That Time Seeing Two Extremely Rare Flightless Birds In New Zealand Reduced Me To Tears

It wasn't just that I was getting a chance to see something incredibly rare and beautiful, a pair of birds with an amazing conservation story. It was also that I was instantly utterly besotted with them.
Publish date:
February 25, 2014
travel, traveling alone, conservation, dirty hippies, environmentalism

In 1948, a doctor in Invercargill, New Zealand, discovered the remnants of a species of bird thought to be extinct: the takahē. The only reason the birds had survived as long as they had was because they were living in a remote, virtually inaccessible valley -- one conservationist and writer Gerald Durrell visited over a decade later.

Durrell wrote about the thrilling conservation story of the takahē, which included carrying eggs by hand to a conservation center, using volunteer hens to keep them warm and safe, so takahē chicks could be raised in captivity and reintroduced safely to the wild. His compelling story not just of the birds themselves, but of the time he spent in their magical valley, captivated me as a young reader when I was devouring his entire literary output in the 1990s.

I vowed that someday I would have a chance to see takahē for myself.

Years passed.

I arrived in Te Anau, New Zealand yesterday evening, exhausted from nearly 36 hours of travel, little knowing that my life was about to permanently change. When I woke up this morning, I still had no idea. I took a stroll along the beautiful shores of Lake Te Anau, which is part of a massive World Heritage Site, and with good reason -- it's incredible. I watched a sea plane take off and sat by the shore for a while, awestruck as the sun crept over the waters to bring on a glorious late summer day.

And then I stumbled upon the Department of Conservation's wildlife center, where I met a lively, curious, and fascinating pair of kea.

These notorious alpine parrots are infamously intelligent and they have an impossible time staying out of trouble; you'll encounter scores of stories about them destroying rental cars, stealing money, and more out in the wild. In conservation parks, they have to be kept constantly entertained, with rangers using tricks like hiding their food inside toys to stimulate them.

The kea peered at me with interest, twisting their heads this way and that, and sometimes flapping their wings to show off bold flares of bright color. I made sure to taunt one of my housemates in Berkeley with a text that read, simply, "KEA!!!" I hung out with them for a while before drifting over to see the kākā.

Also parrots, the kākā aren't quite as famous as the kea, but they're quite lovely in their own way. The triad living in the conservation center includes a very bossy and aggressive lady and two gentle boys who are totally cowed by her -- it was fascinating to watch them interact with each other, and with their toys. In the photo above, the lady kākā is trying to dislodge some cheese chunks from a paper towel roll.

I ambled further into the park and saw some waterbirds, but I was almost immediately distracted by something else entirely. My jaw actually fell open in shock.

There in front of me were two shy, gentle takahē, nibbling gracefully at some corn cobs the ranger had just tossed out to them, and I could walk right up into the enclosure to see them up close. I found myself trying to imagine a similar approach to security with rare species in the US -- I don't think I've ever been to a conservation area where gates are just left open during feeding time and people are welcome to wander in.

They were everything I had imagined.

From a distance, takahē might look bluish-black, but they actually have the most amazing iridescent blue feathers with hints of green and purple, depending on the angle and the light. Their sturdy red beaks give them a somewhat rakish appearance, and they've got lovely red feet to match.

There, mere feet from me, was a pair of breeding takahē.

It wasn't just that I was getting a chance to see something incredibly rare and beautiful, a pair of birds with an amazing conservation story. It was also that I was instantly utterly besotted with them. The takahē minced delicately around the enclosure, watching us with some interest, nibbling on their breakfast and occasionally darting over to their pond for something to drink. They clucked and chuckled quietly to themselves, and occasionally would stop and focus on one of us for a long moment.

A mallard cruised boldly into the enclosure in the hopes of food and pecked at my shoe for a solid minute, and I didn't even notice, because I was so transfixed by the takahē.

It was a moment I totally wasn't expecting to have, and it was also a moment that affected me far more than I thought it would. There was a strange sensation of coming full circle for me, of remembering all the Gerald Durrell I'd read as a child, and how he'd gotten me into environmentalism and conservation, and there I was, suddenly looking at a pair of takahē, plain as day.

Everyone has remarkable moments in their lives. I'm not a birder by any stretch of the imagination although I am looking forward to seeing an assortment of birds in New Zealand, but for me, this was one of those remarkable moments, an instant in time that I'll remember forever because it was so unexpectedly emotionally intense, but simultaneously delightful. I couldn't help but grin as I gazed at the takahē, thinking about all the hard work by so many people that had led to this moment, where I could take a walk along a lakeshore in the morning and suddenly have my entire day changed by stumbling into some of the rarest birds in the world.

This is one of the joys of traveling alone and with no real itinerary beyond having booked rooms ahead of time. I'm free to wander, to discover, and to experience the moment of seeing takahē in person for the first time -- a moment that Gerald Durrell had in a foggy, magical valley all those years ago. No small wonder that after I sat at their enclosure for a while and set out on my way home, I felt my eyes misting up. And, for the first time in days, it wasn't a reaction to pollen.