The cost, in New Zealand currency, was $75 each. For my wife Claire and I, that would make it just over $100 in terms of US dollars. A fair price for a top life bird, if we could get it. Especially one as unique and rare as the Okarito Kiwi.
It was January of 2019, and we had just wrapped up a year of living in Thailand, where I’d asked to be sent for a work assignment. We’d used every weekend, holiday, and vacation day during 2018 to go birding throughout the Eastern Hemisphere, with Bangkok being an ideal home base. New Zealand would be our final desination, as well as a Christmas present to our two sons who were attending college in Minnesota; we’d fly them down to nearby Sydney, meet them there, and then hop across the Tasman Sea for a week split between the North and South Islands. They had long wanted to visit the land of The Long of The Rings, and now they’d get to hike it while Claire and I birded this scenic and endemic-rich country. The trick was to devise an itinerary that made everyone happy, as our sons are not birders.
While planning, I came across Okarito Kiwi Tours, a night guiding service run out of the small town of Okarito on the western coast of the South Island. The area boasts populations of about 30 (humans) and 350 (kiwi). The owner of the tour company, Ian, was apparently quite proficient at finding and providing views of these elusive birds. The protocol he’d established was complicated enough that it was necessary for participants to meet up several hours prior to the trip in order to go through the details.
I had low expectations for actually seeing a kiwi. Nocturnal birds, especially skittish ones, are challenging for me, as I suffer from Retinitis Pigmentosa, a genetic disease that manifests in two ways: an inability to see in low light conditions; and the constriction of the visual field into a narrow tunnel. For some of us, that tunnel will eventually close, resulting in total blindness. I’m fortunate to still have some vision left: my window is about 15 degrees wide, roughly the size of a fist held at at arms’ length. Seeing a bird requires decent light, and getting it into that window. Ducks on a lake or peeps on a mudflat? Easy – they are in the open, relatively stationary, and I can take my time. A dimly-lit forest with thick foliage and fast birds? That is almost impossible without help from a good guide, patience, and luck. Even a bright green laser spot near the bird might require a long scan for me to pick up. So I always stand behind the guide, following the direction of the barrel of the pointer, so as to line up more quickly. For night birding, I will only see what is illuminated, so similarly I follow the beam from the guide’s hand out to the target. A sedentary owl or nightjar is doable in this way. I have no desire to harass birds and impair their vision, so if I do this at all, I want it done quickly. For all these reasons, I’m primarily an ear-birder. I always try to see birds, of course, but I was not expecting the kiwi to be easy.
I had researched the kiwi vocalizations long before the outing, so that its voice would be instantly recognizable. Usually I will not tick a “heard-only” bird unless I also record it – the exception is when the song or call is something I’ve already studied, and is so unique I that it couldn’t possibly be mistaken for anything else. And there is nothing else that sounds like a kiwi. Also, I would not be bringing my recording device due to the restrictive nature of the outing, as will be described below.
Based on reviews of these tours, I learned that if and when a kiwi came out of dense cover, Ian would illuminate it with a red spotlight, which it found minimally disturbing, giving his clients a chance to see it. This sounded promising. Reviews also mentioned that in the process of locating the bird, which might take hours, it would be necessary for the group of six to ten people to remain absolutely, utterly silent in the blackness – not a problem – and to follow the guide’s instructions as to where to stand or look through a variety of hand signals that would be reviewed before the outing. That could be a problem: I can get around the dark with Claire guiding me by voice or touch, but how would I follow the signals if she couldn’t speak to me? I was imagining some kind of process of her writing letters in my palm with her finger. It wasn’t clear how this might work, if at all.
I wrote to Ian in advance and explained my situation in detail. At first I sensed some hesitation, but he warmed to the idea of guiding us when he realized how gung-ho we were. I got the impression that the bulk of his customers were not birders, but simply curious tourists. They were people that wanted to see a wild kiwi, but were sometimes put off by how difficult and involved the process of finding tough birds can be. In any case, he seemed eager for the challenge of accommodating me, so we reserved a spot. The kids would meanwhile be happy to stay put in the hotel after a day hiking around the nearby Franz Joseph Glacier.
I mentioned the restrictive nature of the outing. To give you a sense for this, here is an excerpt from an email that Ian sent me prior to the trip:
You must bring :
The ability to walk 4km.
Warm Quiet Clothes – NO WATERPROOFS, DOWN JACKETS, GORTEX or anything that is noisy
and some….. Patience
No Photography or Video of kiwi is permitted.
Don’t bring backpacks.
To a serious birder, none of this matters, of course (unless you are adamant about getting a photograph). We’ve suffered through much worse than this to get birds.
It so happened that Ian would be out of town the night of our visit to Okarito, so one of his part-time guides, named Mike, would be running the show. Ian briefed him on my eyesight issues. We arrived around sunset, and three other couples were already there in the driveway with Mike. None of these other customers described themselves as birders. That they were willing to pay so much and endure up to several hours of standing utterly still and silent amid clouds of mosquitos was pretty impressive.
We stepped into the office (the tours start at Ian’s house) and were given a debriefing on the kiwis and their history in the area. Now the scheme was becoming clear: many of the birds had been captured and outfitted with radio transmitters. The part-time guides working for Ian were biologists who tracked the birds, and so they knew their locations and habits intimately. Mike explained that there was a particular male that had been spending the day hunkered down off one side of the road that led into town. After dark, he would habitually cross the road to an area where he preferred to forage. So at least for this kiwi, we would not be walking 4 km.
The trick was to be ready at the right place at the exact moment when the bird was on the asphalt: if we could do this, Mike would then train the beam of red light on him, and we would be able to follow him as he crossed. He said these birds would sometimes amble down the road and not just across, so on occasion, a lucky group would get to see one for more than just a few seconds. If the red light was bright enough, but more importantly, if I got it into my visual window in time, I might even see it myself.
At sunset we went out to the site, and as we waited for the long New Zealand summer twilight to fade away, we did a practice run. Eight of us were set out in a single file, spaced at arm’s length, along the west side of the road, facing east. Mike stood alone on the east side of the road, the kiwi side, more-or-less across from the center of our line. Here he would be listening intently for subtle sounds down in the dense brushy cover.
The broad strategy would be to keep our line positioned so as to be directly across from the bird as it moved around. This needed to be done with an absolute minimum of noise. Apparently, while most sounds would drive the bird off and dispel any chance of seeing him, certain noises were less problematic. Speaking, coughing, and rustling noises made by one’s clothes, for example, were strictly verboten. However, if on occasion we all gently walked as a unit, say, four steps up or down the road, starting and stopping in unison, it would not bother the bird significantly. So that is what we practiced doing.
How would we know when, and how much, to move? This is where the signaling was needed. The two people on the ends of the line played a special role, and Mike had them don light, prismatic vests like a crossing guard’s. If he wanted the line to move three meters to the north, staying parallel to the road, he would briefly shine the red beam down at the ground, three meters to the left of the leftmost person in line. Sensing the person on your left moving away from you was your clue to follow, and then you stopped when they stopped. Claire was that leftmost individual, and I was standing next to her. In this manner he would attempt to keep the center of the line directly across from the bird.
We felt quite prepared once it finally got dark, and then the silent period commenced. The bird made no sounds that I could discern, but Mike was able to detect some rustling and infer its location. I estimate he gave us the silent instruction to move once every ten minutes or so. Up and down the road we shifted, making the faintest sounds we could, which frankly seemed no louder than the constant whine from the multitude of mosquitoes. We were thankful that we were provided with head nets and gloves, so that no skin was exposed during this period. Otherwise would have been a literal buffet line.
This went on for the better part of an hour, making as many shifts left as we did right. Occasionally a car would pass, and we’d have to hope it didn’t foul up all this work. Otherwise, not one sound was made by anyone other than the soft collective footsteps we’d practiced. It was a rather impressive display of teamwork. Although cautiously hopeful of seeing it, I was still preparing myself to be disappointed; either because the kiwi would not cooperate at all, or because my vision problems would prevent it.
Then with no warning, the kiwi made its move. I knew this only because I heard and felt the abrupt change – everyone was suddenly walking into the road and moving to my right. I moved along, but my nightmare scenario was unfolding: since I was near the left end of the line, fourteen human legs were already between me and the bird. I frantically scanned the blackness and saw nothing. Not even a hint of the red spotlight that Mike was directing down ahead of him – I didn’t even know where Mike was. In a matter of seconds everyone had stopped. The kiwi had crossed and was already down in dense cover. Everyone saw it except for me.
Shortly after this, it finally vocalized – the first time all evening. Being just a few meters away, it was piercing and otherwordly. It was an easy auditory ID, and so I could tick the bird with no reservations. Had it not called then, I was prepared to spend the night in the car with the windows down, mosquitos and all, waiting for one to do so. Claire was relieved that it didn’t come to that. Still, it was frustrating to have been that close to actually seeing it.
I’d love to have another shot, but a return to New Zealand, now that we are back in the US, isn’t looking too likely. Kudos to the team at Okarito Kiwi Tours for the work they do and for making the effort to accomodate a disabled birder. Be sure to add this most unusual of birding adventures to your itinerary if you are on the South Island.