Bushy Park

In between the hiking, we went looking for areas to seek out new birds. We had identified 3 places to check out: the Manawatu Estuary, the Whanganui Estuary, and Bushy Park – the last being a site recommended by the same of Jenn’s committee members who suggested Doubtful Sound.

Unfortunately, the first two were duds. The Manawatu Estuary is a Ramsar site, a site of international importance for the birds that reside or migrate there. Unfortunately, it has the distinction of being placed right on top of a lot of houses, walking tracks and boating areas. Noise, dogs and shrieking children abounded, and nobody seemed to respect the delicate area they resided next to. One local resident suggested we ignore the “nesting birds – keep out” signs, disregard the “sensitive area – please do not enter” notices, and wade through the estuary, past the “please observe from a distance” placards, to get up to sandbars that the birds frequented.

After two misses in a row, we gave up on the area and headed straight for Bushy Park, a 243 acre protected, predator-free bird sanctuary, entirely surrounded by a pest-proof fence. New Zealand has had an issue with rodents, particularly stoats, preying on the local bird life. In the late 1800s, stoats were introduced to New Zealand to control the rabbit (also introduced) populations. Unfortunately, the stoats decided they didn’t want to chase the rabbits, and would rather eat the slower and less timid birds. This has caused dramatic drops in some bird populations, necessitating places like Bushy Park to help them rebound.

We arrived to find a spectacular, 1906 Victorian-style homestead. Bushy Park serves as a bed and breakfast as well as a sanctuary, and what a beautiful one it is. With giant bay windows, enormous columns and amazing woodwork throughout, it’s a lovely house with an even better view of uninterrupted rolling hills and green forests. We were greeted by an enthusiastic man who told us our entry fee also bought a camping spot anywhere we could park, and gestured to a flat tier on his beautifully manicured front lawn, overlooking the arboretum. He then informed us that he would be running into town for supplies for the night, but would leave the lights on because sometimes birds would come up to feed on the moths after dark. A little while later, he was gone – leaving us alone with the entire sanctuary. Not a soul to share our 243 acres with.

As we started down the first trail, we were welcomed by a series of shrieks and squawks. Two Saddlebacks were chasing each other in the trees– a species that is being introduced to predator-free islands at Abel Tasman because their populations are in danger. I assumed this viewing was a lucky accident, but was quickly disabused of that notion as the woods were alive with them, with an easily identified, raucous greeting. Another feathered friend we got used to seeing was the North Island Robin, who were extraordinarily curious and not particularly afraid of us. We would regularly find them hopping around our feet or perched on a branch not a foot away, watching and following us as we walked.

Apparently thick-shelled insects are in greater supply than the soft worms we usually watch robins eat, because they made quite a show of thrashing the bugs against nearby logs and rocks. Warning: the following photo and video are rated PG-13 for gore and may be unsuitable for small children.

We primarily walked in temperate rainforest – a dense, fertile forest of massive, tree-sized ferns, hanging vines and broad-leafed plants. One tree of note is called the Northern Rata, a predatory tree formed from vines that fully encase the host over time. The Rata then continues its growth as a normal tree, albeit hollow inside, and produces vibrant flowers that are a food source for many birds. The largest Northern Rata in New Zealand is located here, named Ratanui (“Big Rata”), and is thought to be many hundreds of years old, towering above the forest around it.

Back closer to the campsite, a Sacred Kingfisher was diving down into the yard and pulling up worms, something I hadn’t seen a kingfisher do before. While watching this strange behavior, a group of Eastern Rosella – a member of the parrot family – flew overhead, with their bold colors standing out against the sky. The ridiculously large pigeons chased each other between trees, flapping laboriously and landing on overburdened branches. The sun dipped low in the sky and we enjoyed a beer on the picnic table, just us and the birds. It was incredibly peaceful. Not silent – nobody who has ever heard a pair of Tui puff up their feathers and engage in a game of one-upsmanship would ever call the New Zealand forest silent – but there wasn’t a manmade sound to be heard. I found extraordinary contentment and peace looking out over the hills, the warm sun on my back, to an extent that I’ve only found a few times in my life.

As night drew in, Jenn bravely ventured up onto the porch to watch the moths circle the lights and, hopefully, become food for some nocturnal bird (the moths, not Jenn). She gamely stuck it out while the moths circled – terrified, but steadfast! We did not get to see the feeding frenzy, but facing your fears is always a worthwhile endeavor.

The next morning, we headed to one of the areas that has a Stitchbird feeder. The stitchbirds, known as the hihi to the Maori, are a threatened species that feeds on nectar. Bushy Park has a program in place to create a breeding population of hihi. We set up near the feeder and didn’t have long to wait before an entire family showed up – dad, mom and two little ones. The parents took turns feeding the hungry fledglings, before eventually moving on. All told, we saw around 6 or 7 stitchbirds, quite a showing for such a rare bird. A sign indicated they had 44 introduced in 2013, so I assumed seeing that many in a short period meant great things for the population, and indeed the woman in the homestead, when we asked, said they had “heaps” of them. We later found a recently published newsletter that suggests that not to be true – some trouble with the initial population leaves their current estimate at around 21 birds in the whole park, so we were lucky indeed to see as many as we did.

Were it not for a narrow window of good weather forecasted for Tongariro, I would have happily stayed for days. Bushy Park is a unique and special little corner of New Zealand.

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