April 14 2015

Travel Cheeky Keas

New Zealand's native rambunctious alpine parrot.

The Kea is one of New Zealand's native parrot species, and the only parrot in the world that makes its home in alpine regions. Hilary grew up reading the classic Kiwi children's book Charlie the Cheeky Kea, but on our first trip to New Zealand we never saw one outside of a bird sanctuary, even when we drove out the Milford Road, which passes through prime Kea habitat at its north end.

On one of our full days staying in Te Anau, on the edge of Fiordland, we had planned a Milford Sound cruise. However, when we got up that morning it was snowing.

And it kept snowing, and the Milford Road was closed (although it might re-open in time).

But the snow got heavier.

And turned into a near white-out blizzard.

Before it got quite that far, we rented tire chains to see if we could still drive up the road. We got a ways before deciding it was just too heavy, wet and slippery for prudence, and turned back.

Later that afternoon, though, the snow ended and the road was actually drivable again, so we headed up the road to see the sights (and they were beautiful, all covered in fresh snow). We hadn't really planned to go through the Homer Tunnel (not even being sure if it was open when we set out), but when we got there the light was about the change (it has one-way controlled traffic), and we decided to go through on impulse.

Almost immediately on the other side we saw a Kea sitting on a road sign as we drove past. In Hilary's words:

As we pulled out of the tunnel, there was a kea! Just hanging out on top of a sign, like you do if you’re a kea! At the next pullout, several curves down the road, we stopped for photos and Adam asked if I wanted to turn around and try to get photos of the kea. About that time, we realized one was landing near the other vehicle in the turnout. And then two more! Photos, missed photos, keas on cars, keas on signs – there were at least 4 in the vicinity, and we got within a meter or so. I’m thrilled.

Keas are pretty spectacular looking birds, but difficult to photograph, because all their bright coloring is on the undersides of their wings, so you can only capture it in motion. That said, their subtle green upper coat is also pretty spectacular in a much more subdued way. In much the way that ravens look like living coal, Keas in the sun look like living emeralds.

Fortunately, with a half dozen birds hopping around being the fearless pests that they're known for being, there were plenty of opportunities to see the color.

Call of the Kea

The kea's distinctive call.

The kea's habitat.