APRIL 30, 2016 12:00AM
It’s a wonderful moment when one of the rarest birds in the world emerges from the bushes. With a beak like red-enamelled secateurs, it delicately nibbles at grass seeds less than 1m from me. Takahe were once abundant throughout New Zealand, but by the end of the 19th century were considered extinct. They were not alone. Over half of New Zealand’s bird species, along with indigenous reptiles, amphibians and insects, have vanished since the arrival of humans.
Life evolved in New Zealand in a unique way. The only native land mammals are two small bats; birds ruled the roost. Early European visitors were entranced by the dawn chorus, naturalist Joseph Banks describing, in 1770, “the most melodious wild music I have ever heard … the most tuneable silver sound imaginable”. Sadly, the naive, often flightless, birds stood little chance against mammal predators — the rats, stoats, weasels, ferrets, cats, dogs and possums — that humans brought with them. As much natural habitat was destroyed, and introduced European species took their place, the survivors were largely reduced to small, vulnerable populations on isolated islands.
Now, howevever, efforts are being made to reverse this. Predators have been eliminated from more than 70 islands and, more recently, from heavily fenced mainland sanctuaries. Threatened or endangered species have been translocated into these areas, and are thriving. While most of these sanctuaries are off limits, a few are open to visitors, offering an opportunity to glimpse a long-lost New Zealand.
In addition to rescued takahe, there are more than a dozen birds that have become extinct or rare on the mainland. New Zealand robins (toutouwai) are so tame they may even perch on a visitor’s boot; brightly wattled saddlebacks (tieke) and kokako are last survivors of an ancient order. There are jaunty stitchbirds (hihi); chiming bellbirds (korimako); flitting flocks of whiteheads (popokotea) and tiny, 6g riflemen (titipounamu). Plus chattering, red-crowned parakeets (kakariki); kaka, which are large parrots ever-ready to snatch unguarded food; and inquisitive, ground-dwelling weka. There’s also the world’s rarest duck, the brown teal (pateke); and kiwis, of course, which sleep in their burrows by day, but can be seen on conducted night-time tours.