Wild kiwi experience in New Zealand’s Stewart Island
It may be the country’s national emblem, but few New Zealanders have even seen the usually nocturnal flightless bird. A night time tour in the far south allows visitors to see the kiwis, whose numbers are rapidly declining
Kiwis have large ears for a bird, so our group of eight is walking as silently as possible in single file along the sandy track from our boat landing at Stewart Island’s Glory Cove. It’s night, which is when the bird will be out and about. I didn’t imagine we’d go looking for it on a beach – the kiwi is usually a forest dweller.
Our guide Maia Mistral orders us to switch off flashlights, so now it’s only her red beam sweeping back and forth over heaps of rotting kelp on the sand. Searching first for sea lions (we are careful not to disturb their sleep) and then for our feathered quarry, the South Island brown kiwi (Apteryx australis).
We see one. A male, head down, running from heap to heap, searching beneath the kelp for sandhoppers with its narrow 10cm beak. Kiwis have thick thatches of fur-like feathers, so in appearance they have more in common with mammals than other bird species.
There are about 70,000 kiwis in New Zealand, of which 30,000 are South Island brown kiwis, and 16,000 of those live here, on the country’s third-largest and southernmost island. It might sound like there are plenty about, but all five kiwi species are at varying stages of population risk with the overall kiwi population in a steady decline (currently two to three per cent per year), due to habitat loss and predation, according to New Zealand’s Department of Conservation.
Found only in New Zealand’s Fiordland and on Stewart Island, the South Island brown kiwi is the largest, and intriguingly, the only one that continues to live with its family group, sticking close to its parents even as an adult. While other kiwi species are strictly nocturnal, the Stewart Island birds are active during the day too, so you have more chance of seeing one in the wild here than anywhere else.
The second bird we spot is a female – she is bigger than the male, explains Mistral, and with more of a curve to her beak. From 20 metres away, with the help of our red flashlight beams we can see that her best weapon of defence is a pair of surprisingly powerful legs and some impressive talons.
When stoats, rats, cats and dogs found their way to New Zealand, there were forests full of plump juicy birds that couldn’t fly. The extraordinary ground-dwelling kakapo (“owl parrot”) and takahe are today reduced to a couple of hundred each.
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The answer to why so many flightless birds evolved in New Zealand was best summed up by David Attenborough in the 1998 BBC series The Life of Birds. Before stoats, cats and possums were introduced to New Zealand, there were no ground predators on the islands.
Flying requires an enormous amount of energy, and when birds don’t need to fly, birds don’t fly. As Attenborough explains, the kiwi has the largest egg to body-weight ratio of any bird. The ostrichlike moa stood three metres tall, the kiwi around 40 centimetres, yet their eggs are the same size – the human equivalent would be giving birth to a four-year-old.
More than a national emblem, the kiwi is a talisman, both to Maori and non-Maori New Zealanders. To the Maori, it’s the hidden bird of Tane, god of the forest. For the non-Maori, the flightless bird represented the country’s unique wildlife, and the kiwi image has become widely symbolic of the nation, since it first appeared on military badges in the 1880s. Despite this, most New Zealanders have never seen a wild kiwi, and it still feels slightly improbable that I’m looking at one now – trotting about unconcerned in torchlight on a remote Stewart Island beach.
We walk along the track for half an hour, and spend another hour on the beach quietly observing the birds before heading back to the boat. Puttering back by catamaran to the wharf at Oban, one of the Real Journeys crew tells me about an encounter she had last year.
“Our guide heard some activity near the track and had us all stop and go quiet,” she says. “I thought a fern stem was tapping against my shin, and because we were keeping so still I didn’t look down. When we started to move again, the little kiwi that had been investigating my trouser leg scurried into the forest. No one saw it but me.”
Fly from Hong Kong via Auckland to Queenstown on New Zealand’s South Island. Transfer to Stewart Island (November to April only) takes about 4½ hours.
The writer was a guest of Real Journeys (realjourneys.co.nz). The Wild Kiwi Experience costs HK$1,072 for a 3½ hours tour.