The quest for the elusive kea: staging and preparation

March 22, 2017 • 10:00 am

Tomorrow is the day I head up to Arthur’s Pass from Greymouth to look for keas, the world’s only alpine species of parrot. I’m hopeful that I’ll get to see these remarkable birds, because the pass is where they are most easily found. In preparation, today I traveled from Fox Glacier north to Greymouth, took a room in a backpacker’s hostel (but a real room: I need to spread out and clean up), and bought round-trip bus tickets to Arthur’s pass.

As I said in an earlier post, New Zealand intercity buses are like tour buses: the driver keeps up a constant and informative patter about the history, biology, and geology of the region we’re passing through, often negotiating wet hairpin curves as he does so. And there are one-lane bridges that have to be negotiated—often only a few feet wider than the bus:

A bit of the lovely scenery on the coastal road north, said to be one of the world’s ten most beautiful highways. I think those are ducks on the lake, but I have no idea which species.

The buses also make frequent stops for food, bathroom breaks, and photo opportunities. One of these was at the lovely little town of Hokitika.  It’s famous for carving and selling the local nephrite jade, called “pounamu” by the Maoris and “greenstone” by the descendants of immigrants. It was much prized by the Maori for its beauty, hardness, and utility. It was made into jewelry, axes, tools, fishooks and clubs (see the Wikipedia excerpt below), and is still carved by hand to traditional Maori designs (as well as modern ones). I visited a store to see the process:

It apparently takes a lot of skill and training to carve these stones, which are found in riverine deposits are are not immediately identifiable as jade (see below; for more information about designs and the stones, go here).

Here’s a bit about greenstone from Wikipedia:

Pounamu plays a very important role in Māoriculture. It is considered a taonga (treasure) and therefore protected under the Treaty of Waitangi. Pounamu taonga increase in mana (prestige) as they pass from one generation to another. The most prized taonga are those with known histories going back many generations. These are believed to have their own mana and were often given as gifts to seal important agreements.

Pounamu taonga include tools such as toki (adzes), whao (chisels), whao whakakōka (gouges), ripi pounamu (knives), scrapers, awls, hammer stones, and drill points. Hunting tools include matau (fishing hooks) and lures, spear points, and know poria (leg rings for fastening captive birds); weapons such as mere (short handled clubs); and ornaments such as pendants (hei-tiki, hei matau and pekapeka), ear pendants (kuru and kapeu), and cloak pins. [7][8] Functional pounamu tools were widely worn for both practical and ornamental reasons, and continued to be worn as purely ornamental pendants (hei kakï) even after they were no longer used as tools.

Pounamu is found only in the South Island of New Zealand, known in Māori as Te Wai Pounamu (“The [land of] Greenstone Water”) or Te Wahi Pounamu (“The Place of Greenstone”). In 1997 the Crown handed back the ownership of all naturally occurring pounamu to the South Island tribe Ngāi Tahu, as part of the Ngai Tahu Claims Settlement.

A Maori fish hook:

A  Maori club:

I love the traditional design below, which requires the carver to open up spaces between the bits of jade. Some information from Global Culture:

The Maori twist or Pikorua resembles two intertwined pikopiko ferns. Pikopiko is a pale green new-growth fern frond that thrives in shady, damp areas of the New Zealand woods and Rua is the Maori word for the number two.

The entanglement has no beginning or end which refers to an eternal bond between two autonomous entities. These entities might be two persons. The pikorua symbol shows how individuals sometimes go their own way on their path of life but always come back together because of their strong bond hence the description of pikorua as “The path of love and life”. Another common description because of its meaning is ‘two person friendship pendant’.

I’ve now landed in the town of Greymouth, which I quite like. It’s an old gold and coal mining town (population about 14,000), and has a sleepy atmosphere with old buildings. Here’s part of the downtown:

Greymouth is also the terminus of one of the world’s most famous railway journeys: the 4.5-hour “TranzAlpine Service” cutting through the Southern Alps from Greymouth to Christchurch and back. A fire in the forest in February closed it for nearly six weeks, but today, as my bus was pulling in, the first train on the restored line was pulling out, and the locals were very happy. Here’s the station:

There are several large memorials made of huge blocks of pounamu:

This large stone shows that the green jade interior is hidden until the stone is cut open:

Dinner at a local cafe: turbot and chips with a local cider. The cider was about 6% alcohol, and I have to admit I was a bit tipsy after the meal. The turbot was excellent.

I am staying at the Noah’s Ark Backpackers, which, despite its Biblical name, is a fine place—not nearly as crowded and odious as my hostel in Queenstown. And I have my own room—the Zebra Room, as all the rooms are named after (and decorated like) animals. My room reminds me of a whorehouse! Sadly, none of the rooms are named after endemic fauna.

The Dog Room:

The friendly resident d*g. He came to my door but wouldn’t cross the threshold: obviously well trained.

I went to the grocery store to stock up with provisions for my all-day trip tomorrow, and found that Weetabix, the favorite cereal of my biologist friend Andrew Berry, had lost a vowel and gained a hyphen down under. Here, then, are Weet-Bix, whose photo I display for Andrew (as a Brit, he knows of this name change and mocks it). (UPDATE: Andrew tells me that the Aussie product, Weet-Bix, is actually the original and Weetabix is a copy in Blighty.)

Andrew thinks that Weetabix must be eaten in pairs, and yells at me when I visit his house and have three at a time, which seems to me the optimal number. . .

Finally, a sad ad for a lost cat, which hung at the entrance of the store. Poor kitty–I hope they find it!

Finally, my goal for tomorrow: Kea or Bust! (Several readers have sent me links to new National Geographic and Atlantic articles about how the kea has an infectious “laughter”—a play call.

Here’s an Attenborough segment on keas from BBC Earth. You’re not supposed to feed them, so I won’t. But I hope to get up close to them, as they’re fearless and inquisitive (“cheeky” is an adjective frequently applied):

Kea eating a sheep. An estimated 150,000 were killed by sheep farmers before a ban in the 1970s. Now only 1,000-5,000 of the birds remain:

50 thoughts on “The quest for the elusive kea: staging and preparation

    1. The government is committed to get NZ predator-free by 2050. This has already been achieved on several off-shore islands which are now used as native-bird sanctuaries.

      It’s not anti-evolution because all the predators we’re getting rid of were artificially introduced within the last 200 years or so. Stoats, possums, rats, weasels etc are not native. They are decimating native species, especially birds, many of which evolved to be flightless in the absence of predators.

      1. Following Heather, it’s important to remember that NZ has no native mammals – giant birds like the Haast eagle were the native apex predators.
        Rats (brought by the Maori as a source of food), pigs (left originally by whalers as a source of food), deer (brought by settlers for hunting), possums (brought from Australia for their fur), stoats and weasels (goodness knows why), and now feral cats, have all done immense damage to native flora and fauna. The NZ government used to pay hunters to kill deer and pigs, and the population of both is greatly reduced, but stoats and weasels particularly are still major killers of native birds. And even non-native birds like cuckoos (brought by English settlers “to remind them of home”, along with such lovely English plants as gorse) affect the native bird population.
        I doubt NZ can become predator-free – the cost would be too great, but perhaps the predator population can be reduced enough that native birds can survive without needing to be kept in sanctuaries.

        1. Wikipedia says stoats were introduced to control the rabbit population. Because what could possibly go wrong?

          Stoats were also an extremely popular fur anima, so I guess it’s possible someone might have brought some over to start a fur farm.

        2. There are many plants British settlers brought, as Derek says, “to remind them of home,” that have become a major problem and are choking out the natives. They grow much better in NZ’s climate and are taking over. Gorse is just one that is a big issue. In English gardens, oxalis is a lovely wood sorrel. In NZ it’s a weed that spreads everywhere and is all but impossible to kill.

          Otoh, one native that has been transplanted to England with better results is the Punga, also spelled Ponga, or silver fern. It grows in mild climates but looks like a palm tree so has been planted along the south coast in parts of England to give a tropical feel.

          1. Although it now appears that gorse, if left alone, can provide a nursery for the regeneration of native flora that grows up through it and eventually the shade kills it off – takes a decade or so but observed it on the side of a valley over the road from where I previously lived.

            1. Yes, I (as a casual tramper) don’t mind gorse. You can brush past it, with care, and young green gorse is flexible and non-stabbing, you can even step on it barefoot without harm. But not so good when some idiot cuts it and leaves it lying on the track, where it turns brown and hard and merges with the leaf litter so it’s hard to see before you step on it.

              But what I really hate, loathe and detest is bloody brambles (which I think are probably an introduced species). There is no way you can brush past them, they wrap round your legs and the curved thorns dig in. I’d like to see them totally eradicated from the face of the earth.


              1. Well, mature gorse is indeed very tough and sharp. But the spines stay in place, so to speak, while you gingerly brush past it.

                Unlike brambles, which are vicious.

                Toitoi grass (pampas?) is an interesting intermediate. The edges of the long thin leaves are saw-edged, but all the little teeth point one way. (The teeth are like a fine hacksaw blade, too small to penetrate skin directly, but they will cut it!) So you can slide your hand down a leaf without getting cut, but do NOT try to slide it the other way.
                This means that sawgrass entanglements can be negotiated – with great care – without damage.


              2. Toi toi and pampas grass are slightly different. (I only know this because my mother knows all about plants and she recently schooled me on the difference!) Pampas grass is horrible and and has that hacksaw stuff. The grass part of toi toi is much more like flax. Pampas grass spreads much more easily. It’s not at native. The heads look similar from a distance, but toi toi is much nicer. The heads are thicker and fuller.

          2. Speaking of transplants _to_ England, there’s the cabbage tree (cordyline australis), which I love. In Devon and Cornwall, it’s ‘taken over’ whole seaside esplanades (via the agency of landscape gardeners).

            (Some gardeners here don’t like it – in domestic gardens – because the leaves fall on lawns and wrap round the shafts of rotary lawnmowers, but I happily tolerate that because it’s such a quirky plant).



            1. Yeah! In fact I’ve even seen news items etc about the cabbage tree planted all over seaside promenades etc in southern England. I think there are even more of them than the punga.

            2. (PCC may not have seen many of ’em yet, but if he’s going up to Punakaiki for the ‘pancake rocks’ there’s a swag of them there. And nikau palms. And of course a whole lot more of both all over North Island).

              P.S. Google tells me that the introduced pampas grass looks very like the native toitoi and is commonly referred to by the same name.

              1. Oops, half-finished edit. I was going to say that there’s some toitoi grass at Punakaiki too, and heaps in North Island, when I realised it’s not easy to tell native toitoi from its introduced cousin pampas, without examining it up close. Either way, I think it looks lovely when in ‘flower’ with its white feathery tassels.


              1. I think they’re quite different. The ‘monkey puzzle tree’ that I’m familiar with (there are a few, I think, in botanic gardens) is covered in short sharp spikes maybe an inch long, being (I assume) thick pointy leaves. The cabbage tree has long thin leaves more resembling flax – flexible and tough but not sharp.

                Young Kauris resemble monkey puzzles a little in their general form, except their leaves, while short thick and pointed, aren’t sharp.



        3. We have a native bat, pekapeka, which IIRC spends a lot of its time on the ground foreging, filling the role of mice apparently. Of course to split hairs, we have Maui and Hectors dolphins.

    2. No. If you think everything that happens naturally by the incursion of evolved organisms is “evolutionary”, well, then, our own wrecking of the planet (we’re the worst and most invasive predators of all) is also “evolutionary.” I applaud New Zealand’s efforts to keep its unique flora and fauna pristine, even if that means extirpating animals. There are plenty of Australian possums in Australia, and rats everywhere else, but many species of NZ birds are dying out.

  1. I hope you get yourself some greenstone, Jerry. You can get darker stuff in the north island. I forget what it’s made out of but everyone just calls it greenstone.

  2. The Kia’s beak looks too big, it’s scull too small and the legs are strangely clown-like. This could explain why she seems so endearing. Her behavior is icing on the cake.

    I wonder if the shepherds have experimented with protective saddles?

    1. Shepherds? Industrial sheep farmers. Nobody watches flocks by night any more, they run thousands of sheep, the loss of a few stock units to keas or for any other reason is just another business expense. Currently sheep seem to be worth around $70 – 90 (NZ) per unit at the saleyards. A protective saddle would cost as much, quite aside from the cost of finding the sheep to fit them.

      Rabbits are far more of a risk (financial – the only sort that matters in agribusiness).


          1. Yup. The sheep eat the grass and cause erosion too, but that’s all right ‘cos they’re profitable. The more rabbits eat grass the less the sheep have.


    1. Well it reminds me of the Madonna Inn of San Luis Obispo, California, USA. Which isn’t even a whorehouse. Their Caveman Room is famous.

    2. I thought it looked suspiciously one-night-pleasure-theater. Like, it’s playtime and we are now in the jungle-motif. 😊

  3. O my, my ! What a Springy menagerie of Things Green, Dr Coyne, including the kea, Sir Attenborough’s ale bottle and the gemstone !

    Thank you so for that Mountain Jade website ! Some nearly 70 years ago now and within the throes of the warring Himalayans, my paternal grandparents, just common farming folk in eastern Iowa, get out upon their wee portion of prairie acres a telegram from that part of the World the likes of which they had never had before. Nor from their kiddo nor from anyone else … … since !

    Over the ensuing years’ decades, the saga went: a gentrified country boy, Daddy was a jade man. And had apparently asked his own parents to wire him, an Army – Air Corps pilot there, … … the wildly gargantuan sum, then, of $400.00 … … for some !


  4. Jerry,
    Attended an excelent presentation by Robert Sapolsky last night… Butler University in Indianapolis. Thanks for the delightful images and narrative from New Zealand.

  5. They aren’t Weetabix; they’re the wrong shape for starters. Weetabix are rounded at the corners whilst those in the pic could have your eye out! Wrong manufacturer too. The Weet-Bix appear to be a non-proprietary brand with a name just different enough to not infringe the trademark laws.

    1. NZ Weet-bix are much less dense than UK Weetabix; as a diabetic Weet-Bix eater one’s standard breakfast bolus has to take this into account!
      The UK product is the inferior one – I can say that after decades of eating both.

  6. Jade/greenstone/ponamou is a classic indicator of mantle rocks from subduction zones reaching the surface. Lots of it in the Klamath microcontinent of southern Oregon/northern California. And an indicator that NZ is a microcontinent, not oceanic island.

  7. Weetabix, Weet-bix, or Shredded Wheat … doesn’t matter, try mixing with Cheerios (not honey-nut or any other variations, just plain) for yummy breakfast cereal.

    Well, about as yummy as cold cereal can get, which isn’t saying much.

    And I love the Dog Room!

  8. If in Greymouth it’s worth wandering down to the river near the middle of town to see the miners’ memorial. Coal mining was previously a major industry with the usual high toll of lives – the last being the 29 killed in the Pike River explosion in 2010.

  9. I have just returned from outside having performed the
    “PCCE must see a kea” prayer dance to the kea gods. So
    You’re guaranteed to see one as everyone knows
    god answers all prayers. 😉

  10. For those curious about the strange appearance of the deck of the one lane bridge, yes, those are rails. There aren’t many combined road/rail bridges left in NZ.

    Trains crossing the bridge have right of way over vehicles. I wouldn’t argue the point even if they didn’t have right of way.

      1. The trains do cross them quite slowly, so they could stop if they find you in the way. Probably safer, therefore, than most railway crossings where it’s up to the car driver to stop (occasionally, but quite disconcertingly often, a car driver fails to do so).


        1. It was at night and my mom told me the train was far off but that light seemed super close to me!

          We also drove across the Karangahake Gorge with water rushing across it. My mom thought that was fine too and then they closed the road not long after we crossed it.

  11. You’ll note that that long bridge is a combined road-and-rail bridge. Give way to trains!

    I have no idea how this photo came about:

    To be pedantic, the fire that caused massive damage to a rail bridge and caused the Tranz Alpine train to be cancelled for a couple of months, wasn’t in a typical forest. It was in the Waimakariri Gorge north of Springfield, where the hills are covered in scrub. It’s on the eastern side of the divide, so a dry climate and very little real forest. Hence also the magnificent screes on the hills:

    There’s a another link to the fire damage here:

    It seems hard to imagine how that scruffy scrub in the gullies could generate enough heat to wreck a railway bridge. Fortunately it wasn’t one of the bigger viaducts.


  12. Wonderful post–such diverse subjects & pics…(fantastic pics!)…I feel like I’m on one of those buses hearing the driver’s travelogue myself!

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