Rare Wildlife Encounter at Mt Maungatautari

Today is a day for mingling. We’re mingling with the locals, mingling with the farm animals, and mingling with some of world’s rarest birds. You know, the usual.

A sheepy start to the day

Let’s start with the farm animals. Laura wakes up early at the Arapuni Backpackers, steps out of the warm dorm room cabin into a misty morning. There’s a sheep just chomping at grass, as they do, in a small field across the garden. As soon as it is aware of Laura’s presence, it walks towards Laura “baaing” like mad.

“Is it going to charge at me? Take me down? What do you want from me, sheep!?” Laura’s thinking. Any sheep she has encountered in the past have either run away or waited until her back was turned so it could charge at her and stamp on her spine. (Sheep are not friendly in the UK). She stands still and lets the sheep come up to her and… it just puts its head under Laura’s hand to be stroked! She has never seen such an affectionate sheep! Steve, who runs Arapuni Backpackers, explains that they looked after the sheep since they found it as an orphan lamb. So, what loving name have they given to the pet sheep? Sheep. Just sheep. Go figure, since the cat is called BC, for “Bloody Cat”! (We still think that’s brilliant).

After that sheepish encounter, we have a quick breakfast of free range eggs on toast. Steve says he’s always keen to give backpackers the eggs that his neighbour has overwhelmed him with, which is just another charm of this hostel!

Wildlife encounter at Mt Maungatautari

Nearby Arapuni is the pest-free mountain, Maungatautari, AKA Sanctuary Mountain. Protected by a predator-proof fence, Mt Maungatautari is like stepping back in time in a lush forested New Zealand where birds thrive. Endangered birds like kiwi, takahe and kokako are brought here to boost populations away from the threats of land mammal predators. In fact, we have been here ourselves once before to release a kiwi bird into the wild. It’s great to be back!

Even walking into the entrance, there are birds flying in and out of the forest and landing on nearby fence posts. We meet our guide for today, Daniel, who takes us down to an enclosure surrounding a lake. It’s a sheltered area underneath the mist, so hopefully we’ll see something cool!

That’s exactly what happens even walking on the track down to the enclosure. A group of four takahe, chunky blue flightless birds with a red face and beak, are plodding along the grassy tracks below. Daniel explains that they act like a herd of cows, just grazing their way around a field. It’s amazing that we see them so quickly! Now we know where they are, Daniel thinks it’s best to go view the tuatara first, then get back to takahe stalking later.

 

Finding the living dinosaurs

We glide as quietly as possible looking for the three-eyed lizards. Yes, tuatara have three eyes, however the parietal eye does not work for too long into a tuatara’s life and only detects light and dark. What’s more, the tuatara are often described as “living dinosaurs”, as it is the only surviving species of its order from the dinosaur era. The tuatara is really a fascinating creature with lots of fun facts (we should really write a whole article on it).

They blend in fantastically well with their environment, but Daniel, who has the know-how, spots two tuatara almost straight away! One is hidden under some bushes, another in plain sight standing amazingly still. It is enough to see every detail of the “living dinosaur” including the white spines on its back which gives it its Maori name meaning “peaks on the back”.

Now we want to find those takahe again. It is a rare opportunity to see these unusual-looking birds, where there are only around 260 of the birds left in the world (all endemic to New Zealand). They were even thought to be extinct for 50 years! There they are, following a grassy path along a shallow stream. They are moving quickly, and with patience and Daniel predicting where they will walk, we got some perfect close-up views of the birds. We are buzzing!

 

The predator-proof fence protecting a lost world! The predator-proof fence protecting a lost world!
On the way to releasing the kokako On the way to releasing the kokako
The birds were too fast for Laura's photo skills... but here's the anticipation shot The birds were too fast for Laura's photo skills... but here's the anticipation shot

Releasing the kokako into the wild

As we finish stalking the takahe, Daniel says he has just received news that two kokako are being released into the mountain forest today and that we should stick around to watch! Awesome! Neither of us have seen a kokako, which are species at risk and recovering. As we find out later, they are extremely difficult to see, as they have squirrel-like behaviour, hopping from tree to tree high up in the forest canopy. Getting a photo is a tough one!

We take a short hike into the forest, with the conservation volunteers who caught the birds further down the North Island this morning. The birds can only be kept in their boxes for a maximum of 5 hours, so the process of releasing the birds needs to be as quick as possible. We follow the two volunteers into the forest, listening to the long notes coming from the boxes. (Yep, there’s definitely something in there). We all remain as quiet as possible to not distress the birds. A long sloping branch makes the perfect place for the kokako to hop onto from the box. The box doors are opened and… The kokako stay put! They don’t want to leave the box! (To be fair, the box is kitted out like a mini forest in there).

Of course, when they are given a bit of a gentle nudge from the volunteers, they fly out the box at speed, hopping from branch to branch to get as high and far away from us as possible. Now the kokako can be free and spread its genes!

We couldn’t have asked for a better day than that at Mt Maungatautari. Plus, with many different hikes in the forest, we know there is lots of different things to discover next time we come back. (We can’t seem to stay away from this place, so it will happen)!

$5 burger night!

Back at Arapuni Backpackers, Steve and Loraine tell us about some $5 burgers down at the local pub/bowling club that are on tonight.

“Why don’t we all go together?!” Robin suggests. Next thing we know, we’re eating some good quality classic Kiwi burgers (with beetroot, lettuce, fried egg and onions), drinking handles of beer for $4.50 and speaking to what feels like the whole town! This is a pretty popular event every Thursday in Arapuni (in winter and every Thurday and Friday in summer). We get some local recommendations on what to check out in Arapuni, including the hilarious suggestions of finding the best walks behind “no entry” signs.

“Just hope that they don’t release the dam on you when you are walking there,” warns one local, Lisa. Maybe we won’t risk it this time…

The night comes to an end with us planning to see some of the best little spots in Arapuni with Steve and Loraine tomorrow. We can’t wait to show you guys!

Laura and Robin

Check out this curious takahe
Check out this curious takahe Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

Want more?

Why wouldn’t you? We recommend any backpacker in New Zealand to check out at least one pest-free environment during their time travelling New Zealand. You can learn so much (and see so much) about what New Zealand used to be like before human migration at places like Mount Maungatautari. Check out these other articles for more information on New Zealand’s amazing wildlife:

We’ll get all our wildlife photos on Instagram soon. Share any of your wildlife finds with us at #BackpackerGuideNZ. We also recommend downloading HerePin so you can find exactly where all these off the beaten track recommendations are in the Waikato region!

See you next time!

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