Archaeologists working in the Bay of Islands made a surprising discovery in one of their excavation pits — a live kiwi.

A crew of about 20 have spent the past fortnight at Mangahawea Bay, on Moturua Island, carefully digging up one of New Zealand's oldest known human settlements.

Their finds include moa-bone fish hooks, a musket ball, obsidian, clay pipes ... and a kiwi.

Department of Conservation historic ranger Andrew Blanshard said an early morning check of the site's 11 excavation pits on Tuesday delivered a surprise.

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The excavation pit was covered in kiwi footprints after the bird's escapade. Photo / Hans-Dieter Bader
The excavation pit was covered in kiwi footprints after the bird's escapade. Photo / Hans-Dieter Bader

''The crew came out first thing to walk around and in one of the trenches they found a little kiwi running around. It couldn't get out,'' Blanshard said.

Rather than try to catch it and risk stressing the bird, the archaeologists decided to help the kiwi get out by itself. But this was one clumsy kiwi.

''They put a ramp in and it managed to get out eventually – but as it ran out of that trench it fell straight into another.''

Blanshard said the archaeologists put the ramp into the second pit and this time, once it had clambered out, the kiwi ran straight off into the bush.

It appeared to be a juvenile male, he said.

The bottom of the trench had been left perfectly smooth the day before but was covered in kiwi footprints after the bird's night-time misadventure.

''It was definitely a thrill for the archaeologists and for tangata whenua. You just don't see them that often,'' Blanshard said. For the remainder of the dig, which ended on Friday, archaeologists added an early-morning wildlife check to their routine.

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Blanshard said people hiking on the island had also reported seeing kiwi, even during the day.

''If you do see kiwi out at weird times it's due to the drought. We're seeing kiwi at times and locations they normally wouldn't be because they're looking for water. DoC is getting calls daily.''

He advised anyone who saw a kiwi out during the day to leave it alone – ''it will be under stress as it is'' — and let it do what it needed to before it went back under cover in the bush.

''And count yourself lucky to have seen it,'' he added.

With kiwi out during the day he urged Northlanders to be more careful than usual with their pets.

Moturua and its neighbouring islands have become a wildlife haven since Project Island Song began in 2009.

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The archaeologists were also treated to regular visits by rare tieke (saddlebacks) and kākāriki (red-crowned parakeets) which are now thriving on the island.