Tuesday, 8 March 2016

Birding Bonanza, Stewart Island- Part 2

Continued...on from Part 1

One tour we definitely wanted to do while on Stewart Island was the night tour to see Kiwi in the wild. This would be our first sighting of a wild kiwi. We have spoken to many tourists on our travels who casually mention that they hope to see a kiwi in the wild while they're travelling. They are often a little taken aback when I tell them that probably 99% of New Zealanders wouldn't have seen a kiwi in the wild. 

"How can that be?" they ask, "The country revolves around the kiwi symbol, everywhere you look there are kiwi photos, souvenirs, signs, postcards and tours etc, even the people are known as kiwis" 
"Well..." I say, " that's just how it is, there are kiwi out there, they're not in great numbers but they are there, we often hear them calling at night when parked in isolated bush areas. But they are elusive and being nocturnal you'd normally be in bed when they come out to feed." Most still think they'll see one if they look hard.

And here on Stewart Island there is a chance you may see them during the day. Kiwi have been often seen on some of the more isolated beaches, down on the strand line looking for their favourite sandhoppers amongst the seaweed & floatsam. We also heard that they've been spotted occasionally near the paths on Ulva Island during the day. We decided we weren't going to chance it, even though we still carefully hunted for a kiwi when we were on Ulva, David did find kiwi footprints along one of the beaches. Personally I think many of sightings are of a weka bum disappearing into the bush; a rear end easily confused for a kiwi.

I'd booked a very popular kiwi spotting tour a month or so ago with Phillip Smith of Bravo Adventure Tours; for the 2nd night of our visit. I figured if it was cancelled we'd still have seven nights up our sleeve to do the tour. Which was just as well because after the rain and then the gale force wind, it was four nights before we finally got the go-ahead to meet at the Halfmoon Bay wharf for our tour. I felt sorry for a number of people we met who were only on Stewart Island for a night or two and missed the tour altogether. 

As the light faded, and a rain shower passed overhead, we boarded Wildfire along with eleven other people, all wrapped up warm, and headed out into the bay.

A White-capped Albatross which had followed a fishing boat in, turned and headed back out with us. This was the first close up encounter we'd had with the albatross. What magnificent creatures they are, stunningly beautiful and so sleek. It was a pity night was falling as I couldn't take too many photos of them as they whirled and swooped around the boat ever so gracefully.

We left Halfmoon Bay, rounded Ackers Point and headed into Paterson Inlet. Forty minutes later we sailed into Big Glory Bay, arriving at a jetty on a pitch-black night. 

Phillip gave a detailed talk on the various facts about the Stewart Island Brown Kiwi- Stewart Island is the only place in New Zealand where kiwis aren't considered endangered, it's thought there's a population of around 18,000 birds on the island. Stewart Island kiwis are quite different from their mainland relatives. They are diurnal, feeding during both the day and night, they also have a different family dynamic- the males share incubation and chicks stay with their parents for up to two years, much longer than on the mainland.

Greg, a crew member, hands out torches and tells us what to expect on our walk through the bush and over to the other side of the peninsula where hopefully we'll see some kiwi. Of course nothing is guaranteed but in over 26 years of doing these tours there has only been a handful of nights without a sighting. We're told in a firm voice that there are three rules- "No talking, no flash photography & no getting closer than I am to the birds". 

We scramble up off the jetty onto a narrow and muddy path and stride off quickly, following Greg single file through the bush, our torch lights showing the way. A quiet knock on low overhanging trees is fed back through the group to warn not to hit your head. We've been warned we might come across a sealion along the path but thankfully there are none camping in the bush tonight. We're heading to an ocean beach and very soon we can hear the pounding surf. We leave the muddy track behind and walk the final 250 metres along a boardwalk that has sunk into water in a few places. 

We finally reach the beach where we gather together to hear the plan. From now on there are to be no flashlights and definitely no talking, we're to stick close and follow Greg as he walks along the high tide line sweeping across the sand, back and forward, with his torch. A few minutes later Greg zeros in on some movement in the distance. A murmur goes up and then a quiet shhhhh as we creep in closer to see a curious looking creature shuffling about in the seaweed.

This is what we've come to see. A real live wild kiwi! Looking considerably smaller in the wide open space than her captive cousins, this is in fact, one of the larger kiwi species. Greg tells us later when we're out of her earshot that this is the matriarch of the family group whose territory takes in the beach. We followed her as she poked and prodded her way along the beach, stopping occasionally to snort the sand out of her nostrils (which are located at the end of her bill). 

After a few minutes Greg indicated we were heading off again further up the beach. We must have looked a funny sight, a silhouetted group of people huddled in close, striding it out, following a small circle of light along the sand. It felt like we were being route-marched along the beach; the sand was soft and tough to walk in and Greg walked fast; everyone wanted to get up close in case another kiwi was spotted and we were also wary there might be a sealion sleeping just outside the circle of light. Up to the top of the beach we marched and then back down again. Greg found a set of footprints and we tracked them to another kiwi.

This is another female and likely the matriarch's last year's chick. We watch her for a short while; she seems to be more aware of our presence and we don't want to scare her off. Time is up and we head back to the boardwalk entrance and as we re-group we hear a male kiwi calling from the nearby bush followed by a female returning the call. What a great way to finish the night.

You'll recall that no flash photography was allowed and all that is lighting the scene is one small torchlight from around 10 metres away, and all the while the bird is moving. I won't tell you how many shots I took (actually not too many; the shutter noise sounded like a machine gun going off in the quiet stillness) but just consider yourselves very lucky to see these two of the kiwi. Especially when the others on board who had cameras failed to get anything but a black square or a dark brown blur. It sure was a tough assignment. But at least I have the evidence and I knew what to expect. I was just thrilled to have finally had the privilege of seeing our treasured national icon in the wild.

We traipsed back along the path, hoping we might still see another kiwi, we were told they sometimes feed along the track. It was quite ironic, but all we saw (the first three people in the line including me) was a possum scurrying off into the bush. The French lady behind me couldn't believe she missed seeing her first possum.

Skipper Phillip was waiting back on board with welcome cups of tea and coffee. The boat headed off into the inky blackness, it's passengers buzzing with excitement inside, while Greg took a break out the back.

Another bird ticked!

To be continued....Part 3

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