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Exploring Stewart Island and its wildlife, one picture at a time

One of the kaka mob, in a riot of feathered colour.

Touring Stewart Island with a camera

Gareth Eyres finds the right kind of tourism on Stewart Island, communing with nature and his camera.

Not many people get to be named after an island. Ulva Goodwillie is one of them. She’s also a direct descendant of the first Māori people of Rakiura/Stewart Island, where she still lives – and where her namesake, Ulva Island, nestles in the arms of Waka ā Te Wera (Paterson Inlet).

Ulva the island – all 270ha of it – is a 20-minute walk from the main settlement of Oban, then a seven-minute water-taxi ride. Stewart Island’s permanent population hovers under 400, but summertime brings an influx of visitors kitted out with cameras and fancy rain jackets, most of them flying and ferrying south for the wildlife and the walks.

On Ulva, we’re greeted by a dopey-looking cartoon rat holding a stop sign and advising travellers to leave their pests at home. Then a couple of weka stroll down the beach to check out the new human arrivals. Their chicks strut along the water’s edge like bundles of brown wool on knitting-needle legs.

A weka chick struts along the water’s edge.

Goodwillie, our guide – fleece hat clamped firmly on her dark bob of hair – calls her small group of visitors together. She’s soft-spoken, with a hint of Southland burr. But when she talks, folks listen. She is also a fount of birdy knowledge, with an expensive pair of Swarovski binoculars around her neck. “Welcome to the island. You may wish to look behind you… that’s a bellbird. He hangs around here quite often.”

The bellbird is literally hanging around, upside down on a slender branch, trilling. Motor drives click; long lenses are fitted. A phone on a selfie stick is produced by one walker – clearly not a dedicated birder.

There’s a commotion on the beach. A New Zealand sea lion has decided to flop up the sand, disturbing the weka and their chicks. All this and the group hasn’t even left the wharf. I’m hoping my fellow explorers have high-capacity memory cards in their cameras, based on the number of pictures they’re already shooting.

Welcome to tourism, wildlife style. Not a bungee jump, souvenir shop or cafe in sight, and the visitors are babbling with excitement.

Selfie stick-man grins vacantly into his cellphone with its attached pole. He does a gang sign. There’s always one in a crowd, but he’s not typical of the type that come here. Turns out he’s not with the birders, just a backpacker who’s lost his way.

Goodwillie gently responds to a barrage of questions, then rounds up her charges and advises: “We have a way to go yet and other birds are waiting. Let’s get going…”

The bush changes. Once we leave the littoral zone with its spiky shrubs and kanuka, the trees get larger. The understorey is a lush green, filled with ferns and forest juveniles. This is what happens when you get rid of predators – helped by the fact Ulva was never milled.

In 1997, after a four-year rat eradication programme, the island was declared pest-free; birds once extinct there were gradually reintroduced. Rats, tricky buggers that they are, occasionally still make their way to the island. Most are caught in a ring of protective traps, and a constant monitoring programme is in place.

While I sit quietly by the side of the track, munching my lunchtime roll, a small dog trots up to me. Moss is a black-and-tan terrier, with a Mad Max-like muzzle guard and a fluoro “Pest Control Dog” vest. Moss and his canine co-worker, Gadget, are members of New Zealand’s Conservation Dogs programme and are an integral part of the island’s defences. Gadget, also a terrier, looks like the Telecom dog Spot from the old TV commercials. He’s trained to indicate the presence of rodents without pulling them to pieces (a very terrier trait). He’s a canine alarm bell.

Clockwise from bottom left: A South Island saddleback; A bellbird hangs about near the wharf; Pest control dog Moss in his fluoro vest and Mad Max-like muzzle guard. He and his canine co-worker, Gadget, are members of New Zealand’s Conservation Dogs programme – an integral part of Ulva Island’s defences.

All this care has made the island a flagship for conservation – to paraphrase the line from the movie Field of Dreams, “Build it and they will come.” And they have. Recent notable human guests have included Bill Oddie (of The Goodies TV fame and a keen birder), BBC presenter and zoologist Mark Carwardine, and Prince Harry.

From 2006 to 2009, a concept named “Kakapo Encounter” gave visitors to Ulva an opportunity to see Sirocco, our most famous kakapo; from a disastrously low population of 51 in 1995 when the Kakapo Recovery Programme launched, the birds’ numbers have tripled, although they’re still at a nail-biting 153.

In his enclosure, located deep in the bush, Sirocco charmed his way into people’s hearts. Bird watchers came from all over New Zealand to see this mossy green, wintergreen-smelling nocturnal parrot. He had visitors from as far away as Sweden. After his Ulva stint and a couple of other “spokesbird” appearances, he went back to his predator-free Fiordland island home. As of Sirocco’s 20th birthday on March 23 last year, he’s been AWOL after his transmitter failed, but members of the DoC recovery programme hope to reconnect with our kakapo superstar this summer.

As Goodwillie’s group moves down the track, I dawdle under the kanuka. The boughs creak in a cool southern wind. Two robins with creamy breasts hop towards me on their spindly legs. They’re checking out what food I’ve stirred up from the forest duff. They’re also ridiculously tame, pecking and probing around my boots, cocking their heads in that odd birdy way.

High above, there’s an avian cacophony – the kaka gang is heading back to town. Kaka are prolific around Oban. These noisy forest parrots move around in mobs, screeching and hooting to advise other gang members where they have found tasty morsels. Goodwillie has a roost in her back garden, a regular stop on the kaka circuit, with the birds taking advantage of the native plants that are abundant around her house.

Above left: The South Island tomtit has a distinctly yellow breast. Top right: The sparrow-sized Stewart Island robin.  Bottom right: A New Zealand sea lion gets inquisitive on the beach on Ulva Island.

If you want to see a certain type of native bird – a saddleback, for instance – then take a guided tour of Ulva Island. Guides know where the birds hang out, and how best to get close to them. You can also walk through some lovely forest and take your chances at spotting wildlife, assisted by DoC signage.

Back at the wharf, the birders are already planning the following day: a trip on the Southern Seabirds tour to see albatross, skua, cape pigeons and mollymawks. On the ferry back to Oban, they excitedly scroll through and share their images. I think about the level of satisfaction these tourists have achieved. They’ve been somewhere wild and pristine; they’ve had a nice amount of exercise, shot pictures and been informed about a well-managed sanctuary. You could argue these are “quality tourists”, the type who get immersed in New Zealand’s natural beauty and spend time and good money in the process. They’re the antithesis of the mass-market New Zealand tour – the “been there, done that, tomorrow it’s Wanaka” visitors. This group will leave with a sense of place and knowledge they will share with others back home, be it in Te Awamutu or Tucson.

At Goodwillie’s house, kaka screech goodbye as they head to their night-time roosts. She pours a well-earned glass of pinot. But she’s concerned her Ulva Island tourists might not be prepared for tomorrow’s choppy sea, so she calls their motel to check if they have seasick pills.

It’s tourism the way it should be. Caring, informative, personal… Stewart Island-style.

This was published in the February 2018 issue of North & South.