Wild (of an animal or plant): living or growing in the natural environment.

For me, encountering wild animals in their natural environment is what makes wildlife photography so enjoyable. Observing animals carrying out their day to day makes me feel like a fly on the wall, only being acknowledged by an occasional glance as the animal checks to see if I haven’t suddenly grown fangs and am about to attack it. Unfortunately for the native wildlife of New Zealand, such wariness is justified.

When humans started arriving from the 13th century they brought with them cats, rats, mice stoats, possums and other predators, and began hunting birds and clearing the land. Our native wildlife were suddenly introduced to predators and pressures they had no idea how to cope with. As a result, we lost many species, and a great many more are restricted to predator-free offshore islands or fenced sanctuaries. Zealandia Ecosanctuary is one such example of those predator-free sanctuaries, with 8.6km of specially designed fence line giving the wildlife inside a safe haven to breed and feed.

At the start of this year I moved to Wellington, and quickly began exploring Zealandia’s 32kms of walking tracks with camera in hand. The entrance to Zealandia is at the base of a forest valley, and as you head up the tracks past the lower reservoir there are plenty of attractions to grab your attention: ever-smiling Wellington green geckos, tuatara sunning themselves at the edge of the research enclosure, and Nio and Orbell, a pair of takahē patrolling the grass by the wetland. Further along the main track (lake road) are supplementary feeders for kākā and kākāriki, which often have pāteke sneaking around the bottom looking for dropped snacks. These hotspots are popular places to watch the boisterous kākā congregate, and they have been a success story of the sanctuary. The fence doesn’t lock any of the birds into Zealandia, and it always makes me smile when I hear a distinctive kākā call in the distance as they fly past my bedroom in the evening or early morning.

My photographic outings often take me further afield, past the upper dam and around the lake, or further up the valley. Most visitors don’t venture past the upper dam, but this part of the sanctuary can be excellent for bird encounters. As with any bird watching, it is extremely helpful to be familiar with the various chirps, croaks, whistles and chatters that different species make. A water droplet noise can signal a kākā is nearby, if you hear what sounds like someone trying to start a car you’re close to a tīeke or saddleback, and a high-pitched machine gun noise overhead is probably an elusive red-crowned kākāriki. For me, this is the most enjoyable part of my walks at Zealandia. I can never predict the animals I’ll encounter, even if I’m walking the same track. The birds do whatever they wish to do, are free to fly around, and it’s up to me to be patient, move slowly, and keep my ears and eyes alert for a tell-tale sign that I’m close to one of the many threatened species using Zealandia as a safe haven.

I don’t often have a plan when I set out, but I do usually focus on particular species, especially if they have eluded me in the past. I’ve found red-crowned kākāriki to be one of the hardest birds to track down and photograph. Sometimes the only suggestion you have of their presence is the gentle rain of discarded seeds as they feed in the canopy, and trying to get a good view of their well- camouflaged bodies against the foliage is equally difficult. On one visit I was heading back to the exit when a pair flew right overhead and landed in a stream next to me, then spent several minutes having a bath. Moments like this can’t be planned, and really highlight how spending lots of time in the field can increase your likelihood of chance encounters. Another morning I was walking up the valley and saw a tīeke/saddleback foraging low on a trunk. It was poor lighting, but representative of where tīeke are often seen. It wasn’t until afterwards that I realised it had a rare peripatus, or velvet worm, it its beak.

The unpredictable nature of nature itself can be frustrating at times as well, which I’ve been all too aware of when waiting on the suspension bridge for a kākā to fly down the valley towards me. The overwhelming minority of one-star reviews on TripAdvisor echo this. Examples include “The only real sign of any unusual birds were the numerous signs telling us what to expect to see”, and “There are no animals to see. A few birds and a lot of walking.” I had one moment when I was thinking a similar thought, but then I turned the bend and had an awesome encounter with a family group of tīeke/saddleback foraging on the forest floor and pinballing between branches while softly calling to each other. Experiences like this make bird watching in general immeasurably more enjoyable and rewarding when you finally catch a sight (or photo) of an elusive species. Yes, the birds, insects and lizards at Zealandia are very much wild. You never know what you’re going to encounter in the next 5 minutes, but that’s what makes it such an awesome place to spend hours walking the tracks!