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Tuatara: Volume 1, Issue 2, May 1948

Kapiti Island

page 28

Kapiti Island

The major event of the Biological Society's activities for 1948 was the post-examination trip to Kapiti Island. The Island is 6 miles long and 1 ½ broad and is roughly rectangular in outline. Rangitira, the site of the home of Mr. Lindsay, the caretaker, and the whare where we lived for five days, is approximately 2 miles distant from the north end of the Island. The whare is on a raised beach with the eastern slopes of the Island rising steeply behind it. A boulder bank cuts off a flat swampy area below the raised beach.

The more common mainland birds, and some rarely seen on the mainland were all very abundant. At the swamp we saw a grey duck and three ducklings. Among the forest birds most frequently met were tuis, bellbirds, woodpigeons, tomtits and fantails. These birds were quite unafraid, thus allowing the party to see at close quarters, birds which on the mainland keep to the tree tops. There were two species which were new to most members of the party; one of these was a tame Kaka which could be fed by hand and which entertained the party with its acrobatics; the other was the red fronted parakeet. This brilliantly plumed bird is restricted to dense forest on the mainland, but is plentiful on the island. Its rarer relative, the yellow fronted parakeet, is found in the valleys at the north end of the Island.

The Whitehead is flourishing and is common about the whare. Some of the rarer native birds have been introduced to Kapiti Island in the hope that they would increase in numbers in the protection of the sanctuary. Kiwis, kakapos and stitchbirds have been introduced but apparently none survived. Kiwis are often reported but have usually proved to be wekas which are extremely abundant. These birds make a nuisance of themselves by stealing small objects left round the camp. They come out to forage soon after sunset and at night their call is heard even from a considerable distance.

On the afternoon of the first day we climbed to the Trig, 1725 feet above sea-level, from which we obtained a view of the whole Island. The western coast is a continuous line of cliffs. Above them is a small grassy plateau. Petrels build their burrows on the flats above the cliffs and some burrows have been found a few feet from the Trig point. The east side of the Island is formed by a fault scarp over which several small streams plunge as waterfalls. It is covered by forest except for more open areas at the north and south ends of the Island.

Along the coastal region karaka, ngaio, and mahoe are the main trees with taupata, the daisy tree (Olearia forsteri) nettles and heke- page 29 tara common. The heketara was in bloom at the time and we were very interested to see that this attractive tree with its white fragrant flowers which in the forest reaches a height of 20 to 30 feet assumes a prostrate habit along the sea shore. In from the coastline the kohekohe, pigeonwood, and heketara become more common. Until the higher region of the forest is reached, the interior is relatively bare. The undergrowth is limited to seedlings of the above, some climbing ferns (Blechnum) and climbing ratas on the trunks. In this paucity of undergrowth, Kapiti more closely resembles the forest of the Chatham Islands rather than the forest of the mainland with its profusion of undergrowth shrubs. In places the hook grass (Uncinia australis) is common on the floor of the forest. We also found some orchids in flower including Pterostylis and a species with small pink flowers.

In the forest near the higher parts of the Island, tawa, northern rata, horopito (Pseudowintera axillaris), broadleaf and kamahi are present, and the undergrowth is more dense, with filmy ferns, kidney ferns and young trees. The density of the forest and luxuriance of the undergrowth increases even more in the neighbouring gullies.

In an old shed near the whare we found 50-100 sloughed gecko skins. The geckos had evidently sheltered there while shedding their skins, all of which had been sloughed in one year as none were observed in 1946. At the time of our visit there were only two or three geckos in the shed. One evening just before dusk we walked around the swamp and meadow watching for bats. We saw several but could not see whether they were long-tailed or the rarer short-tailed bats. This was disappointing as there has been a report, of unknown reliability that the Kapiti Island bats were the short-tailed species. Cockayne, however, reports them as long-tailed bats.

On our trip to the north end of the Island along a narrow overgrown path at the top of the cliffs we passed through numerous plant associations. The beginning of the excursion was over boulders where succulents, e.g., Mesembryanthemum australe, and lichens cling to even the most barren surfaces. When we passed on to the steep hillside above the cliffs flax was plentiful and provided a strong support on the slippery path. Tetragonia expansa, the New Zealand spinach was abundant but it was always associated with stinging nettles which seemed all too plentiful.

Halfway along the path we passed through a pure karaka stand. This was situated at the beginning of a flat stretch where there were small areas of grass, Phormium, and mixed forest. Each area, though small, was a separate entity. The mixed forest was of stunted shrubs including five-finger, and the prickly Muehlenbeckia complexa. As we passed above the cliffs again we saw Phormium cookianum clinging to the steepest parts. On talus slopes we found Acaena glabra growing profusely.

page 30

At the end of the Island there is a flat, desolate area where a boulder bank of many acres has formed a lagoon. The area is mainly grassland with a scanty shrub covering of tauhinu and Olearia forsteri. Nearer the sea where the boulders are worn down like giant paving stones, the cracks between them are filled with a curious turf of mosses, grasses, and small herbs. The lagoon, which is now fresh water, is the home of many pied stilts and paradise ducks. Mr. Lindsay informed us that the birds were not increasing in number, the young being killed by natural enemies, possibly eels. Rotifers were present in abundance in the lagoon. A preliminary report on the collection has shown that it includes a form which shows distinct variations from specimens collected on the mainland and includes other interesting records.

On the west side of the flat we came to the rock pools where the fauna is similar to that found in rock pools along the coast of the mainland. Paua is very abundant and so is the common sea urchin (Evechinus chloroticus). The starfish Asterina regularis and various brittle stars were common. We saw a great many red-billed gulls, white fronted terns, and black-backed gulls. The latter nest among stones around the coast with largest numbers at the north end of the Island.

At a short distance from the whare is a steep gravel beach with a high storm beach above it. There are a few broken, bleached shells on the storm beach, but shells on the whole are very rare. Those present are deep water turbanids probably thrown up during a storm. One afternoon we walked to the south end of the Island where most of the party were won over to archaeology by the enthusiasm of one amateur who found an old camp site not far from the whare. The Island was captured from the Ngati-Apa tribe by Te Rauparaha in 1828, and became his stronghold. The tribes ejected by Te Rauparaha returned to the north end of the Island in an attempt to retake it, but were again defeated. There are many old camp sites remaining from these days and relics are often found. In the South Bay there is a Maori burial cave. It is from here that a Maori woman was supposed to have set out on a swim to Arapoa Island near C. Terawhiti. It is said that she quarrelled with her husband and swam to Arapoa Island to escape. Rusty kettles and other whaling equipment bear witness to the Pakehas who have lived on Kapiti or on the small Islands of the coast since about 1840.

A small blue penguin came to visit us. It explored the whare and pecked hard if pushed where it did not want to go. It was very clumsy and moved slowly so we were amazed to see it a quarter of a mile from the sea. On a return visit to the Trig some of the party found some Poa caespitosa. This grass is fairly common on the higher parts of the mainland, but this was the only clump seen on Kapiti although we looked for it carefully.

page 31

Mr. Lindsay told us of his work and the continual efforts to eradicate enemies of the birds and forest. He told us that twenty years ago cats, opossums, wild goats, sheep and cattle threatened to over-run the Island, but relentless killing has reduced their numbers. Today only a few wild cattle (restricted to one valley at the north end of the Island) hawks and opossums occur, but these pests are gradually being eradicated. Mr. Lindsay told us too, that many of the plants around the camp had been introduced from the mainland. They consist mainly of flowering shrubs and small trees such as fuchsias, whaus, kakabeak and kowhai. These have been planted to attract the birds and so make it easier to study the birds at close quarters. At the time we were on the Island, Mr. Lindsay was saving gymnosperm seeds which had been sent from the mainland. These would be grown and planted out in the sanctuary. A great many of the plants introduced in this way have grown successfully. We all left the Island with regret, bringing few specimens but many photographs. We all feel very grateful to Mr. and Mrs. Lindsay for the many kindnesses they showed us.

For more details see: L. Cockayne (1907). Report on a Botanical Survey of Kapiti Island.