Tuesday, 26 May 2015

Cheeky, Comical & Curious Kea- The Mountain Parrot

Kea are an endemic parrot found only in the South Island’s high country. They are the world’s only true alpine parrot and there are only an estimated 1000 to 5000 birds left in the wild. Kea nest on the ground and are highly vulnerable to introduced predators such as stoat and rats.

Kea are highly social, their loud cries of “keeaa” can be heard resounding around the bluffs and valley walls of their mountain home as they call to each other. Kea are renowned for their intelligent and inquisitive nature, however their endearing and mischievous behaviour can cause conflict with people.

You’ll remember this photo from one of my previous posts, this kea, Number 6, was keen to remove the towball cover from our ute. Kea have learnt that people and vehicles stop at the numerous carparks and lookouts along the Pass (and in other mountain areas), they fly in to check for things to play with and end up learning to beg for food because people feed them.

We found Number 6 a few days later at a different carpark. This time he was trying to suck up cracker crumbs that someone had left him. Not only is it illegal to feed kea (you can be fined $100,000), it’s also very bad for their health. They are omnivorous and human ‘junk food’ is not good for them, they can get addicted to sugar just like humans and they learn that they don't need to source food for themselves. This makes them vulnerable when there are limited visitors to the mountains and they have to fend for themselves. Kea come to play not to feed.

There were six kea at this particular carpark including Number 6, a juvenile and it's parent. Earlier in the day four birds flew overhead while I was walking high up the Otira Valley. Two carried on down towards the road,  the other two landed on a rock across the stream from me. I could see one of them crouched with it's wings outspread- begging and crying. After awhile they flew on down the valley, it was probably this parent & chick at the carpark.

This regal looking fellow is the parent, I’ve since learnt that it is the father- he has 3 toes(4 is the norm) and a fellow member of my bird forum was involved with banding the chick.

And this cutie is the juvenile, you can see his feathers haven’t turned the lovely glossy olive green that the adults have and he has yellow eyelids & ceres (soft fleshing swelling at the top of the bill), which fade to grey as the bird matures.

He is learning the tricks of the trade from the adults- sit on a rock and look endearing.

But he’s a bit unsure of himself when Dad flies off- ‘Dad, Dad….come quick, she’s getting a little too close for my liking’

Here he is begging his Dad and then when he’s ignored he follows the lead of Number 6 and tries to hoover up the cracker crumbs. He then receives a bit of reassurance from Dad and happy with that jumps across to another rock. Catching the scarlet underwings of Kea is every photographer’s goal but try as I might, this was the best shot I got of the under wing colours of a flying(jumping) bird, they are so quick. I love the colours just above the tail feathers, I hadn’t realised that the reds & orange colour showed here too.

Another one of Dad, showing off his fabulous patterned olive green and blue feathers.

This character landed on the roof of a van that pulled into the car park where he commenced….

….his warm up exercises, stretching his wing out to show me his colours……

…turning around and flexing his tail….

…lifting his leg and doing a wing over……

…before laying down and doing a full body stretch….

…and balancing act. And then, happy with his limbering up…..

...he roof surfed to the bottom of the hill! I couldn’t believe my eyes and I couldn’t stop laughing even though this is a highly dangerous activity for kea (just as it is for humans). Many birds are killed by vehicles because they become too familiar with them and don’t move out of the way.

Here’s the baby trying out the taste of rubber, I shooed him away twice as cars were backing up to leave- he could have easily been run over. And while he was underneath two other birds check out a visitor's bag.

I could have stayed watching and shooting all day, they are very obliging birds pausing for photos in amongst their hi-jinks. When they'd had enough they moved in under a low bush beside the rocks, when I looked underneath at one stage there were 4 birds roosting on the bare branches and a whole pile of rubber stoppers, pieces of wiper blades, drink bottle tops and other litter underneath them- toys stashed for a slow day on the circuit!

Number 6 had given up on the cracker dust and had moved onto the power pylon plinth where he set about pushing quite large rocks over the side. He’d manoeuvre the rocks to the edge and then give them one last shove leaning over to watch them land on the ground with a clatter. People would place them back on the top and he’s push them back over again.

Until he got fed up with that game and flew off across the valley. I missed a clear shot under the wings again.

Down at our DOC camp in the village, we were woken by loud screeching very early one morning. And it was just as well because we wouldn’t have been aware that a Kea gang had come to town to check out what we had to offer them. I caught two standing on the side of our shoe bin tossing things about before I shooed them away.

Another bird was having a good look at the underneath of the van and taking special note of a cable that hung low. Another couple were climbing into a car parked nearby, the camper had left her door open and she had groceries on the front seat (she had just released a mouse that had got caught in a bag, she’d heard it scratching about for most of the night, while she tried to sleep in the back). The kea were keen to pull a supermarket bag out the door.

This group of birds were different group to the ones we’d seen in the carpark, we saw these in the village during the late afternoons. One was walking down the centre of the road on one occasion and another bouncing across the lawn with a group of school kids who were on a camp in a lodge.

Kea remind me of monkeys as they jump and walk (waddle) across the ground, they only fly when they want to leave the area. Once they had finished checking our camp ground out they waddled off up to the top of the bank beside us and along the top to the trees at the end where they waited under the bushes for the rest of their mates. One bird, obviously Boss Bird, flew up to the sign board nearby and sat there waiting.

We saw this group of birds one last time at Klondyke Corner, a large open DOC camp ground located at the eastern end of the Pass. They were begging at a child's birthday party being held in the shelter, we watched as one ran after a wayward balloon until it popped on a briar bush and gave the kea a bit of a fright.

They certainly are very comical birds.


  1. 2Go,
    I have etched into my mind the undershot image of the flash of orange/red when a Kea flew down hill while we were also going down hill from Mt Arthur.... The sound is also etched!...... Loving the photo commentary technique ..... David.... Beware of your actions.... You may be next... G'day from a big frost in Blackball. Yesterday Moana...breathless and picture book.

    1. Haha Jimu, as long as I don't run out of subjects I think David will be safe. Blackball. Cold? No, I don't believe it :)

  2. Loved this blog! What fun they are!

  3. Love the series on these cheeky birds , loving the Blog as well.

    1. Thanks Francis, they are so darn cheeky aren't they. Glad you're enjoying the blog too.

  4. Thanks Francis. Very informative and funny. I think our family came across number 6 down near the carpark at the Chasm, near Milford Sound

    1. Thanks Matthew, glad you enjoyed the blog. I think we met #6's cousin at the Chasm too....in fact I did a blog on him- http://tikitouringnz.blogspot.co.nz/2014/04/rain-milford-track.html
      Shellie (Francis was a fellow commentor)

  5. Hi Shellie, Just came across your images online. I'm currently making some sketches of keas and would like to make some sketches based on your images. Please let me know if you are ok with this. Thanks

    1. This is the sort of sketches I'm referring to


    2. Hi Mark, thanks for asking & yes that's fine. I'd love to see your finished sketch, your work looks awesome.
      Cheers, Shellie

    3. Fantastic!... Thanks so much Shellie. I just loved your images of the wing structure. Great photos! I'm excited to be able to draw them from your images, so thanks again for your permission there. I just fell in love with these cheeky birds.


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