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Michelle Langstone: Superb birds and a national treasure

NZ Herald
By: Michelle Langstone
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Michelle Langstone goes to the birds at Wellington's Zealandia

Nestled in Karori, Wellington, Zealandia is a 225ha urban ecosanctuary focused on regenerating native bush, cleaning waterways, and bringing species back to Wellington which have been gone for decades. It's an ambitious project, one whose ultimate goal is to restore the land to its pre-human condition.

I can't recommend strongly enough that you plan a visit to the capital city based around the sanctuary — it has major appeal for young and old. You can easily spend a day lost in the walking tracks taking in the oxygen-saturated wonder of the native trees. If you've only got a morning, that will do as well: we took a circular route past the Karori Reservoir and through the forest, which brought us up above the dam, looking out across the valley while tūī swooped past and kārearea circled above.

The last time I visited Zealandia wildlife sanctuary, about six years ago, I found a dead mouse in the middle of one of the walking tracks. I folded it up into some receipts from my wallet and took it straight to the staff so they could figure out how it had arrived in the predator-free zone. They said it might have been dropped by a bird flying overhead and I was amazed - I'd never considered birds might be clumsy with their meals.

Urban oasis: The Lower dam lake at Wellington's Zealandia. Photo / File
Urban oasis: The Lower dam lake at Wellington's Zealandia. Photo / File

The staff were friendly and informative, just as they are the second time I visit Zealandia, three days before a hole was deliberately cut in the 8.6m predator-free fence, an unbelievably worrying act. It's impossible to overstate how much of a threat to our native wildlife rats, stoats, mice, feral cats and possums are. Zealandia has devoted itself to becoming a predator-free space for lots of our endangered species, and the work over many years has paid off. You can stroll around the walking tracks and happen upon kākā having a nosh at their food stations, there are shags and pāteke swimming in the reservoir, and korimako and little whiteheads flitting through the branches. It's a bird-lovers wonderland, and on the morning I visited, taking time out of a work trip, the wildlife took my breath away.

I romped through those forest tracks, making far too much noise in my excitement, and I still didn't bother the birds which, it's fair to say, have practically overrun the joint. I have never been one foot away from a North Island robin, but at Zealandia, I nearly stood on one because it was hopping around our feet. I've only ever seen one in my guidebook on New Zealand birds. In living colour, they hop on impossibly thin legs, with big puffy heads and the sweetest faces you can imagine. They're used to visitors at Zealandia and they come near your feet, looking for the insects you might stir up with your footsteps.

One of the Zealandia workers, Phillipa, noticed us admiring them and stopped to tell us more about their recovery from the brink of extinction in the lower North Island. Robins can count up to seven, she said. A superb bird, she said, and we had to agree.

I saw the first tīeke of my life in the flesh in a tree about three feet above us, its brilliant orange wattles like jewels on its cheeks. At this point, it's fair to say I had lost my mind with joy, and that's before a kākā hung upside down a foot from our heads and gazed at us with an insolent expression. I texted my husband and announced we were relocating to Wellington immediately. I took terrible, blurry photos because I was panting with excitement. This had all taken place in 60 minutes. I thought I might explode, and then we saw tuataras.

A close encounter with a kākā at Zealandia wildlife sanctuary. Photo / File
A close encounter with a kākā at Zealandia wildlife sanctuary. Photo / File

I don't know if you've seen a tuatara sunbathing outdoors, but I almost cried seeing it there, secure in a habitat that's been carefully cultivated and protected from pests. We saw a male and a female sunning themselves about a metre from where we stood. It was magic.

I don't want to go on about it, but everyone needs to go to Zealandia. The entrance fee contributes to the ongoing work being done there and it's a small price to pay when you get to see our takahē up close, roaming around like fluffy dinosaurs. It's an astonishing feat of conservation and a beautiful way to spend a few hours, or a whole day. There's a cafe in the main building if you're hungry, or you need to bribe your kids. There are displays and information that are genuinely useful, as well as being inspirational. Please go. And if you see another hole in the fence, tell the staff right away - Zealandia is a treasure and needs to be treated as such.

For more New Zealand travel ideas and inspiration, go to newzealand.com