New Zealand was separated from Australia some 80 million years ago. Over this period, life evolved into forms seen nowhere else, adapted to their habitat and their potential predators (or absence thereof). Before the arrival of men, 800 years ago, there was no terrestrial mammal in New Zealand, and many birds had lost the ability to fly. When the Maori introduced Polynesian rats (Ratus exulans), and later the European introduced countless exotic species, birds didn’t know how to defend themselves against these new predators. Pests ate birds, while men destroyed their habitat (and ate them too), and in no time, species declined dramatically. Some, like moas or the Huia, went extinct; below is a picture of all the animal and vegetal species that have disappeared since then.
Many others struggled. In 1999, an 8.6-km long fence was finished in the Karori district of Wellington. Of a brand-new design, it had been studied to keep out climbing, digging and jumping pest species like possums, rats and cats. Eradication of invading species ensued inside the fence, and in 2000, Zealandia was officially the first pest-free zone in an urban environment.
In addition to animals, pests have an impact on plants, eating them and threatening their survival. Birds but also trees were reintroduced to Zealandia and have been managed since then, in an attempt to restore nature as it should be – something that’s not expected to happen before 500 years!
I knew I would spend some time in Wellington, so when I visited first, I bought a membership. For 62$, I got an unlimited number of entries to the sanctuary. Then I set off on my first exploration.
I knew I would face challenges: Zealandia is open from 9am to 5pm, so there would be no golden hour photography. As it’s a valley facing north, it wouldn’t have been possible no matter the opening hours, so the only possibilities left were either harsh sunlight, or overcast days. After my first visit, I opted for the latter.
Harsh sunlight is generally not pleasing, for it creates strong shadows. In the forest, it’s even worse, for lighting would be uneven, with dark spots and bright burnt-out spots. Exposure and editing would be difficult, and the results underwhelming. I experienced that first hand in the beginning, but as I started to visit on cloudy mornings, things got better.
Overcast weather doesn’t come without drawbacks, the main one being that it’s dark. As a result, I had to bump the ISO towards dangerous territory, and handle noise as well as I could in post-production. My main shooting mode was Aperture priority with auto ISO, with a maximum of ISO 3200. Forest dwellers like North Island saddlebacks (Philesturnus rufusater) and Stitchbirds (Notiomystis cincta) are fast, so you don’t have time for manual exposure. All you can do is work with exposure compensation a bit, and hope for the best.
Like on Tiritiri, you could be sure that there was a North Island robin (Petroica longipes) nearby when you walked in the forest. Not that they liked you (sorry…), but they were after insects you disturbed. They are great, because they often sit still for a time, studying the ground before jumping and snatching a snack. The challenge was to have them do that on a stick rather than on the humid forest earth. They complied happily, several times.
Like on Tiritiri, there are sugar feeders in Zealandia, aimed at the same species: Stitchbird and New Zealand bellbird (Anthornis melanura). Following some knowing advice from a local group of photographers, I visited the feeder on the Round the Lake track. Bingo, many of these birds came there at regular intervals, offering stunning opportunities for photography. Again, it was a matter of being in the right place at the right moment, with the right angle (stand on the bench, there will be several branches at eye level with a satisfying background for photos). I even had some New Zealand kaka visiting me, one day.
I was also blessed with the sight of three BBBBs (baby bellbirds). Over the course of a week, I saw them evolve from a complete state of dependency on their parents, for food, to a state where they learnt to use the feeders. Unfortunately, I could only spot two of them on my last visit.
A male Bellbird seemed to be the dominant individual up there, and he chased Stitchbirds whenever he had the opportunity; on the other hand, I read that Stitchbirds maintain a territory around their nest and not around the feeder, which may explain why I often saw three males peacefully feeding together (if the bellbird let them, that is).
Speaking of Stitchbirds… do you know the Astérix comic-books? Do you remember the hero’s winged helmet? Then I give you this:
By the way, Stitchbirds are the only bird known to mate face to face. I didn’t see that; in fact, I didn’t see any female during my time in Zealandia. Maybe they were too busy incubating.
Life in the sanctuary could sound like a peaceful one for these birds, but danger was not completely inexistent. As I waited for the Kaka to show up at the feeders, a Zealandia worker noticed a New Zealand falcon (Falco novaeseelandiaea) perched above the main track. Not fussed by our presence, it preened and look at us from high there, and many visitors were able to admire this apex predator.
Then it flew, directly into the bush. Suddenly, the birds there burst in all directions, chirping in panic. One duck flew up, hit a branch and painfully landed in the undergrowth, before regaining some dignity when it realized it wasn’t the target. We supposed the falcon was after a Mallard duckling (Anas platyrhynchos), but no one could relocate the bird afterwards.
In addition to the BBBBs, I saw these ducklings several times, and also Paradise shelducklings (Tadorna variegata), on my last visit. I was about to leave the sanctuary, when I spotted them in the grass. I took the camera out of the bag and entered Zealandia again, lay on the ground for the last time and enjoyed some time with these tiny balls of fluff and their parents.
My last visit was also the day saddlebacks finally gave me proper opportunities for pictures, in the lower forest. So far, they had stayed in the darker dwellings, or high in the canopy, but this time they were at the right “altitude”. Thank you guys, much appreciated!
The Takahe (Porphyrio hochstetteri) never showed well, but I had got pretty photographs on Tiritiri. On the other hand, kakariki, or Red-crowned parakeets (Cyanoramphus novazelandiaea), gave a real show, flying low over our heads when coming to their dedicated feeders.
Zealandia isn’t only a place for birds. Rare frogs have found shelter there, rare geckos too (all endemics), and native trees as well. One emblematic species is the Tuatara (Sphenodon punctatus), which I talked about after my visit to Tiritiri (the two places share much, in case you haven’t noticed!). Many can be seen within an enclosure, along the main track; the idea was to keep the mice, which have always found their way into Zealandia, away. The tuatara outside this fence-inside-the-fence haven’t been found to fare much worse than those inside, but at least the area provides an easy place to view the weird reptiles. I found some of various sizes, basking in the light or in the shadows, but the last one impressed me. Motionless at its burrow’s mouth, it exuded ancientness and wisdom. Anthropomorphism? Definitely 😀
In a previous article, I presented you the kaka. They like their feeders… and so do the other birds, starting with Common blackbirds (Turdus merula), Dunnocks (Prunella modularis) and Mallards. One day, there was another visitor: a Brown teal, or pateke (Anas chlorotis). That’s an endemic duck, one that’s supposed to be nocturnal… but here it was, waiting for some leftover thrown over by the parrots. It gave me some close-up looks before disappearing into the undergrowth.
That was my experience of Zealandia. To it, I should add the visit of the exhibition, which describes in detail the former and present life forms present in New Zealand, and made me leave sad and distressed by the destructive alterations we brought upon this land.
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