Over Easter, the weather suddenly went all settled and warm. This is perhaps not unusual for autumn, but given the crap summer most parts of the country have had for the past few months it was somewhat unexpected. In fact the forecast for Easter was so dire that it played a reasonable part in us deciding to hunker down at home.

Anyway, Sunday being another in this run of fine, fine days, I thought we should have a family trek into the Karori Wildlife Sanctuary – a.k.a. Zealandia. This, for those unfamiliar with it, is a large area of wooded valley not far from the centre of Wellington that has been enclosed by a rat/cat/possum/stoat-proof fence, with lots of fairly rare native species “liberated” inside. We’re members, but we never remember to visit often enough.

This time, I really wanted to get further up the valley into some areas I had not been to before, and also to see if I could spot and take photos of the resident falcons (Kārearea).

The first of these objectives was reached, but not the second. Lots of good exercise, and many not so good photos were taken…

The first animals we saw were the beautiful green Wellington geckos sunning themselves in their terrariums. These are pretty hard to find in the wild, being so cryptic. Even in their terrarium it can sometimes take a bit of effort to spot them, such is their camouflage.

I find the texture of their scales very pretty indeed:

Wellington Gecko

Sadly, these are not animals that can co-exist with rats, so we are unlikely to find any of these around our house, prime habitat though it is.

Along the valley’s side
We were pretty keen to stay out of the way of the mass of people trundling along the flat, stroller-friendly valley floor. There are lots of tracks that twist up and through the pines and regenerating bush.

In there, the city intruded only sporadically. We could have been miles away, with only passing aeroplanes to remind us where we really were:


The dry, brown pine-needles also provided quite a nice contrast to the Hound’s Tongue fern that were everywhere under the pines:

ferns; pine needles

Then we heard a new (to us) birdcall. After a bit of careful observation we found a pair of Stitchbirds (Hihi) in a bush full of berries beside a track further up the hill… but just as we were bringing the cameras to bear a pair of Tui (Tūī) arrived on the scene and chased them off. Tui are pretty aggressive and like to lord it over the local Stitchbirds and Bellbirds (Korimako), to the point where special supplementary feeders have had to be constructed that the larger Tui can’t get into.

That was the last we saw of the Stitchbirds. But there was still plenty to see and hear: particularly, noisy little flocks of Whiteheads (Pōpokotea), a few Waxeyes (Tauhou), the occasional Grey Warbler (Riroriro), and the omnipresent Tuis – the latter three species are not uncommon in Wellington’s west. (The Tui only since the Sanctuary was founded – they’ve gotten enough numbers now to spread right out across the city whereas before they were rare here.)

One rare bird we did see a lot of was the North Island Robin (Toutouwai), particularly further up the valley past the top lake.

The robins tend to be a bit territorial and will stand their ground, often advancing quite close – which certainly makes them easier to photo:

North Island Robin

And judging by the angle on this photo you can see how close the robins get. This bird was almost under my feet.

North Island Robin

I shouldn’t call these wee birds cute. But I will. They’re cute.

The other rare bird we saw a lot of was the Saddleback (Tieke). This was a slightly amusing point, as we were passed at one stage by a chap whose fondest wish was to spot one. There was one here just a minute ago, we told him, but he steamed on. Of course, once he was gone, the saddleback returned.

Sadly, they seemed to hang out in the most shady spots and our photos aren’t that fantastic. But I console myself that I probably managed to get the best picture ever taken of a saddleback’s arse.

The Parson's Nose

But aside from trying to take photos of them, they were lovely to observe. I watched one bound up and down tree boughs, inspecting little leaf-falls and bark clumps for insects. When it had caught something, it would bounce back through the branches arching over the track to another saddleback. The second bird performed what looked like begging movements: bobbing and wing flickering. It got the food – so it must have been a pretty much fully fledged chick.

Lazy bugger needed to leave home, I thought.

Back along the main track
We rounded the upper lake and rejoined the main track back down the valley. Sadly, all the Kaka (Kākā) were out and about – on fine days they apparently don’t like to hang around the Sanctuary and instead venture out into the suburbs and beyond.

(One fine day in springtime last year we had a kaka visit our house, four km from the Sanctuary. Judging by the various videos and photos taken by people living close by, it appears kaka have learned that if a house has a deck, then one can obtain food by boogieing up and down the deck railing in a fetching manner (as our visitor did). We weren’t smart enough to figure out what it wanted… but then we wouldn’t have fed it either. It flew away before I could get a photo.)

And so on to the top of the lake, where there was a couple of Takahe (Takahē) lurking. OK, so they’re practically tame and wander about at your feet, so pictures are easy:


I don’t think it’s an especially pretty bird (not that that matters, and of course opinions vary), but I like the way the sun catches its eye.

The exhibition
Since the last time I’d been to the Sanctuary they’ve spent up large and built an “attraction” – an exhibition and café. We skipped the café and had a quick look at the exhibition.

I found the whole thing a bit of a downer: really interesting, but very very sad. Stuffed birds yes, but lots of good info and interactive displays. But in the stairwell to the upper level there were plaques for a whole lot of extinct species I’d never even heard of. And then there was the thing they show every half an hour, a five minute montage of the last 1,000 years of biological history, a epic disaster movie showing just how all those species were lost. It was so sad and disturbing our youngest daughter couldn’t watch it.

I ended up wondering if, given how badly the human race had f••ked up on these islands, was it worth trying to save anything that couldn’t now save itself? If all we humans disappeared tomorrow, the Sanctuary would be overrun with pests and every one of the rare species killed within just a few years. Is this “mainland island” a sustainable approach to conservation?

But I suppose the point is not so much sustainable conservation, as awareness that things need doing. But frankly, I’m not sure we’re up to the task of doing it. Sometimes I think we humans are a plague, a dangerous monoculture of maximal resource utilisation at the expense of all others. We’re at a stage now where there’s decreasing room for other species, except those that can live in parasitic or commensal relationships with us.

What a happy thought.

Home again
I never got to see the falcons close up – maybe another time. Even so, I’m not likely to get photos as good as these by Steve Attwood, who hung out in the Sanctuary for days getting them.

Still, we had a lovely walk of around eight kilometres, which made me happy. Easter was not wasted.