I have many interests in life; don’t we all?
Obviously, travel is pretty much at the top of the list, but I also enjoy books that smell old, jumping into any and every body of water, bloggy stuff, and not to mention baking outrageous deserts and then eating them til I feel sick. I also love animals.
Puppies, kittehs, lambs and koalas, sea turtles and nemos, anything that makes a girl go “awwwww” I love. I’m sure I’m not the only one here. But birds? To use a very typical kiwi expression, “yeah nah.” Not really.
Baby ducklings? Yes. Fluffy baby chicks? Sure. Twitter? Abso-freaking-lutely. Any type of owl going hoot hoot? Yes (owls are the exception because owls are fucking awesome). But by no stretch of the imagination would I ever consider myself a bird aficionado.
Then I came to New Zealand, land of crazy weird amazing jurassic birds, and everything changed with a visit to Somes/Matiu Island and then on a night tour at Zealandia.
This is the story of how New Zealand is turning me into a bird nerd (copyright pending).
It all started when my old roommate forced me to go camping on Matiu/Somes Island smack in the center of the Wellington Harbor. I was all bogged down with work and wanted to bail, but he guilted me into going. Turns out it was one of the best weekends I’ve had in Welly! Good friend.
Determined to disconnect with the world and reconnect with nature, I switched my phone to airplane mode on the ferry over.
Unlike pretty much every other island I’ve ever visited around the world, as soon as we got off the boat, we were hustled into a shed where we got the DL on the island, as well as having our bags searched.
Not for illicit drugs as, cough cough, us Americans might initially think, but for rats. Yes, rats.
Somes/Matiu Island, like so many offshore island in New Zealand, is a sanctuary for native plants, animals and birds, and they don’t want you bringing in anything non-native, except for yourselves. Americans are welcome.
So what does that mean exactly?
New Zealand is special, if you haven’t already figured that out from my innumerable posts, tweets, pics, and shares of this magical land at the end of the world, but not special for just its wild landscapes, friendly people and crazy scenery.
New Zealand is also very special because of its wildlife, specifically its birds.
New Zealand as an island broke off and evolved for over 65 million years without mammals (except a couple of bats). Pause and just imagine that for a minute. Millions of lifetimes of isolation from animals found around the rest of the world enabled New Zealand to curate an incredible flora, fauna and natural history unlike anywhere else.
What does that mean? It means that New Zealand was a land of birds, and really freaking weird and unique birds that don’t exist anywhere else in the world. Too cool, right?
Bear with me. These birds evolved and developed without mammals hunting them, which means so many of them were flightless, like the famous kiwi, New Zealand’s iconic bird and nickname.
I mean look at it? How can you NOT love a kiwi?
Before humans arrived in New Zealand, there were many types of incredible birds around the islands, though my favorite has to be the Moa, enormous flightless birds that grew over 12 feet tall. And to make it even more incredible, the Moa were hunted by gigantic Haast Eagles, the world’s biggest eagle, with over a 10 foot wingspan and rumored to have hunted Māori children.
Holy shit! Enormous birds twice the size of people and giant eagles that hunted them? My god, it doesn’t get more Middle Earth than that!
In fact, when Captain Cook arrived in the 1770’s the sounds of the birds in New Zealand was so loud it was described as deafening. Can you imagine that?
Unfortunately, this story doesn’t have a happy ending.
Like so many beautiful, remote and undiscovered corners of the world, people eventually find them, and ruin them.
The Moa went extinct shortly after the Māori arrived and began hunting them, with the giant eagles dying out soon after. But the long-term problem wasn’t hunting, it was introduced pests. With Māori and European settlers came critters like cats, dogs, rats, mice, possums, weasels, and other foreign animals that eventually destroyed their habitats and killed off 40% of New Zealand’s native birds. That’s almost half!
However, humans in New Zealand eventually realized the giant clusterfuck and havoc they wreaked up the native birdlife, and huge, and I mean HUGE top dollar conservation efforts have been put in place over the past century-ish to help bring back some of these incredible winged and maybe-not-winged beauties from the brink of extinction.
See? I’m turning into a bird nerd already! #BirdNerd – let’s get this trending guys!
Coming full-circle, this is why places like Somes/Matiu Island exist in New Zealand. Dedicated bird lovers and the Dept. of Conservation spend a few years and a shitload of money clearing these islands of introduced pests that kill birds, like possums, rats and even cats, and then move these endangered bird species over onto the islands to live in safety so they can start repopulating.
Jesus, look at me using words like “introduced pests” and “repopulating.” I barely recognize myself!
So proud are New Zealanders of protecting and preserving their special birdlife heritage that there are sayings here like if you see a possum or a stoat while driving, you should run it over.
Blink blink, right on, I guess.
In a bizarre way, I really like that, and it’s one thing I really love about this country.
New Zealand not only recognizes that they have both a very special landscape and wildlife that MUST be preserved but also that so many people are behind it wholeheartedly, none of this half-assed “oh yeah protect the land but no I won’t actually do anything to help” apathetic attitude you find in the rest of the world.
Kiwis love their kiwis and if that means running over a rat with the kids in the car? Well, teach them early, right?
Somes/Matiu Island was my first taste of this whole other world and my first glimpse into both the awesome birdlife here and New Zealand conservation. A little teaser, it isn’t actually home to the really endangered birds, but it was the spark I didn’t know I needed to get me thinking about New Zealand birds.
After watching the sun set over the top of the island, with the lights of Wellington twinkling in the distance with colorful Kākāriki (New Zealand parakeets) flitting around the flax plants, my friends and I decided to go exploring and see if we could get a glimpse of some of the amazing animals we learned about earlier.
In just a few hours we managed to see jurassic tuataras (cool lizards), giant wetas (massive cricket-esque bugs) and my personal favorite, little blue penguins.
Cue girly EEEEEEPS!
That was the first time I realized how much MORE New Zealand had to offer than I had ever imagined, and it got me thinking about what more there was to discover in my new homeland.
With a newfound curiosity and a little research I found about Zealandia, a eco-sanctuary right in Wellington. In fact, it’s located up in Karori, which was 10 minutes from my house, so I had NO excuse not to visit.
Zealandia is groundbreaking for many reasons, but mostly because it’s a massive 225ha valley in central Wellington that’s the first fully fenced in and mammal/predator free sanctuary in a city. With the idea of “bringing the birds back to Wellington,” Zealandia was born.
While I knew I wanted to visit during the day to experience this huge reserve, I also was super excited to find out that the have a special tour called Zealandia by Night where you go on a guided tour of the sanctuary at night, and wait for it, have the chance to see kiwis in the wild, well close to the wild at least. FLUFFY KIWIS!
Since I know so little about birds, especially birds over in this part of the world, a guided tour was the perfect introduction. Zealandia is set up with a colorful and fun education center – trust me on this, it’s hard to make bird conservation and history interesting, but Zealandia managed to make that happen.
Let me just say giant animatronic Moas are involved.
I think one thing I love about the birds in New Zealand is that each and every single one is fascinating and has quirks and stereotypical personalities. Here are some of my favorite New Zealand birds…so far.
Tui – if you come to New Zealand, you will probably notice Tui beer everywhere. They are one of the most common birds and have beautiful calls. They are also a bit crazy, just how I like it, and you will hear them a lot because they can be aggressive. They are also great mimics. With the flourishing bird community in Wellington, there are tuis all over town now.
Kaka – kakas are large brown forest parrots, similar to keas, the intelligent alpine parrots on the South Island. They are really smart and will steal your food given half the chance. I’ve even seen them fly into buildings and nick food right off the table. And they are not small.
Kererū – Kererūs are big wood pigeons that love berries. In fact, sometimes they gorge themselves on berries so much they get drunk and fall out of the trees. A bird after my own heart.
Takahē – Takahēs are really special because they were declared extinct, but then were rediscovered in the Fiordlands in the 40’s, and now they have been repopulated. Even so, there are only 225 takahēs in the world here in New Zealand, so they are really rare – Zealandia is pretty much the only place you can see them.
Ruru – Rurus are the only surviving native owls left in New Zealand, and since I LOVE owls, I love rurus, or moreporks. They are also significant in Māori legends and stories.
Kakapo – I’ve saved the best for last. Kakapo are by far my favorite New Zealand bird. They are really rare, with less than 150 birds left, and they are a fat nocturnal flightless parrot. They are very strange-looking birds, but in an endearing, awesome way. I think they look like parrot owls with whiskers, and they look like they are very old.
There is a very famous kakapo named Sirocco (you can like his FB page here), who once tried to mate with a zoologist with Stephen Fry on a BBC special in New Zealand.
Please watch the video here. And then rewatch and rewatch because it’s HILARIOUS. Poor Sirocco was ill as a baby and had to be hand-raised by people, which means he imprinted on humans and doesn’t realize he’s a bird. This also means he sneaks up on unsuspecting people, jumps on their heads and tries to mate with them – which in my book makes him the most fascinating bird on the planet.
Source Tom Lynch
But back to the kiwis, specifically little spotted kiwis.
Since kiwis are nocturnal, the only proper way to see them is at night, making Zealandia by Night perfect. It doesn’t get more New Zealand than seeing a kiwi, and I was determined to make that happen.
Guided by red flashlights (red doesn’t bother the animals) we explored Zealandia after hours, seeing all sorts of great creatures like wetas, tuataras, and of course, kiwis.
It must have been an hour of walking the trails searching and listening for kiwis, with the sky finally turned from blue to inky black when our guide stopped, paused and motioned us forward. Turning her red flashlight on towards the undergrowth, I finally got to see a kiwi in the countryside, digging in the ground with its long beak and hopping around.
We watched mesmerized, knowing we were getting to witness something very special and rare.
Literally holding my breath, I realized several profound things. First and foremost, kiwis are really noisy. They are not a stealthy bird, no wonder they faced extinction. Secondly, they are way bigger than you think they are, and they are just as cute, if not cuter in person.
But most importantly, I realized that kiwis, like all New Zealand birds deserve to be protected. How sad is it that people almost destroyed these amazing birds forever, and yet how amazing is it that so many people have come together over the past 100 years to bring them back to life?
I mean, how often does that happen in the wildlife world?
I think promoting conservation in any sphere around the world is really hard. Nowadays with our heads buried online and so many things going on in our lives, why on earth should we care about some random bird in New Zealand?
It makes me sad but I think it’s really unrealistic for animal groups and the like to expect people to automatically care about things like kiwis.
You have to show them, you have to offer experiences like these night tours at Zealandia, you have to make them accessible and visible, force them in front of people so we care. In retrospect I think I owe my old roommate a beer for forcing me to go to Matiu/Somes Island and start to think about these kinds of things, what do you think?
I can’t speak for everyone, but I bet you anyone who has had the chance to see a kiwi in a sanctuary will probably tell you they care more about protecting them than someone who hasn’t.
For me, my love for these birds is only growing, and my interest in their past, present and future is only getting stronger. Who knew my journey to New Zealand would lead down a path of becoming a total #BirdNerd?
Have you ever seen a kiwi? Would you like to see one? What do you think about these birds? Are you a bird nerd too?
Many thanks to Zealandia for hosting me on their Zealandia by Night Tour – like always I’m keeping it real – all opinions are my own, like you could expect anything less from me.
Image sources – Tui, Takahe, Kereru, and Ruru by Steve Attwood, Kaka by Bill Beale, Kakapo source