We didn’t have a good start.

“You can’t bring that!”
Me: “Sorry?”
“You can’t bring that! You can’t bring your camera!”
“Sorry… say again? I can’t bring my camera…? Why?”
“Because I say so. It is not allowed.”
“Not allowed…? Why? What? I don’t have a flash…just the camera.”
“Because I say so. It is not allowed.”

At the end of our birding trip to New Zealand we had seen most of the endemic bird species and we, Rafael Armada and I, where on an epic road trip on South Island driving from the bottom (Stewart Island) to the top (Marlborough Sounds) and back to the center again (Christchurch) for a shot on the remaining missing endemic species – all localized and very rare and the species all spread out over the South Island. To see them this road trip all over South Island was our only option.

Halfway on the West Coast we had booked an evening excursion at the seaside village Okarito for seeing the ultra rare and nocturnal Okarito Kiwi, described as a new species as recently in 2003. A species, like so many on New Zealand, heavily under threat by the invasive species that pester the local wildlife and hoarding many species towards the cliffs of extinction.

As a kid I was already allergic for reasoning like “because I say so” and it hasn’t got any better. At least I can ask the questions now to get a proper adult answer. Turns out that after a lot of pressure with questions the local Maori tribe had put the no-picture-taking-allowed-policy-during-kiwi-viewing-tours in place as not to disturb the Okarito Kiwis.

The Okarito Kiwi is very rare, only 400-450 adults surviving.  Aha! At last a more valid reason for the first statement of not bringing a camera. Because from all our other sightings of kiwis during the night, that proved almost impossible to photograph, we were not too set up.
The Okarito Kiwi is very rare, only 400-450 adults surviving.
We were here to see it – all was well. Taking this evening excursion is one of your best changes for seeing kiwi as most of the birds are wired with a transmitter. This enables the researchers to keep track of them and, more importantly, to find the burrows where they hatch their eggs.

Most of the eggs are digged out, hatched under human control and the chicks released at a few offshore predator free islands for the next six years – and to be released back into the very forest where their parents lived when they are old enough to withstand the introduced stoats. This increased the survival rate of the chicks from 10% to over 60% and is one of the reasons the Okarito Kiwi still survives today.

The transmitters are also used for the night tour and so we were walking single file on the main road, behind one of the researchers with a transponder, listening for short bleeps coming from several directions out of the forest. Occasionally stepping back from the road because of a car blasting by. Wondering what would hurt a kiwi more – a camera or a car with 100 km per hour.

All good because after some 1,5 hour in the dark we heard kiwi activity next to the road. First the shuffling of leaves (kiwis are not subtle foragers, you can hear them walking through the forest from quite some distance), after a while a bird calling very closely and finally, after positioning us well on the road without making a sound, a bird emerged from the cover at a few meters distance. A sight I will never forget because of the Leica Noctivid!

I was literally blown away by not only the bird, but mostly because of the insanely super quality of view I was having in the almost pitchblack dark! Without my binoculars I hardly could see the other side of the road – but through my Noctivids it almost felt if I was seeing the bird in daylight – it was that good! A super sighting of a super rare bird and without the Noctivids it would not have been the same. What a sight!

The kiwi emerged twice from cover and the second time it ran across the road just in front of us, galloping like a horse, leaving us in awe. We just saw one of world’s rarest birds at close range, a bird still alive and kicking thanks to the hard work of dedicated conservationist with the support of the local community.

We drove back, slowly, super content and already thinking of how late we had to leave in the morning and to where – there were more rare birds to chase!

 

PS.
More information about Okarito Kiwi on the IUCN Red List website here.
The closest we could get to an image of the Okarito Kiwi. Okarito, South Island, New Zealand (Marc Guyt / AGAMI)

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