A rowi chick at the West Coast Wildlife Centre in Franz Josef.
A rowi chick at the West Coast Wildlife Centre in Franz Josef. Supplied

Whistling up a rare treat

SITTING on the benchtop the kiwi egg looked as dead as a dodo. But when Kim whistled at it the egg suddenly came to life. It wobbled about, as though the chick inside was trying to get out, and little whistling noises came through the shell.

Kim was delighted.

"It's one of the ways we check the kiwi is still alive," she said, "but we don't usually get that good a reaction. This chick is obviously doing very well."

One reason for the delight is that this particular bird, the rowi, is the rarest of our five kiwi species and requires a lot of human help to survive the onslaught of stoats, cats and rats. And the West Coast Wildlife Centre in Franz Josef, which Kim was showing me around, is playing a key role in the campaign to safeguard its future.

Kim, a wildlife ranger at the centre, explained that 25 years ago the rowi population was not much more than 100, leaving it critically endangered, and predator control in the South Okarito Forest, where the birds live, didn't seem to help.

So 10 years ago a new approach was adopted of fitting birds with tracking transmitters, removing eggs soon after they were laid, hatching them in controlled surrounds and raising the chicks until at least 1kg in weight, at which point they are big enough to fight off a stoat and can be released back into the forest.

Initially all the rowi eggs were taken to Willowbank Wildlife Reserve in Christchurch to be hatched and the chicks transferred to predator-free Motuara Island in the Marlborough Sounds until big enough to be returned to Okarito Forest. But the opening of the wildlife centre means the eggs are starting to be hatched locally."That approach has been incredibly successful," Kim said. "We know that in the wild about 95 per cent of rowi chicks die. But raising the chicks in captivity means 95 per cent survive. As a result the wild population has now increased to about 375 which is fantastic."

"This season," Kim said, "we hatched 12 eggs here. Next season we plan to increase that to 30. And after that we hope to hatch the lot here. Long-term the aim is to establish a predator-free mainland island in the area so the chicks can also be raised locally too."

Do the backstage tour through the centre's laboratory area and you can see how it all happens. During my visit there were four eggs sitting in their incubators waiting to hatch _ filling in the time being weighed and whistled at _ plus four newly hatched chicks _ Womble, Chippy, Sparky and Patch _ dimly visible in their individual burrows.

My favourite was Sparky _ named after Kim's partner who is an electrician _ who came right up to the window to say hello. "We've just given him his first live food," said Kim. "A handful of meal worms. He was very excited."

When they get a bit older the rowi move up to the centre's nocturnal house where because there's no glass barrier visitors get a great view of the 5- to 6-month-olds.

In one corner of the kiwi habitat Ngahere was having a little nap while Richter _ born on the day of the Christchurch earthquake _ prowled up and down nearby looking for food ... and mischief. Inevitably he wandered over to Ngahere and, like any irritating brother, prodded her until she woke up. Then, his job done, he went back to looking for food.

At the other end of the habitat an area had been blocked off to prepare Moana for removal to Motuara Island. She seemed happy enough but Howie, who obviously fancied her, was keen on a farewell cuddle and he paced up and down looking for a way over the barrier.

Watching the young rowi play in their nocturnal area is almost as good seeing them in the wild and you probably get a better view.

But if you do want to see rowi in the forest then Okarito Kiwi Tours, based in the village of Okarito, takes visitors into the area of Tai Poutini National Park which is now the only place where they are found.

I'm embarrassed to admit that after a long day and the need to drive to Hokitika at 6am for my flight home, the prospect of not getting to bed until after midnight put me off so I didn't join their tour.

But now I regret it because they have a 98 per cent record of successfully taking customers to see rowi ... and not many people have seen kiwis in the wild, let alone the rarest one of all.

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