Protecting New Zealand’s endangered species
It is a rare day indeed when you can take the boat trip to Kapiti Island – a nature reserve northwest of Wellington, New Zealand – on a mirror-like Tasman Sea.
“They don’t come much better than this,” said the Department of Conservation (DOC) guy while rummaging through my camera bags before boarding the boat. (Presumably he was referring to the clear blue sky and positively balmy morning temperatures, rather than the quality of my packing.)
“Apologies,” he added apologetically, “but I’m just checking for rodents, ants, seeds and soil before you head off.” The island is predator-free and DOC intends to keep it that way.)
Clearly visible just 5km off the west coast of the lower North Island – Kapiti is an important sanctuary for some of New Zealand’s most endangered native species. About 10 km long and 2 km wide, access is by permit only and numbers are restricted.
Although all precautions are taken to protect the birds and other animals, they are not totally safe. In 2010 a stoat – an introduced mustelid responsible for decimating New Zealand’s birdlife – was seen on the island. Three were eventually caught and killed by DOC. It is likely the ‘killers’ swam the 5km from the mainland.
Waged savage war
I spent most of my life in New Zealand and observed Kapiti from afar on many trips to Wellington. But it was only recently, while on a visit from my current home in North Queensland, that I finally set foot on the island where Maori tribes once waged savage war on each other, and Europeans slaughtered and boiled down passing whales.
It is a happy irony that much of the modern day birdlife is comfortable with human presence. Almost everywhere you walk there are tui (a very large and strikingly marked honeyeater) and bellbirds (the only living member of the genus Anthornis) – both gorging on nectar from abundant native flax.
The explorer Captain James Cook apparently said the bellbird (korimako) song “seemed to be like small bells most exquisitely tuned”.
Its morning chorus companion the tui is even more impressive in the vocal department. Of similar intelligence to parrots, it was trained by Maori to replicate complex speech, and includes clicks, cackles and timber-like creaks and groans, and wheezing sounds in its repertoire. Indeed, some of its range is beyond the human register.
As every Aussie birder is quick to point out to the Kiwi cousins, New Zealand is no longer blessed with a great number of endemic bird species. In fact, there are just 89 left, according to Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society (Forest and Bird) figures.
Forty-seven per cent of the country’s terrestrial species have gone extinct since human occupation 700 years ago. Including ‘imports’, Forest and Bird says that leaves 231 species, with 69 globally threatened.
But the scale of that devastation is easy to forget when you sit under a tree on Kapiti Island and listen to the sounds of the bird-filled forest and watch a huge pod of dolphins cavorting in the clear, cool water just a few metres from the beach.
Thirty-five bird species are known to inhabit the island and I managed to photograph, hear or see 22 of them without too much effort.
I suggest you include a trip to Kapiti Island on your birding bucket list.
Story and pictures ©Tony Neilson