Head to the hills in a wild kiwi chase

BIRD ATCHING: Sally Kidson, left and Department of Conservation ranger Sarah Forder try to pick up radio signals from a  kiwi transmitter in the Nelson Lakes National Park.
BIRD ATCHING: Sally Kidson, left and Department of Conservation ranger Sarah Forder try to pick up radio signals from a kiwi transmitter in the Nelson Lakes National Park.

"I'll give you the kiwi spiel," Department of Conservation ranger Sarah Forder says, putting down her day pack.

"First of all, they don't have a strong bone at the front of their body," she says, pointing towards her rib and chest area.

"A sternum," ranger Nick Joice chips in.

"Yeah, a sternum," she says.

"So, it's best not to grab them there," I say tentatively, images crossing my mind of a kiwi collapsing in my grasp like a profiterole.

"Yeah," she says.

"Also, they can lose a lot of feathers if you grab them by their sides, so it's best to catch them by their feet."

Sarah's giving me the rundown on how to catch a kiwi because I've volunteered to spend a day as a ranger at Nelson Lakes National Park with the kiwi team.

I've come to the lake, because I am, I've discovered, something of a bird nerd.

I like seabirds (gannets and albatrosses) and shore birds (godwits) best, but seeing a kiwi in the wild is something I've always wanted to experience.

Our mission, Sarah tells me, is to find Miharo, a young great spotted kiwi or "great spot" who was born at Lake Rotoiti in 2005.

Miharo's transmitter needs replacing because its batteries are dying. The plan is to find the nocturnal bird sleeping in its burrow, catch it, and fit a new transmitter.

It's best to find the bird while the transmitter is still working, Sarah explains, because otherwise tracking a bird in the wide expanse of the park, even with the help of a trained kiwi dog, is a bit like finding the proverbial needle in a haystack.

Once we are in the bush, Sarah will show me which places a kiwi could chose as burrows. And when we near a possible burrow site, she will signal to me with her hands, army style.

Sarah says kiwi burrows can have a number of exits so when we get to a possible burrow site, I need to be vigilant and place my pack or logs over holes to stop the bird escaping.

Suddenly, I'm slightly nervous. I didn't realise finding the bird would be so tricky.

Miharo is one of 19 kiwi now living wild around Lake Rotoiti in the Nelson Lakes National Park under a kiwi recovery scheme, in "a mainland island" area which is heavily trapped for predators.

The recovery project, which means kiwi calls can again be heard at times from St Arnaud village, began in May 2004 with nine adult great spotted kiwi (roa) being moved to the park from the Gouland Downs area of Kahurangi National Park.

A further seven adult kiwi were relocated in 2006, and four chicks, including Miharo, have been found.

It's the first time great spotted kiwi have been transferred to a new area and the results of the project so far are promising.

More kiwi will be moved to the area after three kiwi eggs this year were taken from the Gouland Downs area, kept warm on the drive to Christchurch with the aid of a hottie in a chilly bin, and incubated at Christchurch's Willowbank Park.

Two chicks have hatched in Christchurch and the last one is due to hatch any day.

Briefing over, we head off in the DOC boat towards the head of Lake Rotoiti.

The lake is flat calm and a beautiful shade of green, and although it is early summer, patches of snow are still visible on the mountains at the head of the lake.

As we make our way down the lake, Sarah, who has worked with the kiwi at the lake for two years, points out the patch where many of the birds live at the Kerr Bay end of the lake.

For some reason, Miharo has taken off and is making her way towards the head of the lake. There is another bird near the end of the lake and Sarah wonders if Miharo is trying to find it.

As we approach a creek, we stop to see if we can pick up Miharo's signal using telemetry aerials. The so-called "smart transmitters" send out information which, besides locating the birds, lets DOC workers see how active the birds are, including clues on whether they are nesting.

"It's pretty steep, Sarah," Nick says, surveying the bushclad side of the range where Miharo's signal was last heard.

Like Sarah, Nick is super friendly and fit-looking, and recently moved to the area from Te Anau where he worked on the takahe recovery programme.

Great spotteds are only found in the South Island and have a stronghold in Kahurangi National Park. They mainly live in high, often harsh, hill country. At St Arnaud they roam as high as the bush line, 1250m above sea level. With my office job level of fitness I secretly hope we don't have to bush bash our way that high to find him.

Miharo's signal was "beaming in" last night from a relatively low lying altitude and Sarah's hopeful it will still be there this morning.

I'm in luck. The signal picked up from the boat shows the bird hasn't moved far, so we tie up the boat and set out through the beech forest to find her.

Judging from the signals we are picking up, Sarah and Nick say Miharo's burrow is near a creek which steeply dissects the range.

The signal can bounce off the rocks giving out deceptive readings, so the trick will be to determine before setting out which side of the creek Miharo has holed up on.

If we get it wrong it will mean traipsing back down, starting again and climbing up the other side.

Nick reasons that we should start on the St Arnaud side of the creek as Miharo's working her way down the lake.

Sarah agrees, so we head up the hill using a nearby DOC track along a tracking line to gain some altitude.

It's a gamble that pays off and the signal gets stronger the higher we climb through rough beech forest. After about 30 minutes or so we leave the track behind and start looking for her burrow.

After a while, Nick and Sarah go quiet. Their monitors are stuck close to their ear, their telemetry gear held high like spears.

Sarah gives me the universal signal to keep my eyes peeled. So I run my eyes over the steep bush. Between Sarah and me is a root system filled with holes, which could be a burrow.

I'm unsure of what to do. There is a big hole in front of me – should I put my pack on it?

Before I have time to make up my mind, I turn to see a flash of grey a few metres to my right moving through the bush. It can only be one thing.

"There," I stutter, pointing in the direction of the quickly departing grey blob.

"Run!" Sarah yells.

I take off hesitantly, and chase our country's national emblem through the bush.

"It went this way, didn't it?" Nick says, rushing past me on my left in a blur of DOC green.

Yeah, I say, running cluelessly behind him, all the while wondering what the hell I'm going to do if Miharo crosses my path; rugby tackle him?

We lose sight, but chase Miharo's signal up hill for about 20 minutes. Well, Nick chases and I clamber metres behind in the direction I think Nick's gone.

After a while, it's apparent Miharo's slipped away. We stop, re-group and catch our breath.

"At least you got to see one," Sarah says.

"Yeah," I say, feeling more than slightly responsible for letting the great spot slip past.

"You should have seen her burrow," Sarah says later. "There were heaps of holes he could have got out of."

I feel marginally better.

The bird may have eluded us, but Nick reckons Miharo's not too far away so after a quick bite to eat we set off in pursuit, following a signal straight up the mountain side.

It's rough going and we scramble around boulders and over slippery beech litter and tree roots.

At one point I really don't want to look behind me, to the steep drop to the rocky creek below.

We follow Miharo's signal for about an hour, with the tenacious Nick always a few metres ahead of us.

Nick and Sarah are determined to find the kiwi, because after eluding DOC rangers once, birds generally become harder to catch as they know they can make a getaway.

After what seems like ages, Nick and Sarah go very quiet. When they are not in sight of each other they signal in cooees and whistles. Once again we quietly edge our way through the bush checking every possible burrow site.

We are close, but the crafty bird is still moving up the hillside.

It's exciting stuff. After 10 to 15 minutes Miharo stops moving, having holed up under the shadow of a large boulder.

Nick and Sarah try to pinpoint the exact burrow which is trickier, Sarah later tells me, without the aid of a kiwi dog.

We have Miharo cornered and place our packs and logs in as many holes as possible in the area where the signal is strongest.

We don't want the great spot to run away again.

The two rangers check out every hole and tunnel with head torch and mirror, but the kiwi's nowhere to be seen. It has found a good hiding spot and eventually we have to concede defeat and reluctantly make our way back down through the steep bush to the boat.

During the descent, Sarah and Nick entertain me of with stories of hapless rangers catching themselves in traps. I'd love to work on conservation projects, but know I'd be like the guy they tell the story about, who caught both his thumbs in a cat trap he was setting. He had to call back to base for help using his nose to work the radio he'd fortuitously left on top of the trap.

Back at base, I voice my fear it's my fault Miharo gave us the slip.

Sarah makes me feel better. It takes a couple of times to get the hang of it, she says, and today was been a realistic day in the life of a DOC ranger.

I tell her I had a great day, and mean it.

I might not have got to look a kiwi up close. But how many people can say they've seen a wild kiwi's arse scrambling through the bush?

The Nelson Mail