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


Snapper’s grassy beginnings

Snapper are one of New Zealand’s most popular fishes, and are highly sought after – both recreationally and commercially. They are found around the shallow waters of the North Island, making them an ideal fishing target.

Snapper, photo by Kirstie Knowles

The Kaipara Harbour, north of Auckland, is one of the largest harbours in the world. It is a large estuary, and supports fish, oysters, mussels and scallops. Seagrasses play an important role in these estuarine ecosystems.

They provide a nursery habitat for fish, help to stabilise the sediment by trapping sand and mud around their roots, and transfer nutrients between the seabed and the ocean above it, as the grasses grow.

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Last chance saloon for healthy freshwater?

Hurunui River, photo by Chris Todd

Hurunui River, photo by Chris Todd

Healthy lakes and rivers are surely something that virtually every New Zealander cares about.

New Zealanders use freshwater in many ways… for instance as a source of kai, to irrigate a crop, to turn the turbines of a power station, or to partake in their favourite sport.

As a result, it’s not easy to get agreement on how best to both use and protect New Zealand’s freshwater systems.

But an almost unanimous agreement has been reached, at the long-running Land and Water Forum, about how to do just this.

The forum was made up of conservation groups, scientists, farming and power interests, iwi, the fishing fraternity, and others. Forest & Bird was amongst them. The forum, an independent body, was asked by the Government to provide a common view on the right way to manage New Zealand’s freshwater systems.

While there was a lot of give and take during negotiations, there was widespread acceptance from the farming groups that their best environmental performers are often their best economic performers. This laid much of the groundwork for the solutions the forum has come up with.

The forum’s third and final report was released on November the 15th. It recommends integrated decision-making in water catchments, improved water quality management, and clearer rights around taking water within set limits.

The latest report represents three years of hard work. If the Government accepts the forum’s findings, it will take years still for all the recommendations to take effect.

Therefore the Government must not let this once-in-a-generation opportunity slip by. If it does, its legacy will be one of dry rivers, species extinction, the loss of culturally significant waterways, business failures, and an end to a way of life enjoyed by generations of New Zealanders.

The forum’s report can be read in full here:

Bird of the Year: the noble rock wren

Rock wren, Photo: Craig McKenzie

Photo: Craig McKenzie

The rock wren – it wakes up to “100% Pure” views (for now), it has some serious eyebrows and it hops to the beat of its own drum. Vote rock wren for bird of the year 2012.


The (petite) Edmund Hillary of the bird world, the rock wren is our only true alpine bird. It stays above the bushline year-round – given how bitterly cold and stormy it gets up there that’s no mean feat.


These tiny, noble birds make elaborate nests in rock crevices to last out the winter while kea are looting cafes and tearing up windscreen-wipers.

While most bird-appreciators can now get an easy glimpse of a kokako at wildlife sanctuaries only the adventurous among us will set to see a rock wren up close – you’ll have to head to the hills and cross your fingers. Sadly, numbers of rock wren are in decline due to mammalian pests.


The rock wren and its nearest relative the rifleman are the only birds left in the ancient genetic family Acanthisittidae and there are no other surviving species in the rock wren’s genus Xenicus.

You know you’ve been somewhere special when you’ve seen a rock wren. If you want to keep seeing them then back pest control programmes, and, of course, vote rock wren for Bird of the Year 2012 – so the little bird from the top of the mountains can be heard by everyone. Vote rock wren!

Bird of the Year: Tui, the heavenly honeyeater

Campaign Manager(s) Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra,

Photo: Micheal Hamilton

Photo: Micheal Hamilton

We love the tui. We love the heavenly honeyeater so much that it has pride of place on our logo.


Here are just a few things that the tui has in common with the Wellington International Ukulele Orchestra:

1. We both love honey.

2. The tui travels large distances but its environmental footprint is very small. We also travel large distances on our tours, and many of us take trains and boats rather than airplanes.

3. The tui is very clever at impersonating humans and mimicking other birds, which makes it the covers band of native NZ birds.

4. When there are a lot of tuis around, that’s a good sign of regeneration. Same with ukuleles.

5. Tuis are very intelligent. Say no more.

6. Tuis love to sing at night, especially when there’s a full moon. So does our Bek.

7. The tui is a very important pollinator, keeping its environment fertile. Our audience members tell us that we have been implicated in some fertile moments through the pollination of joy and music. Ahem.

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The coolest little bird in the world!

Off to check out Places for Penguins

Off to check out Places for Penguins

If you love the coast you’ll love this bird! From the harbour islands to the South Coast and even in the heart of the city, the Little Blue Penguin shares some of our favourite places.

As they waddle up beaches with flippers outstretched, we can’t help but love them. It’s the world’s smallest penguin at around 25cm tall and around 1kg.  It’s also the penguin that most of us can see around New Zealand’s coastline, often while walking at dusk or kayaking by the rocks.

They even live and nest under the waterfront in the middle of our coolest little capital city.  If you walk along the Wellington waterfront, you might see one swimming in the harbour, or under the wharves, right now.

The other time you might be lucky enough to catch a glimpse is during dawn and dusk, when they travel back and forth to their burrows.  They can even sleep on the water and stay at sea for weeks.

At this time of the year the little blue penguins are in the middle of nesting and many adults are looking after their fluffy little chicks until they are big enough to head out themselves.  Youngsters from Wellington Harbour have been found as far afield as the Wairarapa Coast and Pukerua Bay, a big distance to swim for a little bird!

At the Wellington Zoo with Mike Britton (Forest & Bird) and Jenny Lynch (Forest & Bird, Places for Penguins)

At the Wellington Zoo with Mike Britton (Forest & Bird) and Jenny Lynch (Forest & Bird, Places for Penguins)

Penguins are wonderful, but sometimes they can live a bit too close to home.  Little blue penguins can be very loud and particularly smelly, and have a fondness for living under people’s houses.  In Wellington, the local community is creating nest boxes for them around the coast to get them out from under people’s houses and into a more natural environment.  This also stops them from crossing the road, a danger for any self respecting penguin.

Another part of community work is pest control and advocacy, removing rats and mustelids and ensuring that owners of cats and dogs are responsible and enjoy their pets without risking our little blue neighbours.

For the amusement they give us, the challenges they face and the fact that they are little battlers who can enjoy a metropolitan lifestyle, the Little Blue Penguins deserve everyone’s vote for bird of the year. Vote for the little Blue Penguin!

Hoiho, the yellow-eyed penguin: our shy rare penguin

Being a New Zealand bank, it was only appropriate for us to select the yellow-eyed penguin since it appears on the New Zealand $5 bill.

Yellow-eyed penguin, Photo: Craig Mckenzie

Yellow-eyed penguin, Photo: Craig Mckenzie

Click here for The Co-operative’s Bank Yellow-eyed penguin video.

Let’s be honest – it takes something special to make it onto one of the nation’s most popular pieces of paper. Like The Co-operative Bank, the yellow-eyed penguin is small in size but has some very unique features that set it apart from other birds.

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My life as a lizard dog

Border collie-cross Manu joined her owner, lizard expert Marieke Lettink, at the Denniston BioBlitz on March 2-4 to track down skinks and geckos. Manu reveals how she copes as a canine superstar.

Q: What’s it like being a lizard dog?
A: The best job in the world, I get to run around and search for lizards in beautiful places like the Denniston Plateau. I even get free helicopter rides! All this while my canid cousins are stuck inside all day having to sniff underpants for drugs (no way I’m doing that!) or boring old boxes in the mail centre.

Q: What’s it like being famous?
A: It’s a pain. Lots of boy dogs want to sniff my butt. I’m so not interested – just want to find lizards!

Q: What’s so special about the Denniston Plateau?
A: It has the best smells in the world – you wouldn’t believe what’s hidden away up there! Carnivorous snails, velvet worms, fern birds … things are totally new to science. Unfortunately my human is only interested in lizards, but I still get to smell all sorts of other cool stuff.

Q: why are geckos so hard to find/so few and far between?
A: There are heaps more geckos out there than the humans know about! They are hard to find because geckos have excellent camouflage and like to hide themselves away in tight spaces to avoid being eaten by predators. This fools the humans, but not my nose with its 220 million smell cells (a dog sense of smell is a thousand times better than a human’s). But even my nose doesn’t help in some places – I can’t find geckos in places where there are lots of predators that eat them (cats, ferrets, stoats, weasels, hedgehogs, possums, rats, mice, and some birds like magpies and kingfishers).

Q: What’s special about the geckos on the Denniston?
A: They smell great and are very beautiful (being an eye dog, I can appreciate their looks). They live in an environment that’s like a bonsai garden – trees like manuka that would normally be over 4 m tall are only 10 cm tall in places. This is great for me because I can’t climb trees (can only search to dog height). And you know what – I haven’t smelt any predators up there yet, so maybe they are safe up there? I can’t even find a hedgehog – my least favourite critter because they vacuum up lizards, roll up when you bark at them, give you a mouth-full of spines when you bite them, carry diseases and can’t be herded. Useless!

Lone falcon

Blogger: Campaign Manager for the karearea (NZ Falcon) & Co leader for the Maori Party, Pita Sharples.

In 1986, the Waitangi Tribunal heard the te reo Maori claim. Claimants argued that the language was a taonga which the Crown was obliged to protect under the Treaty’s second article, and it had failed to do so. They said that if endangered birds were worth saving, so was te reo Māori, the life force of mana Māori.

Our karearea, or NZ Falcon. Photo: Craig McKenzie

Our karearea, or NZ Falcon. Photo: Craig McKenzie

The bird I have selected then as the Bird of the Year is the Karearea – also known as the New Zealand Falcon (Falco novaeseelandiae) .

The karearea is one of New Zealand’s most spectacular birds – and it is endemic to this country. The World Conservation Union classifies the falcon as a near-threatened species. Like te reo rangatira, the karearea has become threatened due to declining populations of this treasure.

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The wild river duck

Blogger: Campaign Manager for the whio and Forest & Bird’s Marketing and Promotions Project Manager, Phil Bilbrough

The whio (or Blue Duck) is a seriously cool bird. It lives in white water. It is a torrent duck, and how cool is that? If kayaking is a cool whitewater sport but it is just a sport, then the whio who make white water their home, well… they must be ice cool.

Blue Duck, Photo: Craig McKenzie

Blue Duck, Photo: Craig McKenzie

It is a truly beautiful bird. Its grey feathers with flecks of brown is subtle, textured and stunning. There is something Yves Saint Laurent about its palette – these colours aren’t usually seen together but combine beautifully. It evokes both the rocks and wildness of a mountain river and serenity of nature.

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