Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Captivating Kapiti Island

Kapiti Island viewed from the coast
Last weekend we took a long overdue trip to Kapiti (prounounced CAP-it-ee) Island, about an hour north of Wellington, and about 5km off the coast.

The island is a nature reserve, and all non-native predators (such as rats, possums and stoats) have been removed. The previously-cleared bush has been allowed to regenerate for over a century, and the bird life has returned to this safe haven.

Visiting the island requires a permit from the Department of Conservation. There are 50 issued for one landing spot and 18 for another. This keeps human impact down, and makes it much easier to control potential re-introduction of pests. DoC has licensed two companies to ferry permit-holders out to the island, and they are certainly taking advantage of their duopoly. A round trip that takes 10-15 minutes each way costs $55.

Each landing area has a set of well-defined tracks for visitors. We visited Rangatira, which is the main destination. The track leads up to the highest point on the island (512 metres) and back down in a loop. Visitors to the other drop-off point, North End, have the option of staying at a small lodge overnight, but at $265 per person, that was not in the cards for us.

We were welcomed to the island by a member of the local Maori iwi (tribe) who own the land. While DoC manages the island, the crown does not own it, so the local Maori do have some say about what happens there. We got a briefing on the island's history (both human and natural) and what we could expect to see.

The first thing you notice on Kapiti Island is the sound. The bush is alive with birdsong - far more than you hear even way out in the wilderness on the mainland. This must be what all of New Zealand once sounded like, before humans arrived. Millions of birds, and no predators to make them stay quiet! I'm going to mention several birds that I don't have pictures of, but if you want to see what they look like they should all be pictured here.

We started uphill, and although we heard bellbirds and tuis, we could only see the occasional robin or saddleback, and some stitchbirds (or hihi) at feeders. The hihi are an example of why the islands are so crucial, as they were extinct on the North Island by 1880, only surviving because of these offshore islands.

Occasionally we'd hear something shuffling along in the leaf litter, and spot a weka. We'd seen lots of wekas on the South Island, so we were used to how unafraid of humans they are.

On the summit, we stopped to have lunch and take in the view. It was a bit overcast, so we were denied views of the South Island and Taranaki, but we could see back to the mainland at least. There were a couple of wekas hanging around the hikers, hoping for a free meal. We weren't too concerned about them, until one lunged forward and took a huge bite out of G's sandwich! Cheeky bastard! He ran off with his prize before we could even react.

On the way down we spotted a kaka up in a tree. They are native parrots, but not as infamous as the kea. This one, however, was obviously used to having his way with people's stuff. He flew down and landed on G's backpack (which he was wearing at the time) and started trying to find an opening! I had to shoo him off. He later went after another hiker's hat, but didn't get it.

Down at the bottom of the hill, we saw a takahe. These are odd-looking blue and green endangered birds, that resemble another New Zealand favourite, the pukeko. However, these guys are bigger with shorter legs, and can't fly. (Pukekos can fly, but generally prefer not to.)

Also hanging out in the area were a bunch of kereru (wood pigeons). These guys are huge, and look like they'd be very good to eat. I'm a bit surprised that they weren't hunted to extinction by either the Maori or the Europeans. But I guess when you've got so many flightless birds to eat, it's not worth the bother of catching the ones that can fly.

Overall, it was a lovely day. I'm not a big bird watcher, but the sheer abundance of them on Kapiti Island makes it a fun place for a day hike. The only residents we didn't manage to spot were the kiwis, who prefer to come out at night.

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