Kiwis, Kakapos, and the Kapiti Coast

If you work in Wellington, but you don’t want to live in the big smoke (ooh, 400 000 people), then you might choose to commute in from the nearby Kapiti Coast, which doubles as a favoured holiday destination for Wellington residents who don’t want the hassle of a ferry or a plane to the South Island.

Just a half-hour drive north of Wellington, the Kapiti Coast is a perforated line of sandy beaches and small towns that are almost impossible to pronounce: Paekakariki, Waikanae, Paraparaumu. Such is its status as a haven for commuters that it actually has a rail link through to Wellington – trains are pretty uncommon in New Zealand – and I find myself on the Paekakariki platform at 7am after a weekend away. This remains the only time I’ve been on a form of transport in New Zealand that was too busy for me to sit down.

The Kapiti Coast provides access to Kapiti Island, a fiercely protected nature reserve that only admits 50 pre-booked visitors a day. Here there is a wealth of endangered bird life that can thrive in the absence of predators – although the discovery of deadly stoats in 2010 led to a $600,000 eradication campaign by the Department of Conservation.

It’s a stark reminder of how much needs to be done to protect New Zealand’s native species, particularly the iconic and rare kiwi. In the millions of years since New Zealand’s land mass broke away from Australasia, its isolation has led to the evolution of numerous unique species, including the enormous flightless moa and the equally impressive Haast’s eagle.

Unlike Australia, New Zealand evolved almost entirely predator-free (no snakes!), particularly after Haast’s eagle was driven to extinction by the loss of its moa-based food source (the moa were rendered extinct by Maori hunting). As a result, New Zealand’s birds have little in the way of survival skills, and are increasingly under threat from recent additions to the islands, including possums, dogs and humans.

The kiwi is the most famous bird, nocturnal and shy, and only to be found in the wild in a few places across New Zealand. But let’s also spare a thought for the kakapo, a hilariously incompetent chubby parrot that is critically endangered, with only 126 known survivors. In the absence of predators, the kakapo evolved to swap its power of flight for extra fat reserves, so now all it can do is waddle around. In order to mate, it staggers off to what it considers a good vantage point and sits around making impressive booming noises to drive away its competitors and attract a woman. The problem is, there are so few kakapo left that it has no competitors and all the females are sitting around in breeding sites hundreds of miles away wondering where the males are.

Essentially every photo I’ve posted on this blog has been one I’ve taken myself, but I’m going to have to make an exception here, because it’s difficult-enough trying to spot these birds, let alone take photos of them. I’ve never (to my knowledge) seen a kakapo, and the only time I’ve seen a kiwi was in a dark room at the National Aquarium in Napier. So instead, thanks to Google Images, here are a couple of birds that the DOC is desperately trying to save…

An adorable baby kiwi.

An adorable baby kiwi.

And a fat parrot thing.

And a fat parrot thing.

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