Ddozens of moss-covered steps lead to the Ackers Point Lighthouse. Drizzle and wind make the ascent difficult. From the viewing platform in the east of Stewart Island you should have the best chance at dusk to see the bluish pygmy penguins.
A local had given me the tip the previous evening in the hostel. Once at the top, I have a beautiful view of the sea, but there is no trace of the pygmy penguins. Pass minute by minute. The wind gets stronger and with it the waves. I’m waiting.
The smallest penguins in the world are only around 35 centimeters tall. They swim and dive all day looking for fish on the coast of the New Zealand island. They are small, but perfect swimmers with up to seven kilometers an hour.
They usually come back from the sea at nightfall. But you have to be patient when watching birds. Ian Miller had told that on a short tour. The guide took me across the island as soon as I arrived, where a good 97 percent of the area has been protected since 2002.
The island is still an insider tip in New Zealand
Stewart Island, the Maori call it Rakiura, is hardly inhabited. The only settlement is Oban with just 600 inhabitants. New Zealand’s third largest island is mountainous and overgrown.
Birds live here that do not exist anywhere else in the world, almost everywhere there is primary forest. This is an original forest that has been spared human influence: a wilderness.
Even if the number of tourists has increased to 55,000 from year to year, this island is still an insider tip. Located in the very south of the South Island of New Zealand, nature lovers will find plenty of opportunities here to immerse themselves in nature.
Submerge, that’s it. Maybe the pygmy penguins don’t swim on the surface in this swell? But do you have to show up at some point?
Where to see pygmy penguins on Stewart Island
As my eyes search the rocks, I spot a New Zealand fur seal. He lay down to rest on a rocky outcrop. I hadn’t seen him the whole time. I proudly point out another hiker to the chubby mammal. Ideal way to start a conversation.
As a thank you for my discovery, he reveals where I can see many pygmy penguins that evening: at the port of Oban. They are not shy, pragmatic, sometimes even breed under houses and adopt nesting boxes.
I hurry back to town. Although I run through the forest so quickly, I see a forest parrot and several Tui birds on the way: These black-and-blue feathered honey eaters have a white tuft of feathers on their necks.
I need only 25 minutes for the almost three kilometers. Arrived at the port, I immediately see two large diesel tanks that the hiker had described. They should be right behind it. Very idyllic.
Great white sharks are considered natural enemies of the penguins
And indeed: A dark blue pygmy penguin is just arriving, groping out of the water and waddling up a rock. His plumage shimmers in the light of the harbor lighting. It disappears in a crevice. But two more are already in sight and are coming on.
After a whole day of hunting in the sea, the approximately 40 centimeters small birds have to feed the young animals and then sleep well. They have nothing to fear in narrow holes in the ground and crevices.
Their natural enemies are New Zealand sea lions and fur seals. The fur seal at Ackers Point earlier and I probably shared the same longing. Good thing we were disappointed.
Great white sharks are also considered natural enemies of the pygmy penguins. There are said to be a few of them around Stewart Island. However, the numbers have dropped after cage diving and therefore the feeding of marine animals off Stewart Island have been abolished.
Looking for a kiwi at night
It is now pitch black. It’s still raining. Just a little bit stronger again and the wind didn’t let up either. On Main Road I meet the nature guide Ian Herbert and a small group of other night owls.
You are looking for kiwi fruit. New Zealand’s national animal had no fear of natural enemies for many centuries – until humans came. After the first Maori arrived from Australia from New Zealand, kiwis were mainly hunted as food.
The first European settlers exacerbated the problem. They brought in – often involuntarily – rats, martens, dogs and cats, which caused a drastic decline in the kiwi population. Today, kiwis have died out in many places in New Zealand.
About 15,000 of the flightless birds are still at home on Stewart Island. That is about a quarter of the total population. Therefore, you have a good chance of seeing the animals during a night hike. And this is where my path takes me after I have almost forgotten the time of the little penguins.
This type of kiwi is very special
Hardly anyone knows the kiwis on Stewart Island as well as Ian Herbert. The New Zealander has been bird stalking night after night for more than 20 years. During the day he is currently supervising a doctoral student who is researching the Southern Streifenkiwi on Stewart Island. Because this type of kiwi is very special.
Because of the southern location, the nights in summer are short. The nocturnal animal would not have enough time to eat. That is why the striped kiwis of the island are active during the day.
“However, the chances of seeing the animals are greater at night,” says Ian. But today everything seems different. “The strong wind prevents us from hearing the kiwis,” he explains. Neither the rustling in the thicket, nor their calls, whistling “Ke-weee, Ke-weee” with which they mark the boundaries of the areas, we will be able to perceive.
The search for the kiwifruit begins. At just 15 kilometers an hour, he drives through the area with his bus. He hardly has his eyes on the street. They roam left and right in search of New Zealand’s national bird.
A female is standing in a clearing
Ian parks the car in front of Lee Bay. This is where the three-day Rakiura Track starts, a hiking trail that is one of New Zealand’s most impressive hiking trails and leads through the huge nature reserve.
We walk hundreds of meters across wet meadows, past bushes and trees. No bird in sight. We should use flashlights in the forest. They are covered with red foil. “Because kiwis hate three things: cell phone ringtones, cameras and blue light,” he explains.
The red film on my flashlight creates a soft red light. The kiwis cannot see that. For them it is still pitch black and for us it will be safer on the forest floor.
Almost an hour passes before we leave the forest. I gave up hope when Ian suddenly asked us to turn off our lamps and stand still.
We finally see a kiwi in a clearing. The female moves like a chicken, constantly pecking on the floor. We have five to six minutes to watch it. Then the wind turns, it senses us and quickly disappears in the bushes to its peers.
Steven Hille is for his blog Funkloch.me worldwide.
The research on Stewart Island was supported by the New Zealand Southland Regional Development Agency. You can find our standards of transparency and journalistic independence at axelspringer.de/independency.