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When is a kiwi not a kiwi?
An article published in the Christchurch Citizen, 8 April 2002
Visit the world’s first inner-city pest-free environment
In a hidden, almost secret valley, kiwis are breeding only 3km from Parliament - in the heart of our capital city; a slice of New Zealand is reverting to its former glory with the help of a predator-free mainland island.
When early settlers wrote about this area they reported rich and diverse forests filled with deafening bird-song. Here, in one of Wellington’s best kept secrets, a group of people, with a 500 year vision, are restoring the area to that same condition.
I have taken a 10 minute bus ride, and now, after checking my bag for mice or other predators, step through a gate in the 2.3m predator-proof fence and into the 252ha valley.
Katie and Allison, two of the volunteer guides, are taking a small group on a nocturnal tour - “a listening tour” they tell us. We can expect to hear various night birds as we walk through this work in progress.
The night-sky is clear and we’ve been given a torch. “Only use it to see the path when you need to,” says Allison. “Put your fingers over the light to make sure we don’t disturb anything.”
Our eyes grow accustomed to the dimming half-light and off we go, Katie giving us information in response to our questions.
The two reservoirs originally supplied Wellington’s residents with water but were decommissioned in the mid-90s. There are about 10 paid staff and 400 volunteers and the only visitor entry to the Sanctuary is via the visitor centre at the end of Waiapu Road (on the left as you come through the Karori tunnel).
As we walk, dusk turns into night. A large group of black shag are roosting on a dead pine tree and when we stop at the upper dam we hear our first kiwi. The call carries across the valley and shiver-thrills ripple through my body. How amazing that this wonderful bird is safe and breeding so close to human activity. Standing on the dam, built in 1908, now a tree-top canopy walk, more birds call and we hear about five different kiwi and a couple of weka. Kiwis were released, over two years, in the valley (from Kapiti Island) and the numbers have increased naturally since then.
On our walk back down the other side of the dam we see glow-worms. I feel quite disorientated by them. They are so bright in the dark night they look like the lights of a distant city. Passing back through the weka fence (weka will eat kiwi eggs) we stop to listen as another kiwi calls. Most human kiwis never hear this sound and I feel lucky to be hearing so many here on this city “island”.
“That’s Jackson,” said our guide. “He was re-named because he is a good producer.” After a few more minutes we hear scuffling and snuffling. It is Frodo, Jackson’s son, born in December - the one I thought was a hedgehog! (See below).
I return the next day, spending about three hours viewing the valley in daylight and learning a little more. About three tonnes of dead possums were buried on what is now Tui Terrace, and as well as a dog which has been trained to find predators, bait stations are set up throughout the valley. Apart from a small infestation of mice early on the fence has been successful.
Another series of tracks, hides and other viewing areas are almost complete and this - the Fletcher Challenge Kiwi Trail - will provide many more opportunities to view our native birds. The area also has some interesting local history, including disused, unsuccessful, gold-mining tunnels and a class one historic building that houses the dam’s workings.
Lord Plunket, New Zealand Governor-General from 1908 to 1911, kept his rowboat here and spent may sunny afternoons fishing in the dam.
Fishing is no longer permitted but I can fully recommend your spending time in this deep, Wellington fault valley. New Zealand is fortunate to have people with vision who are gifting this to us and our descendants.
When’s a kiwi not a kiwi?
I’m horrified. There is a hedgehog in the Sanctuary. I freeze. My head races through various ways to save our ground-nesting birds from its scavenging ways.
I’ll grab it, just dive on it! No that will frighten it and it could tumble over the bank and then how would I find it? OK - I will sneak up on it, merely pick it up and be dubbed a hero. I will have saved the Sanctuary. Restored it to its predator-free status. My mind’s eye can see the headlines. “Travel Writer Saves Endangered Species”.
I tell the guides, “It’s a hedgehog,” they laugh - as silently as they can - then flash the torch in the direction of the scuttling, snuffing noises. It’s a kiwi!
Plans for glory sink and humiliation rises. So much for my knowledge of the flora and fauna of New Zealand. I want to slink into the undergrowth along with the young bird.
I’m ashamed, a Kiwi who can’t recognise her national bird at two paces - well he was in long grass and only the top of his back was showing.
Sure looked like a hedgehog to me!
© The Christchurch Citizen
8 April 2002