Roy Hunt

Wild Wellington-encounters with capital creatures

At the shallow end of Willis Street a pod of painted dolphins cavorts among the citizens. “There’s more to life than shopping,” they might be saying.

Written by       Photographed by Roy Hunt

A 500-pound nautilus and all manner of outsize kai moans drift weightlessly above the sandwiches of office workers relaxing in Lambton Quay. Gangs of cold-eyed, red-billed gulls loiter here with in­tent, ready to take advantage of any sandwich-bearer momentarily dis­orientated by the conjunction of il­lusion and reality.

Meanwhile hoiho, kakapo, takahe and kiwi stand huddled together on the west side of Tinakori Road, end­lessly waiting for a gap in the traffic.

There’s something poignant about the trompe-Poeil wildlife that decorates the Forest and Bird build­ing. These animals would hardly be more out of place on the moon, and yet 200 years ago, most of them lived in this place we now call Welling­ton.

Despite the steady advance of brick and asphalt, there is still a wild side to the Capital. Take the Wellington tree weta, for example—an inexplicable omission from the municipal tableaux. All right, so the idea of a herd of gigantic technicolour weta yomping along Courtenay Place might not win uni­versal approval, but the insects do have an enthusiastic following in this town.

Travis Tischler, a schoolboy natu­ralist living on Mount Victoria, es­chewed the usual boring white mice in favour of keeping tree weta. But his animals weren’t just pets; they became participants in a study of weta feeding preferences which was a prize-winner for Travis at the Wel­lington Science Fair. Significantly, Travis found that his charges would eat a variety of non-native plant ma­terial, and that they preferred apple to just about anything else. Such catholic culinary tastes prove that weta possess the kind of adaptabil­ity necessary for survival in the ur­ban environment—which is why they are still here.

Unfortunately, Travis never quite solved the problem of weta contain­ment, and escapees kept turning up in his older sister’s bedroom, their grotesque lollopings causing consid­erable offence. Reluctantly. Travis agreed to donate the collection to the nation, and now they reside at the Weta House in Wellington Zoo.

Ron Ordish, curator of insects at the Wellington Museum, may have the perfect solution for the would-be weta watcher. He has a dozen or so weta boxes hanging in strategic po­sitions around his garden in leafy Vogeltown. They look a bit like those old wooden swing-lid pencil cases we used to have at school, and wild tree weta apparently find them highly desirable residences.

We choose one to photograph. It hangs from a low branch, and I crouch beneath it, ready for a shot of the creatures emerging when Ron opens it up. As soon as he touches the lid, a large male weta appears at the opening and instantly launches itself in my direction. A surprisingly weighty item, it plops on to my shirt before springing away on to the lawn. I roll clear as more of his fam­ily jump from the exit hole.

Ron begins rounding them up, poking them back in the box one by one, but the weta, chuntering furi­ously, keep escaping. Juggling one of the females, he makes an ill-timed lunge at the impressively equipped alpha male on the lawn . . . and shouts in pain as it sinks its great jaws into the ball of a finger.

“This isn’t working for me, Ron. Can we try something else?” I sug­gest. Ron, blood dripping from his wound, is unresponsive, but then, with an air of resolution, disappears into the house. Moments later he emerges clutching a hammer and a packet of panel pins. I begin to won­der what he has in mind, and whether I’ll be able to square it with the ethics committee of the Society of Wildlife Photographers. But he has also brought out a small bunch of grapes.

“They love grapes,” he tells me, nailing a grape to a branch. Sure enough, as he carries the kicking and biting male to within range of the crucified fruit, a remarkable mood change seems to occur, and soon grape juice is dripping from the mandibles which had so recently been embedded in Ron’s flesh.

The weta population in Ron’s gar­den has been the focus of his re­search into the way these insects communicate with one another us­ing sound. Over tea and biscuits, he plays me some of the recordings of weta calls he has collected over the years.

Wellingtonians are probably most familiar with the territorial calls. In the leafier suburbs you can listen to a chorus of these calls on just about any summer evening from about mid-October on—particularly if there is a light rain.

As readers of New Zealand Geo­graphic will know, weta territorial calls are made by the insect rubbing its legs against its abdomen (see is­sue 21). Each stroke produces a rough scraping sound—a sort of ziqq noise. Each weta puts together a short burst of these ziqqs in a differ­ent way, varying the interval be­tween them to create a song with a unique pattern of sounds. Any lis­tening female weta will glean vital information about the size and age of the caller, and about the kind of territory he has to offer her. A highly desirable hole, for instance, will have different resonating properties from one which is cramped, damp and badly located.

For the male weta, hanging on to a good hole once you have found it seems to be what life is all about, and the other most frequently heard weta call is what Ron terms the evic­tion call: a staccato burst of ziqqs. This call is produced when a male weta is forced to defend his hole against an intruder. It is most often heard at about three o’clock in the morning, when the alpha male weta. on returning home after spending the night out feeding, finds that his hole has been entered—and, as like as not, his females interfered with—by some young upstart. Young con­tenders are often found near the en­trances of desirable holes, just wait­ing for an opportunity to slip in on the sly.

Ron tells me that a good way to start a weta collection is to try and home in on the eviction call before the evictee has been ejected from the disputed hole. This might be worth bearing in mind next time you find yourself groping about in the shrub­bery at three o’clock in the morning, really desperate for company.


The lookout at the top of Orangi Kaupapa Road provides one of the best harbour views in Har­bour View City, and local bota­nist Geoff Park and I compare the prospect with a watercolour Charles Decimus Barraud painted in 1858, reprinted in Shepherd and Cook’s book The Botanic Gardens, Wellington. In it, cattle graze the grassy slopes overlooking the har­bour, where you can just make out a single sail on the water—the Tory, perhaps? There’s not a building in sight, but already the bush appears to have been cleared right down to the water’s edge—except for a wooded gully running through the centre of the picture.

A hundred and fifty years later, this gully—The Glen, as it is has be­come known—is still with us: the last remnant of the coastal forest that once covered the city area, pre­served almost intact within the Bo­tanical Gardens. We pass a group of ancient mamaku surrounding a for­est pool. Some of them are more than ten metres tall, which makes them old enough to have been grow­ing here before the Tory sailed into Port Nicholson with the first Euro­-pean settlers in 1839.

The Glen’s wildwood is still re­newing itself. In the grey-green shade of the forest floor there are native orchids, and the seedlings of tawa, nikau and miro are pushing their way up through the leaf litter. Even so, there have been changes here. Rats, possums and hedgehogs have arrived, for example, while many of the native animals have disappeared.

David Bellamy described a visit he made to The Glen about 20 years ago. He was sitting on an old stump, absorbing the primeval tang of the place, when the stump collapsed under his weight. A number of dark velvet-skinned caterpillar-like crea­tures emerged from the debris:

Peripatus—a creature which has been around for 550 million years, making it one of the oldest residents of the wildwoods. These living fos­sils ensnare spiders and other small invertebrates in a web of sticky mu­cus which shoots from a pair of openings near the mouth. Once the victim is immobilised, peripatus punctures the body wall with its jaws so that digestive juices can be pumped in, rapidly turning the in­sides to soup.

But the spiders in the Botanical Gardens need no longer fear this sort of treatment, and David Bellamy may well have seen the last peripatus here. Geoff and I find no trace of them.

Geoff has an intriguing explana­tion for the disappearance of peripatus from The Glen and from other former sites around Welling­ton. They seemed to be doing all right until the mid-1960s or early ’70s, when a number of people dis­covered that good money could be made from exporting them. Accord­ing to Geoff, some zoology under­graduates were driving around Wel­lington in flash American cars ac­quired with the proceeds of their peripatus dealings.

As a keen young naturalist living in England at the time, I well re­member contemplating the purchase of New Zealand peripatus which were advertised for sale in the live­stock columns of the British weekly Exchange and Mart. Foolishly, I opted for a pair of unquenchably hostile Korean ground squirrels, but at least I haven’t got the disappearance of The Glen’s peripatus popu­lation on my conscience.

I am happy to say that I eventu­ally did find some peripatus still liv­ing in Wellington, although I was looking for something else at the time. I was in Khandallah Domain (one of several large fragments of Wellington’s ancient wildwood sur­viving in the suburbs) searching for a spectacular carnivore. The tiger of Wellington’s Little India is not a big cat but a snail called Rhytida, stud­ied by biologist Murray Efford.

Murray had shown me a remark­able videotape of Rhytida in action. I had previously seen footage of its better known cousin, the giant car­nivore Powelliphanta, slowly con­suming an earthworm, and although this has a certain undeniable fasci­nation, the dramatic potential is un­dermined by the slowness of the ac­tion. But in Murray’s video, Rhytida was something else. It actually seemed to pounce on its victim, a fast-moving springtail, behaving much more like a tiger than a hum­ble mollusc.

Deep in the forest, well away from any footpath to avoid poten­tially embarrassing encounters, I find there is something strangely sat­isfying about turning over logs and burrowing deep into the leaf litter. Peter Gabriel’s song “Digging in the Dirt” keeps going round and round in my head; the song has an accom­panying video featuring European garden snails (which are strictly veg­etarian), zooming about all over the supine singer’s face. As I probe the entrails of a fallen forest giant, some spongy timber falls away exposing . . . not Rhytida but a colony of peripatus, including some of the fat­test specimens I’ve ever seen.

My next find is a bit of a surprise, too: Powelliphanta, no less, and quite a big one at that. I didn’t think there were supposed to be any here. Later Murray says he suspects that some molluscophile has brought some back from North-West Nelson and released them here. I find sev­eral more, including some empty shells with holes in them. Possums? Rats?

I’ve been ferreting about for more than two hours, and I’m beginning to give up on Rhytida when I find an empty shell hidden away amongst the silky black hair at the base of a fallen mamaku frond. There are also four aspirin-sized eggs which I place in a sandwich box on a bed of leaf mould. For the next half an hour I examine fallen fern fronds, but with­out further success. (I’m still waiting for the eggs to hatch.)


There’s a Knob of reclaimed land about the size of a rugby field between the Cook Strait ferry carpark and a concrete pipe which unceremoniously voids the Tinakori stream into Wel­lington harbour. It’s the sort of place that urban ecologist Bob Brockie would naturally suggest as a rendez­vous. Great blocks of discarded ma­sonry project from the undergrowth. Wattle, elder and half a dozen other opportunist plants from around the globe are doing what they can to soften the jagged landscape, and there’s a brackish pool concealed amongst bullrushes where half a dozen semi-transparent prawns ma­noeuvre around a torn pink rubber glove. A small flock of silver-eyes jink through the bushes, and baby rabbits seem to be bounding away from us at every turn. We stop to watch a yellow admiral unfurl its proboscis and probe the tranquillis­ing nectaries of a valerian plant.

In this small patch of post-mod­ern wilderness there is an experi­mental feeling about the curiously blended community of cosmopoli­tan and native plant and animal spe­cies. You could almost say that the New Zealand landscape is re-invent­ing itself here.

Similar experiments are taking place on patches of waste ground, embankments, and roadside verges all over Wellington. The steep banks opposite Greta Point on Evans Bay Parade and the seaward-facing cliffs between Moa Point and Breaker Bay in particular are a botanical cornu­copia. A rich blend of plants from Africa, Australia, Europe, the Medi­terranean and New Zealand contrib­ute to a spectacular flowering in the spring and early summer. Elsewhere in the city, one or two plant species often seem to predominate. Across the motorway for example, swathes of valerian be-crimson embank­ments, and in the distance a galaxy of purple and white daisies glister from the ungardens of Wadestown. The white ones are marguerites, gar­den escapees which have been around forever, but the purple ones are holly-leaved daisies, newcomers from South Africa which only started to make inroads into margue­rite territory during the 1960s.

On any piece of newly deconstructed turf, globetrotting plants of­ten seem to get the upper hand in the early stages of the colonisation, but as the plant community matures there are signs that the natives can re­assert themselves. Take what’s happening to the hundreds of hectares of gorse—an unwelcome part of this city’s pasto­ral heritage. For decades it covered many of the hillsides and gullies in and around Wellington, but now it’s steadily be­ing replaced by mahoe, karaka and ngaio.

According to Bob Brockie, the Mahoe Revolution along the Hutt Valley was held up by New Zealand Rail. He says that the old steam engines which ran along the Hutt Valley railway sparked many a scrub fire—very bad for the natives, but not for the gorse, which germinates best in its own ashes. Once the line was electrified in the 1940s, however, there were fewer fires and the gorse canopy was able to reach maturity. Tall gorse pro­vides an ideal microclimate for the growth of native seedlings, which quickly germinate in its nitrogen-rich leaf litter. Native seed is air‑and it would be wonderful to imag­ine that in a couple of hundred years from now, forest like this might be maturing all over Wellington.

As we drive back into town. I no­tice Bob keeps a notebook in his glovebox for recording roadkill, with columns for date, species and exact location of the remains. Two of the more intriguing records include a little blue penguin embossed on to the Hutt Valley Motorway and a party of eels whose migration plans were scotched on State Highway One, just north of Tokoroa.

Bob’s casualty figures reveal that there are accident blackspots for possums and hedgehogs, just as there are for human beings, although they are in different places.

A hedgehog walkway (sensibly enough for a creature short-changed in the leg department) tends to fol­low the line of least resistance—the bottom of a gully or a valley for in­stance—and flattened ‘hogs are most often found where the gully or val­ley funnels out across a road. Pos­sum casualties, on the other hand, are often highest near bridges which the animals are using to cross a river.

Back in the city, we find a park in Molesworth Street and spend a few minutes watching the sparrows on the lawns of the old parliament building. These birds, which have been sharing our shelters since we were all living in caves, are so famil­iar that they’ve grown almost invis­ible to most of us . . . but not to Bob. For him, the soap-opera of the sparrows taking place here is far more exciting than the possibility of catch­ing a glimpse of an overweight poli­tician tottering back to the Beehive with a lukewarm pasty.

He takes an old bus ticket from his pocket and throws it on the grass near a noisy group of mostly male sparrows. One of them seizes it and starts dancing around and around, the ticket trailing from his beak. He’s using it as a prop to entice a female. Bob describes coming here on some mornings during the spring and finding that the Norfolk pine which the sparrows seem to favour as a communal nest site looks like a Christmas tree, with dozens of bits of cellophane and silver paper hang­ing in the branches. The male spar­row works hard at attracting a mate, and uses these decorations to adver­tise the site where he intends to build a nest. Long before spring—while it’s still far too early in the year for any hen to have warmed up to the idea—he will have spent many weeks endlessly repeating the mating call—chizzuck . . . chizzuck . . . chizzuck—puffing out his chest to display his black badge to maxi­mum effect. (Hens go for the biggest badge, apparently.)

That evening, on a tip-off from Bob, I visit a location in Rongotai, preparing to witness one of Welling­ton’s wildlife spectaculars.

The area between Marton and Wellington is, according to Bob’s road casualty statistics, the world epicentre of hedgehog population density, and there is a back garden in Kekerenga Street where you are likely to see more wild hedgehogs gathered together at one time than anywhere else in the universe.

A flimsy parka several sizes too small is inadequate protection against the icy sou’wester as I lie stretched out on the lawn in Maxine Harris’s back yard. About an hour after sunset, the first hedgehog trun­dles out of the gloom towards the food scraps Maxine has scattered all around me. If I keep very still he doesn’t seem at all concerned, even when I fire my flashgun.

What I’m really hoping for is an opportunity to include more hedge­hogs in a single photograph than have ever been seen before, but our first customer soon bumbles unhelp­fully off before any others arrive.

Nothing else happens for ages, and even Maxine is beginning to seem concerned. “Perhaps the wind’s putting them off,” I suggest. “Well, it has been a bad year for them,” says Maxine. Bad year? I should think every year is a bad year for hedgehogs, considering the thou­sands which are squashed on the roads, but then I remember Bob say­ing that road kills have little or no effect on the hedgehog population. Incredible, really . . .

But then there’s a flurry of activ­ity. In ones and twos the rush be­gins, until there are seven hedgehogs in front of me, and Maxine has been back to the house for more bread and bacon bits. We’re on a roll now, I think, detecting another small dark shape about to summon the courage to move out of the shadows. “Here comes number eight,” I whisper. “Oh, it’s not a hedgehog … it’s a—”

“Rat,” says Maxine. The num­bers dwindle away again after that.

Later, Maxine shows me some of her photograph albums—devoted entirely to hedgehogs. In one pic­ture at least 18 pairs of eyes shine back at me in the flashlight. Some sort of record, I’d imagine.


I am standing at the end of Petone wharf watching a gannet plunge into the harbour. Climb­ing to the top of its thermal rollercoaster, it hovers briefly while it gets a bead on the shoal a hundred feet below, then falls like a spear amongst the glittering horde. Using a different technique, a small flock of shearwaters flutter close to the water surface. If they were closer, I might also be able to watch them flying underwater in pursuit of the shoal—more like guided mis­siles than the dive-bombing gannet.

Once in a while an Antarctic skua will blow into the harbour, fresh from pecking the eyes out of baby seals or murdering penguin chicks out in the Antarctic Ocean. These thickset birds in their dirty brown plumage make for dramatic birdwatching as they go about their nefarious business. Aggravated rob­bery in mid-air is a speciality, the victims usually smaller birds like the slightly built white-fronted terns, which are easily bullied into dropping their catch.

There aren’t as many skua visit­ing the harbour now as formerly, and sightings of another spectacular blue-water species. the magnificent wandering albatross, have also de­clined in recent years.

At one time Wellington orni­thologists thought that the sporadic appearances of these birds might be linked to the prevailing wind direc­tion. After collecting a lot of data, a pattern of sorts did emerge: there were more skua and wandering al­batross in the harbour on Thursdays, regardless of the wind direction.

Thursday. it turned out, was the day when the Ngauranga freezing works discharged most of its offal. Now the works has closed, and to­day’s much stricter controls govern­ing water quality mean there are far fewer juicy bits from any source floating about in Wellington har­bour.

The little MAF launch Matiu is steaming towards the wharf. I shoul­der my pack, ready to board for Somes Island.

When Kupe discovered Te Whanganui a Tara (the great harbour of Tara) in the 10th century, he named the larger of its two islands Matiu and the smaller one Makaro after two of his relatives. One likes to imagine that the size and/or shape of the islands bore some relation to the physical qualities of these indi­viduals. More boringly, the New Zealand Company re-dubbed the big one Somes after the deputy gover­nor of the colony, and the little one Ward after . . . somebody called Ward.

Somes was used as a quarantine station for the first time in 1872 when the immigrant ship England entered the harbour flying the yel­low smallpox flag. Thereafter, if cholera or smallpox or any other dis­ease reared its ugly head en voyage for Wellington, the entire ship’s company was billeted on Somes un­til the symptoms disappeared.

Hundreds of perfectly healthy New Zealanders were also banged up on Somes during both the world wars, when the island became an internment camp for people whose ancestry supposedly made them a security risk. In the second world war these included about 300 Bel­gians, Finns and Tongans. I imagine that the Texel sheep, Zimbabwe goats and assorted Chilean llamas and alpacas that are quarantined here nowadays lead far more con­tented lives than some of the previ­ous human occupants.

As we approach the northern point of Somes, we skirt Mokopuna, a tiny satellite island which in 1904 became home to an unfortunate Chi­nese greengrocer, Kim Lee, who was suspected of having leprosy. He lived in a little shack on this barren lump of rock, his food and water sent across by flying fox, but he sur­vived for less than three months. Mokopuna is now also prosaically known as Leper Island.

Somes is still a kind of Noah’s ark for some of Wellington’s original wildlife, particularly seabirds. The species continue to pair off here long after other breeding grounds have been swallowed up by harbourside developments.

Two to three hundred pairs of lit­tle blue penguins come ashore to breed on Somes every year, as com­pared to only 14 pairs at Eastbourne last year, where dogs, traffic and small boys with a penchant for smoking them out of their burrows are among the hazards the birds have to overcome.

There’s a minibus waiting at the wharf to take us the 500 metres or so up the hill to where the pens and outbuildings of the Maximum Quar­antine Station occupy the central part of the island. Three or four com­fortable-looking ministry bungalows stand on quarter-acre sections over-looking the sea on Somes’s steeply sloping north-west flank.

The driver of the minibus drops me at the end of the row, the home of the supervising livestock officer Rod Sutherland and his wife Ruth, who had kindly offered to put me up for the night.

Keen joggers, the Sutherlands run the clifftop path that encir­cles the island twice a day, each circuit taking them about eight min­utes. From December to early February they wear knitting needles stuck in their running caps with a strand of wool flying out behind. They claim it’s an effec­tive deterrent against the strafing attacks of black-backed gulls nest­ing along the track. In the late afternoon, as I walk the same route with no such protection, I am constantly buzzed.

By now, the sun is dipping well down to­wards Mt Kaukau on the mainland, but a number of quite large skinks are still out soaking up the last of its rays, reluctant to leave their sundecks in the open spaces between the low coastal shrubbery even when I bend close to attempt identification.

Somes’s value as a sanctuary re­ceived a tremendous boost in 1988 when ship rats were eradicated from the island. Now the common, the green-spotted and the copper skink, together with the common grey gecko, no longer wake up to the nightmare of missing body parts. (In cold weather, many reptiles become torpid as a way of conserving en­ergy. Rats, exploiting their warm-blooded advantage, often nibble away at reptilian extremities with­ out even disturbing their owners.)

The tuatara, a Somes resident un­til as late as 1870, may well have suffered this fate, but it was prob­ably the rats’ decimation of the is­ is­land’s native insect population which finally made the tuatara’s ex­istence untenable. Now that the rats have gone, the reptile population of Somes is recovering, and there is even a move afoot to reintroduce tuatara.

The primeval forest which must once have covered Somes disap­peared long before the Europeans ar­rived. Early sketches and photo­graphs show only flax, cabbage trees and a few shrubs, but for more than a decade volunteers from the Lower Hutt Branch of the Royal Forest and Bird Society have been coming to replant the island. At first they planted whatever they could get hold of, but now the nursery they have established on the island con­tains only native species from Somes itself, or from other parts of Wellington Harbour. The revegeta­tion of the southern, western and inland slopes of the island is well in hand, and the soil is now enriched with the ashes of several volunteers scattered here because they fell in love with the place and ultimately couldn’t bear to leave it.

I’m up early next morning to catch the low tide, which should make it easier to get across to the spotted shag colony on the stack known as Shag Rock. Getting down to the little pebble beach at the northern end of Lighthouse Bay is an undignified scramble during which I am cursed on all sides by gulls whose nests I only narrowly avoid putting my boot into.

From the bottom of the cliff I can see that even at low tide Shag Rock isn’t too accessible. A deep channel separates it from the beach, and I conclude that serious wading is in order. A pair of variable oystercatch­ers watch with ill-concealed disgust as I strip everything off and, carry­ing only a camera, plunge in up to my chest. I wonder how long I’ve got before Rod and Ruth will be jogging by along the clifftop path.

Shellfish lacerate my feet as I be­gin my nude ascent of Shag Rock. Shimmying up the smooth outer face, there is an oppressive odour of regurgitated sea-food. At the top of the ridge I peer over the seaward edge. A dozen or so nests are visible from here, the closest only metres away. An adult and chick sit bolt upright on a rough and crustily be­spattered platform of dried seaweed interwoven with a strip of blue plas­tic ribbon. Spotted shags—their soft brown plumage most delicately spangled, and the emerald-green eyes offset by a patch of turquoise skin—are a very attractive seabird at close range, in spite of the powerful smell. Altogether. there are about 200 of them on different rock stacks around the island. Somes is the only place in Wellington Harbour where they still breed. The adult flashes its emeralds at me and, sensing a grow­ing tension between us, I retreat.

As I pick my way gingerly around the base of another outcrop, past putrid grottos containing pen‑guin chicks, a baby starling launches itself from somewhere higher up, whirring down over my shoulder into the sea, flopping about dispirit­edly until I am able to wade in and fish it out. In the wintertime the roosting gulls on Somes are joined by hundreds of city starlings. You can see little parties of 10 or 20 birds heading out over the water in the late afternoon. On reaching the is­land, the starlings form up into fan­tastic ballooning flocks containing hundreds or even thousands of birds which settle into the shrubbery for the night.

The terrain becomes increasingly difficult, and I am forced to abandon my circumnavigation of the coast­line. I return to Cable Bay for my clothes, then scramble up the cliff to the road.

I am working my way southwards along the eastern coastline when an oystercatcher’s piping alarm call draws my attention to the odd be­haviour of three figures on a shingle spit up ahead of me. One of them is wedging a stick into the shingle to prop up one side of what looks like a milk crate. The prop has a string attached, which runs to his compan­ions crouched behind nearby rocks.

The oystercatchers have quiet­ened down a little. I can see them now—a pair, presumably. In a series of short, darting flights and little runs they sally back and forth across the rocks and shingle at the water’s edge. There’s a lot of agitated head-bobbing as they edge closer and closer to the object. Finally, one of them, in a last decisive spurt, rushes the milk crate, ducking under and settling itself down on what I now understand must be the nest. There’s a subdued thud as the string-puller springs the trap, and then all three watchers move swiftly forward to examine their catch.

When I reach them. Dr Alan Baker, a New Zealand scientist working for the Royal Ontario Mu­seum, is holding the bird while one of his assistants withdraws a few millilitres of blood from its leg using a syringe. Baker explains that he is using the nesting season to take blood samples from as many of the 200 variable oystercatchers on the island as he can. The genetic finger­prints from these samples are part of a study to help determine relation­ships between the variable oyster­catcher and the barely distinguish­able South Island pied oyster­catcher.

Somes Island appears to be aflut­ter with professional ornithologists on this particular day. On my way back up to the quarantine station, I run into one of the Department of Conservation’s bird men, Rod Cossee. Dressed in full jungle cam­ouflage as if for a guerrilla war, he is taking a break from banding black-backed gull chicks.

About 300 of the Somes chicks get banded every year, to keep track of the movements and distribution of the population. It’s been increas­ing steadily over the last couple of decades, but nobody seems very pleased. The Civil Aviation Author­ity considers black-backs to be a se­rious hazard to low-flying aircraft, while the fact that their main feed­ing grounds happen to be the city’s rubbish dumps is of concern to health officials. The big birds even lack friends in the conservation movement, as they are major preda­tors of the chicks and eggs of other species, including many waders. Re­cently, for example, they have been implicated in the disappearance of the breeding colony of white-fronted terns from Scorching Bay.

Rod Cossee estimates that there are about 2000 breeding pairs of black-backed gulls on Somes at the moment. I arrange to join him for the rest of the afternoon. Before setting off, he jams on a floppy hat—heavily be-shitten, I note.

We are putting leg rings on the gull chicks—or rather, Rod is, while I guard his back. Ringing the chicks is a procedure which the parents bit­terly resent. As we crouch over the nest, Rob with chick in hand, deftly wielding the ornithological pliers, the birds swoop down at us from a great height. There’s a rush of air as an attacking gull makes a low pass, the tip of its powerful bill only cen­timetres away from driving a furrow through my scalp. It lets out a bloodcurdling scream of hatred just as it draws level with my ear, and I have the feeling that it could prob­ably rip the thing right off. Then a shadow passes overhead as the bird circles back, and suddenly the air is full of flying excrement. Hair-wash­ing will definitely be on the agenda tonight.


Did you Know that Wellington is the only capital in the mid where you can observe penguins in the wild?” The pamphlet which makes this enquiry is entitled “Penguin Spotting in Wellington” and appears on selected backpackers’ notice boards around the city. It’s hard to believe that, in a manner of speak­ing, Wellington really is the penguin capital of the world, especially as very few of the residents (let alone the city’s visitors) have ever seen a penguin—apart from the blue fluo­rescent ones which appear on road signs all along Breaker Bay.

Many of the residents of Breaker Bay itself however, like their coun­terparts over in Eastbourne, are more fortunate. They quite often see pen­guins, and some of them even have them nesting under their houses. This can be a bit of a mixed blessing, depending on how you feel about being woken up in the small hours by a lot of chesty braying and honk­ing, as the penguins brooding under the floorboards have a shift change.

Then, later in the year, after the eggs have hatched, there’s the malodor­ous stench when they’re feeding their chicks.

Nevertheless, the residents of Breaker Bay want to keep their pen­guins, and they themselves, rather than DOC or the City Council, have paid for and erected the bilingual penguin road signs.

If anyone in Breaker Bay comes across a sick or injured penguin, they usually bring it along to Ray Mercer to look after. Dogs are the main problem, he says, particularly strays. When I call on him, Ray shows me the latest victim—in a bread bag which he takes from the freezer—his best efforts to nurse it back to health having been unsuc­cessful on this occasion.

Soon Ray will climb the steep bank at the back of the house, and in a shallow grave facing the sea the torn little body will join the growing band of penguins for whom life in the suburbs was too brutal.

An hour or so after dark, I join David, Michael and Elizabeth Bell on the beach at Churchill Park in Seatoun.

Out of the gloom, a slim dark shape coasts in on a wave, and a penguin is pitched out into the re­treating foam. It stands awkwardly, dazzled by the convergent beams of our headlamps.

The young Bells are a swift and skilful team. David scoops up the bird, restraining it while his older brother delicately attaches a metal­lic strip to its wing and Elizabeth makes a note of its new identity. Then it waddles off up the beach and disappears amongst the cobbles of the municipal breakwater. We hear a muffled honking as it greets its mate in the nest chamber below.

Another eight or nine penguins come ashore over the next hour-and­a-half. Most already have the wing bands which indicate previous en­counters with the Bell team. The Bells are out at least once a week during the breeding season, and have been doing this for the last two seasons in the hope that eventually they will have enough information to draw some conclusions about the suburban penguin population—how many there are, and how many new chicks are raised annually.

We set off in the direction of Moa Point, where the Bells have been keeping an eye on a particular pen­guin chick which they think may be on the point of leaving its burrow.

Typically, penguin burrows are hard to reach, and this one is no exception. The nest chamber is at the end of a long and particularly narrow passage, and David has brought a pole with a loop of soft rope at the end to help with extract­ing the chick.

A little while later, Ruediger Mack and three Swedish ecotourists he is conducting join in a little spon­taneous round of applause for David, who, scratched, dirty and grinning broadly, emerges from the mouth of the burrow clutching a chick.

A small triumph in the quest to keep Wellington wild.

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