Flying high to save a flightless bird
Keeper Diaries - Posted 19 January 2015
Earlier this year I had the amazing opportunity to volunteer on Codfish (Whenua Hou) Island helping the dedicated Kakapo Recovery Team. Codfish and Anchor Islands are the only islands where the endangered Kakapo currently live.
I made my own way from Hamilton to Invercargill. For each flight the plane got smaller and smaller. And the smallest was yet to come. Next stop was the quarantine facility in town where all of my belongings were checked by Department of Conservation (DOC) staff for plant matter or any stowaways. (I had disinfected all my belongings just in case they had come in contact with any of my zoo stuff.) Once checked I repacked it all into a DOC pack, then into the quarantine van for a short drive to the airport. Every inch of the plane was packed with supplies for the island, along with the pilot and 3 of us.
It was a scenic 25-minute flight over the southern coast of the South Island, then amazing views of Stewart Island before we saw tiny Codfish rise from the southern ocean. Luckily I had been warned prior to departure about the excitement of landing on the beach. This was the first flight of the day to the island, so the pilot banked steeply before pulling up just metres from the beach. Next time round he knew the perfect spot to land where the sand is firmest, then touchdown – phew – followed by several bounces before we settled on the Sealers Bay beach airstrip. What a thrilling way to start this southern adventure!
View as we fly in Safely landed
We were greeted with welcoming hugs and smiles by all the humans on the island – all 12 of them (3 were heading back on the plane to the mainland). As the island is a nature reserve, only authorised landings are permitted. We unloaded all the sealed fish bins of supplies and our bags from the plane and carried them up the path to the DOC hut. All the doors and windows were locked whilst we thoroughly checked through all the supplies and bags to ensure no stowaways had found their way in between quarantine and here.
Sealers Bay Hut Final quarantine check for unwanted stowaways
Next was the induction and tour of the facilities. The most impressive part was the well-stocked pantry, just like your local Four Square. I was also delighted with the view from the long-drop looking back across to Stewart Island, and with a cheeky bellbird who came to check us out.
View from the long-drop Codfish Four Square. Little comforts from home, aaaaaah.
Now let’s get to work.
About an hour before sunset each night “nest minders” such as me set off for the night’s duty. Our packs are loaded with everything we need for the night. Before leaving we write our intentions up on the whiteboard so everyone knows where we are going and what time we are expected back.
My first night on Codfish was at Rakuira’s nest, about an hour’s tramp from Sealers Bay Hut. On arrival at the campsite we hooked up the fresh battery we had carried with us to the nest camera. What a surreal experience this was – Kakapo TV streaming live from a nest just a few metres away. What an amazing insight into the life of mother and the attentive care of her precious chick. She enthusiastically fed the chick before she headed off to feed herself. We radioed base to let them know she was off the nest so the rangers could come up and check the chick whilst she was away.
The nightly chick checks ensure they are developing as they should be. This year there are only 3 chicks on the island being raised by their mothers, so it is very important to monitor them closely. I felt so privileged to witness a cute little chick. That night it weighed 455g, was well-hydrated and in excellent health. Over the next 2 weeks it was great to see it progress and grow.
Chick check up
Throughout the night we were woken just 4 times by the “ding dong” of Rakuira leaving the nest. And a few other times by falling petrels, which had returned to feed their chicks after a 3 week trip to the Ross Sea (they are not so good at a dignified landing – more like a crash through the canopy). Each Kakapo nest is set up with a beam across the entrance to the nest which detects movement. If the beam is interrupted it triggers a doorbell type noise to ring at our campsite about 50m away. On rare occasions, petrels or other kakapo enter nests so we always checked the monitor to ensure it was Rakuira setting it off. All the times of entry and exit are recorded so they can later be put onto databases. Rakuira returned to her nest for the final time at 7.48 in the morning, coming right past our tent. We knew it was her because we heard the rustle of leaves as she wandered through the undergrowth and shortly after a “ding dong” indicating she had returned. She kept to the same route each morning I monitored her nest.
Nest minding tools
Once we were sure she was staying in for the day we headed back to base to dry off, have some brekkie and a nice hot shower.
My favourite nest site was Huhana’s. It was under the trunk of an old tree; very cool. It was on the west of the island and a raucous chorus of Morepork and Kaka was heard every night. Not far from the site there were amazing views over Stewart Island, and the tramp back to base sighting lots of Kaka, Kakariki, Kereru and Titipounamu (Rifleman) along the way, ended with a walk along the beach. Huhana was a very attentive mother, leaving up to 6 times each night. One night though she was gone for 9 hours because Kakapo “Margaret” was hogging her feeder, so the rangers had to move Margaret on to her own feed station.
Huhana's nest with all the technology Good morning Rifleman
Sealers Bay looking over to Stewart Island
The adult Kakapo, without chicks, are caught and checked annually. Luckily for me sweet little Solstice, a 5-year-old female, was due for her check. Each Kakapo holds their own territory on the island so the rangers have a vague idea where to find them. I headed out with ranger Tim to lend a hand. All the Kakapo are fitted with transmitters so they can be found using telemetry. Solstice was bundled up under a log – you would never have known she was there – the feathers give such great camouflage. Tim was quick and managed to get her before she took off down the hill. Tim checked her transmitter, ears, cloaca, feather condition and any signs of parasites before she was weighed.
Ranger Tim using telemetry to find Solstice
Another volunteer job was supplement feed-out. The rangers have some awesome technology to assist them. Selected feed stations are set with smart hoppers for mothers feeding chicks to ensure they receive extra specially-formulated food, plus macadamia nuts and flax seed oil. They also had scales at some feed stations so nightly weights could be obtained. Data is captured at the smart hoppers on “snarks”, which record how often they are visited and by whom. This data is bluetoothed to a hand-held device which we carried with us to take back to base. Each time it’s checked the batteries are changed. This makes for a heavy pack, some days up to 20 kg. But wow the views are amazing!
Smart hopper feed station
My favourite was Pearl’s run, which took you over the southern part of the island – next stop Antarctica.
Back at base important work was being done to hand-raise chicks who’d failed to thrive with their mothers. This was a very specialised job, undertaken by just a few of the rangers.
There were so many more antics and goings-on in the 2 weeks I was there, too much to include in this blog. The only downside to the trip was the helicopter flight back to Invercargill. Let’s just say I had a bucket close by for the entire flight.
I am so honoured that I was chosen to be part of this amazing group of dedicated people working their hearts out to save this precious and unique species. Great work Kakapo Recovery Team; thanks for having me.