In which Miles improvises an adventure, gets a good tip, and sees a kiwi in the wild!
To view the full gallery of 11 pictures on imgur, click here.
In 2015 I spent a lot of time in Auckland. This blog has been mostly focused on Auckland’s parks and other attractions in and around Auckland. That was not my intention. There are a lot of good websites about places to hike, and other activities, in the Auckland area, all good and useful for finding info on all things Auckland. I always meant to travel much more widely.
In 2016, I’ll be posting about my adventures on the South Island of New Zealand. But first I need to catch up on just a few more posts from December of last year.
In December, I felt the need for a break from Auckland, but was busy with work and needed good internet access, so I decided to return to Beachside Holiday Park in Paihia, the only campground I’ve heard of in New Zealand that offers free, unlimited WiFi. It also offers a place to plug in and work on the computer, and everything else I need for a comfortable stay. Beachside Holiday Park deserves a post of it’s own, and maybe I’ll remedy that soon, although I am anxious to start posting about the South Island.
I shared my space in the back lot of Beachside Holiday Park with a host of birds, including the quail below who greeted me each morning right outside my door. The other birds were less cooperative about posing for photos.
Paihia and Bay of Islands
Bay of Islands was beautiful as usual.
At the holiday park I met a couple of young girls from Taiwan who are traveling New Zealand on a working holiday visa. They mentioned seeing a kiwi in the wild near Trounson Kauri Park Campground. I had spent one night there at the end of my weekend on the Kauai Coast, and I knew that the bush where they saw the kiwi was accessible right at the end of the campground, offering an easy walk to the kiwi’s domain at night, when these reclusive creatures are active.
Trounson Kauri Park
When my weekend arrived, I headed across to the west coast. The road is unpaved most of the route from Paihia to Trounson. I passed one other car on the gravel road part of my journey, which lasted about an hour. The landscape is mostly farm land, with plenty of sheep, of course, and hawks circling the fields for prey. I also saw a number of magpie along the road, and the ubiquitous pukeko.
Trounson Kauri Park is referred to as a “mainland island”. It doesn’t have a predator-proof fence, like Shakespear Park or Tawharanui Open Sanctuary. Although I read the various literature posted about the park, I don’t really understand what makes it an “island” (you can educate yourself on the subject here), but one effort to protect the kiwi birds involves training local dogs to leave them alone. Kiwi have no breast bone, so even a playful jostle can damage them fatally. Rats, cats, cattle, sheep, goats, stoats, rabbits and possums are some of the other imported species that threaten kiwi birds. Between 1993 and 1997 however, dogs were responsible for 76% of known kiwi deaths in Northland. In Waitangi Forest in 1988, in a space of six weeks time, a single dog killed more than half of the kiwi that were radio tagged, thought to be in the hundreds of birds.
A young couple from The Netherlands who shared the campgrounds spoke with a ranger at Trounson Kauri Park who said that there were currently 300-350 tagged North Island brown kiwi in the park. He also said that the eggs for the season were hatching, and the male kiwi, who sit on the nests, would be freed of this duty, and hungry, making this an excellent time for kiwi sightings.
Most of Trounson Kauri Park is reserved for research, leaving just a 40 minute loop trail for walking. Along this trail there are a great number of large old kauri trees. Kauri have very thin shallow roots, like a mesh of fibers not far below the surface of the ground. This makes them susceptible to high winds, especially when the surrounding forest has been cleared leaving them to bear the full brunt of the wind. The fallen trees become host to a variety of new life. Fortunately Trounson is home to a lot of healthy kauri.
The Three Kiwis
I mentioned seeing a kiwi in the wild to a Chinese girl at a cafe, and she stared at me in silent confusion. She was trying to understand what was so special about seeing a human citizen of New Zealand in his or her natural habitat, an every day occurrence in Auckland. I had to clarify that I had seen a kiwi bird. She claimed to have never seen a photo of these birds, so I showed her one online. She said “That bird’s mouth is too long”.
Much of the world uses the word “kiwi” to refer to the bird, the fruit, and the people of New Zealand. Kiwis – kiwi people, that is – refer to the fruit as “kiwifruit”. They offer no such help in distinguishing themselves from the birds however.
The kiwi bird is endangered and protected in New Zealand. It is easy to see one in captivity, but challenging to see one in the wild. They can be shy, although at times they don’t seem that way at all. They are nocturnal, and therefore mostly active at night. And they are somewhat rare, although they are reportedly breeding very successfully after being reintroduced to different reserves in New Zealand.
In the Trounson Kauri Park Campground kitchen hang posters offering advice for spotting kiwi. A red bulb is recommended for seeing them without disturbing them. I didn’t have a flashlight or electric torch with a red bulb, so I had to settle for wrapping a plastic grocery bag several times around my flashlight to suitably dim the beam. I tried to let me eyes adjust to the natural light of the moon alone, but with the tall trees I was never able to see the forest floor without additional light.
Within two minutes at most, I heard rustling just off the path to the right. My light did not penetrate the bush enough for me to see any sign of the creature causing the noise. I waited. The sound came no closer, but didn’t stop. I grew impatient standing there, and walked on. I walked the whole 40 minute loop in the dark. When I passed benches, I would stop and sit with my light off, listening to the sounds of the forest. Various bird calls were to be heard, as well as some sounds that I hesitated to identify, knowing full well that New Zealand is home to no species of ape. It turns out that the local cows make some very strange noises at night.
At the end of my walk I heard similar rustling in the bush in nearly the same place as before, very near the campground. Again I waited, and again the noise continued, but drew no closer. Visitors to any kauri forest are asked to stay on the path, as the roots of the kauri tree are easily damaged, so I didn’t move into the bush to get closer.
I resolved to return the following night, with a chair, to the area where I heard the rustling. The young Netherlanders accompanied me. We quickly met someone who thought he had heard something in the bush, and we set our chairs to one side of the path, and sat silently in the darkness. The campground had filled up as evening came, and the forest was filled with a shocking number of would-be kiwi sighters. I thought our chances were approaching zero in these circumstances. Still we sat and waited patiently, and silently, in the dark. My eyes never did adjust to allow me to see anything but the sky above.
We waited patiently and quietly. Fellow campers passed us on their way back to the camprounds. Some joined our vigil for a short time, then moved on.
I noticed that the couple had turned on their lights, dimmed as they were, and were peering intently into the bush behind our seats. I heard nothing in the bush, but saw the lights of a large group of people approaching along the path, still some distance away. Then I heard a familiar rustling in the bush, behind a tree just off the path. I turned on my own light. Between the plants on the forest floor I suddenly saw what was very clearly the iconic New Zealand native we were seeking. He moved slowly through the foliage, partially visible intermittently between stalks and leaves. Then he made a sharp right turn, and crossed the path not more than a meter away and in plain view.
In the dim light, it was a bit like seeing a ghost. He moved silently now, not quickly, his neck extended, his head slightly down. My companions and I maintained a reverent silence. I was between them and the bird, but this rare, almost legendary creature revealed himself to me, then disappeared into the bush on the far side of the path.
My comrades moved now, and shined their lights into the bush, but the kiwi was gone. We heard his movement briefly, then he was silent. I thought that he had stopped behind some plant or other and was standing still.
Then we heard the call of the male kiwi, loud and clear and close, about 10 meters from the path. Shortly thereafter, we heard the reply of a female, similar but slightly hoarser, from maybe 30 meters into the bush.
I had heard these calls the night before, but could not be certain as to which type of bird was the source.
They had caught just a glimpse, so we waited some more, but were not rewarded with another sighting.
As we passed through the gate back to the campground we heard the distinctive bird call that we had heard earlier. It came from close by, inside the campground. We moved as quickly as we could toward the source, trying to be as quiet as possible. We heard movement, but although these adventurous kiwi were close by, we were never able to see them. The sound of their movements had suggested that they were heading back into the forest.
I find it interesting that the kiwi can sound like a person walking through the bush, or move in complete silence. I believe that the reason they are sometimes noisy is that they forage on the forest floor for small invertebrates, seeds, grubs, and various types of worms. They are the only birds that have nostrils at the end of their beaks, and this enables them to locate food that is underground using only their keen sense of smell, which is also unusual among birds.
I did not take my camera on these night-time trips into the bush. I knew that photography would be challenging in that lighting, to say the least, any sightings would be fleeting and would require concentration on that one effort, and use of a flash would unreasonably disturb the birds.
Kiwi people love the natural beauty of their country, including their native birds. They happily identify as kiwis, namesakes of the bird that is only found in their mutual home. I can’t think of another nationality that is so happy with their nickname. Not all kiwi people have seen kiwi birds in the wild however. It does require that you make a special effort to do so. It is probably somewhat comparable to never visiting Alcatraz Island while living in San Francisco.
Various kiwi people have offered helpful advice for seeing kiwi birds, including one nice woman who recommended a guided walk at a campground very near to Trounson Kauri Park. The New Zealand AA offer some helpful advice for seeing kiwi.
Last summer, at the top of an old fire lookout post offering views over Waipoua Forest, I enjoyed a conversation with a young French couple. They asked about seeing kiwi in the wild. I told them about Stewart Island, and some of what I had read, and the experiences of friends.
During this part of the conversation, a large, flabby, pasty kiwi person interrupted. “I couldn’t help overhearing your conversation, and I think there is some false information, perhaps being passed around between tourists”. He went on to say that no one sees kiwi birds in the wild, not even kiwi people. He told us that kiwis are not actually nocturnal, as their calls can be heard during the day.
Of course nocturnal just means that the animal is primarily active at night, not that they melt in the light of day like vampires. This kiwi person knew that his claims were less than factual, because he mentioned school kids being taken out to see kiwi by conservationists at bird sanctuaries that have repatriated kiwi birds. I have theorized that he believed that kiwi watching is harmful to the birds, and presented us with an alternate version of reality meant to discourage the activity. He did so a very sort distance from Trounson Kauri Park, which is probably the best place to see wild kiwi on the North Island.
Fortunately the experts at the DOC and elsewhere don’t take the same view, or discourage kiwi watching.
There are also some kiwi people who still resent the French for their government’s terrorist attack on the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland in 1985.
Whatever the reason for this kiwi person’s disinformation, I hope that those nice French people got better advice, and were able to see a kiwi bird while in New Zealand. And I’m glad that I returned to Trounson Kauri Park and its campround.
To view the full gallery of 11 pictures on imgur, click here.