A Kākāpō Conservation Story

A Kākāpō Conservation Story Featured Image

The mind wanders with the feet through the infinite haze of green; it’s hard to believe there can be so many shades of a colour. You are surrounded by lush New Zealand podocarp-broadleaved forest, which changes subtly as you walk around the coast or over the tops of the island; Yellow-silver and pink pines not yet fruiting, creeping rata, the odd southern and mountain beech trees, ferns in the understory or faux alpine tussock on the tops, and of course young rimu are dotted throughout the forest matrix.

Under the canopy, the forest is damp and organic; it is not unusual to lean on a trunk only to have it break off on you. On the tops, the tussocks tickle your legs, salty Tasman air fills your lungs, and it seems like your vision stretches on and on into the landscape. Depending on where you stand, you can track the lines of looming mountains back up the Dusky Sound, or you can get lost in the intense blue of the Tasman. Either way, the dramatic landscape leaves you feeling bold and insignificant simultaneously, and you know you are in one kind of paradise.

This is Anchor Island, Pukenui, and it is the home to a third of the world’s kākāpō population. Located on the outer western corner at the bottom of the South Island, it was recently deemed a suitable spot for an open island sanctuary for kākāpō. The island was eradicated of stoats in 2001 and red deer during 2002-2005, before the first kākāpō was moved to the island in 2005. Since then, kākāpō numbers on Anchor Island have risen, and it is now the second major kākāpō island in New Zealand.

However, the history of kākāpō in Dusky or Tamatea Sound where Anchor Island is located, extends beyond this and is particularly unique. Importantly, Dusky Sound was the location of the first attempt at saving the kākāpō population, following its decline from hunting activity and habitat loss caused by Polynesian and European settlers, as well as predation by introduced pests. The feat was led by conservationist Richard Henry (1854-1929), and the effort saw several hundred kākāpō translocated to the predator-free Resolution Island, a larger island just north of Anchor. It was an inspiring and pioneering conservation undertaking, which ended tragically when stoats, a top predator of kākāpō, arrived at the island decimating the population, reversing the hard work carried out, and deflating much of the hope for the survival of the species. For much of the 20th century following this, kākāpō were rarely seen or actively cared for; They were all but considered lost. Conservation initiatives were sparked again in the 1950s but it was not until a large population of kākāpō (importantly including breeding females) were found on Stewart Island in 1980 that the determination to save these birds was set back in motion.

Today Pukenui could be considered a slice of what New Zealand was like back when kākāpō were abundant; kākāpō now roam the island. (We were told we might encounter one sunbathing on a rimu log! This we didn’t see. However, rather against the laws of physics, Miriam saw one perching on a supple fern frond near the hut!) The total count of kākāpō on Anchor Island is expected to increase quite significantly with a productive looking 2019 breeding season. Every kākāpō is known personally here. Aparima, Rā, Trevor, Tākitimu… They each have their own names and stories for how they came by them, as well as distinctive personalities and quirks - and the DOC rangers know them all. This is evident from the way they talk about each bird like good acquaintances, or from being able to correctly predict what time a certain female will leave the nest each night. And you realise that this isn’t a story just about saving a rare New Zealand bird – it’s more personal than that. There is a particular fondness of these ‘fat budgies’ as the rangers have referred to them, their quirky nature and unusual evolutionary adaptations – and it is infectious.

Despite the collapse of Richard Henry’s initial attempt to save the kākāpō, it seemed to spark a greater conservation effort for these birds, and perhaps also for the protection and care of other New Zealand fauna. It seems now the drive to preserve our beautiful wildlife is engrained in the New Zealand culture. It is the efforts of our conservationists, such as the DOC rangers and those involved in the Kākāpō Recovery Programme, who are working tirelessly behind the scenes to ensure the survival of the kākāpō. It is a unique conservation story – the grunt of the effort goes on quietly behind the scenes, and few New Zealanders have ever seen a kākāpō. Yet the fight for these birds is evident by the widespread knowledge of their vulnerable situation and the united desire to help them, both directly in the field and indirectly. It is a conservation story that has involved many hands at work. And for these reasons Miriam and I feel that it is a great privilege to be here on Anchor Island, to see the kākāpō team’s hard work in the front line, as well as to be an active part of the greater effort to ensure these charismatic birds survive and can continue to enjoy their places of forest paradise.

During our time on the island, we navigated our way around, as well as memorising the tracks that cover it; ‘Roller Coaster’, ‘Serenity tops’, ‘Mello Yellow’, ‘The Vibe’… It seems everything on the island has been carefully thought out, from the elaborate fridge door which keeps track of each female and how many eggs she has… down to the endless sets of crocs which come in all sizes for walking around the hut! Perhaps these are indications of the time and effort, as well as personal involvement that this conservation project has elicited from all involved. And we’re even learning the bird lingo. Yesterday, a sentence such as “Use the yagi to get a signal on Jem,’ or ‘She’ll need a new smart hopper head. Oh and take another snark with you”, left us staring blankly at each other as the rangers twittered away.

The ‘Supplementary Feed-out’ aspect of the Kākāpō Recovery Programme is specifically what we were on Anchor Island for. Run by rangers and volunteers, the feed out programme involved walking the island’s tracks every 3-4 days cleaning and topping up feeding stations. Kākāpō have evolved to time their breeding with rimu masts, which occur every few years. The pellets are made to mimic the nutritional composition of ripe rimu fruit, and they consist of a mixture of ingredients, including pumpkin seeds and various vegetables (I tried one and I can’t say I understand what the kākāpō enjoy about them so much!). The supplementary feeding programme is particularly important to ensure that the kākāpō are healthy enough to breed.

Each morning Miriam and I started out in the feed-out kitchen, where we found out which tracks we will be walking, and which kākāpō feed-out stations we will be visiting for the day. From there we prepared the food by weighing out the pellets, with the exact amount tailored to each individual bird, as well as so many millilitres of flax seed oil (a supplement to promote healthy growth and development). At each feed-out site, we collected what food might remain from the last run (this is weighed back at the kitchen to keep track of how much each bird is eating), cleaned the station area, and restocked the food and water. At the end of the morning’s preparation, we were kitted out with kākāpō food, feed-out station cleaning gear (including disinfectant to stop the spread of avian disease between the birds, paper towels, a scraper – actually a track marker! and hand sanitizer) as well as a radio, lunch (critical!) and occasionally took charged batteries to replace at the smart hopper feed-out stations – just extra weight for adventure racing training as Miriam put it!

The infamous ‘Blowhard’ track is a root strewn, technical track which trips you up more times than can any longer be considered funny. Rain on Anchor Island isn’t miserable, instead it turns the forest into something magical and glade like. The light glistens on the rain drops as they cling to the dripping rimu branches. The mosses glow ethereal greens and become soft underfoot. The mud is up to your eyeballs! And it soaks us through, but that’s just part of it; part of the landscape, of Fiordland. It truly is a place like no other. Once again I smile with a mixture of disbelief and sheer joy that this place exists, that the kākāpō are hanging on thanks to the efforts of a united conservation effort, and that I am here, able to experience it all.

Bird Lingo Glossary –

*Yagi - refers to the telemetry device used by the rangers to track the individual birds.

*Smart hopper – a feed-out station tailored to a specific bird. The lid to the food will only open to a certain kākāpō by detecting the tracker on its back. These are the opposite to a ‘dumb hopper’ which does not have a technology-based system and can be opened by any bird.

*Snark – a data logging device which will record a kākāpō’s activity at its feed-out station. We collected snark data using an app on a smart phone at each feed-out station on our runs.

*Booming – the unusual mating display of male kākāpō. It is a low sound (a bit like the sound made by blowing across the top of a bottle), that the male produces every ~2 seconds which resonates across the island with the hope of attracting a female.

*Boom bowl – this is a small bowl-shaped indentation in the ground where male kākāpō sit and boom. A male will ‘clip’ the area of vegetation so the bowl is clear for booming.

*Errol – this is another data logging device which records the booming activity of male kākāpō. Errols are set up in the track and bowl systems on the tops of the island. They are necessary to know how active males are during the breeding season and help to determine when certain birds have mated.