Upon leaving the urban delights of Auckland, I hopped in my rental car and was soon cruising through this nation’s remarkably photogenic landscapes, stopping at one of the world’s most remarkable caves and hiking through Waimangu Volcanic Valley. After ascending to the top of Te Mata Peak, I headed to Pūkaha National Wildlife Centre in the Tararua district of North Island to see some of New Zealand’s unique and most threatened wildlife.
This sanctuary for native wildlife and threatened species rests within a protected forest area. While a greater area was acquired by the government in the 1870s, much of it was converted to farmland. The 2,300-acre Mount Bruce area survived as the protected forest reserve, 136 acres of which was further protected as a native bird reserve, the precursor of Pūkaha. In 1962, the center was officially established to breed and release endangered native birds into the smaller area. In 2001, the wildlife center took over the entire forest reserve, allowing greater capacity to breed birds and to diversify the number species here, all in an area with low predator pressure.
While the center takes a close look at smaller creatures likes geckos, eels, and insects, it’s the variety of birds that I really wanted to see. Gentle tracks lazily cut through the dense woods into which I entered. I soon became attuned to nature’s calls: insects signaling, birds chirping. But it was all audio so far. Nobody was at home at the first enclosed display. Vacancy greeted me at the second, and the third bore a notice that it was deliberately empty. I was starting to wonder if this was just going to be a walk through a forest and nothing more.
But then I heard a peeping sound, like a squeaking rubber duckie. I followed it to its source, a male rifleman, or titipounamu, sitting on a tree branch. Its dark green coat matches the uniform color of New Zealand army riflemen. He stood not far from a little blue nest box, which he shares with his mate every year when they produce a couple of chicks.
Just a couple of minutes later, another sound—a lovely musical song—attracted me to a female bellbird, or korimako, with its olive green/brown color. The parson bird, or tui, showed up next, with its brilliant blue, green, and purple feathers. It earned its name from the white tuft at its throat that resembles a parson’s collar.
All of a sudden, I experienced one of Pūkaha’s guiding principles—feeling life’s essence—quite literally when something very large flew by me from behind and clipped my head with its wing. Once I put myself back in my shoes, I found my assailant in a nearby tree. The kākā, a large brown parrot with a hooked beak and brilliant underwings of bright red and yellow, looked rather pleased with itself. Locally extinct for more than 50 years, their numbers are still relatively small (about 10,000), mainly due to habitat loss. Perhaps it was getting even? The next kākā that flew by gave me a wide berth before landing next to its friend. And then another. Soon, I was looking at nearly a dozen of them gathered together. It was all a little too frighteningly Hitchcockian, so I decided to move on.
As a native New Yorker, I’m hardly fond of our pigeons, locally and not-so-lovingly referred to as flying rats. That aversion is what made the New Zealand pigeon, or kereru, such a delightful surprise. Their green, blue, and purple feathers on a white body make them so much more attractive than their Big Apple cousins, and they’re larger and far more amusing: They get drunk from the berries they eat and crash through tree branches when they try to land on branches too small for them before they gain a steady foothold.
The star of the whole show was sleeping somewhere in the forest when I was visiting in the late morning. But thanks to the kiwi house that switches things up, I got to see New Zealand’s iconic bird in action. Found only in New Zealand, the utterly adorable kiwi, with its brown feathers that look more like fur, remains under threat due to habitat loss and introduced predators. With lights dimmed way down in the building, the nocturnal brown kiwi, tricked into thinking it was midnight and not midday, scurried around its habitat in search of a meal, using its long, needle-like beak to poke around the ground. In the wild, these flightless birds have to rely on powerful legs and claws and a piercing cry to fend off predators, which hasn’t proved very successful: Their numbers are declining. At Pūkaha, kiwi are safe to breed and prosper. Eggs are collected, and the house acts as a nursery for the chicks before they’re big enough to be released.
On my way out, splashing ducks were making an amusing ruckus in a small lake. And right near the exit, I found another flightless New Zealand native, the South Island takahē. Thought to be extinct from the very end of the 1800s, the takahē showed up again in 1948 around Lake Te Anau. With its bright red legs and beak and deep blue feathers, the takahe puts on a great show, but the mottled green feathers on its back keeps it well camouflaged in the high grasses of the regions they naturally call home. With numbers under 500, it’s one of the country’s most threatened species.
In many ways, the takahē is Pūkaha’s unofficial mascot. It represents all three prongs of the center’s mission: conservation (breeding efforts are ongoing), education (I had never heard of this bird before coming here), and tourism (I was one of 40,000 visitors who explore Pūkaha every year). It was also the first species to arrive in Pūkaha, setting in motion a dedicated and successful initiative that is now nearing its 60th anniversary.
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