Kapiti Island: Birdlife bonanza

By Jim Eagles

Kapiti Island has gone to the birds and Jim Eagles reckons that's what makes a stay on this nature reserve so rewarding.

A bellbird on patrol. Photo / Jim Eagles
A bellbird on patrol. Photo / Jim Eagles

When I suggested to John Barrett that we might have a coffee on the deck of his Kapiti Island Nature Lodge I had no idea a bunch of his feathered friends were coming, too.

John had hardly stepped outside when a kaka landed on his head and another on his shoulder. "Get out of it," he grinned, as they tried to nibble the piece of buttered Weetbix he was planning to eat for breakfast.

The moment he sat down, three more kaka appeared from the surrounding bush and moved in on his coffee cup. "You won't like it," he told one as it stuck its a beak into the cup. "I told you," he added, as it hurriedly withdrew, an expression of distaste on its face.

Fortunately they were less sure of me. But I still ended up having a fascinating face-to-face chat with one young bird who was interested in sharing my coffee and prepared to listen admiringly to my stories if that improved his chances.

It's like that all the time on this amazing island nature reserve. Birds which elsewhere are scarce or shy or both seem to be everywhere.

We had only just got off the ferry Te Aihe and started to walk to the lodge when a fine fat kereru landed on of a bush about 2m away. My wife Chris and I excitedly grabbed our cameras and started taking photos.

"There's no rush," smiled John. "You might as well settle in first. They're all over the place. At the height of the fruiting season we get flocks of 150 here. You won't have a problem getting photos."

And so it proved. Not only were there plump native pigeons all over the place but most of them didn't mind humans approaching and much of the time they perched low down or even fed on the ground so they were incredibly easy to photograph.

When I emerged from our cabin early the next morning, for instance, there were seven kereru sitting torpidly in the grove of trees outside, white chests, red beaks and green coats gleaming in the dawn light.

They weren't exactly lively but it scarcely mattered since the trees were buzzing with dozens of those glorious songbirds, tui and bellbirds, flitting from branch to branch and alternately gorging themselves on spring flowers or bursting into song.

Rather less melodious, but just as noisy, were the flocks of cheeky kakariki which constantly swooped round the lodge, screeching with excitement, occasionally pausing on a flax bush to have a snack, then rushing off again in search of fresh mischief.

I had heard the screams of weka during the night and now it was daylight they were still out in force - one couple with three fluffy chicks in tow - looking for breakfast. We had been warned to keep our cabin doors shut or they'd nick anything that wasn't nailed down; and up at the lodge, where John was cooking up bacon and eggs, there are stable doors to keep the wekas out while letting the fresh air in.

The reason for all this birdlife is that Kapiti Island is one of the country's biggest (1965ha) and oldest (created in 1897) nature reserves and access is strictly controlled.

Of course that wasn't always the case. Maori established several villages here and for many years it was the stronghold of the great warrior Te Rauparaha, composer of the Ka Mate haka, who was buried at a secret spot on the island in 1849. It was an early whaling base and you can still see old trypots used to boil blubber at the Department of Conservation base at Rangatira Point. And in the 1840s most of the land was cleared for farming and sheep, goats, cattle, pigs, deer, cats and dogs were introduced.

But over the past century livestock has been removed, the forest cover allowed to return and pests have been progressively eradicated. The island has been predator-free - apart from the discovery of two stoats earlier this year - since the last rats were poisoned in 1996.

John, who has been visiting the family land at Waiorua Bay since the 1950s, said the effect of removing the possums and rats was remarkable. "I didn't think it would make that much difference," he said. "But I was amazed at how the bird population just boomed. It was extraordinary."

Since then endangered species such as saddlebacks, stitchbirds, kokako, takahe and brown teal have been moved to the island and have also thrived.

On the Okupe Loop Track through the bush at the northern end of the island you can hear - if not always see - dozens of birds chattering away.

We spotted the dashing yellow and black plumage of a couple of stitchbirds and heard the see-see-ip call of a lot more; a dainty robin came to quietly check us out; the twee-twee-twee of whiteheads seems to come from every bush and I eventually picked up a cluster of them flitting through the foliage; I thought I heard the yodi-yodi of tomtits and the aggressive tee-kee-kee of the saddleback but didn't see any so couldn't be sure.

The track takes its name from the Okupe Lagoon where DoC signs said we might be able to see all sorts of freshwater birds - but we could find only paradise ducks and black swans. But there were plenty of seabirds on the coast with hundreds of black-backed gulls just starting to mate - I even spotted a nest beside the track with a single speckled olive-coloured egg inside - oystercatchers, red-billed gulls, whitefaced herons and spotted shags.

Best of all, the folk at the lodge had told me a dozen spoonbills had arrived - birds that have always fascinated me with their goony elegance - and I was delighted to see a big male, resplendent in his mating plumage, standing sentry on top of a bush.

But the highlight of any visit to the lodge is going on a night walk to see the little spotted kiwi which I was keen to do. (There are also brown kiwi on the island but they are rarely seen.) However ... it also happened to be the night of the Rugby World Cup final ... so what should we do?

Fortunately, Minnie Clark, who was going to guide us, reckoned it would be easier to find kiwi if we waited until later - "it gives them time to come down from the hill to the flats" - so we decided to watch the game first. As it turned out, a walk was a good way to settle the nerves after watching those nailbiting final minutes on the lodge's tiny flickering television screen.

I had joked that the kiwi were probably watching the game through the window and when we stepped out it sounded like it, as the hills around the cluster of houses in Waiorua Bay was echoing with their cries, the males high-pitched and melodious, the females deeper and huskier. Minnie said there were about 20 in the valley and about 1200 on the island and it sounded as though most of them were out celebrating the All Blacks' victory.

The lodge has a 95 per cent success rate in for guests getting to see a kiwi in the wild but, despite the fact they were calling from all around, initially we couldn't find any.

However we did hear several loud calls, like a donkey braying, from little blue penguins - a family of which live under the lodge's front deck - and came across three making their way home to their burrows in the bush after a day out fishing.

We also met one of the endangered brown teal sitting silently under a shrub, heard the cry of an equally rare takahe from somewhere nearby and met up with numerous weka who, Minnie said, "do shift work so any time, day or night, there are always some weka around".

Then, suddenly, we heard the sound of something snuffling through long grass beside the track. There's one," said Minnie. "It'll try to get away from us by heading up the hill. Take this" - she handed me an infra-red lamp - "listen for where it goes and you should see it crossing the track."

Sure enough, a few minutes later, a big female bounded across the track - running, I thought, like Israel Dagg - standing upright and looking surprisingly large for what is the smallest kiwi species, and headed into the bush.

Wow, I thought, a kiwi. Our national symbol. What a perfect way to celebrate New Zealand becoming the world champions of rugby.

Soon afterwards there was another standing in the track just in front of us. It dashed into the long grass but, while we could hear it snuffling around, we weren't able to catch another glimpse. But who cared. I was thrilled just to have seen one kiwi.

The next day, as we prepared to leave early ahead of a forecast storm, I commented that I had seen everything I had hoped for on Kapiti Island apart from the takahe. "Oh," said Minnie, "there's a couple on the lawn next door right now."

We rushed to look over the fence and, sure enough, there were two muscular looking takahe feeding on the neatly trimmed grass, along with a couple of families of weka and a few of the ubiquitous kaka. We watched them for a while then reluctantly went to finish our packing.

But as I started carrying the bags up to the main lodge another takahe wandered casually past, glanced disinterestedly in my direction, then meandered off down one of the tracks. It's like that on Kapiti Island ...

CHECKLIST

Getting there: Air New Zealand now has direct flights between Auckland and Paraparaumu.

Kapiti Tours runs a ferry service from Paraparaumu to the island on the MV Te Aihe.

On the island: Kapiti Island Nature Tours offers day trips, overnight stays and night Kiwi walks on Kapiti Island.

Further information: For more on visiting Kapiti and Horowhenua see naturecoast.co.nz.

Jim Eagles visited Kapiti Island with help from Air New Zealand, Kapiti Island Nature Tours and Nature Coast.

- NZ Herald

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