Stopping on red

Red. It never fails to make me pause.

There are quite a few iconic nocturnal creatures in this country, and one of the few places where you can see many of them is on a Zealandia night tour.  Several nights ago, I got to check off some of my last must-see New Zealand items in the glow of a dim red beam.

Zealandia sunset

Our small group gathered at dusk and headed out into the valley, each armed with a small red torch. The moon was bright, with Jupiter just below, as we aimed ourselves in the direction of the Southern Cross constellation. Allison, our guide, pointed out the different birds that were still calling and flying to roost for the night: shags, kaka, tui. We heard New Zealand’s only remaining native owl (Ninox novaeseelandiae), commonly named for its call – which Europeans heard as “More..Pork” and Maori heard as “Ruru” – and spotted it sitting  and calling from a nearby dead tree. I learned that this owl actually has two calls, one of which sounds very mammalian, solving the long-standing mystery of which creature has been crying outside my window at night.

One of our primary goals on this walk was to find kiwi.  There are now close to 200 little spotted kiwi/pukupuku (Apteryx owenii) living in Zealandia; they are no longer banded, and are counted every ten years.  The kiwi roam throughout the sanctuary but are quite difficult to spot unless you can hear them rustling about in the brush, or unless they call near you.  My North American ears were baffled at first by what sounded exactly like spring peepers. “Are there frogs here?” I asked, and was told that yes, there were a few rare Maud Island frogs, but they didn’t vocalize.  What I was hearing were the high-pitched calls of male kiwi, often sounding off simultaneously.  The guide explained that the breeding cycle of the kiwi requires the female to eat an enormous amount in order to produce – after 30 days – an egg 1/4 of her size, which the male then incubates for another 70-80 days. During our current season, the chicks have become independent and the adults are free to forage and establish territory – thus the calling.

We moved deeper into the bush, pausing to shine our torches on weta scrambling around a tree trunk, on an enormous longfin eel hiding beneath a bridge, on glow worms hanging along the banks of the stream, on Maud Island frogs in their protected habitat.  Then, a dark furry shape scurried past so fast we could hardly get our torches on it, and disappeared into the brush: a young kiwi.  A few minutes later there was another, its eyes illuminated red for just a moment before it too darted away. As we continued on and then wound our way back to the beginning of the trail, we paused to look for the tuatara guarding the entrances to their burrows, and for a stick insect that had been spotted in a bush earlier in the day.

We finished off our walk with some tea made from kawakawa leaves, a traditional Maori medicinal plant that improves circulation and strengthens the heart. I walked back home, down the 337 steps that lead into Aro Valley, listening to what I now knew were the sounds of weta chewing and owls hunting.  Next spring, when the peepers call, I will be thinking of kiwi.


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