New Zealand Kiwi Birds – The Trek Of A Lifetime

Heather Markel, Writer, Speaker, Photographer, Traveler, Business Strategist

I’ve never considered myself much of a bird person…

I was never much of a bird person. As a kid, my fondest memory of them is when my grandfather used to point out red-breasted robbins. My joy, however, came from being included in something he thought was special, not the bird itself. (Though now, whenever I see one, I think of him.) In New York City pigeons are a dime a dozen. I’ve been the victim of their poop on more than one occasion. There’s a funny story about me accidentally going to work on Wall Street one day, via subway, and, upon arrival at the office, learning my face and hair had splotches of pigeon poop.. but they’ve never struck me as interesting wildlife. I’ve found it strange that there are bird-watching groups and clubs. I mean, for birds? Why? Most of my life, I observed what, to me, seemed like groups of senior citizens with binoculars looking for elusive birds. I formed a judgment that birdwatching is a hobby for “older people” and this must be why I don’t find them very interesting.

Last year, in Ushuaia, Argentina, I got chatting with a waiter about my previous day, spent with penguins. He asked to see my photos and told me they were good enough to post in an ornithology group. I had to look up what the word meant. I did find the penguins a lot of fun, and even got nipped on the leg by one who refused to leave the “human path” I was trying to keep to. Weeks later, In Iguazu, I found a hummingbird park and was mesmerized by the darting birds, which seemed like fairies to me. I returned three times in a week to get as many photos of them as possible.

penguins in Ushuaia

At Chobe National Park in Africa, I saw my first lilac-breasted roller bird. For the first time in my life, I was breathless at the sight of some of the most colorful wings I’ve ever seen. Uh-oh. That’s when I realized I might be starting to like birds. Does that mean I’m old now? No, I’ve improved my keen observation skills and interests.

Lilac breasted roller bird with wings extended, and sitting on a tree in Africa.

Photographs by Heather Markel. Copyright 2020

Now in New Zealand, I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised that I am, a bit more than mildly, obsessed with fantails, tui and wood pigeon. I get to see them every day and I still grab my camera. I’m disappointed I can’t see one of the 6-foot-tall Moa birds, since they were hunted to extinction, but the kiwi bird has been a mysterious critter for me. I saw one in a bird park in Queenstown. I was disappointed that they had to trick it into thinking our daytime is their nighttime. It seemed somehow selfish, just so we could see them. And, in reality, I didn’t see much. It was almost pitch black and the tiny bit of light doesn’t allow great viewing. They’re stuck in a big glass box, and it doesn’t seem natural. I saw a definite bird body pecking at the ground, and then it stalked off. But, through the glass, I didn’t really get a feel for it.

“Crossing continents, seeing new wildlife and all the colors and personalities of birds, I’ve found myself unexpectedly enticed by them.”

Hummingbird in Iguazu, Argentina. Photo by Heather Markel, Copyright 2020, All Rights Reserved.

A bit about the kiwi – they’re native to New Zealand, and in danger of extinction due to various animals introduced into New Zealand by travelers, like the possum, ferrets and dogs and cats. They burrow under ground by day and come out at night to feed, which makes seeing them very difficult. Happily, New Zealand is making huge efforts to bring them back from endangered. This website has some good basic information if you’re interested in learning a bit more about them.

I’ve been living in nature and, on several occasions, heard the call of a kiwi bird, but running to the window, never saw it. In order to see them, you need to shine light, but it has to be infrared. If you use a regular flashlight, they’ll run away. For whatever reason, the red light doesn’t bother them. Unfortunately, I don’t have an infrared light, so have felt cheated of seeing them, numerous times. When I was recently invited to go look for kiwis at night, I eagerly said HELL YES!

After a home-made pizza dinner, four international students, my new friend James, and I went out in search of this mystical creature. We drove to Marsden Cross, got out of the car, and the first thing we did is gasp at the night sky. With no light pollution it was the perfect view of the milky way and every star and galaxy in the planet. What’s important, in kiwi viewing, is finding a place with very few humans nearby. Also, never bring your pet with you – dogs and cats are likely to attack the kiwi, and are not allowed on these precious walks.

We walked through a gate and onto a walking path. James had kindly wrapped red cellophane around my headlamp, giving me an infrared light! Because it was so bright, I became like Rudolph, guiding the group along the pathways. About five minutes in, the whole area was alive with the calls of kiwis. I wondered if they were alerting one another to our presence, or had found some good grub. It didn’t matter, they were everywhere and we might get to see them!

Fantail bird outside my cottage in New Zealand.

Photograph by Heather Markel. Copyright 2020. All Rights Reserved.

We continued walking and James suddenly spotted one. He shone his light into the woods to my right but I couldn’t see anything but trees. A minute later I saw a chicken-sized dark body stalking deeper into the forest. I had just seen my first kiwi in the wild!! My heart beat with hope that we’d see some more and maybe I’d get a photo. I felt like I was on an African safari, only it was safe to walk outside and not fear being eaten.

As we walked onwards, however, I realized that even if this walk were safe, I would definitely not do it alone. Being in the front, with red light, I felt like I was in some horror film. Eerie light illuminated small clumps of shrubs or a tree, against pitch black, and kiwi (hopefully) were breaking twigs in the distance. I was glad for the comfort of our small group. We arrived at the bottom of the trail, on a beach. Though it was nearly impossible to see much of the beach in the dark without the moon, the stars above us once again took our attention. We stayed a moment seeking shooting stars, and looking at the outline of Marsden Cross. Clouds moved in quickly and covered half the sky, so we moved on.

We hiked uphill heading back along the trail, and I heard a kiwi to my left. We all stopped. The sound of the bird walking nearby was unmistakable, but it never came out for us to see. We continued onwards, and before I knew what happened, James pointed out a kiwi about 12 inches (sorry, still can’t do meters) from my left foot! This seemed like a younger kiwi, based on its size. I was mystified as it took three steps and then disappeared. It was there, and then it wasn’t. It somehow burrowed under the hay-like landscape. If I hadn’t seen it, I wouldn’t have believed it.

One of the students saw where it burrowed under and lifted up the grass covering. It stalked away from us, but not before we got to shine some more light and I could take a few photos. They aren’t great quality, but who cares? I think what fascinates them is how prehistoric they appear. They have strange fur instead of feathers, a very long beak that seems to contradict Darwin’s theory of survival of the fittest, and a very funny walk, which is quite adorable.  The speed at which they burrow down doesn’t seem possible given their size and awkward gait. We surmised that one of the reasons they can be easy prey, however, is that if you pay attention, they burrow underneath fauna, and stay in one spot. We walked onwards and found a huge kiwi on our left, walking up a hill. All the students climbed up to chase it with James. I hung back doubting my climbing abilities at night, and when I finally went for it, the kiwi had gone.

We walked back to the car, my mind ablaze with images of one of the most amazing evenings I’ve had in New Zealand. I saw these precious birds in their own habitat, doing what they do naturally, with my own eyes. The only distraction from those thoughts came at the car park when the clouds had disappeared and the night sky was once again ablaze. As I looked up at those stars, I realized I’ve become a bird enthusiast. I won’t be surprised to find myself a senior citizen (or younger!), in a group of aviary enthusiasts holding my binoculars in search of birds…

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