Saturday, January 28, 2012

The Call of the Kiwi

            Last week, I drove up to Okorito, which is a West Coast town mostly known for being an even smaller town than Haast.   Okorito, though, has the advantage of being less remote, as it is only 25 kilometers away from the bustling tourist metropolis of Franz Josef.   (Cell phones still don’t work there.   It seems to be my destiny to spend large amounts of time in places where modern methods of communication don’t exist.)   I checked into my hostel, the Okorito Beach House, and as soon as I mentioned that I was living in Haast for the summer, the owner immediately offered to comp my bed for the night.   I suppose there’s a lot of love to be shared between tiny West Coast towns.   (The Beach House is a great place, by the way, and even comes complete with kitchen, beach views, and a very friendly dog.)   Okorito itself is lovely and tiny, sitting on the water between the Tasman Sea and the foothills of the Southern Alps.   I think it was love at first sight; I am already hoping for a return visit, (assuming that the aged Nissan passes its warrant of fitness inspection next month).   After I got settled in at the Beach House, I took off up the Okorito Trig trail, a 4-kilometer walk up one of the foothills to the site of an old survey mark, which also gives a great view over the Okarito area.   I didn’t actually mean to do the whole walk, as it was pretty late in the evening, and I needed to meet up with my kiwi tour.   However, after about twenty minutes of walking, I reached a sign that indicated I was already over halfway to the top, so I decided to go for it.   The weather was hazy, but the view from the top was still great.   It was even better considering that I didn’t even have to hike very far uphill to see the view - it helps when the whole landscape you’re looking at is at sea level.   

Looking north from the Okatiro Trig viewpoint

            I got back to the hostel around 7:30, and had just enough time to eat dinner and cover myself in bug repellent before meeting up with the kiwi tour at 8:15pm.   Okorito is one of two places in New Zealand, that I know of, that offers tours which attempt to see kiwi birds in the wild.   One might think that because kiwi are so well-known and adorable, that kiwi-spotting tours might be more common.   Not so.   It is really, really hard to see kiwi in the wild; kiwi tours are not typical wildlife-watching sorts of experiences.   Or perhaps it might be better to say, kiwi tours are penultimate wildlife-watching experiences.   Everything that you have to do on a normal wildlife-watching tour – being quiet and patient, listening to the guide, not approaching an animal too closely, and understanding that the wildlife are doing things on their own schedule, which is not necessarily compatible with yours – you have to do all of these things an even greater extent with kiwi.

            To start with, kiwi are nocturnal; to see one in the wild, you have to be up and about when they are – hence a tour that starts at 8pm, and can continue until well after midnight.   Also, kiwi are pretty cryptic, which is a fancy birder term for being very good at blending in with the scenery.   Kiwi are also territorial - you won't find a flock of kiwi all together in one place - and sadly, most species of kiwi are endangered, mostly due to the kiwi’s complete inability to compete with all of the mammals (cats, stoats, possums, dogs) that humans have introduced to their part of the world.    All of these facts, taken together, means that finding a kiwi in the wild is not a straightforward exercise.   

            The tour got together at 8:15, and right from the start, Ian attempted to explain the near impossibility of what we were going to try to do.   The plan was, we would drive out to a walking trail outside of town, where a network of footpaths crisscrossed the territories of three pairs of kiwi.  Five of those kiwi, helpfully, are tagged with radio transmitters, meaning that it is actually possible to locate them with an aerial.   Unfortunately, even knowing if you know exactly where the bird is, you won't see the kiwi if he's hanging out in the middle of the woods, away from the footpaths.   So, the idea is to use the aerial to figure out where the kiwi are, and what direction they’re moving.   Based on this information, Ian then tries to work out when and where a kiwi might cross one of the footpaths.   We, of course, would try to meet up with the kiwi at that point, remaining motionless and silent as the kiwi scuttles across the path and back into the forest on the other side.   Kiwi sightings (when they happen) aren’t measured in minutes; they’re measured in seconds.   At some points, the whole affair seemed like a very complicated setup to a ‘why did the chicken cross the road’ joke.   

            For me, one of the most educational parts of the tour was in seeing how Ian managed his clients, setting the expectations that we were potentially in for a long night, in a bug-filled forest, and that the entire group being patient, silent, and cooperative was absolutely essential to us clients being able to see a kiwi.   Group management and setting appropriate client expectations are both pretty indispensible skills for a guide – but in the case of a kiwi tour, they’re not necessary to run a tour well – they’re necessary to run a tour at all.    In a perfect world, I would love to bring Ian out to the Iceberg Lodge  and let our guide staff pick his brain about  how he manages tour groups, because he's very, very good at it.

            We all loaded into a van at around eight forty-five, and drove to our chosen stalking ground.   Ian used the time before it got dark to get the group into position, and to run through what we  were going to do in order to (a) locate a kiwi, and (b) make sure that everyone in the group got to see the bird if/when the kiwi crossed the path.   Basically, once Ian located approximately where the kiwi was, we were going to be strung out along the path in a long line of human listening stations, fifty or sixty feet apart.   Our job was to stand there and listen for the kiwi walking around.   If one of us got a hit, we were to alert Ian and the rest of the clients  via handheld radios, and we would converge on the part of the trail where the kiwi was making noise.   Ian even ran through how he wanted us to stand on the path if/when the kiwi emerged.   Thus prepared, we took our assigned stations along the path as night began to fall.   

            I was monitoring the right-hand side of a small clearing to one side of the trail.   I didn’t have a watch with me, so I have no idea how long I sat there listening – but it seemed like quite a while.   The woods were almost totally dark – we had starlight, but the moon hadn’t risen yet - so mostly it was just me and the forest, and the mosquitoes buzzing around my head.   It was about five minutes into my listening stint that I realized that I no idea what a kiwi walking around in the forest actually sounded like.   This hadn’t been explicitly brought up, so I figured it must be one of those you-know-it-when-you-hear-it things.  All I know is, the forest seemed very quiet, up until the moment I was sitting alone in the dark listening for a bird to walk by.  Then, it seemed like there were noises all over the place – bugs, owls, rustling footsteps of other clients, and maybe, maybe, the footsteps of a foraging kiwi.   Twice in the course of perhaps half an hour, I heard a leaf crunch from somewhere off to the right, and making me clutch my radio a little tighter, but I never heard a repeat to the sound.   In retrospect, I think it’s possible that perhaps there was a kiwi walking around in the woods, but we wouldn't hear more of her until later.

            After maybe half an hour, Ian gave up on that section of trail and moved the whole group to another area.   Shortly after we were deployed in our new locations -we heard the kiwi.   Not footsteps, unfortunately, and not very close.   Instead, the kiwi were calling.   The male started out – a high yodel, and after a moment, the female answered him with a lower-pitched, growly noise.   Hearing them was awesome, but as Ian explained in a huddled conference, it did not particularly bode well for us seeing the birds.   The male kiwi, having gotten a response to his call, was probably going to try and meet up with the female – taking him further away from the footpath we were hoping he’d cross.   After more fiddling with the aerial, we set out for a new location, and ended up back at the wide clearing where I had heard the puzzling leaf crunch noises.   We waited in silence.   After several minutes, it became clear that something was moving around in the bushes just off the trail.   There would be a slight rustle of movement, a footstep or two, and then nothing for several minutes.   There was a kiwi, and she was close, but apparently not very happy about our proximity.   She’d take a few steps, and then freeze in place for a few minutes, apparently hoping we’d leave, and she could continue hunting for her dinner without an audience of foreign tourists hanging on her every footstep.   This was Husky, the one kiwi in Ian’s kiwi-spotting area without a radio transmitter.   According to Ian, this bird is so shy and retiring that not only have the DOC never managed to get a radio transmitter on her, but Ian himself, who spends most of his nights out here tracking the birds, only sees this particular kiwi a handful of times a year.   

            Husky was not interested in being visible in this instance, either.   After several minutes of listening to the bird capering through the woods just off the trail, Ian decided we ought to cut our losses, and try to locate another kiwi that might be more amenable to coming out of the woods.   Unfortunately, the other kiwi seemed even less inclined to hang out by the trail than Husky; we only heard the faintest of blips from the aerial.   In the end, we got back to Okorito around 12:30AM, tired, bug-bitten, and kiwi-less.   

            Despite the fact that we never actually saw a kiwi, the kiwi tour made for a pretty interesting night.   I think it helped that I am possibly less vested in seeing a wild kiwi than the other clients, as I’ve already gotten up close and personal with kiwi at the DC zoo where I used to volunteer.   But it was interesting just to be out in the forest at night.   It was also neat to hear the kiwi calling –which happened two or three times.   And possibly, being stood up by Husky the kiwi makes up for all of the times I had to wake up the zoo’s kiwi in their burrows to do our daily checks.   (I was supposed to make sure all of the birds were alive, still in their enclosures, and looked reasonably happy and healthy.   For the kiwi, since we were waking them up in the middle of the day to check on them, ‘happy and healthy’ nearly always meant ‘sleepy and pissed off’.)

Kayaking down a tidal stream near the Okorito Lagoon

            After snatching about five hours of sleep, I got up the next morning, and rented a kayak from Okarito Nature Tours to go out and explore the Okorito Lagoon.   The lagoon, according to my guidebook, is one of the largest unmodified wetlands in New Zealand, and is a local hot spot for shorebirds and waterfowl.   I had hoped to see white herons, which have a breeding colony on the far side of the lagoon.   In order to visit the heron colony itself, you have to go out with a jet boat tour from Whataroa .   It’s probably a great tour – but I decided I would rather pay half as much, skip seeing the nests, and be able to paddle my own boat.   The lagoon is also a great place for shorebirds because so much of it is shallow – I could be paddling fifty yards from shore, and see an oystercatcher standing in three inches of water forty feet away.   In addition to the oystercatchers and herons, I also saw stilts – which are just as tall and gangly as their name implies, black swans, and bar-tailed godwits – a totally amazing bird that I did not think  I would be able to see on this trip.  Godwits spend May through September in my part of the world.   They breed in western Alaska, and migrate across the Pacific to take advantage of a second summer in the southern hemisphere.   Migrating across the entire Pacific Ocean sounds intense, but a surprising number of shorebird species do this (or make even longer migrations from Alaska or Canada down to Brazil, Patagonia, or the Antarctic).  The amazing thing about the godwits isn’t that they cross the Pacific, it’s how they cross the Pacific.   During the trip from New Zealand to Alaska, the birds take a westerly route, stopping to rest at wetlands in Australia, the Korean peninsula, and Kamchatka.   After this leisurely circumnavigation, the birds are in good enough shape after their migration to start breeding immediately.  (Summer is short in the Arctic, so the birds don’t have much time to waste.)   For a long time, it was thought that the godwits flew back to New Zealand using the same route.   In fact, they don’t – in the autumn, the godwits leave Alaska and head southwest, embarking on a nine-day, nonstop flight direct to New Zealand, flying over most of the Pacific Ocean in the process.    At 11,000 kilometers, the godwit’s epic journey home is the longest known nonstop migratory flight of any animal.

            In addition to the birds, I also got to explore some tidal streams flowing into the lagoon, where I saw a group of native scaup (a small duck with a blueish bill).   Paddling in the lagoon has gotten me excited about doing some more river kayaking in New Zealand while I’m here.   Kayaking in Alaska is mostly about big, huge, far-off vistas – mountains, glaciers, and sea cliffs.   (Disclaimer: sometimes kayaking in Alaska is also about sideways rain, sea fog, and mild hypothermia.)   There’s a lot of great scenery, but you usually don’t get close-up looks at the areas you’re passing unless you actually get out of your boat.   It’s almost like the Alaskan sea coast is too big to be able to see it in small sections.   It was nice to be able to paddle down a river where I could get right up to the bank, and see moss-covered tree branches dropping down right into the water from above my head.   

Up a creek in Okorito...

            After returning my kayak, I loaded up the Nissan and headed back to Haast.   Before I got going, a very nice guy from Okorito Nature Tours helped me disengage the choke on the Nissan using a pair of pliers.   (Yes, my car has a choke knob.   Or rather, had a choke knob.    Previously ’ve only seen these things on snowblowers, and other machines with very tiny engines.)   I loaded up on groceries in Franz Josef, (their grocery store has items that are difficult to find in Haast, things like bread, fresh fruit, and yoghurt) and drove back down the highway in intermittent rain.   Okorito is beautiful, and I am already looking forward to a return trip – to paddle more tidal waterways, and perhaps actually see a kiwi on a kiwi tour.


  1. Wonderful writing and what a great adventure! I am enjoying living vicariously through you. Your description of the kiwi tour reminds me of the many sea turtle walks I have led in which I have to entertain ~25 people who have to walk down the beach while getting attacked by bugs and in some areas more than others have a very slim chance of actually seeing a turtle. It's so cool you got to hear some kiwi though!

  2. Wow, MB. This is an amazing adventure! I am so glad I get to experience it through your eyes. I hope you continue to have a wonderful time of knowledge and LOVELY aminals (sic). <3

  3. Glad you enjoyed our part of the world. I live in Norh queensland, however manage to get home 2 or 3 time's a year to experience nature at it's best. while you are in Haast i can recomend a couple of place's to go. The Cascade Valley is a wonderland,hiking fishing, hunting for those inclined. My thing is to jetboat to the mouth of the river,one of the most peaceful and relaxing place's I have ever been. Fishing can be out of this world. Another trip is to canoe down a river south of Fox Glacier called the Saltwater. I cant spell it's Maori name. Hardest part is getting the canoe and yourself back out. cheer's Dennis Minehan.