On the grey ghost's trail

NIKKI MACDONALD
Last updated 05:00 15/02/2014
south island kokako

The elusive South Island kokako.

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Not everyone voted to bring it back from the dead. When the five birding boffins sat down to decide whether an orange-wattled bird spotted near Reefton in 2007 really was a South Island kokako, only three were convinced. But majority ruled. Forty-six years after the last accepted sighting, and six years after the bird was declared extinct, the Ornithological Society's Records Appraisal Committee accepted that West Coast pest controller Len Turner had indeed seen and heard a South Island kokako.

The decision, reported in November, was a coup for a clutch of twitchers who have dedicated decades to the pursuit of the grey ghost of the forest, with its shadowy nature and cathedral organ call. It also raises the question – if the species is not extinct, what are we going to do to save it?

Rhys Buckingham's obsession began in 1977, at Lake Monowai in Fiordland. "It was dusk and I heard this amazing cathedral organ-like call coming from the forest not far away. It stopped me in my tracks. I'd never heard anything like it before. It was just phenomenal."

A keen tramper and university-trained ornithologist, Buckingham was working for the forest service. He mentioned the experience to his boss, who revealed he had found a population on Stewart Island. So off Buckingham went on a three-month search.

"Being a bushman who could spend months out by himself in the back blocks, it was fun to me."

On that first trip he again heard that organ call, and caught a glimpse, but it wasn't until 1984 that he had his first -blown sighting. Stewart Island forest usually thrums with the throaty song of tui, but not in the pouring rain. So when a bedraggled Buckingham heard his first tui in two hours of bush-bashing through a sodden valley, he looked up. But it wasn't a tui perched in the canopy, it was too big and too grey. And then it flew over his head. The short-winged glide was unmistakable – a South Island kokako.

And there, in a nutshell, is everything that has made the South Island kokako search so difficult. They're gifted mimics and have been known to bark like a deer and bleat like a goat; they have nondescript grey plumage and wattles that can be anything from pink to orange to ochre with or without a smudge of blue; and they're so elusive that there's only one known photograph of the bird, despite them having once been "about in dozens", according to early explorer Charlie Douglas.

Unlike their blue-wattled North Island cousins, they can't be reliably lured in by recorded calls.

"It doesn't behave in a way to make things easy for us at all," Buckingham says.

Perhaps it's precisely the challenge presented by this flighty creature that has captured the imagination of Buckingham and the birders who set up the South Island Kokako Investigation Team 20 years ago and who in 2010 formed the South Island Kokako Charitable Trust. These are not just a bunch of nutter anoraks – Buckingham and fellow trust member Ron Nilsson were both instrumental in saving the kakapo from extinction.

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The trust has logged 130 reported South Island kokako encounters from 1990 to 2010, of which 57 were sightings. Even Buckingham admits some were probably a case of mistaken identity. A glimpse of a tui or kaka fresh out of a flax flower, wearing an amber beard of pollen could easily be mistaken for an orange-wattled bird. One of the 10 other reported South Island kokako sightings recently considered by the Appraisal Committee was thought to have been the blue-wattled North Island kokako, 27 of which were moved to Fiordland's Secretary Island in 2008.

But one sighting has now been verified, partly because Len Turner got a clear view of the bird's blue-based orange wattles, partly because he called in North Island kokako expert Peter Rudolf, who recognised the bird's call and clumsy flight, and partly because there was a history of sightings in the area.

It's worth noting, however, that the first time Turner's sighting was submitted it was rejected.

It was only the Department of Conservation's 2012 decision to reclassify the South Island kokako from extinct to "data-deficient" that opened the door to the sighting's acceptance. And that was the work of another South Island kokako devotee, Forest & Bird amateur ornithologist Alec Milne.

So where has the Department of Conservation, protector of endangered species, been in all of this?

A spokesman told Your Weekend that, although the last accepted kokako sighting was in the 1960s, there had been no known population suitable for conservation management for several decades before that.

DOC did survey for South Island kokako in the 1980s, including substantial efforts on Stewart Island.

While DOC has reclassified South Island kokako as "data-deficient", because it can't be certain that the last individual has died, the department still considers the species "functionally extinct". Which means they don't believe there are any remaining breeding pairs, so they're focusing their efforts on more promising species.

Buckingham isn't so sure. He has recordings of two birds communicating, and he's certain there were breeding pairs when he first began searching 30 years ago. But he knows time is running out. Females on the nest are more vulnerable and while he estimates there might be 100 individual birds remaining, they are likely to be mostly old men. A bit like their band of would-be saviours.

At 66, Buckingham is now retired from his ecological consultancy business. Which means more time for kokako scouting. But to even think about trying to capture and breed a viable population would require a bundle of things Buckingham doesn't have – a bag of cash, the latest technology, and the energy of youth. It's time for the next generation of grey ghost hunters to take on the quest.

"We've got such a bad record of extinctions and declines of New Zealand native birds, every species is such a special thing, to us ornithologists anyway. To try to save these rare species on the brink of extinction, we'll do anything."

BIRDS WE'D LOVE TO HAVE BACK

Moa

We already have one freakish brown flightless bird, why not expand the family? Thought to have been hunted to extinction by 1550, moa were members of the ungainly and flightless ratite family, to which kiwi also belong. They're the only bird to have no vestige of a wing. There were 10 species of moa, from the turkey-sized Mantell's and coastal moa to the enormous female giant moa, which stood about two metres tall and weighed more than 250 kilograms. Their eggs measured up to 24 centimetres by 18cm. We might have a problem if we're also bringing back the Haast's eagle, as they used to snack on fat moa.

Australornis lovei

We didn't even know it existed until last month, when a Canterbury Museum natural history curator finally got around to examining bones found in Waipara in 2009 by amateur fossil hunter Leigh Love. Thought to be one of the oldest flying seabirds, the Australornis lovei lived between 60.5 million and 61.6m years ago, and was about the size of a pied shag.

Haast's Eagle

Weighing up to 17.8kg and with the talons of a tiger and a wingspan up to three metres, Haast's eagles were flying killing machines. Their main prey were moa, which they would kill by swooping in and crushing the bird's skull beneath their strong claws. Not surprisingly, the eagles died out after moa became extinct. According to Maori legend, the bird was also big enough and strong enough to attack human children. On second thoughts, maybe we don't want them back.

Huia

Who can fail to be impressed by that amazing upholsterer's needle beak? Uh oh – orange wattle. That's not surprising, as huia are from the same New Zealand wattlebird family as kokako. But just imagine how many South Island kokako sightings there'd be if we brought these guys back.

HOW TO SPOT A SOUTH ISLAND KOKAKO

The South Island kokako is part of New Zealand's oldest bird family, Callaeaidae or New Zealand wattlebirds, which is thought to have evolved about 30 million years ago.

It's a large blue-grey bird with a black facial mask and two orange wattles, sometimes blue at the base.

Mostly vegetarian, the South Island kokako grazes leaves, mosses and berries, and was found from sea level to sub-alpine areas.

It sometimes climbs trees with ungainly hops, or walks its long black legs one after the other like a mammal. When it flies, it tends to glide down on short, rounded wings, or flap up clumsily.

Len Turner described its distinctive eerie call as "like an Aboriginal wailing".

But if you're out spotting, forget everything you've learnt and immediately record every detail, from the feet up to the beak, without reference to bird books.

To report a suspected sighting, go to greyghost.org.nz

- The Dominion Post

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