Homecoming special achievement

Kevin Parker, conservationist, measures this portion of the birds leg to work out its gender. This one is female.
Kevin Parker, conservationist, measures this portion of the birds leg to work out its gender. This one is female.

Recruiting a new founding population is all in a day's work for a team of dedicated volunteer conservationists. Finding 40 tieke at Whanganui's Bushy Park to translocate to Lake Rotokare, a group of 20 worked tirelessly last week to ensure the species can survive. Reporter and sometime photographer Petra Finer visited them on-location to see how it's done.

Chirps, caws and the quiet crunch of dried leaves on a dirt floor are the only sounds that greet visitors to Bushy Park.

Somewhere in among the native flora and fauna are at least 20 volunteers working to save one of New Zealand's most vulnerable bird species.

Without these volunteers the tieke, or saddleback to most, wouldn't stand a chance.

Rotokare Scenic Reserve Trust sanctuary manager Simon Collins says that's because they are so vulnerable to predation.

"With a bird like the saddleback, there's no chance of them surviving unprotected. Rats will absolutely hammer them."

He says that is why saddleback have suffered such a population destruction in the first place.

At their most vulnerable, saddleback numbers were down to an estimated 500, the birds at that time lived on Hen Island.

Dedicated growth programmes in predator-free areas has seen the population rebuild.

Its introduction to Rotokare is another step towards a strong future for the same dark bird with distinctive brown body banding.

Tieke haven't lived in that area for around 150 years and Collins says bringing them back is special for all involved.

At Bushy Park the sound of the tieke calling is strong.

As we crunch over sticks and push through the overgrowth, the sound of wings slicing through the air is constant.

A tight-knit unit, the teams function while rarely having to give one another instruction.

"The whole name of the game really is to increase the populations," Collins says.

Dispersing them through several pest-free sanctuaries gives the species genetic strength.

"So that really is what we're doing, we're taking the opportunity to establish another, independent population."

In the hours we are there, 14 birds are caught.

By the end of the first day the number has climbed to 35.

The aim is to find 40 birds, half female and half male, to translocate to Lake Rotokare.

Once released, Collins hopes the species will flourish onsite, going on to breed with other tieke released at Rotokare last month.

A small clearing not far into the bush works as the operation's hub, an aviary is set up and the activity begins.

Parker Conservation's Kevin Parker leads the project.

Like many conservationists, he grew up watching nature documentaries like Wild South.

"I always loved wildlife, in particular birds, and I was quite captivated by that as a kid. It was all I ever wanted to do."

Parker has a wealth of experience including a PhD in ecology and philosophy. This is his 38th translocation since 1999.

He works at the aviary site, his task is to receive the caught birds, administer some tests, give each a unique tag number, record their weight and gender and then release them into the aviary.

"As long as they successfully breed, they will stay together until, generally, one of them dies and they are pretty devoted to each other," he explains.

If the pair is split, a new relationship is usually formed pretty quickly.

In a high density population such as Bushy Park, any split pair is quickly replaced.

"The mate will typically be replaced certainly within 24 hours, often within six hours."

The average saddleback lives eight to 10 years, Parker says the oldest recorded tieke lived for 22 years.

The birds themselves, while not impressed by the poking and prodding they are receiving, seem to know that the humans handling them work for a greater good.

Flapping a little if given the chance, there are no cries of protest when they are caught, bagged or when their dignity is briefly taken.

Wrapped around the aviary are several catching teams. Dispersed into the bush they lie in wait with finely woven nets, iPods and speakers, calling the birds in.

They move often, setting up new catching stations.

Simon Fordham, a regular with Parker Conservation's projects, has been volunteering in this way for 11 years.

He has lost count of the translocations' he has been involved with. He travelled from Auckland to be a part of this project.

"Apart from the enjoyment of doing it anyway and the people (involved) in conservation, I just want to make a difference," he says. "It's that restoration of what we've lost."

It takes a devoted person. Many of the volunteers take leave from paid employment to spend days hunkered in cold and damp areas of the bush, quietly waiting for the birds to fly into their softly woven nets.

Used to the icy cold of the bush environments they so regularly work in, the volunteers are rugged up in several layers of polar fleece, a sea of greens and blues.

While the world outside the bush canopy slowly warms up on a sunny winter's day, the sun cannot penetrate the leafy ceiling above.

Because the birds can spot the catch nets in well-lit areas, catch teams seek out the cold and dark spots that will make their work easier.

The birds spend as little time in confined spaces as possible. It is not until Saturday that they are transferred into boxes and transported to their new home.

The aim is to have the birds spend no more than four hours cooped up.

Sharon Kast is in charge of feeding them until they get to that point.

The Matakana resident has volunteered with Parker for the past six years. Her sole responsibility on every expedition is to keep the new founding population plump and full of health.

She "lives" in what she calls the "bird cafeteria" and spends her days mixing jam and honey, baking "bird cake" and sifting meal worms.

"The meal worms really are probably like chocolate, they really like the meal worms," she says.

She follows Parker and his projects around the country because she believes in what he is doing.

The birds are fed twice a day, everything is changed whether it has been pecked or ignored.

The health of the birds is paramount when creating a new founding population.

Kast works tirelessly to ensure the birds enter their new home with the best chance possible.

"It's great, I look forward to it, I really, really do."