(Written 17th July 2010)
I left us frozen in the dark, our ears prickling with the strain of trying to hear kiwi footsteps in the dark. No luck. We moved on to a new area, and got into position again. The recorded call rang out several times before we heard a genuine response. I thought then that it was a mating call, that we were trying to lure an amorous kiwi into our trap. Later I learned it is a territorial call, prompting the kiwi to show up and defend his territory.
After what felt like a long time of stillness and dark, and cocking my head at every tiny susurrus of leaf against leaf, I heard the distinct sound of footsteps. A kiwi is not a small bird. It is a heavy bird, and when it walks through the forest, it is not very stealthy. And step by step, the thing was getting closer to me! I could feel my heart start to pound, and hear my pulse thudding in my ears. Friends, it is my sad duty to report, that for a moment, I froze. Then I remembered what I was supposed to do. Whistle. When The Scientist gave us this instruction, I failed to admit even to myself that I am terrible at whistling. I finally got a pitiful shrill sound out between dry lips. But the bird sounded so close now. Was I meant to turn on my head lamp and go after it? I paused, hand on my headlamp, uncertain. In truth, we hadn't been given much instruction. But we had been given nets.
Eventually the Scientist turned on his headlamp, so I turned on mine and indicated the location of the most recent footsteps. The were headed away from the trap at this point. The Scientist spotted/heard the bird, and gave chase, but it was too late. Once they get ahead of you, he said, its hard to catch up. They may not be quiet but the can be fast. That's why the basic plan is to lure it into the circle of kiwi-catchers such that it is surrounded.
We didn't catch a single Kiwi that night. We laid a couple more traps, and even chased a kiwi the Scientist spotted along the trail as we headed back. That's when I got my first actual glimpse of the elusive bird. A very brief glimpse, composed more of moving branches than of feathers.
I don't need to tell you that I was disappointed. I even felt a bit disappointed in myself for not giving chase to the one kiwi who came so close to me. After that episode, the Scientist told us that in that situation - the bird headed AWAY from us, outside of the circle of us, that it was okay to chase it ourselves. I felt this information was given a little too late. And looking back on it now, I don't think any of us were really given any idea of what we were doing or what was expected of us.
On the final trail out of the Sanctuary, we met up with the two dog teams - teams that had gone out with a kiwi-tracking dog. We soon discovered that they had each caught a kiwi or two. As we all walked out together, one of the volunteers from our team asked one of the dog team volunteers, "So what do their feathers feel like? Are they soft, or..?"
That's the secret, I thought. We hardly had a chance without a dog.
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