ASK AN EXPERT: Why does this tui have unusually fluffy collar feathers?

Mike Creed asks: Two Tui have been visiting our feeder over the past couple of days. They are very noticeable because of their unusually fluffy collar feathers. Are these old birds? Do the collar feathers normally develop like that? They seem to be a couple. Any info would be appreciated!

Tui A (Photo by MIke Creed)

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Tui B has a bad leg and can’t stand on it very well (Photo by Mike Creed).

Colin Miskelly from Te Papa says:

These do not look like normal tui, and are both probably partially leucisticBoth of them are young birds (as evident from the dull body plumage, lack of iridescence, plus small throat tufts, and absence of fine white filoplumes around the neck and nape). As they both have similar, aberrant plumage, it is likely that they have the same parents. This could mean that there is an unusually coloured adult tui around, or it could be that both parents are normally coloured but both carry the same recessive gene.

Colin is the Curator of Terrestrial Vertebrates at the Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa at Te Papa.

If you want to ask an expert, post your question on our Facebook page

The Batting Season

“The Batting Season” has nothing to do with cricket. It is the term used by chiropterophiles (bat lovers) to describe the busy summer weeks when bats are out foraging in the warm, insect filled evenings. Such days are so long, bat researchers often won’t get home to sleep until after midnight. This summer in the Catlins, the weather got warm, the bats got flying and people turned out to learn more about their conservation.

Batting Season started with a packed audience on an incredibly hot evening for a screening of the documentary, Battling Extinction, by Sarah Cull-Luketina. The film gives an insight into what is happening across the country to conserve our endangered bat species and educate the public on their very existence. Thanks to Owaka Museum and Forest & Bird for hosting the event and to all those who helped make it happen on the night.

Later, three evening bat walks were well attended by visitors and locals, despite the weather being less than “summery”. The only bat that were detected showed up along the Catlins River. Nevertheless, humans of all ages learned more about them and how to use bat detectors. A few borrowed the detectors and took them home, eager to find out if they had bats flying near their backyards.

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Around 20 keen volunteers have been involved in carrying out a series of surveys for long-tailed bats along 8 kilometre routes in the Catlins, Tahakopa and Owaka Valleys. While walking along quiet roads at dusk, volunteers use detectors to listen out for bats foraging or flying past. Two surveys each summer are carried out, which provide baseline data that is compared with data collected in other years. We hope that these annual bat surveys can be taken up throughout New Zealand to enable us to discover more about the distribution of long-tailed bats and any changes in their populations.

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Five routes have been surveyed so far with bats on four of them. This is heartening, especially considering there were no official records of bats in the Caitlins a year ago. Every time a bat is heard it is very exciting – these bats are rare and surviving here. We are so lucky! Thank you to all who have given up their evenings to take part.

The Kiwi Conservation Club kids have gone batty, too. The venue for the first session of KCC for 2015 was held recently at Earthlore. The bats & bugs theme was a hit with the youngsters, who searched every nook and lead for the baby (caterpillar) magpie moth. They also made colourful bat masks, listened to the ultrasounds made by raindrops and played games on the lawn. The next session is at Kaka Point on the 1st of March with a celebration of Sea Week as the theme.

Saving the Whales

Sixty of the 198 pilot whales that beached themselves in Golden Bay over the weekend have made it to safe water. Over 300 volunteers came from around the country to help stabilize the whales and keep them alive until high tide when they were re-floated.

One of those volunteers was Forest & Bird’s fundraiser, Adria Lopez Mackay. I asked her about the experience, what motivated her to train as a Marine Mammal Medic and the rewards of contributing to conservation as a volunteer.

When did you first hear about the stranding?

I saw it on Facebook on the Friday, but it wasn’t until 9pm that night when I got a text message from Project Jonah. They were putting out a call for trained Marine Mammal Medics to get down to Farewell Spit if they could.

What is a Marine Mammal Medic?

Project Jonah run a one day training course where they go through everything you might need to help whales or dolphins survive during a stranding. They go through the anatomy of marine mammals, the ones you will see in New Zealand, and what happens to them during a stranding. They talk about the reasons they may happen and how we can support them when it does. Part of it’s in the classroom, but then you go out to the beach and practice first aid on a blow up whale.

Was this your first time working on a stranding?

Yes – I did my training in November in 2013 and they told us that Farewell Spit was the most likely place we would be called to. This is the first time I received a call out text and I guess that’s because of the size of the stranding – there were so many whales. Usually, they might get all the help they need from Nelson and Blenheim medics.

How did you react?

Well, it was good timing! It was Friday night and I knew I had nothing on during the weekend, so it was just a matter of getting things together and finding transport. The InterIsland provides free transport for Project Jonah Marine Mammal Medics and you generally connect with other volunteers on Facebook to get rides from there. We went down and caught the 2.30am ferry then shared a van with a couple who had a few extra seats.

What was your first impression upon arrival?

Pouring water on whales

Volunteers work to keep the whales cool and calm (Photo: Adria Lopez Mackay)

It was pretty heart breaking and I felt a bit helpless at first, but then the adrenaline kicked in and it was all go. We were straight into it. A lot of people had been there all morning – since the whales first re-stranded at 5am.

It was the first time I had seen whales not doing what they’re supposed to do – being helpless, and not healthy. Some of them had some pretty horrific wounds.

The entire pod had originally stranded on the Friday. They were re-floated, but it was quite hot on Friday and there weren’t enough people to help them. They were badly blistered and some of them had open wounds. But luckily, on the Saturday that they re-stranded, the weather was overcast and so the wounds didn’t get any worse.

 What was the general feeling among the group? Was there hope?

Yeah – everyone was supportive and working together really well to make sure these whales got the best care. Everyone was just so focused on ensuring they were cool and calm. And looking forward to the possibility of re-floating them, which started at high tide about 4.30pm.

What was the process of re-floating like?

Well, we move everything around them away and take off the sheets they’ve spend the day covered in. We continued to keep them cool and calm and waited for the water to come in. I was working on quite a young whale and ours was one of the first to start to swim – just because it was so small. But for some of the bigger whales, high tide didn’t mean much, and they literally had to be pushed through the sand into deeper water.

Once you let go of a whale you join hands and create a chain along the shoreline to prevent the whales trying to come back in and re-stranding.

What was the biggest challenge of the weekend?

For me, it was just the emotional aspect of it. There’s no certainty that they would survive until the next morning when we could be sure they hadn’t re-stranded.

Did you form a bond with the whales you were working on?

For most of it, I was working on a juvenile whale. When I arrived, there were two young girls who had been looking after “her” for hours and they had named her – Lily. So I had to let them know I was going to do everything I could to get this whale swimming again.

It’s hard not to form a bond with them – part of keeping them calm is just speaking to them and counting their breaths to make sure they’re not stressed out. They don’t really open their eyes, but if you speak to them they’ll sometimes open one and look at you. It was really powerful.

In the end, I was exhausted. But waking up on the Sunday to hear that they hadn’t been seen again was a great feeling.

With "Lily" at high tide.

With “Lily” at high tide.

 

Otago Fish Floundering

This article was originally featured in November edition of the Forest & Bird Magazine. If you would like to receive a copy of your own, please consider joining us.

Otago’s native fish are in crisis. The latest Department of  Conservation-appointed review has found the region has the highest number of threatened native freshwater fish in the country. Of the 12 freshwater fish species under threat in the region, four are in the highest possible threat category.

Another six have been classified as nationally endangered and two are nationally vulnerable. Worse yet, three of these species are only found in Otago.

A Dusky Galaxiid (Photo by the Department of Conservation)

A Dusky Galaxiid (Photo by the Department of Conservation)

The news is not surprising given the barrage of threats: habitat loss, land use changes, water abstraction, degraded water quality and migration barriers. But according to DOC Otago freshwater ranger Pete Ravenscroft, it is the increased movement of trout into new sites that is having the most devastating impact.

“Trout habitat is still naturally expanding into new waterways, without human assistance … to the detriment of our native fish,” he says.

Unlike their whitebait counterparts, these galaxiids don’t migrate, which makes safeguarding their few habitats even more critical. Pete says it is even more imperative for the longer-living species, which can live up to 20 years. “They have big eggs and low fecundity. It doesn’t take much to impact on the species,” he says.

Otago has lost 20 per cent of its rare fish in the past 13 years. The Clutha flathead galaxias has been hit especially hard. Threats have reduced the population of this unique species by 60 per cent, and the survivors are limited to waterways across just 12 hectares of land.

Pete says if the current rate of loss continues, the Clutha flathead and the Central Otago roundhead galaxias could become extinct within the next 20 years. “Something has to be done now to prevent future losses,” he says.

One immediate solution for Otago’s endangered fish is to remove trout from galaxiids’ habitat and set up fish barriers to keep them out. Pete stresses this does not interfere with recreational angling. “We’re not talking about the wholesale removal of trout. Galaxiids are confined to the odd population in discrete locations. Most of these rivers are a metre wide … and have no value to recreational fishing.”

Six endangered Central Otago roundhead galaxias found in the belly of a brown trout. (Photo: Daniel Jack)

Six endangered Central Otago roundhead galaxias found in the belly of a brown trout. (Photo: Daniel Jack)

Fish and Game is working with DOC to create these trout free habitats. In fact, Fish and Game Otago region chief executive Niall Watson says the organisation has gone a step further and put forward its own proposals to DOC to reduce the possibility of reinvasion.

In addition, most of these streams pass through private land, which means rescue efforts cannot come from DOC alone.

Thankfully, word is getting around about Otago’s unique native freshwater fish and the increasing need to protect them. Community groups such as Otago Regional Council, water user groups, landowners and iwi are heeding the call to act.

Pete says without community support even more of our native freshwater fish would have disappeared, but insists a lot more needs to be done to counter the “biodiversity crisis going on in our rivers”.

DOC has proposed other measures such as protecting habitat, enhancing water quality and improving fish passage. The department has also undertaken a review of its three freshwater fish recovery plans and groups to pinpoint what is working, what is not and what can be done in the future.

Lan Pham, director of education and conservation charity Working Waters Trust, is keen to get more people talking about galaxiids. “These fish have their own unique stories and are found nowhere else in the world. The tragedy is we are losing these incredible species before we even get to know them,” she says.

A Good Year for Conservation?

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Seabird of the Year (with chick): David Hallett

Working in conservation is invariably busy. New Zealand’s natural heritage is under such consistent attack on so many fronts that there’s never time to put our feet up. So much so that sometimes it’s hard to see the wood … you know the rest of it.

So given the year is all but over, and before Forest & Bird launches into battle for the new year, I thought it would be worth considering what sort of year 2014 has been in terms of conservation gains or losses. Are there any lessons to be learnt for the New Year?

We began 2014 with a crisis that had its roots in the warm summer of 2013. All the signs were in January that there would be a particularly heavy beech seeding in autumn 2014, which in turn was going to lead to an explosion in rat and stoat numbers. The scientists said there was a serious risk of losing at least some local populations of our most endangered birds.

The Department of Conservation responded by launching the ‘Battle for Our Birds,’ which amounted to a massive step up in their usual aerial 1080 programme. At this stage it looks like it’s been a success, with some great figures coming out of the programme. For instance, rat tracking numbers in Fiordland’s Iris Burn were tracking at an extremely high 72 per cent before the 1080 drop there. Afterwards they were at zero. It can be assumed that a significant number of stoats will also have died from eating undigested baits from the rat carcasses.

Around Easter Cyclone Ita blew over a large number of trees on the West Coast. This set the stage for something the logging industry had obviously been itching to do for 30 years – since logging was banned on conservation land. They wrangled themselves a law change that was introduced and passed through parliament in an afternoon. Now logging (in the form of removing trees that have been blown over) has started. That’s despite the irrefutable evidence that rotting trees are vital to forest ecosystems.

In May we learnt that after years of campaigning to save Fiordland’s Snowdon forest from having a monorail and accompanying service road pushed through it, the then Conservation Minister Nick Smith had declined permission for the project (it would have used conservation land, which is also part of a World Heritage Area, no less).

In June the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment said in a report that it is easier to get permission to mine DOC land than use it for tourism – an unintended commentary on the times we live in if ever there was one.

In the same month we also celebrated the incredible work our branch members do all around the country in June, when Forest & Bird held its annual prize-giving for those members whose contribution went above and beyond. The Pestbuster award is a case in point.

The thousands of people (included many Forest & Birders) who put their name to the petition calling for a ban on shark finning managed to force the government to change the rules for the better in September. They’re still not perfect, but they are a lot better than they were.

The election came and went in September, during which conservation issues did not feature highly, mainly because of the focus placed on the relationship between the prime minister and a certain blogger. Forest & Bird’s activities in the run up to the election included the On the Block campaign, during which ‘for sale’ signs were put up in areas where the rights to mine, drill and frack were being sold off, and our well-attended ‘meet the candidates’ events, which branches hosted throughout the country.

On a lighter note, we had the best ever Great Kererū Count in September and November, during which flocks of up to 170 birds were seen.

As of November, Forest & Bird and several others – including Federated Farmers – are now officially working towards creating a Predator Free New Zealand. We marked the launch with a joint media release. The Predator Free goal may be ambitious, but it is just the sort of co-operative, nation-wide conservation campaign that is needed to compliment the intensive conservation work that already goes on in isolated pockets of the country.

In late November New Zealand’s first ever Seabird of the Year was found. The fairy tern took the title, perhaps on the strength – if you could call it that – of being fewer than 50 birds away from extinction.

In December the rights to drill and frack for oil and gas across even more of New Zealand’s farmland, conservation land, and deep-sea seabed, were sold off. You can view the maps of which areas are involved here. It’s a shocking to see the extent of the sell-off, especially when you consider this is just the latest batch, and that the process has been underway for several years.

Throughout the year Forest & Bird has been a part of the formation of a ‘marine spatial plan’ for the Hauraki Gulf. This will bring together all the various interests in the Gulf, with the aim of developing a management plan that works for all – including, for example, the extraordinary resident population of Bryde’s whales. We think the spatial plan approach has the potential to work all around New Zealand.

Sadly, work began on digging an open cast coal mine on the unique and precious Denniston Plateau this year. But there are serious questions around whether Bathurst will survive to see the project through.

It’s an obvious question, but would we have undertaken the huge job of trying to protect Denniston if we had known the outcome? Indeed Forest & Bird, and its branches, spent a lot of time and resources on the campaign. So the accountants might say no. And standing in for something DOC should have – and normally would have – done itself was a bruising affair. But if we hadn’t been involved, Bathurst Resources would never have had to commit as much as they did to predator control, or to protecting parts of the plateau as part of an exercise in offsetting (given the Denniston Plateau was the last remaining intact example of that particular ecosystem, this ‘offsetting’ is actually nothing of the sort).

Then last Friday we received what is undoubtedly some great news. Forest & Bird (the national organisation and our Hastings-Havelock North branch) had joined up with Fish and Game and the Environmental Defence Society to appeal the consent given to the Ruataniwha irrigation dam. We did this because the regional plan change that would have allowed the dam to be built was flawed, as it didn’t lay out the methods for ensuring the water quality standards it set could actually be achieved. The High Court agreed with us – we had won the appeal. The ruling creates an important precedent for the setting of water quality standards by regional councils across the country.

So is there anything else we would have done differently in the last year? Of course, we can always do things better. But it is clear that all the conservation issues we picked up on were vitally important ones. There are so many emerging all the time that arguably it’s impossible not to choose issues that are of real importance. But we will only ever have the resources to take on those that pose the greatest threat.

The next 12 months could well be the most important yet for the work we do. Every year we see an increased interconnectivity between the issues we campaign on; I am certain this will only continue to be the case.

On that note, I wish you and your family all the best for the summer break and the New Year. Hopefully you will be able to get out and enjoy some of what makes this country such a great place. And when you do, remember just how important those places are to what it is to be a New Zealander, and how their protection is something that must always be of the highest priority.

Ngā mihi

Honē McGregor
Chief Executive – Kaiwhakahaere Matua
Forest & Bird

Taking the bait

After a weekend doing ground-based pest control, I can better appreciate the value of aerial 1080. Mapara_Marina_r

I slid down a muddy bank with nothing to grab but a soggy tree fern stump that lifted from the soil like a mushroom. Through the rain and the supplejack lassoes I could see Ian and Merryl a few metres ahead. If they could hang on to the hillside, so could I.

And in truth I probably wouldn’t have died if I’d tumbled 20 metres into the stream below. Though it wouldn’t have been a good look.

Ian Flux and Merryl Park are as nimble as goats. They’ve skipped across hundreds of hillsides far trickier than this one in Mapara forest, near Pureora.

We were in central North Island kokako country and our job was to rid the forest of rats before they had a chance to feast on kokako eggs or chicks. We were the advance party of a rat control programme that kokako scientist Ian is rolling out on private land. Neighbouring DOC forest has pest control but the endangered kokako found there venture further afield so Ian is extending their pest-controlled haven.

Mapara_Andrew1_rWe had to staple to trees 50 metres apart small paper bags of cereal pellets for rats. The first afternoon four groups of Hutt Valley Tramping Club members worked across the hillside, each following a different line on a GPS screen. It should have been a doddle for anyone who likes to get outdoors and who can work a couple of buttons on a handheld GPS unit.

Mapara_John-Ian_rThis is the jolly alternative to dropping 1080 from the air, according to some. Kit out a directionless unemployed person with a GPS, some bait and a good raincoat, send him or her into our back country and our pest problems will be solved. Sounds simple.

And so it would be in a nice flat piece of forest – one not intersected by streams or steep gullies and without boulders or vines or inconveniently placed tawa trees.

Following a GPS line in terrain like our Mapara hillside was not like the usual tramping I do. Not only was there no track, there wasn’t even the option of taking the easiest route through the forest. We needed to stick as closely as possible to the GPS line to evenly space the cereal baits through the forest. Rats have small territories and we wanted them all to have a paper bag of pellets to sample.

Our cereal pellets were like the ones you’d feed a guinea pig. They were flavoured with cinnamon, which birds and insects don’t like, but they didn’t contain any poison.

Mapara_paperbag_r

Rats are notoriously wary of new food. They can’t vomit so they will nibble only a tiny amount of a new food to be sure it won’t make them sick.

Our paper bags of bait were put out to introduce the rats to a new food. A month later Ian led a second team of trampers to put out another series of paper bags, this time filled with bait laced with cholecalciferol and pindone toxins. The rats would this time tuck in to the familiar cereal pellets and swallow a lethal dose of poison.

After a lot of planning and hard work by volunteers – and a bit of luck – the rat numbers in this patch of Mapara forest should be low enough to give a few kokako pairs the chance to raise some chicks this summer.

Mapara_Andrew2_r

Finally caught up with Ian and Merryl – well, they waited – before we made our final, steep climb out of the forest.

Mapara_Andrew_rSome people might wonder how I contributed to the pest control expedition to create a haven for kokako. I didn’t. I succeeded in not falling into the stream and not getting hurt. Baits and GPS co-ordinates were peripheral features for me.

Bring on the aerial 1080.

Photos show Marina, Ian Flux, John Simes and Andrew Robinson. Photos by Marina and Michele Lythgoe.

Fairy Tern Day

Jan and Wade Doak

The fairy tern was the winner of Forest & Bird’s inaugural Seabird of the Year poll. One of the campaign managers for the fairy tern, Wade Doak, writes with his wife Jan about the day he saw two fairy tern taking advantage of the short distance between the west and east coasts of the North Island to feed off two low tides in quick succession. 

As part of our series of Kaipara Harbour expeditions Wade and I decided to explore another area: Okahukura peninsula extending from Wellsford out to Tapora and Journey’s End.  Port Albert was our first stop.  We drove down to the jetty and a little bit further on we parked near a boat ramp and grassed area.  I noticed through a gap in the small mangrove trees a big flock of pied stilts.  I said to Wade: “‘I’m going to see what I can photograph through here.”  Wade went over towards the jetty with his camera, where he got pix of white-fronted terns lined up on the jetty rail.

I was so thrilled to see such a large flock of pied stilts.  I had to walk out through thick mud to get closer to them.  Using a tripod for steadiness and a twelve times zoom lens I took many shots before they flew off in a large flock- not because I had disturbed them but because the tide was coming in fast and getting too deep for them.

I heard a great commotion behind me.  Turning I saw a black-back gull harassing two smaller birds.  They looked like white-fronted terns from a distance.  The mother had just fed its juvenile something long and wriggly and the gull stole the fish off it.  They were screaming and protesting very loudly.  The terns flew up into the air and the adult swept around and landed in front of me about 12 feet away.  As it landed I noticed the forked tail and the bird seemed quite small.
It crossed my mind it might be a fairy tern.  I got very excited and started to take pix.  One minute later the juvenile landed and I got pix of them both together.  I took eight shots while the tide rose
round my ankles and was edging close to the birds.

When the juvenile arrived I though it looked rather like the white-fronted terns I had photographed on the flats at Pahi.  So in my mind I thought these could not be fairy terns because they are so very
rare and thought nothing more about it until four days later.  Wade and I were sitting in bed going through our New Zealand bird book.  I rushed down stairs, turned the computer on and began comparing my shots with the book.  I definitely had fairy terns!!!  It was Wade’s birthday and he was saying “what a lovely gift”.

Then, looking closer at the computer screen, Wade noticed that these birds had bands on their legs.  The adult had two bands on her left leg: one blue and one grey.  On her right leg was a single grey band. The juvenile had one band on each leg.  Blue on the left and a much wider grey band on the right.  We were so thrilled and excited to get such clear pictures of fairy terns from side and rear angles.  Wade started to phone round different people to find out the significance of the bands and where they might have been released. Could the chick have been incubated at Auckland Zoo and returned to its mother on South Kaipara Head?

FAIRYTERN and chicem

 

 

Threatened species get together down at the river

Black billed gul poster 2

A new black-billed gull/tarapunga colony has been discovered; it’s great news but because these gulls are so rare, we can’t just leave them to the mercy of predators. The campaign manager for the black-billed gull/tarapunga, Steve Attwood,  gives us this update. 
THREATENED SPECIES GET TOGETHER DOWN AT THE RIVER

Braided river birds are getting it together in Canterbury with Environment Canterbury (ECan) reporting that a nesting colony of tarapuka (black-billed gull) has established on the Waimakariri River alongside nesting tara (white-fronted tern), tarapiroe (black-fronted tern) and ngutupare (wrybill).

Tarapuka, with a conservation status of ‘”nationally critical”’ are the world’s most endangered species of gull. Tarapiroe arend nationally endangered and ngutupare, the only bird in the world with a bill that bends sideways, are ‘”nationally vulnerable’”. The tara, while New Zealand’s most common tern, is declining and authorities are concerned for its future.

Niall Mugan, ecologist and ornithologist, reports that there are two black-billed gull colonies on the Waimakariri with the largest, which is the one associated with the other river-breeding birds, having about 700 gulls in residence along with approximately 200 white-fronted terns, 30 pairs of black-fronted terns and several pairs of wrybill.

Mugan notes that while the colony is great news, what is not so good is that there seems to be high numbers of predators in the area, particularly introduced mammalian predators against which the ground-nesting birds have few defences. He says initial trapping set up around the colony has caught several pests, including stoats and a ferret.

Predator pressure aside, Mugan says he believes the colony site is the best location the gulls have chosen in five years of surveying the Waimakariri and he has high hopes for a successful year.

VOTE BLACK-BILLED GULL FOR SEABIRD OF THE YEAR: www.seabirdoftheyear.org.nz

Hunua inspiration

In late October a trio of Wellingtonians went on a three-day inspiration expedition to the Hūnua Ranges south-east of Auckland.

The Hūnua Ranges — a key water catchment for Auckland — had been in the news due to the confirmation of an upcoming 1080 drop in the ranges. The reason? To suppress introduced predators like rats and possums and help protect the last remnant kōkako population in the region.

The handsome bird (Zorro mask, blue cravat, grey cloak) with the torch song tunes had cast its spell  on Tim Park and me, and we were keen to introduce Geoff Simmons to the kōkako Kool Aid.

Our guides were scientist Dr Tim Lovegrove, ecologist Shona Myers and ranger Scott Kusabs.

We three Wellingtonians wanted to experience the results of 20+ years of manu-saving mahi. It was a great opportunity for us to see the bigger conservation picture as we carry out pest control in our Wellington backyards as part of the Enhancing the Halo project.

Hunua kokako in lancewood

Hunua kokako in lancewood

For ecologist Tim Park, it was a chance to catch up with colleagues and get the lowdown on Hūnua conservation. For me it was a chance to thank Tim Lovegrove for spurring a nature boy obsession with birds ’n’ bush. (I had spent a school holiday on Kapiti Island in the late 80s, tagging along with Tim trapping and releasing saddlebacks.) As for Geoff? He didn’t know his kōkako from his kākāpō, so he was in for an education.

By the early 90s the once-common Hūnua kōkako (around 500 birds in the 1950s) were in perilous decline (25 kōkako were surveyed in 1994, with just one breeding pair). At the 80s pub where early kōkako surveyors had weekly drinks, there were still kererū raffles. One Friday a ‘sick-looking kererū’ turned out to be a kōkako. When local iwi learned about the state of their spirit bird, a rāhui (ban) was put on hunting.

In 1994 the then-Auckland Regional Council and Department of Conservation banded together for a kōkako search and rescue mission. A kōkako management area was established by staff and volunteers, and a network of bait stations and traps now covers nearly 1500 hectares. About 1600 hours a year are contributed by 50-60 volunteers.

In the bush the botanists buzzed, name-dropping Latin tags on miniature orchids and giant mosses (traveling with botanists makes for slow progress). A disturbing sight throughout the forest was mass defoliation of mature lancewood trees — an autumnal brown pocked the evergreen hillsides. However, the many healthy young lancewoods and the weed-free interior offered encouragement that the forest was diverse enough to be resilient.

From the trig we scoped a panorama of Coromandel, Firth of Thames, Manukau Heads and Sky Tower. Lovegrove reeled off islands of the Hauraki Gulf, gave us a précis of the human (manganese mining, marines) and natural history of the area.

The next day a thigh-burning tour of gnarly traplines generated more respect for the dedication of their volunteer operators. We posed for photos with a freshly caught stoat in their honour. There was plenty of pig signs — a Hunua hog raffle wouldn’t go amiss — but there was evident birdlife.

Kererū and tūī were reliable company and the pīpīwharauroa/shining cuckoo made its spring call, signalling to the grey warblers that they’d better make room for a summer house guest. Kākā parrots were a glorious sight, screeching and flapping high above the widescreen Hauraki Plains. At dusk, a morepork sentry attended a perch by our campsite.

But with only a glimpse of kōkako over two days, Geoff was getting the vibe that he was a blue-wattled crow deterrent. On the third morning we tracked the dawn chorus along the Kohukohunui ridge to deliver Geoff his wild kōkako encounter. The magpie-sized bird lived up to its ghostly nickname: high in a lancewood bough surrounded by a lei of clematis flowers.

We hoped it was a wahine. Early on in the kōkako rescue effort it was noticed that there were many male-male pairings (the lady drought was thought to be a result of predation on the nest). Breeding birds were translocated from other kōkako strongholds and ‘anchored’ through playing recordings of their local dialects. Via this assimilation innovation the reinforcements soon felt at home in the Hūnua Ranges and hooked up with the locals.

Our necks were happily strained (a necessary antidote to urban smartphone stoop). After lunch and closing in on the dam, Geoff surely shed the curse: At Piggot’s Campsite, while watering the wharepaku, he nearly tripped over a kōkako foraging on the ground. The $50 note cover-bird graced us with a quarter of an hour hangout, before it ascended to a rewarewa stage to show off its plangent call. Choice.

Dams and wilderness are not the most ‘natural’ bedfellows, but due to their utility in capturing water, forest ecosystems in catchment areas (Hūnua, Karori, Wainuiomata, Waitākere) have been comparatively well protected. Partnerships like those between Auckland Council, DOC, and many volunteer kōkako acolytes (iwi, students, locals, bird nerds) have built on this contingency to provide a compelling conservation example.

There are now (as of Oct 2014) at least 55 kōkako breeding pairs in the ranges: already achieving the project’s 2020 target — we’ll have to get their scroggin recipe. Long may the grey ghost continue to haunt the Hūnua Ranges … and long may Geoff be able to trip over it.

Paul Stanley Ward

For more information:

Hunua Kōkako Recovery Project
Enhancing the Halo

 

Why the Antipodean albatross (Toroa) – deserves to be Seabird of the Year

Antipodean albatross

Albatrosses are one of the most inspiring of marine creatures, gliding effortlessly on huge broad wings across the oceans. They have the longest wingspan of any bird. Perhaps we humans envy them, just a bit, for their apparent freedom to fly across the oceans anywhere that takes their fancy, only returning to land every two years. I say ‘apparently’ because of course they must go where the food is and for antipodean albatrosses that now means sometimes flying as far as South America to find food. Climate change impacts in the marine environment may well be affecting their food supply which means raising a chick even for two hard-working parents is becoming increasingly difficult.

This magnificent albatross breeds mainly on the Antipodes Islands south of New Zealand but a few pairs breed on Campbell Island and the Chatham Islands.  Here, I am separating the Antipodean albatross from the closely related Gibson’s albatross which breeds on the Auckland Islands. Currently they are classified as subspecies, but because they breed on different islands and feed in different areas.  From a conservation perspective they should be treated as separate, as they face different threats. In our New Zealand classification of the conservation status of birds, they are both considered to be critically endangered. That’s serious! Next step is extinction. Fifteen of the 22 species of albatross worldwide are considered to be threatened and globally they are the most at-risk bird group.

Like all albatrosses they spend many years finding just the right mate so don’t start breeding until they are at least seven years old. They need plenty of time to get to know each other and make sure they are compatible. After all, raising a chick takes months of dedicated work by both parents and you need to make sure your partner will be as committed as you are. Sadly the population on the Antipodes is declining – females even faster than males so it’s hard to find a new girlfriend if your mate dies. Fisheries bycatch and changes in their marine environment are the main threats to their survival.

This video of an Antipodean albatross was taken by albatross researcher and enthusiast Kath Walker on one of her yearly visits to study these birds.

Meeting an albatross up close is one of the best experiences, if you want to see an albatross here is a link to a tour you can do off Kaikoura.

Karen Baird, Forest & Bird Conservation Advocate (Seabirds)

You can cast your vote here: www.seabirdoftheyear.org.nz

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