Field recording Okarito kiwi

If you know anyone from New Zealand you will have likely heard the colloquial use of the word ‘kiwi’ – the kiwi is our national bird, and what a bird it is: sleeps all day, wakes about half an hour after sunset, and is rarely seen or heard….

I’ve spent almost my entire life obsessing about sound & yet I had never heard a kiwi vocalise with my own ears….

So when a friend visiting from Japan said he would like to ‘see’ a kiwi, I gently explained that unless you can see in the dark you do not usually see a kiwi & that most people who live in New Zealand have never actually seen a kiwi.
He checked on TripAdvisor and discovered even people who visited a kiwi enclosure at a zoo in NZ complained that the ‘kiwis were all asleep’ – but really, what else would you expect, visiting a nocturnal bird during daylight hours?

Regardless it made me start researching: I wasn’t so interested in seeing a kiwi, but I would dearly love to hear one & preferably record it. Having suggested a field recording trip down the West Coast I was very happy to discover Okarito Kiwi Tours

I’ve made dozens of road trips down the West Coast, it may well be my favourite part of the country, but despite having driven past the turn off I had never actually been to Okarito. So I sent an email off to Ian Cooper, who runs Okarito Kiwi Tours and asked him what were the chances of us (a) doing a tour and (b) hearing & recording a kiwi.

A few emails & phone calls later & we were confirmed, but with a caveat:
his close relationship with the Rowi (Okarito kiwi) means he has over a 90% success rate of seeing kiwis, but hearing them was totally unpredictable. They may not voicalise at all on any given night, or they may sing once at 8pm or once at 3am… no guarantees but if we were keen he would do everything in his power to put us in the right spot to capture sound when/if they do vocalise…

Challenge accepted!

A bit more research & I slowly began to realise the extent of our plan:
the kiwi we were aiming to record was also the rarest in existence

kiwi distribution map via DOC

Not only are kiwis rare, the Okarito kiwi aka Rowi is the rarest of the five species: there are currently only about 350 living birds, which is a major improvement on the all time low of only 150-200 birds in the mid-1990s.

My deepest respect goes out to the people who work tirelessly to save these birds from extinction, especially as I read of the process for a Rowi kiwi to make it to maturity From the DOC website:

Wow

So we arrived at Okarito on the 25th May, 2015 and found our rented cottage for two nights (any field recording trip needs some contingency for weather)

Okarito is a small coastal town, and when I say small the current population was in the order of just 30 people. No cell phone coverage, no shops, no bar, no restaurants – it isn’t somewhere you arrive without a plan. But it is beautiful Surrounded by dense bush, the town is on the edge of a very large estuary, leading to the sea…

The interior walls of this great old boat house on the edge of the estuary displayed some of the fascinating history of the area, and I was surprised to learn that the fully intact Blue Whale skeleton that I admired as a kid at the Christchurch Museum was actually recovered from the sea near here in 1908 & duly transported across the alps to be preserved

As the sun began to set we headed over to Ians house, starting point for the Okarito Kiwi Tours

4.30pm meet for briefing
Ian explained the process of tracking and finding a kiwi – turns out the precious kiwi breeding pairs have transmitters attached to them & being territorial they tend to stay within certain areas of bush… But ‘their patch of bush’ can cover many square kilometres, so his recce the previous day had been to ascertain which pair were sleeping near a track that we could actually get to…

We also met a couple who would be joining us, and Ian was careful to check none of us were wearing ‘rustly’ clothes – not just to avoid ruining our recordings but to also avoid distracting him from audibly tracking the location of the kiwis in the dark…

4.45pm drive into start of hiking track

Four layers of quiet clothing, hat, gloves, two pair of socks.
We got in Ians van & he drove us into the start of a hiking track…

5.00pm hiked in 2km

The breeding pair who live closest to the carpark were a long way from the road or tracks, so we hiked about 2 kilometres further up the track… Ian regularly checked the location of our sleeping kiwis with his tracking device…

5.10 sunset

5.20pm set up & recording started

Ian had told us the kiwis usually wake 20-30 minutes after sunset, and then begin foraging…. So he made sure we were in position & recording well before then…. And so the waiting began… I had carried in a stereo pair of Sennheiser MKH8040 mics & a Manfrotto stand, plus an MKH8020 in a Telinga dish, capturing sound via a Sound Devices 744 recorder and 302 preamp.

After an indeterminate amount of time, Ian indicated the kiwis were both up & moving… And so began a gentle shuffling up & down the track, pausing to listen for sounds of movement. Turns out one part of a kiwis anatomy which is useful for tracking is its feet – Ian described them as being akin to a 4 year old human child walking slowly through dense bush, if they are close it is not a subtle sound…

He could tell their approximate distance from us using his tracking device, estimating them to be just over 100m from the track, moving in parallel to us… Suddenly the long awaited crunchy footsteps were heard, with my headphones cranked up & slowly moving the Telinga dish from side to side attempting to localise the source I suddenly froze, as the most ungodly sound I have ever heard began

6.37pm

OMFG

First the male kiwi screeched, and bear in mind I was monitoring via headphones at such a level that a footstep sounded big, so the screech was like someone standing right in front of me screaming their lungs out I grimaced & froze: this was such a rare event I wasn’t going to risk ruining the recording by bumping the mic

OMG#2 a duet

After a dozen calls the female kiwi joined in To hear one kiwi sing was rare, to hear a breeding pair sing a duet was so unlikely as to be a miracle Eventually the male stopped, leaving the female to sing the last 4 or 5 phrases alone & then back to the silence… I stayed frozen for 30 seconds, hoping for more, but that was it. Slowly I became conscious again & with a moment of anxiety looked down to make sure my recorder was actually still rolling… YES I hit the record button to start a new file & noted the filename of the successful recording: “KT10” – I’d been recording for over an hour, constantly triggering new files each time we moved location…

I almost laughed out loud when Ian leaned over & whispered into my mic “Tim, you can go home now” – and while he was joking, he was kind of right – I could have gone home right then, ecstatic & 100% satisfied… But Ian was committed to enabling us to also see these kiwis, so our slow shuffle backwards & forwards along the track following Ians directions continued…

6.55pm sighted the male kiwi

No cameras are allowed on this trip, only sound – this isn’t my bias or Ians – it is a specification of the Department of Conservation allowing Ian to run these tours. Imagine a group of over excited tourists armed with cameras, who may or may not know how to turn off the flash on their cameras – suddenly they see a kiwi & blind/stress it like a gaggle of paparazzi stalkers…

Following Ians body language & direction we slowly realised the male kiwi was coming out, to cross the hiking track we were on & using a red filtered light at the crucial moment we all got to visually witness the male Rowi kiwi, mere metres away from us. What an incredible moment…

OMG#3

By this stage I could not feel my toes – it was that cold But we weren’t finished yet. Having met all of our goals Ian persevered and slowly tracked the movements of the female kiwi, deeper in the bush & further up the track. We slowly tracked along and just as my patience started to whither…

7.52pm sighted the female kiwi

There she was

OMG#4

8.00pm pack up & hike back to car

Buzzing & relaxed after attempting to remain silent for over an hour and a half, we headed back up the track to the carpark…

8.30pm light fire, check recordings, celebrate

A nagging anxiety of having successfully captured such an awesome sound remained until I could check whether the recording actually sounded as great as my memory of it. And given I was monitoring so loud I was a little worried I had actually distorted the recording – I know the 8040s can handle VERY loud sounds but had I cranked up the preamps too much??? I transferred just ‘KT10’ to my laptop, split the poly file and first checked the 8040 pair… YES Next the 8020 Telinga rig… YES

I was thrilled – we had achieved the most unlikely of goals: to record the rarest kiwi, in their natural habitat. And we’d succeeded We’d had to work hard & be well prepared, but there is no doubt in my mind that it was a gift: that kiwi pair chose to sing for us God/Jah/Buddha bless them and those who work so hard to protect them. Thank you Ian for being such a gracious & encouraging host. And to Hide, who motivated the trip. And to Fiona & Stu, random travellers who we shared a truly amazing experience with

 

Some stats & a compressed timeline:

The male kiwi is known as ‘Fancy’ and the female kiwi is known as ‘Joelene’

They are both 17 years old (Rowi can live to 100 years old)

4.30pm meet for briefing
4.45pm drive into start of hiking track
5.00pm hiked in 2km
5.20pm set up & recording started
6.37pm recorded duet call
6.55pm sighted the male kiwi
7.52pm sighted the female kiwi
8.00pm pack up & hike back to car

So after we started recording, we waited over an hour in the freezing cold to hear their duet:

moral of the story?
perseverance & patience FTW

 

And the recording?

First the stereo recording via ORTF pair of Sennheiser MKH8040s:

Next a mono recording via a Sennheiser MKH8020 in a Telinga dish

& for fun, the stereo recording slowed down to half real speed

Lastly, if you’ve appreciated me sharing this adventure can I ask a small favour?
Kiwis are an endangered species & need our help to survive – Kiwis for kiwi is carrying on the years of dedicated work by BNZ Save the Kiwi Trust, to help protect kiwi and the places they live.
Please visit their website HERE and consider making a donation to help support their efforts