Caring for kiwis

LAIRD HARPER
Last updated 10:40 23/02/2013
Laird Harper

Taranaki Daily News reporter Laird Harper spends time with some big eggs.

tdn kiwi stand
LAIRD HARPER
The goal: Kiwi Encounter assistant kiwi husbandry manager Emma Bean shows off a Kiwi chick they prepared earlier.

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Cold and quiet, two groups of hunters listen to a faint beep emanating from small electronic trackers.

Hundreds of kilometres apart they stalk the same prize as small, cuddly-looking sentries block their way.

There is nothing they can do but wait and wait, and wait.

Finally, late Monday night, two North Island brown kiwi leave their nests and the teams swoop in.

The latest egg lift represents a new era in kiwi conservation in Taranaki.

Under the banner of Taranaki Kohanga Kiwi, the Taranaki Kiwi Trust and Rotokare Scenic Reserve Trust believe the project will increase the number of birds available to release in years to come.

Between them, one small group based on the far eastern side of Whangamomona, the other operating near Mokau, they collect three eggs that night.

Immediately placed in makeshift incubators and padded with towels and socks, the slow, bump-free journey out of the woods in the middle of the night begins.

"It's the last 50 metres that you need to be mindful of," Rotokare Scenic Reserve Trust site manager Simon Collins said.

"It's those last steps where it can all go wrong."

The two teams then meet near Mokau in a little house on a lonesome country road, for a well-earned rest.

Now it is the driver's turn.

Bleary-eyed, two of the group cautiously carry the precious cargo to a man waiting nervously to play his part.

That bundle of nerves is me.

The car is ready, the route to Kiwi Encounter in Rotorua is locked in but the fear of killing our nation's symbol is very real.

One sudden jolt from a pothole, excessive braking or a sharp turn taken too quickly and I would have a lot of explaining to do.

Thankfully, this trip came with an experienced navigator.

Retired farmer Ray Willy has always loved nature and as a child spent many long summer days hanging out near Lake Rotokare.

So when it was decided the trust would construct an 8.2 kilometre pest- proof fence around the 230-hectare wetland reserve, east of Eltham, he jumped on board.

He is one of 30 volunteers taking part in the Kohanga Kiwi project and is one of the most experienced drivers.

Completely vulnerable to predators as chicks, kiwi have just a 5 per cent chance of survival in the wild, he said.

If it were up to him every farmer would be given stoat traps to give kiwi "a shot at survival" in the wild.

There are believed to be just 70,000 left, a far cry from a century ago when their numbers were estimated to be in the millions.

The population continues to decline in the wild, but sanctuaries like Rotokare are giving them the best chance to bounce back.

"Slow and steady is the key. It's not a race," he says, as we set off.

The journey was slow and every bump felt like the killer blow.

A lot of time was spent trying to read unpredictable drivers.

More than once an inconsiderate truckie pulled out in front of us.

More than once I swore.

Don't they understand we have fragile life on board?

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Taranaki Kiwi Trust chairwoman Sue Hardwick-Smith said that coupled with the predator-free area at Rotokare, they now have a "cost effective and ecologically viable" way of boosting kiwi numbers throughout Taranaki and beyond.

And the driving is a small but vital role.

Thousands of dollars in man hours, planning, triangulating co-ordinates and monitoring could be undone in a horrible second.

Mr Willy cleverly leaves a small detail of the trip out until we are well past Mokau.

"When we arrive at Kiwi Encounter they will check the eggs for damage," he said.

"They will let you know if your driving had caused any issues."

That sentence hung in the air for quite some time.

The Kohanga Kiwi project replaces the Taranaki Kiwi Trust and Department of Conservation's previous involvement in Operation Nest Egg.

The Rotokare Trust aims to catch or rear 30 unrelated kiwi over the next two years.

It is well on its way to achieving that goal, but without the help of the team at Kiwi Encounter it wouldn't be possible.

Kiwi Encounter kiwi husbandry manager Claire Travers is the first to greet us after the four-hour journey.

There's no time to waste and the eggs are unpacked and thoroughly examined.

It's like watching your teacher mark your homework in front of you.

I pretend not to worry.

My reaction once I passed the 15-minute test may have stripped away any thoughts I was a cool, calm customer though.

There also may have been a high- five or two.

The weight of responsibility was lifted.

Wearing white overalls and caps, Mrs Travers and Emma Bean clean and register Morgan, Detonate and Dynamite.

The last two were found on a property whose owner likes fireworks.

Mr Collins said that was a key part of the programme.

"It's all about encouraging buy-in to the wider community."

Rainbow Springs' involvement in kiwi conservation began in 1995 with the arrival of a single, orphaned egg.

In 2012 they hatched 133.

The entire process can be viewed by the public through glass in a dimly lit room.

The kiwi eggs are kept safe and warm until they hatch, and once the kiwis reach around one kilogram they are returned to the wild.

Some of the chicks caught in Taranaki will return to Rotokare and the safety of New Zealand's only inland pest-free sanctuary.

Within 24 hours the job is done, sleep is found and the team then prepares to do it all again.

KIWI STATS

Taranaki Kohanga Kiwi at Rotokare figures Thirty volunteers taking part.

More than 1300 man hours spent surveying and lifting eggs.

Twenty-five different sites surveyed for kiwi.

Close to 18,500 kilometres travelled.

Twenty-two kiwi caught in the wild thus far.

Eight egg lifts completed.

Five chicks and eight adults released into Rotokare thus far.

KIWI FACTS

The kiwi at Rotokare are western North Island brown kiwi (scientific name: Apteryx mantelli).

Kiwi are among the most distinctive, recognised and cherished animals in New Zealand, and they are a taonga to Maori.

Kiwi populations have been in decline since the arrival of humans to New Zealand centuries ago.

Currently, the biggest threat is predation from introduced predators, especially stoats.

Where good predator control is carried out, survival of kiwi improves dramatically.

All over New Zealand, community groups play an important role in the active protection of kiwi, complementing the role of the Department of Conservation.

Kiwi protection is not just about the one species, but about the health of the whole ecosystem.

Adult kiwi are monogamous, forming persistent pair bonds, but occasional split-ups occur and birds will re-pair after the loss of their mate.

A clutch consists of one or two very large eggs and the incubation period can be as long as 85 days.

It costs about $3000 to uplift, hatch, raise and release each kiwi.

- Taranaki Daily News

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