A Journey into New Zealand Forest
by Helen Cordery
Pūkaha. The name means “windy mountain” but scratch beneath the surface and you find it is a whole lot more.
It may be a national wildlife centre and successful breeding conservation site, but it’s also home to hundreds of birds that are today found only in the rarest pockets of kiwi bush.
Come with us as we take you through the Pūkaha that we know but watch your step! There’s not only kiwi in this forest …
Welcome to the time machine
Travel to a New Zealand forest today and you will feel as though you are in an ancient world, one where plants reign supreme and trees are gods.
But there is one key difference between now and then: sound. Travel back in time just 500 years and you would notice bird song echoing from tree to tree; travel back in time 1000 years and that song would deafen you.
That is what Pūkaha National Wildlife Centre is aiming for, a return to the days when birds called so loudly that they drowned out teachers at the nearby primary school.
It may sound extreme, but once you realize that in the last few hundred years humans have been responsible for the extinction of 51 birds, 3 frogs, 3 lizards, 1 freshwater fish, 4 plants, 1 bat and unknown species of invertebrates at a rate 1000 times greater than any natural extinction rate and you can understand why. New Zealand’s native wildlife needs our help.
First time into the forest
Pūkaha is best explored in silence either first thing in the morning or under cover of darkness, when kiwis forage through the undergrowth.
Raised boardwalks, ramps, and stone-cluttered steps mark tracks through forests of whekī (tree fern), manuka (tea tree) and rewarewa (honeysuckle), giving intrepid explorers the chance to imagine what life was like hundreds of years before humans.
It’s a damp place – swamp-like and dense – that conjures up images of feathered raptors rather than man. It is here where you are most likely to feel our fragility, as the realization dawns that for countless millions of years, it was the birds that reigned supreme here, not mammals.
Hear kākāriki call
The red-crowned kākāriki, kākāriki karaka (orange-fronted parakeet), and yellow-crowned kākāriki are almost nondescript, blurring into the green foliage they call home in the first aviaries. In reality, these birds are anything but. For around 20,000 years, these small parrots have been flying through New Zealand’s forests, each occupying a different space on the food chain.
The red-crowns would forage on the forest floor and low canopies, the orange-fronted in the understoreys, while the yellow-crowns fluttered in the higher treetops. Today the red-crowns are thriving on off-shore, predator-free islands while yellow-crowns manage to eke out an existence in some mainland forests. The orange-fronted, however, are a different story and are all but extinct in the wild.
A wander down the ramps, and the hihi (stitchbird) call pierces the air like a ray of sunshine. These birds, with bird song strikingly vivid, are what is known as sexually dysmorphic: the females are a grey-brown hue and the males black with white ear tufts and yellow splashes across its back. They were originally widespread across the North Island, particularly the Bay of Islands, and are believed to have been driven from the mainland by rats.
One of the reserve’s big drawcards is Kahurangi, the hand-reared kōkako.
As a chick, Kahurangi was not thriving in the wild so DOC made the decision to hand-rear her. She is kept in captivity today as an advocate for her species as she had imprinted too much on humans to return to the wild.
Her beautiful call is evocative and carries for considerable distance, organ-like notes that are sonorous and soothing. As pretty these songs are, they serve a larger purpose, with the kōkako using them to identify and defend territory.
Kōkako were once classed as nationally vulnerable but since 2013 have been recovering.
A cheeky parrot with a story
Perhaps Pūkaha’s biggest success story is the North Island kākā, a cheeky parrot with beautiful red, brown and grey feathers. These birds were once so widespread that they forced the temporary closure of Eketahuna Primary School around 100 years ago but their numbers later radically declined in the area.
Through captive breeding and translocations kākā have been successfully reintroduced into Pūkaha’s forest, while two breeding pairs (as well as one foster parent pair) are kept in aviaries to breed. Their offspring are released back into the wild around New Zealand.
The cluster of coastal redwoods loom above the native plants in an amber-coated haze. These trees are all that remain of a hasty reforestation effort from 1930s that have been left to continue their journey upwards (perhaps to 100m) due to the fact that the birds love them. Their treetops are popular nesting spots for New Zealand falcons and morepork as well as the ground-based kiwi who often like to burrow below.
Inside the Free-Flight aviary, the silence is often interspersed with the fluttering of wings. Red-crowned kākāriki, tui, korimako (bellbirds) and kākā dash here and there, displaying little fear of us human visitors.
Peeking through the reeds are the cautious eyes of whio (blue duck) and pāteke (brown teal), both of which emit careful warnings when someone appears to get too close.
Walking around Pūkaha is sometimes raucously loud and at other times shockingly peaceful. The nectar habitat is home to swathes of resident tui, the largest of the honeyeater family, easily identifiable thanks to its iridescent green plumage, tufts of white throat feathers and lilting, musical tones.
Fantails flit in erratic displays across the path, while every now and then kererū flap past, sounding more like aeroplanes than birds.
Feeding the tuna
The tuna, or longfin eels, seem to have made a permanent home in Pūkaha’s river, no doubt due to the daily feed which delights eel, child and adult alike. Eels are fed leftover kiwi dinners, often comprising ox heart, but to be frank they aren’t that picky.
These eels are found only in New Zealand, calling freshwater rivers and creeks home until they follow a little-understood urge to swim against the currents of the ocean until Tonga, where they lay eggs and die, their elvers (larvae) floating back to New Zealand on their own.
These spectacular creatures have been around a good 80 million years and were once a vital food source for indigenous Māori but today are classed as at risk.
Manukura the white kiwi
The Kiwi House is a big draw – it’s dark, it’s spookily quiet and there is kiwi! Manukura may be white in colour but she is actually a brown kiwi, and the first of her type in the world. When she hatched at Pūkaha in May 2011, she gobsmacked even the most experienced of our scientists.
Kiwi – no matter what their colour – are a joy to observe, what with their comical walk and long nose prodding the ground. Manukura is easier to see than other kiwi, being white, which is why she has not been released into the wild. She has some firm interests too, meaning it has been hard to find her mate she gets along with.
Fish and Tuatara
Past the kiwi are the freshwater fish, such as the mudfish and the kōkopu (fully grown whitebait).
The tuatara, the only surviving reptile of the Sphenodontia family that once walked alongside the dinosaurs, stands unmoving in the final section of the Kiwi House. The tuatara is a fascinating creature that looks more like a small wingless dragon rather than reptile (just don’t call it a lizard!) – they are even born with three eyes!
All creatures great and small
The final walk from the Kiwi House to the Visitor Centre is joined by the creaking of the trees, the flapping of wings (kākā! kererū!) and the swish of water over rocks. Rewarewa (honeysuckle) and houhere (lacebark) line the path, the latter with leaves marked by beautiful lines like veins.
Ancient trees lean on each other, some with lichen pillows and others with clinging fungi on their sides. The trunks are bored with holes made by puriri moths and, if you are still enough, you might even catch a glimpse of a giraffe weevil or two. The insects are just as important as any other species here in the forest, helping to pollinate plants and provide food for the birds, lizards and bats.
Wētās relax in ready-made “wētā hotel” boxes while nursery spiders weave nests reminiscent of fluffy clouds on everything from flax to manuka – even the empty enclosures house reams of sheet web spiders for those brave enough to take a peek!
The team at Pūkaha are great believers in the idea that, although we humans started the problem, we are also the ones to fix it.
That is Pūkaha in a nutshell: one of many attempts in New Zealand trying to bring back some of its own from extinction before it is too late. It isn’t a zoo but it isn’t purely a breeding facility either – it’s in between, hoping to awaken a love for nature in locals and international visitors so that they go home and advocate for these creatures that otherwise would not have a voice we can hear.
Want to get involved in conservation? Pūkaha has several programmes available that directly contribute to the day to day care of our wildlife.
You might like to sign up as a member or perhaps adopt a slice of the New Zealand forest for yourself, meaning that your money will be going specifically towards one of the reserve’s 942 hectares of wild forest that needs maintaining or restoring.
Got questions? Send an email to [email protected] for more information.