It’s too late for any of us to ever see a moa. But we have the next best thing in Wellington: Puffin and T2, the retired takahē. On the 1st of February 2011 these two birds, once a breeding pair on Mana Island, took up residence at the Zealandia wildlife sanctuary, and now enjoy a life of leisure in the wetland beside the lake. With their iridescent paua-coloured feathers, Flintstonian red beaks and dinosaur feet, the takahē resemble their cousins the pukeko – but only loosely. Visitors are amazed how huge they are, and excited to find how close they can get to these rare and highly endearing birds, which were thought to be extinct until they were rediscovered in Fiordland in 1948.
Critically endangered, with only around 225 birds remaining, takahē are a brilliant ‘advocacy’ species for Zealandia to share with the public, giving visitors the opportunity to see a piece of our lost history up close and personal. As Puffin and T2 amble around your feet it’s like looking through a window into the past, when New Zealand was 80% forest and still belonged to the birds. Children tend to be particularly taken with the takahē, fascinated by their ‘dinosaur’ look – and equally fascinated by their ‘weird green poo’ – always the hot topic at question time. The takahē is by far the most popular soft toy at the Zealandia shop, but more importantly these birds provide an insight for children into the story of our human impact on the natural world: the damage done, and the choice we can make to help rescue a species from the brink of extinction, or to do nothing and lose it from the world forever.
At Zealandia you can see takahē without travelling to an offshore island sanctuary. They have an unusually large range for a bird in captivity, roaming freely within their area right up to the fence line (they are each fitted with a radio transmitter so staff can track their movements). Most of their area is inaccessible to the public, providing a large private space where they can be separate from visitors, but throughout the day they come and go around the picnic area beside the wetland. The best time to see them is around midday when they start to anticipate the arrival of their daily volunteer, who sets out supplementary feed for them at 1.15pm each day. While the birds are nonchalant about people and seem largely unaware of the visitors walking through their area, they recognise the Zealandia volunteers’ t-shirts and have been known to give chase, feeding time or not!
Pest control is key to the takahēs’ survival in the wild, where like New Zealand’s other ground-nesting flightless birds they run a high risk of losing eggs and chicks to stoats. Puffin and T2 have nested twice since arriving at Zealandia, and the public has been enthralled each time, asking for constant updates. Unfortunately the pair is now relatively elderly and their eggs are no longer viable, but their nesting shows they are healthy and feel secure in their territory. And one day, who knows!
Relaxed, naïve and really quite goofy, takahē are the bird you can get the closest to in New Zealand. Many of us will never see our iconic kiwi in a natural setting, due to their nocturnal and secretive habits – though you can see them by night on a Zealandia tour. But whether you’re a local or a tourist, at Zealandia you can experience the past coming to life as a takahē walks right up to you as if the last thousand years had never happened.
Thank you to volunteer writer Liz Hibbs for this blog post.