Carers take birds under their wing


The day started with an earthquake. The shudder could have been caused by a passing truck, except there were no roads nearby. It stopped, and then started again, stronger this time.

The posts holding up the roof over the deck flexed, the room behind me lurched slightly from side to side.

A kilometre away, Roady the baby kiwi snuggled further into his bed of pine needles beneath the swaying, towering trees of the plantation on Cape Kidnappers. Earthquakes in Hawke's Bay are not uncommon and don't bother the kiwi that live on The Farm. A slight shift in the land is nothing when you just hope a cat, stoat or dog won't kill you that day.

Thanks to the predator-proof fence built between The Farm and the outside world, and the people who patrol it, that risk is considerably lessened. Later that day, kiwi conservationist Dr John McLennan pauses in the pine forest and holds what could be a homemade aerial in the air, waiting for it to pick up beeps of recognition from Roady's transmitter.We track him to a pile of pine needles cloaking a log, and John's wife Sue carefully extracts the 2-month-old kiwi. She rocks him to calm him, saying she believes they respond to rocking the same way babies do, as kiwi are rocked in their eggs.

John and Sue check and weigh Roady. At 370g he's lost a bit of weight in the cool, dry conditions this past week when insects have been scarce, so Sue gives him some at huhu grubs, which are like a steak dinner for a baby kiwi. Sue then passes Roady to me to hold. He's so small he fits within my palms. He feels delicate and soft, his feathers more like fur. He seems more like a mammal than a bird and, apart from a few cheeps, is quiet. His beak is smooth and he burrows into my arm, looking for a way out. The round dark eyes are gentle.

His legs are the only part of him that feels tough - when he's fully grown he'll be strong enough to kick a predator hard.

The meeting is over in a few minutes and Sue returns the kiwi back to his pine-needle burrow. She fills in the kiwi version of a Plunket book, recording Roady's weight and overall health since they last visited a week or so ago. Then we make our way out of the forest, passing some of the 29 other young kiwi living on the cape, resting in unseen burrows.

The Kiwi DiscoveryWalk is the latest attraction offered to guests at The Farm at Cape Kidnappers, but this form of eco-tourism is simply a spin-off from a much bigger project here. The Farm's owner, American philanthropist Julian Robertson, and the owner of the neighbouring property, Andy Lowe, have established the Cape Sanctuary, funding a custom-built predator-proof fence that stretches 10.5km from coast to coast, shielding 2500ha of land that can sustain both coastal and forest bird populations. Because the fence is the "leaky kind", and predators can still slip through, two full-time rangers are employed to patrol the property and set traps (more than 1000 trap boxes for cats, stoats, ferrets and weasels, and about 2500 bait stations for rats). They also pay for a portion of John's time as an ecological adviser for the kiwi nursery, and for former DoC workers Tamsin Ward-Smith and Kahori Nakagawa to work full time as sanctuary managers, establishing new colonies of seabirds that used to inhabit the coast before humans arrived. The sanctuary works with DoC, local iwi and a fleet of volunteers to make this shared vision a reality.

Julian says the idea for the sanctuary was "Andy's baby". "It was really his idea. He approached me to be part of it and I was delighted."

Andy, who is managing director of the agribusiness Lowe Corporation based in Hastings, says he has been a bush lover, hunter and fisherman since he was young.

As he grew up he became aware that "the vibrancy of New Zealand's bush and wildlife was waning", and wanted to help.

"When I became the owner of land at Ocean Beach and met with Julian Robertson, I saw the opportunity to put my ideas into practice,"says Andy.

"I wanted to bring Cape Kidnappers and Ocean Beach back to the bustling peninsula it once was, to restore the landscape that was in need of 'intensive care' and to prove that humans and wildlife could successfully co-exist together."

Julian's attachment to New Zealand goes back to 1978, when he brought his wife Josie, who was pregnant, here for a holiday with their two eldest children, then aged four and one.

"I came here to write the great American novel, and we fell in love with New Zealand," Julian says.

"In 1995 we were able to buy Kauri Cliffs (in Northland) and built something very beautiful there. Then we built The Farm at Cape Kidnappers, which is also beautiful."

That it is, in grand rustic style. The first thing you notice on entering is the scent of oiled wood, emanating from the rough-hewn panels lining the walls, and the vaulted timber ceilings above a floor of stone. Then your eyes are drawn to the view through the windows, out over the lawn, down over rolling paddocks of green and brown laced in pine and manuka, stopping abruptly above the broad blue bay, which sweeps past Napier up toward Mahia, and above it all is the big Hawke's Bay sky.

The lodge allows the landscape to be the star, and sits back unobtrusively into the folds of a hill, its accommodation villas stepping lowdown a ridge line.

From the road you can't see the infinity pool, but from the water you can look out on everything. The world-class golf course is a mere smudge of smooth green amid the golden grasses of the paddocks. A gravel road winds toward the tip of the Cape where there are two colonies of gannets - the birds at the one I visited were so fearless of humans they allowed us to sit almost next to them as they preened on their nests. But what delights John, Julian and Andy the most are the new colonies of white fronted terns, red-billed gulls and New Zealand dotterels which have all turned up and made the cape home since it became predator free.

"You know you're doing the right thing when bird colonies establish independently," says John. "In the wild, 95 per cent of kiwi die from predator attack, so if you have a place where kiwi do well, everything will do well."

Standing on your villa's deck, you can hear only birdsong. Tui call across the gully; tomtits and riflemen swoop between branches; and, under the canopy, New Zealand robins hop.

John, known as"Mr Kiwi"in conservation circles, has worked on rescuing our national symbol from extinction for three decades. He says Cape Sanctuary is now helping kiwi recovery programmes all over New Zealand. It acts as a creche, enabling newly-hatched chicks to grow in safety until they reach a size at which they can cope in other more demanding areas. They are then moved on, and new young ones take their place.

"Kiwi have proven here how adaptable they can be," John says.

"People said we they wouldn't survive in pine forest rather than native bush, but they're fine. They said you couldn't have a successful kiwi conservation programme on a tourist property, beside a golf course, but we are. They said there were no populations of kiwi on the North Island coastline, but here one is. Kiwi don't care where they live as long as nothing's trying to eat them. Sometimes they even walk around the lodge at night -guests have found kiwi feathers on the lawn, and seen footprints in the golf course bunkers."

Even being cuddled by tourists paying for the privilege, money that goes straight back to the Cape's conservation effort, doesn't faze our national bird. Nor does the occasional earthquake.Herald On Sunday

Estelle Sarney travelled to Cape Kidnappers courtesy of The Farm. See www.capekidnappers.com

- HAWKES BAY TODAY

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