Friday, 15 February 2013

In search of the elusive Kiwi

A visit to New Zealand cannot be complete without sight of a Kiwi in its natural environment. Yes, it is possible to see them in captivity, just as Pauline did in Queenstown when Jackie and I were out on our mountain adventure day and, although that sounded really good as she saw them awake and feeding (they apparently keep lights on at night so they think its day and turn them off in the day so they wake up thinking its night!), I really wanted to see them in the wild if we could.

We had tried wandering into a forest after dark when we were in the Mount Cook area and keeping very still, but quickly realised this was futile, so we booked onto Otariko Kiwi Tours near to Franz Joseph Glacier, where the Rough Guide told us they have a 98% success rate; would we be one of the unlucky 2%?

‘Early booking essential’  the Rough Guide told us, so we booked up with them first, but then found out all accommodation in both Otariko and Franz Joseph was fully booked and we could only get into somewhere in the Fox Glacier, which is about an hours drive from Otariko over a very hilly road. We must be there by 7:40pm he told us, so after finding the wait for takeaway fish and chips in the local cafĂ© was too long (after leaving the campsite at 6:30pm), we (I) drove at top speed (as far as our little van would allow up steep hills) into Franz Joseph village to find no takeaways, so abandoned the idea of eating first and went straight there and, grabbing a few handfuls of peanuts and some biscuits. We wrapped up warm and joined our guide Paul and the other 5 people (including 1 ‘anorak’ 71 year old twitcher who thought he knew more than our guide and didn’t mind telling us) for our briefing.

Otariko is a natural sanctuary he told us, bordered on all sides by marsh, rivers and sea. Its 11,000 hectares containing 400 very rare Okarito Brown Kiwis, each with a territory of about 6 football pitches (apparently they are very territorial), all hiding in dense undergrowth and we’ll be looking for them in the dark! Furthermore, we can only walk on an old logging track through a small patch of jungle, as we’d make too much noise thrashing through undergrowth, so he can’t guarantee we’ll see them. Wear ‘quiet clothing’ he told us and the most important thing is to have patience. The area along the track is the territory of 6 Kiwi and he has a secret helper, 5 of the 6 Kiwi in this area have tiny transmitters placed on them and he has a tracker!

Armed with his tracker, radios, some red lights (they have very poor eyesight and can’t see red light) and hats with a mosquito net, off we went at dusk. Jackie and I have headtorches that can be switched to red light, so we were already set up. As it started to get dark the mosquitos came out in force and we were so glad of the nets on the hats (no matter how stupid we looked!) and this was just at the time the Kiwis were waking up and we needed to keep still and quiet. Jackie and two other people were positioned at certain places with radio communication and the remaining 5 of us had to stand still and quiet (no talking!), while Paul moved about quietly waving his antenna about while talking quietly to those with the radios. Time went on, it got dark (the night sky was amazing), it was absolutely quiet and we were still waiting, occasionally being ushered to another position along the track as Paul got some info on their whereabouts.

He got a signal from a male Kiwi called ‘B-Z’ (who has a female partner called ‘Beaumont’) and ushered us along the track where he thought he might make an appearance. As we stood in the darkness, able to make out only the tiniest of detail with no lights on, we heard the distinctive call of a male kiwi very close by (Paul had played us a recording of the male and female calls earlier) and it all became very exciting! From a short distance away he gave us the signal (quick on-off flashes of his red torch), which meant ‘come quickly but quietly’. We shuffled down the path, trying not to tread on stones to make a noise and stood in line looking at the direction of his torch. Jackie was in front, Pauline behind, then another woman, who was leaning too far out, then me. I found it easier to look behind her, past the back of Jackie and peered towards the light from his red torch. Apparently Jackie could hear B-Z blundering through the undergrowth, but I’m afraid I didn’t hear it.

Standing motionless and in absolute silence we looked up the path and there, about 3m in front of us B-Z walked quietly across the path, looking very much like the ‘famous grouse’! Weighing about 2.5kg, according to Paul, he stood about 300mm high, had a body about the size of a small cabbage, big legs and had his head and neck extended forward with his long beak out front. It was impossible to see his colour as we only had shades of red from the torch, but it was very exciting to see him but, in a moment he was gone!

Asking if we had all seen him, Pauline (among others) said she hadn’t, so we set off along the path again in search of Beaumont. After a short while Paul’s tracker told him Beaumont had already crossed the track and gone off into the jungle, so he suggested we press on further along the track in search of another, the males name being ‘Fancy’ (poor thing!). After more standing motionless and in silence, being shuffled along the track (that sky was fantastic, you could see the milky way so clearly), more red on-off flashes from Paul’s torch and there, in the middle of the track was Fancy, standing poking about with his long beak, looking for things to eat and completely relaxed in the glow of our red light.

We stood there watching him for 3 or 4 minutes before Paul decided we should leave him alone and creep quietly away. He was an absolute delight and it felt really special to be in his company on his terms and in his territory. An experience not to be forgotten!

On the way back to our vehicles Paul told us about the Department of Conservation programme that had got their numbers up from 100 a few years ago to 400 now. They have put the controversial 10-40 poison down to kill off the rats, stoats and possums (possums are the number 1 hated species in New Zealand, although protected in their native Australia, but stoats are the biggest problem to kiwi) and it has had a very positive effect.

Jackie and I had not seen a live possum, although we had seen plenty dead at the road sides, but Pauline had seen some in captivity at Queenstown and told us how cute and cuddly they looked. However they cause a huge amount of damage to wildlife and vegetation and everyone, universally wants rid of them, some offering a bounty of NZ$5 for them, dead or alive, so we are invited to kill as many as we like!

Anyway, we got back to our vehicles about midnight, said goodbye and set off home. After not very long, Jackie and Pauline looked out of the window and said ‘Oh look, our first live Possu……’ too late as we heard ‘crump-crump’ under our wheels! Oh well, I suppose we’ve done our bit for conservation – just glad it wasn’t a Kiwi!

Arriving back at our campsite in Fox Glacier at 1:00am when everyone generally goes to bed around 10:00 to 10:30pm means we have to be very quiet, even tyres over gravel makes a lot of noise at that time of night and we haven’t even eaten yet! Pauline is desperate for a large glass of red wine (that means 2 glasses!) and what can we cook at this time of night without making too much noise? Peanut butter on toast with a very nice bottle of red is great at 1:30am!

By the way, the link to the seals and Shorn the Sheep Youtube link from the entry a few days back is: 

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