A Birding Journey Through Time: ‘What New Zealand Would Have Looked Like Before Mammals’ | New Zealand public holidays

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Jhe forest is making a racket. I stop to listen near a 400-year-old rimu tree with my Orokonui Ecosanctuary guide, Taylor Davies-Colley. The melodious flute, bells and whistles of the korimako/bellbird are the loudest, followed by the rapid leaps of the tūī between clicks, rattles and beeps, which sound more like the work of an experimental composer than a forest bird .

“Do you hear that?” said Davies-Colley. “Can I hear what?” I answer. I hear many things, but nothing that I can name. After a fortnight of feeling reasonably at home in Aotearoa, New Zealand, this land suddenly seems very foreign.

My guide’s ear is tuned to avian frequencies, thanks to four years of roaming the ecosanctuary’s 307 hectares (758 acres), and he’s heard the “zeet zeet” of Aotearoa’s smallest bird , the titipounamu/fusilier, a tailless ancient troglodyte the size of a golf ball. “See that wobbling leaf?” he says. “That’s where he was. He touched that leaf!

A hiss above my head makes me lower my head. “What was that?” I say. “Tūī,” he said. “These are loud clappers, but you should hear the wood pigeon. We have a herd of about 20 and they just mess things up. They move in groups and when they’re surprised you’re surprised too, it’s hilarious.

A titipounamu/rifleman – the smallest bird in Aotearoa. Photograph: Murdo MacLeod/The Guardian

Orokonui is a 25-minute drive from Ōtepoti Dunedin. You won’t see any coaches stopping here, but you will see couples, cute families and plenty of lone birdwatchers – identified less by their quick-range binoculars than by their sense of purpose and immersion. Nine walking trails wind through native forest, over stream bridges and across grassy meadows. The entrance fee (adults NZ$20; children NZ$10) supports the conservation work of the shrine, with the cultural guidance of mana whenua, Kati Huirapa Runaka ki Puketeraki, with their Kaitiaki (guardianship) of this land.

“One of the things we’re trying to achieve is that the birds everywherelike what pre-mammalian New Zealand would have been like,” says Davies-Colley.

Does everyone remember when they learned that Aotearoa had no native land mammals? I do. I arrived in my mid-twenties and in Aotearoa itself, before finding out. Only bats and marine mammals predate humans. The Maori bought the Polynesian rat, the Europeans introduced stoats, opossums, rabbits, mice and more, not to mention massive land clearing.

Invasive flora and fauna continue to ravage Aotearoa’s unique ecosystems into which birds had “radiated in order to fill ecological niches that mammals came to occupy elsewhere”, writes New Zealand Geographic.

But even flightless birds are safe in Orokonui, thanks to a nine-kilometre predator fence around the steeply sloping forest. Any tear in the mesh is attacked and repaired with a special tool. The fence’s curved hood prevents critters from climbing over it and extends underground to block burrowers. Orokonui is paranoid, and that’s understandable. A 2015 “incursion” saw a pack of search dogs brought in to locate killer stoats, which they did. But not before the stoats have wiped out the tīeke/saddleback population. There hasn’t been anything like “that dark year” since, says Davies-Colley.

Aerial view of Orokonui Ecosanctuary on New Zealand's South Island, with mist and a rainbow overhead.
Even flightless birds are safe at Orokonui thanks to a nine-kilometre anti-predator fence. Photography: Dunedin NZ

Orokonui is the largest mainland sanctuary on the South Island; on the North Island, it is Wellington’s Zealandia. The islands off the country have functioned as wildlife sanctuaries since the 1890s, when conservationists realized that the large, flightless and curiously vegetarian parrot, the kākāpō (famous for banging the head of this BBC photographer), was on the verge of extinction. In 1894, hundreds of kākāpō and kiwi were rowed to Resolution Island where eventually stoats swam in to prey on the birds. Much was learned however, and today the Department of Conservation (DOC) manages over 50 islands as nature reserves.

The aim is to go bigger and bigger, with the 180,000 hectare Rakiura/Stewart Island announced in July as next on the list. The third-largest island of Aotearoa “would be the largest island to have been predator-free in the world,” says Davies-Colley. Yet despite all the conservation successes of current island reserves, they fail to win hearts and minds because permits are required to visit them.

Hence the goal of mainland sanctuaries such as Orokunui – to prey on the most destructive pest of all: humans.

Adult male southern brown kiwi (Apteryx australis) feeding on kelp on Rakiura/Stewart Island
“Adult kiwis have incredibly powerful legs to fight off predators.” Photograph: Nature Image Library/Alamy

In the Orokonui Kiwi Nursery, critically endangered Haast tokoeka kiwi chicks are reared until they weigh one kilo before being released. In the wild, the kiwi only has a 5% survival rate, but one kilogram is a fighting weight. “This greatly increases their chances of survival because adult kiwis have incredibly strong legs to fight off predators.”

Rare reptiles are found here too, including the dinosaur-era tuatara. By a sudden twist of fate, the kiwis ate the first tuatara eggs laid in the sanctuary; a gloomy day in Orokonui, given that tuatara only spawn every five years. “We had one endangered species eating another,” says Davies-Colley. “It’s a relationship that probably existed before humans and hasn’t since.” Until it does. The next tuatara nest was more protected, and some eggs hatched in 2019. “They were probably the first tuatara to hatch successfully on the mainland South Island for four to 600 years,” says Davies-Colley.

A Tuatara lizard from the dinosaur era standing on a green moss covered ground.
A Tuatara lizard from the age of dinosaurs. Photography: Sanka Vidanagama/NurPhoto/REX/Shutterstock

A couple of takahē agitate a pond. Their plumage glows cobalt blue, teal, and olive green in the morning sun. This “species of lazarus” was declared extinct in 1898 until a doctor named Geoffrey Orbell claimed to have heard their call while out for a walk one day. In 1948, Orbell set out to find them in the remote Murchison Mountain of Fiordland. “People probably thought he was crazy,” Davies-Colley says. “But he found them and we’ve been managing them carefully ever since.”

The kākāpō, on the other hand, only lives offshore. The Kākāpō are so adorable and goofy that they have twice won the New Zealand Bird of the Year competition, leading to their elimination from the playing field this year, to encourage the competition’s theme of ” sub-birds” – the lesser known birds of Aotearoa.

You will however see the relative of the kākāpō, the kākā. Oh yes. I come across a flock of these bold, sociable birds in a fury of activity: chattering, snapping and clawing their way along the branches of a long-suffering tree.

A cheeky kākā watches the guests at the Orokonui Ecosanctuary.
A cheeky kākā watches the guests at the Orokonui Ecosanctuary. Photography: Hayden Parsons/Dunedin NZ

Older and younger kākā are different, says my guide. Both are picky about where they will nest, but young kākā will use wooden or PVC false nests. “Old kaka only use tree cavities, they’re too stubborn,” says Davies-Colley. And not just any cavity. They prefer century-old trees “with big, gnarled holes,” he says. “It’s the same thing Australian parrots face; we cut the big trees with the holes they needed.

Which brings us to Orokonui’s Halo project. While kiwi and takahē do not fly away, others do, up to 10 kilometers in each direction. Every time it’s a risk. “Kākā eat things they shouldn’t eat, go places they shouldn’t go,” he says. “We had them eat opossum poison, drown in water tanks that people left open, and eat cat poo and get toxoplasmosis.”

Orokonui wants the ecosanctuary to radiate outwards. “We want the community to think about sharing the space with these birds and reducing the risk to their properties,” he says. “I mean, it’s hard. It’s like telling people, “You have to protect your entire property from toddlers.” But we don’t just want this rare wildlife here. We can’t succeed with that right here.

  • The Orokonui Eco-sanctuary, visitor center and cafe sits above Blueskin Bay, a 25-minute drive from Dunedin, via the charming seaside town of Port Chalmers. Whisper to the Birds is a carbon-free electric vehicle that will take visitors from any Dunedin Underground address to Orokonui and back. Dunedin Airport is the gateway to the Otago and Southland regions of New Zealand’s South Island.

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