Over the past six months, I have been lucky enough to visit two of Wellington’s predator free jewels: Mana Island and Kapiti Island. Both are just a short jaunt off the northwest coast of our region – Mana is the table shaped island just off Titahi Bay and Kapiti is the steep bush clad island just off Paraparaumu.
Both islands were occupied by Ngati toa as they swept south from Kawhia harbour. European settlement brought bush clearance (Mana was totally cleared) and farming. But as time wore on conservation groups saw the possibility of using these islands as a refuge. Little spotted kiwi were translocated to Kapiti some time early in the twentieth century, probably saving the species. The islands eventually came under DOC management and predators were eradicated. In 1989 mice were eradicated from Mana, making it predator free, and Kapiti became predator free in 1997. Without predators, the bush has shot back on Kapiti, while on Mana huge amounts of planting was required (by the Friends of Mana Island) to get the native bush going. 500,000 plants were planted over three decades.
My girlfriend and I went to Kapiti last August. Despite winter not being the greatest time to go, we could still see and hear an awful lot. In fact, Kapiti really showed what Zealandia could one day be like when the vegetation is finally regrown and the pines have been replaced with rimu. Kapiti has some areas of pristine forest, so there is plenty of food for the birds. We saw saddleback, plenty of weka, whitehead and of course tui and kaka. The greatest reward for all the walking is probably the glorious views from the top of the island, the open sea, the windswept sheer western cliffs and to the east the Kapiti Coast.
Our gracious hosts put us up in homely accommodation on the small area of flat ground at the north end of the island. They even have a clutch of little blue penguins nesting under their deck. Our guide Manaaki also took us out at night to get a glimpse of the elusive kiwi. You hear plenty of them, but seeing them is not quite so easy. One kiwi hid out in a small grove of flax but refused to come out and say hi, even though we could hear him stomping around inside. But finally we saw a large female (large as far as the little spotted go) on the edge of the swamp. She gracefully stayed still and posed for photos.
Mana Island and Kapiti Island are chalk and cheese. Few people know that you can visit Kapiti (provided you land in the designated area), but I was lucky enough to go across as part of a DOC visit in January. As mentioned, Mana was totally cleared during the farming years, and has been recently replanted. This means the bush is regenerating, but without predators around it is happening quickly.
The good part of having regenerating bush is that there is still plenty of open territory, affording sweeping views of Titahi Bay, Boom Rock, Makara and of course the open ocean. It also allows for a better chance to spot Mana Island’s most famous inhabitant; the takahe. After a walk around the island looking for takahe, we finally came across them back where we started – in fact they were picnicking on the same lawn that we were intending to. Mana Island has 11 breeding pairs of takahe, and at the time we visited there were also five chicks among their ranks.
Mana Island is also famous for its seabirds, including a few types of burrowing birds that are part of a wider translocation project to repopulate the island. Burrowing birds struggle when predators are around, because it is so easy for mammals to eat the eggs and chicks. Another rare seabird is the shore plover, a plucky little grey bird with a colourful head. There was a colony of these birds on the island until a solitary rat made its way over some three years ago. As an announcement of its arrival the rat quickly munched its way through twenty of the helpless shore plovers. Luckily it was then trapped and dispatched. Now the population consists of only three breeding pairs, but is fighting its way back.
The great part about both these islands is that the views don’t stop at the shore. Being summer we took the opportunity for a snorkel at Mana Island, and in the crystal clear waters came across many fish in the kelp that grows on the rocks. The water was warm – fine to swim without a wetsuit. No doubt Kapiti, with its marine reserve, is an even more stunning place for a snorkel.
If you want to go bird spotting, here are a few tips from a fellow beginner:
• Walk quietly through the bush. Loud noises scare the birds off.
• Get some idea of what the birds sound like before you go (nzbirdsonline.org.nz). Some tourists we met walked straight past some saddleback because they didn’t know their distinctive calls.
• Take binoculars. It’s all a bit stereotypical bird watcher, but it really helps see some of the birds that don’t come close – like the whiteheads that tend to hang out in the canopy.