This is a story a long time in coming, my favorite kind of story. I’ve been savoring it for a while, waiting for the perfect moment to finally share it with you guys. Are you ready?
Last night one of my biggest New Zealand dreams came true when I had the privilege of meeting a very special New Zealand bird, Sirocco the Kākāpō in Wellington and to be part of a very cool giveaway (details at the end).
The Department of Conservation, (DOC) was celebrating 25 years of partnership with New Zealand’s Aluminium Smelter (NZAS) on the Kākāpō Recovery Program; it’s DOC’s longest running sponsorship program and through its creation and development, kākāpōs have been brought back from the very brink of extinction as well as becoming an example for how to save other New Zealand species. I originally heard about the program through a friend who works at Forest & Bird, who are also partners in the recovery program.
And after months and months of emails (read – me harassing DOC to meet Sirocco) I was invited to come and help share the kākāpō story.
Oh my god guys, can you believe it?
It’s been almost two years since I was living in Wellington, and almost the exact moment I fell in love with New Zealand birds and became interested in conservation here. My roommate dragged me camping on Matiu/Somes Island in the harbor for the night, and it was the first of many New Zealand firsts for me.
It was the first time I saw the Southern Cross and the clearest Milky Way I’ve ever seen. It was my first time camping in New Zealand. I saw tuatara (native New Zealand reptiles or I’m fairly convinced, tiny dinosaurs), wetas (dinosaur bugs that can grow larger than your hand), and little blue penguins.
It was my very first experience with New Zealand conservation too – the island being a predator-free scientific reserve.
From there I was inspired to visit Zealandia in Wellington, and go glamping on Kapiti Island, a large predator-free island up the coast and learn all I could about New Zealand birds. From there, it was a slippery slope downhill of turning me into a giant #BirdNerd.
Why do I keep blabbering on about these predator-free spots? For for millions of years, the islands of New Zealand developed without mammals (except a couple of bats). It was a nation of birds, many of them evolving and losing the ability to fly, but when people arrived 700 years ago, they brought along things like rats, possums, cats and other things with teeth, decimating the birds.
Now, thanks to the amazing conservation work going on here, many predator-free areas and islands have been created to house these endangered birds and helping them grow again on their own.
I don’t know what it is that got me with all of this. I have always loved animals but I don’t think I would have ever imagined I would become so interested in birds, even though I’ve always been a bit of a nerd. I think what tugs at my heart the most about it is the fact that the birds in New Zealand are so special, rare, and occasionally pretty weird.
And it makes me so incredibly happy to see that the people here both recognize how special their birds are too (and have done so for over a century) and have worked tirelessly to save them. Well, you know, save them after accidentally causing 40% of all the native bird species to go extinct. Better late than never, right?
But seriously, I love that all my friends here each have a favorite bird, and that everyone, literally everyone, cares about saving the birds to the point where it’s totally normal to hear things like “if you see a possum on the road, you should run it over.” Because they are pests and are killing native species. Kiwis love their kiwis.
Seeing that passion and seriousness nationwide makes me care too. How could it not?
Millions of years ago kākāpō roamed all over New Zealand and was the third most common bird. Now there are only 125 kākāpō left. To me they almost seem like eccentric misfits of the animal kingdom. They can’t fly. They are nocturnal and they are pretty hefty (weigh up to 4kg) and are the heaviest parrot in the world. Oh, did I mention they can live to be over 100? But they only have chicks every couple of years, according to a particular fruit harvest, so they are not the most prolific of creatures.
And do kākāpō have a soft birdy chirp or can they repeat profanities like other parrots? Nope! They have a subsonic mating BOOM call. Down on the three predator-free islands where all of the kākāpōs live in New Zealand, you can apparently hear them booming from the mountaintops looking for a lady.
Can you imagine what it must have been like to be one of those settlers here hundreds of years ago and to hear these booming calls in the middle of the night from mountaintops and echoing down valleys, only to find it’s coming from a large bright green bird that’s waddling through the forest that kinda looks like a parrot and an owl had a baby? Bizarre probably didn’t even begin to cover it.
The arrival of people in New Zealand almost meant the end for the kākāpō. Between being hunted, plucked, stuffed, and having their habitat destroyed for farmland, they literally were on the brink of extinction.
By the 70’s there were thought to be no females left until a colony was found on Stewart Island, and over 40 kākāpō captured and relocated by Gary Aburn, proving that even just one person can save an entire species.
By the 90’s there were less than 50 kākāpō left but thanks to massive conservation efforts over the past 25 years by the Department of Conservation (DOC), NZAS, and Forest and Bird, the Kākāpō Recovery Plan was introduced to help save them.
As my friend Kim and I walked around Zealandia waiting for the sun to set so I could go on a walk to look for kiwis (the bird this time), she told me the story of the most famous kākāpō of all – Sirocco. Returning to meet him here was like coming full circle.
18 years ago when Sirocco was a chick, he became sick and had to be hand-raised by people which meant he imprinted on humans. Yes, guys, Sirocco doesn’t realize he’s a bird and is totally disinterested in other kākāpō, instead booming at humans. Can you see where this is going?
A few years ago Sirocco got super frisky with on a BBC documentary with Stephen Frye and jumped on zoologist Mark Carwardine’s head and tried to mate with him ON TV AND IT WAS THE BEST THING EVER (video here). Obviously we all know how the internet works and Sirocco quickly become a viral superstar and became the Official Spokesbird for New Zealand conservation.
Obviously if I didn’t love them before, I do now!
Over the past 2 years I’ve fallen in love with Sirocco on his Facebook and Twitter, and every few months would send out a hello skraaaaarrrk and see what was up and when he would be out in public again.
Kākāpō are really rare and really protected in New Zealand, so you almost never get to see them – the islands where they live are not open to the public (more on that in a minute, stay tuned!) and Sirocco is an important link between us and them. While most of the year he lives in the wild alone, part of his duties as Spokesbird means he travels around New Zealand and makes appearances where you might get the chance to meet him.
Sirocco on tour!
He was winding up a 6 week stint at Zealandia when I finally managed to score an invite to meet him face to face. Dreams come true guys!
I even wore my kākāpō t-shirt all day for luck, even at meetings inside the DOC head office. Yes, I am that person.
I could barely focus through the evening of speeches; all I could think about was when I would meet Sirocco. Even though I’d seen countless pics and videos of him, I had never seen a kākāpō in real life before – I wondered if they look the same? Was he just a cheeky as I imagined? Would they let me inside the enclosure? What if he jumped on my head? What if I dropped him? Would I be able to get a selfie? You know the important things.
Be cool, Liz.
The only thing that kept me from crying from excitement as I walked up to the window for the first time was the fact that I was surrounded by important people in suits.
As I stepped back from the crowd and stood behind everyone, just taking it all in and observing how everyone else was interacting with Sirocco (about a million iPhones) the most beautiful, simple moment unfolded before my eyes.
Miriama Evans Ōraka -Aparima of the Ngāi Tahu iwi (tribe), knelt down at the corner of the enclosure by Sirocco just watching him. Through the chaos and cacophony of the crowd and glowing phones, I heard the echoes of a song. She was singing softly to Sirocco in Māori, the words of a mihi (Maōri greeting) to Sirocco and acknowledging Tāne, god of the forest. I put my camera down and just watched and listened, privileged to have a glimpse into such an extraordinary moment between two people. In this moment Sirocco was almost human, as he glanced over his wing at back at her.
The Ngāi Tahu are the predominant Maōri tribe of New Zealand’s South Island, and have strong cultural, spiritual and traditional associations with the kākāpō. Even now, the lost feathers of the kākāpō on Codfish Island are returned to them.
But when everyone left and it was my turn to visit Sirocco inside his enclosure, I was literally giddy. I couldn’t believe this was finally happening, and I could barely form a sentence when his lovely handler Alisha brought him over to me to hold and give him some snacks.
I like to think I won him over with walnuts and he’ll definitely remember me.
As I was holding him, and all of these moments I imagined came to fruition, I realized why I loved them so much. Kākāpōs are history come to life, the relics of a bygone age and it’s our job to save them and help protect them!
In Māori, kākāpō are considered taonga or treasures, and I couldn’t think of a better word to describe them.
As I took my last selfie and said goodbye to Sirocco, I was on cloud 9. There is nothing more amazing than the pure euphoria of having something you dreamed about finally coming true.
I couldn’t stop grinning from ear to ear once we were back inside, and over cheese and bubbles, one of the NZAS team and Nic, the endangered species ambassador, told me the story of another famous kākāpō – Ruapuke.
When he was in his egg, his mom Lisa accidentally squashed him! Every kākāpō egg is precious, and DOC rangers managed to fix his egg up with PVC glue and masking tape (typical New Zealand) and he survived! Miracle kākāpō!
Ok, I have to meet Ruapuke!
After talking to DOC and NZAS, they agreed to sponsor a competition winner and friend to come with me to meet Ruapuke and visit Sirocco’s family on Whenua Hou/Codfish Island, one of the kākāpō reserves and be a kākāpō ranger for a day! Can you believe it?
This is a really big deal, guys. Codfish Island is not open to the public and it’s really rare for people to get to interact with kākāpō, let alone visit the reserve where they all live. This is an incredible opportunity, and once in a lifetime for many.
I can’t wait to share this amazing experience with two of you guys! Even if you aren’t in New Zealand, please share with your friends because someone might be able to!
Competition details here:
- Trip dates are Sunday November 22nd to Thursday November 26th 2015
- Domestic New Zealand flights are included as well accommodation
- I’m told this is not for the faint of hearted, and you have to be in shape and fit and be prepared for a “good hard slog through the mud, off track, uphill, and through dense bush all day” Um, yay. Time to hit the gym!
- Competition page is here to enter – entries close on Friday October 16th at 5pm NZ time.
Seriously, how cool are kākāpō? Did you fall in love with Sirocco and Ruapuke’s story too? Would you like to visit them on Codfish Island with me? Have I turned you into a bird nerd yet?