Listening for a Kiwi

Steph holds Tweety. The black tape around his feet prevent him from injuring himself or the researchers.

A season of kiwi conservation work has begun! After graduating from the University of Alaska, Fairbanks (UAF), I’ve made the journey down to New Zealand to work with postdoctoral researcher Sarah Jamieson of San Diego Zoo Global and Massey University in Palmerston North, New Zealand.

Let me introduce myself: my name is Steph Walden, and I’ve spent the past two summers doing biology fieldwork on Alaska’s North Slope (2009) and St. George Island in the Bering Sea (2010). Now I’m volunteering for about nine months to learn more about the nocturnal North Island brown kiwi.

Graduate student Alex Wilson and volunteer Katy Gibbs measure Gotham, a 7-month-old juvenile. Alex's project, through Massey University, focuses on kiwi chick behavior. She collects radio-tagged juveniles each month to document their growth and monitor their health status.

My supervisor, Sarah, is a Canadian researcher studying North Island brown kiwis on a private island in the Hauraki Gulf. Most of our work is done with the use of radio telemetry, which is essentially listening to sequences of beeps coming from radios on the kiwis. We’re studying about 40 kiwis on the island, and each bird has its own name. The beeps are transmitted on individual stations for each bird, and they translate to indications of activity levels during the night. Studying this activity and making note of where the kiwis burrow before, during, and after their breeding season will, we hope, give us a better understanding of their breeding ecology.

Sarah and I spent the first few days on the kiwi island getting me acquainted with the farm we live on and the gullies in which our kiwis live. That involved some training with radio telemetry, which is a new skill for me. I can tell it will involve some seemingly aimless wandering as I “follow” signals, but at least I get to be in a beautiful location!

I got to see a kiwi for the first time after about four days in New Zealand. I watched Katy, an experienced volunteer, roll up her sleeves and stick her arm down a hole in the ground where we thought “Tweety” was sleeping. She worked to get her hand around both legs before feeling confident she had control of the bird and could pull it out safely so we could verify whether it really was Tweety. I was surprised to see that kiwis don’t try to bite, unlike the other birds I’ve worked with. In fact, once the kiwi was out of the burrow it was somewhat content to try to tuck its head under Katy’s arm!

Sarah uses radio telemetry to track a male kiwi in a nearby burrow.

That was one of my first unique experiences, and I’m sure there will be plenty more to come. I’m looking forward to helping out with some farm work for Dave and Ros, the farmers who own the island and allow us to work there. Some friends back at UAF wondered why I’d volunteer on a project for nine months, but I think it’s already pretty obvious that this is a fantastic opportunity! It’s really neat being here in New Zealand to study one of its national symbols. Apparently kiwis are so rare that many Kiwis (the people) have never seen one. I’ve already had the chance to hold one and to see a few running around at night!

Steph Walden is a volunteer for the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research.

One Response to Listening for a Kiwi

  1. Keep the blogs coming Steph so we can experience some of the joy you are feeling and learning about kiwi’s at the same time.