The sky darkened with only the sun’s last rays giving rose-tipped light to the tops of the trees. Our slight dark-haired, dark-eyed guide handed us each headlights. He quickly explained, as he likely does each tour night, how to turn the thin knob at the end of the tiny lamp clockwise for on, counter-clockwise for off. We’d need the light that seemed barely enough brightness to illuminate the white-gravel led path where we were headed. The thick forest would soon be pitch black at the places where the full moon (only the night before blood-orange from the total eclipse) was hidden from the trail by thick overhanging towering ferns, sturdy pine trees, and hardwood vines.
Our goal for this evening nature trek was to spot the elusive, shy kiwi bird. Almost extinct with sightings rare, it is a birder’s dream to see one in its habitat. The flightless long-beaked bird is protected from its mammal predators in this manmade conservation reserves. High wire fences with capped top and deeply buried mesh cross the peninsula at a slant, designed to repel any of the bird’s predators from arriving by land or by sea. The bat is the only native mammal to this island nation. Other mammals, introduced to this island nation by Europeans, the “predators,” include the Sloat (the “worst of them all” we were constantly reminded by the guide), the ferret, feral cats, and the Norwegian rats (not to be confused with the sacred rats brought with the first Maori settlers–but how to tell the men who eradicate these animals of the difference?). Tawharunui is the primary mainland conservation site dedicated to the eradication of the mammal predators; all others are on self-contained islands, like the Little Barrier Island, where only volunteers armed with tools, camping equipment, and dedication approach and might have the chance to see one of these rare, almost mythical creatures.
Tristan laughed as I saw a tiny rabbit, clearly a mammal, beneath the ground cover. Did it somehow become enclosed after the fence was erected but before the birds were reintroduced to this predator-free spot? Or did it (along with its many family members) burrow its way into this supposedly impenetrable site? No matter, the rabbits are not interested in the birds and may be food for the owls, along with moth, lizards and insects. Not answered of course, is that if rabbits are within the perimeter, why couldn’t the dreaded predator mammals also make their way inside, defeating the entire purpose of the fence? A touchy subject for this conservation-focused tour and one for which I did not have the knowledge to question.
We are told that in the darkness we want to hear slight scratching sounds among the trees, which will either be rabbits or kiwi birds. At any given instant, our guide may tell us to immediately turn off our lights; he’ll use his special (i.e., plastic covered) flashlight (or do they call them torches in New Zealand?) to lighten the hillside in hopes of spotting a kiwi hiding or perhaps boldly crossing the path, knowing it is safe from us human forms. My husband and I smile in the near darkness, thinking back to our childhood and the silly cartoon of Elmer Fudd hunting Bugs Bunny (“Be very, very quiet”). We walk quietly, one foot softly planted in front of the other, slowly and cautiously walking the trail that only two hours early was plainly visible. What a funny sight we must be, five grown humans using their “inside voices,” like children, and walking almost on tip-toe to try to confuse the night birds into thinking they are alone in this beautiful land.
A rustle, lights off, then a gulp as Tristan points his beacon to an eel in the shallow stream to the side of the trail, another endemic species (not poisonous) to New Zealand. It is long, perhaps three or four feet, gliding, sneaking (anthropomorophism at its best) along the bottom, hunting for food, again, protected, no worries. We quickly turn our glaze, remembering scary stories of monster electric eels and their power to strike and still us instantly, focused solely on the end goal of the cute kiwi (is it not with its long pointed beak, fat bottom, but fast skiddle?).
We are not birders, preferring the fauna of the sub-tropical rain forests, the near extinct majestic Kauri tree, some a thousand years old, 143 meters high with seven meter girth, with its shredded bark not dissimilar to the sugar pines of California. Or the silver-leaf ferns, the national plant of New Zealand (some even wish the national flag’s design), some three times our height, so different than the ground-hugging ferns beneath the redwood trees of California (which, surprisingly, also grow in this temperature climate). We are introduced to tall and think lancet-like trees from which the Maoris carved their sharp arrows and the broader-widths pines from which they carved 100-man (not women) canoes of war. The forests seem endless as we drive from one side of the North Island to the other, even though timber is the most sought-after export. Reforestation in this climate is fast and important for the economy.
But back to our trek’s purpose. Tristan stops, whispers “Lights off,” then tilts his head to the right before turning on his light. Immediately a movement. “Did you see it?” “Yes. Yes. There it is.” “No, only some movement.” Our companions are near the front of our line and spot the kiwi. My husbands nothing (he is often distracted). I only see a shadow move. The guide continues to slowly shine his light, now on the left side of the path, for several minutes. We are still as church mice (another unwanted mammal) until we are told we can move forward. Several more times during this mile and a half walk we go through this ritual, with another kiwi sighting by the guide; again, my husband and I struggle to peer into the darkness for the iconic bird. Again we are disappointed. But the others are ecstatic are their viewing so we are pleased for them.
We return to the car counting our success at seeing the wingless almost extinct Tahake, three of the twelve in this reserve, earlier in the day but disappointed at not seeing a kiwi, although we did hear their singing. As we approach the car, the full moon lightens the waves still rolling into the sparkling sand, the offshore islands are backlit by the bright light, and the shadows of familiar Monterey pine (maybe a different name here?) sway slightly as they stand stately along the tiny ridge line between the meadow and the sea. The stillness of the night, the slight warmth of the day’s heat emanating from the grass, and the brilliant stars of the southern hemisphere night’s sky (confusing to us northern hemisphere natives) plenty of success for the end of this day.