Exploring the Bird Sanctuary of Ulva Island

It’s our last day of a “holiday” on New Zealand’s Biggest Gap Year! We start making our way back to the South Island from Stewart Island at 3.30pm. But we think we can squeeze one more activity in before we go… Today, we are going kiwi spotting and checking out the bird sanctuary of Ulva Island!

To be fair, it’s not like we need to travel far to see some of New Zealand’s iconic wildlife in Stewart Island. Groups of kaka fly around the Stewart Island Backpackers every day, even landing right beside you. A lot of New Zealand birds are just too sassy to be scared of humans.

Nevertheless, Ulva Island is a pest free island meaning there are no rats, stoats or possums that usually threaten New Zealand’s native bird life that have not adapted to fight off these introduced pests. Without these pests on Ulva Island, we are very likely to see an array of New Zealand wildlife, including the ever elusive kiwi bird. We only caught a quick glimpse of one when we were hiking the Coast to Coast yesterday, but we are hopeful that we’ll get a better look on Ulva Island.

A ferry ticket with a difference

Our morning adventure starts at Golden Bay, just “over the hill”, as locals say, from Stewart Island’s township of Oban. We meet Anyta from the Ulva Island Ferry, who gives us the most amazing ferry ticket ever! It’s simply a leaf with the words “Ulva Island Ferry” written on it. How fitting for the nature experience we are about to have!

Our first wildlife encounter: the Stewart Island robin! Our first wildlife encounter: the Stewart Island robin!
Robin' has spotted something! Robin' has spotted something!
The sunlit weka chick! The sunlit weka chick!
Wildlife or not, Ulva Island has a stunning landscape Wildlife or not, Ulva Island has a stunning landscape

The Ulva Island Ferry

We hop onto the small blue boat and meet our skipper, Peter, who gives us a quick safety briefing for the 5-minutes journey over to Ulva Island. Despite being three times we can catch the ferry back to Stewart Island, we need to take the 12pm ferry so we have enough time to catch the ferry back to the South Island.

The boat reaches Post Office Bay, the only bay on Ulva Island with a jetty on it. Ahead, we can see a small white sand beach lined with rock and dense native forest.

“The best way to see the most wildlife on Ulva Island is to walk slow. You are the birds’ food source. They will come to you,” Peter advises us as we walk onto Post Office Bay. With that in mind, and the fact that we don’t have a full day to spend here, we decide to take a “45-minute” loop walk i.e. a walk that we’ll stretch out for 2h30mins.

A Stewart Island robin welcoming

After a quick check of our backpacks to make sure no pests leaped in along our travels, we head into the bush… Only, literally at the entrance of the forest, a Stewart Island robin chirps at us from a track-side branch then hops down at our feet, looking for any insects that we might have disturbed with our feet. The little black and white robin with long legs is just too cute to not take photos! This is when it is confirmed that our “45-minute” walk is going to take SO MUCH longer.

Weka chick encounter #1

Birds on all levels!

We take on Peter’s words of advice, walking slowly, looking around us at all times. The thing with New Zealand birds is that they live in all levels of the forest! Of course, there are the flightless birds like the famous kiwi found on the forest floor, while other birds flit around at a mid-level like the yellowhead (or clumsily like the wood pigeon) just above our heads. Then high up in the canopy we can hear the calls of the kaka parrot and the warbles of the tui!

Speaking of calls, the bird song on Ulva Island is absolutely incredible! There is such a variety in sounds from low clicks from the flightless weka to the melodies of the bellbird. Before human migration to New Zealand, most of the country would have sounded like this. Ulva Island is like stepping back in time.

The weka chick!

It’s at our feet where we have our next bird encounter. Is it a kiwi bird?! No! It’s the Stewart Island weka, another brown flightless bird but with a short (but tough) beak. Two of them forage for insects at opposite sides of the track, throwing moss and twigs in all directions! Some of those twigs are hitting another bird, it’s a weka chick! Ah, cuteness overload! The fluffy weka chick is trying to avoid all the moss being thrown at it by its mother. Every now and then, its father (we assume) is running across the track with a bug in its mouth to feed the chick. How precious! What’s more, this is not our only weka chick encounter today – we see two more snuggling together later.

Following footprints on Sydney Cove

Of course, cooing over the chick takes us enough time. Eventually, we pull ourselves away and head to Sydney Cove. Wow, this place is stunning! The long stretching white sand beach is home to a pair of oystercatchers, black birds with long orange beaks. They much prefer to be left alone though, so we walk slowly along the sand only seemingly disturbed mostly by birds, as you can see a long line of footprints, and the odd human.

Another sign of humans living it up here on Sydney Cove is a tree swing, where you can find the introduced French Robin – the biggest pest of them all!

Following the footsteps of an unknown beast Following the footsteps of an unknown beast
The delicately pretty yellowhead The delicately pretty yellowhead
The parakeet steps into the limelight The parakeet steps into the limelight

Yelling yellowhead, parading parrots and moody morepork

Back in the forest, we go through sections where we seem to hear a lot, but not see an awful lot until BAM! You are in the middle of a bird ball! Yellowheads, small yellow birds, quickly jump from branch to branch singing as they go. Next, we spot the little parrots, kakariki in Maori or parakeet flying low in the forest canopy, sounding like they are laughing with every beat of their wings!

Robin even swears he spots a morepork, a tiny native owl, that is camouflage in the trees. We hear it for a while among the commotion of other birds, but we just can’t see it until it flies away!

Kiwi spotting mission failed

By the time 12pm comes around and we are getting back on the Ulva Island Ferry, it’s fair to say that although we didn’t see a kiwi, we did see a huge amount of birds in a stunning environment – just like nature intended it to be.

That’s not to say that seeing a kiwi bird is impossible on Ulva Island. On the ferry ride back to Bluff on the South Island, we sit with two English girls who were on Ulva Island at the same time as us. They show us the most amazing video of a kiwi bird walking over their feet! You just have to be in the right place at the right time (and be slow and quiet). We admit that we’re kind of envious.

Back to the South Island

Back on the South Island, we waste no time in picking up some groceries in Invercargill then continuing onto Dolamore Park, a super cheap council-run campground just outside Gore. Incidentally, it’s another place with a lot of tweeting birds (although mainly introduced birds).

Join us tomorrow where we are seeing what fun things there are to do in Gore!

Laura and Robin

Weka Chick encounter #2 (Double the cuteness)
Weka Chick encounter #2 (Double the cuteness) Spherical Image - RICOH THETA

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