Return of the native

Last updated 12:30 27/02/2010
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MARION VAN DIJK/The Nelson Mail
REVIVAL: Maryann Ewers and Bill Rooke, founders of Friends of Flora, with the sign at Kahaurangi National Park.

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Ten years ago, a couple of determined conservationists made a vow: to bring the birds back to one of Nelson's most popular wilderness spots. GEOFF COLLETT reports on the Friends of Flora.

To the untrained eye, the two tiny flapping silhouettes in the sky far across the Flora Valley could be anything. Hawks, tui, seagulls – who knows?

"Wood pigeons," says Maryann Ewers after a second's observation.

Of course.

Up in the treetops near the start of the Flora Saddle Track, she spies some imperceptible activity. Gradually, tiny, flitting, tawny brown shapes appear. Brown creepers, she says – beautiful little birds. They're too high up to challenge her assessment.

Her conversation up here on the flanks of Mt Arthur is peppered with sudden silences and distractions, as she stops talking and cocks an ear. "That's kakariki," she'll say of an unnoticed squawk from somewhere far off. Or "There's a tomtit", or a robin, rifleman or bellbird, as a variety of shadowy shapes flick and hop through the surrounding shrubbery.

She dives off the track to point out the gouged bark of a dead tree. It's the mark of a kaka, where it's been digging for insects, she explains. She's always happy to spot the big parrot's calling card.

Ms Ewers knows her birds. But more than that, if credit was to be given for all these feathered friends even being on the busy track up Nelson's mightiest mountain, she and her partner Bill Rooke would surely take a place at the front of the queue.

Ten years ago, the couple were tramping through this country when they made a vow. Both are ardent conservationists and run a guiding business, Bush and Beyond, taking trampers all over Kahurangi National Park and promoting a conservation message.

They liked to keep notes on the birds they encountered, and on that particular trip in May 2000, a trend that had been getting hard to ignore became overwhelming.

Birds that should have been there weren't. Predatory pests, led by stoats, were taking over in the heart of the busiest part of one of the country's biggest national parks, overwhelming the birdlife and the Department of Conservation's ever-stretched abilities to cope.

"We had talked over the previous couple of years that we should set up a trapping project here; then we'd get home and life gets in the way," Ms Ewers recalls. "But on that particular trip, we more or less made a pact with each other that when we got back, we would contact DOC."

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They also made a list of birds that had long since disappeared from the area, which they were determined would one day again call the Flora home. At the top was the whio, the blue duck; next, the great spotted kiwi.

Their vision was, frankly, outlandish: a volunteer-managed network of stoat traps across the Flora Stream catchment, all the way to the Tableland and Gordons Pyramid, and almost as far as the Cobb. Something like 5000 hectares, much of it tiger country, requiring hundreds of traps, each of which would have to be regularly checked and re-baited, including through the depths of snowbound winters.

Did they appreciate exactly what they were suggesting? "No – I don't think we still do," Ms Ewers laughs.

The DOC staff they met with must have been shaking their heads. "We were basically told it's a good idea, but we're dreaming," she recalls.

And they were. Not that dreams have to be impossible. Besides, as she reflects now, "I guess passion drives people on to do silly things".

Despite any scepticism, DOC wanted to encourage the couple's enthusiasm, and they took its advice to start gently, laying their first line of traps up the easily accessible Flora Valley floor.

They put an advertisement in the newspaper, seeking others to help. A new group was soon born: the Friends of Flora.

It has never been huge – its membership is in the dozens – but it has always been determined. DOC was close behind, supporting the group as it slowly rolled out kilometre after kilometre of trap lines.

And, slowly, the birds – some of which, like the rifleman, DOC had feared were on the way out for good – started coming back.

Then came the turn of the first of the birds on the Ewers-Rooke list. A lone male whio was the sole survivor of the species known to be living in the Flora catchment. In what was to prove an especially steep stretch of the learning curve they had embarked on, the Friends arranged for a clutch of hand-reared whio chicks to be moved from captivity in Christchurch to a new life in the Flora Stream.

It quickly emerged that the ducks weren't cut out for alpine life. They struggled in a place where the climate was harsh and food could be hard to come by. Six starved; the other four were shifted to easier terrain in the Wangapeka.

The Friends tried again, this time finding a juvenile female which they shifted to the stream, hoping she would settle and partner up with the solitary boy duck. It worked. In 2007, the first whio chicks to hatch in the area for 10 years emerged into the world.

A survey at the end of last year counted something like 18 birds, including 11 ducklings. Given their shy nature, there are bound to be more, Ms Ewers says. "We're well on the way to having a sustainable population of whio."

Now it's the turn of the kiwi.

In a couple of months – 10 years almost to the day since the couple came back from that walk, determined to turn the tide in the birds' favour – they hope to be releasing the first of a fledgling great spotted kiwi colony back into the Flora, about 30 years since the birds are known to have had any kind of established presence there.

The plan is as ambitious as anything the Friends have yet tackled. It centres on shifting 14 birds – probably seven pairs – from an area in the park's north, which has a healthy kiwi population, to the Flora. It comes at a cost to the Friends of about $100,000 over three years – an enormous challenge.

The first big chunk of that – about a quarter – was raised last year in an epic effort by group members. It will pay for finding and catching the birds, attaching transmitters to them, and then flying them by helicopter to their new home, a process that will be done in stages from late March, with the first of the birds to be ceremonially released on May 1.

Then the Friends will have to knuckle down to finding another $70,000, most of it to employ someone who can lead a three-year monitoring project to see how the birds fare.

It is not just ambitious, but high-stakes. Who knows how the kiwi will adapt to a new home? Will they stick around? Will they breed? Has the stoat threat been nullified, and for how long?

"We're very hopeful," Ms Ewers says of the prospects. "But of course, no-one can guarantee anything in this business."

On this late February day, Ms Ewers and Mr Rooke are once again – yet again – heading off from the Flora carpark and up the valley, this time with a couple of DOC staff and a bunch of fellow Friends of Flora, to collect some intelligence on stoat numbers.

Today, Mr Rooke can look up the valley and say, "I reckon there must be up to 100km of trapping lines up there. As someone from DOC said to me recently, it's become a monster". "A good one," Ms Ewers chips in.

Nine traplines stretch far into the surrounding hills. A 10th – the final one – will soon be completed. Then the network will reach to the Tableland and Gordons Pyramid, and almost across to the Cobb reservoir – roughly 5000 hectares. The dream, in other words, has been made real.

What's more, over the hill from the Friends' northern boundary lies another network laid by a Golden Bay group, the Friends of Cobb. The two are linked by two more traplines laid separately by Mr Rooke and Ms Ewers through their Bush and Beyond business.

Close to 10,000ha is now peppered with hundreds of wooden boxes, each housing a little piece of meat and a chicken's egg. To get to the delicacies, the stoat has to cross a steel plate with a spring-loaded steel bar set to snap down at the slightest excuse – the "DOC Masher", as it's known.

Besides managing the traps, the Friends record bird numbers and run annual monitoring projects to get an idea of how many stoats may still be wandering in the bush, yet to meet the Masher. That's what they're up to today, checking a network of baited ink pads set to detect the animals by their footprints.

The numbers are encouragingly low – a single stoat is found to have left footprints – but nobody is kidding themselves that the war has been won.

It wouldn't take much, Ms Ewers says, for a surge in stoat and other pest numbers to overwhelm the past 10 years' efforts.

The phenomenon known as a "mast" in the beech forest, when the trees seed prolifically, is the great fear.

The seeds provide a bumper food source for mice and rats, and this ripples off up the food chain, triggering a stoat explosion as they find easy pickings in the smaller rodents, before turning their attention to the birds. The Friends haven't had to contend with a full-blown mast yet but the prospect gnaws at them.

Another big risk revolves around that great controversy of the bush, 1080. Ms Ewers and Mr Rooke are firmly in DOC's camp, supporting the use of the poison as a principal weapon against animal pests in the park. Their willingness to make that support known has made them something of a lightning rod for the debate locally.

The arguments over 1080 rage between those who claim that the indiscriminate use of the poison kills all wildlife, including birds and game animals, and threatens human health, and those who insist it has been rigorously tested, is all but harmless in the environment, and is the most effective weapon against the pests that threaten to destroy the back country.

Recent DOC 1080 operations around the park have simply stoked the controversy.

"For a long time, Bill and I had kept quiet about it, but watching what was happening and being very worried that different councils wouldn't allow the drops to happen through the consent process, we felt we had to speak out," Ms Ewers says.

"We spend more time than most people in the park; we are seeing close up what is happening. We are seeing areas that have never been 1080-ed that are really quiet; we are seeing areas that have had a 1080 drop and the first breeding season, we see the young birds coming back – we're seeing this time and time again."She knows that those comments are enough to invite another round of invective from opponents of 1080. The debate has often been unpleasant. The couple suspect that occasional interference with whole lines of Friends of Flora traps is the work of people who object to their views on 1080, and she and Mr Rooke are careful to keep their opinions distinct from the Friends.

Heading back down the track to the Flora car park, she muses gloomily over how, if 1080 use was halted, the resurgence in pest numbers would quickly overwhelm the "very small Band-Aid" provided by a few dozen volunteers and several hundred stoat traps.

The Friends would probably pack up and go home.

But for a self-confessed bird nerd, it's not a place or a day to feel grim for too long.

As the sun breaks through the canopy, the shadowy, fluttering movements in the bush increase, and so do the sudden interruptions to the conversation.

A weka makes an appearance at the track edge. A pair of bellbirds are intrigued by Ms Ewers' imitation of their song.

A robin falls in love with the photographer's camera, posing endlessly on a trackside twig. Riflemen squeak and hop at gravity-defying angles on nearby tree trunks.

For now at least, the feathered friends of Flora must be as happy as they have been in a long time.

- The Nelson Mail

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