CHAPTER 13 – NORTH ISLAND, NEW ZEALAND
(Bert) At 3:15 AM I hear a Whipbird calling from outside the bedroom window. I try to sleep a few minutes more and then get up since the bus will be picking us up at 4:15. We load the luggage in a trailer behind the bus and our driver is soon descending Green Mountain through the dark forest with his headlights illuminating a narrow road between wooden tree pillars peppered with red and yellow reflectors. A wallaby hops beside us and then a pademelon. I notice more and begin counting the wallabies. By the time we reach the bottom of the mountain and break into sunlight I’ve counted ten Red-necked Wallabies, six Pretty-face Wallabies and seven unidentified wallabies.
Brisbane traffic is only thick for a short section of highway, so we are at the airport by 6:45. I struggle to lift our suitcases onto the check-in counter scale. Mine weighs 26 kg and Shari’s is 29 kg, both over the 23 kg limit. The agent says we can pay for only one overweight bag if we move 3 kg of items from my bag to Shari’s. I make the transfer and our excess weight fee for one bag is AU$40, which these days is at par with the US dollar. Jim and Ermine have to pay the same amount for an extra bag. I wonder if they will hit us for more fees for our carry-on luggage. I am carrying a 25-lb. backpack, a bagged tripod and my camera with flash, probably 35-lb. total. The check seems to be random and Shari and I pass through without notice, though they stop Jim again and weigh bags of some of the others in our group. When I struggle through airports with all our stuff, I wonder why we are carrying so much. However, when living in the campervan for nearly six months it is harder to think of what I don’t need with me.
(Shari) This group is amazing. I am the only one complaining about the early hour this morning. We have to catch a plane to Auckland at 9:30. Working backwards we need to be at the airport 2 hours before or 7:30 and we need three hours to get there or 4:30 and we need 15 min. to load luggage. That means I have to getup at 3:30. Ouch! Everyone is outside their villas by 4:15 with all their suitcases packed and ready to go. Some even are happy and chipper. The lodge had packed us breakfast that we put in our refrigerators last night. We wiggle down the mountain in the dark with the reflectors nailed on the trees showing us the way. We see lots of wallabies grabbing a quick bit of breakfast before car traffic builds up the mountain. The good news about departing so early is that no traffic meets us coming in the opposite direction. By 6 we are on the motorway mixed up with the thousands of cars heading into the city. Today ends our Australia tour and begins the New Zealand one. Now that it is over, I can say that just everything worked smoothly. It always amazes me how all the many parts piece together to knit a trip. This trip went without a flaw, with everyone of our vendors doing their job promptly and on time. Buses and vans picked us up as they were supposed to, dinners were on time, and guides showed up. Campgrounds were ready for us and were efficient in parking. It is fun to do caravans when they work like well-oiled clockwork.
Now we start New Zealand and our plane is 30 min. late. Bert and I have overweight luggage and have to pay excess $40 for one of the bags. Meanwhile the rest of this efficient group finds their way through the maze of check-in procedures and we meet at the boarding gate. For a few minutes the flight gets rough and Mary and I at are concerned. But soon the fasten-seat-belt lights go off and I watch the movie “The Rabbit Fence” while eating lunch. The movie, about three girls who walked 1500 mi. in the Australian Outback to return to their family is very touching. In the 1930s the Australians had the idea to give the Aborigines a better chance on life and they removed young half-bloods from their families and put them in orphanages. Quite naturally, the young girls do not want to stay in the orphanage and escape to be with their families. The true story does not have a happy ending. Although the girls arrive home in 90 days, walking with just the clothes on their backs and gathering food along the way, three years later their children are taken from them and they do not escape.
At the Auckland airport, our shuttle bus to the city is waiting for us when we arrive and fights its way through the city traffic to the hotel. We are on our own to explore beautiful harbor side downtown Auckland. Bert and I find a restaurant that has a new alternative on fondue. A very hot marble slab is placed in front of us and we cook our meat on it, then dip in different sauces. It is very good, but meager.
(Shari) Meeting upstairs in the hotel dining room before our included hot
breakfast, we have a short orientation meeting. I explain the ten new rules.
Basically it is the female who makes the rules and a male can never understand
but he should pretend if the female wants him to. Everyone likes the kiwi and
pukeko pins I got them. Names of birds, as Mary so aptly points out, sound like
4-year-old bathroom humor. After breakfast, I meet the group at the dock across
the street and make sure all the ticketing is in order. I am not accompanying
the group today as I need to confirm our future reservations and do other
business related things. I take a break for lunch and walk to the food court not
far from the hotel. McDonalds and Burger King are represented, but the rest of
the stalls all have oriental food. I choose a sushi place and pick different
kinds of individual sushi from artfully designed trays. Topped with miso soup my
bill comes to a little over NZ$9 which in June would have been $6 but today with
the ever worsening exchange rate is $7.20. I shop my way back to the room,
getting some artsy New Zealand bird coasters. When Bert returns, we enjoy an
Italian restaurant on the water edge. Most of the group eats here too.
(Bert) The ferryboat is a triple-decker with much of the decks exposed to the open air. Jim, Cindy and I take the upper deck, best for viewing though worst for strong winds. Australian Gannets are the easiest to identify and White-fronted Terns are soon marked. We take more time deciding the all dark shearwater is a Flesh-footed Shearwater. We stop at Gull Harbor to exchange passengers. Two off-color Paradise Shelducks rest on the lawn next to the boat dock and a flock of Variable Oystercatchers move about the rocky wave breaker. Back at sea, a few very small seabirds, about a third larger than a sparrow, float on the surface and then somersault dive as the boat approaches, much like the murrelets of North America. These here are the Common Diving Petrels.
As we approach the pier at Tiritiri Matangi I get excited when I see an oversized gallinule-type bird browsing on the hillside. I think it is the very rare Takahe but it turns out to be the smaller and common Pukeko. We meet our guide for a walk on the island. Gerhardt is soft spoken and even when he projects his voice I can barely hear him if I’m at the back of the line of birders. He knows a great deal about the plants on the island and tells us many details. We distract him constantly with bird sightings and he is quick to identify them by sight or call. Even though Shari and I spent three weeks in New Zealand in June, all of the island birds we see, except for two species, are new to me, a good indicator of how special this island is. Eradicated of introduced predators, replanted with native trees and shrubs, native birds thrive in the safe and plentiful island, unlike their struggle for survival on the mainland. I get good photos of my first Whitehead and have a difficult time seeing the Saddleback the others in front of me see easily. I need not worry though, since we see dozens of Saddlebacks throughout the day. The Red-crowned Parakeets are attractive and pose for us on the boulders along the beach. Little Blue Penguins nest on the island and are usually out to sea at this time. Special nest boxes have been constructed and placed near the shoreline and one of them is occupied with an adult on a nest. A lid on the box allows us to see the penguin through a Plexiglas interleave.
Tui is a common New Zealand bird that I missed seeing in the austral winter. Now we see many on the island, a dark bird with a white tuft of feathers, a wattle, protruding from its neck. In the deep forest, though short in height, we hear and then see Bellbirds and Stitchbirds. We stop at a broken off tree fern as Gerhardt has recently discovered a Rifleman is nesting in a hole. It makes repeated trips to and from the nest. The tiny bird, New Zealand’s smallest, reminds me of a kinglet. The boardwalk trail steadily climbs upward and the forest finally opens up to grassy areas interspersed with bushes. Here we find a pair of Brown Quail moving through tall green grass. They are busy feeding and mostly ignore our close presence. From the grassy crown of the island, near the old lighthouse, we can see completely around the island and adjoining sea. On one side is the newest island, formed only 400 yr. ago by a volcano. Now it is entirely forested. At the Visitor Center we stop to eat the lunches we brought with us. During lunch we have a visitor, an old Takahe that has lived on the island since the beginning of restoration. I am amazed how big and fat is this Takahe, so much larger than Pukekos (Purple Swamp Hens) and moorhens, although similar in profile. The boat leaves at 3:30 and we can take the fast track down or the slower, more scenic and birdy trail. Most have already descended while I try to find any stragglers in our group. Cindy and I bird our way downhill, stopping frequently for good sightings and photography. A half-hour later we hear the boat toot its departure reminder and we quicken our pace. When we reach the pier–in the words of a popular TV show–we are the last couple to arrive, but the good news is we have not been eliminated.
On the return boat trip we again see gannets and Flesh-footed Shearwaters. The wind is powerful and it is difficult to stand on the upper deck. We see birds flying low over the water and add Fluttering Shearwater, a new species for me, and see a Caspian Tern, the same species we find in North America. It has been an incredible day, perfect weather and a good list of very special New Zealand birds seen.
(Shari) Our shuttle arrives after breakfast, taking us to the RV pickup facility. The check in procedure goes smoothly and quickly, as we all have lived in the same model vehicle for the past 30 days. Unfortunately, after the check-in I realize I forgot something in our room. I call the hotel and ask if our room had been cleaned and find out it has not. I tell them I will be right there. When I arrive the supervisor is waiting for me at the door and I presume has not let anyone inside. The item I lost is a piece of paper that has all my account information, IDs and passwords, plus security questions. Boy, am I sick about it. Bert is not too pleased either. But the paper is right where I left it. What a relief.
Bert and I intended to lead the group out of Auckland, but because we had to go back into the city, the group is on their own, though we did lead them to the grocery store before taking off. I am not too worried, however, as I made sure to ask about the GPS units they were to get if they purchased full insurance. We arrive at the birding spot only minutes before the rest. Here we listen to a volunteer explain the migration pattern of the godwit and see specimens of the birds to be seen in the refuge. We drive to the hide and Bert gets the funny looking Wrybill in the scope. This is the one whose bill curves to the right. After an hour we head to the campground to enjoy wine and cheese and most importantly the natural hot pool. How soothing for my aches and pains!
(Bert) After the hustle and bustle of getting our RV’s, buying groceries and exiting busy Auckland where a third of New Zealand’s population resides, we drive through lush green countryside to the coast of the Bay of Firth, a Chenier Plain, one of only seven or eight in the world. At a nature center, Brian tells us about shorebird migration. Most impressive is the Bar-tailed Godwits, a species I’ve seen in Alaska, where they nest in June. Amazingly, post-breeding they migrate south across the Pacific in an 8-day, 12,000 km flight that lands here in New Zealand. Even more amazing is that the adults leave first and juveniles leave later, instinctively finding the way, presumably by magnetic fields and stellar arrangements, as there are almost no island markers along the route. The majority of Bar-tailed Godwits spend the non-breeding season here on the mudflats and then leave for the northland by another route, following the Asian coast, stopping to refuel at the Yellow Sea of China near North Korea, before finishing their migration in Alaska. Their long-term prospects of survival are not good. Although their breeding grounds in remote Alaska are secure and their off-season stay in New Zealand is well protected, the Yellow Sea stopover is being drained and rapidly developed for housing. Hopefully, the Chinese will be environmentally sensitive in the future, but don’t hold your breath.
Another specialty of these mudflats is Wrybill and I am anxious to see one. So, after the short talk we head to the shoreline, crossing grassy fields beside swallow ponds filled with hundreds of Pied Stilts, a half-dozen White-faced Herons and a small flock of Mallards. We scan the mudflats and quickly find Bar-tailed Godwits. Marie is the first to spot a flock of small shorebirds she does not recognize. I align my spotting scope on them and am excited to see the strangely hooked bills. Unlike any other bird in the world, the Wrybill has a bill that curves to the right. Not up, not down, but to the right, like a hook! The Wrybill is endemic to New Zealand, meaning this country is the only place to see it. In the off-season it is here at the muddy estuary in the thousands, but now most are in the riverbeds of the South Island. The flock we study numbers about two dozen. Most of our group has headed back to the RV’s when Ralph, Virginia and I study another bird through the scope, a Pacific Golden-Plover. We hike back too and head to the campground for a Welcome to New Zealand party featuring a selection of New Zealand wines and cheeses.
(Bert) Before we leave the campground we bird the area, adding Chaffinch and Greenfinch, two European imports, to our New Zealand trip list. Then it is back to the mudflats where we again find the Wrybills. I find another small shorebird, this one even smaller than the Wrybill. The Red-necked Stint looks quite drab compared to when I saw this species on St. Lawrence Island, off the coast of Siberia, in June several years ago. The tide is still several hours from its high mark, so the godwits are distant. Something scares them and the entire flock is airborne. They circle a few times and I take photos of huge numbers filling the camera frame. I wonder how many thousands are in the air.
(Shari) It is back to the hide again, but unfortunately the high tide is not as we expected. Daylight savings time has shoved it an hour later and we cannot wait that long if we want to see the falcon sanctuary, a 3-hr. drive if we only stop for a 20-min. lunch break. It is interesting how our caravan shifts positions in line during the route. Sometimes we pass others and then others pass us, depending upon where each wants to stop. At least three stopped at a neat cheese factory that I would have liked, but my husband zoomed past it before it processed in my brain.
(Bert) From the gulf, independently, we head inland and south toward Rotorua. At a rest area I photograph a very attractive rooster that certainly is wary, hungry and a long way from a farm. I suspect it is wild. In the trees is certainly a wild bird, my first New Zealand Fantail, a race of the Australian Gray Fantail and just like its cousin, it fans its tail wide like a Japanese fan. The group meets up again at a facility where they raise rare native raptors to be released into the wild. The highlight is watching two ladies train New Zealand Falcons to hunt. Only one trainer teaches a falcon, so each in turn comes out with their trainee. Debbie tells us that only about 4000 of these endemic falcons still exist and they are rarer than the Kiwi. Debbie releases her falcon, named Ozzie, and we soon find out the falcon is a meat eater and a hunter. A 500-gram falcon can take down and consume a 3 kg hare. It has no fear and defends its territory. Perched on a fence pole, the falcon watches the sky, wary of the Swamp Harrier gliding at the crest of the mountain. When a feral pigeon crosses its valley Ozzie rotates around the pole, always facing the circling pigeon and looks prepared to attack. In fact, Ozzie is so intent on the pigeon and other distractions that he refuses to follow Debbie’s commands for the training exercise. There is no question in my mind that Ozzie is a wild bird, free to escape at will. Debbie says Ozzie and the other falcons she trains hold no affection for her and when released into the wild, they show no regard for humans.
Since Ozzie is independently minded today, Ineke comes out with her falcon, named Millennium, or Millie for short. Millie is intent on playing the hunting games and readily attacks the lure as Ineke swings it around her on a long rope. Raw duck is on the falcon’s diet today and Millie protects her capture by spreading her wings around the duck morsel. On Ineke’s second swing of the lure she deliberately maneuvers it so Millie cannot catch it until about the fourth or fifth swing. This shows us the excellent agility of the falcon. It flies low and fast and can turn on a dime. After the training session Ineke invites us to hold Millie and I am the first to volunteer. I put on a leather glove and Ineke transfers Millie to me. Millie climbs all over my arm and gloved hand, apparently having no concern about me and only using my outstretched arm as a convenient perch for retrieving the duck treats offered by Ineke. Marie, Cindy and Virginia take their turn at holding Millie and she treats them with the same disregard. The show is over and Millie returns to her oversized flight enclosure. Watching the falcons perform is almost like seeing them in the wild. Still, I’d like to find one in the wild, although I think my chances are quite slim.
(Shari) The falcon facility is fascinating. This New Zealand Falcon is more threatened than the kiwi and here they raise the chicks and release them into the wild. About three are kept for show and breeding stock. These are being trained to hunt as for various reasons their parents could not do the training. At any time the falcons could fly away and never come back and every day we are told they do different things. Ozzie is focused on a pigeon and just does not want to eat the itsy bitsy pieces of chicken the trainer has for him. One time he disappears from view and gives the trainer some concern as he has done that in the past and almost got himself killed. He came back three days later a bit shaken and traumatized. Our second performer, Millie, on the other hand is a bit “cheeky” and often does not like to work for her food. She’d never survive in the wild. I am surprised to learn that the falcons will respond to only one trainer. If that trainer goes off for more than four days, the training has to start from scratch. That spells quite a commitment to me. After the fascinating hour show, we travel to our second campground in New Zealand. The day is a 10 and I find I want to sit outside and not do anything at all. Luckily, I can sit outside and help Marie program her GPS. She gets it right the first time.
(Bert) Rob and Jamie pick us up in two vans at 5 AM, still in darkness. The early start is so that we can hear the dawn chorus of the Kokako, an endangered species whose numbers are down to 1400 birds, but only 400 pairs. Jim was fortunate to see one at Tiritiri Matangi and I recall that our guide said then that the birds are hard to find because they are silent during the day. Yet the bird has the distinction of being the best songster in New Zealand. The sun rises during our drive and at 6 AM we descend a short steep slope and enter a dark tall forest. Not far from the trail’s start Rob hears a Kokako calling. Hugh and Mary stay at the spot, but the rest of us keep walking. We reach the territory of another Kokako pair and about this time we are joined by Carmel, a worker on the Kokako restoration project. She tells us this 1000-hectare tract originally supported two pair, a single female and seven single males. Then predators were removed, and for the Kokako this means elimination of rats–accidentally introduced by Maori and later again with the arrival of Europeans in ships–and possums–introduced in the 1800s for a fur-trade industry that failed and the animals were released into the wild. The non-native predators were responsible for attacking nests, eating the eggs and killing the female if she attempted to defend her nest, thus the disproportionate number of males and females in the population. Happily, with the predators now gone in this tract a 2006 survey reported 50 pair and 121 territorial birds. In fact, Kokako now have reached saturation in the reserve and started spilling out into adjacent farmlands which are not predator free. Thus the biologists have been transporting some to other reserves, notably to the South Island in fiordland, further increasing the population. Carmel recognizes a distant Kokako singing from the next mountain ridge. She says it is about one and a half kilometers away, so we are only hearing the high notes of the song. Even half a song is beautiful. We hope that the pair in the territory where we stand will respond, but it does not. We hear a New Zealand Robin sounding an alarm call and follow the sound to a dark branch where we can see the bird singing. I am disappointed that we cannot find a close Kokako and apparently they are done singing for today, so we return. When we reach Mary and Hugh, Mary excitedly tells us they saw a Kokako. We should have stayed at the spot we first heard one. As we exit the woods we see Eastern Rosellas fly by and Carmel identifies the call of a Shiny Cuckoo.
Rob and Jamie now drive us to an ancient podocarp forest, one of the few virgin forests left in New Zealand that escaped the lumbermen’s axes, not silenced until 1982 when this became a national park. The dark forest is majestic with podocarps–a southern hemisphere conifer family whose seed cones don’t look like cones but rather berries or scales–towering high above us and a mid story of tree ferns, creating an environment that makes me feel like I time traveled to the Jurassic era. The fronds of the tree ferns resemble ground dwelling ferns and have similar, though larger, fiddleheads. However, the trees are supported by thick dark stalks that look like trunks, some reaching 15 ft. or higher. The actual trunk is only an inch or so in diameter and the support structure is made up by many years of dried fronds that cling to form an ever rising base. We walk to a fast-moving creek spilling through the forest. Here Rob has often found the very rare Blue Duck. They are territorial and spend their lives in and around rivers, rarely flying more than a few feet. Luck is not with us and we seen no Blue Ducks today.
I am beginning to recognize the songs of New Zealand birds and in the forest I hear the descending string of short phrases comprising the New Zealand Robin, the telephone-ringing trill of the Tomtit, the lyrical and sweet song of the New Zealand Warbler, and the more raucous variety of calls that the Kaka emits. Many of the New Zealand birds retain their Maori names, which are often onomatopoeic, and quite often sound like a four-year-old’s preoccupation with bathroom humor. Thus we have kaka, kukupa, pipipi, mohua, piwakawaka, toutouwai, tieke, tui, hihi. We see several robins and Tomtits and are most keen on finding the parrot, i.e., the Kaka. The calls come from the canopy very high above us. We see one bird streak through the top branches, but cannot locate the calling bird even after a 10 min. search. We have better luck when we drive to another section of the preserve and climb a steep hill into another podocarp forest. This time we get a good, if distant view of the fat green parrots.
Most of our group heads back to camp in Jamie’s van, leaving Cindy, Ralph and me traveling with Rob to thermal lakes and streams fed from volcanic hot springs. At a coldwater lake we find New Zealand Scaup, Eurasian Coot and a life bird for me, New Zealand Dabchick, a small grebe. Not surprisingly, the thermal lakes are devoid of birds although we see a singing Bellbird in trees on the sloped hillside. It has been a good 12-hour birding and nature day for me, although an exhausting day for some others.
(Shari) I do not know how they do it. I never could. I hear Bert leave at 5 AM this morning but no way Jose could I have been ready. I am so exhausted. But each in the group is a regular trooper and takes on these early morning days like a duck to water. They definitely have more stamina than I do. It does concern me a bit that I seem so tired. So far I can explain it away, as I did not sleep good or I had to get up too early or did not have coffee or … Today I take a shower, do the wash, make more confirmations and E-mails and write four days worth of journals. I see Ermine did not go out with the group this morning either.
Every one of the rigs is supposed to have a “tippy key”, one that opens the
door but does not start the engine. They did not have such a key for us but the
rest of the group should have had one. Yesterday we found out that Marie’s did
not work and asked if it was maybe mine. I tried it but ended up locking myself
out. Disaster in the making! Luckily Bert came up a bit later with the engine
key in his pocket. Today, Ermine does the same thing and Jim is out with the
birders. We move a picnic table close to her dinette window which enables her to
crawl inside. Luckily she is so small.
(Bert) The winds are blowing fiercely across enormous Lake Taupo and the Black-backed Gulls are dancing in the uplifting gusts. We move on to Napier and stop to check out the birds at the estuary. Winds are strong here too, as well a hot midday sun. I study an odd White-faced Heron with white extending over the head and half-way down its neck. In mid afternoon we drive to the coast where we board a flat-bed wagon, sitting with our legs dangling over the side. Actually, four wagons leave together, two tandems pulled by two farm tractors. Over the rocky beach go the tractors and trailers, skirting boulders, kissing the water at low ebb and washing the wheels as waves roll in. When no other avenue is open, our driver Ian propels the tractor over big rocks and sinks into washed out spots. Twice he gets stuck and we all must evacuate the wagons to lighten the load for his tractor to climb out of the hole. At a particularly narrow spot between the cliff walls and a house-sized boulder, the two drivers stop to investigate. After much study, they decide to detach one tractor and chain them together to carry one pair of tandem wagons. With some struggling they accomplish the task and come back to pull our wagons across. Along the beach route Ian provides a running commentary, mostly focused on the geology of the raw exposed cliff beside us. We can easily see the geologic layers, a history of forest, streams and sea beds. Most dramatic is the vertical shifts in the layers, clear evidence of earthquakes. Within a half kilometer we see three drops–measuring 5 meters, 9 meters and 11 meters–that apparently occurred about 2000 years ago. This area lies along a fault zone that diagonally cuts across New Zealand, the collision of two tectonic plates.
We pass a nesting area for White-fronted Terns and Australasian Gannets. This gannet colony is small and we pass a second small colony. The big colony lies atop the cliffs and when we disembark the wagons, we have a vertical climb of 100 meters–seems like 300–spread over a 1 km distance. Strenuous effort takes Ralph and me to the top first, Ralph taking the lead, impressive for a man 10 years my senior. Several thousand gannets cluster tightly on a flat barren surface near the edge of the cliff, surrounded by bright green hillsides mowed close to the ground by sheep. The gannets arrived in August and are now sitting on eggs that are difficult to see. When a gannet shifts its weight or stretches its cramped legs we can see its large black webbed feet with yellow lines highlighting the skin from tarsus to exposed toe. If it lifts its feet, the large goose-sized egg is exposed. The Australasian Gannets exhibit the same rituals as the Northern Gannets we have visited at colonies in Quebec and Newfoundland. When a flying gannet zeroes in to its square meter patch centered by the heightened and seaweed-covered nest, it lands with a plop and immediately performs a saber-like ritual with its mate, both necks stretched to the sky and bills crossing as swords. I take lots of photos and videos. I wish, though, I had the camera ready when a Black-backed Gull flew in and stole a gannet egg, carrying it away in outstretched mandibles.
Looking at my watch and knowing we will miss the wagon if we are not back by
7 PM, I start to leave the area. Just as I am about to make the descent I see
Ermine and Shari on the last leg of the steep uphill climb. Shari looks
exhausted, but I must say I am impressed that she has made it to the top. I
descend a couple dozen feet and help by pushing her uphill. She gets to the
gannets in time to view the natural wonder and catch her breath before we walk
down together. Downhill is easy and we reach the wagons a few minutes early. On
the return trip the setting sun, behind the cliffs, has painted the eastern sky
with pastel shades of pink, purple and orange.
(Shari) I cannot believe I did it, but I did. I guess my motivation depends on what is at the other end. One of my top nature experiences is watching thousands of gannets on their nests. We do this when we go to the Gaspe on our Maritime trip. We have another chance today to see Australasian Gannets nesting. There are only about two places in the world where one can walk to a nesting colony from land. So I just have to go see it. Little did I know what I am getting myself in for. When we arrive, two tractors pulling two wagons each outfitted with outward facing cushioned seats pull up. Bert’s group is told to get on the right tractor’s wagon on the right side. Marie and I both notice there is no back rest for us and the step up is quite high. Nevertheless, up we go. The tractors take off with their charges in tow down the beach for 8 km. The tide is on its way out and we have four hours before the beach gets covered over again by the sea. Twice the tractor gets stuck in the soft sand and we have to hop off the wagon, walk 60-70 ft, and get back on. We pass cliffs that remind me of the White Cliffs of Dover in England. We see earthquake fault lines and deep gorges. The ocean floor looks like Hopewell Cape Rocks as we meander among tall rock formations. Finally we arrive at the end of the point from which the tractor can go no farther. We are told the gannets are about 1 km along the path. Little do I know that the path may only be 1 km, but it is 1 km uphill. I intend to attempt the walk and off I go. About half way up, I debate whether I should quit. Jim and Chris have dropped out, but everyone else is ahead of me. I see Marie plodding along the cliffside path, halfway up the remaining slope. Ermine and I ask some people coming down and they say we do not have far to go. Ten minutes later and about 50 ft. from the top, Bert sees me and he and Ralph give me encouragement. Bert comes down and gives me a push up the rest of the way. As I come up over the top, the birds are just like in Quebec: thousands of nesting gannets, sitting on nests only inches apart. A 2-ft. high chain ropes off the area but the birds still are within touching distance of the observers. Squawking, courting, sitting, pecking, they put on a show. I only wish I had more time to watch but I must head back down as not to miss the tractor’s departure. Bert walks down with me and I use his shoulder as a brace in case I slip. As we ride back in the wagon, the sun sets on the calm waters of the sea in a pastel array of pinks and blues. I am grateful that I do not have to walk all the way back, as some younger people who hiked out earlier look like they wish for a ride now.
(Shari) I marvel at how the country differs in just five months. Now everything is green and in glorious full bloom. Rhododendrons the size of softballs completely cover trees in oranges, pinks and purples. Grapevines are no longer bare, instead following neatly formed green columns spreading across vast acres of gentle slopes. Now, the sun sets at 8:30 instead of 4:30. Yes, New Zealand does get sunshine.
(Bert) Our destination is Wellington, though we have several interesting
stops en route. At the Otanga Road rest area I find a Common Redpoll, the same
circumpolar species we see in Canada and Alaska, here a resident introduced from
Europe. I think I may be the only one to see this species but later hear the
others that stopped here and saw it also.
Next stop is the Tui Brewery. I suspect Shari will write about that, since it relates to beer and food. I reduce my comments to my sighting of a fly-by Tui, the native bird for which the brewery is named.
We spend much more time at Mount Bruce, at a facility that raises kiwis and a few other rare species. While the fence-enclosed birds may be a feature to most visitors, I am much more interested in those outside the cage, attracted to the area because of the prime habitat and food source. Inside a large enclosure, I get a close-up view of the endangered Kokako, a bird I only heard in the wild. Outside the cages, I find New Zealand Fantail, Rifleman, Tui and flocks of Kaka. Attracted to feeders, the Kaka are easy to photograph, unlike the few we saw in the towering canopies a few days ago.
(Shari) We pass many cute towns, stopping for a tour-included lunch at the Tiu Brewery café. We all can fit on an outside picnic table as the sunny day is fully cooperating. We stop in mid afternoon at a wildlife sanctuary and see the Kaka feeding. These birds are big parrots and seem to know when feeding time takes place. Only Marie, Ermine and I are here early and the birds seem tame, coming up to us and bobbing their heads up and down. Ermine tries to get one to jump on her arm and the bird pinches her with its oversized bill. I guess we need to keep our distance. Soon scores of school kids come for the feeding which takes place early since the birds get anxious around so many people. They partake of their seeds and pieces of cheese like they have not eaten for days, gobbling it down and coming back for more. We still have about a 2-hr. drive in front of us so we depart right after the feeding. The mountain that we drove over in June was much higher, and the road was much narrower and more twisted than it is today. Do you suppose driving in full sunlight instead of nighttime and heavy rain makes a difference? Do you suppose we have become accustomed to this left-hand driving?
(Shari) Some wonder how we can spend 10 hr. at one place. But then Cindy tells me at 5 PM she had to hurry up to get out before the gates close. And we still have 2.5 hours to go on our night tour. There is a little for everyone: a museum with movies, a café and gift shop for me, and hundreds of acres to bird for the group. The reserve is not so much an enclosure to keep birds in, since it has no roof, but an exclosure to keep predators out. As the movie so aptly shows, when man came to the island, so did pests. Rats ran down the ropes anchoring the ships in the harbor. Settlers brought pets and well meaning “scientists” brought goats to control the weeds. Possums were brought from Australia for their fur. (As an aside, possums are again being used for their fur. When mixed with merino wool, the yarn is knitted into very soft, warm hats, gloves, scarves, etc. I wonder when that too will become a problem as people make money on the fur and lobby against exterminating the pest.) All these introduced mammals killed the native flightless birds and destroyed the nests of others. Now environmentalists are trying to preserve the remaining endangered species, hence the fence. When we enter the exclosure for our night tour, it feels like entering Jurassic Park. We have to have a bag check for ride-along rodents, walk into a secured area and shut the first gate before opening and walking through the second. The fence itself surrounds almost a square mile of beautiful land with a river running through it. Finished in 1999, the security measures have worked and only three times has there been a breach: a small mouse got through the fence, a dead rat thought to have been dropped from a passing hawk, and a cat that was later caught.
(Bert) I am looking forward to our visit to Zealandia. We came here in June, but did not enter the reserve. What a grand concept! And I suspect it is unique in the world. With many of the few remaining forest-dwelling birds at the brink of extinction, owing to uncontrolled and introduced predators, almost all of the surviving species are on small predator-free islands. How can these species survive on the mainland when it is covered with millions of rats, cats, stoats, possums and mice? The answer: build a fence! But not just any old fence, not like a zoo. Historically, starting with what was as native forest and hunting lands for the Maori, it was stripped of trees and converted to farmland, was abandoned to build a dam for Wellington’s water supply, was revegetated on hillsides sloping to the reservoir, was abandoned for fear of the reservoir flooding the city since it lies on a earthquake-prone fault line, the new grand scheme was revolutionary. Build a predator-proof fence higher than any predator can jump, deeper than any predator can dig, denser than any predator can crawl through, with a fence cap that cannot be overcome by climbing predators. And best of all, build the fence completely around 225 hectares of forested hillsides and twin lakes. That’s almost a square mile of prime habitat surrounded by the nation’s capital city and its suburbs. Completed in 1999, the reserve is an outstanding success. Judge by the endemic birds we find today: Brown Teal, New Zealand Scaup, New Zealand Pigeon, New Zealand Falcon, Kaka, Red-fronted Parakeet, Grey Warbler, Stitchbird, New Zealand Bellbird, Tui, Whitehead, New Zealand Tomtit, New Zealand Robin. There is one other endemic we found, but I’ll save that one for last. Of the endemic birds listed above, some cannot be found anywhere else on mainland New Zealand.
A few sightings really deserve their own details. Soon after we enter the reserve we see two raptors swooping over the lake, mid-air diving and climbing to matched talons and then landing at a high tree perch across the small lake. For the smaller raptor, I think New Zealand Falcon, but the larger one seems a bit more like a Swamp Harrier to me. I want to say that a rare falcon sighting would be too good to be true, but my binoculars and photos confirm the smaller one is the male falcon and the larger one is the female falcon. The female is holding a songbird it has captured in mid air and from its high perch it is ripping the bird apart, sending feathers flying. What an awesome sight!
(Shari) We spend the day and the early evening in this lovely place. Since the birds are free to fly in or out, they are countable for anyone’s list and the birders rack up species after species. I listen to the talk on the tuatara, a lizard-like creature whose ancestors are as old as the dinosaurs and still living on New Zealand, albeit endangered. I enjoy the beautiful paths surrounding the river. At night I accompany the birders as we are led on a fascinating walk in the park. Each of us is given a small torch (we call it a flashlight) that has red light and told to keep our own in our pockets. We learn about the three parts of the fence, about the varying jobs of the over 400 volunteers and 25 permanent employees, and the wildlife we are expected to see. Before 10 PM we have seen three great things. First we see an owl who’s name sounds like it calls, “more pork”, then we see two kiwis and finally, the best for me, we see thousands of glow worms that look like Christmas lights in the woods. Small black worms that emit a blue light from their bum, they string a net of sticky stuff that catches insects to eat. So by 10 PM, we have been here for 12 hr. and could have stayed longer had we not been so tired.
(Bert) After nearly a full day of birding I return to the Zealandia exhibit, a multi-million dollar, heavily automated and computerized set of informative displays tracing the sad natural history of New Zealand through Maori and European occupation and the devastation of forests and animals, the extinction of many native birds such as the gigantic Moa and leading up to the optimistic plan to bring the dwindling wildlife back from the brink of extinction. At 5 PM we break for dinner while the reserve is closed. Then we are back at 7:30 and we reenter the exclosure gate for a nighttime tour with our volunteer guide Katie. Our main goal is to hear and see a Little Spotted Kiwi. A close second is to hear and maybe even see a Morepork. Katie tells us she hears the owl vocalize its “more pork” call most evenings but rarely sees one. It isn’t long before we hear one and it is quite close. In darkness, we round the corner and Katie shines her red light on a horizontal tree branch and there rests the calling owl. I take a few quick red-illuminated photos, without flash, and at least can recognize the image as an owl. Everyone is excited to see this owl, including Katie who says she has not seen one for a couple years.
Finding a kiwi is no easy task. Even though an estimated 92 kiwi’s are within the near-square-mile reserve, they are territorial so we will only cross a few territories during our walk. Also, they feed in the dense foliated forest floor, away from the footpaths and in near darkness to them and complete darkness to us. So as not to damage their eyesight, nor disrupt their lifestyle, the only lights are the red ones held by Katie and the assistant who follows the group. We listen for their calls, a low pitched warble by the female and a higher pitched more screechy call by the male. I hear one, as does Katie, and we advance toward the call. Strangely, one pops out on to the path behind us and lucky Mary sees it and Virginia glimpses a disappearing shadow. For some reason Katie says we need to leave the area quickly so as not to disturb this particular kiwi. Fortunately, Katie finds another and a few in the group see it before it disappears in the brush again. The assistant relocates it a dozen feet away and this time all of the rest of us get a short view of the rotund bird. Even though it is called Little Spotted Kiwi, it looks the size of a basketball to me.
The evening walk is not over and before we quit we get to see a Tuatara, a large lizard-like animal that is not a lizard, but in its own prehistoric family. Fossils of this creature show that it is unchanged in 200,000 years, surviving before and after dinosaurs, often called a living fossil and unique in the world. We also see glow worms and walk to a rock wall where hundreds cling. About an inch long they produce a sticky string hanging from tiny rock outcroppings and illuminate the end with luminescence that attracts tiny insects, its food source. The pinpoints of light glow against a background of the completely dark rock wall look like a miniature scene of Christmas lights decorating a dark forest in a cloudy moonless night.
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