Tussock Tops near Pinnacle, in the West Coast’s Victoria Range. Full moon, the air crisp and still. I’m listening attentively for kiwi, hoping to hear a shrill whistle above the faint murmur of the creek tumbling some distance below. Despite the summer season, it’s cool, and dew collects on the outside of my long johns.
After three hours I stand up, stretch cramped limbs and begin to make my way back to camp by moonlight. It’s so bright I don’t bother with a torch. The tussocks form quicksilver medusas in the pale light, and granite peaks rise in black symmetry around me. Rarely have I felt so contented. Sadly, though, this is yet another site where no kiwi has called.
New Zealanders might be surprised to learn that as late as 1993 the distribution of the great spotted kiwi (Apteryx haastii), the largest of the five kiwi species, was still not fully known.
The West Coast boasts three kiwi species: the Haast tokoeka (which lives only in the mountains between the Waiatoto and Arawhata Rivers); the Okarito brown kiwi, or rowi (confined to a restricted area near Okarito); and the great spotted kiwi, or roroa. A fourth species, the little spotted kiwi, once the most common and widespread on the West Coast, largely disappeared during the first half of the 20th century.
Although populations of great spotted kiwi in the Arthur’s Pass–Hurunui region, in the Paparoa Range and in north-west Nelson were well known by the 1990s, a question mark remained over other large areas of the West Coast. During April–May 1992, scientist Jim Jolly and others surveyed many valleys in south Westland for DOC but failed to find any convincing evidence of roroa.
The following summer, 1992–93, DOC decided to put its efforts into surveying north Westland, using funding from the BNZ-sponsored Kiwi Recovery Programme (a partnership also involving the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society, and predecessor of today’s BNZ Save the Kiwi Trust). In November 1992, I obtained a DOC kiwi-surveying contract with my then girlfriend, Jo Stilwell. Together we spent the best part of a year surveying kiwi under the supervision of DOC’s amiable John Lyall, whose generosity extended to sharing his house at Ross with us on many occasions.
We spent most time in the Victoria Range, a band of granite mountains in north Westland stretching from the Buller River south to the Grey River, although we also visited sites on the fringes of Nelson Lakes National Park and in the Mokihinui valley, south-west of what is now Kahurangi National Park. Another team, led by Dave Barker, surveyed kiwi in the area between the Ahaura and Taramakau Rivers. Later, in the winter of 1993, Jo and I also followed up some old records of little spotted kiwi around Franz Josef and Haast.
The male great spotted kiwi makes a high-pitched whistle, usually repeated 10–20 times, while, in contrast, the female produces a harsh, throaty churr. It was these noises we were listening for, while also looking out for other evidence of kiwi, such as probe holes, burrows or feathers. Ideal listening conditions for great spots occur during the first few hours of darkness on still, moonless summer nights. Whenever possible, we surveyed on fine nights in places with wide listening coverage and minimal river noise. We recorded our results on a kiwi-survey card, which John Lyall later added to DOC’s national kiwi database. When the weather was good enough, we worked, and when it rained we holed up somewhere to write reports and read books.
To many of my friends, desk-bound in office jobs, kiwi-surveying seemed like a paid tramping holiday. True, we visited some fine country, enjoyed the physical outdoor work and experienced many moments of peace and serenity. But, like any job, kiwi-surveying brought its share of frustrations and hardships. Kiwi being nocturnal creatures, all surveying had to be done at night, and tramping off-track in the dark took a bit of getting used to.
Like most trampers, I had walked in the dark on occasions, sometimes purposefully (starting a weekend trip on Friday night) and sometimes unintentionally (when winter darkness arrived before reaching the hut). But spending long periods poised and quiet on a mountaintop under a galaxy of stars is an entirely different experience.
We came to know the rich chorus of croaks and whistles kaka make at dusk, and learned how active kea can be during the night. Soon we could distinguish the varied hoots of morepork, or ruru. Once, a morepork hovered so close to my face in the darkness that I could feel the faint breath of its beating wings. By re‑maining still, and listening, we experienced much that escapes the casual tramper.
Usually we camped at our survey sites, ideally on prominent knobs so as to maximise listening coverage. After dinner, one of us would listen near the tent while the other walked a kilometre or more from camp. Without the luxury of tracks, returning after dark required sound navigation skills.
Sometimes, camping near a river was the only option. Then, before dusk, both of us would head off, climbing above the noise of running water to different listening sites on either side of the valley. On the return trip, the dark made it too risky to follow a direct compass bearing back to camp, as it was almost impossible to stay on course through trackless bush with only a torch for light. Instead, we deliberately took a compass bearing up- or downstream of camp. Then, after reaching the river, we’d know in which direction camp lay. Invariably we encountered denser bush and steeper terrain in the dark than in daylight, or so it seemed. While night-time bush-bashing therefore proved a trial at times, the experience taught us to be careful navigators, and our confidence grew as the months passed.
Once, while following Pell Stream (near Springs Junction) back to Pell Hut in a night of utter blackness, I blew my torch bulb when I jumped over a windfall. No worries—I replaced the bulb and carried on. Then the second—and last—bulb blew as I was negotiating another windfall. Fortunately, by some minor miracle of timing, I happened to spot torchlight moving through the trees on the opposite bank. It was Jo returning from her listening site, and with a quick “Cooee”, I was saved a night in the open.
Moving about at night also made for some of the most memorable outdoor experiences I’ve ever had. Like the night two friends joined us on a survey near Kelly Saddle in Arthur’s Pass National Park. We’d abandoned work after the arrival of a raking wind, the moans of which had soon obliterated our listening coverage. Over the saddle it roared, uninhibited, flailing our coats. With surprising speed, the moon emerged above a black ridge, illuminating a dust storm of debris. It was now bright enough to proceed without torchlight, but against the wind progress proved difficult. I had the odd sensation of being outside my body, looking on as the collection of billowing coat-clad figures stumbled over the pass to gain, finally, the shelter of Carroll Hut.
Besides night travel, we learned how to imitate kiwi calls on a plastic shepherd’s whistle. It’s all in how you hold your tongue, or so the saying goes. With skill, you can change the pitch towards the end of each call, just like a real male kiwi. On her first day, Jo managed a passable call. In contrast, I spent nearly a week blowing my cheeks like Dizzy Gillespie to no effect. Eventually, however, I mastered the call and had the satisfaction of hearing kiwi respond.
During the Summer of 1992–93 we worked our way through the Victoria Range, surveying by the end some 66 sites. Each site gave us fresh hope of hearing kiwi, but the hope was never realised. The silence made us more and more disconsolate. Kirwins Hill, Wheel Creek, Coffee Creek, the Robinson valley (a little south of the range, in Lake Sumner Forest Park), Duffy Creek, Pinnacle, Mt Haast—all failed to yield up the sound we longed to hear.
In three months not a single kiwi announced its presence to us. Either none had ever been there, or they had disappeared. But if the latter, when had they vanished? And why were there still kiwi in the neighbouring Paparoa Range? To find out, we began talking to some of the locals who had tramped, hunted or prospected in the hills around Reefton, Inangahua and Springs Junction.
There are few huts in the Victoria Range, so trampers and hunters have to rely on tents or rock bivvies for shelter at night. This meant, happily, that the people we interviewed were more likely to have heard kiwi than if they’d stayed within hut walls, which would have muffled noises from outside.
Tim White of Reefton had spent 55 years in the Victoria Range when we spoke to him in early 1993. Then in his seventies, he was still active, having recently chalked up a climb of Mt Haast from State Highway 7. As a young hunter, he said, he used to climb onto the tops without a pack or tent and bivvy under large overhanging rocks, relying on shooting deer for food. He liked to get two deer, so as to have one skin for a blanket and another for a groundsheet. He recalled seeing a great spotted kiwi “nesting on a whisky bottle” in the Big River catchment, south of Reefton, and caught another in a possum trap west of the Inangahua River. But he’d observed none in the main part of the range.
Others had similar tales. Jim O’Reagan of Inangahua there in 1928. Jim himself had heard kiwi behind his Coal Creek house in the 1970s, but none in the Brunner Range itself.
A few of those interviewed reported more recent observations, but we continued to hear only silence on our surveys. We began to think that perhaps kiwi had never been common in the area. However, the accounts of local identities Bill and Afton Black-adder suggested otherwise. They told us that when their father had begun to farm the Springs Junction area in 1905, kiwi had been common there. Both related tales of their father’s dog catching kiwi near Blue Speck Creek in 1905, when the Reefton to Springs Junction road had been just a bridle track.
Although our information was scant, we’d gathered enough evidence to believe that there had been at least one species of spotted kiwi in the Victoria Range until relatively recently. If it had been the great, its presence there would have been contiguous with the populations in the Paparoa Range to the west, in north-west Nelson to the north and in the Arthur’s Pass–Hurunui region to the south.
The identity—great or little spotted—remains a disputed question amongst kiwi experts (see sidebar). Whichever it was, the birds most probably all but disappeared from this part of their range in the first half of the 20th century, perhaps a few remnant groups holding out in isolation from each other for longer, even as late as the 1990s. Stoat predation on kiwi chicks is most likely to have been the cause of this decline, resulting in a dwindling population that then fragmented and eventually disappeared altogether.
A growing sadness crept over us at the thought of our national bird being lost from such a vast area of wilderness. Victoria Forest Park (in which lay the range of the same name) encompassed over 200,000 ha and was now devoid of kiwi.
Even the largest roroa population in the country, in Kahurangi National Park, isn’t contiguous. In March 1993, Jo and I flew into one of the known gaps—the Mokihinui valley, which drains an enormous catchment south-west of the park—for a month’s surveying. It was here I had my most memorable kiwi encounter.
Behind Mokihinui Forks Hut, I struggled through dense forest, eventually reaching a flat spot on the ridge above with good listening coverage. As dusk crept in, I pitched my tent, then sat outside enjoying the peace of the night. During the first hour of my vigil the usual calls of morepork and weka reached my ears, but—yet again—not a hint of a kiwi. It was a melancholy, if familiar, absence.
Then, in the far distance, I heard a muffled whistle. I strained to hear more clearly. Was my imagination, my burning desire to hear a kiwi, deceiving me? I waited in hopeful silence. After 30 minutes I heard the call again, and this time it was unmistakable.
I made a succession of sharp whistles in reply. Silence followed. My nerves were on edge, alive to every slight noise in the forest. After 10 minutes, as I was losing hope of a response, distinctive, heavy footsteps sounded nearby. With bated breath I waited as the creature—surely a kiwi—approached. When it was very close, I let a shred of light escape from my covered torch-beam.
In the dim glow, amongst the ferns, stood a male great spotted kiwi. It had, from at least 300–400 m away, pinpointed my exact location and walked directly to me. It circled my camp three times, obviously looking for the intruder it had detected in its territory, then stomped off. Kiwi are not known for tiptoeing, and it made short work of crashing through the undergrowth.
Kiwi-surveying provided experiences I remember with satisfaction and nostalgia. True, there were some pieces of bush I hope never to see again. Once, near Harihari, we writhed, swung and crawled for an hour-and-a-half through the densest supplejack imaginable, only to find later a track which would have taken us 15 minutes to cover the same ground. And the weather sometimes proved frustrating. In June 1993, we spent 20 days at Franz Josef waiting for the rain to clear. Payment came per site surveyed, so it proved a lean month.
But to spend a year wandering the bush, camping on remote mountaintops and listening under the stars was a rare privilege indeed. I felt proud to have played a small role in the conservation efforts to protect New Zealand’s national bird.