There is only one place in New Zealand, to the best of our knowledge, where it is possible for members of the public to touch a live kiwi...the bird, that is. While I was wracking my brain trying to think how we could possibly entertain Kevin and Fiona in a manner that was remotely consistent with the marvelous time they had shown us in the Highlands of Scotland during our "It's Good to be Alive Tour" in 2016, this snippet of information came back to me. Gail had mentioned it in her description of meeting the wild kiwi on Moturua Island and, conveniently, the place was in Whangarei. It took a Monday-morning phone call to set-up an appointment that afternoon, but by the time we left Marsden Cove, we had a plan.
Fiona and Kevin had arrived in their rental car from Auckland on Sunday afternoon and they had most obligingly brought a good supply of beer, wine, and gin, saving us the need to make a special trip to the grocery and liquor stores in Ruakaka. Sheltering in the cockpit with all of the Bimini windows to protect us from the frequent showers, we had a delightful evening catching-up on each other's news and reminiscing about our 2016 visit. Among, that trip's highlights had been hand-feeding reindeer, a ride on a steam train, a short hike to a hill in Aviemore for a picnic, a lovely pub dinner, and a splendid tour of a local whiskey distillery...with the inevitable samples just before getting on the train to Glasgow.
Kevin and Fiona enjoyed the view from Tregoning's bow as we head upriver to Whangarei
This was Fiona's first experience on a large sailboat and neither of them expected to be particularly comfortable in the swell that was forecast at sea, so we had decided that motoring up the river in Tregoning to the Town Basin Marina would be more suitable. Having to remain in the narrow, dredged channel most of the time, and the absence of consistent wind nixed any hope we had of sailing so it was more equivalent to a ride in a diesel train rather than a steam-engine but everyone seemed to enjoy themselves as it is an attractive, two-hour passage. Kevin took the helm for a while and we did not have to wait for the Hatea Bascule Bridge as we arrived there second in a line of several boats riding the flood-tide upstream.
Kevin looking suitably serious having been entrusted with the helm of Tregoning
We kept a look-out for little blue penguins, which we have seen several times in Whangarei Harbour, but to no avail. However, we all enjoyed watching the aerial acrobatics and piercing dives of the Australasian gannets, the frantic antics of the white-fronted terns, and the calm duck-dives of the black-and-white-necked pied cormorants.
With a 3:30 pm appointment at the Whangarei Native Bird Recovery Center, as soon as we had Tregoning securely rafted-up next to SV Maitea, Fiona, Kevin, and I walked around the Basin to retrieve Vandy and Eric's car, Baxter. Robyn and Mark (SV Mintaka) had kindly hosted Baxter so we greatly appreciated their assistance (which Baxter insisted that we express in a nice bottle of New Zealand wine). After a pleasant drive to Marsden Cove to rescue the rental car, the three of us reassembled in Whangarei to find that Kevin's elbow was giving him grief.
We had noticed how swollen it was when they had first arrived and they thought it was the result of an insect bite that might have been infected. The swelling and discomfort had seemed to diminish over time but something about the boat-ride, walk, and car-trip had aggravated it, and Kevin was quite concerned about the pain and golf-ball sized lump. Once we got him to the White Cross Clinic (a "doc-in-the-box" as they call such walk-in clinics in the US) and learned that there would be a 90-minute wait, Kevin insisted that we leave him alone and the rest of us continue to the Bird Center as planned. In the end, he was diagnosed with bursitis and was encouraged to use over-the-counter anti-inflammatory pain-meds as well as keeping the elbow as straight and immobile as possible. Luckily, it was his left elbow and since Kevin is right-handed, these exhortations and the compression bandage did not inhibit his ability to raise a beer bottle to his lips...
Meanwhile, Fiona, Randall, and I had a splendid time at the Native Bird Recovery Center which is on the west side of Whangarei, next to the museum and nocturnal kiwi house at Kiwi North. While the Recovery Center is open to visitors for free on weekday afternoons and some mornings, only a limited number of birds can be seen in the outdoor aviaries. By making an appointment and agreeing to pay $10 each (and by the end, I suspect that most of these "donations" are greater), Robert will give a guided tour that includes a personal meeting the brown kiwi, Sparky.
Alison meets kiwi Sparky who is held in Kiwi Robert's arms
A retired truck-driver, Robert is a marvelous character who is an endless source of information about New Zealand's native birds and an enthusiastic story-teller. He and his wife, Robyn (of course), have always been keen on rescuing injured birds and they established the Recovery Center as something of a hobby. Once they received their first kiwi, Snoopy, which had lost a leg in a gin-trap intended to catch possums, there followed a bit of a show-down with the national conservation authorities over the permits necessary for keeping kiwis in captivity. Eventually, Robert and his wife prevailed after it was revealed by the officials that they would have to euthanize the bird, to which Robert responded by inviting national television stations to witness the confiscation of the kiwi. Appropriate permits were forthcoming and their charitably funded Center is the approved destination for all sick or injured wild birds found north of Auckland.
With an avian veterinarian on-call and a well-equipped bird hospital on-site, all sorts of birds have passed through the Recovery Center, especially when big storms disrupt the seasonal flights of migratory birds or knock nestling to the ground. Most birds are brought directly to the Center, rather than having to be collected, but often a phone-call to Robert about a particular find will result in his advice to leave the fledgling be, or assist it in some manner in place. Robert told us that after particularly bad weather, they may have to accommodate about 200 birds of many different species and sizes.
Most birds that are suffering exhaustion or from fixable injuries, will be released back into appropriate habitats but a few that will not survive in the wild (such as one-legged-kiwis) are kept at the Center both as educational tools and as "hosts" that help to calm-down newly arrived patients. Some of the less-common birds that do not survive their injuries, such as albatrosses, owls, etc. are sent to the taxidermist and the tour ends on a surprisingly uplifting note despite standing in a room surrounded by these beautiful but unfortunate birds.
Among the Center's permanent residents are a pair of tuis that were taught how to talk by another, now deceased, tui. Their vocabulary is fairly limited but the words are quite distinctly used in reply to Robert's questions. We also got to see three temporarily injured swamp harriers (mostly hit by vehicles) that were being reassured by a crippled, permanent resident. There were also some about-to-be-released New Zealand pigeons, and a young gull and non-native myna bird hung around the center hoping to be fed occasionally.
Is Sparky looking for food up Robert's sleeve or feeling a bit shy?
However, the star of the show was undoubtedly Sparky. Another one-legged survivor of a predator-trap, Sparky took over as the ambassador for New Zealand's wild birds after Snoopy died at the impressive age of 15. Snoopy received a posthumous Conservation Award from the national Department of Conservation.
A Snoopy had done, Sparky makes guest appearances around the North Island and particularly in schools, not only to allow people an opportunity for an up-close encounter with a kiwi but even a chance to touch him and see what his feathers feel like. Apparently, he has become used to the interruptions to his normally nocturnal life-style and will happily probe the soil for worms once we have finished petting him and while Robert tells his story and answers our many questions. He returned to his little hutch after our visit and would have plenty of time that night to hunt for more worms in his enclosure or eat the supplemental food provided.
Sparky probing for earthworms
Sparky is very sensitive to having his long curved bill touched but, otherwise, he was quite content to let Robert pick him up to move him around or to expose the strangely truncated, bristle-tipped vestige of a wing (or hand) that is well-hidden under the kiwi's coarse, loose feathers. We asked Robert whether the intensive handling of the wild birds needed to treat them, and the period of hand-feeding, created problems after they were released. He did note that the resident tuis had been found hanging around houses after they were released and were at risk of predation by domestic cats so were recaptured. On the whole, however, most birds stayed for a short time or they were fed more remotely. If they had been handled quite a bit, usually a week of being left untouched (just fed through a trap-door) was enough for their intolerance and fear of people to return. The subsequently rather bad-tempered birds were quick to make their escape when it came time for their release.
Robert reveals Sparky's bristle-tipped, vestigial wing usually well-hidden under large feathers
We were very glad to hear all of this because the co-headliner of our visit would eventually be released and we did not want to think that our contact might have been detrimental to its survival. An unexpected treat (because it depends on what birds are being treated), Robert introduced us to a little blue penguin that had been found on a beach totally exhausted and lacking its usual water-proofing. The latter oils are produced and preened back into the feathers once the bird is healthy but without them this expert swimmer would undoubtedly drown if submerged.
Fiona finally meets a little blue penguin
Randall and I have seen many of these penguins in the sea or coming ashore on the South Island but it was extraordinary to actually touch one. Having failed to see any on our morning's cruise through Whangarei Harbour, it was especially delightful for Fiona to see how small this fully-grown penguin was. It might become irritable with human contact, after a week of isolation before being released, but now when Robert tickled it under the chin there was no doubt that the little penguin was absolutely loving it.
Robert knew just how to make this little blue penguin happy with a good scratch under the chin
Although we were sorry that Kevin had missed such a marvelous experience at the Recovery Center, he seemed to be very pleased that Fiona had been able to coo and fuss with me over these amazing native birds. It was close to equivalency with the hand-feeding reindeer experience but we fell a little short in only being able to provide this treat to Fiona (and ourselves).
That evening, Kevin and Fiona kindly treated us to a delicious dinner at The Quay Restaurant overlooking the marina. Not a very imaginative choice but the food and view are excellent so why not stay local? Since we were sitting at tables on the deck outside, several cruisers walked by and cheerfully welcomed us back to the marina, including Gail and Dean, and Renate and Martin.
Whangarei Falls in splendid sunlight
The following day, we drove to A.H. Reed Kauri Park where we showed-off the magnificent kauri specimens that can be seen from the canopy walk there. We then strolled up the Hatea River until we reached Whangarei Falls which were bathed in sunshine and suitably supplied with water. Needless to say, as soon as he spotted some submersed aquatic plants, Kevin was keen to photograph, sample, and identify them. You cannot take an aquatic botanist to any freshwater site without them getting excited about pulling something slimy out of it (Kevin was the supervisor of my doctorate on freshwater weeds).
Kevin cannot resist documenting these submersed freshwater plants
I walked back downstream to get the car while the others climbed to the top of the falls. We then drove part of the way towards Whangarei Heads before stopping at the Parua Bay Tavern for a pleasant pub-lunch on the sunny but breezy lawn...hang on to your lettuce! On the way back, we detoured to drive to the top of Parihaka where the views over Whanagrei town and harbour were particularly clear and extensive. Given that Fiona and Kevin had been roasting during the rest of their stay in New Zealand and that some rainy weather was in the forecast, it was particularly fortunate that we had enjoyed such delightful weather once we got them to Whangarei.
They left on Wednesday morning, heading south towards the Coromandel Peninsula and then on to Rotorua. In the spirit of equivalency, we had offered to take them to a local vineyard for a wine-tasting session that morning (to match the whiskey distillery) but reports from friends who had made one such trip had not been particularly encouraging. We also did not think that drinking wine mid-morning before driving south was a particularly sensible idea, whereas riding a train at 11 am while a little tipsy from whiskey samples had not had quite the same potential risks.
We had thoroughly enjoyed their visit and they seemed to be pretty pleased as well. Those of you who know my competitive tendencies, may not believe that we were not really intending to create a competitive arms-race of visitor activities with Kevin and Fiona...but the stakes on both sides have now been raised pretty high... We wonder what fabulous experiences our next meeting will entail.