We must go down to the sea again: in search of Hector’s Dolphins

27 November 2019

Many of our best experiences during this visit to New Zealand have happened when we’ve taken boat trips to get up close to marine mammals and seabirds, so it seems only fitting that we spend our last afternoon in the country out on the sea. Our main target is to see some Hector’s Dolphins, the smallest of all dolphin species, but hopefully there will be good views of birds and the coastline, and maybe even a fur seal or two.

As we board our little boat we’re greeted by Buster, the skipper’s dog, kitted out in his bright orange life vest. We learn that he loves his daily voyage, and gets very excited when dolphins are spotted. On at least four occasions the cry of “dog overboard” has been raised, but each time he’s been fished out with nothing injured other than his dignity.

Heading out from Akaroa we spot some White-fronted Terns keeping pace with the boat. We’re pleased to see them, but there’s no time to hang around – we have to find ourselves some dolphins.

We make our way out along Akaroa Harbour, which is flanked by steep, rocky cliffs, some cut by picturesque arches and windows. The skipper takes us in close enough for photos, all the time keeping his eyes peeled for dolphins. Meanwhile Buster’s getting bored, and works his way around the passengers, making new friends wherever he goes.

Before too long the skipper finds what we’re all hoping to see. Hector’s Dolphins are unique to New Zealand, and are classed as “nationally endangered”, with their population thought to be around 10,000. Banks Peninsula as a whole is home to around 1,000 of them, three or four of which have made themselves known to us.

These are the smallest of any dolphin species, adult females measuring no more than 1.4m (4 feet 7 inches) and weighing in at up to 60kg (132 lbs). Males are a little smaller and lighter. At birth, calves are just 60-80cm (24 to 31 inches) long and weigh 8-10kg (18 to 22 lbs). They’re said to look like a rugby ball with flippers, which I guess is just the sort of description that you’d expect New Zealanders to come up with!

To their credit, successive New Zealand governments have worked hard to protect the Hector’s Dolphin. Measures taken include the establishment of the Banks Peninsula Marine Mammal Sanctuary in 1988, and the introduction in 1992 of the Marine Mammals Protection Regulations to regulate marine mammal tourism activities.

The dolphins swim up to the boat, follow alongside us for a while and dive repeatedly beneath our hull. They are fast-moving and can disappear below the waves in the blink of an eye. However they’re definitely less confiding, and therefore a lot more challenging, than the Dusky Dolphins that we saw earlier in our travels. Mrs P’s taking photos and I’m on video duty, and we both end up with more images of empty sea than of the dolphins themselves.

Eventually the dolphins get fed up, and swim off to amuse themselves elsewhere. But our fun’s not over yet. As we head back towards Akaroa town we’re pleased to see our old friend the Pied Shag, a handsome bird with dazzling undersides and bright blue eyes.

We soon spot another old friend hauled out on the rocks. The New Zealand Fur Seal has been a regular companion throughout our six weeks in the country, and today’s no exception. They’ve bounced back from the verge of extinction, and – as we’ve discovered – can now be found all around the New Zealand coastline.

Just a few hundred metres from the fur seals is a colony of Spotted Shags. They’re less striking than their cousin the Pied Shag, but nevertheless a good bird to see. The captain gives us a couple of minutes to admire them and then continues on towards our home port, where we must bid a fond farewell to the ebullient Buster.

Mrs P and I have mixed feelings. It’s been another great boat trip, and the elusive, super-speedy Hector’s Dolphins have been something special. Not to mention Buster, who is also pretty damned cute. But this will be the last excursion we will ever take in New Zealand, because tomorrow we’re heading off to Christchurch to catch our flight back to the UK.

Out and about around Lake Tekapo

23 November 2019

We’re spending the day out and about around Lake Tekapo. It’s less than three hours drive from Christchurch – New Zealand’s third largest city, population 360,000 – but it’s a different world up here. The lake, and the small settlement bearing its name, lies at 710 metres (2,300 feet) above sea level in the Mackenzie Basin. Standing proudly to the west are the spectacular Southern Alps

A Chinese visitor flies the flag on Mount John

Historically this is sheep country, remote and sparsely populated, although you wouldn’t believe it when we drive up Mount John to admire the views. The place is rammed with tourists, the majority of them Chinese. One of them is apparently so moved that she feels compelled to fly the Chinese flag, its yellow stars on a red background standing out vividly against a background of distant lakes and snow-scattered mountain peaks.

The snow-scattered peaks of the Southern Alps, viewed from Mount John

The Lake Tekapo area has a reputation for clear, clean air and minimal light pollution, enabling spectacular views of the night sky. In June 2012 an area of 430,000 hectares (1,700 square miles) was designated an International Dark Sky Reserve, one of only four such reserves around the world. Fallout from the Australian bushfires probably ruined any attempt at star-gazing last night, but yesterday’s smoke-haze has largely dissipated this morning and the mountain views are spectacular set against a dazzling blue sky.

A blot on the landscape? The University of Canterbury Mount John Observatory

The University of Canterbury Mount John Observatory (UCMJO) normally enables scientists and others to enjoy great views of the star-scape. However the two futuristic structures that make up the Observatory looking bizarrely out of place here. Some might regard them as a blot on the landscape.

Looking across Lake Alexandrina

On the way back down from Mount John we take a side road to Lake Alexandrina. A few holiday homes (known as cribs – or baches – in New Zealand) huddle together along part of the shoreline, and we can see why people would want to chill out here, so far from the hurly burly of the modern world.

This bronze memorial to working collie dogs was commissioned in 1968 by local farmers

We drive on, and are soon back in the small town of Lake Tekapo. It’s heaving with visitors, all searching for the spot that will enable them to take the perfect selfie. The bronze sculpture of a sheepdog, a tribute to the breed that did so much to help early settlers carve out a living here, draws plenty of admirers.

Lupins lining the canal. The colour of the water is the result of ‘rock flour’ , rocks ground to a fine dust by glacial activity

But the most spectacular sight of all is the profusion of lupins. The canal that moves water to the hydro power plant is lined with them. And areas of Lake Tekapo’s shoreline are blanketed with thousands of purple, pink and blue flowers, all set against a backdrop of distant snowy peaks. People wander amongst them as if mesmerised, unable to believe that nature can deliver such a stunning polychromatic bonanza.

This variety – the Russell Lupin – hails from the USA, and is grown widely in UK gardens

And there’s the rub. This isn’t all nature’s work. Man’s had a hand in this, although to be fair it’s more probably a woman’s work. The local story tells of a farmer’s wife who decided this part of central South Island was unacceptably drab. To rectify matters she is said to have secretly sowed lupin seeds along the area’s roads and riverbanks each spring. A more fanciful version of the story tells that the woman concerned sought to emulate Lady Godiva, riding naked on a white stallion while doing the horticultural deed.

A colourful combination of lupins, water coloured bright blue by ‘rock flour’, and snow-scattered mountains

Whatever the truth of the good lady’s state of undress, there’s no doubt that these lupins didn’t get here naturally. Officially they’re an invasive species or, to quote a term we encountered a couple of weeks ago in connection with hillsides clad in sulphurous yellow gorse and broom, ‘noxious weeds’. I fully accept that from an evolutionary point of view the lupins shouldn’t be here, but on the other hand human beings and their wretched sheep, cattle and deer weren’t around in primordial New Zealand either. Nor were vines, or even kiwi fruits for that matter.

Colourful characters or unwelcome invaders?

I agree the lupins shouldn’t be allowed to run amok: they need to be controlled, to be kept in check. But let’s not go too far. These lupins bring a burst of colour into the dreary lives of those who see them, a momentary lift to the spirits. And god knows, with the Australian bushfires raging 2,000 miles across the Tasman Sea and dumping their pollution here, we all need to have our spirits – and our hopes – raised.

Seals, boulders and a message from the Aussies

Today we’ll be heading inland to Lake Tekapo, where we expect to see distant views of the Southern Alps. But first we head north along the East coast, to Katiki Point.

Beach at Katiki Point

We park up and wander off in the direction of the beach and headland, past a lighthouse dating from 1878. The wooden tower of the Katiki Point (or Moeraki) Lighthouse stands 26 feet (8 m) high and 190 feet (58 m) above sea level. It has been fully automated since 1975.

Katiki Point (Moeraki) Lighthouse, built in 1878

The coastline at and around the Point is a mecca for fur seals. They are dotted about all over the place, slumming it on the beach and rocks. It must be a hard life being a fur seal, the liveliest of which just lie around and scratch themselves idly, as if waiting for something interesting to happen.

The liveliest Fur Seals just lie around and scratch themselves idly

Others, the wiser souls amongst them, have worked out that nothing interesting ever happens around here. They simply snooze, oblivious to the clickety-clack of Mrs P’s camera lens. Then one of them stirs briefly, gives Mrs P a look that says really, do you have to? and returns to what he does best, which is not a lot.

Nothing interesting ever happens around here

The most intrepid fur seal has hauled herself up the grassy slope of the Point and is resting in the long grass. It’s not clear why she’s bothered. There’s enough room for her down on the beach, but maybe she’s the Greta Garbo of fur seal world, forever proclaiming I want to be alone. Or maybe she’s socially ambitious, shunning the company of her own kind in favour of mixing with the likes of us.

Up on the grassy headland, a lone ‘selfie magnet’

Up on the grassy headland she’s sure to attract attention. And she does, quickly becoming a selfie magnet. Youngsters with big smiles and small cell phones march up to within a few feet of her and snap away happily. She watches them for a while, perhaps pondering if she should strike a more alluring pose, before concluding that she really can’t be bothered. After all, it’s Groundhog Day. She’s seen it all before, and if she comes back here for another snooze tomorrow she’ll see it again.

“The Neck” at Katiki Point

We leave her to her thoughts, and walk on around the Point for a view of a rocky outpost known as the Neck. As we stroll along there are more seals to admire, and also a range of birds including a small colony of Spotted Shag.

Spotted Shag

We catch a glimpse of a stoat, legging it through the long grass. The stoat isn’t native to New Zealand and is a major predator of native, ground nesting birds. The government here has a strategy called Predator Free 2050, which would see all stoats and various other introduced mammalian predators totally eliminated from New Zealand within 30 years. Good luck with that, guys.

The Moeraki Boulders

Perhaps the stoat and his countless cousins is the reason that we don’t see any Yellow-eyed Penguins at Katiki Point, where there is said to be a small colony. But just as likely it’s because we’re here in the morning, not a time when the birds generally show themselves on land. And bad timing is also the reason we don’t see the Moeraki Boulders at their best.

The Boulders date from between 66 and 55 million years ago

The home of the Moeraki Boulders is a stretch of Koekohe Beach, just a few kilometres north of Katiki Point. The boulders are big and round, and formed from naturally cemented mudstone during the Paleocene Period between 66 and 55 million years ago. They are surprisingly well known internationally due to their appearance as a Microsoft Windows lockscreen image, but unfortunately the tide is only just on the way out so they are partly submerged when we arrive.

We’re a little disappointed that the view of the Boulders is not better, but there’s no time to wait for the tide to go out further. We hit the road, and soon head inland towards the Southern Alps. As we do, we leave the cloudy skies behind us and emerge into bright, hot sunshine. Pretty soon the temperature is in the high 20s Centigrade, amongst the hottest we’ve experienced during our time in New Zealand. There’s a scattering of fluffy white clouds, but the sun is out and the sky is blue so we’re hopeful of getting some great views of the distant mountains.

Only it doesn’t work out that way. The mountains are shrouded in a gloomy grey haze, rendering them fuzzy and slightly ominous. Bloody hell, we think, at last some decent weather and the views are messed up by heat haze. But, we learn later from the locals, this isn’t heat haze, this is fallout from the Australian bushfires that are raging more than 2,000 miles away across the Tasman Sea.

Lake Pukaki in the foreground, and behind a message from the Australian bushfires

It’s a sobering way to end the day. If ever a reminder were needed that this is a small planet, and that in regard to climate change we’re all in this together, here it is.

Postscript on the Australian bushfires: I’m writing this post at home in the UK on 2 January 2020, exactly 40 days after the events described. Bushfires are still raging across Australia. Today the BBC news website reports that ‘since September, bushfires have killed 18 people and destroyed more than 1,200 homes across NSW and neighbouring Victoria. At least 17 people remain missing after fires this week alone … Thousands of people are already fleeing a vast “tourist leave zone” in NSW, with supplies running low in some cut-off towns. It’s been called “the largest relocation out of the region ever”. Troops are also preparing to evacuate some of the 4,000 people trapped by fires in Victoria’.

Meanwhile, the fallout continues to impact on New Zealand. Yesterday, Ms Liz, who blogs out of Tapanui in West Otago posted photographs of the weird glow and the light golden glow caused by smoke drift from the bushfires. She writes that “it feels apocalyptic and dark, and very weird”.

Plainly what is going on right now is disastrous for those Australians directly affected, and is surely also a wake-up call both for their countrymen and wider world. Climate change is real and happening right now. Collectively we need to find ways of bringing it under control. National boundaries are meaningless when the crisis is global: we’re all in this together, guys.

Ulva Island bird sanctuary

17 November 2019

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

16 November 2019

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

16 November 2019

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 looking back 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. Why do you people always act so weird around me? She’s plainly in charge of this encounter, which is like a thousand other meetings she’s had before with guests occupying our 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 this kaka, this big parrot with olive grey plumage, yellow sideburns and a bloody enormous bill?

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 a bird would pop 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 pieces of apple that have been left for them on the nearby bird table. With dextrous feet they grasp the fruit and hold it up to their enormous bills, which quickly shred and devour it.

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 takes 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

15 November 2019

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.

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

8 November 2019

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

7 November 2019

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

7 November 2019

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!