Monday, October 5

Cold kakapo memories

It’s cold tonight. I’ve even put on a sweatshirt - a first for the season. This evening's temperature has already dropped to 15°C, heading for an overnight low of 11°C. Even this is rather balmy compared to last night when temperatures fell in single figures. I’m sure we’ll have the central heating permanently on within weeks.

As the weather turns cooler I’m reminded of my childhood. Like most homes in New Zealand we never had central heating. My bedroom was cold at night, warmed only by a faithful electric blanket. Even worse, my winter school uniform always consisted of woolen shorts and long woolen socks. I recall more than one morning walking to school across playing fields covered in a deep, crisp layer of heavy white frost. As a result, New Zealand winters seemed to last forever.

Ok - it's my cub scout uniform - but you get the picture

Of course, not all of my New Zealand memories are so gloomy as the BBC reminded me earlier tonight. Garry and I were watching British comedian, Stephen Fry, and naturalist, Mark Carwardine, trekking through damp and cold New Zealand bush as part of the documentary series, Last Chance to See. This evening Stephen and Mark went in search of the Kakapo, a large, iridescent green, flightless parrot. It was considered all but extinct until 1973 when 18 males were found in a remote, rugged valley on the southwest coast of New Zealand's South Isaland.

The BBC also broadcast footage of the Chatham Island Robin this evening. This small black bird was once the world’s rarest animal. In 1979 there were only five still alive, four males and one breeding female called Old Blue. As a result, throughout my teenage years, the Chatham Island Robin was the poster child of New Zealand’s conservation movement. I even wrote a poem about this bird that was published in the local newspaper. Incredibly, three decades later, more than 200 birds are now thriving on Little Mangere Island – each a descendant of Old Blue and her offspring.

The Kakapo's fate has been equally progressive. In 1980, the first female bird seen in more than 70 years was found on Steward Island. This sighting led to the discovery of a colony of more than 200 birds on island. However, soon after feral cats began destroying this final population and by 1995 numbers had dwindled to just 51.

Fast forward 24 years and, incredibly, 125 birds are now alive – all on Whenua Hou (Codfish) Island and Anchor island off the coast of Steward Island. Their numbers were further boosted this year by the arrival of an unprecedented 34 chicks. We learnt tonight that the birds only breed if more than 11% of neighbouring Rimu trees are in flower. The birds love their seeds. In 2009 more than 34% of the local trees flowered leading to a bumper breeding season. The numbers were so large that twenty-one chicks were moved to Invercargill and hand-reared by scientists.

Last Chance to See certainly kept Garry and I captivated this evening. We marveled at the beauty of the majestic Kakapo and the stunning scenery of Fiordland’s remote, rugged valleys. We both noted how much these southern valleys reminded us of the equally scenic Na Pali Coast of Kauai in Hawaii (above). I was also reminded once again of New Zealand’s unique beauty and just how fortunate I was to be raised in such a beautiful nation.

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