Wanderings and Wonderings on Whenuahou: Part II
After receiving our training from the four friendly DOC rangers on the island my 2 compadres and I are now fully fledged kakapo supplementary feeders. On the first day we each did a round of feeding stations alone with one ranger. This was a perfect introduction to the feeding and cleaning protocols and also to the island in general. The Kakapo Programme Officers who are on the island during my stay have all been here for over 2 years and are incredibly knowledgeable about the history, flora and fauna of Whenua hou and of course the kakapo.
I got the hang of the feeding routine pretty quickly and it is very satisfying work. In the morning I weigh out each kakapo’s food and place it into and clean the ‘hopper’. Each kakapo receives a slightly different amount so the clean and filled hoppers must be labelled prior to being packed into a large rucksack. Cleaning materials and clean water hoppers must also be packed which can make the pack anywhere between 10 and 20 kg. The pack does get lighter as the day goes on and after the first few days I found myself skipping down the hill with my light empty pack!
The feeding routes are different every day and run across some fairly demanding terrain. Each feeding run feeds an average of 10 birds and covers one side of the island. It is a most agreeable way to explore the island and I have been so enjoying the variety of habitats and the great diversity of birdlife. The coastal forest comprises rimu, totara, miro, rata, kamahi and an understorey of tree and ground ferns. Not forgetting the wonderful carpets of mosses, lichens and orchids that adorn the floor. Dracophyllum, southern rata and manuka stands greet me nearer the island tops and the hills open to low scrubland.
There are many diurnal species of bird to watch and listen to during the feeding runs, such as the mohua or yellowhead, rifleman, kaka, tomtit, tui, bellbird, long-tailed cuckoo, yellow and red-crowned kakariki and brown creeper. The island is also home to small populations of yellow-eyed and Fiordland crested penguins and hordes of little blues who come to nest under the hut at night! Hello ear plugs!
My fellow volunteers and I have made ourselves at home in the hut and I am very grateful to the rangers for making us feel so welcome in their home on the island. We have all taken it in turns to cook delicious meals and after dinner I have taken to strolling down to the beach to enjoy the hours of daylight at this time of year. I like to imagine the kakapo just waking up and wondering if their food has been filled up today. After a big beaked yawn, crawling out of their roost or from the undergrowth in which they are superbly camouflaged, hopping onto their platform, opening the hopper and exclaiming in a kakapo way, ‘Yay, fresh food today!!!’
It feels good to be doing something positive for these amazing birds. I have learnt so much about them in the last few days, and have become fascinated by their breeding behaviour. In the breeding season, which starts about now, male kakapo take to prominent ridges, rocks or hilltops with low-growing vegetation to begin a courtship competition for female attention. From its perch, each male inflates a thoracic sac and emits a deep resonant boom from its swollen body, announcing to females in the area that he is ready to mate. The males compete against each other and can emit thousands of booms a night.
Each bird also forms a network of tracks radiating from a bowl-like depression in the earth, from which it is based. This is known as a ‘track and bowl’ system. The female kakapo will travel several kilometres to mate, but, after mating, will be left to tend the nest by herself. I have heard them ‘booming’ from my bedroom at night and it is the most amazing sound: resonating down the valleys of Whenuahou.
I haven’t seen a kakapo yet but I do hope to during my stay. However it feels like enough just to know they still exist and to be helping the rangers prepare them for what will hopefully be a successful breeding season.