“We’ll be birds flyin’ free.” (Unless you’re a weka or a kiwi or a penguin.)

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Look out for kiwis! The sign at the entrance to the Oban rugby field. I took a picture of it on New Year’s Eve just in case it was the only picture of a kiwi I would ever take….

I’m not sure how I became interested in hunting for kiwis. Before I came to New Zealand, I saw a really nice picture of the bird and watched some videos from wildlife refuges, and suddenly, I was intrigued by the nocturnal creatures. During my first few months here, I wanted to see one and didn’t care whether I saw it in the wild or at a zoo. But then we came so close to seeing one in Paihia that I knew I wanted to see my first kiwi in the bush and not behind a fence.

Through my travels, I heard about kiwis on Stewart Island. As there are 50 kiwis for every one person who lives there, I wrote a mental note that I needed to visit. Rakiura, as Stewart Island also is known, is located south of the South Island, and “Visit the southernmost point of New Zealand” was on the list of things I wanted to do. Plus, I wanted to be at the bottom of the world to start the New Year, so everything fell together for a trip to Stewart Island at the end of December.

From Milford Sound, I traveled with one of my fellow Kiwi Night Rangers, J, to Invercargill. There, we stayed the night, then drove the 20 minutes south to the town of Bluff to board the ferry for the hour-long trip to Stewart Island and the town of Oban. It was a rough crossing, and halfway through the trip, I had to close my eyes and lay my head down. The one Muesli bar I had eaten before the trip hadn’t been enough to keep my stomach in place.

So I was happy to dock at the Oban ferry terminal, and I was summoned via my last name on a white board by a valet. I felt both sophisticated and spoiled. I was staying at a bed and breakfast, a nice reprieve from hostels, and a vehicle trip to the house was included.

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A view of the bay from the trail to Ackers Point. The sun was bright, but the Antarctic winds would cool me off quickly. 

After settling in, we hiked to Ackers Point and watched albatross circling the fishing boats. The sun was intense, as it is across New Zealand, so I was warm. Just as I would think about removing outer layers because I was hot, a blast of air from Antarctica, a sinister wind sweeping across ice and snow and the ocean to us, would strike. I would think about March of the Penguins and deep grey skies and dark nights with snowmen with bared teeth whenever I would feel that wind.

The next day, New Year’s Eve, J and I went to Ulva Island in search of kiwi. Along with several other native birds, a diurnal (active in both the night and the day) species of kiwi lives on this small island off the coast of Stewart Island. We hoped to spot this particular species of kiwi that day. It couldn’t have been that hard because we had recently been shown a video of a fearless kiwi approaching a hiker on Ulva Island.

That was the thought.

A ferry took us to the island.

“That’ll be $20 return.” The skipper, a calm and collected man, said it quietly. We handed over $20 bills as we disembarked, and I laughed then. We hadn’t paid anything for the ferry ride there; we only paid for the return to Stewart Island. If we hadn’t had cash, we could have started living there. (There was a house on the island, after all, to my surprise.)

J and I studied the maps, cleaned camera lenses and set off on the trail.

Half an hour in to our hike, we heard rustling on the side of the trail. Something was creeping under the ferns. Could it be a kiwi? Could we be this lucky so early in our search? I wondered.

No such luck.

I had enjoyed seeing the wekas at Milford Sound, especially the one-legged Bob, Monsieur Hopalong, but now was the time for kiwi.

And that day, on Ulva Island, wekas became the bain of my existence. The same thing happened twice more. We’d hear rustling, think “Kiwi!” and then just find a weka scratching through leaf debris and twigs.

Nonetheless, the weka is still a cool bird, and it was just one of many cool birds that we saw. A couple of the avian species there became my favorites: the saddleback (which adorns a favorite jacket friends from Christchurch gave me) and the South Island robin, who would show off and fly at my camera, once as the shutter closed.

We spent seven hours on the island and saw almost every species living on the island. The only two missing were the yellowhead and the kiwi. The rain poured after lunch, and the birds took shelter. We found a place to stay dry as well, although I became entranced by the rope swing hanging from a tree near the beach. I watched another tourist’s failed attempt to sit on the branch tied at the end and thought, Oh come on, it can’t be that hard.

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The birds were so friendly they’d perch on shoes.

It took me several tries before I was able to stand on the branch and sway back and forth with a magnificent view of the bay and the rain and the islands far away. On the second try, I swung out over the wet sand before slipping down the rope and crashing with a muffled thud. I sat there laughing hysterically like I’d just had a powerful shot of caffeine.

Okay, universe, I get it.

About an hour later, the ferry returned us to Stewart Island, and we trekked up the long hill back to Oban.

After warming up from Ulva Island, we headed down to the wharf to see Little Blue Penguins swim in. Then, we stayed up until midnight, celebrating the first New Year’s Day in the world.

My New Year’s Day was so much New Zealand. That afternoon, we watched Hunt for the Wilderpeople, a locally made film that I’d heard about when I first arrived in New Zealand but hadn’t yet watched. It was a good movie, enriched because I’d had six months of New Zealand experiences to add context to the story.

After the movie, we again watched penguins arrive at the wharf, and then, around 10 p.m., J and I headed for the rugby field at the top of the hill. Several people had told us that they had seen a kiwi around 11 p.m. a couple of nights before, and we were going to try our luck. Our head lamps with white and red light settings (kiwi are scared by white lights; red lights are better for spotting them) were at the ready.

Several other groups possessed the same idea. We all stood in pockets of red light, scattered across the edges of the rugby field, the edge of the bush, waiting, talking quietly.

After 45 minutes, I heard a rustling from the bushes. J had his back turned. “J,” I whispered, “there’s a rustling.”

He turned around. “It’s probably a weka,” he said indifferently.

With that disheartened answer, I prepared for dreams to be dashed and disappointment to be deep.

But just as I had finished thinking how wekas were the bain of my existence, a creature emerged from the bush.

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The Kiwi. Photo by J. Latsha.

Larger than a chicken, its round, wingless body floated toward me, long beak and curiosity propelling it forward, straight toward J and me. From a foot away, the kiwi gazed toward our faces, eyes dark and wise and interested. Then, it turned its beak to the right and glided away to search for insects, unperturbed by the multiple red lights following its path, almost seeming to enjoy the spotlight.

The kiwi (a Stewart Island southern brown kiwi/tokoeka [Maori]) left the rugby field for the quiet street pavement. Most of the group followed. I stayed behind in case there were more kiwis coming. It turned out there weren’t. I only heard kiwi calls and movement through the foiage, but I ended up staying at the field until 12:15 a.m. anyway.

I skipped back to town. Silver sparks glinted in the white light of my headlamp. I looked up.

It was the first of the New Year’s snow.

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For me, 2017 began with seeking a mysterious, nocturnal national icon and finding it.

If that’s the way the rest of the year goes, I am okay with that.

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*Quote in title is from the Coldplay song “Birds.”

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3 thoughts on ““We’ll be birds flyin’ free.” (Unless you’re a weka or a kiwi or a penguin.)

  1. I always think of Kiwi’s a little men in high waisted pants. It makes me chuckle. I loved that first video. I remember those sounds. You could make a CD and sell it in the US it’s so serine.

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