Here are some pictures of a few of New Zealand’s birds. Collectively, they have a deeply unhappy story to tell...
A kea, an assertive woodland parrot native to the South Island
A kiwi; the one I saw today was in a special nocturnal compound and I wasn't allowed to photograph it. They are the only birds on Earth to have nostrils at the business end of their beaks.
A morepork, the New Zealand owl. I haven't seen one of these but I've heard one - and the call definitely sounds like 'more pork, more pork'!
A hiki, or stitchbird. I saw a few of these in the reserve today. They are red-list endangered.
A kaka - the North Island's version of the kea.
A kokako - again, hearing its call, as I did today, explains its ancient Maori name.
I’m delighted - and surprised - to say that I have actually seen a couple of these birds; and all in one day. I’ve seen a hiti, a kokako, a kaka ( - don’t they have marvellously earthy Maori names? - ) and, at last, I’ve seen a kiwi.
The only reason I’ve been able to see them close-up is because, on my way here to Napier today, I called in at the Pukaha Mount Bruce Wildlife Reserve, where the NZ Department of Conservation is involved in an uphill struggle to save most of them from total extinction.
How has this happened? How - in just a couple of hundred years - has the unique birdlife of New Zealand been all but wiped out? That’s what I asked Gay, a knowledgeable and gracious lady who showed me round part of the reserve.
First of all, of course, there are the predators which Europeans introduced and which have become the agents of near-extinction for many of NZ’s flightless birds - most famously the kakapo but also the kiwi. There are now cats, rats, dogs and stoats all over New Zealand.
But the worst of the lot is the possum.
In its native Australia, it’s an endangered species - its habitat is being destroyed for farming. In NZ, though, it has the whole country to itself - and no predators. It has become a hated pest, attacking crops, orchards, gardens, young farm stock and any wildlife it can get its teeth into.
All of which means, of course, that the most catastrophic predator of all is - human beings. Not only have we denuded a lot of NZ of its native forest and replaced it with all those pretty hill-farms I’ve been enjoying so much; we’ve also introduced animals which have almost wiped out a major proportion of the wildlife which, until man arrived in about 1100, had lived and evolved here for millions of years.
Almost their only hope now is NZ’s many offshore, predator-free islands, which is where you’ll find kiwis and kea and morepork by the score.
And somewhere out there, on some gusty islet, is the only thriving population of tuatara - said to be the only surviving dinosaur on Earth. How lucky am I to have seen two of them at the wonderful wildlife reserve today?
What you won’t find on any of these island reserves is people.
The two tuatara I saw today. They're quite astonishing. I mean - seriously.
Thanks to the lovely Gay for showing me these special and beautiful animals.