I’m not much of a twitcher. Of course, that statement is a bit disingenuous, because by saying that I’m not much of a twitcher, I am implying that I am actually a bit of a one. I’ll concede that, although genuine twitchers would dispute the description. To them I am scarcely an uninformed amateur. Let’s just say that I like birds, and I can tell a few different kinds apart, although I always struggle with uniquely identifying anything small and brown and living in a hedge. And as for birdsong? As far as I am concerned, it is all pretty much indistinguishable one call from another.
Well, that’s a bit of background, and gives you an idea of my twitcher credentials, which is important for what follows.
My story now transfers to New Zealand. South Island to be precise. A short section of the Milford Track to be strictly accurate. It is a goodly number of moons ago; a more goodly number than I now care to consider.
Now, I did know a little bit about New Zealand’s birdlife. There was the Kiwi, of course; a surprisingly large puffball of flightless fluff. Notoriously nocturnal; there was no chance I was ever going to spot one of those in the wild. Then there was the Kea; less well known than the Kiwi, but far more common; a rather comical alpine parrot, which can fly, but is often spotted on the ground. And then there was the Kakapo; fabulously rare; precariously balancing on the edge of extinction; any twitcher’s antipodean wet dream.
The trail I was following passed through a dense area of fern forest. However, these were not ferns as I understood the plants from the UK. These were not the small and delicate plants that would curl over their leaves and hide away like a coy wallflower at a school disco; these were big bastards; monster specimens, creating a landscape that looked like something directly out of the Carboniferous Period. It was cool on the path, if not actually cold, and dark, too, where the trees overhead blocked out any trace of the weak winter sun, and it was in the gloomy shade ahead, that I spotted a movement. It was a bird. Standing on the gravel path.
How would I describe this bird? Stocky. I know that this doesn’t help much in trying to uniquely identify it, but that is my over-riding memory. Olive green feathers, and a slightly hooked bill. It was about so high. Perhaps over halfway up my shin, but it was crouched over––do birds crouch?––making it appear somewhat shorter. It looked a bit like a parrot, but it looked more like a dull, enormously overfed budgie.
Since visiting New Zealand, I’ve watched comedian Stephen Fry and zoologist Mark Carwardine’s encounter with a Kakapo for the excellent TV programme Last Chance to See, which was a follow-up to the book and radio series of the same name by Douglas Adams. Could it be the same bird that I saw? In my memory, I could believe that it is. Was it much more likely to have been a Kea? In my logical mind, I rationalise, yes.
One thing I haven’t mentioned. I took a photograph of the bird I encountered. It is not a very good photograph; it is a bit dark and indistinct, but it is perfectly visible. Does it solve the mystery? No doubt it would if I published it, or if I showed it to a genuine twitcher rather than an uninformed amateur. But I don’t intend to do this. For me, I like to keep my photograph hidden away; hidden away like the last wild Kakapos; preferring the optimism of a fictional fallacy to the possibility of a disappointing truth
© E. C. Glendenny
E. C. Glendenny sees a lot of imaginary beasts.
Read about E C Glendenny’s other travels in Easy Pickings: Selected Travel Writing.