New Zealanders love their national bird, the kiwi; they even proudly refer to themselves as “kiwis” from time to time. But these days it’s well-nigh impossible to see one of these funny little flightless brown birds in the wild—that is, except on Stewart Island.
New Zealand’s third island is also the farthest south, just across a 30km (19-mile) strait from the South Island, with a wonderful temperate climate and so much wildlife you won’t believe it. (Only 1% of the island is inhabited.) The Maori name for it is Rakiura, which means “Land of Glowing Skies,” referring to the vivid colors of dawn and the twilight skies on this still-unspoiled island. Hiking, kayaking, and diving are the main forms of entertainment here; head for the visitor lodge for Rakiura National Park, only a 5-minute walk up Main Road from the ferry terminal, to get trail information and hut passes. The park encompasses 85% of the island, which means loads of protected wilderness for wildlife, and some outstanding bird-watching: You can easily view uniquely New Zealand species like the kaka, tui, weka, kereru, and korimako, though you probably won’t be able to see the nearly extinct kakapo and kokako.
Frequent sightings of the famously shy kiwi are the icing on the cake. All it takes is a little luck—or a little extra effort, like booking a nighttime kiwi-spotting boat tour with Bravo Adventure Cruises or Ruggedy Range Tours. Though kiwis were not originally a nocturnal species, they’ve come to prefer nighttime forays, to avoid predators. Taking only 15 passengers at a time so as not to spook the kiwis, these 3-hour tours involve prowling the length of remote Ocean Beach with flashlights. The plump, spiky-feathered kiwis can be found poking around the washed-up kelp, sniffing out food with the nostrils located at the end of their long pointed beaks. Darting and skittering about in their ungainly, comical way, the kiwis take a little patience to see, but they’re worth it.
Technically, Stewart Island’s kiwi is its own species, slightly different from the spotted kiwis and brown kiwis found on the North and South Islands or on Kapiti Island ; the Stewart Island kiwi has larger legs, a longer beak, and slightly lighter-colored plumage. But on the mainland, kiwi populations are declining at alarming rates, preyed upon by dogs, ferrets, stoats, and feral cats, while their natural habitats—the native forest and scrub—are being converted to pastureland and residential development.
Stoats and ferrets haven’t made it over to Stewart Island yet, though, and human settlement is still sparse. For now, the Stewart Island kiwis still have a stable population. Their cousins on the mainland should have it so good.