Communing with the kiwi

Cracking the code of the call of the kiwi.
Cracking the code of the call of the kiwi.

The blackbirds, tui and kaka all fall silent at the same moment. "That's it for the day birds," whispers Andrew Digby, a former post-doctoral fellow at Nasa, now working on his second PhD. A morepork hoots nearby as if to underline the transition from day to night. "Would you mind checking if he's still down there?" Andrew asks.

I flick the knob of the radio telemetry receiver and start swinging the aerial in a slow arc, adjusting the gain knob, trying to look like I know what I'm doing after having the thing in my hands for the past hour. "He's still down there," I say, more hopeful than sure.

I feel very much the tagalong on this legitimate scientific endeavour. I'm still wearing grey dress pants and leather shoes, having come to the Karori Sanctuary/ Zealandia from work. I've never ever seen a kiwi without an intervening pane of glass.

In December, I'll be taking German friends around New Zealand. This has made me conscious of questions they may ask for which I have no answer.

In particular, I've realised how few sweedles, toks and cheets I can match to the birds that make them. Looking up birdsong online, I came across the research being undertaken by Victoria University's Centre for Biodiversity and Restoration Ecology. That's how I got in touch with Andrew, who is recording and studying the calls of little spotted kiwi around New Zealand to see, among other things, if different populations have dialects and if individuals have signature calls.

Tonight, we are staking out a male that spent the day sleeping in a box just off the Tieke trail. About 6.30pm we walk slowly down to the base of the path and spot the imaginatively named Lower Tieke Male rooting through the undergrowth. He's nonplussed by our presence. Soon after he calls, a piercing weep weep weep weep, just a few feet from us.

Soon after, another call sounds from behind us.

After recording this outburst, Andrew spots a female, which he identifies as Lower Tieke Female thanks to her location and a glimpse of the bands on her leg.

Less than two hours after logging off my PC and I have now stood between two serenading kiwi (NB: this is just my romantic reading of the situation; Andrew & co haven't cracked the code of kiwi calls yet, so there's no way of knowing quite what they were saying).

We go on to stake out and record two more kiwi, thanks in no small part to my mastery of radio telemetry (OK, maybe not) and we spot a fifth by the side of the path on the way back to civilisation.

What a wonder the Karori Sanctuary is!

For Andrew, having the sanctuary on his doorstep means he can compile large amounts of data on the population of about 60 kiwi that call the valley home.

For an average Joe like me it means I can encounter kiwi after work and be home by 8.30pm, surrounded by my own creature comforts but changed ever so slightly.

Still not a true kiwi, perhaps, but able to recognise the call of one.

The Dominion Post