In a land where sheep outnumber people, a birder exploring New Zealand's far corners encounters some of the rarest and most unusual birdlife on earth.
I have to say that on rare occasions people come here and don't see one," Keith Woodley tells me as we look out over an expanse of gravel, mudflat, and water on the shore of the Firth of Thames, a saltwater bay on the northeastern side of New Zealand's North Island.
"Rare occasions"--I barely have time to worry whether that phrase might apply today when Woodley boosts my confidence. "I feel it," he says, upbeat, as he peers through his scope. "I really do. It's out there."
Woodley is the manager of Miranda Shorebird Centre, a site whose fame is such that "most all visiting birders stop here for at least a day," he says. In front of us are scattered flocks of hundreds of oystercatchers, godwits, knots, turnstones, and stilts. Yet now, in early November, bird numbers are only a fraction of the totals in February, when migrants throng here, fleeing the Northern Hemisphere's winter. Of the 63 species of wading birds on New Zealand's list, 43 have shown up at Miranda, and at peak season there may be 20,000 birds here, including 8,000 bar-tailed godwits and 6,000 red knots.
"Just here, in the foreground," says Woodley. I swing the scope right a few degrees and see what at first seems simply a small shorebird with a single breast band, very whitish overall compared with the other things in view.
When you study a New Zealand field guide, you quickly note that the country's native birds show a high predominance of endemism, in large part because they evolved in relative isolation after their home separated from the rest of Gondwana about 80 million years ago. There's endemism, though, and then there's this little plover in my scope.
On our whole big blue planet, there's absolutely nothing like the wrybill. This is the only species in the world whose bill bends not up or down but sideways--and always to the right. The "wry" bill is an adaptation to allow probing under and around stones in the rocky, braided-river habitat where the bird breeds on the South Island. Only around 5,000 are thought to exist, and 40 percent winter on the Firth of Thames. Most have migrated south by now, but as I survey the beach I count about 40, which, as if on cue, take flight and move even closer.
"We always hear the same jokes about how they fly into the cliffs of the South Island and bend their bills," Woodley says. "And people ask whether their bills would curve left if they'd evolved in the Northern Hemisphere, because of the Coriolis effect."
Miranda is just 32 miles, as the welcome swallow flies, from the airport at Auckland, the country's major metropolis. I'm fresh off a Qantas 747, beginning my third visit to New Zealand, this strange and wonderful country where sheep outnumber people and The Lord of the Rings movies didn't need many special effects to make the landscape seem otherworldly. On previous trips I visited in March, the down-under autumn. Though I managed to sneak in some birding time and saw a pretty good selection of the country's remarkable list of endemic species, I'm fulfilling a dream by returning for a spring visit aimed at birds and nothing but.
Before I left home I corresponded with Brent Stephenson, one of the country's top birders. (In 2006 he became the first person to find more than 200 species in New Zealand in a calendar year, out of a total list of around 360.) He's suggested an itinerary that will take me from the Auckland area on the North Island to the tip of the South Island, and beyond.
It's just past lunchtime on the first day of my trip, and I've already seen one of New Zealand's most distinctive endemics, and one of those most coveted by visiting birders. I apologize to Woodley for looking and leaving, but it's time to head for the city--I've got a boat to catch in the morning.
From the top of Tiritiri Matangi Island you can, with binoculars, see downtown Auckland's skyscrapers, which adds to the oddity of finding some of the world's rarest birds living in the woods and fields all around.
I've taken a one-hour ferry ride from Auckland harbor across the Hauraki Gulf to 540-acre Tiri (as the locals call it), the most famous of the island sanctuaries that have saved several New Zealand species from near-certain extinction. Because they evolved with no land predators, many native birds were helpless when faced with introduced rats, weasels, brush-tailed possums, cats, and foxes. As early as the 1890s government agencies saw small, predator-free islands as a last hope for some species, and indeed sanctuaries such as Tiri and nearby Little Barrier Island have served as New Zealand's own Noah's Arks.
Within a minute of my disembarking, a takahe comes walking out of the brush bordering the rocky beach. This near-mythic, flightless species in the rail family, which resembles an iridescent blue-and-green chicken with a massive red bill, was thought to be extinct until a tiny population was found in a remote part of New Zealand's South Island in 1948. Today, after more than a half-century of intensive recovery efforts, there may be about 250 in existence.