The tāiko has a propensity to be disoriented by the lights of Punakaiki – the birds land near the lights and are unable to take flight again
The annual return of the godwits from their Siberian sojourn has become a fixture on the Kiwi calendar. Now another bird with a slightly less onerous commute, but a tendency to make life difficult for itself, is getting an annual celebration.
The bird is the Westland petrel, or Procellaria westlandica (tāiko). Every year in late March to early April, this black bird with an ivory white bill and dark legs, returns from as far afield as Chile to an 8km stretch of coastal forest in the foothills of the Paparoa Ranges just south of Punakaiki.
Celebrating the birds’ return from South America, and raising money to support conservation efforts is the focus of the Tāiko Festival, a three-day music and conservation festival now in its fourth year.
The tāiko does not make life easy for itself. Along with breeding in the winter, it lives in burrows one to two metres long, built into the slopes anywhere between 50 and 200 metres above sea level, in the dense coastal forest. For added difficulty, tāiko fly at night to avoid predators.
Unable to fly from a standing start, the birds bash through the forest about an hour before sunrise, climbing trees to find a launch pad to throw themselves off. They’re heading out to sea to feed, being partial to hoki and often found scavenging around fishing boats.
Come dusk, the birds return to their burrows, crashing through the bush as they come in to land. Around the time of courtship, mating and the emergence of their chicks, the bush is alive with the sound of squawking. The birds mate for life and produce one egg each season.
By August, the eggs are hatching and, beginning late September, the birds start leaving for South America, the fledglings staying away for up to 10 years before returning to breed.