Kiwi Whispering on Stewart Island

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Ryan Donmoyer of the New York Times,  reports on his trip to Stewart Island with Kiwi Wilderness Walks and the intrigue of New Zealand's enigmatic national bird

The Kiwi Realm

By RYAN J. DONMOYER

Stewart Island has far more of New Zealand’s mascot and other rare birds, than people.

It was almost midnight and my girlfriend, Patty, and I were tiptoeing behind our guide, deep in the bush of Stewart Island, the smallest and least populated of New Zealand’s three principal islands. So far, we had seen three possums, but I had practically given up hope of spotting a kiwi, the furry, nocturnal, flightless bird that has been New Zealand’s national symbol for more than a century.

“Use your fingers to filter your torch,” whispered the guide, Matt Gaze, of Kiwi Wilderness Walks. “Kiwis cannot tolerate strong light.”

Then, about 100 feet up the track, there was movement, and our flashlights shone in unison. A pair of red, evil-looking eyes beamed back at us. Another possum. “I guess we should turn back,” Matt said with a sigh.

My heart sank — after four trips to New Zealand spent trying to see in the wild just one of the elusive, charismatic creatures, another chance to do so was slipping away.

We started heading back through the ferns to the Old Island Hill Homestead, a former farmhouse where we would stay overnight as part of our five-night package. Four hours earlier, we had hiked there after a six-seater Cessna flew us about 25 miles from Riverton on South Island, where we spent our first night, across Foveaux Strait to the beach in Mason Bay on Stewart Island. The homestead is administered by New Zealand’s Department of Conservation and is one of only two lodging sites on Mason Bay, a three-day walk from Oban in Halfmoon Bay, where all 350 or so of Stewart’s human residents live.

This is kiwi country. There are at least 10 times as many kiwis as there are people on the 670-square-mile Stewart Island, about the size of Oahu in Hawaii, and these endangered birds are easiest to spot on its unpopulated west side, near Mason Bay. Only 75 years ago, with no natural predators, some five million of the birds roamed New Zealand. Today, because of farming and the introduction of predators like cats, dogs and weasel-like stoats, only about 75,000 of the six varieties of kiwis remain in pockets around the country.

Their numbers are dwindling by half every 10 years, say researchers at the Kiwi Recovery Program, a nonprofit venture sponsored by the Bank of New Zealand, the Department of Conservation and the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society. As a result, despite being the country’s mascot, most New Zealanders have never seen a live kiwi outside of one of the dozens of kiwi aviaries catering to tourists.

Although we, too, still had not yet seen a kiwi, we were finding plenty of evidence of them. We encountered a few trekkers who had spun tales of seeing kiwis feeding on the beach at sunrise or plodding along the trails in front of them in broad daylight (unlike the country’s other kiwis, the Stewart Island brown kiwi is frequently active during the day). Matt showed us holes where the birds had plunged their long, pointy bills into the ground in quest of worms and insects.

Once, he leaned over to pluck something off the ground. “Kiwi feathers,” he pronounced, handing Patty and me tiny wisps of soft, brown down.

And then there was the noise — a repetitive, high-pitched whistle by the males, and a coarser, raspier answer by the females. Their calls filled the forest. Unfortunately, to the untrained ear, they are easily confused with possum.

Suddenly, there was rustling in the bush about 25 feet to our left. Another false alarm, I thought, as our flashlights swarmed across the area until I finally saw movement. “There!” I gasped. And the kiwi, a knee-high bundle of dark, hairlike feathers, stepped into our makeshift spotlight. It lunged with its long beak, using the nostrils at the end of it to snuffle through the leaves. An instant later, it was gone.

“Kill your lights,” Matt whispered. “And don’t move.”

A moment later, the fern next to his boot shook, and the kiwi stepped onto the track. My heart flipped. The kiwi glanced at us, turned and waddled up the trail, its muscular legs supporting a squat, bristly backside. Then it made an abrupt about-face and plodded toward us. It sniffed curiously at Matt’s boot, made another about-face, and ran up the track into the dark.

I realized I had been holding my breath, so I exhaled. The whole experience had lasted less than five minutes, but it had made the entire trip to New Zealand worthwhile. “I’m so happy we saw his little face!” Patty said.

A Stewart Island Brown Kiwi, or Tokoeka forages for food amongst the sand dunes of Mason Bay.

I was thrilled, too. Seeing a kiwi in the wild had become something of a life goal for me since becoming obsessed with the birds 15 years earlier, when I lived in Auckland. I had tried to book a one-night kiwi-spotting trip on Stewart Island in 1997, but the tour had been full. Patty, although this was her first trip to New Zealand, was also falling in love with the kiwis, and was especially impressed by the fact that compared with humans, they exhibit opposite sex roles.

Although kiwis live as monogamous pairs, the female is larger than the male and is the dominant partner; the male tends to have primary responsibility for incubating the eggs, which weigh up to a third of the female’s body weight. “Ouch,” Patty said.

As fascinating as they were, the kiwis were just one example of the native New Zealand birds we would encounter. Matt had already pointed out an area where local tribes of Maori (a Polynesian people who inhabited New Zealand for nearly a millennium before Europeans discovered it) gathered every year for a ritual harvest of plump muttonbird. These birds are also known as short-tailed shearwater, and the Maori have eaten them for hundreds of years.

Just off the coast of Mason Bay, most of the 62 flightless kakapo parrots known to exist thrive on predator-free Codfish Island. Stewart Island also is home to wild parakeets, bellbirds, shags, heron, oystercatchers, large wood pigeons, rare dotterels, and three species of penguin. There are also tuis, which resemble priests with their jet black feathers and white tufts at their throats, and the cheeky, flightless weka, which is often mistaken for a kiwi.

A few minutes after spotting our first kiwi we saw another, and this time we were able to watch eagerly for a good 15 or 20 minutes before it disappeared into the bush. We were still chattering excitedly about the two sightings as the forest gave way to a grassy clearing and the farmhouse where we would spend the night appeared in the moonlight. It was basically a rustic cabin with no electricity, an outhouse, and drinking water collected from rainfall.

In the morning, Matt laid out a spread of muesli, powdered milk and fruit. He boiled water on a gas camping stove and offered us tea, which we greedily accepted. “Should be a nice day to walk,” he said. “And the kiwis are more vocal where we’re going at night.”

It was about nine miles through a swamp on the North-West Circuit, a rugged 80-mile trail around the northern tip of the island, to Freshwater Landing, where we would be staying that night. After breakfast, we hoisted on our packs and set off. We were joined by Marijka, a Dutch woman now living in New Zealand’s Southland, who had also signed on for Matt’s tour. She set a healthy pace.

Patty and I held back a little, marveling at the sheer isolation. Stewart Island, known to the Maori as Rakiura, “Land of the Glowing Skies,” really is a different world. The day before, when the Cessna dropped us off at Mason Bay, our little party had been the only people on the pristine, 10-mile-long, white sandy beach. When a man and a woman emerged from the track ahead and began walking toward us, Matt said, “It’s getting crowded out here.”

The absence of humanity was evident in unexpected ways. As the terrain changed from grassy swamp to an archway of trees marking the entrance of a new forest, there was furious fluttering above. “The bellbirds aren’t too happy with us,” Matt said. “We’re trespassing.”

After we reached Freshwater Landing, another sparse accommodation that we shared with a dozen independent trekkers spread over two rooms of bunks, Matt prepared a scrumptious dinner of pasta, sundried tomatoes and mushrooms. Pouring rain prevented another kiwi-spotting excursion, so we went to bed when the sun went down.

The next morning, we caught a reserved water taxi from Freshwater Landing to Milar’s Beach, to complete the journey by kayak with Jo Paine, a guide from the Completely Southern Sky Sea Kayaks Tour Company. After a few minutes of instruction from Jo (Patty had never kayaked before), we paddled off into Paterson Inlet, which has nearly 120 miles of sheltered coastline.

We drifted past oystercatchers, with their black bodies and long, red bills. We passed several varieties of cranelike shags, which flew inches above the water, hunting for fish. Before long, we happened on a yellow-eyed penguin — considered the world’s rarest — floating on its back.

Jo took us up the Rakeahua River, where we got one last bit of calm before the rain. Rain falls on Stewart Island 275 days a year, according to the guidebooks. Only parts of Chile, Argentina and a few remote islands off the coast of South Africa and New Zealand are closer to Antarctica than Stewart Island, and the weather can change suddenly. What began as a calm, pleasant day trip quickly became an adventure, as we paddled into nearly horizontal rain and rapidly growing swells. By the time we made it to the boathouse in Halfmoon Bay, we were like a bunch of drenched rats.

Fortunately, our final night on Stewart Island was spent in a guesthouse called Ngahere. It had a view of Halfmoon Bay, hot water, a fireplace and clean sheets on a double bed. After our 48 hours in the bush, the place felt luxurious. Over a dinner of bean salad and the freshest salmon I have ever tasted,we discussed the birds we had seen over the last few days.

“Have you ever wondered how the kiwi lost its wings?” Matt said. The scientific explanation, he said, is that the kiwi is part of an order of birds that includes the emu, ostrich and moa, a giant flightless bird hunted to extinction by the Maori. The kiwi evolved to be flightless over 30 million years because it had no natural predators. But, Matt explained, Maori lore tells a different story.

In the Maori version, the god of the forest, Tanehokahoka, worried that the bugs were starting to eat the trees to death. He asked three varieties of birds to live on the forest floor and eat the bugs, but they all refused. Finally, the kiwi agreed, even though it was told that it would lose its wings and never see the light of day again. Tanehokahoka was angry with the other birds and punished each of them.

Then, the legend goes, Tanehokahoka turned to the kiwi and said: “You, kiwi, because of your great sacrifice, you will become the most well-known and most-loved bird of them all.”

For more information about Stewart Island tramping and our guided tours with Kiwi Wilderness Walks, check out our page on the Stewart Island Track