It was a picture-perfect day in Wellington: bright sun, warm, breezy. I caught the free Zealandia shuttle from the city center and headed up into the hills to the world’s first ecosanctuary, located in Wellington’s Karori neighborhood (www.visitzealandia.com).
An urban location is highly unusual for a nature preserve of this kind, one that is attempting to return the land and its inhabitants to its pre-human state; i.e. with no mammalian predators, native plants restored, and invasive vegetation controlled. Before entering, visitors are asked to check their bags for stray rodents – no joke. “You’d be surprised,” replied the guide when I asked, incredulous, if anyone had ever actually flushed a mouse from their backpack. “Lots of people come in here after having been out camping, with food in their bags, and where there’s food, there are often mice. One pregnant mouse could set us way back.”
One of the first stops I made was to see, as the volunteer docent explained, “the geriatric exhibit.” This is a pair of elderly takahe named Terminator and Puffin, who belong to a species of flightless waterfowl native to the South Island, but are spending their golden years in the safety of Zealandia. Once thought extinct, takahe were rediscovered in the 1940’s, but their population remains very low – around 200.
At a feeding station, kaka and red-crowned parakeets (Kakariki) flew in noisily, hung around to eat millet and fruit, and then took off back into the bush. On the lake edge, young pied shags (Karuhiruhi) stretched out of their nest, soon to fledge.
I spent the next several hours meandering along trails that wound through dense bush, into and out of valleys that rang with birdsong. I have learned here that if a sign says a track will take an hour, I need to double that. Whoever calculated those walking times did not take into account spending 10 minutes watching a kaka shred a dead sapling, nor the need to test out a guide’s suggestion for luring a New Zealand robin by crouching and scattering leaf litter with your fingertips, exposing minute invertebrates. It worked like a charm, so every time I saw a robin I had to try it. There were many robins.
When I returned home in the late afternoon and was telling my host about my trip, he pointed out that it wasn’t just Zealandia whose native biodiversity had been boosted by the construction of a unique preserve. Surrounding neighborhoods have begun seeing far greater numbers and species of birds, presumably as a result of having a secure area for breeding, but also from the strong predator controls now promoted outside the sanctuary. It’s a hopeful sign.