Who Dares Birds

An ornithological education

In the late '80s a small item in the Evening Post told of the discovery of a South Island kōkako feather on Stewart Island. Ten-years-old, I wrote to the Wildlife Service asking if I ‘could please be kept up to date with future news’ of the thought-to-be-extinct bird with the orange cravat, Zorro mask and polished steel cloak.

They wrote back, inviting me to spend a school holiday on Kāpiti Island, helping trap possums and release saddleback with Dr Tim Lovegrove. What more could a junior bird nerd with a Forest & Bird patch on his Swannie sleeve want for an island adventure?

My prior childhood obsession — fueled by my Dad’s VHS collection of man alone muscle films (Rambo, Predator) — had been with the Special Air Service (SAS), the NZ Army’s elite commando unit. But Tararua bush walks with my Poppa and books like Gerald Durrell’s My Family and Other Animals saw daggers swapped for binoculars. From wannabe Willie Apiata to twitcher might seem an unlikely shift, but the buzz gained from bush bashing through supplejack in search of tieke, was not so dissimilar to the excitement of ‘who dares wins’ jungle exploits. There was physical risk and reward, camaraderie, and detective work in challenging environments. Skidding down guts and root-scrambling up hillsides like Ewoks through Endor was like hunting, but without the guns.

It was my first time away from home without parents. I stayed in the ranger’s hut and tagged along with passionate adults engaging in and sharing their mahi. For a mutable brain it was easy to form a Boy vs Wild narrative from the experience.

And then there were the birds: edge of the world endemic, rare, charismatic, with Māori myth backstories and strange evolutionary quirks; as unique to NZ as the All Blacks. Durrell’s upbringing amidst a menagerie of animals on a Greek Island had fostered his zeal for the animal kingdom. Kāpiti was my Corfu. My Santa wish-list morphed from This is the SAS to Buller’s Book of Birds.

The lessons from Lovegrove et al weren’t patronising or formal – this was natural history in the field. There was scientific enquiry: how do the birds and flora ‘work’? What are their special characteristics (and character)? How do they/will they survive?

The rangers also shared their sense of wonder, and unveiled extraordinary facts. Did you know a tui has two voice boxes? Or that a kiwi’s coat is more like fur than feathers? ‘Touch and see.’ Or that you can eat supplejack vine tips? ‘Here, try this.’ (They taste like asparagus.)

Kāpiti opened up the New Zealand bush and hills as a lifelong playground. To the annoyance of my siblings, family holidays were hijacked for muddy manu seeking missions. I set about planting a native forest in my parents’ Johnsonville backyard and making nest boxes with latches recycled from velcro shoe straps.

The box’s first inhabitants (starlings) were fast food for our cat Garfield, so I sent Dad to the hardware store and swaddled the box’s eucalyptus post in aluminum. I wonder how tall the totara and kauri on that northern suburbs hillside are, nearly three decades on? Then, the only native birds I attracted were silvereyes. I wonder if tui and other Zealandia escapees now drop in to say gidday?

In a 2013 Guardian essay Eleanor Catton wrote about growing up in New Zealand sans-TV. She described her early introduction to the mountains and being dragged on tandem bike trips over Southern Alps passes: ‘My parents were unapologetic about this, and told me very cheerfully that I would thank them for it when I was older, which was quite true.’

My first encounters with the wilderness also came before the introspection and image-obsession of the teenage years would make the chances of forming a bond with nature more remote. At age ten I felt no self-conscious spiritual tug, but even so, that Kāpiti trip was the place where my communion with nature was ‘composted’ (to borrow Gary Snyder’s image).

So following Eleanor’s lead, I’d offer my thanks to Poppa for showing me the cathedral of Hemi Matenga’s kohekohe arches, and to the Wildlife Service and Tim Lovegrove for inviting a ten-year-old over to the island (It probably wouldn’t happen in the age of OSH). Those natural highs were gateway drugs to a back country addiction.