A kākā stole my cornflakes on Kapiti Island

While I’m refilling my coffee, the kākā swoops through the open door into the dining room and dives on my bowl of half-eaten breakfast, flinging the plum stones onto the floor and scattering milk and cornflakes.

By Catherine Robertson

Vicky, the Kapiti Nature Lodge’s housekeeper and cook, shoos him back outside, and tells me that not only are the kākā opportunists when it comes to stealing food, but they’re also organised. She’s seen a group create a noisy diversion on the lodge’s front porch while a smaller raiding party sneaked around the back and plundered the kitchen.

The kākā is a native New Zealand parrot with a penchant for thieving. Bronze-brown with a hint of red, they are all around the Lodge - in the trees, on the roof, on the half door still eyeing up my cornflakes. They are noisy - ‘kā’ is the Māori word for ‘to screech’ - highly entertaining, and only one of what feels like a kazillion native bird species on Kapiti Island.

Kapiti Island is bird watcher heaven, attracting 'bird nerds', as my fellow visitor calls himself, from around the world. Vicky was amused by a group of British ‘twitchers’, all in a row, waiting until one issues the curt instruction, ‘Gannet. Ten o’clock’, prompting a synchronised swivel of binoculars.

I’m playing my own game of ‘Bird Bingo’. Kākā - tick, bellbird - tick, Paradise duck - tick, two fat pigeons - I win!

Also on the porch are several weka, a bird that looks more like a rotisserie chicken than seems evolutionarily wise, and the big, blue flightless takahē, a species thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in the 1930s. This takahē is called Bellamy, and he is doing his bit for the continuation of his species by having two females on the go at once.

Kererū, our corpulent native wood pigeon, are flying from branch to branch with that frantic whirring of wings that suggests they’re not sure if they’re going to make it. If you peer under the porch, you can just see a blue penguin. The penguin smell is harder to miss. One finicky tourist insisted it was intolerable and that the gap should be filled with sand. I don’t find the smell too bad - certainly no worse than my teenage son’s bedroom.

My host is John Barrett, who, with his wife, Susan and his sister, Amo Clark, owns and runs Kapiti Nature Lodge. They’re aided by Vicky, and other members of the family, including John’s son, Manaaki, who takes me on the kiwi spotting night walk, and Amo’s daughter, Minnie, who wrangles the bookings.

John and Amo’s iwi (tribe) and whanau (family) have been living on the island since their legendary ancestor, the great Māori rangatira (chief), Te Rauparaha, settled on Kapiti Island in the 1820s. The family farmed up until the 1960s, and are now an integral part of preserving the island’s natural taonga (treasures), working closely with the New Zealand Department of Conservation to regenerate native bush, and to monitor and breed vulnerable and endangered New Zealand bird species.

Of which there are many; before humans arrived, New Zealand birds had no mammalian predators for millions of years, and evolution didn’t do many species a lot of favours by complacently removing their ability to fly. At least fifty species are now extinct, including the famous moa. Even today, with dedicated conservation areas, we lose many native birds to predators every year.

It took from 1928 to 2002 for Kapiti Island to be free of all predators and pests: cats, rats, stoats, and possums. But there can be no relaxing - a possum was recently spotted just off the coast, floating on a log. All visitors must check their bags, and yes, the odd hidden rodent has been discovered.

The Barretts’ Kapiti Nature Lodge, at Waiorua Bay, is the only accommodation on the Island, and very much a family home. I’m fed well and looked after with a warm, humour-filled hospitality. Most visitors usually stay one night, and the Lodge offers bird and history tours, traditional harakeke-flax weaving, seal watching, and seafood gathering. There are many excellent walks, and the views from the top ridge are spectacular.

But the night walk is the highlight. Manaaki, who guides us, tells us that there are four birds they hope to spot - the kiwi, morepork, blue penguin and endangered brown teal.

Following Manaaki and his torch, we get lucky first up - a kiwi, close to the water. Then on the grass, a brown teal duck. Next we spot a blue penguin. This bird makes a truly extraordinary noise that Manaaki likens to a snoring donkey. To me, it sounds like a cow that’s just been hurled from a catapult.

In the trees we find a morepork, a native owl. It scratches its ear, causing its head feathers to fluff up and its eyes to go very large, making it look like Christopher Lloyd in Back to the Future. Then it turns its back on us. We take the hint.

Another kiwi, one that comes so close, we can almost touch it. Kiwis have a surprisingly long spine that spends most of the time curled up. When the kiwi runs, it extends its neck, beak out, making it look like a fluffy Concord. It has cute little button eyes, more like a mammal than a bird. The symbol of our country is enormously appealing.

Bird Bingo - all four. I win!

I go back to the mainland the way I came over, on the ferry, a fifteen-minute trip to the Kapiti Boating Club, which is less than an hour’s drive from Wellington. I’ve been looking out at Kapiti Island all my life but this was my first visit, and I wonder why I have waited so long to share the Barretts’ knowledge, love of nature and hospitality - their maanakitanga.

Background: Kapiti Island Nature Tours

Kapiti Island Nature Tours is an award-winning family operated tourism business near Wellington, New Zealand, that combines nature, wildlife and a rich cultural experience in an intimate wilderness setting. On Kapiti Island, visitors experience authentic maanakitanga / Māori hospitality as guests of the Barrett family whose ancestors made Kapiti Island their home - while coming into close contact with some of New Zealand’s curious native wildlife and learning how conservation is helping preserve their species.