My life as a keaologist: Mt Cook trip #1
Guest blogger: Builder-cum-kea enthusiast Corey Mosen
Due to being such a terrific ‘pack horse’ on the first trip I was lucky enough to be offered another chance to help Clio again, this time at Mt Cook and this time with my expenses paid. Here we had the same objective; to catch, band, blood test and observe as many kea as possible.
It started off with an early morning departure from the Wellington harbour on the Interislander. Once in the South Island it was my job to drive the 1985 Bongo Van from Piction all the way to Mt Cook. It wasn’t the kind of vehicle I was used to but I soon got the hang of it. After 7 hours of driving we arrived at our accommodation, this was in the style of the Wyn Irwin Hut: an old mountaineers hut owned by the Canterbury Mountaineers Club. Close to the Department of Conservations ‘White Horse Hill’ camp ground, the hut had limited power, indeed most of it came in the form of solar charged batteries which on good days gave us lighting. There were also basic instructions about safe operations of the hut – some which insisted that we turn the water off over night and drain the remaining water from the pipes to ensure that, due to expansion from freezing, the pipes didn’t burst over night.
Every morning the local kea would rise about 30 minutes before sunrise and terrorise the camp ground patrons. They would start with low fly bys close to tents and campervans, making as much noise as possible. If anything had been left outside the night before kea would make that their next port of call; they would then meticulously explore and destroy anything new. Clio and I would use this opportunity to use something interesting for the kea to explore as bait. We would use the novelty object to get them in the best spot for our catching technique. We caught a few Kea this way – and managed to prolong sleep for the campers for a few minutes by diverting the Kea’s attention away from the camp ground!
Kea would usually leave the area once the sun was in the sky which would give us a break for a few hours. Clio used this time to catch up on thesis work. I would sometimes explore the area; there were a lot of really nice walks in the area which provided something to take up my time. There was the Hooker Lake Track, Sealy Trans and Kea Point Track which all provided breath taking views of mountain tops, glaciers/glacial lakes, the odd miniature ice berg and even brief glimpses of resident native birds… I even saw a few stoats running around the place. Often on these walks I would see a few ill equipped tourists heading off on walks with only what they were wearing to accompany them; no packs, food or extra clothes to keep them warm if the weather changed. There were no disasters then, but it is easy to see how people get themselves into trouble.
Something Clio and I spent one day doing was walking around the Mt Cook Village making notes of all the buildings that had lead head nails. This was for future reference and also to do with her thesis work. Lead is a sweet, quite malleable metal and is an attractive object for kea to explore. These nails are an easily accessible source of lead for Kea to chew and manipulate. Lead poisoning is a problem within the kea population at Mt Cook, long term affects are not known yet but it is believed that it has developmental effects.
Evenings at in the Mt Cook area were spent tramping to the top of White Horse Hill and waiting for kea to come to us. There was a prominent rock up the top and this seemed to be a popular kea congregation point. Before the trip, I acquired a fake Magpie and with the addition of a larger beak (made from part of a drink bottle) and a quick paint job I turned it into a kea. This was placed on top of the rock as an extra incentive to bring the kea to us. Playing on the kea’s natural curiosity it proved to be quite successful and we managed to catch and process a lot more kea during the evenings. Here I learnt a few more useful techniques for handling kea – unfortunately, the hard way. There was a bit more finger biting – but no blood or scars this time.
One memorable event from this trip was when Clio and I were processing one kea and a mob of about 4 juveniles arrived on the scene. Both Clio and I were busy doing what we do when they decided to explore our gear – my stuff in particular. They made holes in my brand new t-shirt and also damaged my camera bag. All I could do was grin and bear it as I was halfway through processing one of their comrades and couldn’t stop what I was doing.
Our presence also seemed to attract not only a rabble of kea, but curiously – given the alpine environment – swarms of sand-flies. They seemed to be highly attracted to my flesh. I quickly learnt to have a piece of long grass in my mouth during kea processing when both of my hands were occupied. I could use this to swat the sand flies when they landed on me and it worked well!
One evening we saw a mob of rambunctious juveniles hassling a Falcon, this could have ended badly but the kea seemed to enjoy taking turns being chased by the Falcon, showing off their aerobatic skills, narrowly avoiding becoming a late snack for the bird of prey and then going back for more. It ended when the Falcon seemed to have had enough and left the area.
I spent a total of 10 days in the mountains on this trip and every one of them was absolutely fantastic. I saw many stunning sights, met a lot of interesting people and most importantly I got to spend time with my species of choice – the kea. I also met another person studying kea and managed to convince them that I could help them in the future, so I secured yet another chance to work with kea just two months after this Mt Cook visit.