porch.

We also watch the kaka feeding on the pieces of apple that have been left for them on the nearby bird table. With dextrous feet they grasp the apple and hold it up to their enormous beaks, which quickly shred and devour the fruit.

As well as lunch, love is plainly in the air. One of the other birds makes eyes at Lady Kaka, who, taking after her namesake, is loud, elegant and feisty and therefore a good catch in the weird world of parrots. He displays to her and chases her along the railing, squawking loudly as he does so. He’s persistent, but she’s not impressed. He obviously needs to try harder if he’s going to have his wicked way with her.

Eventually Lady Kaka flies away, leaving the suitor looking disconsolate. After a few seconds he flies off in pursuit, but his heart isn’t really in it. He knows when he’s beaten. There’s no doubt who wears the trousers around here: Lady Kaka, the parrot on my porch.

Midnight kiwi capers

The kiwi, New Zealand’s iconic bird, is nocturnal, secretive and rare. The chances of us ever tracking one down without help are remote, so we’ve hired a local expert to help us out. Stewart Island (Rakiura) boasts several experienced birders selling their guiding services, but Ulva’s reputation surpasses all the rest. If anybody’s going to find us a kiwi it’s Ulva, and we’re lucky she’s available.

Darkness has fallen as we make our way to Ulva’s offices at around 10pm, where she issues us with torches that shine red light. Being nocturnal, kiwis operate primarily by smell. Their eyesight is poor, but a normal white torchlight may scare them off. However they can’t see red light at all. This is a great help for spotting kiwis, but not so good for taking photos of them. Using flash is totally forbidden; at best it will alarm them, and at worst blind them.

We clamber into Ulva’s 4×4, and she proceeds to drive us around Stewart Island’s road network in search of the elusive bird. “Road network” is maybe overstating it a bit; only 3% of the island is open for settlement, the rest being either a nature reserve or in the ownership of the Rakiura Maori Lands Trust. In total the public highway extends to no more than 25 kilometres.

Ulva knows every metre of Stewart Island roads intimately, and also knows where kiwi are most likely to be seen. As the rain falls steadily we check out all her favourite haunts, but there’s no sign of a kiwi at any of them. We do however spot several other search parties shining torches beneath bushes and into dark rocky corners, all on a similar quest to ours. It’s evident from their body language that they’re having no more luck than us.

Ulva decides to try a different approach, checking out a stretch of beach where kiwis are know to feed, and a fence-line where they sometimes forage, but again to no avail. The rain is getting heavier, and our morale is sinking fast. It’s now approaching midnight, and Ulva decides to retrace our journey of earlier in the evening to see if the situation has changed.

We’re driving along a narrow, dark road that’s lit only by the car headlights when we spot movement on the roadside to our left. Ulva slams on the brakes, and for maybe five seconds we have a great view of a Little Blue Penguin. Even in the difficult light we can clearly pick out his brilliant white waistcoat and the hint of blue in the feathers on his back, before he scuttles off into the bush. Unfortunately there’s no time to get a photo, but the image below (taken in Tasmania) shows the bird’s key features.

File:Eudyptula minor Bruny 1.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: JJ Harrison (https://www.jjharrison.com.au/) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)%5D

The Little Blue is the world’s smallest penguin. It nest in small numbers all around the coast of New Zealand, and in parts of Australia too where it’s called the Fairy Penguin. They nest in burrows some distance inland, staying out at sea during daylight and returning to their chicks with food in the dark of night.

A penguin wasn’t what he had in mind for tonight’s expedition, but at least we’ve seen something. We carry on driving the roads. I’m sitting upfront, next to Ulva, scanning the road hopefully. I spot some movement and shout “stop.” Ulva pulls up sharply, and as she does so a smallish, brown/grey bird flies up from the ground where it’s been feeding on roadkill. It’s a tiny owl called a Morepork, named after its distinctive call.

PHOTO CREDIT: Mosborne01 [CC0]

We leap out of the car and scan the tree into which it flew. It takes off again and circles the trees for maybe a minute, before disappearing for good. Again it’s impossible to take a photo, but finally catching sight of a bird we’ve heard a few times previously is an unexpected bonus. The image above from Creative Commons shows what a Morepork looks like in daylight, although the bird’s tiny size is difficult to appreciate.

It’s now approaching 1.00am, and despite the penguin and the owl we’re feeling miserable. Our best chance of seeing a kiwi seems to have passed us by. Ulva decides to take one final drive along a road where she’s had success recently. She drives slowly, and we’re all scanning ahead and to the side of the car.

Suddenly Mrs P shouts “There! There! There!”. We look ahead and to the left, and spot the unmistakable shape of a kiwi. Ulva stops and kills the headlights, and we all leap from the car brandishing our red-light torches. The kiwi is a few metres from us, apparently unaware of us, or at least untroubled by our presence.

We watch, transfixed, for a couple of minutes until, amazingly, a second kiwi appears. It’s much bigger than the first bird, with a longer beak, and must therefore be a female. She chases him into the bush and seconds later a deafening screech comes from his direction. It’s not clear what she’s done to provoke such a response, but it is an unearthly noise and if we didn’t know the cause a supernatural explanation would have appeared plausible.

As if to mark the success of our kiwi search the rain has stopped, and the sky is now crystal clear. Stewart Island is an acclaimed ‘dark sky area’, and in the darkness we can see countless stars shining their light upon us. From a gloomy start the night has turned magical, and without doubt will remain one of the highlights of our visit to New Zealand.

We assume that the show’s over, but amazingly a third kiwi has appeared from the bush and is working his way calmly along the roadside verge, plunging his beak deep into the grass in search of food. Being flightless he can’t take to the wing to get away, but in any case he seems happy where he is, completely ignoring his entranced admirers.

We watch for maybe 15 minutes, getting unforgettable views of a magnificent, iconic bird. The red light makes photography very difficult, but it doesn’t really matter: this memory will stay with us forever.

Penguins on parade

The timing of our visit to New Zealand has been planned to maximise our chances of seeing the Fiordland Crested Penguin. Today’s the day when we find out if we’ve got it right.

Gerry drives us and a couple of other guests from the Lodge and drops us off by the side of the road. He tells us to lurk in the bushes while he secrets the van at another location some distance away. On his return we are ushered into the undergrowth, leaving no evidence that we were ever there at all.

This cloak and dagger stuff is worthy of a television crime drama, but Gerry has his reasons. The Fiordland Crested is endemic to New Zealand, meaning that it’s found nowhere else in the world. It’s one of the world’s rarest penguins, and to protect it from mammalian predators the Department of Conserevation has laid baited rat traps all over the area.

But this penguin is also desperately vulnerable to disturbance by people and, especially, their dogs. The colony that Gerry’s taking us to visit isn’t well known and is very difficult to find. He’s determined to keep it this way.

The path takes us deep into the forest, past palm ferns and a variety of native trees. It’s twisty, steep and slippery, and not at all pleasant to walk. But that, of course, is exactly the point.

To cover our tracks we ford the same river a number of times, and at one point a false trail is laid so that anyone following us won’t find the correct river crossing. The Lodge has loaned us all gumboots (wellingtons to any Brits reading this), and this is a good thing in view of the trek we’ve embarked upon.

However the river’s running fast and high due to all the rain we’ve had recently, and at the second crossing Mrs P fills one of her gumboots. She’s not at all a happy bunny, but the prospect of penguins stiffens her resolve and she squelches on stoically.

Eventually we arrive at the beach, and Gerry leads us to the appropriate spot. To our right the sea, waves slapping into the beach and shoreline rocks; to our left, a steep hillside, green and thickly forested. The penguins nest in the forest, and trudge up and down the hillside every day to feed their youngsters. This is what we’re hoping to witness.

Within seconds we spot our first penguin. He’s out at sea, but paddling calmly towards the shoreline.

Soon he’s out on dry land, looking this way and that to check that he’s safe. We can tell immediately that he’s a good looking lad. He stands at around 60cm, a stout bird with dark head and upperparts, and white underparts. A broad yellow crest, which is the source of his name, runs above his vivid red eye.

Having established that the coast is clear, both literally and metaphorically, he moves up the beach a little and begins to preen. He needs to ensure he’s in tiptop condition before he starts the yomping to the nest site.

Once everything is in order he sets off. And as he walks up the beach we spot his unusual posture. Whereas most penguins that I’ve seen (albeit courtesy of Sir David Attenborough) hold themselves upright when they move, he walks in a stooped position like an old man with a walking stick.

But his posture doesn’t hold him up, and soon he’s reached the spot where the beach ends and the hillside begins. Now he’s been joined by another penguin, and the two of them begin to scramble up the slope. They’ve walked this path many times before, as have the colony’s other adult birds. The lower slope is bare of all vegetation, worn away by the trudging of countless webbed feet, and the soil is crumbling away.

At last our hero is within metres of the forest edge. He turns and surveys the beach one more time, before heading off amongst the trees. He may still have several hundred metres to travel, but we will never see him again.

By Gerry’s reckoning we see 19 penguins on parade over a period of about 90 minutes, some climbing uphill to their nests, and others returning down to the sea to catch more fish for their ravenous chicks. It’s been an honour and a privilege to watch them go about their business at Gerry’s secret location. Here’s hoping the secret remains a secret, and that the action continues for generations to come.

Rainforest magic

We’re staying a couple of nights at the Lake Moeraki Wilderness Lodge, situated in the temperate rainforest that grows along the south-west coast of South Island. Here’s how the Lodge’s website describes the facility:

Few places on earth can match the stunning natural setting of Wilderness Lodge Lake Moeraki, surrounded by lakes, rivers, rainforest and seacoast in the heart of Te Wahipounamu, the southwest New Zealand World Heritage Area.  This is a paradise for nature lovers, active travelers and wilderness seekers.

Source: Wilderness Lodge website, retrieved 16 November 2019

Sounds like a lot of hype, doesn’t it? But to be fair, this is a very special place, not just for its location but also because the guy who runs it – Dr Gerry McSweeney – understands and is passionate about the natural world. Prior to starting the Wilderness Lodges Gerry was the conservation director of Forest & Bird, New Zealand’s largest environmental group.

The ethos of the Lodge is summed up in this quote, also from the website:

The … Wilderness Lodge at Lake Moeraki was set up to demonstrate that nature tourism could be an alternative to rainforest logging. By fostering eco-tourism & encouraging people to visit the West Coast it was possible to support communities traditionally reliant upon destructive logging.

Source: Wilderness Lodge website, retrieved 16 November 2019

It sounds like our sort of place, and as if to illustrate this, within an hour of our arrival we’re off on a guided walk to view the giant eels that live in the river that carves its ways through the rainforest.

To access the trail through the rainforest we have to cross the river. There’s no bridge, only a makeshift collection of planks and boxes. But never mind, Gerry’s happy to lend a hand and we soon make it to the other side where we can admire the vast array of native New Zealand vegetation.

And what a lot there is to admire including ferns of all shapes and sizes, and mixed in amongst them some much larger trees. Because this place has never been commercially logged some of the trees have reached maturity, and Gerry tells us the oldest are many hundreds of years old. They tower above us majestically, and as we study them in more detail we can see that their trunks and branches play host to countless mosses and epiphytes. Life is everywhere, in a thousand subtle shades of green.

We push on until we reach a spot on the riverbank where we can all gather and watch the action. Being nocturnal our quarry prefers to stay hidden under rocks or logs during the day, but the smell of blood will lure it out.

Gerry’s assistant tosses some chopped meaty treats into the water, close to the bank, and within seconds the giant, or longfin, eels appear. They can grow up to two metres long and may be 80 years old, so these specimens aren’t in the premier league. But they still look pretty impressive, particularly when one of them is briefly lifted out of the water to give us a better view.

When the Maori arrived in New Zealand several hundred years ago they found a land that was devoid of land mammals. The sea and the rivers were therefore vital sources of protein and the giant eel was a much valued food item.

Today they are hunted for export to Japan, where they are highly prized and therefore very expensive. Unregulated hunting for this lucrative market threatens the survival of the species, particularly as it is only the largest eels that breed and fishermen can make a bigger, easier profit by landing the largest specimens. However, Gerry tells us that stricter controls have recently been introduced, and these may stabilise the numbers.

Having seen the monstrous eels we return to the Lodge for dinner, but after sunset we are out and about again. Gerry drives us to a spot a few hundred yards away, then turns off the car engine and lights. As we stroll along the road and our eyes adjust to the total darkness we can see tiny lights all around us. We’ve found glow-worms.

In fact the glow-worm is not a worm at all, but instead the larva of a species of gnat. The larva hangs from a silken thread, and its phosphorescent light lures in tiny insects upon which it will prey. Sadly the conditions make it impossible to take photos of this phenomenon, but just imagine walking down a road in total darkness and seeing hundreds of pure white Christmas tree lights twinkling in the bushes that line the highway. It is a magical, if somewhat surreal experience, and definitely one to remember.

But the fun’s not over yet. Gerry shines his torch into the little drainage ditch that flows along one side of the road, scrabbles around for a couple of seconds and pulls out a freshwater crayfish or yabbie.

New Zealand’s native rainforest is teeming with life, much of it totally unexpected and delightful. And the best is still to come, as tomorrow Gerry’s promised to show us a rare species of penguin that breeds in these parts. I’ll tell the story of our Fiordland Penguin encounter in my next post.

Kiwis, glaciers and a mountain parrot

We’re heading south where tomorrow we’re booked in for what promises to be one on the highlights of our visit to New Zealand, a trip to see the endangered Fiordland penguin. But on the way we’re stopping off at the Franz Josef Glacier, before finding out more about conservation of another threatened local bird, the iconic kiwi.

Like glaciers throughout the world Franz Josef is retreating, but it’s unusual in that its snout is just 300 metres above sea level. It’s 12 kilometres long, and makes its way westward towards the sea from the Southern Alps. Flowing from the snout of the Franz Josef Glacier is the Waiho River.

The young and intrepid can walk from the car park up to the glacier snout relatively easily. However Mrs P and I are neither young nor intrepid, so we content ourselves with what we can see from the car park.

And the view is pretty good as views of glaciers go, although I’d say it’s more majestic than beautiful. But it’s probably something we should savour as, thanks to climate change, the Frans Josef Glacier won’t be around for much longer.

Something else to be savoured is the Mountain Parrot, or kea, that drops in to say hi as I’m locking up the car. Luckily I have my camera slung around my neck and start videoing him as soon as he lands on the car roof, while Mrs P photographs both of us.

Kea are typical parrots in that they are long-lived, inquisitive and intelligent. But their hobby is untypical of just about any birds anywhere: they love trashing cars. Many a tourist has left his car to nip into a café for a swift mocha, or maybe a cappuccino and a slab of chocolate cake, only to find on his return that he’s missing a windscreen wiper, his aerial or a hub cap.

Kea are notorious thieves, and will steal just about any part of your car if they think they can get away with it. On this occasion however my new friend seems more interested in a career as a photo model than as a petty thief, which is fortunate as I suspect my rental car insurance policy does not cover vandalism by a parrot.

Having seen the glacier and avoided a malicious parrot attack, we head into the little town of Franz Josef. The place is dominated by the mountains that surround it, and although the tops are wreathed in clouds, the lower slopes are clearly visible and looking spectacular after the recent snowfall.

But we’re not here for the scenery. Instead we’ve come to visit the West Coast Wildlife Centre. There’s an enormous fibre glass kiwi and chick outside, which is a clue to what goes on here.

We’ve already been to one kiwi conservation centre, in Hokitika, where we were able to see a couple of the birds running around in a specially designed captive viewing area, and to learn a bit about the pressures facing them in their natural environment. The Franz Josef facility offers a similar opportunity for visitors, but more importantly it helps raise kiwi chicks in secure surroundings before the youngsters are released back into the wild.

For an additional fee, which we’re happy to pay, we get a “backstage pass” and get to meet one of the people who helps raise the kiwi chicks. She explains that in the wild kiwi eggs and young chicks are threatened by predatory stoats.

In an attempt to prevent this iconic New Zealand bird from becoming extinct, scientists collect eggs from wild kiwi and place them in incubators at the Centre until they hatch. After the hatchlings have grown a bit they are moved to another secure location where they start to mature. When the kiwi has put on a bit of weight it’s able to defend itself from stoat attacks, and at this point it can be returned to the wild.

It’s an ambitious project that is having some success. We are thrilled to see three young kiwi. Each is bathed in a pool of soothing red light in its own incubator, snoozing peacefully, though if I’m honest they look like nothing more than inert balls of fluff. But it’s the thought that counts, and we’re glad we’ve seen them and learned about the effort being made to protect them.

Our views of the adult kiwi were limited due to the low light conditions in which they are housed, and for the same reason we were not able to take photos of these older birds. The stuffed adult and juvenile kiwi on show at this Centre give us a sense of what the living, breathing bird must be like, but it’s a poor substitute for the real thing.

We’d love to see a kiwi in the wild but they’re incredibly difficult to find, being shy, nocturnal and very rare. But in a few days we’ve booked an after dark session with an expert naturalist who will hopefully be able to make our dreams come true. Watch this space!

Kaikoura Whale Watch

Kaikoura is one of the few places in the world where Sperm Whales can be seen year-round and close to shore. They congregate here because the 3km deep Kaikoura Canyon runs right up against the coast. The sea currents shaped by the underwater landscape help sustain a rich marine food chain. The resulting abundance of fish means that predatory Sperm Whales also thrive in the waters off Kaikoura.

Unsurprisingly, given the large number of whales in the area, early European settlers established a whaling industry here which survived until 1964. Thankfully we live in a more enlightened age, and it’s now eco-tourists like us who seek out the whales. The company running our tour, Whale Watch Kaikoura, must be confident of success as they offer an 80% discount if one of their expeditions fails to find a whale.

Mrs P and I are no strangers to whale watching, and have seen Humpbacks and Orcas in various parts of the world. But we’ve never seen a Sperm Whale, so this trip has special significance for us.

Our catamaran speeds away from Kaikoura, heading out to the underwater canyon where the Sperm Whales hunt. It takes a little over half an hour to get there, and we’re in luck as our quarry is already on the surface.

Sperm Whales are territorial, meaning that there’s only this one in the immediate vicinity, and when he dives he’ll be underwater for nearly an hour so this is the one chance we’ll have.

Luckily he’s in no hurry for lunch and stays near the surface as we edge closer to him. He’s gathering himself for the next deep dive, and is so close we can hear him breathe. It’s a magical sight: he’s huge, maybe 18 metres long, and yet he moves like an athlete. He is in his element, and we are in awe of him.

Finally he’s ready to feed again. He disappears from view, diving deep towards the canyon below, and as he does, his fluked tail raises high above the surface of the water before disappearing from sight. It is as if he’s waving goodbye to us.

*

Whales are incredible, beautiful creatures that have for centuries suffered grievously at the hand of man. For me, nothing better captures the tragedy of their fate than a folk song written by Andy Barnes. It’s called The Last of the Great Whales, and I have reproduced the lyrics below for you to ponder.

Please, read the words and weep for the whales.

The Last of the Great Whales
lyrics by
Andy Barnes

My soul has been torn from me and I am bleeding
My heart it has been rent and I am crying
All the beauty around me fades and I am screaming
I am the last of the great whales and I am dying

Last night I heard the cry of my last companion
The roar of the harpoon gun and then I was alone
I thought of the days gone by when we were thousands
But I know that I soon must die the last leviathan

This morning the sun did rise Crimson in the sky
The ice was the colour of blood and the winds they did sigh
I rose for to take a breath it was my last one
From a gun came the roar of death and now I am done

Oh now that we are all gone there's no more hunting
The big fellow is no more it's no use lamenting
What race will be next in line? All for the slaughter
The elephant or the cod or your sons and daughters

My soul has been torn from me and I am bleeding
My heart it has been rent and I am crying
All the beauty around me fades and I am screaming
I am the last of the great whales and I am dying

For a performance of the song by the Celtic Crossroads on YouTube, click here. It’s not my favourite version, but the best I can track down as I write.

*

We will have to head back for Kaikoura before our whale surfaces again, so the skipper decides instead to seek out some other animals for us to enjoy. Luckily a pod of Dusky Dolphins is more than willing to put on a show for us. They swim around and under our catamaran, coming within just a metre or two of us on occasions. They seem playful, and stay with us for ten or fifteen minutes.

What a bonus. We have a whole afternoon trip booked tomorrow to see dolphins, but we’ve already made their acquaintance.

We can’t wait to see them again.

Bushy Park bird sanctuary

In typical fashion, when the Brits colonised New Zealand they decided that although the land had promise, it was way too foreign. The solution, they determined, was to import some favourite elements of the Mother Country to make New Zealand feel much more like home.

What better way for the colonisers to make New Zealand feel like the land of their birth than to transport some familiar birds half way across the world and then release them to compete with an unsuspecting and ill-prepared population of native birds? For this reason, house sparrows, song thrushes, skylarks, blackbirds, goldfinches, chaffinches and many more species from the UK are abundant here in New Zealand.

House Sparrow – now probably more common in New Zealand than the UK

And it wasn’t just the Brits. The Aussies weren’t much better, nipping across the Tasman Sea to release some of their own familiar species such as Black Swans, Australian Magpies and Silvereyes.

To make matters worse, mammalian predators were brought to New Zealand and released, sometimes deliberately and sometimes accidentally. Rats, stoats, and possums now ravage New Zealand’s native bird species, which previously faced no such threats and were therefore ill-equipped to deal with the sudden influx of ruthless killing machines.

The combination of predation from introduced mammals and competition from introduced birds has been disastrous for New Zealand’s native birds. Some species have gone extinct, and many others can only be found on predator-free offshore islands. Our planned visit earlier in this trip to one such island, Tiritiri Matangi, had to be cancelled due to the weather, and we have therefore struggled to see many of the native birds that were due to be one of the highlights of our visit to New Zealand.

Bushy Park Sanctuary offers us the chance to put this right. This is a small area (100 hectares / 247 acres) of lowland rainforest surrounded by a predator-proof fence. The park and the homestead (grand farmhouse) bearing its name were gifted to conservation organisation Forest and Bird in 1962. The project to make this a special place for native birds has been managed by the Bushy Park Trust since 1994 and was encircled by a 4.8km pest-proof fence in 2005.

We are staying for two nights in the Bushy Park homestead, which has been converted into what we might describe in the UK as a boutique hotel. Built in 1906 in the Edwardian style, it is a Category One Heritage Building registered with the New Zealand Historic Places Trust.

Bushy Park homestead

To access the homestead and the adjacent sanctuary we have to drive through an airlock style double gate – one gate is always closed, which minimises the chance of predators entering the protected area. However, it’s obviously not fool-proof – or, to be more precise – possum-proof, as there are baited poison traps distributed throughout the homestead grounds and sanctuary.

Passing through the first of two gates designed to keep predators out of the Sanctuary

I must confess to having slightly mixed feelings about the poison. I know that the predators don’t belong here, and I also know that the native birds we’re hoping to see don’t stand a chance unless those predators are eliminated, but the poison inevitably causes suffering and a lingering death. As a matter of principle I don’t accept that any living creature should suffer at the hand of (wo)mankind, but without drastic intervention native birds will suffer and probably become extinct.

Fantail

Oh dear, what a conundrum. But what is absolutely clear is that the predator control and the reintroduction initiatives that have followed it have transformed the mix of birdlife to be found in this small area. As we walk though the forest and enjoy the sight of so many unfamiliar trees and other plants, our ears are assailed by the call of birds.

Hihi (male bird; the females are much less colourful)

But what we hear is not the type of birdsong that we’ve heard elsewhere in New Zealand, calls that are familiar from back home such as the blackbird and the chaffinch. No, these are the calls of native birds which are thriving in this tiny North Island sanctuary. And as we scan the trees and the bird feeders we spot the culprits, including Fantails, HiHi, Kereru, Saddlebacks and New Zealand Robin.

Kereru

There’s a lot to enjoy and a lot to think about at Bushy Park Sanctuary. It demonstrates that with enough resources, and if we are willing to accept that the suffering of the poisoned is a price worth paying, small areas of the country can be reclaimed for native birds. It also demonstrates that those birds are magnificent creatures that deserve to thrive and to be admired by us, the architects of their decline.

Saddleback

But the New Zealand government has committed itself to ridding the country of rats, stoats and possums. It says

Predator Free 2050 is an ambitious goal to rid New Zealand of the most damaging introduced predators that threaten our nation’s natural taonga, our economy and primary sector. Join us in eradicating New Zealand’s most damaging introduced predators: rats, stoats and possums. Going predator free will bring us a huge range of environmental, cultural, social and economic benefits.

Source: https://www.doc.govt.nz/nature/pests-and-threats/predator-free-2050/ Retrieved 30 October 2019.

Sounds impressive, doesn’t it? But given the enormous effort that has gone into protecting just the 100 hectares of Bushy Park Sanctuary, is this realistic or merely fanciful? And considering the millions of living creatures that must be eliminated to make it happen, do the ends really justify the means?

New Zealand Robin

I don’t have the answers to these questions, and as a guest here it’s really not my business anyway. But it makes you think, doesn’t it?

Sandflies: A notorious New Zealand nightmare

When you decide to venture out on a road trip it’s important to pick the right travelling companion, and they don’t come any better than Mrs P. She’s a meticulous planner and an excellent navigator, the latter being essential given that I have no sense of direction and have barely mastered the difference between left and right.

Mrs P is also a wizard in the suitcase packing and car loading departments. Her skill in this regard often appears to defy the laws of physics, and leaves me scratching my head in puzzled admiration.

PHOTO CREDIT: By rawpixel.com via Pexels

But her most important qualification for the role of being my travelling companion – other than, of course, the fact that I’m married to her – is that she’s a magnet for biting bugs.

For reasons that neither of us can explain, insects all over the world make a bee-line (ha ha!) for Mrs P, while leaving me alone. She’s been eaten alive in various parts of the world – Alaska, Canada and Tokyo to name just three – while I’ve escaped virtually unscathed.

To use the modern idiom, Mrs P’s always ready to take one – or, on a bad day, one hundred – for the team.

However this is no laughing matter. At its worst, a swarm of biting insects can leave her sick, sore, dispirited and covered with angry red rashes and welts. Mrs P was, therefore, alarmed to read about the notorious New Zealand sandfly.

DSCN7760.jpg

PHOTO CREDIT: “DSCN7760.jpg” by NelC is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Captain James Cook, the first European to set foot in New Zealand, had the measure of the sandfly. Here’s what he wrote in his journal in May 1773:

The most mischievous animal here is the small black sandfly which are exceeding numerous … wherever they light they cause a swelling and such intolerable itching that it is not possible to refrain from scratching and at last ends in ulcers like the small Pox.

Quoted in Te Ara: The Encyclopedia of New Zealand, retrieved 23/09/19
Embed from Getty Images

So what do we know about New Zealand’s notorious nightmare, the cause of so much abject misery?

  • New Zealand’s sandflies are known as namu by the Maori. Similar species in other parts of the world are called blackflies.
  • Sandflies are tiny – just two to three millimetres in length – and they all look the same to the naked eye. But as we know size isn’t everything, all that really counts is what you do with what you’ve got.
  • The males are vegetarians, so it’s only the females that bite. I’m absolutely not going to comment on this.
  • There are 13 species of sandfly in New Zealand. Fortunately for locals and tourists alike, only two of these [or possibly three, depending on which source you look at] actually bite. However I find little comfort in the fact that a bad situation could be even worse if the other 10 or 11 species were also biters.
  • The worst biters are found on South Island, which is bad news for us as we’re due to spend most of our time there. And on South Island they’re a particular problem on the west coast … guess which part of the island features most heavily in our itinerary? Yep, you got it in one!
  • They don’t bite at night; peak biting times are in the morning and as dusk approaches. In other words they are active when we, as tourists, are most likely to be out and about. Great!
  • Sandflies breed in fast-flowing streams and rivers, and adults can be found wherever there is water, also including beaches and the edges of lakes and swamps. And yes, you’ve guessed it, as keen bird watchers we’re certain to spend lots of time next to streams, rivers, lakes and swamps.

I bet you’re reading this and thinking I’m exaggerating, that sandflies aren’t really that bad, just badly misunderstood. Well don’t take my word for it, here’s what the New Zealand-based news website Stuff has to say on the subject:

On occasion, the bites cause nasty swelling, itching, hives, and a general desire to scream.

At their worst, in the most intense sandfly-ridden spots of the West Coast, entomologists have recorded a bite rate of up to 1000-an-hour. In a couple of minutes, that could be hundreds of little bites, on your arms, neck, face, feet.

Source: Stuff website, retrieved 25/09/19.

Stuff also reveals one particularly fascinating fact, that although sandflies enjoy snacking on human blood they’d much rather dine out on penguins. Strange, but apparently true.

Yellow-eyed Penguins

PHOTO CREDIT: “Yellow-eyed Penguins” by Chris Gin is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

Also possibly true – but then again, possibly not – are the rumours that sandflies can be deterred by garlic, or a mixture of baby oil and Dettol. So, as Stuff points out:

Theoretically then, one way to deter sandflies is to walk around carrying a penguin as bait, while eating garlic, covered in Dettol and baby oil. That might raise eyebrows as penguins are protected, so best not.

Source: Stuff website, retrieved 25/09/19.

If penguins are off-limits what is Mrs P to do to protect herself from New Zealand’s notorious nightmare? Well, it’s said that early European settlers would cover their bodies in rancid pork fat to deter sandflies, so I’ve suggested that my good lady purchases and packs a kilo or two of the disgusting grease before we leave the UK.

So it sounds like Mrs P has the sandfly problem licked, though I shall definitely avoid standing next to her in confined spaces for the duration of trip.

And lets hope the wretched sandflies don’t decide to take it out on me instead.