Boom! A kakapo in the night

02:07, Aug 22 2014
FRESH START: Conservation Minister Nick Smith and New Zealand Aluminium Smelters general manager Gretta Stephens help release a kakapo into the wild.

On a small island jutting out of the grey seas of Foveaux Strait, the Department of Conservation and its partners work hard to save a critically endangered yet captivating species. Neil Ratley hitches a ride to Whenua Hou/Codfish Island to meet the rare kakapo and some of the people helping them fight back from the brink of extinction.

Even on a remote island, there is no privacy on the privy.

On my short walk through the forest to the composting toilet, I can't shake the feeling I am being watched from the darkness. I tell myself if you can't go to the toilet in peace on an island sanctuary in the middle of Foveaux Strait, accessible only by a sanctioned flight, you won't find alone time anywhere.

There is a rustle in the undergrowth and I hear movement behind me. I spin around. A ball of moss waddles towards me before growling like a dog. The light from my head torch reflects back two beady eyes peering from an iridescent green clump of feathers. In the darkness on Whenua Hou or Codfish Island, I am shin to beak with one of the world's most unique and critically endangered species - the kakapo.

Hakatere is one of only 126 living kakapo on the planet.

After a short Mexican stand-off, I back away slowly, and Hakatere allows me to finish my business.


Hakatere's recent habit of following folk to the toilet will be short-lived.

Kakapo Recovery Programme manager Diedre Vercoe Scott says the young female most likely ventured close to staff quarters because she was curious about the three kakapo chicks that had been hand-reared in a nearby enclosure.

The three chicks are now old enough to be released into the wilds of the island, an event I will be fortunate to witness. Hakatere's nights of loitering near the toilets will be over and she will slip away into the bush.

My adventure to Whenua Hou begins early on a blustery Southland morning. I am told to arrive at the DOC quarantine centre in Invercargill after doing a thorough wash and check of my bags, clothes and shoes. All visitors to the island pose a threat by inadvertently bringing along with them disease, unwanted pests such as rodents, invertebrates or weed species.

The centre is only a short distance from my home so I decide to walk. Janice at quarantine is suitably impressed by my efforts not to endanger a species that had fought back from the brink of extinction. "You didn't have to wear the plastic bags over your shoes. We disinfect them here before we put you on the plane," she says with a smile.

Janice takes her job seriously. She has to. A stray seed, a sneaky spider or stowaway rodent could potentially wipe out the kakapo and destroy the recovery work that started when kakapo, thought to be extinct, were discovered in remote Fiordland valleys and on Stewart Island in the 1970s.

I make it through quarantine and meet up with Vercoe Scott, who is in charge of growing the kakapo population.

We are ferried by minivan to the airport. Strong winds on Whenua Hou mean pilot Raymond Hector has to decide if it's safe to land on the strip of sand used as a runway on the island. With the sky brightening, the veteran flyer loads us into the single engine Cessna. The horizon begins to clear and below the whitecaps whip across Foveaux Strait. Stewart Island looms and the aptly named Ruggedy Mountains appear from beneath a soft blanket of fog.

The white curved smile of Sealers Bay, the island's only sand beach, comes into view. Hector banks sharply, dipping the Cessna. He completes a pass to test the winds and water line. Years of flying staff and supplies to Whenua Hou make landing on a patch of sand a routine task for the experienced pilot. I step onto the pristine beach and the home of the kakapo.

Whenua Hou lies about 3km off the wild west coast of Stewart Island. The thick vegetation is mixed rimu, totara, miro, rata forest, coastal hebe and pakihi shrubland on the upper plateau. Pest eradication provides kakapo with a safe 1400ha home that is very similar to their original habitat of Stewart Island. The island's coastline of rugged cliffs and boulder beaches also harbour breeding colonies of a petrels and penguins.

The kakapo on Whenua Hou are mostly allowed to get on with their lives in their natural environment. Vercoe Scott says staff use radio telemetry tracking, hours of walking around the island, and plenty of patience to monitor the rare parrots. But several times a year, staff and parrot need to interact. Birds sometimes have to be supplementary fed, eggs need collecting for artificial incubation and some chicks need to be hand-reared to survive their early days. Each bird also gets an annual check-up.

The forest path is dappled with sunlight as I follow Vercoe Scott and kakapo ranger Jenny deeper into the interior of Whenua Hou. The rangers both stop at regular intervals and extend the aerial for the telemetry receiver that is tuned into the kakapo we are looking for. Each bird wears a unique smart transmitter. It is Ihi's turn for a check-up. But the young female appears to be reluctant for her jab and is leading us on a wild goose or kakapo chase. Faint signals make it difficult to pinpoint her exact location. We circumnavigate her territory, tramping through ferny gullies and up into the canopied ridges of the northeastern part of the island.

Ihi shows who is in charge and evades the rangers for the day. But they will have to track her down eventually. It is vital she is found to replace her radio transmitter to ensure the batteries are fresh. She also needs to be weighed, her moulting condition checked, blood samples taken and she has to be inspected for parasites. "All the information is loaded on to a national database, which allows us to track and compare the life history of each individual bird and to build up a picture of the species," Vercoe Scott explains.

Apart from the occasional romantic dalliance, kakapo are solitary creatures and each bird occupies its own territory. They are nocturnal and lie low during the day using their moss colouring as camouflage. Although flightless, kakapo are excellent climbers and can parachute from the tall rimu and rata trees. Strong legs allow the kakapo to move significant distances with a quick shuffling gait reminiscent of a rotund shrunken drunken pirate. They have inquisitive owl-like eyes and bristling whisker-like feathers on a broad face. If they looked in the mirror, they would see an old man past the point of keeping up appearances.

Not even the arrival of Conservation Minister Nick Smith and DOC boss Lou Sanson to Whenua Hou will elicit a shave.

Kakapo were once abundant in New Zealand. Vercoe Scott says the kakapo's population used to be booming.

"There was a report from an early explorer, Charles Douglas, who said they were so populous you could shake them out of trees like apples. He said he'd once seen six kakapo shaken from a single tutu bush."

However, introduced predators in the late 1800s such as stoats and cats decimated the population to the point where kakapo were a lost species. It was another 100 years before the discovery of 200 birds on Stewart Island provided hope the species could be saved.

Smith and Sanson, along with Tane Davis, chairman and iwi representative of the Whenua Hou Committee, and New Zealand Aluminium Smelters general manager Gretta Stephens, whose company sponsors the Kakapo Recovery Programme, fly in to help with the release of the three hand-reared kakapo chicks.

There were six chicks this breeding season, with the other three raised by their mothers or a surrogate mother in the wild. It is also a chance for the visiting dignitaries to hear how the programme continues to bring the species back from the abyss of extinction.

Vercoe Scott says there are four key aspects to the programme. They are reversing the decline of the population, improving species genetics, raising the profile of the kakapo and using technology to advance the programme.

"In the 1970s, kakapo were discovered on Stewart Island and a few in Fiordland. These founding birds were transferred to off-shore islands.

"There were less than 45 founder birds. Today, the younger birds of known age make up the majority of the population," Vercoe Scott says.

Kakapo are an inbred lot and genetically challenged, she says. "A lot of work has been done to minimise further genetic loss. Birds are moved between sites, dominant breeding males are also moved around allowing even the duds to breed along with the studs."

The older males are given a crack at the ladies by parking the younger males on another island. Artificial insemination and cryogenics are also being investigated. Frozen DNA will help make sure the genetic diversity today is around in the future, Vercoe Scott says.

"We could just leave the kakapo and in 50 years time there may still be some birds left. But they would be genetically poor," she says. "It is vital to keep improving the genetic diversity of the population while we have 126 birds stretching back to the original males found on Stewart Island."

The kakapo's profile has certainly risen during the past decade. They were even voted the world's favourite species in 2013. Vercoe Scott says before 2005, if you did not work for DOC or volunteer on the recovery programme, it was impossible to come face-to-beak with a kakapo. Since 2005, the species have had a champion spokesbird in the form of Sirocco. As a result of intensive hand-raising and lack of kakapo company, Sirocco was imprinted on humans and the call of the wild was less appealing than the call of being a superstar. The Kakapo Recovery team realised breeding was out but Sirocco's fondness for people could allow him to be an extremely good advocate for his species. About 5000 people a year now have a close encounter with a live kakapo, Vercoe Scott says.

Sirocco's popularity has DOC contemplating grooming an understudy to help with the star's demanding schedule.

Technology has become invaluable for the success of the Kakapo Recovery Programme. Vercoe Scott says the reality for DOC, like many organisations, is it needs to operate with less but without compromising its role to protect endangered species.

For the Kakapo Recovery Programme, being more cost effective means focusing on technology. The programme is developing and using sophisticated methods to monitor, feed and breed kakapo. Smart feeders will only open for a specific bird. Keeping a female kakapo at a certain weight has been found to make it more likely to have female chicks.

Technology also allows staff to monitor kakapo "blind dates". This year, data fed back from receivers showed who was mating with whom and how often and if a female was nesting. A fixed wing plane can collect this data saving manpower. Nests are remotely monitored with infra-red detectors and cameras allowing staff to access them when the female has gone for a wander. These advances will be essential if the kakapo numbers get too big and birds need to move to larger islands with more ground to cover.

The sun sinks into the sea and on the beach yellow-eyed penguins stroll like elegant gentlemen in dinner jackets out of the water and up into the dunes to nest. A nosy Campbell Island teal, a descendent of a transferred population, sniffs at our boots and waddles between our feet.

The boggy peaty track snakes up through the dark forest. It's a squelching climb with only our head torches illuminating the way. Our destination is a plateau where the three hand-reared kakapo chicks will be released. They will have to head off into the wild world of Whenua Hou and find their own territory. And hopefully in five or six years, themselves contribute to bumping up their species' numbers.

Three members from the Kakapo Recovery team have ascended the hill ahead of us and when we reach them it is time for the chicks to fly, well walk, the coop. Smith and Stephens get to do the honours and open the cages. The unkempt whiskery face of an old man pokes out. Wide eyes peer about before a clump of beautiful green and yellow black-flecked feathers wobbles past me. At about four months old, the young kakapo still have some growing to do but it is an unforgettable experience watching the world's largest parrot hop off into the darkness to join the ranks of a species fighting the battle for survival.

In the middle of the night, I reluctantly have to leave my warm sleeping bag when I get a call from nature. Half asleep I shuffle off - like a kakapo - into the forest canopy amid the ferns for privacy. A rustle and growl startles me awake. 

The Southland Times