Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Orokonui Ecosanctuary

I have followed the success of the Orokonui Ecosanctuary for quite some time on Facebook so with a sunny day finally dawning in Dunedin we decided to pay the reserve a visit, although by the time we got sorted it was well into the afternoon before we left. Orokonui is located 20kms north of the city overlooking Blueskin Bay, it’s a 307 hectare mainland “island” surrounded by 9kms of pest exclusion fence. The 1.9 metre tall stainless steel mesh fence is designed to keep out all introduced mammals, at ground level a steel skirt stops burrowing animals and a curved hood on the top stops climbing animals like cats & possums from entering the reserve.

And what a magic place it turned out to be, a definite highlight of the journey so far and one we will definitely be returning to when we come back to Dunedin (I know, I know…..another thing to add to the ever growing list of re-runs; this trip may just last 3 years!)

We parked beside this friendly fellow who was obediently waiting on the tray of a ute. while his Dad was doing some landscape work near the carpark.

The visitors centre was stunning; facing north east to catch the all day sun, it fitted into the environment so well. There was a large café overlooking two small ponds & the bush further on along with many nature displays & exhibits on show inside. We entered the reserve through a two gate locking system (so a rodent couldn’t make a dash in with us) and with a well marked map were able to explore in our own time. The sanctuary also does guided tours both day & night.

We made our way to the top clearing first as that was where we’d seen two takahe striding through while we were putting our boots on at the car. Takahe are flightless birds that belong to the rail family. They are similar to our pukeko (NZ swamphen) but much larger and were once thought to be extinct. The last 4 birds were taken from their home in the Murchison Mountains near Te Anau in 1898. It wasn’t until 50 years later in 1948 that they were “re-discovered”. There are now 270 birds at various sanctuaries around NZ but they are still on the critically endangered list. The two Orokonui takahe came from the successful breeding population on Mana Island in Wellington Harbour.

Not far from the takahe was a small open enclosure with stacks of rocks, native grasses & mingimingi growing. This brightly painted Maori figure took centre stage.

And sunning themselves on the rocks in the mid afternoon sun were the largest lizards I have ever seen in New Zealand.

These are Otago Skinks, they can grow up to 300mm in length and are in fact the largest lizard in NZ. They are only found in the Otago region and are one of NZ’s rarest reptiles. I’ve never seen them before or even heard about them so this was a fascinating sight. They have beautiful & quite striking markings which is obviously why Southern Maori call them mokomoko (moko is a permanent body and face marking)

We walked a number of tracks through the thick regenerating bush in the reserve catching sight of the usual bush dwellers; tui, bellbirds, kereru, tomtits, warblers, robins and a noisy flock of kaka. Far down in the valley are the saddlebacks & the tallest tree in NZ; we didn’t have time to walk that route. Along with the kaka noise the bird song in the bush was amazing, how wonderful it would be to have all that noise throughout New Zealand’s bush & forests. On some of the bush walks we’ve done we’d be lucky to hear half a dozen bird calls. It’s quite sobering to realise how far introduced predators have decimated our native bird population.

This male bellbird (koromiko) was singing his beautiful tune from the top of a tall bush, no doubt trying to impress the ladies.

The track came out into a clearing towards the end and it was here that we heard a slightly familar but not often heard bird call. It sounded like a large cricket, clicking away in the tall grass. But no matter how long we stood there we could not locate the source and when we moved it stopped altogether. We decided to see if we could locate this tiny secretive bird up near the takahe, where we began our walk, on the aptly named Fernbird Track. For in fact the clicking noise we heard belongs to the fernbird (matata).

We followed the predator proof fence around past the visitor centre and up the rise to the top of the reserve again…..

….back past the takahe who were now out grazing on the grass in the warmth of a fast setting sun.

And then as we approached the skink enclosure we heard that familiar clicking again. It took David a few moments to locate which bush it was coming from and as he did out popped our very first sighting of a fernbird (matata). I managed to grab a couple of quick shots before it jumped down behind the rocks and quickly made it’s way towards & over the fence and disappeared just as quickly into the bush on the other side, fernbirds are poor flyers but very fast movers.

And they aren’t called fernbirds because they live in ferns, although they probably do, their main habitat is dense lowland or wetland scrub. They’re called fernbirds because their tails look like fern fronds, they’re quite soft & feathery and spike like the feathers we used to add to a headband to make us look like Indians when we played Cowboys & Indians as kids. My next mission is to photograph a bird & it’s tail feathers!

We hunted about & stayed watching for another 15 minutes or so but sadly we failed to sight a bird & we heard no more clicking either. Never mind we finished our visit on a high and I ticked another bird on my list.

The sanctuary closed at 4:30pm and we were the last ones out the gate. The tussock & toitoi had turned a golden bronze in the setting sun.

And as the cloud rolled in from the sea over the top of Mopanui & the birds continued their evening song we both agreed we will be back in the summer and explore all day. I might just manage to get that shot of that tail too.


  1. Lovely shots of the Ecosantuary Shellie, looks like you had a good day for it. Although you should've seen it a couple of weeks ago in the snow! I work right across the road from the Ecosantuary at the kennels/cattery and had to use 4WD to get in to work that day. We hear a lot of the bird song from the birds that come out of the sanctuary - mostly Tuis and Bellbirds. The other day while outside, after having brought the dogs in I was listening to a couple of bellbirds talking to each other. One (just above my head) would whistle a tune and another a bit further away would repeat it. Magical!

    1. It sure is a small world! And what a lovely area to work in, I'd be visiting the sanctuary every day if I worked out there or not getting much work done listening to the birds. Mind you it's quite a drive out there isn't it. Do you go via the port or Mt Cargill Rd? I'd have loved to see it in the snow....I think :)

    2. I live in Port Chalmers so it's only a 10 minute drive to get to work. One of the things I like about going to work at this time of year is the gorgeous sunrises over the ridiculously beautiful views up there.

  2. I went there 2 or 3 years ago and also thoroughly enjoyed it. I intend to go back now I've heard about the tallest tree there and the skinks. I also had a marvellous salad at there cafe.

    1. I bet you'd notice the difference since your last visit Olwen, hopefully many more birds. The tallest tree is an eucalyptus & I only knew about it because it was marked as a POI in my map book. I didn't know it was within the sanctuary. Next time we will have lunch at the café, this time I wanted afternoon tea but it would have used up valuable bird watching time! :)


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