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.