Wellington: In search of the Kiwi

By Jennifer Ennion

Seeing a little spotted kiwi, referred to as a kiwi pukupuku in Maori, in the semi-wild is a very special thing. Not only are they adorably fluffy, they're rare.

Spot a little spotted kiwi at Zealandia, a conservation park on the outskirts of Wellington. Photo / Tom Lynch
Spot a little spotted kiwi at Zealandia, a conservation park on the outskirts of Wellington. Photo / Tom Lynch

It's dark; the only light a red glow from a pocket-sized torch.

We're all silent but there's a rustle to our right. Then a clunking at our backs.

Flip Flop nuzzles his beak up to his feathers in dirt. He is searching for worms, spiders and other critters, and we're all enraptured.

There are only about 1600 little spotted kiwi left in the world. Out of those 1600-odd, there are 120 at Zealandia, a conservation park on the outskirts of Wellington.

Zealandia "is a real neat place'', says our night tour guide Allison McPherson.

Created with the help of a charitable trust (Karori Sanctuary Trust) in 1995, the sanctuary stretches 225 hectares.

It's a great tourist attraction for young and old, providing the opportunity to see birds such as the pied shag (karuhiruhi) and insects including the Cook Strait giant weta (weta punga), and, of course, the beloved kiwi.

As we stand in the dark at Zealandia, coats, fleeces and scarves pulled high and tight, we watch Flip Flop dig frantically.

A loud plonk sounds in the near distance and Flip Flop jumps with fright. He's now disturbed and scurries away until Allison's red torch can no longer find him among the scrub.

Making the plonk is another of our well-known bird species - the kaka.

Before we move away from Flip Flop's territory Allison explains how the bird came to be here.

In 2007, she begins, while living on another smaller island, the kiwi ate some toxic berries and fell ill. The poison in his system affected his balance, making him constantly fall over, hence his name.

He was found by scientists and rehabilitated, and then once well enough he was brought to Zealandia and introduced to the semi-wild here.

I say semi-wild as the animals in the park are left to their own habits but are monitored by staff and volunteers. They are also protected by feral animals, such as cats, rabbits and possums, by a wire fence reminiscent of Jurassic Park.

These measures have helped the kiwi grow in numbers. There were just 41 little spotted kiwi in the park to start with.

Breeding rates have proven to be better at Zealandia than on the country's outer islands, says Allison, due to factors such as protection from strong winds and better access to food.

"It's believed kiwis came to New Zealand about 65 million years ago but they didn't fly here,'' Allison tells our small group of international tourists.

Kiwis are thought to be linked to Australia's emu, she adds, and are fiercely territorial, extremely vulnerable to domestic dog attacks, and have an extraordinary sense of smell.

They also pair for life, although Flip Flop appears to have found himself a harlot who enjoys the company of many a male kiwi.

If you want to increase your chances of interacting with kiwis (the birds and I guess the people too) you can take part in Zealandia's kiwi calling project, where in summer you can spend your nights counting kiwi calls.

"Come into this place at night and just listen. It's super,'' says Allison.

We move on to watch two kaka noisily having their dinner at feeder stations. The kaka is a large, olive-coloured parrot, a cousin to the kea, which is found in alpine regions.

Until they were introduced to Zealandia in 2002, the species had almost disappeared from the Wellington area.

Aside from the kaka and kiwi, Zealandia is also home to two retired takahe.

"It's like a chicken,'' says a young American man as the pair wanders past.

The black birds are round, low to the ground, and have red legs, feet and beaks. Although this couple is yet to draw blood from Allison's hands, they can and it's advised not to handfeed them.

These two are wearing "satellite backpacks" to monitor their whereabouts, but don't seem to venture too far around the park these days.

"Do you think they'll still breed?'' I ask.

A smile spreads across Allison's face.

"They enjoy the process,'' she says, but haven't had a chick since 2004.

"They're doing a really good job here doing PR for their species,'' adds Margaret, a volunteer guide who's joined us.

The aim of Zealandia is to re-create the natural environment that existed in here before human settlement. There are fauna and flora displays, educational films and even interactive elements that explain the formation of New Zealand since the time of Gondwana.

It is an informative but also very enjoyable experience for both adults and children. Kids will especially get a kick out of the moa, a large prehistoric relative of the kiwi that the centre has re-created.

Although you won't see any moa in the park, you do have the chance to shine a torch on tuatara lizards hunting outside their burrows, and to be guided down leaf-littered paths by blue glow worms.

"Look at them all. They're so magical,'' exclaims a German woman.

Her excitement is indicative of how we all feel, especially our passionate guides.

"I'm very proud to be part of this project,'' says Allison, and the rest of us are very fortunate to be able to share a glimpse into what life was like in New Zealand eons ago.

IF YOU GO

GETTING THERE:

Zealandia is 10 minutes from downtown Wellington and is at the end of Waiapu Road.

There is a free shuttle that picks up Zealandia visitors from outside the city i-SITE, as well as from Te Papa , a handful of hotels and at the top of the Cable Car. It drops visitors back to the city i-SITE and is only available for daytime visits. A timetable can be found at visitzealandia.com.

There are also public buses but it's best to book a taxi for Zealandia by Night tours.

PLAYING THERE:

Zealandia: The Karori Sanctuary Experience is a 225-hectare conservation park, with wheelchair access.

There are various guided tours and feeding talks to choose from, or you can explore at your leisure. There is also a cafe, information centre and souvenir shop.

Admission costs start at $18.50 for adults, $9 for children aged 5-14 years, and free for children under five. There are also student, senior and family prices.

The Zealandia by Night tours cost $76.50 for adults, $36 for children (minimum age 12 years) and $15.50 for the return shuttle from the city centre. (Night tours and transport must be pre-booked.)

- AAP

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