TOSSI - Sweet talking kiwi

By: Jackie Russell

When talking to Kiwis about kiwi, very few have actually seen one in the wild, but most of us would love to spot the iconic bird in New Zealand’s wilderness. Consequently, when TOSSI asks for volunteers to sit in the dark on winter nights to listen for kiwi calling to potential lovers, we are swamped with eager assistants. Bird lovers around the globe are captivated by our curious kiwi, which are particularly shy until there is a hint of romance in the air.

TOSSI volunteers have monitored the endemic bird since 14 North Island brown kiwi were reintroduced to Tāwharanui in 2006, following a 60-year absence from Auckland’s mainland. At that time, conservationists recommended volunteers avoid getting in the birds’ space, which risked making the vulnerable ground-dwellers too comfortable around people. The solution is for volunteers to rug up and head for the hills throughout the Tāwharanui open sanctuary to listen for amorous kiwi rather than eyeballing them. Every June, the citizen scientists lurk about in the park for two hours on four nights and record calling data that helps track changes in kiwi abundance and distribution.

Recording kiwi calls in midwinter darkness at Tāwharanui.Recording kiwi calls in midwinter darkness at Tāwharanui.

This winter, I spent a couple of nights attempting to attune my tone-deaf ears to sweet talking kiwi. Before the work started, all participants learnt about the sounds of kiwi, as well as sneaky mimics, such as ruru. We were instructed on taking bearings to identify the direction of mating calls and how to estimate the distance kiwi may be away from us, using an imaginary rugby field as a gauge. The data we collected needs to be consistent from year to year. No pressure. Volunteers are positioned at the same sites each year, which helps identify any changes.  

The crisp and calm weather was perfect, but waves crashed on to rocks below and created noisy interference. However, this was nothing compared to the distracting racket from grey-faced petrels, which persistently fluttered about overhead and squeaked like low-flying guinea pigs.

With excitement, my more astute colleague heard a kiwi call. Typically, the male shouts out and the female responds. I guess if she’s not interested, she just keeps quiet. After two hours of focused listening, I wandered along the track to see what I could find. My stealthy pursuit was rewarded when a nonchalant kiwi shuffled along the track and disappeared into dense undergrowth.

Back at the base, other monitors revealed they also had experienced a kiwi encounter, and some had to wait for the nation’s national bird to get off the track before they could continue on their way. That is the type of traffic hold-up I’m sure we would all enjoy.
Once the seasonal monitoring is complete, the data is collated and sent to the Department of Conservation. Now, we have enough kiwi at Tāwharanui to prepare to send some to Tamahunga when there are sufficient predator controls there. We know some kiwi have independently moved out of the sanctuary to establish new territories, which gives greater impetus for communities to industriously trap predators and keep dogs under control.

Jackie Russell, TOSSI


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