Zealandia: Night and Day

On our second-to-last night in Wellington, we took a bus up into the hills to Zealandia, a protected wildlife sanctuary. The park was technically closed and the sun was setting, but that was perfect as we were going on a night tour. We met the guides and other participants in the visitor center, where they outfitted us with red-tinged flashlight, so that the animals couldn’t see it, and a headphone pack, so that the guide could talk to us without shouting. They also offered extra jackets, but happily the wind and rain had mostly stopped. After watching their orientation film about the predicament of New Zealand’s wildlife, we headed out through the predator-proof fence and into the reserve.

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A quaint pumphouse in the sanctuary.

Unlike similar sanctuaries like Tawharanui or Tiritiri Matangi, Zealandia does not have natural geographic features to help protect the birdlife. Instead, it is a fully fenced, one-mile square valley surrounded by residential neighborhoods, and has a grand 500-year vision to restore the area to pre-human bush. Since eradicating the pests, many species have been introduced to the valley, including birds such as the little spotted kiwi and other native critters such as weta, tuatara, and eels. All these species are nocturnal, though, so in order to see them (and add the kiwi to our birding life list), we signed up for the night tour.

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A small section of the fence, going up a very steep slope.

The tour started off down the wide, paved path that followed the lakeside up the valley. The lake is actually a result of an earthen dam right above the visitor’s center and offers a home for ducks and swans. Pied shags also nest in the trees above it; we could see their bright white fronts even in the fading light. More unusual was the dirt bank on the other side of the path, which had many small burrows that were the home of tuataras. A few tuatara sat in front of their holes, immobile, not even visibly blinking or breathing. However, we did spot on crawling back into its burrow: they’re not statues after all!

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The beads are their identifiers.

After the tuatara, the tour descended to the lakeside along a boardwalk, then through a gate and onto some grass at the far end of the lake. Here we were greeted by two takahe, whom the tour guide fed by placing their dinner into white boxes. The takahe dug in while she explained that these two were too old for the nationwide breeding program and were now living out their retirement in Zealandia. Two takahe is about 1% of the total population, and these seemed to have the cushiest lifestyle of them all.

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A hungry bird.

We left the takahe to their dinner and walked into the proper forest. By now it was quite dark and we needed our red flashlights to navigate the narrower, muddy path. Two of the guides began scouting the nearby paths for kiwi while the rest of us stopped by a tree to see some weta emerging for the night. These cricket-like bugs are giant but hide in holes in trees during the day, so we’d never seen one up close before.

Further down the path we stopped at a low bridge over a stream. The guide hopped down and put some food into the water, attracting the one-meter long eel who lives there. As the guide fed the eel, she passionately made the case that these eels need protecting: they only breed once, at the end of their life, and so any eel caught for food has not reproduced, leading to the species’ dwindling numbers. However, the eels currently don’t have the same legal protections as other native species and so are vulnerable. She then asked if anyone wanted to feed the eel: I said yes, but before I could get down to the stream we got a call from the other guides. They had located a kiwi!

As quickly as possible in the dark, we all hustled down the path towards where the kiwi had been seen. It was all a little chaotic in the dark, with red flashlights pointing everywhere, but then we heard the characteristic rustling of a kiwi in the bush. Lined up along the path, we all got a good look at the kiwi. The little spotted kiwi is the smallest of all the kiwi species, and this one was noticeably harder to spot in the undergrowth. Everyone was happy, but then the guide motioned us down again as she’d seen another one. Not everyone made it, but M and I clearly saw the male kiwi point his beak upwards and make his distinctive, loud call. The guide was ecstatic: she’d been doing tours for 16 years but hadn’t seen that before. We’d been very lucky!

After all the kiwi excitement, we continued walking around the reserve. We saw a few native frogs in a box and heard some morepork calls, but generally just enjoyed being out in the forest on a quiet night. Rain began to fall as we headed back to the visitor center, where we warmed up with a cup of kawakawa tea. The kawakawa is a native tree with wide leaves, and the guide simply put some of them into hot water and let them stew. It was also used by the Maori for medicinal purposes, but we just enjoyed the taste before heading back into town.

The next day, M and I decided to go see Zealandia in the light. We caught the shuttle from the i-Site across from our hostel and had a nice breakfast back at the visitor center. The sanctuary was naturally more lively during the day and we spotted many more bird species as we meandered the paths that we had previously seen in the dark.

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How many shags can you see?

The highlight of our daytime trip was the kaka. These large parrots lived in the reserve in great numbers and we spied many of them flying overhead, poking around in the treetops, and even scavenging on the forest floor. Most of them, though, were concentrated on the feeders placed around the park. There were two types: a box with parrot pellets that were only accessible by pressing a lever to lift the lid, and upside-down bottles with sugar water (theoretically for the tui). The kaka swarmed over these feeders and many hijinks (mostly closing the lid on other kaka) ensued. We could’ve watched them all day.

However, we still had half of Te Papa to see, so we bid farewell to the birds and once again returned to downtown Wellington.

Zealandia, especially the night tour, was a highlight of the trip. Even though we’ve been to many other bird sanctuaries, this one is especially beautiful and illustrates how much more vibrant New Zealand could be if not for pests like rats and possums (and people!) In fact, the Department of Conservation has recently set the goal of making the country pest-free by 2050. It’s certainly ambitious but worthwhile if it can make every part of New Zealand as full of life as Zealandia.

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