Fiordland Kiwi Diaries
21 - 22 October 2018
A trip into remote southern Fiordland with the Shy Lake kiwi team reveals the rewards and challenges of working to protect this treasured species.
The helicopter whisks me away from summer-scorched Te Anau to the refreshing home of the tokoeka. We must travel deep into southern Fiordland to reach this place, Shy Lake, nestled on a narrow strip of land between Breaksea Sound and Wet Jacket Arm. There is water all around and water squishing beneath my feet as I step from the helicopter and into moss. The first thing that hits me in the quiet following the helicopter’s departure is the freshness of the air. I take a breath of cool, delicious oxygen, the kind you only know if you’ve been way out in the wilderness, and smile. I am happy to be here.
Quickly we gather our gear and heave our packs to begin walking into the forest. I have no idea what to expect but I know that the first order of business is to visit a nearby kiwi burrow. The track steepens, my boots sink into mud, and I’m quickly reminded that I now have a mostly office-bound job and this type of climbing isn’t my everyday anymore. Whew. As they say, nothing gets you in shape for climbing hills like climbing hills.
We reach a spot where flagging tape leads us from the roughly cut track through vegetation to the site of Sinbad Colby’s nest burrow. Anne and Tim prepare their gear for putting a transmitter on the chick if we find one and I ready my camera equipment. We speak in hushed tones and move with care toward the burrow under a moss-covered old beech tree. Quickly, Tim reaches at full arm’s length into the opening beneath the tree and delicately extracts a tiny, light brown kiwi chick. Whoa.
I am instantly in love with the creature even though I’ve only seen it for a moment. What I am struck by most is the feeling that I’ve just been given access to a hidden world. Of course, I know that kiwi live in our forests and I’ve even seen them on night-time forays on the Heaphy Track. But, this discovery in broad daylight that gives an inside look into the bird’s home makes an emotional connection that I haven’t felt before.
Tim and Anne carefully settle in with the chick and begin taking measurements. I snap away with the camera furiously, not wanting to miss a thing. The last step, and most important, is to fit the chick with a transmitter. This will enable it to be tracked on future visits giving the team crucial information about its development and survival.
Soon, the chick is ready to be placed back in its cosy home. We leave the spot and climb, climb, climb to reach our own home – Celmisia Lodge. A blanket of evening cloud rolls in and obscures the beautiful view I know to be all around me. As we only intend to stay one night out here, Anne and Tim are soon busy processing footage from today’s nest cam and plotting on the map the plan for tomorrow. We’re in luck this trip with a night so warm we don’t even have to run the hut’s savvy heater.
I wake early the next morning to almost complete fog with only a glimmer of distant peaks visible on the horizon. Regardless, I follow another rough track to the nearest view point, passing through gnarled forest rich with lichen and moisture. I wait half an hour before anything is visible. Finally, the shifting clouds begin to reveal the world around me touched by warm light just out of my reach. This is an incredible landscape to say the least.
Soon, the sun’s power burns it all away and we’re out the door with our gear ready to enjoy a stunning day looking for kiwi.
Down we travel steeply through the forest to a clearing and the next nest site. A change of memory card is all that’s needed here before we’re on our way again, stopping often to listen to telemetry bleeps that tell us where kiwi are and what they’ve been up to.
After a hard slog through the bush, we’re disappointed to find the next nest, belonging to Long John Silver, empty. We don’t know what happened to this one – we missed getting a transmitter on the chick due to a surprisingly early hatch date and it’s already too late. This will have to live as a question mark in the books. The tough reality of this work begins to sink in.
In a last-ditch effort, it is decided to track Long John Silver and see whether he might be somewhere else with his chick. We wouldn’t expect father and chick to be out of the nest during the day at this stage, but it pays to make sure. After a lot of searching, we find him curled with his mate beneath an old silver beech. Unfortunately, no sign of a chick. This confirms our worst fears and we have to move on. Later the trailcam footage shows us that this chick disappeared on just its second night out of the nest, at less than a week old. The nest is being visited occasionally by a stoat.
Back on the cut track again, we pass alongside the ‘Devil’s Hoofprints’ which are two fine blue pools tucked into the bush. The day is gorgeous though we don’t often feel the sun’s warmth in the forest shade.
We track down another adult male kiwi and find him all alone in a mossy burrow. I am again struck by the privilege of getting to see inside the private lives of these treasured creatures.
The day wears on and we descend to our last nest to check, that of T-rex. Surrounded in mud like a moat, the nest looks conspicuous in its mound of greenery, rock, and soil. Tim adjusts the camera’s angle, reviews footage, and changes the memory card.
As the camera tells and a look inside the nest confirms, all are accounted for! This chick, at roughly two weeks of age, is the first to be found alive on a follow-up check in the Shy Lake project. A grim fact but also a ray of hope.
And that’s it! We’ve checked all we can for the day and climb in what has become oppressive heat back to Celmisia Lodge in the open sun. On the way we pass Myrtle and Rusty’s beautifully constructed kiwi nest with a rogue feather stuck gracefully near the entrance.
I soak up the views of this place and vow to return soon. I don’t know what the future holds for the southern Fiordland tokoeka, but I do know that great work is being done to give them a fighting chance.