The Great Kea Hunt meets with success

March 24, 2017 • 8:30 am

On Wednesday I booked bus tickets up to Arthur’s pass and back, giving me over eight hours in the area. Surely I’d see a kea, then, and that was my goal.

This bird (Nestor notabilis) is the world’s only alpine parrot, and has been largely extirpated by human activity, including clearing land and shooting the birds, who sometimes rip open the backs of sheep to eat the fat. They also have a fondness for lead, which they chew on car wheels and old houses. That has poisoned many.  The ranger told me that 3 birds were taken to hospital for lead poisoning last year, and released after recovery. But they’ll just poison themselves again, for, smart as these birds are, I doubt they can make the connection between chewing lead and getting ill later.

The ranger also told me that farmers and ranchers had shot 150,000 keas over the years, and the conservation folks seem helpless to prevent loss of the present population, estimated at between 1,000 and 5,000 birds. I could hear the frustration in his voice as he described the situation. He added that next week the conservation folks are having a big meeting to figure out how to save this bird. I hope they don’t have to take them into captivity!

Anyway, in my discussion with the ranger, I asked him where the greatest chance was to see kea. He recommended a 2-hour (total) hike up one trail to the south, where there were keas not accustomed to humans, and which I might be able to spy in the trees. But the best spot, he said, was in the village by the cafe, where these cheeky birds come around to cadge treats. So I did both. More below.

Here is the tiny tourist village of Arthur’s Pass from a trail on the north side. Beeches abound.

Lovely beech forests cloak the slopes.

It’s another Lord of the Rings backdrop. Does anyone know what the plant is sticking up in the middle of the photo?

Beech forest.

My guess is that this is red beech.

Old miner’s huts, from the turn of the 20th century (about 1908, I was told) still remain; some are used as vacation cottages, but this one looks abandoned:

Everywhere there are signs about the keas and warnings not to feed them. The ranger also told me that avocado will kill them quickly (he said avocados are toxic to many parrots), and bread and chocolate are also bad for them. I of course was determined not to feed them.  They lay eggs on the ground (apparently two eggs per clutch), and that’s bad, for introduced predators like the common brushtail possum from Australia (Trichosurus vulpecula), as well as stoats and rats, eat the eggs. Before Europeans came, there were no land mammals on New Zealand save two species of bats, so egg predation was low, and many birds evolved flightlessness.

Again from the ranger: at least 15 keas disappeared during the last year around the pass.

Possum trapping and killing is encouraged, as they are huge predators of native birds. Much as I hate the idea of killing anything, this seems reasonable if we want to keep the marvelous products of evolution that fly around New Zealand. A few decades of predation can destroy millions of years of evolution.

Possum skins are on sale in many places, including the ranger station, and they encourage people to buy them so that a “possum skin trade” will develop, encouraging further reduction of these invasive animals.

So. . . . how I found my kea.

After my hike, i sat in front of the village store and cafe for what must have been four hours, waiting for kea to come. It was tedious, though I had the galley proofs of Richard Dawkins’s latest book (out in August) to distract me. I finished the book and waited on.


I asked the cafe workers if there were often kea there, and they said that yes, nearly every day they came. That was bad: I felt that I was going to have another non-experience, like that I had at Milford Sound. The weather was warm and sunny, which may have driven the birds up the mountain.

At 4:30 it was time to meet the bus going back to Greymouth. It was the same shuttle driven by the same guy, who let me ride up front with him. When I told him of my futile quest for kea, he regaled me with stories of his encounters with them (they sit in the middle of the road and won’t move when cars come by, they destroyed the top of his van once, and so on). But then he told me that, on the way back, he would stop in places where he’d seen kea before and give me a Last Chance to See. And so we stopped at several overlooks and pullouts on the way back to the coast.

And, at the very last one, there was a plump bird waddling around the parking lot. It was a kea, scrounging what food it could from the ground. I was so excited that I hopped from the van with my camera almost before it stopped.

And here are the results. Notice that the bird is gorgeous, with green feathers that turn violet on the edges and turquoise on the tail. Its wings are orange-red underneath, but I didn’t see that. Note, too, the wicked beak, with which these birds strip chrome and rubber from cars. Also, it’s banded, as nearly every kea is around Arthur’s Pass (they know them all).


This kea found apple peelings in the carpark. He held down some with his ungainly feet while eating them bit by bit.

Nomming crumbs from the pavement:

The photo below is a tad out of focus, but it shows the lovely colors of the bird, as well as its small eyes and wicked beak.

I am SO happy I got to see kea, even if I saw only one. One was enough, and it was worth the eight-hour wait.

Many thanks to Mike of West Coast Shuttle for giving me the chance to see this bird.

I also met up with another South Island Robin (Petroica australis), which, as one did on the Routeburn Track, followed me down the trail and, when I stopped, jumped onto my feet to tug at my shoelaces. It also made a dive at my jeans, trying to pluck at them. They are splendid little birds with gray coloration, glossy black eyes and beaks, whitish to yellowish breasts, and little stick legs. They are very curious and fearless:

On my shoe:

And today (this will be published in the US on Friday), I head to Nelson, delighted that I’ve bagged a kea with my camera.

58 thoughts on “The Great Kea Hunt meets with success

  1. Keas may be the only alpine parrots but the monk parrots here in Connecticut do just fine even through our worst blizzards.

    Those robins – are they a sign of fall or something?

    1. Like most birds in Australia and New Zealand the birds are named for their resemblance to better known northern hemisphere groups but are only distantly related. Australasian robins are more closely related to crows than to robins or the monarch flycatchers that they were grouped with for a long time. Cute as a button though.

  2. Your kea is beautiful! I love the colors in the tail feathers. I’m so happy you were successful in your quest. Happy trails!

    1. Phormium tenax… now sold in every garden centre in the UK.

      I saw kea everywhere at Arthurs Pass in 2003…the decline in numbers is depressing.

    2. Yes, I have several New Zealand flax plants in my garden which look similar to the one in your picture. Great pictures!

    3. It looks like flax to me too, though it’s hard to be sure. It might also be a young toi toi. It’s easier to tell when they’re older.

        1. The plant is Astelia, although I don’t know them well enough to identify it to species. Its leaves are in three ranks whereas NZ flax are in two, and flax doesn’t have the silvery colour.

          1. I’m sure you’re correct.

            My only comment would be that New Zealand bush seems to have hundreds of variants of long-green-leaved plants and it would take an expert to tell them all apart.


          2. … and the tree with the flaky bark is probably thin-barked tōtara, Podocarpus laetus (formerly known and in most books still as P. cunninghamii and P. hallii).

  3. What cute birds. I love kea and the little robin is so sweet, I’d want to pay its little head.

  4. Hearty and heartfelt congratulations to you, Jerru. You deserved to see the Kea for all of your work, insight and prolific efforts. Regards and YAY!

  5. Arguably, a lucrative possum skin trade will lead people to protect the possum, especially in breeding time. It would be better if the kea get schooled in hunting possum.

    1. Yes, I also fear that people engaged in possum skin trade will try to make their business sustainable. The same way, our municipality service responsible for stray dog control takes care that they are never too few.

    2. In Australia I bought a wollen cap made from a tissue mixing (NZ’s) merinos wool and possum fur. It’s soft and warm. They also selled gloves and other pieces of clothing made with this tissue.

      If I remember well, part of the price was used for efforts to control possum poulations.

      That’s sad in a way because brushtail possums are really cute. But they are not endangered like kea.

      1. I had a possum purse when I was a kid. I wish I knew where it was. I have possum insoles but I can’t find those either.

  6. Great photos, but what is that?
    “It was tedious, though I had the galley proofs of Richard Dawkins’s latest book (out in August) to distract me.”
    You get an early insight in Richard Dawkins’ new book??? I am so jealous. 😃

        1. Yep, the worse lead poisoing cases I’ve worked on involved kids deliberately eating paint.

          Hell, its still an ingredient in some Asian and Mexican candies.

  7. So happy the hunt for the kea turned out – thanks to Mike the driver. Sincerely hope they don’t become extinct. Your photos are great. Always enjoy your travelogues.

    1. Aaaaw, sweet, Dr Coyne ! Such a pretty bird, pretty bird !

      Ms Glenda, I nominate Mr Mike for Employee of the Month @ West Coast Shuttle !

      (Actually, if one does, that company of Greymouth inside NZ’s Grey District just may award him so. The City bus’ line inside Barrow, Alaska, did so for its driver who, when Mr Jeff figured out that I would not be departing his coach @ anywhere in particular, just chauffeured me, solo, around and around and throughout all of the USA’s northernmost fjords – of – a – settlement !

      It was smashing of him to do that for me ! so, upon my return to the contiguous ones of the 48 states, a wee bit worriedly for Mr Jeff, I wrote to his supervisors and told them so.)


  8. Excellent! A couple of those photos had perfect lighting, showing off the wonderful array of colorful feathers. So you spent 8-hours for a bird sighting; I think that makes you at least an intermediate bird watcher. 🙂

    I noticed this Kea had 3 leg bands. Why 3 I wonder? One more band and it looks like there won’t be any more room on its legs.

  9. What an interesting and beautiful bird. So happy for you that you persevered and got to see one. And what a great guy Mike is!!

  10. I heard Apple were setting up a conservation breeding program for the species in Scandinavia. They’re calling them iKeas. (Sorry)

  11. That is one fat, healthy, happy looking kea.
    I have two pairs of the same shoes PCC is wearing. Best walking shoes I’ve ever had.

  12. I’m very pleased you didn’t suffer a second disappointment. NZers have a trait where we are perhaps a little too keen for visitors to like our country and a little too sensitive to any disappointments and criticisms. The canonical manifestation of this is the query “So how do you like New Zealand?” five minutes after any visitor steps off the plane.

    When you come to Wellington I’m sure you’ll visit Zealandia (it’s just round the corner from my house – I hope to get the chance to take you there myself). There’s a lot of native birds there. Happily this has been a conservation success with numbers burgeoning in contrast to the sad decline of the Kea. I think you’ll like the Kaka, which not only shares the Kea’s intelligence and inquisitiveness, but also has a similarly formidable and handsome beak. When we rebuilt a balcony we had a whole fleet of Kaka coming to inspect the work. They gave every impression that they had noticed the changes (and possibly were miffed that we hadn’t sought their permission).

    Bill Forster

  13. What a rewarding day for you! Felt like I was there with you–loved all the details. Beautiful pictures of an outstanding bird!

  14. Well done on “getting” your kea – and a tale you can spin out for years to come (the traditional geologist’s variant is how the vital fossil was found three days walk after the death of the last camel / while climbing up hill into the first blizzard of winter, etc etc).

    there were no land mammals on New Zealand save two species of bats

    Would you really describe bats as “land mammals”? OK – they’re not marine. But restricted to where they can walk/ wade/ swim? Seems a bit odd.
    I wonder if there are any flightless bats in some obscure corner of the globe.

  15. “Before Europeans came, there were no land mammals on New Zealand save two species of bats, so egg predation was low, and many birds evolved flightlessness.”

    c.1350 CE, Māori brought dogs (kurī) and rats (kiore, Rattus exulans). Kiore are now restricted to Fiordiand, Stewart Island and a number of offshore islands.

    1. I mean d*gs, of course. While not native, cats have two Māori names, the wonderfully onomatopoeic ngeru, and the transliteration poti.

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