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December 2011 Issue
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Kea on Cascade Saddle with Mt Aspiring beyond. Photo: Shaun Barnett/Black Robin Photography

Three places to find this smart, playful and often fiendish alpine parrot

Explorer Charlie Douglas wrote of kea: ‘For curiosity and impudence the kea takes the record among all the feathered creation…’ and described their cry as ‘the wail of a lost spirit.’

There must be something of the maverick trickster in kea that appeals to the New Zealand psyche. How else to explain why trampers and mountaineers have such a soft spot for this alpine parrot when the cheeky birds are often intent on mischief or even destruction?

In January 2010, I was part of a group camped on Cascade Saddle during an evening of such perfection that it seemed nothing could spoil it. Wrong. A band of several kea rogues, some of which were juvenile delinquents (to judge from the yellow around their beaks), were delighted to discover our three tents and much gear perched atop the tussock saddle. We spent most of the evening shooing the birds away. They out-numbered us and worked deftly as a team to get their beaks on any stray items. One managed to wrest Jeannine’s brand new mug from under a tent flap and flew just out of reach with it. Jeannine hastened after the bird, hoping the deviant would drop her mug. It did, soon after flying over the massive cliffs on the eastern side of the saddle. Jeannine’s mug must have had about a kilometre freefall. The thing which got me was the deliberate glance back from the kea, just as it opened its beak to jettison the mug. It seemed to be saying: ‘Try fetching that!’

The filching fiends also decided to keep the party going all night and kept up raids on our tents well into the small hours. Rob woke at one point to see a strange glow outside and thought for a moment it was the full moon reflecting on the nearby tarn. No, it was Colin’s torch, shining from the depths and somehow still working under water.

Kea (Nestor notabilis) possibly once lived in the North Island mountains too, but are now found only in the South Island. According to studies by scientists, kea have intelligence equal to or exceeding some primates. It seems the parrots, the world’s only alpine species, have survived because their exceptional cleverness has enabled them to adapt to the harsh environment of the Southern Alps.

Kea numbers and range have contracted drastically over the last century or so (no thanks to a bounty on them which ended in 1970) and the birds only received full protection in 1986, much later than most other native birds. How many remain is unknown, although estimates suggest between 1000 and 5000.

Where to see kea? Sadly, places I would once have recommended like Nelson Lakes National Park don’t seem to hold the same number of kea as 20 years ago. The mountains in the south of the South Island, however, still seem to hold reasonable numbers.

The recently established Kea Conservation Trust ( aims to reverse their decline, and research ways of helping the birds.

Mt Arthur Hut, Kahurangi National Park, Nelson

Aside from the roadside at Arthur’s Pass and Fox Glacier, this is one of the most accessible places for trampers to see kea. From Flora car park, an easy benched track leads to the hut, perched just below the bushline. Kea often frequent the hut environs and the tops above.

Cascade Saddle, Mt Aspiring National Park, Otago

Stupendous views of Mt Aspiring are just one reason to brave the stiff climb up to Cascade Saddle; witnessing kea is another. Cascade Saddle can be reached as an arduous day-trip from Aspiring Hut in the West Matukituki Valley, or as a sidetrip from Dart Hut on the Rees-Dart Track.

Gertrude Saddle, Fiordland National Park, Southland

Gertrude Saddle offers arguably one of the finest views in Fiordland: Milford Sound glinting below, Mitre Peak rearing defiantly out of the sea, and the granite prominences of the Darran Mountains soaring everywhere. From near Homer Hut a rough, cairned route leads up the Gertrude Valley, past Black Lake to Gertrude Saddle (this route should not be attempted by anyone other than experienced trampers and then only in good weather). I’m not sure if kea appreciate the view, but the saddle provides a great launching pad for them to soar off into the void.