New Zealand's third largest island is Rakiura, also known as Stewart Island. It is found off the Southern tip of New Zealand, and is well known amongst those with a love of nature as a real kiwi hotspot. Not having seen one in the 6 months we'd been in New Zealand at this point, it was only right that we headed there to see if we could improve our chances. One three-hour ferry crossing later, and we were ready to head off in search of them.
As far as birds were concerned, the trip was already off to a strong start, with white-capped albatross and sooty shearwaters carving the waves over the stretch of Ocean between Bluff and Stewart Island. Having given ourselves just three nights on island though, we were keen to concentrate our search in a hotspot, and after speaking to a DoC warden we had a plan. The first night would be camping out in the bush, second night would be at Mason's Bay, then third we'd be back the way we came to Freshwater hut before heading back to the harbour to leave the following day. Apparently this"in-and-out" route would give us a chance to check out a place that has regular sightings.
art Island camping EM
After spending the first night squeezed into our tent pitched amongst the trees, we continued on to Mason's Bay. We hadn't seen or heard any kiwi yet, though the signs were there even in the bush. Patches of wet mud became noticeboards detailing the movements of all sorts of species, such as the non-native deer and possums, but also the unmistakable footprint of a kiwi. It kept hopes high. Stewart Island is well known as a place to see kiwi in the day, though we kept our hopes low as we were often on the move and likely to scare any birds foraging in the daytime. Though kiwis weren't tripping us up, we enjoyed the many other species to be found such as South Island robin, fernbird, tomtit, kakariki, bell bird and pipipi.
February 2020 Our arrival at Mason's Bay was pretty special. From this point we faced out towards the Southern Oceans, with winds and seas unencumbered by land before reaching this beach. Expansive dune systems tell tale of the storms that batter the coast and the sand tells more about the movements of the animals that live here such as the kiwi. With so many tracks in the area, and encouraging signs mentioning plenty of kiwi activity in the area, we would head back out at night with hopes of seeing them.
Later that night, with red lights on our head torches we headed back out, just a short 5 minute walk from the Mason Bay Hut. The red head torch light is an important point to take note of, being largely nocturnal birds their eyesight is incredibly sensitive to light, so the last thing they need is someone beaming a bright white light at them. The red is much more subtle on the vision, and helps to observe the kiwi while they go about their business in a natural way. We slowly and quietly walked along the path, keeping our ears open for any sign of rustling in the undergrowth or the distinctive high pitched call of the kiwi. We kept walking and eventually we could see the dim light of head torches stopped up ahead, where several other trampers were standing. Getting nearer it was clear that they were looking at something in the bush, and obviously as the build up to this point might suggest, it was a kiwi. It was incredibly bold, feeding amongst the vegetation for several minutes. We caught brief clear views of it but mostly glimpses of its long beak probing around for insects and its fluffy little behind shuffling around, until it ran out into the path and quickly hurried away into the night. The resulting image was blindly taken under the low light of the red lamps, and as you can imagine, not worth framing on the wall...
The Stewart Island kiwi, or tokoeka (meaning "weka with a walking stick"), is the largest of the kiwi in New Zealand and is a genetically distinct species from those found on mainland New Zealand. They are the most abundant of the 5 kiwi species, with an estimated 13,000 individuals on Rakiura but some of the population shows signs of decline, noteably, the population around the Mason Bay area. The tracks in the sand show that many non-native predators are present on Rakiura such as possum, rats, and feral cats, but there are efforts underway to make Rakiura Predator Free as part of New Zealands predator free 2050 goal. In doing so the island will become another predator free haven for many of New Zealands unique endemic species, and hopefully will see numbers increase over time, giving many more keen kiwi seeking tourists one of the best chances for an encounter in New Zealand. For us however, we were to return to Bluff where we would be beginning the hike northbound across the South Island.