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.
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.