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.
Within another minute, two saddlebacks appear, thrush-sized birds with black and rich chestnut plumage, feeding on nectar in the red blossoms of New Zealand flax. Even though on my previous visits I've spent more than a month in some of the country's wildest and most pristine places, these saddlebacks are the first I've ever seen. Joining them are a gaggle of iridescent black tuis, of a similar size but slightly chunkier. I've glimpsed this species before, but I've never seen them so well--never had a chance to study the white feathering on the collar, in an intricate pattern of seemingly needless extravagance.
Most exciting of all, a few hundred yards down a trail I spot a gorgeous male stitchbird--sparrow-sized, with black, yellow, and white plumage, and far prettier than its illustrations in field guides. No one knows how many of these birds survive on earth, but it may be only a couple of thousand. At one point saddlebacks were confined to just four predator-free islands, stitchbirds to only one.
Small islands have been, and continue to be, vitally important life rafts for many of New Zealand's species. But as the saying goes, God isn't making any more real estate. Faced with that geographical obstacle, more than a decade ago New Zealanders began developing the oxymoronic concept of "mainland islands." The first was Karori Wildlife Sanctuary, now called Zealandia: The Karori Sanctuary Experience, in the capital city of Wellington, at the southern end of the North Island. Local activists fenced off a two-mile-long wooded valley, eliminated nearly all predators, and successfully brought back birds that had long been absent from the city, including the saddleback, the New Zealand bellbird (a small green honeyeater named for the bell-like notes in its song), and the big parrot called the kaka. Absent from Wellington for more than a century, kakas now regularly roam outside the sanctuary, screeching like banshees and settling in backyards to feed on fruiting trees, causing more than a few suburbanites to do double takes when they look out their windows.
As heartening as Karori has been to New Zealand conservationists, everyone knows it's only a small step. The fence cost the equivalent of $1.5 million, and yet it encompasses only 555 acres. Providing large-scale safe havens for the country's biodiversity will take different approaches.
Which brings me to the Hawke's Bay region, on the North Island's east coast, where I meet Brent Stephenson at a place called Boundary Stream.
"This forest is absolutely jam-packed with riflemen," Stephenson says, as we set out along a trail through woods lush enough to hide a regiment.
Sure enough, within 10 yards we spot one: a tiny mite of a bird, zipping around maniacally and flitting its wings, making me think of a ruby-crowned kinglet that's lost its tail--and maybe eaten a couple of desserts too many.
The rifleman patrolling the Boundary Stream nature reserve was named not for any warlike quality--it looks like it would have trouble holding its own against an aggressive butterfly--but for an association dating back to colonial days: Its plumage reminded early settlers of the green coats worn by 19th-century British troops.
As endearingly cute as the peaceable little rifleman is, it's not why I'm here. Neither is the tomtit we see next, a striking black-and-white bird that the indigenous Maori revered for its ability to materialize (as it does now) seemingly out of nowhere. Nor the gray fantail, flirting its long tail like a red-carpet starlet with a sexy dress, nor even the rusty-brown, peregrine-sized New Zealand falcon, preening and whining in a tree just yards away.
We're at Boundary Stream because Stephenson has told me it's a good place to find a very special species that I really, really want to see. Stephenson suddenly turns his head and points at a sound: a slow series of weird, echoic notes from down the hill. "Kokako," he says. Bird lust clutches my heart and squeezes--hard.
In the hours and days I've spent on previous trips looking in various forests for this blue-gray, pigeon-sized bird called the kokako, I've always kept in mind the descriptions of its song. Organ-like, the books said. Rich, mournful, bell-like. Whenever I thought I might be hearing such, it always turned out to be tuis or New Zealand bellbirds. I wondered: Would I know a kokako if I ever heard one?
Oh, yes. As Stephenson and I start down the path toward the calls, I know I've never heard anything like this before. Rich, for sure--and organ-like, too, if the organist were maybe just a little tipsy on communion wine.
Soon a pair of kokakos appear in the canopy and slowly move our way, feeding on small fruits. They're much bigger than I had imagined, gray with fleshy blue wattles near the bill, using their long, strong legs to run along branches and hop from limb to limb. When they fly it's only in short gliding bursts. They are, in fact, the feathered equivalent of squirrels, in a land that never had any.
"I reckon that's the most haunting New Zealand bird call," Stephenson says. As is the case with so many birds in this country, these seem oblivious to us, coming to within just a few yards.
Like saddlebacks, kokakos are not strong fliers, and can't move between non-contiguous tracts of forest. Weasels, possums, and rats make easy meals of their eggs and young. The South Island subspecies is thought to have been extirpated, and the North Island's kokako numbers have declined dismayingly. If the bird is to survive, it will need large preserves--much bigger than Karori, for instance--where predators are controlled by means other than fences or surrounding ocean.
"The Department of Conservation has two people on the staff here who just maintain traps and poison stations," Stephenson says after the birds have glided away down the densely forested hillside. "With things like kokakos, really, the only areas they're going to exist on the mainland are in these intensively managed places."
Boundary Stream was among the first of the Department of Conservation's officially designated "mainland islands," and at about 1,980 acres it's big enough to support kokakos, North Island brown kiwis, and--someday, maybe--saddlebacks and stitchbirds. But because it's too difficult and expensive to fence, it will need constant predator control, which is both labor-intensive and expensive. All around New Zealand, additional mainland islands are being created to help conserve birds, not just by the DOC but by regional governments, communities, and private groups. The costs will be high--but what might these areas mean for the country's future?
"Listen to the birdsong," Stephenson says, as gray fantails, robins, bellbirds, tuis, gray gerygones, and other native species sound off all around us in a melange of ringing trills, chiming calls, fluting notes, and whistles. "Some days it can be deafening. And yet you can walk into a forest not far from here where there's no predator control and there's just nothing."
When an expert like Brent Stephenson describes a trip as "one of the most awesome birding experiences you will ever have," I figure I should pay attention. At his urging (actually, his unequivocal insistence), I'm up before dawn on a chilly morning in the South Island seaside town of Kaikoura to meet Gary Melville, captain of a pelagic trip run by Albatross Encounter.
We've been away from the Kaikoura dock maybe five minutes when Melville nods to starboard. "What's this coming in?" he says. "Is it a royal? Yes--white leading edge on the wing, black line on the bill. The king of the Southern Ocean."
It is, in fact, a royal albatross, sailing past us just yards away on wings spanning nearly 11 feet. Within minutes several of his congener cousins, wandering albatrosses, find our boat, along with a dozen other seabird species. Two New Zealand rarities, the Hutton's shearwater and the Westland petrel, highlight the list. The former nests at 3,000 feet in the snow-covered Seaward Kaikoura Mountains, glowing in the morning light to the west; the latter breeds only in a limited area on the South Island's west coast.
A fortuitous freak of geology brings this bounty of pelagic birds close to Kaikoura, where a deep ocean canyon lies less than a mile offshore. "It's a great place here because of the nutrients from the upwellings, the plankton and the rest of the food chain," Melville says. "The other reason this is probably the best pelagic trip in the world is the short-and-sweetness of it. Ten minutes and we're to the edge of the trench, and near it is the whole Southern Ocean."
I end my trip on Stewart Island, a magical, 674-square-mile place just a 15-minute flight from the South Island's southern tip. The island's only community, Oban (population 400), blends into the trees around Halfmoon Bay, almost movie-set old-fashioned and quaint, with its single pub, its one grocery store, and its harbor full of small boats. Kakas, red-crowned parakeets, New Zealand pigeons, tuis, and bellbirds fly from flowery garden to garden. As I admire a New Zealand pigeon--a huge bird in gleaming white and shining green, half again as big as a city pigeon--the heartbreaking thought strikes again: Once, before the weasels and the rats, all New Zealand was like this.
Furhana Ahmad has lived and led nature tours here for more than a decade. "People who have some academic background in environmental science, in ornithology, in botany are blown away by this place," she says. "And birders love Stewart Island. There's a whole list of birds here that you can see a lot more easily than elsewhere in New Zealand."
In 2002, 85 percent of the island was declared a national park, including near-pristine (and blessedly predator-free) Ulva Island, where we're heading this morning. A couple of little penguins pop their heads up beside our boat during the 10-minute ride from Golden Bay to 658-acre Ulva. (The species, sometimes called the blue penguin, nests in what is essentially downtown Oban.) Once ashore, we find a flock of the small brownish songbirds called pipipis; like many Maori-derived names, this one is onomatopoeic of the bird's peeping call.
Ulva Island's impressive forest--conifers such as totara, rimu, and miro; the red-flowered hardwood called rata; and a lush understory of ferns, tree ferns, and orchids--is alive with tomtits, robins, riflemen, saddlebacks (of the South Island subspecies), and fearless and inquisitive flightless rails called wekas. My walk on Ulva, and a return trip the next day, convince me that it has to be one of the best places in New Zealand to see native land birds.
One bird alone has made Stewart Island famous, and to find it I take an evening boat ride with Phillip Smith, a former commercial fisherman who since 1990 has led birding tours to Ocean Beach, a remote spot on the island's eastern part. By the time we disembark and walk a short distance to the beach it's full dark, but on this nearly cloudless night a quarter-moon casts long shadows across the sand. In Smith's flashlight beam we can see that in places the beach is nearly covered with big three-toed footprints.
High tide has left a line of seaweed several yards from the sea, and when Smith disturbs a bit of it tiny creatures dart in all directions." We call these sandhoppers," he says. "They're actually amphipods, a type of crustacean. And this is what the kiwis come down to the beach to eat."
Within minutes, Smith spots one--a southern brown kiwi, shuffling and snuffling unconcernedly just 15 yards away. It looks like a fat man in ill-fitting trousers, poking its long bill into the sand to catch amphipods with the regularity of a sewing-machine needle. I've seen kiwis, but never like this. Normally, it takes considerable luck and patience to glimpse any kiwi; populations of all five species have plummeted because of the nocturnal birds' vulnerability to predators. Here they perform almost on schedule. Later I ask Smith what his success rate is. "In a good season we might do 130 trips," he says. "We miss on about one night a year."
It's well after midnight by the time we head back toward Halfmoon Bay, and a mug of hot chocolate feels good in the chilly wind. The moon leaves a trail of silver in our wake, and I think that, if for nothing else, Stewart Island deserves the word magical for this experience: the ease of seeing this primitive, fuzzy-feathered, bizarre, and wonderful bird, like nothing else on earth, surviving here with a population as healthy as any place in the country.
And of course I think of all the others, too: the big brash tuis and the stealthy tomtits and the rest, greeting the island dawn with a chorus that's been silenced over too much of the mainland. With the growth in sanctuaries such as Karori and Boundary Stream, virtual islands where native species can live unmolested by the predators they never learned to avoid, there's at least a chance that their songs will always ring out through New Zealand's forests, an echo from a time before man.
Mel White is the author of, among other books, A Birder's Guide to Arkansas, Exploring the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, and Complete National Parks of the United States.