On an island sanctuary, a team of hunters is working for the good of one of New Zealand's most shy and threatened species. Neil Ratley drops in to catch up with a kiwi conservation team as they fight to boost kiwi numbers on Stewart Island.
In the undergrowth of a podocarp forest on Ulva Island, a dog is on the scent. On its nose is one of New Zealand's threatened bird species, the kiwi. The dog zeroes in on the source of the smell, a burrow in the foliage.
Dogs are believed responsible for more adult kiwi deaths than any other predator each year and a scene like this would normally be cause for alarm. But instead of attacking, the dog drops to its haunches and rests its head perfectly still next to the burrow.
Percy, an english setter, is part of a pack that, far from contributing to the kiwi's decline, hunt it for conservation.
Under the command of dog handlers James Fraser and Natasha Coad, Percy and two of his fellow canine kiwi sniffers are part of a team that has been camped on Ulva Island for the past week, tracking and trapping kiwi for the Department of Conservation's and Air New Zealand's joint Great Walks Biodiversity project. The aim of the project is to bring some of New Zealand's most threatened birds back to the country's nine internationally renowned Great Walk tracks, including the Rakiura Track on Stewart Island.
The english setters are trained to sniff out kiwi, blue duck, brown teal, snipe and kakapo. Fraser says the dogs are trained using homing pigeons. When they demonstrate a controlled response to the less endangered species of bird, the dogs can begin their careers as conservationists.
Fraser and Coad, who work under the business name of With a Nose for Conservation, are contracted to DOC to supplement the department's own kennel of canine conservators throughout the country. On Ulva Island, Percy's nose has been put to good use to help DOC and a group of Air New Zealand Green Team Volunteers capture 10 kiwi for transfer across Paterson Inlet to Stewart Island.
The kiwi will join more than 50 threatened robins that were released at the end of last year near the start of the track. Last week, 80 brown teal were also released in Arthur Valley along the Milford Track Great Walk.
DOC is hailing the $1 million partnership with Air New Zealand as an example of the department's new direction, where conservation and business have to mix for the ongoing fight to stop New Zealand from losing more of its unique and threatened species.
When I make the crossing to Ulva Island from Halfmoon Bay earlier in the morning, the water of Paterson Inlet shimmers like glass beneath a cloudless sky and a penguin waves as it bobs past the bow. I have been invited by DOC to get an insight into the kiwi transfer project. I will meet the team whose job it is to spend several nights on Ulva Island, creeping through the bush on the trail of the shy kiwi. I will also be present for the eventual transfer and release on Stewart Island.
Al Check, a biodiversity ranger for DOC and project co-ordinator, leads us up to the top of Flagstaff Point lookout and slowly rotates a transceiver above his head. From the raised vantage point, Check listens intently for a signal to tell him his elusive quarry is somewhere nearby.
A faint beep gets his attention and he confirms the noise is from a transmitter attached to the leg of a kiwi. To avoid cooping kiwi up for too long in a specially designed transfer box, the team have been catching them during the week, fixing them with a transmitter and then releasing them for recapture the day before the transfer.
In order to catch a kiwi for tagging, the team operates a military style operation and relies on subterfuge. "We head out at night when the kiwi are more active and set up a position where we play recorded kiwi calls to attract the birds," Check says. Once a bird falls for the rouse, the team surrounds the bird and captures it with a soft net.
Ahead of my arrival on Ulva Island, Check and his team of bird rustlers had secured five kiwi - including an all night chase the previous evening of one particularly evasive bird. "It really gave us a run for our money," Check recalls.
Standing nearby, Fraser describes how Check was adamant the crafty bird would not get away. "Al went flying down a gully and flew through the air," he says with a grin. The recapture, with the aid of the transceiver and Percy, will be done in the daylight hours when the kiwi will hopefully be resting in a burrow or nest.
Ulva Island's relative isolation has made it a sanctuary for birds, a haven for species that on the mainland of New Zealand are rare or have died out. However, Check says improved public awareness, habitat restoration and the creation of predator-free zones mean sanctuaries like Ulva Island can be used to bring about the return of threatened birds that in some cases have not been seen along the Great Walks for over a century.
The project also has a scientific purpose. The same number of kiwi will be transferred from Stewart Island to be resettled on Ulva Island. The kiwi from Stewart Island would add much needed genetic biodiversity to the Ulva Island kiwi. "There are about 25,000 kiwi on Stewart Island and only 30 to 40 on Ulva," Check explains.
Preparing to ship the captured kiwi across the narrow stretch of water to their new home, I get my first ever glimpse of a Stewart Island southern brown kiwi. Larger than I expected, I can't help but think I am looking at a feather duster with two beady eyes, a long curved beak and two big feet. It's a magical experience.
My enchantment with this threatened and flightless bird is not unique, I discover, when several hundred Stewart Island residents and tourists gather for the official release. The site is only a short distance from Oban, the largest community on Stewart Island.
Stewart Island is well known for its strong kiwi population but near Halfmoon Bay the population has been relatively sparse. A result of historical deforestation and predation by roaming dogs and feral cats, Check says. He hopes the transferred kiwi will boost the base breeding population in the area, located near the start and finish of the Rakiura Track, and create an even spread of breeding age birds on Stewart Island.
Before we left Ulva Island with our treasured feathered cargo, Check, a resident of Stewart Island, tells me something that sums up what this project means to him.
"We have a pair of kiwi around our place and we have had some amazing experiences where my kids have been out and the kiwi have come up to them and sniffed them head to toe checking them out and seeing who they are. That is pretty unique and wouldn't that be special if the rest of New Zealand could have that experience with not just kiwi but all threatened species."
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