My life as a keaologist: Lake Rotoiti Survey
Just after New Year this year there was a kea population survey conducted throughout the South Island. Conducted by DOC and the Kea Conservation Trust, the aim of the three year survey is to get a snapshot of the total kea population across the country. As a kea–enthusiast & devoted kea conservationist, I made sure that I was there. There were three sites where people were going into the mountains to do a tree line survey; lake Rotoiti in the Nelson Lakes area; Arthur Pass; and Fiordland.
The aim was to count birds seen above the tree line and to catch, band and put small 15g transmitters on as many as possible. Rotoiti kea haven’t been surveyed for a while, but anecdotal reports suggested that the kea population in their area had slimmed down somewhat. After I arrived at the Rotoiti camp, I was paired up with someone who would complement the skills I have, so the pair of us would be an unstoppable kea counting and processing team. My partner was a fellow DoC worker named Kirsty; she was awesome. It didn’t take me long at all to realise that she was a lot fitter than I was.
We started our trek from the walkway close to Lake Rotoiti. We walked along the track for about 1km and then went directly up. These hills weren’t what I was used to; they were almost sheer, vertiginous mountains. After climbing for about 45 minutes I regretted taking so much gear with me: I have an 80 litre pack and thought it a good idea to fill it up…
After a few hours of almost vertical climbing and subsequent resting, we reached our destination, just above the tree line. We set up camp only to discover that our water levels were low. There seemed to be no obvious water source so I set off down a gulley looking for a dribble in the earth. Eventually I found a small ooze from the depths of the earth and set about filling our water bottles. This wasn’t a quick process and I was there about an hour collecting 6 litres of water, enough to quench my thirst and to cook my dinner.
Once back at camp it didn’t take long to cook the meal. Rehydrated dehydrated food tasted quite good at the start of the trip but after a while you get a hankering for a home cooked meal and some fresh fruit. Soon after dinner a kea was spotted in our valley which created some excitement between Kirsty and me. We got all the catching gears ready; a rather weighty net gun, an equally weighty amplifier to attract kea and a fishing rod with a noose rope at the end. We headed towards the bird only to see it fly off towards another team across in the other valley. The glory of catching the first kea was not to be ours on this trip.
The night was spent with us both cramped in a one man tent – definitely a good way to get to know a virtual stranger! We were up at sunrise ready and waiting for more kea to stray into our area. However there were to be no more at this site and so we packed up and headed off. We moved on up and over the summit, down the other side to the tree line. This trip didn’t take as long as the previous day, but I still had the same regrets: way too much stuff in my pack.
Once at camp we had some time to kill before the official start of the survey. It was a good time to do some reading and even some sleeping in the sun. There was no luck at this survey point either – although I am positive I saw a thar when I woke up for my morning bodily functions. The locals assure me there are no thar around the area and my glasses were still in my pack, so I cannot make a positive argument for it, but whatever it was it moved down the rock scree like a boulder dropping off a cliff. After this survey point all the teams descended down the valley to the road below to meet up and discuss what to do next.
This is where I learnt that from now on I was going solo. The bosses decided I was capable of reaching the points on my own and completing the requirements of the survey. I also had a chance to unload a large portion of my gear. Anything that didn’t serve an immediate purpose was left behind. Being sent off alone I was a little apprehensive at first because it was in an area that I didn’t know particularly well, but after some of the crew had seen me safely across a river – a raging torrent to be exact – I was happy to be on my way. Climbing was much easier with a lighter pack and I reached the halfway point in no time. This is where I needed to follow some instructions to find an old kea nest originally found during some kea work carried out in the ‘90s.
Surprisingly I managed to find the old markers and then the nest but unfortunately there was nothing in it. Some kea chicks would have made an amazing photo opportunity. I continued on my journey upwards, reached the survey point and scoped out an ideal place to set up my tent. I found a rocky outcrop which protected the tent from the weather and provided me a good vantage point to watch the surrounding valley for any signs of kea. The weather started turning and I was glad my raincoat wasn’t jettisoned in my attempt to lighten my pack!
To be continued…