Birds of a feather OUR BABY’S GROWING UP WILD!
This Kapiti Island family is living the tweet life
Covered in lush native bush, and populated by kiwi, takahe and other rare birds, the offshore nature reserve of Kapiti Island might seem like the perfect place to raise a baby. But it presents a unique set of challenges for Department of Conservation island rangers Genevieve Spargo and Nick Fisentzidis, and their nine-month-old son Theo.
There’s not always running water, they have to go 10 days between supermarket shops and storms can see them trapped on the island for up to two weeks. Then there are the nosy locals. Gen tells, “I can’t just plonk Theo down on the grass and get on with my work – a weka or a kaka could have his eye out in a second, so I have to watch him like a hawk!”
However, it’s all worth it when they notice their wee boy blossoming into a mini bird watcher, looking for feathered friends
amid the foliage. Nick laughs, “The other day, he heard the Radio New Zealand bird call and he crawled over to the window to see what it was!”
“The birds and the plants are in his blood,” smiles Gen. “This is home for him – he’s a motu [island] boy.”
Having developed an interest in whale strandings while studying in the United Kingdom, Brisbane-born Gen, 41, moved to Aotearoa 10 years ago and fell in love with local lad Nick, 33, while they were both working behind the front desk at the DoC head office in Wellington.
After years of field trips to remote islands – where she did the cooking and cleaning for scientists, removed weeds and worked with kakapo – Gen was delighted to be offered a five-year gig as the island ranger on Kapiti, five kilometres off the coast of Paraparaumu, with Nick joining her to work with the resident hihi (stitchbirds).
“Islands have some of the most spectacular species and landscapes,” grins Gen. “You can really lose yourself in these places. It’s such a privilege to visit, let alone live here. Kapiti is extraspecial because it’s free from predators – this is what New Zealand would’ve looked like 100 years ago.”
A day in the office includes everything from cutting tracks and fixing toilets, to translocating kiwi and talking to visitors. But the most vital part is checking and setting the “Fort Knox-like” network of rat and stoat traps to maintain the 2000-hectare island’s predator-free status.
“Lots of people think they want to be island rangers, but it’s hard work,” says Nick. “You’ve got to be a jack of all trades and you miss friends, family, events, bars, popping to the shops ... There are no hammocks and cocktails!”
The poor guy even missed his own 30th birthday when a big storm kept the couple stuck on the island. Loved ones who had travelled from all over NZ had to celebrate the milestone in Wellington without him!
Having a baby was always part of their plan, tells Nick. “We didn’t see the island as a barrier.” Sadly, Gen first suffered a miscarriage. She says, “It was a painful thing to go through, but the motu played a massive part in the healing process, which makes it an even more special place.”
Gen and Nick left Kapiti a week before Theo was born at Wellington Hospital. An hour after his arrival, the proud new dad noticed his son was sporting a tiny extra thumb on his right hand. It doesn’t worry his parents, but they’ll eventually have it removed as it may restrict Theo’s movement.
“It makes him even more unique,” tells Nick. “And one of the local iwi told us Te Rauparaha, the Ngati Toa chief who was based on the island for a long time, was born with six toes on one foot, so it gives him an even stronger connection to the place.”
After two months back on the mainland, the family returned to the island by helicopter, with Theo falling
asleep wearing his mini ear muffs. Gen recalls, “I found the transition to motherhood quite difficult – feeding was tricky initially and it took me a while to get my mojo back, but reconnecting with the island and spending time with the birds helped.”
And with no medical centre nearby, the first-time mum adds that PlunketLine was a “lifesaver”.
Nick has been covering Gen’s maternity leave, but she’s now back on the clock with DoC, working five hours a day – and she’s keen to spread the message about Conservation Week this week.
She says, “Ordinary Kiwis can become conservation heroes by doing simple things like setting a rat trap in their backyard. Buy your aunt one for her birthday! If everyone does that, we’ll have a beautiful armour against pests and, in 100 years, it could be normal for all of us to have takahe in our backyards.
“We might not be around to see it, but I hope that’s something Theo and his kids will be able to enjoy.”
“People think we miss out on stuff,” says Gen. “But this is real life – it’s all about family, food and firewood!”
Gen has DoC to thank for her life with Nick. “It brought us together and, 10 years later, we have Theo. It’s amazing.”