In a land where sheep outnumber people, a birder exploring New Zealand's far corners encounters some of the rarest and most unusual birdlife on earth.
One bird alone has made Stewart Island famous, and to find it I take an evening boat ride with Phillip Smith, a former commercial fisherman who since 1990 has led birding tours to Ocean Beach, a remote spot on the island's eastern part. By the time we disembark and walk a short distance to the beach it's full dark, but on this nearly cloudless night a quarter-moon casts long shadows across the sand. In Smith's flashlight beam we can see that in places the beach is nearly covered with big three-toed footprints.
High tide has left a line of seaweed several yards from the sea, and when Smith disturbs a bit of it tiny creatures dart in all directions." We call these sandhoppers," he says. "They're actually amphipods, a type of crustacean. And this is what the kiwis come down to the beach to eat."
Within minutes, Smith spots one--a southern brown kiwi, shuffling and snuffling unconcernedly just 15 yards away. It looks like a fat man in ill-fitting trousers, poking its long bill into the sand to catch amphipods with the regularity of a sewing-machine needle. I've seen kiwis, but never like this. Normally, it takes considerable luck and patience to glimpse any kiwi; populations of all five species have plummeted because of the nocturnal birds' vulnerability to predators. Here they perform almost on schedule. Later I ask Smith what his success rate is. "In a good season we might do 130 trips," he says. "We miss on about one night a year."
It's well after midnight by the time we head back toward Halfmoon Bay, and a mug of hot chocolate feels good in the chilly wind. The moon leaves a trail of silver in our wake, and I think that, if for nothing else, Stewart Island deserves the word magical for this experience: the ease of seeing this primitive, fuzzy-feathered, bizarre, and wonderful bird, like nothing else on earth, surviving here with a population as healthy as any place in the country.
And of course I think of all the others, too: the big brash tuis and the stealthy tomtits and the rest, greeting the island dawn with a chorus that's been silenced over too much of the mainland. With the growth in sanctuaries such as Karori and Boundary Stream, virtual islands where native species can live unmolested by the predators they never learned to avoid, there's at least a chance that their songs will always ring out through New Zealand's forests, an echo from a time before man.
Mel White is the author of, among other books, A Birder's Guide to Arkansas, Exploring the Great Texas Coastal Birding Trail, and Complete National Parks of the United States.