Ghost of the Moa on Sanctuary Mountain (Maungatautari)

We have been tramping up a gently sloping meadow and stopped to gaze through the gloaming at the fuzzy forest border fifty yards ahead. Looking back to the west, afternoon thunder-heads are dispersing into ribbon clouds braided with gold from a sun that has already rolled over the world’s edge. The sky has broken open for the first stars to twinkle and a half-moon to peep out. Lines of hills below look like furling gray waves into the distance, with a dark form lying in one valley like a sleeping giant. Middle Earth is going to sleep as the evening wears on, apart from a few lighted homesteads in the direction of Hobbiton.

The scene wrenches memory back to boyhood days. I would take off after supper with a camera around my neck for flash photography of badgers and foxes emerging from their dens in the twilight. Then, I was headed for a twenty acre “forest” where the orange glow from London never went out at night; now, we stride towards a forested mountain which is disappearing into a primal darkness. Then, it was the North Star I traced from pointers on the Plough (Big Dipper); here, it is the Southern Cross that guides navigators. Then, I used to peer into a village pond for frogs and newts before reaching my destination; now, as I look at the murky giant I remember how it was Lake Karapiro a few hours ago, sparkling in sunshine and from the splash of practicing Olympic rowers.

brown kiwi road signMy son and I have come for the wildlife of the New Zealand night, and specifically for kiwis. We came for prejudice sake, favoring native feather and beak over foreign fur and fang. The closer to the forest the further behind we leave familiar creatures introduced from other lands that have created havoc in the countryside—deer, rabbits, hedgehogs, stoats, ferrets, possums, feral dogs and cats. But when we enter the “Maunga” we will tread the forest lightly, respectfully, even reverentially, as the sole aliens.

Maungatautari became “Sanctuary Mountain” some sixteen years ago when it was encircled by a 47 km pest-proof fence, the longest of its kind in the world. Foreign predators and browsers were eliminated inside the preserve along with as many invasive plants as could be found so that native species could be reintroduced and flourish. For millions of years before humans discovered New Zealand this was an Eden for wildlife and an evolutionary laboratory where strange forms evolved, yet never a serpent. It was an unnecessary luxury for some birds to keep the powers of flight, and gigantism evolved in the absence of large predators except for the Haast Eagle.  But the helpless waddlers and megafauna were under a pressure they could not resist when human migrants started arriving some 800 years ago bringing with them (accidentally or deliberately) a menagerie that drove the moas and other amazing creatures to extinction. Many other endemic species barely hang on today, mostly where predators cannot reach them and their natural habitat survives in the relative safety of offshore islands.

The Maunga was never completely logged, and a good many native trees survive in inaccessible places or by luck. Thankfully there have been beneficent landlords since the days it was owned by a Maori queen, yet the native fauna never fared as well as the flora. At last it is safe to reintroduce some “originals”, such as kiwi, kaka, kokako, takahe, hi-hi, kakariki and giant crickets. I have seen some of them in daylight, but the shier ones only rouse after dark.

Tom is leading me towards a pinpoint of red light in the blackness at the northern entrance to the preserve. He feels for a button he knows will open the security gate so we can step inside a large wire cage and exit into the forest through another gate.

Once inside, we turn on our LED headlamps to look around. The fence is made of wire mesh about 8 feet tall, and there is a thin wire on top suspended by insulators for shocking possums and other agile invaders. To foil the most determined burrower, the fence is buried deep in the ground. I tilt my head to shine light on an information board that explains why and how the Maunga became the first large onshore preserve. It is a story of vision and volunteers to remember when I get home to Virginia.

I am now following the ellipse of light cast by Tom’s lamp on the narrow track. We wind between stands of tree ferns whose fronds lean on long stout stems like enormous fans, and walk under the boughs of unidentified trees (I wonder if any is the famed kauri). None of the trees in this part of the preserve is enormous, perhaps because it was clear-cut years ago and is still regenerating. Elsewhere I have seen some giants, including the rimu which provides nutrient-rich fruit in mast years for kakapo chicks to gorge on. This giant, flightless parrot survives in tiny numbers offshore, but one day this may become its first onshore sanctuary.

The bush grows densely on the rich volcanic soil in an ideal climate, though not as luxuriantly as a tropical forest. We keep to the track and won’t risk getting lost by plunging inside. There are numerous lianas dangling from the taller trees like hawsers dragging from ships in a harbor, and lots of other epiphytes clinging to boles and boughs. As I lean back to throw my light on the underside of graceful fronds of silver ferns I understand why this pteridophyte is a national emblem. It took the darkness for me to appreciate its full beauty, a silver umbrella that could shelter the throne of a South Pacific queen, though New Zealanders rejected it from the design of a new national flag in a referendum this year.

The forest is silent apart from the rattling stream that runs close to the track and an occasional cry as we startle a roosting bird. We stop and turn off our lamps. Although only fifteen feet apart, Tom is suddenly invisible, but I know from experience in woods at night that if we wait for half-an-hour we will be fully dark-adjusted and able to see each other’s ghostly outline and the way ahead, however faintly. But suddenly Tom breaks the silence, exclaiming, “Hey, look!” His night sight is better than mine, but I soon see the amazing spectacle of hundreds of beads of blue-green lights in the bank alongside the track. The word awesome is too hackneyed to express the emotion of being surprised by a joyful sight that was never intended for our pleasure but given abundantly all the same. I feel as if I have parachuted into a movie set where elves have strung fairy lights to guide walkers to a mysterious destination. Perhaps if we hurry we will catch sight of Frodo.

The lights remind me of glowworms I saw while floating through the Waitomo caves. They are not worms, not even beetles, but the larvae of a kind of gnat (Arachnocampa luminosa) that use their lights to attract unwary prey to sticky threads dangling from cave roofs, and like “wreckers” of yore along the English coast. When I turn my lamp on and bring it very close to one of them it fades instantly, and a brown grub comes into view and crawls away.

We have tramped nearly a mile into the preserve without seeing or hearing a kiwi. Tom is confident that they are here but has stopped beside a tall tree to examine a box over a foot long and screwed to its bole at shoulder height. “It’s a weta refuge,” he explains as he twists the outer cover to reveal a narrow passage under the acrylic inner lining. “No one at home,” he sighs. The Giant Weta (Deinacrida spp.) is a cricket 4 inches in length and heavier than a sparrow. I am sorry to miss the largest insect in the world, but he has already switched my attention by crouching to peer into the hollow base of the tree. “That’s huge!” He points from a safe distance at a black tunnelweb spider (Porrhothele antipodiana), and I watch it scuttle out of sight.

If the unexpected is sometimes the most memorable part of a journey, grasping the most anticipated is often the sweetest. We came for brown kiwis which breed here after a century of absence, but there is still no sign of them. I imagine one shuffling towards us like a shaggy specter, too short-sighted to see us and too distracted to bother looking up as it probes for insects and worms with nostrils at the end of its ridiculous beak. There is still a chance of hearing them when females emerge from their burrows or a hollow log after darkness to call their chick to go hunting, but we won’t hear males whistling this long after the courtship season is over.

Brownies are the only kiwis on the mountain, and the commonest of the five species, but nowhere are they abundant. I guess that to encounter one is to feel flung back to an epoch when their cousins roamed here as the avian equivalents of herbivorous dinosaurs, and it makes me sad to think we missed the moas by the blink of a few centuries. Kiwis are the smallest of the ratites, and small is beautiful because it helped them to evade the fate of their giant relatives, which now only live in the imagination or stiffly in museums.

Curnow poem

The return of kiwis to the bush is both a triumph and a dilemma for conservation because unless fresh blood is introduced here from other communities their health and reproductive success will suffer from inbreeding. A ranger comes during the breeding season with a muzzled dog whose nose is trained to find their nests. Some eggs laid in the preserve are taken away to incubate in a crèche where young birds are raised for transfer to other havens.Ranger & kiwi dog

The chances of hearing a kiwi tonight are fading and we will soon turn back. We strain our ears now even harder for night sounds and hear a distant, drawn-out “ee-wee” which reminds me of a recording of a weka (a kind of rail). Could we be so lucky to stumble on a rare bird not listed here? Maybe it is only a frog or toad because “Hope is the thing with feathers.” Something is now flying back and forth above us although we only hear it calling “quor-quor,” and because it “comes with gossamer softness” I assume it is the owl morpork.

Peace will reign here again after our last footstep and click of the gate latch. To walk in the woods in darkness is to be a stranger in the domain of secretive creatures that eke out their existence largely unknown and unwatched. Nocturnal visitors never come for hunting or logging, but for watching. And to sit quietly is a far deeper experience than tramping for, as light yields to night, you can feel a progressive absorption with the trees and undergrowth, and a primitive imagination tricks you into thinking you have become invisible, all-seeing, all-hearing.

Perhaps even now a kiwi is close-by in the bush, watching and making fools of us. Next time I will try my luck by watching the path with my back against a tree, just as I did long ago in the badger wood. But wait … I hear something yet, although certainly not a musical voice! A more apt description would be guttural because it sounds like someone is having a painful episode of retching. It is coming again and again, almost monotonously, and further off we can hear another—perhaps calling to the first. Tom is pulling out his mobile phone to check for a 3g signal—it is strong even here. He has found a website with recordings of kiwis and holds the phone between us as we wait for the mp3 to download. Yes, yes, that’s it!

I can now add the kiwi to my list of species encountered in the wild, what birders call a life bird. It doesn’t matter that we won’t see it strutting through the forest as its strange ancestors have done for eons, because its spirit will live in my memory thanks to the Maunga.

Drafted in New Zealand

Next Post: On the Dragon Run with a Paddle




There’s an Isle, a green Isle, set in the sea…

If you guessed Jean Blewett wrote this poem for Ireland on St. Patrick’s Day you are right. But the first line is also a good fit to New Zealand’s green islands.

Before Maoris and Europeans arrived in the past thousand years, the two islands were covered with lush vegetation up to the tree line on the highest mountains.  Like the deep, fertile soils of the American Mid-West, New Zealand was too valuable to be left to nature. After the trees were felled, the rich volcanic sod created prime grazing land, and I have never seen a higher density of contented cattle and sheep. Virgin forest survives in the north only in tiny patches and on mountainous outcrops that discouraged farming and logging.  But one of those gems remains 30 minutes from Hamilton.

Called Maungatautari, it was owned by a Maori Queen whose opposition to land sale was respected after her death in 1927. But by then the patch was no longer primeval forest land; it had become invaded through stealth or deliberate introduction by non-native plants and varmints—goats, deer, possums, stoats, rats, mice, feral cats and dogs. New Zealand never had a native mammal because it separated from the southern supercontinent (Gondwana) 85 million years ago, before they evolved. With few predators, the country was a haven for birds, and many of them lost the power of flight. The giant moas disappeared rapidly into Maori cooking pots, and four-footed beasts hunted down the rest or robbed their nests. A few refugees hung on in remote offshore islands.

Maungatautara forest sanctuary
Maungatautara pest-proof fence

Then some unsung hero of conservation had the bold idea of creating an ‘island’ sanctuary for native species on the mainland. It inspired a community-driven project to encircle Maungatautari with a fence deep enough to discourage burrowers, strong enough to keep out marauders, and tall enough to deter climbers, including possums reaching a ‘live’ wire at the top. The fence encloses 3,400 hectares (over 8,000 acres) and stretches for 47 km (30 miles). Completed in 2004, it was paid for by public subscription and grants and is maintained by a bevy of volunteers working the equivalent of 37 full-time staff.

Maungatautari foundation plaque

They probably had many discouraging moments and encountered plenty of doubters, as there always will be with pioneering endeavors, but their efforts are already paying off. Foreign predators and pests have been completely eliminated from within the enclosure, except for mice. The numbers of native vertebrate species have increased four-fold through a reintroduction program. There are kokopu (native fish), kaka (parrot), takahe (endangered species of rail), hihi (stichbird), karariki (parakeet), tieke (saddleback).  The tuatara (the world’s oldest lizard) and the weta (the largest insect) are there. The Maungatautari forest sanctuary is an experiment in recreating a natural forest, a laboratory for education, and an inspiring example of a community achievement.

Pippa’s introduction to kaka parrots
mamaku tree fern

When you leave farmland behind to enter the sanctuary through double gates the forest gathers around you. The vegetation is luxuriant and the high canopy shields your skin from damaging ultra-violet rays pouring down through the ozone hole at that latitude. Boles of giant rimu trees are crowded with lianas ascending to the crown as thick as a man’s arm. Giant tree ferns look like relics from the Carboniferous Period (they are), creating spectacular patterns against the blueness at breaks in the canopy. Only the sound of trickling streams or the raucous call of a parrot breaks the silence of this natural cathedral.

brown kiwi
brown kiwi

But come at night and you will hear more—shy creatures going about their business. The brown kiwis are whistling a happy tune again after a century of absence. A warden who trained his dog to find nests discovered they had already started breeding again in 2007. The first chick was named Huatahi, meaning ‘first of the new fruits.’

The next time I visit the sanctuary I hope to hear the flightless kakapo which has been on the verge of extinction. I am told its nocturnal call will make my hair stand on end as I wait for the iconic bird in the darkness of that amazing forest. How appropriate that the kakapo is a symbol for conservation in New Zealand and Sirocco, an abandoned chick raised by hand, has over 30,000 likes on his Facebook page. He is a green parrot for a green movement on a green isle.

Next Post: Warmingsburg

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