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


Not all meetings are equal

Cobb2_Craig Potton_free to use

Cobb Valley, Golden Bay. Photo: Craig Potton.

Short meetings beat long ones. I’m probably not alone in thinking that. So the thought of a three day meeting would normally leave me cold. But having just returned from one of Forest & Bird’s “Island Gatherings”, I can say there are exceptions.

The gatherings aren’t the usual tea-and-biscuits, spend 10 minutes waiting for Skype, let’s talk about how we should all be “moving forward” – type affairs that many of us may be used to.

Gatherings are held for the North and South Islands every year. They are attended by Forest & Bird members, branch committee reps, staff, and board members. These meetings almost defy description. They’re where ideas are thrashed out and knowledge is shared. They remind people why we care so deeply about conservation. And yes, there’s never any doubt about what people think about the more controversial topics. That’s to be expected in a room full of people dedicated to the protection of our natural heritage, at a time when it is under serious threat (although when has it not been?).

But to use my favourite cliché, the gatherings are more than the sum of their parts. You would have to be pretty indifferent not to have come away from this year’s South Island Gathering in Golden Bay without grave concerns around the extent and urgency of the conservation work that needs to be done. But at the same time, it would have been hard not to be buoyed by the determination and thoughtfulness of the people doing that work.

The highlights this year?  Some of these were also lowlights, like the story of the bar-tailed godwit. Every year the birds fly from New Zealand to Alaska. They layover in China for refuelling.  But something – a giant reclamation project, or DDT perhaps – is decimating the small marine animals the godwits eat while in China. This is going to have serious impacts on the species –they’re not about to just start using another beach.

Fortuitously, the story of the battle with the Trifford-like pest vines of Golden Bay proved no conservation challenge is too great. And a talk on what is known – and not known – about Golden Bay’s incredible aquifers was uplifting, despite the warning that only a small change in the characteristics of the water entering the system could make it all go haywire.

It’s a shame more people won’t get to hear Graeme Elliot’s talk on the science of 1080. It left me in no doubt that it’s high time that the money that goes into trying to find the mythical and elusive “alternative” to 1080 should be spent instead on just getting on with the job, with the best tool we have. .. before it’s too late.

Project Janszoon, which is made possible by the extraordinary generosity of just one couple, is doing great work in restoring the Abel Tasman National Park. But what I found particularly interesting is that Janszoon is using new communications technology to bring the park alive for those who can’t be there in person.

This year’s South Island Gathering was notable in one other respect. The catering. Gingernut fans would have been disappointed. Instead, there were mussel fritters and cheesecake, courtesy of the Onetahua Waka Ama Club, and wine, courtesy of Yealands.

The 2014 North Island Gathering  will be held at Forest & Bird’s Ruapehu Lodge between October 31st and November 2. Take a look at the programme. If you’re not a member of Forest & Bird, then it’s worth joining just for the sake of being able to go. Your idea of what a meeting can amount to will never be the same again.




How to watch whales

I remember going on my first whale watching trip seventeen years ago: dressed up in a red survival suit, travelling off the coast of Vancouver Island (Canada) in a small zodiac. No other boats around but us. The sight and sound of the 14m Gray Whale surfacing beside our small boat shortly after have stayed with me ever since. It was overwhelming experiencing such a charismatic giant! Four years later, I was standing on a clifftop on nearby San Juan Island conducting fieldwork for my Masters degree on whale watching.

Southern right whale, courtesy of DOC

Southern right whale, courtesy of DOC

In the distance I noticed the flotilla of boats approaching. Shortly after we counted 25 orca whales and 125 boats (commercial and private) around them! What was going on? We had only just brought whales back from the brink of extinction from hunting and now it looked like we were ‘loving them to death’ instead!

Since the ‘Save the Whales’ movement of the 1970s whale watching has grown into a multi-billion dollar global industry, widely recognized as the antithesis to whaling, and a harmless commercial activity that is equivalent to whale conservation. ‘The Whale’ has become a human passion. People want to observe cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) in the wild and the demand for close and personal experiences fuels an ever-expanding industry worldwide. With close to half the world’s whale and dolphin species occurring in New Zealand waters, Aotearoa is a popular destination for whale watchers from around the globe. Whale watching in Kaikoura is among the most popular tourist attractions in this country.

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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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Boomerang birds

In New Zealand annually, between 10 -30 of transfers take place each year in an effort to re-colonise our mainland islands with threatened birds – however some birds, just prefer home and will go to great lengths to return to their forest, island or wetland base.

Fairy prion, bellbird and kaka often boomerang back to their source site. Photos: Nick Talbot, Craig Mckenzie, Brent Bevan

Fairy prion, bellbird and kaka often boomerang back to their source site. Photos: Nick Talbot, Craig Mckenzie, Brent Bevan

There’s the story of the weka who legged it back to Gisborne from Whakatane, the spotless crakes that beat their catching team back home and the little tomtit that was transferred to Tiritiri Matangi only to wing it back to the Hunuas.

Indeed, our wandering kokako “Duncan” – who became a media star in less than a week – strayed almost 31kms from his transfer site in the Waitakere ranges into suburban Auckland.

Since Richard Henry attempted to save kakapo from extinction in the 1890s by transferring several hundred of these gregarious green parrots to Resolution Island, hundreds of translocations have taken place across New Zealand.

Transfers have saved many species, including our little spotted kiwi, buff weka, black stilt, kakapo, South Island saddleback and black robin.

Initially, these were almost solely done by NZ Wildlife Service (later DOC) however since 2000, community groups have taken a lead role, with DOC providing best practise guidelines and some supervision for endangered birds.

Indeed, with all number of community restoration groups putting their hands up for threatened birds, reptiles and frogs the number of translocations has swelled. In 2010, 71% of the translocations were undertaken by community groups either solely or with the assistance of DOC.

We have come a long way since Richard-Henry’s one-man mission. Since then, we’ve transferred 70 species of birds – and steadily, the success rate went from just 15.3% in the 1960s to 66.6% in the 2000s.

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Successful mountain rescue

In a few months’ time, Kaikoura residents will celebrate the return of their nationally endangered Hutton’s shearwaters from Australia’s fishing grounds with a raucous street party.

Volunteers feed a 'sardine smoothie' to one of the chicks on the new site.

Volunteers feeding ‘sardine smoothies’ to the some of the chicks on the new site.

Indeed, these welcoming parties are becoming quite a tradition amongst birders in NZ.

Church bells toll and cake flows when our godwits return from their marathon flight from Alaska.

And although the celebration is just as lively in Kaikoura, emotions run a little higher because locals are hoping some of the returning shearwaters will choose their fenced man-made site on the peninsula.

The good news is that more and more birds are coming back to this site each year. In 2012/13, twenty one birds returned and two chicks successfully fledged from this 2.1 hectare predator-proofed sanctuary.

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Our amazing flat-faced patiki

In lakes, rivers and estuaries throughout New Zealand, groups of aquatic flying carpets are mobilising and moving downstream towards the sea.  Late autumn marks the time when a special species of New Zealand flatfish – the freshwater black flounder or patiki – embarks upon a spawning migration to the sea, with juveniles re-entering freshwater and migrating back upstream a few months later.

Despite their cute appearance, black flounder are ferocious predators of small fish. Photo: Alton Perrie

The black flounder (Rhombosolea retiaria) is a truly fascinating native freshwater fish species.  They are found mostly in freshwater, in lakes and streams close to the coast, although they have been known to travel as far as 250km inland!

They also complete migration-like movements in marine environments, some of which can be astonishingly large – one flounder that was tagged during a research study in the Wairarapa turned up in Taranaki a number of months later!

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Pest-free Stewart Island comes one step closer to becoming reality

New Zealand leads the world in clearing pests, however until now DOC has talked gingerly about the obvious next hurdle:  clearing pests from inhabited islands. Until now….

For fifteen years people have talked about getting pests off Stewart island (popn = 380), and five years ago a feasibility study was done to determine whether this is possible.

Oban – Stewart island’s only township will be surrounded by a predator proof fence first to cordon off the most sensitive area, and get locals accustomed to the bio-security measures that will be put in place. After that, the rest of the island (170,000 ha) will be cleared of pests. Click to enlarge

It wasn’t until businessman and philanthropist Gareth Morgan took the reins one year ago that this whole project has been swung into fifth gear. Since he took on this uber project, he has conducted an anonymous poll to determine firstly whether Stewart islanders wanted to rid the island of their rats, feral cats and possums.

The poll came back emphatically in favour of the idea: 84% of the respondents said ‘yes’. Re-envisioning this island (NZ’s third largest) as a bird-filled paradise with kiwi walking down Oban’s main street and kakapo sitting in the trees appealed not just to conservationists, but also tourism operators in an island where there are few economic opportunities.

Indeed, an appetite for biodiversity restoration already exists in some parts of the community – after all, the community ‘demanded’ that the invading rat population on Ulva Island was re-eradicated in 2011.

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Duncan come home!

**Newsflash** Duncan was caught and happily returned to his home yesterday afternoon (May 15th). To go to the TV One news report – see here – 

In 2011, Duncan – our endangered kokako – disappeared from our pest controlled sanctuary in the Waitakeres and two years later he has turned up in suburban Glendowie. Yes, that’s thirty one kilometres from his home.

Duncan come home!

As you’ll know kokako aren’t great fliers, so great mystery surrounds why he decided to take this flight of fancy across motorways and highways, and why Glendowie seems to be his resting spot.

Fortunately for Duncan, he seems to be surrounded by friends. He was discovered by a birder in the region who spotted this endangered bird (only 750 pairs to its name) and called DOC to establish his origins.

Many of the people in the neighbourhood are keen birders and Tiritiri Matangi supporters, so they’ve done a mail drop and they’re keeping a close eye on his whereabouts, and their cats.

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The secret life of our bluegill bully

Beneath the water’s surface, in a stream or river near you, a tiny native fish is searching for a rock. It has to be the right size and shape, in the right location in the stream and the right orientation to the current. It also has to be defended from all the other little fish currently on the hunt for the perfect rock!

The magnificent bluegill bully. Photo: Alton Perrie.

The bluegill bully (Gobiomorphus hubbsi), one of New Zealand’s lesser known native fish is preparing for autumn spawning. Bluegill bullies are a stocky, tubular fish, sandy to dark brown/black in colour with blotchy markings and distinctive dark spots on their cheeks. They get their name from the brilliant, iridescent blue band that is visible on their gills. Bluegill bullies are the smallest of New Zealand’s seven bully species, with most adults growing only to around 50-60 mm in length.

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