For all the distance I’d travelled, the mere 7km of it, I still managed to leave the cloud behind on the mainland and arrive on Kapiti Island to glorious sunshine. I’d lost a chunk of the day on the island due to the cancelled morning sailing, and now, a little after 3pm, I was eager to make use of the remaining hours of daylight and get exploring. This was September, early spring, so the sunset was still rather early, leaving me only a few hours to wander round the northern half of the island.
Most of the island is inaccessible to the public. Day trippers visit an area to the south where there’s a selection of walking trails, but overnighters like myself stay in an area at the northern tip. The lodge is on private land and operated by Kapiti Island Nature Tours, but beyond this is reserve land with two walks managed by the Department of Conservation: one that loops the low headland, and one that heads up to a lookout on the coast. I wanted to do both, so as soon as we had our welcome to the lodge finished, I was out of there and on the trail.
The whole reason I was here was for the wildlife. Kapiti Island is a predator-free island where endangered birds are translocated to in order to try and allow breeding in the absence of rodents and stoats. But the island is only 5km from the mainland and rats are strong swimmers, so the place will forever be under constant monitoring for new invaders. It is, for some of the species, a success story though. They’re not all thriving, but there was plenty of bird life to see, even right by the lodge. Some beautiful plump and colourful kereru were feeding right next to the building and there were plenty of seabirds to be seen gliding along the coast as I walked.
It didn’t take long to reach the turnoff for the lookout, and I was soon to gain a bit of elevation. The track heads from sea level to an altitude of just 198m but it winds its way there and it was more than worth it. With plenty of vegetation about, I was accompanied by bellbirds in the branches, and weka at ground level. There was not a cloud in the sky, and off the coast, the Tasman Sea sparkled under the lowering sun. Due west there is no landfall till Australia, and the expanse of the ocean off shore looked vast. I spent as long as I could at the lookout before my mindfulness of the lowering sun sent me back down to shore.
As I got into the denser vegetation lower down, my attention was caught by a kaka. I didn’t know that New Zealand had parrots before moving here all those years ago, but they are some of my favourite birds to spot when I’m out hiking. I help rehabilitate injured kea so I see them all the time, but kaka are so much shyer and duller in colour, making a sighting of them a rarer and more special experience. It contemplated me briefly before returning to its feeding.
There was a long shadow now on this eastern half of the island as I took the track that skirts the lagoon and the seabird nesting site. Despite the fact that it was 2 months away from the breeding season, there were birds everywhere: dotted about the foreshore and shrubbery, as well as swooping and gliding overhead. Many people don’t like gulls and consider them an annoyance or a pest, but they play their part in the ecosystem and they’re also quite smart birds. The different gull species have quite distinctive personalities too, and as a wildlife rehabber, I’ve come to appreciate many of their attitudes and quirks, even when they don’t appreciate the help they’re being given.
This most northern circuit track is closed during the nesting season, mainly for the bird’s sake, but I can imagine these gulls would likely attack from the air too at that time, so it’s also for people’s safety. As I completed the loop I found myself in shadow, the sun having set behind the ridge I’d come down from. Across the water, the mainland sat in a golden glow, still catching the last light of the sun. I returned to the lodge ready for dinner which was included in the overnight stay and was delicious.
The whole reason I’d chosen to stay overnight though, was for the opportunity to go kiwi spotting once darkness fell. Our little group met up in the pitch darkness to tread carefully around the trails near the lodge in search of these reclusive birds. I saw a kiwi in the wild a few years prior on Rakiura/Stewart Island, but I’m always eager to try and spot another one. The majority of New Zealanders, colloquially referred to as Kiwis (with a capital K), will never see a kiwi (without a capital K), either at all, or at least in the wild. Often people come to New Zealand aware of the kiwi, but don’t actually realise that there’s five different species of kiwi. On Rakiura, I saw the tokoeka, but Kapiti is home to the little spotted kiwi so I was holding out hope of adding a second species to my spotted list.
We could hear them as we walked, but try as we did, we had to give up eventually. On returning to the lodge though we encountered a couple of little blue penguins which had returned from feeding at sea to come back to their burrows. Little blue penguins love to burrow under wooden decks and baches, so it can be a bonus in coastal regions where they live to hear, see, or even smell them from your holiday home. So as not to disturb them, we viewed them under red light. Like with kiwi, this light allows us to view them but these birds cannot see the red light so they go about their business without being blinded. If you are ever out hiking in the New Zealand bush and you want a chance to spot birds in the night, I highly recommend you buy a torch with a red light option.
It was another glorious day the next morning and I headed out to explore the wetland right behind my cabin. We’d rustled around it in the darkness that night before, but it was nice to experience it in the day time. Paradise shelducks and pukekos were the main occupiers but I was suddenly distracted by the distinctive call of a saddleback. These blackbird-sized birds have a stunning burnt-orange saddle and bright wattle but they’re very difficult to photograph as they tend to move quickly among the branches and leaf litter. They’re also quite rare away from sanctuaries like these as stoats love to eat them, so seeing one was a big deal for me. I’m not embarrassed to admit that I’m an avid bird watcher since moving to New Zealand so places like this excite me very much.
The boat picked us up in the morning and whisked us to the part of the island open to day trippers. There is no access between the two parts of the island on land, and when we arrived, two boats full of people had offloaded and the immediate area was teeming with people. It was a big contrast to the mere few of us that had been up the northern end. I spend my working day interacting with people non-stop for all the hours of it, so I love getting away from crowds in my downtime. Crowds mean noise which isn’t great for wildlife spotting, so I did my best to separate myself from the larger groups as I followed the various trails.
The highest accessible point on this part of the island is 521m with a trail deep in the dense forest to reach it. My limit was the time of the return boat to the mainland that afternoon, so it was a balance between covering the ground to follow all the trails, whilst allowing a bit of stoppage time to bird watch. My first spot of the day was one of the two takahe on the island. These rather plump but iridescent birds appear blue from a distance but close up are a mix of green with blue. Only a few hundred of these birds exist, and like the saddleback, are rare to see away from sanctuaries.
There are two routes up to the summit, one graded as a walking track, and the other graded as a tramping track. There was a mixed level of abilities that had come over on the boat. Some stayed only on the coastal loop, and of those that climbed to the summit, most took the walking track up. A few like myself, opted for the tramping track. I’m a regular hiker, so although this trail was rougher, it was more than manageable. It also meant I got away from the majority of the visitors for a while. My reward was the red-crowned parakeet, a mainly green parrot with a red crown on its head. As I continued walking, I was serenaded by tui and followed by inquisitive robins.
About two-thirds of the way up to the lookout, the two trails joined as one. Soon I came across a picnic table where some people had stopped for a break. Their food had drawn the attention of a kaka which was unusually inquisitive and acted more like a kea, coming close and trying to steal some food. Kea in the South Island have died from eating chocolate deliberately or accidentally provided by people and many of the sugary processed foods are not good for parrots. That doesn’t stop them wanting to eat them though so the blueberry muffin being consumed by one person seemed particularly attractive to it. Thankfully it’s attempt to get some was mostly unsuccessful but it made a great photo opportunity as it walked across the picnic table and sat close by on the nearby branches. It drew quite a crowd too as people came and went on the trail.
As I climbed higher I spotted more saddlebacks and encountered more robins. The trees are thick the whole way up and there’s little external view until finally the summit is reached. It was mobbed here, and with good reason. There were no clouds in the sky, and the calm blue sea mirrored the blue sky above it. I was dripping with sweat by this point which meant putting suncream on was a messy affair, but there was no way I wasn’t going to sit for a while too and absorb the view. At ground level, the view is a bit obscured by the vegetation so a wooden tower has been erected to get above the canopy and from here you can see all around: out to sea and back to the mainland. After the crappy weather of the previous morning I was definitely doing well with the weather now.
My luck continued on the walk back down. I stuck to the main walking trail the whole way this time, and I had some great photo ops with some birds. I spotted hihi which are one of the translocated species that aren’t quite thriving here yet, and I was finally able to get a good photo of a saddleback. Even a robin decided to sit still long enough for me to get a cracker of a photo of it.
But what I was very excited to see, and what was overlooked by most other people until I started pointing it out to anyone who passed, was a North Island kokako. The South Island variant is believed to be extinct, but the Department of Conservation is offering a $10000 reward to verifiable evidence of one’s existence. In the meantime, a couple of thousand of the North Island variant still exist but like other birds, they are heavily reliant on sanctuaries to keep them safe from predation. Grey in colour, most of the non-Kiwi visitors weren’t that interested until I told them how rare the sighting was and how lucky they were to see one. The Kiwi visitors generally appreciated how special it was to see one.
Then finally I spotted a bird I’d heard often but never seen: a ruru. These nocturnal birds spend the day fast asleep, and they’re so still and easy to miss during the day that I’m convinced I’ve likely walked under many of them while hiking in bush over the years. I was grateful to the other walkers who went out their way to tell me where to look and point it out to me meaning I was able to see it. It didn’t move the whole time I watched it. It simply stood tall among the foliage, with its head turned round and its face buried. Now, my goal is to see one awake.
I was able to cover all of the trails before catching the boat back to the mainland. Despite the lack of sighted kiwi and the lost hours the previous morning. I boarded the boat satisfied with the trip. When we reached the shore of Paraparaumu, we did a beach landing, something I haven’t experienced since my volunteering days in South Africa some 15 years prior. Essentially, the boat just drives itself out the water and grounds itself onto the sand before unloading its passengers. Once empty, a tractor comes along and backs a trailer underneath it, ready to pull it up the shore, ready for another day. For me though, it was only mid-afternoon and I still had plenty of exploring to do here.