Arduous hunt for elusive kiwi

It felt like riding "shotgun". As the ute lurches along the dark, winding road somewhere between Purangi Saddle and Inglewood, the precious warm cargo is cradled in secure hands.

At the wheel Bob Schumacher navigates the difficult stretch of back country road as my cupped hands are held aloft to prevent jolting. A line of black crayon shows which is the precious kiwi egg's top side - it must stay upright throughout the hour-long journey which tests my aching arms.

The Western brown kiwi egg was laid 10 days earlier and my strict instructions demonstrate the level of care the East Taranaki Environment Trust (ETET) and its volunteers take in preserving kiwi numbers and monitoring their wellbeing.

Six wild kiwi on a remote piece of land in the Purangi area have been fitted with transmitting devices so their activity and health can be monitored.

The battery life on the devices is one year, so ETET's Bob Schumacher along with kiwi trackers Sid Marsh and Kelly Brider and one of Bob's trapping contractors, Harry Paul, are heading into the bush to find the kiwi and fit them with new transmitters.

The transmitters allow the trackers to trace not just the kiwi's location, but also whether the birds are nesting, how many eggs they have lain and whether those eggs had hatched into chicks.

Today we are looking for Baccy, a male kiwi named for his proximity to a bush track called Tobacco Rd and a crop of the whacky kind found growing nearby last year.

Today's egg is an accidental find.

For some reason Baccy's transmitter had not switched to incubating mode so the trackers were unaware he was on daddy duty.

"If we had known there was an egg here we would not have gone for him," Bob explained.

When an egg is touched by a human hand a kiwi will abandon it, so Baccy's youngster is headed for Rainbow Springs Kiwi Encounter in Rotorua where it will be artificially incubated.

In the morning we assemble at the Purangi Field Centre, or as Bob says "a flash name for a portacom" which backs onto the 70 odd hectares of Otunahe Scenic Reserve.

The reserve is a private QEII- covenanted reserve which lies on the farm property of the Schumachers and is part of the Purangi kiwi project, a predator-controlled area cared for by ETET.

The Schumachers conducted some work last year with Sid and a Department of Conservation team and estimate there are about 500 kiwi living in the project area.

Sid and Kelly are our two kiwi trackers for the day and at 9am they have just returned from a fruitless kiwi device- changing mission. The kiwi was in an "inaccessible position".

Nevertheless, everyone remains optimistic, and Sid begins by raising a blue aerial and pointing it in several directions to determine the vague location of our feathered friend.

We all hop on the tray of a tiny truck, the size of which doesn't alarm me until we cross the paddocks and Bob proceeds to drive up an impossibly steep clay track.

"Farm accidents do happen," Kelly quips as I laugh in an effort to conceal my sheer terror.

However, the little truck and its well- treaded tyres surpass our expectations and we reach the ridgeline.

The trackers are used to scrambling across densely bushed ridgelines, through deep gullies and merciless blackberry but despite their persistence their small, flightless prize often evades them.

In this dissected country where ridges plunge into deep valleys and hidden spurs veer off at unexpected angles, the transmitter signal can bounce, leaving much of the tracking down to patience, instinct and luck.

Kelly Brider used to work at the kiwi creche at Whanganui's Bushy Park and has six years experience with the telemetry gear.

"Some people pick up tracking easy, some people don't. It takes a lot of patience, some people can't be bothered with that."

Sometimes it is hard to get a signal from the bird's transmitter, she says.

"There's little nooks and crannies they get into. You can locate a bird but it might take another hour to get it. It just depends how deep they are, how long the burrow is."

Kiwi burrows can be up to 2 metres long.

"So you get there, shine your torch in, say 'hi', then walk away. That's all you can do."

We spend about six hours following Sid and Kelly's direction, starting in a damp, sunless gully with steep sides which confuse the aerial no end.

The stream we're following pops out into farmland and we follow the faint beep of the receiver through a tunnel of macrocarpa.

Alas, the land drops away and we have to head up to the ridgeline again and try down another spur.

"He could be as close as 100m away," Bob explains.

"His burrow could be deep or facing the opposite direction."

Making their homes in such inaccessible country was part of the reason kiwi survived so long, he said.

"This country's so steep and rough, predators have trouble finding and catching them."

"What's ya headline gonna be?" Harry queries over my shoulder as we wait for Sid to hack at yet another wall of blackberry.

"Bush bash reveals no kiwi", I reply gloomily to a series of guffaws.

It's about 4pm when we decide to venture down the last spur of the day with the hope it's the right one.

Cloaked in kanuka and thick fern and with a view through the gully to far-off paddocks, it's much more pleasant than the rough scrub we've beaten through all day. As it turned out, Baccy agreed.

Sid and Kelly carefully scope out the burrow's entrance before the rest of us approach, and when Sid calls us down, Kelly is nursing a squirming feathery bundle.

Baccy is weighed and checked and pronounced to be in good condition and healthy.

"Bird" is a bit of a misnomer for the kiwi.

His wings are stumps hidden by soft brown feathers and his beady eyes and long whiskers are closer to a mammal built for snuffling through the undergrowth.

The kiwi's beak has practically no use, as it is the strong, dinosaur-like legs that he uses to hollow out a comfortable burrow and scratch for food.

A lesser known fact of our humble kiwi is their penchant for an al fresco nighttime romp.

"They're quite playful," Sid says.

"They mate out in the open at night. They'll make all these sweet, whimpering affectionate noises.

"They're more gregarious, social animals than people realise."

Bob takes over as nanny to the egg and begins the slow and careful ascent back to the truck.

Sitting in the bracken and splattered with kiwi poo I cuddle the strange, taloned creature we call our national icon. I'm glad it took us all day to find the little blighter. I smile at Baccy's rear as it wriggles back into the burrow.

Keep hiding, little guy, you're good at it.

Taranaki Daily News