Escapism

Jill Worrall leaves Timaru to take on the world - bringing adventure travel to your desktop

Stewart Island: Domain of the birds

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An albatross attempts a getaway with some squid. A few seconds later it was tackled by another bird and a short but determined struggle followed. Photo / Jill Worrall
An albatross attempts a getaway with some squid. A few seconds later it was tackled by another bird and a short but determined struggle followed. Photo / Jill Worrall

Surely I can't be the only New Zealander to arrive on Stewart Island and become hooked on bird watching? I reckon the cause is all those hours spent in mainland forests hoping to spot something more exotic than a bellbird or a fantail.

I'd spent a morning on Ulva Island, a bird sanctuary that allows public access, where rare birds vastly out number human visitors and now it was time to board a boat to head out into Foveaux Strait in search of albatross.

The day we'd crossed over to Stewart Island Foveaux Strait had been so rough and the winds so strong that even these giants of the seabird world were not swooping around the ferry as usual.

We didn't see any birds at all until we dropped anchor off Bench Island and got out the fishing gear. I had recklessly announced earlier that I planned to catch enough blue cod to cook for our overseas guests for dinner. I love sea fishing and had until then a reasonably good track record of landing fish. No one else on the boat was keen to try but maybe driven by some ancient hunter/gather type urge, my husband Derek decided at the last minute to have his first ever attempt at fishing of any kind.

Matt the skipper handed us our rods and issued a series of somewhat complicated instructions. My eyes were starting to glaze over when he reached the point about not snagging any albatross.

"What albatross?" I began to say, having had my attention focused on my reel.

He pointed over the stern of the boat. About a metre away was a bird with a body larger than last year's Christmas turkey bobbing in a gentle swell. Its eyes were fixed steadfastly on my baited hook. It was a beautiful bird but there was something almost menacing about the dark colouration around its eyes.

This was a Shy Albatross - one of the smaller species of albatross that is often known as a mollymawk. Its name is something of a misnomer. Apparently shys can be highly aggressive around boats and if you are silly enough to leave your baited line dangling out of the water they won't hesitate to make a grab.

The thought of mistakenly ensnaring one of these birds and thereby cursing the ship à la Ancient Mariner (and possibly being ordered by Matt to sling its corpse around my neck) almost put me off my fishing. Well, that's my story.

Derek, several metres further away from the predatory albatross (which had now been joined by several more including a Buller's) was already hauling in his first blue cod and a nicely striped trumpeter. I admit to a small gloat when Matt decreed the cod too small and threw it back.

But I was about to get my comeuppance. I hauled in my first fish which was dismissed as merely a wrasse. Sadly it had swallowed the bait, hook and line (there was no sinker), and was thus not in good shape when we returned it to the sea. The closest albatross made one lunge, threw its head back and disposed of my wrasse in one gulp. It then paddled a little closer to me with its giant feet and eyeballed me even more fiercely.

Meanwhile, Derek and Matt continued to catch cod and trumpeter in sufficient quantities for dinner for four.

"Beginner's luck," said Derek, insincerely I thought, as he put down his rod declaring that he'd stop now as he'd caught enough.

I managed one trumpeter and caused an albatross fracas when I threw away a piece of bait. There was much clacking of bills and churning of water.

But we had our dinner supplies and had been able to enjoy the albatross at close-up range. As we headed back into Paterson Inlet the birds launched themselves in ungainly fashion into the air, webbed feet pelting along the surface of the waves, then gliding effortlessly behind us.

We headed for the Norwegian Whaler's Base near Price's Point. Today the tiny cove with its golden sand beach and regenerating forest is tranquil and inhabited only by birds. But between 1923 and 1933 it was a base for the repair of a Norwegian whaling fleet's chaser boats.

Repair work was powered by a steam boiler, which today lies semi-submerged in the shallows. Behind it are the rusty remains of the slipway and now almost lost in the trees are the foundations of the base itself, which included a workshop, manager's house and bunkroom.

We returned to Halfmoon Bay after adding a Stewart Island weka to our bird-spotting list and having seen several New Zealand fur seals doing barrel rolls in the shallows.

That evening as the sun set over the island Maori called Rakiura or the land of the glowing skies, we were back at sea again. This time we were in pursuit of kiwis.

There are more kiwis (Stewart Island Brown Kiwis to be precise) on the island than there are people - about 20,000. Here, unlike most other places in New Zealand, kiwis are not a critically endangered species. But this does not mean that they are easy to spot.

Although we tend to think of these birds as being nocturnal, on Stewart Island they are out and about day and night. Also uniquely, an entire family group will look after chicks. Both these characteristics are thought to be related to the lack of predators on the island. But even though the kiwis here have little to fear, they are still somewhat shy and elusive.

One of the best ways then to see them (unless you are into some serious tramping) is to join an organised tour. We set off to sea with Phillip Smith who has been taking people (including David Attenborough) kiwi spotting since 1990.

We were heading for The Neck, a tapering peninsula that forms the southern side of Paterson Inlet. As the light faded, Phillip pointed out a group of little blue penguins bobbing in the open waters.

Once we were tied up at the jetty we were issued with our instructions - keep noise to a minimum, no flash photography, don't wander off and oh yes... watch out for the male sea lions that sometimes frequent the beach.

Our guide Greg swept his torch along the beach. He concentrated on the high tide line, where mounds of kelp had washed up. A favourite food of kiwis is sandhoppers which in turn feed on the seaweed. After only a few minutes Greg set off in determined fashion up the beach, all of us in tow like a rather untidy broody of chicks.

Lit by the one torch beam was my first ever wild, live kiwi. Its feathers were streaked reddish brown and it was bigger than I expected - females can weigh up to nearly four kilograms. I will admit to being thrilled. Inexplicably I now felt even more like a Kiwi myself, although I was managing to resist the urge to dig for sandhoppers.

We stood, in total silence as the kiwi probed and prodded among the kelp with its long, slightly curved beak. It never faltered in its search for food, not once stopping to look up or preen the odd feather. It moved closer towards us and - obedient to the rule that we needed to be at least five metres away - we all shuffled backwards.

We left this kiwi in peace and set off in search of another one. After a long walk down the beach during which I rather hoped we might encounter a sea lion, we eventually retraced our steps and spotted another bird feeding busily.

Even the guide wasn't sure if it was the same bird or not but I decided we'd count it as a new sighting. This one also was totally dedicated to its search for food.

The night before there'd been five kiwis on the beach when the group visited but I was delighted with two.

We left the beach just before midnight, kiwi sightings accomplished, but disappointingly for me, with no sea lions in pursuit. I'd been quite looking forward to that.

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