Seabirds

Fifteen years ago I was very ignorant indeed about seabirds. When Sue and I helped with our first of I think 11 chick translocations, the first thing I learnt was that seabirds were not all just “seagulls’. Eventually I came to learn from the likes of Colin Miskelly and Helen Gummer that seabirds really are and ought to be pre-eminent in the New Zealand story.

New Zealand is still the centre for seabird endemism: 38 species breed nowhere else and 86 species breed here in total, out of 360 species worldwide. Populations-wise, however, they would once have been a much more dominant feature, before they were all but extirpated from the mainland by predators such as rats, stoats and pigs. Now we think of seabirds as perhaps belonging on rock stacks and little islands, despite a few happy mainland exceptions such as Hutton’s shearwater. I suppose this is yet another example of the shifting baseline idea expounded so well by George Monbiot in his book Feral: in our lifetimes we have thought of seabirds as breeding on islands, sometimes scarce; therefore it was always thus. In the recent past though, there would have been clouds of all sorts of seabirds, circling mainland high points, their nesting and burrowing and bringing food in from the sea and being eaten and dying and decomposing, having the biggest effect of anything on the ecology of the mainland.

We can see what it would once have been like by looking at their island strongholds today- vegetation modified by fertility changes, shrubs destabilised by burrowing, a profusion of life making use of their burrows and their leftovers. It’s no accident that there’s 300 mm of fertile topsoil across the formerly farmed piece of peneplain that is Mana Island, making it easy digging for today’s revegetation teams. A hundred thousand years of seabirds can do that. Ross Webber wasn’t confronted with barren rock on Puangiangi when he established his vege garden and orchard, rather a deep, free-draining, moisture-retentive soil.

Now, I see twenty-something Miss Canterbury on Petone beach (she is a red-billed gull banded red-black at her natal site in Kaikoura on the day of a big Ranfurly shield challenge by a naturalist with a sense of humour), resplendent in perfect plumage on a sunny winter’s day, standing aloof from the lesser of her species who eat chips, and reflect that even “common red-bills” have moved into the Vulnerable category now they have so few breeding sites left. And I’m well aware that there aren’t any petrel colonies on the windy hills around my home in Wellington, the last one possibly having gone about 60 years ago.

The present mainland colonies, natural and translocated, are often reliant on expensive predator management, including fences. We have an opportunity with the Puangiangi project to intervene inexpensively to create another seabird island, with its natural fence.

Puangiangi As a Seabird Island

There’s no doubt that Puangiangi would once have been a smaller version of Takapouwera/ Stephens Island, which even today holds two million fairy prions to name but one species. It was almost not even a discussion point to make seabirds the focus of our restoration efforts, but that decision does come at a cost and does limit what else we can do. Take weka (please): let’s say there were 500 weka on Puangiangi twenty thousand years ago, and 5 million of a mixed mega-colony of fairy prions, fluttering shearwaters, diving petrels, white-faced storm petrels, flesh-footed shearwaters and sooty shearwaters, with sundry outcroppings of half-a-dozen shag species, gannets, red-bills, black-billed gulls, terns, mollymawks, little blue penguins. The 500 weka would be very well-fed through grabbing unattended eggs, nestlings, weakened adults, but they wouldn’t make a huge difference to a population of 5 million birds. Contrast that with the situation in 2012. I estimated the population of weka on Puangiangi as 20 (that was a gross underestimate as it turned out, but 20 will suffice here). Let’s say we were able to re-establish  a colony of 20 pairs of sooty shearwater. If we left the weka there, it’s likely they would get many or all of the chicks each season. Weka are inquisitive with a good sense of smell and are constantly patrolling for new opportunities. Such a seabird colony would not go unnoticed.

Weka at sooty burrow, April 2014. It can just be seen at the end emerging with a piece of down.

If the burrow-nesting petrels lose an egg or a chick, there is no time to re-nest, and of course they can only afford the energy input of one per clutch. Sooties take several years before reaching breeding age also. Therefore, more or less any weka predation would send a nascent colony spiralling towards functional extinction, with only a few pairs of unsuccessfully breeding adults hanging on for any time. So if we were to have a go at re-creating Puangiangi as a seabird island, the weka would have to go. Weka are worthy of protection in their own right and ironically we have funded a project to re-introduce weka to an area of the upper south, so it’s not actually a no-brainer to choose seabirds over weka. However, there are more areas where weka are safe than there are islands where seabirds are safe, so we chose seabirds. Peter was able to secure a permit to catch weka and relocate them to the mainland, so the project was under way from our point of view.

Burrow-Nesters

Burrow-nesting seabirds were holding on on Puangiangi and on Tinui’s southern satellite Takawhero into the 1980s. Ross Webber was well aware of them, and indeed had found a chick and kept it at his house for a short time, trying to feed it on bacon scraps. Visiting field workers, including Peter, had found remnant sooty colonies in the southern and north-eastern forests and Peter brought out a predator trap for Ross to deploy in the southern colony. We found the remnants of the trap during May 2012. But, as the rats slowly got on top of Ross, they slowly got on top of the sooties. It’s highly predictable that sooties would be the last burrow-nester there: they are bigger and feistier than the fairy prions, fluttering shearwaters and diving petrels that are generally more common in Puangiangi’s latitude, and would be a match for a rat or a weka coming down a burrow, leading with its head. That protection would extend to incubated eggs, but after the egg hatches and the adults leave the nestling for longer and longer periods to go as far as the Polar Front to gather food, then the insidious numbers game of predation begins. That game was over perhaps a hundred years ago or more for the smaller and comparatively defenceless petrels and prions, but sooties hung on longest, before being wiped out or driven away.

Takawhero
Takawhero, centre left, from Puangiangi. Sooties present in 1980s, current status unknown.

Ross was pretty clear in conversation with Sue and me that he considered the sooties to be present to this day, but Peter and I looked for the old southern colony during what would be peak fledging week in May 2012. We should have found the old burrows to be clean, with squirts of bright white droppings away from the entrances, clean beaten ground from all the comings and goings and gardening, and a distinctive smell to the burrows. Instead we found cobwebby burrows, drifts of leaves blocking others, penguins in some others and weka following us around. We were to be starting from scratch, but of course the island was at least rat-free thanks to the efforts of 1999 described in another article.

So, let battle commence. It’s an important job every trip to catch as many weka as we can fit into the pen Dad built for them in the shed. Once in the pen, they get to forage for insects and worms in the leaf litter we bring in, and eat specially prepared meals and our leftovers- cheese, pasta, eggs, blue cod frames. In reality they mainly occupy themselves knocking over their water, trying to escape and staring balefully at us when they jump on to the top of the sacking we have hung as little refuges for the more timid weka to hide from their more aggressive brethren. We try to limit catching to near the end of a trip so we hold them for as short a time as possible, and they are largely very resilient. To start with, we transported them in cardboard or Corflute carry boxes, but after a near miss with one in its box almost being blown over the side of Aston’s barge, and the fact they just would not settle in the boxes, scrabbling around the whole trip into Garne and Saville Scenic Reserve, Claire made up some heavy canvas bags with tie tops. Like most birds, they settle well in the dark of the bags, even travelling two-up without incident if we run out of bags. At the release point they are tipped out of the bags and they orient themselves and run off impressively. We removed the 100th weka early in December 2015 and several times have thought we have gotten the last one. I’m still aware of a very few as I write though.

At the start of this article, I said we have helped with some chick translocations. These are intricate processes developed here by our endangered seabird scientists (ambiguity deliberate).  Almost every individual of each species of burrow-nesting seabird returns to nest in its natal colony, often coming back after however many years they spend at sea before beginning to breed, to within a few metres of where they were born. This fixing on their natal colony is thought to be learned during the nights (1-20 or more depending on the species) they emerge from their burrows to exercise wings and shed down and weight before they fledge. Only through over-population at a colony (unlikely these days) or in rare individuals with inclinations for wandering beyond the norm, or through some not-yet-understood at-sea interaction with others, will dispersal occur. The simple act of grabbing an adult and putting it in a hole somewhere else will in no way over-ride this loyalty to the natal site. People have tried- the adults fly back. However, moving chicks before they develop site loyalty, and feeding them until they fledge, might induce those birds to return as newly minted breeders to the new colony.

Chick translocations have been done with many species of petrels in New Zealand, many successfully. People like Brian Bell and Graeme Taylor practised on common species first, refining techniques so that endangered species like taiko and Chatham petrel could be tackled with justified optimism. Realising that canned sardines (whizzed up with water and fed by syringe) were a transportable, non-perishable means of approximating the chicks’ natural diet, expanded the type and remoteness of site which could be considered for the technique. People with attention to detail, like Helen Gummer, came to tailor the feeding regime individual by individual- not just sticking to a species template- by careful weighing and  measuring in the field as each project ran its course. Building up the numbers of trained people, such as Sue, means that chick translocation is now mainstream thinking for ecological restoration projects where common petrels are the target, and for work with the endangered ones too.

Chickfeeding
Sue feeds Chatham petrel chick, Sweetwater Conservation Covenant.

The typical three-year cycle of translocations is costing around $60,000 plus whatever notional price one wants to put on the volunteer chick-feeding labour. The maximum number of chicks that can be handled at a new site is about 240, with a target return rate of about 30% after however many years it takes for the species to reach breeding age. An analysis of the completed translocations around the country, however, indicates that many sites are going to need top-ups to give the new populations a statistically good chance of becoming self-sustaining. Funders and community groups should be thinking of a decent six-figure sum and bulk volunteer wrangling for a completed translocation project.  Puangiangi’s remoteness and difficulty of access and getting around suggests that chick translocation would be marginally achievable at best. Also, the community engagement plus of having large numbers of volunteers involved is not relevant for us. We have initially plumped for an alternative:

Speaker systems to attract seabirds are now a reality around the country. We’re up to our seventh I think, installed on the Kermadecs, Wakaterepapanui in the Rangitoto group, and now Puangiangi. A solar panel charges a hefty battery and, at night or in the daytime depending on the species being targeted, the solid-state electronics inside a waterproof case play the tracks on a sound card through 350-watt outdoor speakers. The systems now cost under $2500 and they require little, although not zero, maintenance. If they work, they attract adults, obviating waiting out the 2-8 years for translocated chicks to return as breeders.  We thought that Puangiangi would be a good candidate for the speaker method, what with a sooty colony not long gone with perhaps a few adults still alive that were born there, and large colonies of fairy prions to the north on Takapourewa, some of which might be enticed south.

The first site chosen was obviously to be near the bigger of the old sooty colonies, and we put up the speakers at the upper edge of the southern forest. It was a long, hot walk to carry in the heavy and awkward gear from the shed and we were grateful for the help of Roy Grose and Chris Birmingham from DOC, who were visiting us to catch up with Peter and to eyeball me. Sue and I were a bit worried that good intentions by DOC to assist us with the project might become subsumed by other priorities over time, but these immensely capable people gave me great confidence from the beginning of this project. Chris was at the time working nearby on Maud Island but has regrettably left for Te Anau to a dream takahe job along with his partner Linda Kilduff and new baby. Roy is sticking it out through the endless restructuring of DOC and still works in the region albeit with ever larger responsibilities.

Peter and I put in some starter burrows in the grass around the speakers and turned the system on, the sound card carrying recordings of sooty shearwater, fluttering shearwater, fairy prion and diving petrel. We gave visiting botanist Barbara Mitcalfe a demonstration and she thought it an awful cacophony, but it seemed to work for the birds. We also rigged up a trail camera and hooked it up to the cellular network through a big Yagi aerial fixed high up in a nearby akiraho. At 1 AM on 3 December 2012, a month after the system went in, I got the first photo (at the head of this article) sent to my phone back in Wellington, of a sooty shearwater on the ground.

The site saw quite a lot of activity. During March-April 2013 for example, the camera recorded birds on the ground on 15 of 56 nights monitored. We identified sooty shearwater, fluttering shearwater (two on the ground simultaneously several times) and probably diving petrel.

composite
Trail camera stills showing sooty shearwater, fluttering shearwater and diving petrel at the speaker site, 2012-13

One strange observation was a morepork/ruru having a go at a small petrel on the ground next to the speaker system. Did we encourage unusual behaviour or are ruru expected to be predators at seabird colonies?

Ruru attacks petrel on the ground, April 2013.

On the strength of these results we got another two sound systems. One was installed at lower altitude than the active one, at the edge of a tussock/ salt turf area which looks ideal for smaller petrels to dig burrows. The best we managed in two years there was some feathers and, separately, half a diving petrel. There was no sign at all of burrow construction and we have since shifted the speakers to above Boatshed Bay and put in a gannet tape.

A third system has been put in at the north end, within earshot of any of the millions of petrels on Takapourewa that might fly a few km south when  foraging. Cameras showed a good rate of visitation by fluttering shearwater, and we promptly added some shearwater decoys to help things along. The initial fluttering shearwater model was beautifully made for free by Richard de Hamel and then a two-piece fibreglass mould taken from that. Peter spent wet evenings in the shed on Puangiangi making resin shearwater halves, which were then glued together and painted. They look great, but to date neither they nor the speakers have enticed anything to occupy burrows at the site.

Decoys
Peter installs the decoys at northern speakers, January 2014.

In early December 2013 we returned to the original speaker site and found breeding sooty shearwater. There was a newly-refurbished look to the old natural burrows, and we found a couple of occupying birds at great cost to Peter’s arm. We installed some trail cameras on likely burrows.

A pair of sooties at their burrow entrance. Egg-laying season December 2013.

In January we went back with a burrowscope, courtesy of Nicky Nelson at Victoria University, and found 16 incubating birds.

After the chick hatches, the parents alternate between incubating and heading to sea to get food for themselves and their chick.

Adult sooty arrives presumably with food, March 2014.

As it grows, the chick is left by itself for longer periods. At the colony we recorded the longest time between feeds as 10 days.

First emergence, April 2014. This chick obviously survived the weka intrusion shown near the beginning of this article.

A few minutes later- had enough. Chick at maximum weight, fortunately.

The number of active burrows dwindled away during summer and autumn though, and three chicks got to the stage where they came to the surface at night-time, exercised their wings, shed down, lost weight and eventually took off in early May.

Exercising wings on a rainy night, April 2014. Most down has been shed. (The date on the camera was wrong).

Helen Gummer points out that this might be the first successful example of acoustic attraction of sooty shearwater which have gone on to (re-)found a breeding colony. The colony looked forlorn during 2012, and we first noticed adult sooties in December 2012, a month after the speaker system was installed. The burrows were obviously active the following season (beaten earth, smell, clear burrows and so on) and I don’t think I would have been so stupid as to miss such signs in 2012.  In possible support of this claim, we also found an old sooty burrow grouping elsewhere on the island away from any speakers, and there has been no activity there, despite weka pressure all but vanishing island-wide.

The 2014-15 season gave a similar low fledging rate from about as many nesting attempts. We can only speculate on the reason- inexperienced breeding birds seems likely, as they should be the ones pulled in by the speaker system. An undetected predatory animal on the island would surely have left a mess, which we did not ever see. At-sea factors may have also influenced the fledging rate; poor results have been seen elsewhere when possible changes in sea temperatures, say, have caused food supplies to dwindle or move to different areas.

As the 2015-16 season starts we can report 16 birds on eggs, from a total of 28 GPS-mapped burrows which have held birds at some point over the last three years.

We plan on disturbing the colony as little as possible and are not intending to band the chicks or the adults. We do want to know the fledging rates each year and to get an idea of the population trend. I guess we are also not completely certain that they are all sooties. Many of the larger petrels seen at sea nearby are flesh-footed shearwater, which breed at the same time, so a mixed colony may be possible. Either will do just fine. They are easily told apart but burrowscoping is limited to confirming that a sooty-sized petrel and not a penguin is in the hole.

Other Seabirds

Red-billed gulls live in the area seasonally, feeding on schools of small fish and concentrations of crustaceans. Once we saw a little bay on the eastern side with red-bills all but walking over one another to feed on some crustaceans which had filled the bay. Red-bills don’t breed on Puangiangi and we don’t have any idea which breeding colony they come from. They have contributed to the nesting success of the resident pair of karearea though. Their 2014 nest was littered with the beaks and feet of red-bills, the only pieces they didn’t seem to have eaten. Red-bills are not far short of the size of the smaller male karearea and if they had caught them close to the sea, it must have been a feat to carry them to the nest site at about 60 m altitude.

Black-backed gulls are quite common. A pair of reef heron is often seen, as are white-fronted tern, the occasional Caspian, and various shags such as king, little, pied and spotted. There is a thriving breeding colony of spotted shag, spread out from the northern tip of the island and along the eastern side, nesting adults and young being seen from the sea in crevices in the cliffs.

Little penguins seem to be common, and they are encountered at the sooty colony and all around the island. They also nest under various man-made structures such as Ross’ house and one of his old pottery kilns, which is housed in a converted mussel float.

None of these birds seems to need human interference, but we are trying to establish a breeding colony of gannets. Their regional breeding colonies are thought to be full and thriving and they are often seen fishing in the area. A grouping of generic fibreglass boobies, sourced commercially and painted up in Australasian gannet colours by Peter, has been set up above Boatshed Bay, on what we hope is an attractive, clear site. A speaker system broadcasts the sounds of a gannet colony from dawn to dusk, and indeed we did seem to have some early success. Peter was checking the speakers and I was looking down from the spur, frantically signalling to Peter that he should look behind him. A gannet was there and unconcerned at being a metre behind Peter. We took it as a sign that the decoys were good ones, on two counts. A gannet was also filmed staying overnight but there has been no nesting so far.

Gannets
Not a bad likeness. Spot the real one.

Rats

travers1

In August 1903 eminent naturalist Henry Travers wrote to the Colonial Secretary Sir Joseph Ward about “Reserves for Scenery and Native Birds, etc”. Travers had seen first-hand the formerly abundant birdlife on  Takapourewa (Stephens Island). But “a year or so later cats were introduced; I was there a few weeks ago, and there is not a native land bird left on the island in consequence of the depredation of the cats”. Of course the loss of birds included the extinction of the Stephens Island wren.

Takapourewa is in the middle distance to the north of Puangiangi and the Rangitoto group. Henry Travers went on to say “I also venture to suggest, that a number of the Tuatara lizards (from Takapourewa) be placed on the two Rangitoto islets on which there is bush; this would prevent any possible chance of their becoming extinct in this portion of the Colony”.

travers2
Document courtesy Dr Colin Miskelly, Curator of Terrestrial Vertebrates, Te Papa

Travers showed insight into predator-prey interactions at the turn of the 20th Century or earlier, and advocated removal of pigs, goats and cats from Kapiti before it was used as a bird sanctuary. His suggestion for the Rangitotos to be a tuatara sanctuary might have been forlorn though, as they were certainly already carrying rats.

Rodents and mustelids and possums took a long time to be recognised as pre-eminent causes of decline and extinction of New Zealand’s native birds, lizards and invertebrates. Elsewhere in the world habitat loss is often key. There, birds and mammals for example have co-existed for millions of years and the birds have evolved to cope with mammalian predation. Not so on our small piece of Gondwana, yet even today those only peripherally interested in conservation, and those with agendas that it suits, stick to the notion that things will be all right if only the forests are protected from destruction.

Ninety-five years after Travers speculated that the Rangitotos might become a sanctuary for tuatara, Nicky Nelson from Victoria University and Peter Gaze were on Takapourewa. Nicky was doing a PhD on the induction of eggs from gravid tuatara and their incubation back in the lab, to better understand the role of temperature in determining the sex of the hatchlings.

Nicky and Peter discussed how the 400 young tuatara resulting from Nicky’s work could best be used to establish a new wild population. She pointed (quite possibly from the same spot as Henry Travers) to Wakaterepapanui, the northernmost of the Rangitotos some 10 km to the south, remarking on what ideal habitat it would be. The problem was that Ecology Division of DSIR had found that Norway rats were present on all three islands and Tim Markwell (Victoria University) had more recently confirmed the presence of kiore on Wakaterepapanui. These rats would prey on tuatara eggs and young as well as out-competing them for invertebrate food.

Norway rats and kiore do not co-exist easily and it is tempting to think that kiore were once widespread on all three islands, but that Norway rats were introduced to Tinui after European colonisation and gradually swam to the northern islands, replacing kiore in the process.  Were the few surviving kiore on Wakaterepapanui evidence of more recent colonisation there by the Norway rat? Possums and ship rats were fortunately absent, and there have been only two records of single stoats from Puangiangi. Stoats, present on D’Urville and within theoretical swimming distance, are efficient predators of Norway rats, and the presence of the latter therefore indicated that stoat invasion was rare and that they had not bred on the islands.

If the potential of Wakaterepapanui to house tuatara was to be realised then the rats had to go, and from all three islands to prevent re-invasion one to the other. This was feasible given the wins already had with aerial brodifacoum by the late 90s, but it was relatively expensive. The consent of three different landowners would also be needed. Wakaterepapanui is publically owned and managed by the Department of Conservation. Puangiangi in the middle was owned and occupied by Ross Webber and the southernmost, Tinui and its islet Takawhero, had a multitude of Maori owners but was by then uninhabited.

Victoria University took the initiative and got a grant from the South Pacific Conservation and Development Fund, which used the money obtained from the French government after they had bombed the Rainbow Warrior and killed a crewman. With finances covered it now fell to Peter and his colleagues at DOC to obtain consent for the operation. Discussions with many of the individual owners of Tinui went well– the eradication of rats being consistent with a management plan previously prepared by Tony Whitaker for the owners of the island. It was not possible to meet with every owner but a senior kaumatua of Ngati Koata deemed that there was sufficient endorsement. Ross Webber was also keen to see the end of rats on his island. He had been trapping and shooting them, without measurable effect, and he was sick and tired of them getting into his stores. A complication was that the aerial application of brodifacoum was licensed for stock-free islands only and Ross still had a good flock of romneys on Puangiangi.

By early July 1999 a 50-page Assessment of Environmental Effects had been prepared which resulted in DOC approval for the operation, the Medical Officer of Health had been notified and the Marlborough District Council had given a non-notified resource consent. The bait was ordered. In August all of Ross’ sheep were barged to a neighbouring farm on D’Urville Island. This was not without some difficulty despite the services of shepherd Lionel Roughton and his dogs: these sheep just weren’t used to being rounded up with dogs, Ross’ last one having died some time previously. As the sheep needed to stay off the island until all bait had degraded, Peter arranged with the Rai Valley butcher to get a meat pack for Ross onto the weekly mail boat.

sheepbarge1
Ross Webber’s sheep head for D’Urville August 1999. Peter encourages lead sheep on board at the end of a sturdy rope.

After these months of preparation the actual operation, organised by Mike Aviss and DOC staff from Picton, was completed in a day – 24 August 1999. There was no non-toxic pre-feed. The bait [Pestoff 20R as 6 g pellets with a concentration of 0.02 g/kg brodifacoum] was flown from a barge moored at Tinui and applied in sixty-metre-wide swathes at 15 kg/ha. Bait was spread by hand on Takawhero to the southeast of Tinui.

bargebrodif1
Ready to spread the brodifacoum, 24 August 1999

There is good reason to believe the eradication was successful. Trapping soon after the operation failed to detect rats on any of the islands. The juvenile tuatara were then duly moved to Wakaterepapanui, along with green gecko and giant weta.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
The helicopter finds a place to land on Wakaterepapanui; tuatara being unloaded. Photo courtesy Jo Monks.

When Puangiangi came on the market in 2012, we were not sure it had stayed free of stoats and rats, the two most likely invaders. We also didn’t know about the other islands as Wakaterepapanui is seldom visited and the bait stations on Tinui are not checked. Sue and I were really only considering Puangiangi amongst competing options for our next project because of the predator eradication, and I guess we would have walked away if our pre-purchase visit had shown they were back. Sue remarked that it really is just a useless, though beautiful, piece of rock if it can’t be kept all but free of pests.

When we landed that March, the proxy tracking tunnel on the firm golden sand at Boatshed Bay was free of little mammalian footprints and there was no sign around the buildings (rats would want for shelter more than they would want for food on a place like Puangiangi). Common gecko, which Peter remembered in only small numbers during the 1980s, were everywhere; darkling beetles and giant tree weta (at instars you just don’t see on the mainland) likewise. Our first night in the house in May was frightening though. The scratching and thumping of animals in the walls and ceiling made us think for a while that it must be riddled with rats, until we found it was a favourite gecko residence. Indeed when we opened up some walls for plumbing fittings, 200 mm of accumulated shed gecko skins and droppings were piled up on many of the dwangs. And there were no mummified rats anywhere.

In the future, stoats may occasionally swim from D’Urville, but we hope the swift currents will mean that any arrivals are single (and not pregnant). Any re-invasion of rats would likely be from boats. It was a calculated risk to install moorings on safety grounds, and we can only hope that no-one runs a line to the land when they are moored. There will never be a jetty and we will continue to wade ashore. Trespassers do beach boats and kayaks and this creates considerable risk. The No Landing signs should make it obvious what is required and locals have been asked to watch for illegal landings and to intervene as required. Dogs being let ashore from boats would also be a disaster as they would find some of the ground birds there irresistible.

After the project got under way in 2012, Peter set out a line of DOC200 traps at landing sites and in outbuildings, baited with Erayz and checked monthly. We have since extended the network to 17, with good coverage along the ridgelines and tracks which the animals would prefer to use. If we were never to do anything else on the island, keeping the traps intact and serviced would be the job that does get done.

The Telecom Hut

Just to the east of Ross Webber’s house is a little building made of lightweight metal panels, tied down with wire and with a locked door. At the rear is a telephone pole with climbing spikes, giving access to an old aerial and a solar panel from the 1980s. On our first visit to the island after purchasing it in the mortgagee sale, we brought out a locksmith who had driven over to French Pass from Nelson to meet us. He quickly gained access to the house and shed and installed new deadlocks, since beefed up with various other devices. We also encouraged him to cut a key for the little hut and I gather he got permission from the appropriate people as presumably the equipment inside was not owned by us.

Inside was a pile of grumpy geckos, several hundred metres of old cable, a deep-cycle battery and solar controller, an auxiliary telephone handset, a “Country Set” for receiving and transmitting over a microwave link to the mainland, and several old inspection forms filled out and left. On our pre-purchase visit we had been able to spot that there was a telephone in the house, by jumping up and grabbing brief looks through the salt-covered kitchen window (funny, we have never had the windows covered in salt since). I’d arranged with Telecom to get a subscription to start on Settlement Day, which was slightly complicated by the previous account having not been paid for some time. We were delighted to discover that the phone worked perfectly, if a little scratchily on the incoming side. People back on the mainland can hear very clearly however.

The Telecom hut is next to one of the kohekohe forest remnants, the only piece in the central western part of the island. We instantly dubbed the forest Telecom Bush, which also alludes to a remnant back in the Makara area of Wellington called Post Office Bush, which I have had the pleasure to visit with Wellington Botanical Society. Telecom Bush was good sheep shelter, and although no longer under pressure from the sheep, is not yet getting its understory back. It is however in the territory of one of the original robin pairs, and Peter found one of the first nests after translocation had been built in Telecom Bush.

Ross told us that he had had the telephone connected in the early 1980s, just before Telecom was privatised. For the cost of a city telephone connection, Ross got special equipment installed in one of the more remote places in New Zealand. I gather they may have given him some decommissioned lead-acid batteries and a solar panel too. (When we arrived there were two generations of solar panel on the shed roof, supplying electric light to part of the house. The 80’s-vintage one was the same as on the telephone pole but the connections had long rotted out. A more recent panel was charging the old batteries in the porch, and there was a little post-Ross electric water pump also to supply running cold water to the house. We had no idea how to maintain the system but it did limp through to the time we did a major electrical upgrade.)

Not everyone comes out on the right side of a deal with a major corporate like Telecom but I guess it was their remit to provide telephones regardless of whether an individual connection was economic for them. Imagine how useful it would have been for Ross to be able to keep up with family and friends, and to order supplies by telephone after 25 years of not having one, not to mention how much it would help if Ross were to suffer an injury or illness that needed outside intervention.

Gerard Hindmarsh wrote in one of his lovely articles about Ross that the phone was hidden in an alcove in the wall behind a calendar, lest passing yachties might sneak in an make toll calls at Ross’ expense. Ross says that story is “bloody nonsense”. There is a framed message board on the kitchen wall which might well have such an alcove behind it, but from the way the phone is installed over on the opposite wall it’s pretty obvious it has been there forever, with nothing which might have given cover from the freeloading yachting fraternity. Indeed Ross enquired whether we found useful his pencil drawing, on the wall next to the phone, of the set-up and location of buried cabling from the house through to the Telecom hut. Regrettably the drawing is most probably under a layer of lurid purple paint courtesy of the intermediate owner.

The line has non-existent bandwidth and would not support even dial-up internet, but we greatly value the security and connectivity it gives. We have since found that the island has reasonable Vodafone cell coverage, at least on the open headlands with a view to the tower at Bulwer. Telecom’s tower is a bit further away but we can sometimes text on the Telecom network from the high points. The corrugated iron roof of the house cuts the cell signal inside to zero, but we have bought a Yagi aerial and clamped it to a tall piece of pipe up behind the house, pointing it at Bulwer and occasionally trimming trees from the line of sight and making sure the aerial doesn’t spin round in the gales. My iPhone can be connected inside and so in addition to the “land” line we now also have good cell telephony and satisfactory internet (courtesy of the hot spot feature) in the warm and dry.

We were checking the equipment in the Telecom hut one day in 2013 and found a new inspection report dated that February. We had had no idea that a technician would come out regularly to check the equipment over. I was quite concerned about possible implications for biosecurity and so penned a lengthy note about the new status of the island and left it in the hut with a request to phone me. Next February I got a very friendly phone call from John the technician, who explained that he came out once a year by helicopter (when the bill is paid at least). I was able to tell him the latest of Ross, with whom he had got on well, and we established that there were no concerns about dogs, or rats hiding in equipment, as the tech serviced the public estate conservation islands as well and was well up with the special requirements for gear checking and so on.

(The tech works for a company which was spun off from either Telecom or one of the electricity companies. I lose track of all that and am tempted to refer to everyone as either The Post and Telegraph Office or the Electric Power and Gas Board, but shall use Telecom in this article and forget either their previous or subsequent incarnations.) Whilst it is hilarious that we receive a $1500-plus helicopter visit once a year to check our fifty-dollars-a-month phone line, I did say to John that he might want to coordinate with us and share a boat to the island. He explained that they used to go by boat but with the helicopter they can do eight visits a day compared with two previously.

The phone line was dead one visit in Spring 2014 and after experimentation Peter and I figured it might be a cable fault somewhere between the Telecom hut and the house. Out of natural love and affection for Telecom we thought we should have a go at fixing it rather than contact Faults and assert that the $4.95 monthly line maintenance fee might be spent on another helicopter trip. I fronted at the electrical wholesaler back in town, asked a bunch of dumb questions which were helpfully answered by the sales clerk and a customer, and returned to the island with 63 metres of the latest gel-filled cable, a new handset, connection box and the like. We hooked up the new cable in a temporary manner and from first principles were able to work out what the blinking lights on the Country Set meant, and that all the existing equipment was indeed OK apart from the old cable. At that point I realised that my pacing out of a metre needed recalibration and we were 4 metres short on new cable. Fortunately we were able to shake the geckos out of the enormous coil of spare cable in the hut- which I had clean forgotten about- and spend a hot afternoon putting it in a new trench.

This winter the phone gave trouble again and it was clear that the battery was not charging enough to work the transmitting and receiving equipment. This did mean contacting Faults and I crafted a careful email, explaining that the fault was in a remote location, was related to the solar panel and/or battery, and that there was no point sending me a standard reply inviting me to walk around the house, check all the extensions, unplug the ADSL line filters and whatever else they say to do before they will send out a technician. They duly sent me a reply inviting me to walk around the house, check all the extensions, unplug the ADSL line filters and whatever else they say to do before they will send out a technician. Fully expecting this I had copied the email to John the technician and eventually he or I was able to get the help desk to actually read my message and assign him to the job. We now have had another helicopter visit and sport a shiny new battery and a working phone once again.

I’m really happy to have and use this somewhat anachronistic piece of infrastructure. It is important to our safety and it reminds us of Ross’ time on Puangiangi and what a step forward it must have been for him to get the phone on. These days the kereru like to perch on the aerial of the Telecom hut, the guy wires moan in the wind, the geckos are largely undisturbed inside, and the old Country Set does its job.

Whio Population Growing in the Fyfe

November 2013: In 2006/7 we helped Kate Steffens and her DOC team with funding for a trap line in the Fyfe river valley in south-east Kahurangi National Park.  At that time only two pairs of whio were known to be there.  DOC was then to carry on maintaining the line after our initial input. Kate reports that a May dog-assisted survey found 15 whio in the Fyfe valley, which included 6 pairs and 3 single adults.  Two of the adult males (Old Blue and Little Blue) seen were the original males from 2006.
The Fyfe is part of the Wangapeka/Fyfe whio security site which has a management objective of protecting 50 breeding pairs of whio by 2017.  This will be achieved by trapping for stoats along 70-90 km of waterway, carrying out aerial 1080 operations every 5-7 years, and boosting the population through the Whio Operation Nest Egg (WHIONE) program.
Monitoring of nesting success and adult survival during the nesting/moult period has shown that this population must contend with weka preying on eggs in the Wangapeka catchment and stoats, possums and rats ‘visiting’ whio nests.  At least one nesting female has been lost to predation, although the predator was not identified.

Weka taking an egg_1
Weka caught on trail camera, taking an egg

I think the concept of the whio security sites is a good one, given the huge breeding territories of these birds and the expensive trapping infrastructure needed. With finite money, concentrated effort in a few key sites is better than a piecemeal approach over their entire range.

Flax Weevil Confirmed on Puangiangi

Only a month after starting the Puangiangi project, we were aware of abundant feeding sign on flaxes there, most likely due to flax weevil.  In Autumn 2013 consultant ecologist Geoff Walls, possibly escaping my snoring, made a night-time expedition and came back with the definitive photos of flax weevil.  It’s nice to know they hung on during the rat years, and that they are now obviously abundant. We are gratified the island is suitable for macroinvertebrates also, and don’t plan on overlooking them.  We are also on the lookout for ngaio weevils, which would be a find.  Who knows what may have persisted?

Photo courtesy Geoff Walls, Taramoa Limited.

Kea Protection in Nelson Lakes

In the early 1990s, kea were surveyed in the 6000 hectares around Lake Rotoiti, and there were 11 breeding pairs producing an average of 10 fledglings per year. By 2010, a survey over an expanded 13,000 hectares turned up only two breeding pairs. This is a classic problem with territories and total areas too large for affordable pest control. It’s quite reminiscent of the situation with whio/blue duck, where many km of trap lines are required to protect the range of a single pair. DOC’s Grant Harper and David Rees wanted to try localised pest control around nest sites: find the nests each season and move in with a perimeter of traps.

We bought some traps for the project, and nests were located and monitored with video cameras. In 2011 two of the three nests were cleaned out by possums. It was a similar story in 2012, with stoat predation being observed. This is not a happy outcome, but the idea is a good one and the team will keep trying, with help from a strong local conservation group, to stop another local extinction of kea.

Photo credit: Corey Mosen, DOC

Rock Wren Teetering on the Mainland?

Alarmist? Maybe, but we have long been concerned about the state of rock wren, and Megan Willans imparted some bad news in February 2013.

Megan checked out the intensively-trapped area in the Murchisons, and adult rock wren were seen where expected. However, Dan Palmer, Jo Hoare, Colin O’Donnell and Antje Leseberg monitored 21 nesting attempts in the Homer and Gertrude areas, and all failed.  They confirmed stoat predation at at least 9 of the nests, and mouse predation at at least one. (And who knows what happened to unmonitored populations not benefiting from 1080 application in the mast event just gone?)

These results make it even more important that the translocation to Secretary Island in 2008-2010 funded by Fauna Recovery NZ will prove successful. Pleasingly, the 2013 survey on Secretary turned up no fewer than 62 unbanded birds. There were also at least three banded ones living on from the founder population established in 2008-2010. The survey also showed rock wren descending into lower-altitude areas of suitable habitat, indicating the island might have pretty decent ultimate carrying capacity. This is important because there are not really any other islands to try, unless we have another go on Anchor, or get radical and try an island with lowland habitat only, hoping that these subalpine specialists can niche-hop. Rock wren as surrogate for the extinct bush wren? That may well be getting ahead of ourselves, and I do have a little worry in the back of my mind about how few founder adults were found on Secretary.  It should have been a bit higher, and it’s possible this might indicate the population oscillating, with some seasonal factor causing greater mortality than normal.  Stoat numbers evidently continue at stubbornly high(ish) levels despite all the effort being put in to this big island. Time will tell.

So, yes, I think rock wren are hanging by a thread, and we hope the Secretary work is enough to avert disaster while other solutions are found.