TWO WORK WEEKS IN WELLINGTON, NZ. 2. KAPITI ISLAND
Thanks to the great help of Mr Martin Snowball, who very kindly booked a permit
for me in advance, I could visit the famous Kapiti Island on Friday 4 March.
Kapiti island, c 10 km long and 500m high, lies on the south west coast of the
North Island, ca one hour by train from Wellington, and off the small town of
Paraparaumu. The boat trip out to the island takes c 15 minutes, with boats
launched from the sandy beach of Paraparaumu with a tractor and hanger.
I was early, so had time to poke around a little around the beach, at a little
park where I think I heard a Dunnock sing, and where Welcome Swallows nested
under a small bridge. NZ Stilts foraged along the small creek that ran out to
sea here, and the sandy beach itself had Variable Oystercatchers, and large
flocks of loafing gulls and terns. After a while suddenly a feeding frenzy
developed just offshore, and all the gulls and terns flew up to participate.
Almost from nowhere three Arctic Skuas appeared and started harassing the
fishing Black-fronted Terns, while I also noted a few Fluttering Shearwaters
and a single immature Australian Gannet in the melee.
Kapiti Island has a long and multifaceted history, first as a Maori stronghold,
later, from c 1840 as an agricultural venture. The farmers burnt almost the
entire island in 1849, but from the end of that century the island was managed
as a nature reserve, and in the last decades concerted and successfull efforts
have been made to eradicate all predators, esp. the various rats, as well as
the Australian Possums, earlier deliberately imported to the island, in the
hope of a fur industry. So now the vegetation finally is able to develop
naturally, and it is hoped that a climax vegetation will be reached within a
few decades, while several species of otherwise greatly threatened NZ endemic
birds have been liberated on the island. Kapiti island is a.o. known as the
home of more than half of all Little Spotted Kiwis that still exist, and there
are also Kokakos and Takahes on the island, as well as a very dense population
of Moreporks, the small NZ Ninox owls. None of these I would see during my 5
hours visit to the island, as one of the ca 50 visitors that are allowed to
visit every day, and I also missed out on the NZ Saddleback, which other
visitors had seen this day..
On arrival one first gets an introduction by a ranger on the history and
ecology of the island, and on the do's and don'ts ('Do NOT feed the birds,
although you will find that easier said than done', was one of the do nots).
After that one is free to wander any of the three trails, of which two climb up
to the top of the island and an extensive view, while the third and longest
runs along the length of the island to the north coast where there is a lagoon
with i.a. the endangered Brown Teals and a colony of Spoonbills. As this was
considered a 5 hours round trip, and I already had found that Newzealanders
walk much faster than I do nowadays, I kept to the tracks that meandered up the
hillside. All Kapiti Island is now covered in forest, and most trees have
mellifluous Maori names, which I have been unable to memorize.
There are lots of birds, and the ranger told us that in spring 'the morning
chorus was like three symphony orchestras'. Even now, in late summer, there
were all sorts of enticing sounds, that I was only able slowly and incompletely
to allot to the right bird species. Most conspicuous maybe are the sonorous
and melodious bell-like sounds of the aptly named NZ Bellbirds (a Honeyeater),
and the various extravaganzas, from pure bells via various strange squeaks to
deep frog -like croaks, from that irrepressible extrovert, the Tui (another
Honeyeater); both species occurred here in large numbers. There is also a third
Honeyeater on the island, which I today see for the first time in my life, and
that is the Hihi or Stitchbird, the smallest and by far the most endangered of
the three. It is a most elegant and colourful little bird (The Maori Hihi
signifies 'ray of sunshine'). The English name Stitchbird is said to be
onomatopeic, although to my ears the birds rather call 'stick'' than 'stitch.
The Stitchbirds are one of those species that have disappeared completely from
the mainland of New Zealand and it only occurs nowadays on a few rat-free
Near the shores a scattered colony of Dominican Gulls has nested; most
young apparently have already fledged, but a few still run loudly begging after
their parents. Especially on the lower slopes one often came across the totally
unafraid Wekas Gallirallus, flightless large rails, that indeed look somewhat
chicken-like. They forage by picking up leaves, sticks and stones and looking
what is beneath them, but are also not averse from filching food from
picnickers. A much more inveterate food thief is the Kaka, the large bush
parrot with its formidable bill, that here also still occurs in numbers. These
crafty birds know very well what the creaking of sandwich paper signifies, come
flying from a distance, and then do not rest, clambering all over you, until
they have succeeded in stealing part of your meal----I first now understood
the background of the warning at the start, 'not to feed the birds, if you
could avoid it'. These Kakas are beautiful birds, with a wonderful mixture of
subdued colours. There are also smaller green parakeets here, the Kakariki, in
this case the Red-crowned Parakeet, but they don't bother about the visitors at
all, and find their food up in the trees,where their dry rattling calls betray
The most common birds of the tree tops are the roving bands of Whiteheads
Mohoua, another bird that has decreased alarmingly on the mainland, but which
here is maybe the most common bird of the island. They are often accompanied by
one or two Grey Fantails, whose incessant activity and colourful antics have
earned it the sobriquet Cranky Fanny; also these birds do not bother too much
about people nearby, and may well come and catch insects almost straight in
front of your nose. But the acme of indifference towards human presence
belongs to the NZ Robin Petroica, the archetypical 'small friendly bird'. These
confiding birds come flying as soon as you enter their territory, hoping that
your large clumsy feet may uncover some bugs for them to feed on; if you scrape
a little in the humus at your feet, the bird is almost sure to alight there and
probe. Wonderful birds!
At the opposite end of the scale is the Long-tailed Cuckoo, whch I was so lucky
to disturb and see fly away: a middle-large stripy bird with a very long tail.
This bird is definitely in the category: 'more often heard than seen'. A more
easily seen large bird is the large and fat NZ Pigeon, 'a pigeon on steroids',
here also a very common bird, but also one of the few NZ bi=irds that seem able
to slowly adapt to all predators and exotic vegetation.
It is difficult to give a good impression of a day on Kapiti, as I am
completely unable to describe or even give a good impression of the forest
there. The slopes are quite steep, and there are gullies with tree ferns, and
otherwise a large diversity of forest trees, and a rich humus layer with no
doubt a large variety of invertebrates for the Wekas and Robins to feast on.
And all day I have not seen a single european bird (so dominant elsewhere in
NZ), and only a few european plants, mostly near shore. I am very grateful to
Martin Snowball for giving me the chance to visit this magical place!
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