The Search for the Stewart Island Kiwi

We take a few steps in the damp grass, stop in our tracks and scan the field in the darkness. We have been doing this for the last hour, long after we passed the last street light on Stewart Island. Six pairs of eyes and yet no sightings, and to top it off a drizzle is beginning to add to our misery. Having come this far in search of a wild Stewart Island kiwi, will Lady Luck smile on us tonight?

The silence is shattered by a solitary cry, and it sounds like the cruel, mocking laugh of a witch. It’s a tease, a reminder that they are close-by, somewhere in the undergrowth that surrounds the field. Bird spotting is proving to be a real test of our patience.

New Zealand’s iconic flightless bird draws crowds to wildlife parks and nocturnal enclosures all over the country. Stewart Island is one of the rare places where one can see this shy creature in the wild close to civilisation. It is still elusive, however, despite numbering 20,000 on the island. Trampers on the Rakiura track hear its calls in the middle of the night, but rare are the occasions where they actually see one.

For visitors who want some certainty of seeing a wild kiwi on their stay, there are night tours to the other side of the island. For others who want to try their luck, or are just too cheap to pay for such a tour or a visit to an enclosure (like me), it can occasionally be seen wandering in the fields around the town of Oban and even gardens in search of food. The further from brightly lit areas, the better, and that is how six of us from the backpackers ended up wandering around a sodden field in the dark tonight.

Our search for the Stewart Island Kiwi

There are still no sightings by the time we cover three sides of the field, and I’m prepared to go back to the room unsatisfied. Such is the nature of dealing with wildlife, and this is not an animal one can lure out. Still, one bird is all that is needed to make our night…

Stewart Island kiwi
Southern brown kiwi, Stewart Island

And there it is in front of us, this chicken-sized forest god, stabbing its long narrow beak into the ground. Few birds look quite as silly as this. The thighs dominate its body, which quickly tapers in an elegant bend towards its head. But even on such a small head, its eyes are barely visible. It doesn’t seem to notice us when we are only three metres away.

Having exhausted that spot it wanders a few feet away and repeats the process. How funny that its hunt for worms and grubs should mirror our own search for kiwis. There is a difference between its seemingly random path, which was guided by smell, and our aimless scanning. The bird finds its quarry more frequently, giving it a quick wiggle in the air before gobbling it up.

New Zealand provides plenty of moments where one feels an overwhelming sense of awe. When other guests return night after night with no success, an encounter with a wild Stewart Island kiwi feels like winning the lottery.

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