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A Report from

AN ISLAND DIARY - Codfish Island New Zealand,

Glen Holland

Put an Australian, a South African and two Kiwi’s (one of whom is of half Irish and the other person of half Chinese descent), on an island for two weeks and……….No not the start of a good joke, rather an expedition to capture and transfer female kaka from Codfish Island to a mainland population at the Nelson Lakes.  Project Leader, Ron Moorhouse, is currently studying the success of predator control around kaka nest sites in relation to fledging success and required the females to boost his mainland study population of 5 breeding pairs and numerous spare males. Ron’s assistant Les Morran, Matthew Low, an Australian Vet and I were the other team members.  With this combination of nationalities we decided it would be safer to avoid the topics of cricket and rugby!

After checking ourselves for seeds and dirt stuck on our clothing and shoes, and being informed how to ensure we did not carry any rodents in our baggage, we were cleared to leave.  Within minutes the chopper was approaching and soon we had our mountain of food, capture equipment and general baggage loaded roof high in the chopper.  Twenty minutes later we landed just above the high water mark on the island. A quick flurry of off-loading and the chopper was gone.  Immediately thereafter I began to feel that this was somewhere special, a pristine environment and no sound apart from the waves and the birds.  The endangered kakapo had been removed from the island during the poison drop to eradicate rats a few months previously. Before I had time to think about kakapo, while wheelbarrowing the equipment to the hut, we had the first kaka flying overhead, calling loudly.  While wandering around the hut to survey the gas and water supply, I was met by an excited family of brown creeper and a red-crowned kakariki which remained hidden, chattering continually from a thicket.

The first afternoon and following morning were spent constructing the aviary which was to house the kaka prior to their transfer.  While busy with this task, I continually felt I was being watched as a South Island tomtit fluttered between us collecting the insects we disturbed.  Above us a family of bellbirds gathered with the chicks “tseeping” continually as the adult frantically caught up every insect she could.  Matt took a bit of a knock during construction and had both kaka and kakariki chattering at him from above.  His reply to them can unfortunately not be recorded here.  My first evening, I went for a walk over to Penguin Bay.  On the way I passed numerous kereru (NZ pigeon) sunning themselves on the flax flower stems and managed to get my first good view of a wild red-crowned kakariki, but was surprised by a lutiro bird in which all the naturally green feathers were replaced by yellow.  This bird was paired to a normal mate.  From the hut we could hear the loud braying of the yellow-eyed penguin chicks and while walking through the forest we came over two adults walking up the path from the beach below. We stood to one side to allow them to pass and only when they were about a metre away, did they realize our presence.  I found my self being carefully observed by a bright yellow eye peering from below a fern frond.  The two birds blocked the passage of an impatient third and the group suddenly burst into a series of loud braying calls with heads thrown back. The sound was deafening and we retreated a little further to allow the birds to pass and deliver their days catch to their large demanding chicks.  Later we watched one bird feeding its young with the chick delving deep into the adults throat to retrieve every last morsel.  The adult then began to preen the chick all over its body and this gesture was half-heartedly returned by the chick.

While sitting on the beach watching more penguins leave the surf, and waddle up to their forest nest sites, I was struck by the rugged beauty of the area.  Looking across towards the rocky outcrops of Stewart Island, I noticed many thousands of seabirds beginning to congregate over the large swells in the ocean.  Mainly  sooty shearwaters the odd flash of white on a belly or wing indicated the presence of other species such as petrels.  This is the first time in New Zealand that I have experienced the feeling that nature had the upper hand and wildlife was abundant.  It reminded me of one of my experiences in African wilderness areas.  While sitting there I was ever conscious of the pair of red-crowned kakariki’s objecting verbally to my presence.

The following morning we set off to locate and prepare a capture site for kaka.  Firstly we required a gap in the canopy of the forest with tall emergent anchor trees at each end – not too far or close apart and sufficient perching trees alongside the capture site.  After hours of searching and then a days work on preparing the site to ensure the net would not snag on surrounding trees, we finally had the first of what would be many sites ready.  A laborious process which Ron and Les were obviously well accustomed to, Matt and I were getting rather anxious at having been on the island for a few days but still not having caught a kaka yet.  Most of the nets were set at a hight of 15 – 20 m above the ground, hanging from a back bone cord which was attached two the two emergent anchor trees. Finally the conditions were just right – not too much sun, no wind and kaka calling in the area.  Hidden under camourflage nets, Ron turned on the audio system and soon we had the sounds of kaka echoing through the forest.  Almost immediately a group of kaka arrived to investigate the commotion and suddenly a bird dropped from the canopy straight into the net.  The net was carefully lowered and amongst a host of growling and clicking sounds the bird was carefully removed from the net.  The rest of the flock became quite agitated and their loud “kraak” alarm calls echoed about us.  The large size of the bird and in particular its bill, was indicative that it was a male and he was released.  The birds, the forest and our team then settled until the speakers were working again and the air was again filled with kaka calls.  Two tui aggressively chasing each other resulted in one bird in the net.  As I approached the bird, Ron shouted  “don’t need to warn you about its claw!” … Hang!  I thought I had just taken a kaka out of the net and he is worried about a little tui. I felt my eyes begin to water and the pain was unbelievable as the tui sank its needle sharp claws into my hands, and pierced the quick of my fingernail.  After Les helped me retrieve my fingers and then the bird, I retired to the camourflage sheet to lick my wounds and heal my pride.  An hour later, with Les “purring” to the birds while he lay on his back, Ron called to us to lower our end of the net.  After some discussion it was decided that we needed a recording of the local kaka dialect which differed considerably from the Nelson Lakes dialect we were using and both differed considerably from the North Island birds with which I was familiar.  After a series of capture sites, each of which took at least a day to prepare and the use of the recorded local dialect which Ron managed to obtain we had our four females in the aviary.  We had caught a number of birds which were clearly male, their large beaks identifiable even when hovering above us in the nets, but we also released a number of birds which we felt were female but their beak measurements fell outside the parameters for females.  One male had a bill length of 58mm, the largest Ron had recorded and he felt that all these birds were possibly a little larger than their more northern cousins.  Yellow and red crowned kakariki, tui (which I now respected) and bellbirds were all part of the by-catch, which were released.  Over most of the island we came across dead wooden stumps which had been chewed by the kaka in an effort to extract the borer grubs.

All the time we were busy we had long-tailed cuckoos calling around us, but I had yet to see them when one evening while walking on the beach, I had my first view of them.  The presence of the cuckoo in its territory had clearly upset a tui and his attack included a long chase out of the shrub, over the beach, a wide arch across the sea and back into the shrub.  I saw this chase repeated in the same area on three separate occasions.  While searching for a potential capture site, I heard a very excited pair of brown creepers.  Knowing there were no introduced predators on the island I went off in search of the morepork (owl) they must have chosen to harass.  I found the pair of creepers mobbing a long-tailed cuckoo, which was quietly searching the vegetation for its host’s nest.  Another species, which are plentiful, are the rifleman which together with the bellbirds, entering their first nesting season without any predators (kiore eradicated last winter), had produced abundantly and seemed to be everywhere on the island.  I found one rifleman nest in a small natural cavity in a stump about 20cm off the ground.  I saw the female enter the nest to feed the chicks and using a torch could see the two large chicks in the nest.  A scattering of faeces directly below the nest site would have led any predator to the chicks which survived only because all pests on the islands, including possums, weka and rats have been eradicated.  After Ron and I had discussed kaka drinking from water-filled cavities in trees, which were clearly known to them, I witnessed similar behaviour for rifleman.  I watched one bird fly about 4m and enter a small cavity where its bathing was made obvious by the spray of water from this cavity.

Within days of landing on the island, Matt went down with stomach problems and after a few days of this, Ron decided to call for treatment.  Matt (a vet) diagnosed himself and Ron radioed the message to the mainland. On requesting the medicine, for fear of being refused assistance, Ron purposefully did not mention that the patient was an Australian!  Matt was soon back on his feet but still maintains his best photos of the trip are from the ‘loo with a view’! We were told to wait on the beach at 2pm and sure enough at 2pm on the dot, a small parcel wrapped in the day’s Southland Times was dropped from a passing plane.  What it is to be marooned in the first world! We shared duties in the kitchen – more like something out of Faulty Towers – John Cleese could have taken tips here. One effort at a lemon meringue pie left me crawling on the floor unable to stand because of laughter and tears in my eyes. We had ten people to feed – when I opened the oven I found a pie with paper-thin pastry which would fit in two hands and no filling! Never allow a computer wiz or bird keeper behind the stove!

Having never seen a fern bird, I had an afternoon free and set off to the Pakihi scrub area on the far side of the island.  Very similar to the fynbos of Cape Town where I had grown up, I felt at home in the mist covered scrub.  Red-crowned kakariki were constantly flying overhead as I “spished” in the hope of raising a fern bird.  Suddenly 10 metres to my right I heard “chick, chick” and spotted a small face peering at me from the top of some wind swept scrub.  It immediately disappeared and I watched the path of the bird approaching me through the shaking vegetation.  About 3 metres away, with mouse-like movements it popped on to the top of scrubs and excitedly called to me.  After shouting some abuse at me, it turned to show me its long tail and disappeared.  I could not believe how similar in looks and habitat preference, this bird is to the grassbird of South Africa. 

Shortly before we left the island, a party led by Henrik Moller (a Dane) and including 2 British and one Kiwi (who had Moari ancestary) arrived on the island to add a little more to the ethnic diversity and oh yes – to do some research on sooty shearwaters.  As we had completed most of our task, I spent some time with this group.  Initially we used a burrow-scope to locate active nests and pin point the incubating birds.  This procedure includes slowly inserting the burrow scope down the burrow, twisting past roots and other obstacles to locate the nest chamber which vary between 0.6 –2m from the burrow entrance.  While I was lying on my chest with a strong smell of sea bird on and around me, my face was next to the burrow entrance and my arm feeding and twisting the tube down the burrow. Just to add to the pleasant experience the exposed area at the end of my sleeve was exposed to numerous attacks from fleas.  Tish Sheridan who was part of the shearwater team was on the monitor telling me which way to twist, push and turn the tube, left us all in hysterics with her excited shouts of “push it in now  - yes, yes, yes” and finishing off with “you did it so well you can do it again”. Fortunately on the island we knew nobody else was listening in!

At 9pm that evening we went back to the shearwater nesting area and awaited the arrival of the first birds which we were to band.  Shortly after 10pm we found Henrik lying on his back staring into the sky.  Before we had time to think that he had “lost it” and with clearly bewildered expressions on our faces, Henrik carefully explained that he was conducting timed counts of the birds flying overhead.  At 10.20 the first crash in the canopy above and cry from Henrik for to “get that bird”.  No time to think about the gloves I have been advised to wear.  I landed in a clump of ponga (tree ferns) where I thought the birds had landed.  I grabbed the rather stunned bird making sure that I had the beak and I was safe from bites.  In seconds however the birds claws had lacerated my fingers and I quickly subdued its feet as well.  We spent most of the night searching the area with headlamps and catching and banding as many birds as we could.  When we stopped for coffee and chocolate at 1am we could hear large numbers of mottled petrels calling “kek, kek, kek” as they swished past at speed.  The occasional short-tailed bat flitted through the beams of our head lamps.  The banding of shearwaters and their flattened legs and specially adapted bands was a new challenge for me.  The shearwater calls consisting of ooh’s and aaah’s could be heard in the sky above and from deep within the burrows below.  I was more fortunate than other members of the team and did not receive a blessing of partially digested warm, smelly and oily fish from any of the birds I handled. 

As the helicopter turned us away from the group of friends on the beach, I had mixed feelings of pleasure at the thought of getting back to see my family, a piece of me wanting to remain and some trepadation at what was waiting for me in my in-tray at work.  This experience however gave me great insight into some of  the diversity which exists in New Zealand.


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