Here's one for the birds

JULIETTA JAMESON
Last updated 14:42 21/01/2014
Kiwi
Andrew Digby/Zealandia

DON'T MOVE: There's a good chance Kiwis will come up to you as long as you don't disturb them.

Tui
David Hallett / Hedgehog House
HERE BIRDIE BIRDIE: You'll spot many native birds throughout the tour, including Tui.

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The night adventures at various zoos I have previously visited involved riding in a comfy motorised train past fenced-off exhibits of sleeping or silently grazing animals.

Based on this experience, and having done no research before my nocturnal visit to Zealandia, I figured what the animal sanctuary on the outskirts of Wellington had in store for me would be more of the same.

And so I find myself taken by complete surprise, in only the light clothes I have worn throughout a mild and sundrenched day, trudging windblown paths through a chilly, wild gully, surrounded by a canopy of vegetation that looks thick, amorphous and forbidding on a moonless night, no artificial light to guide the way.

And now I am frozen - in both senses of the word: very cold in that I foolishly haven't dressed at all appropriately, but also, suddenly poised rigid. A kiwi is making its way up the gloomy track.

"Don't move!" our guide whisper-barks.

"There's a good chance it'll come close to us if we don't disturb it with noise or movement."

Despite chattering teeth, I manage to hold myself motionless and the adorable, surprisingly small, flightless bird does indeed waddle right by us. In the excitement I forget how cold I am but I also come perilously close to forgetting the guide's edict and want to jump up and down in excitement.

"A kiwi! I saw a kiwi!" I'm thinking, as it shuffles past me.

"And in its natural habitat!"

It's not long until we see two more of the nocturnal foragers. And in the next few hours we'll count the calls of nearly 20 little spotted kiwi, that by the sounds of things, are close by.

Cold? Who's noticing during such a privileged experience. And the kiwi are only part of the story of the amazing Zealandia night tour, a guided walk through one of the most intriguing animal parks going.

Just three kilometres out of Wellington, Zealandia is 2¼ square kilometres of bushland surrounding two century-old reservoirs that formerly supplied the city's drinking water. Ringed by suburbia, the site could well have ended up as housing too, but for the vision of local Jim Lynch.

Many native birds disappeared upon human colonisation. Not only were some flightless, but they evolved with no natural predators, given the country was without native mammals, apart from bats.

Settlers introduced predators of the four-legged kind and hunted the birds, in some cases to extinction. In the early 1990s, Lynch wanted to do something about the dearth of native wildlife, particularly of birdsong, in Wellington. Lynch sussed out suitable sites, took his "Bring the birds back to Wellington" plan to various authorities, and Zealandia was born.

First, however, the reserve had to be enclosed by a custom-made 8.6-kilometre-long predator-proof fence, and then predators within the fence had to be eradicated. Introduced plants were also removed, all the while carefully conserving habitat for the few native birds that lived there.

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The group then introduced a veritable ark of others and replanted native vegetation, creating 35 kilometres of paths through it. That Zealandia won't be considered complete until all the vegetation matures - it's estimated that will be in 500 years - is testimony to the seriousness with which the project has been taken.

But there's plenty for visitors in the here and now. Our first bird encounter of the evening, is with a pair of takahe, an endangered and once thought extinct species. They are cumbersome and kooky, big, bulbous and slow with bright purple and blue plumage and a red beak. There are no more than 300 of them in the world and it feels like we're meeting rock stars.

The takahe are the only birds in the sanctuary that are in any way domesticated; their age, preciousness and educational value ensuring they are fed and kept near the Zealandia home base. Other birds can come and go in the park as they please.

"Listen," our guide whisper-barks shortly after we leave the takahe and with that she draws us to our first sudden halt. It's for the call of the onomatopoeically named morepork, as it's known here, or southern boobook elsewhere.

But the little owl really does sound as if it's calling out for more pork. Throughout the night we'll halt plenty more times and hear or see weka (another flightless bird), the once endangered tieke or saddleback, and the common and lovely species, kaka, bellbird, whitehead, North Island robin, kakariki parrot and tui.

Even armed with infrared torches, we hear more than see the birds. But there's still huge gratification in witnessing the nocturnal calls. Being out among the animals, wandering in the dark for a couple of hours is fun in itself.

Then there's the context of a unique place of heart and purpose as well as the enrichment of conservation - of knowing that many of these animals we are surrounded by had been completely wiped out of the greater area and are now flourishing in it again.

Before we leave, we shine our infrared torches into a rock bed and catch sight of tuatara, an ancient, amazing "living fossil" reptile. We see giant stick insects, huge grasshopper-like weta and gorgeous infestations of glowworms.

And of course, those lovely little kiwi.

The writer was a guest of Tourism New Zealand and Air New Zealand.

TRIP NOTES

STAYING THERE Ohtel is a funky, friendly boutique hotel on Wellington's waterfront and close to its CBD. It's also near to the Zealandia shuttle pick-up point, the Wellington i-SITE visitor centre on the corner of Victoria and Wakefield streets.  66 Oriental Parade, Oriental Bay. See ohtel.com.

SEE+DO Zealandia by Night runs for 2½ hours. The park closes at 5pm and reopens for night tours around sunset.Zealandia is at the end of Waiapu Road, Karori, Wellington.

See visitzealandia.com.

- Sydney Morning Herald

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