Cape Kidnappers offers an up-close natural experience like no other, writes Sue Wallace
Meet a cute, soft and fluffy kiwi chick with a needle-like beak and tiny eyes for the first time, and chances are you will be smitten.
But as awesome as a face-to-face encounter is, it's knowing that they can breed and live safely, thanks to conservation efforts, that's just as important.
As for gannets with their blue-black liner-ringed eyes and golden yellow crowns, I can't take my eyes off them as they swoop and do kamikaze-style dives into the turquoise sea, retrieving fish and looking pleased with themselves.
You can hear and smell them well before you see them, as they gather en masse on a rocky outcrop of Cape Kidnappers peninsula near Hawke's Bay, while the flightless kiwi are bunkered down in cosy burrows, protected from predators.
One of my best summer holidays was discovering the wonders of the beautiful and bountiful birdlife around Cape Kidnappers, where I was intrigued by gannets and fell in love with kiwi.
Rachel Ward, who has a post-graduate degree in zoology and has been working in the conservation field for more than a decade, describes kiwi as "iconic, unique and like nothing anywhere else in the world".
She is the general manager of the Cape Sanctuary, a 2500-hectare privately owned nature reserve at Cape Kidnappers peninsula that focuses on sustainable conservation.
It was founded by landholders and conservationists Andy and Liz Lowe and US-based owner of The Farm at Cape Kidnapper's golf course and luxury lodge, Julian Robertson and their families, to protect and enhance New Zealand's threatened species.
A predator-proof fence was built in 2006 and endangered species have been reintroduced, with many thriving and numbers increasing.
The sanctuary is now home to many endangered endemic species, has a self-sustaining population of eastern brown kiwi and runs a highly successful kiwi creche.
Rachel and her team, plus more than a hundred dedicated volunteers, monitor the birds and wildlife.
She loves sharing her knowledge on private tours with lodge guests from all over the world.
"Kiwi are funny and quirky and have distinct personalities - if you are working at night we often have encounters with them; they have poor eyesight but a great sense of smell, so if you are quiet they may come close and sniff you," she says.
The Kiwi Experience is a chance for lodge guests to see a kiwi up close during a routine health check.
"The kiwi seen are often young birds that are creched in our sanctuary as part of the Operation Nest Egg programme. Excitingly, this season's kiwi chicks that are monitored are part of a study into our own wild population so we can determine how our young birds cope in our rugged environment and see what antics they get up to," she says.
"Guests are blown away by the opportunity to meet kiwi up close and personal.
"It assists with our conservation efforts by increasing advocacy and awareness of the plight of the eastern brown kiwi, and proceeds go towards the operation of the Kiwi monitoring programme," Rachel says.
The chicks are fitted with transmitters that assist in locating them through radio telemetry. As they grow, transmitters need to be changed regularly, and health parameters monitored, including weight, size and any issues.
"Volunteers help us by locating the directions the chicks have moved, so it doesn't take hours to find them each time we need to do a health check – they can travel great distances across challenging terrain," she says.
It's a privilege to see Kiwi and heartening to learn that numbers are increasing.
Rachel hopes in the future all New Zealanders may become familiar with the birds as survival rates increase in forests.
"It is very special to see a wild bird, a feeling that you don't get in a nocturnal house, these birds are free and thriving and guests get a real feel for the work we do when we take them 'off track' to find a kiwi burrow," she says.
As for the gannets, they know how to pick a good spot.
The world's largest most accessible mainland gannet colony is in residence from September to May.
"We don't need to manage them much as they are a steadily increasing wild population of around 20,000 birds now; lucky for them they now fall within the sanctuary and are much safer than they were prior to the predator control," Rachel says.
These days their main threats are at sea, with the risk of being caught in nets, and the effect climate change may have on fish populations.
"Mainland seabird breeding populations are rare since human arrival, so it is great to see a gannetry doing well," says Rachel, who loves how they care so little about people being close by.
"They zoom in to land just over your head in a big whoosh, then go about their business feeding each other, their offspring and performing courtship displays within metres of onlookers. It is a fascinating insight into natural bird behaviour that we don't often get to see in other species unless we are hidden from sight."
Bird encounters are just one of the highlights of a stay at the lodge with its 24 rustic hill-top and ridge suites and an owner's cottage with glorious views. The 7km driveway through spectacular country prepares you for something special.
Dining is an adventure here with a menu featuring the best produce in the region, matched to fine wines, plus there's a spa, pool, cliff-top Tom Doak-designed golf course and amazing hiking trails over the 2600 hectares.
Like they say, it's a farm stay like no other – those gannets and Kiwi don't know how lucky they are.
CHECKLIST: CAPE KIDNAPPERS
DETAILSThe Farm at Cape Kidnappers offers a Kiwi Experience offering a face to face experience with the iconic bird. capekidnappers.com
Gannet Safaris offer a range of tours. gannetsafaris.co.nz