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Zealandia: The eco-sanctuary on the edge of Wellington CBD

The valve tower at Zealandia dates from the valley's past use as the city's water source. Photo/Jeff McEwan

Wildlife sanctuary Zealandia has restored rare sights and sounds to Wellington city.

Gorgeous but floppy kererū – our native pigeon – have fanned out in such numbers across the city’s west that the world’s first official road safety signs recently went up. The warning to motorists is simple, “Slow for kererū.”

Blame Zealandia. Minutes from the city centre, on the fringes of Karori, lies this “eco-sanctuary” set in a long green bushy valley that once enclosed the city’s water supply. The place is now encircled by a 2.2m-high wire fence: leaping stoats don’t stand a chance.

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It’s a loving, long-running conservation project bringing back rare and seldom-seen native birds, many long extinct from the city. The entrance fee (adults $17.50, children $9, families $44) secures a rich profusion of birdlife. And the population – human and feathered – seemed serene, even blissed-out on a recent afternoon, strolling through secondary bush that rang with birdsong.

Start with bluer-than-blue takahē, our biggest surviving flightless bird, lumbering around a grassy knoll. Thought to be extinct until 1948, when a few were found in a remote Fiordland valley, there’s a population of about 350, Zealandia’s website explains, adding: “If startled, they let out a deep, vibrating oomf.”

Bird watchers are in evidence by the takahē enclosure. They’re regular vistors. “It's been a great afternoon. We saw a pair of saddlebacks along by the kākā feeding station,” says one twitcher. He points wistfully to an overhanging tree: “I saw a shining cuckoo there a year ago.”

The fully-fenced Zealandia eco-sanctuary is 10 minutes' drive from the CBD. Photo/Rob Suisted

No chestnut-breasted saddlebacks are in sight when I get to the feeding station, but there’s a flash of the elusive kākāriki parrot, the green fellow with the red topknot. The sanctuary banded its 500th chick in 2015, and populations are building up. But life outside Zealandia is understandably perilous for a species that often nests on the ground.

The olive-brown kākā gorging themselves here are more resilient. In 2002, Zealandia launched a breeding programme for these raucous birds with crimson and orange plumage, cousins of the nosy keas. But the kākā programme has almost proved a victim of its own success.

Absent from the capital for a century, the birds are well and truly back and making their presence felt in suburban gardens across the western city – to a sometimes mixed reception.

This article is sponsored by Wellington Tourism.