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.

Orange-Fronted Parakeet Update

M-RR Nest box 1 12 Feb 2013_1John Heaphy reports that transfer of captive-raised OFPs continued right through to 2014, with around 150 birds in total released on Tuhua. The birds are establishing and breeding, but numbers are not exploding by any means, which is a bit of a repeat of other OFP translocations. However, with that number moved, we must hope that a viable, genetically diverse population will remain on Tuhua, and not require ongoing management. There seems no obvious reason why the island is not full of parakeets by now, apart from a mite outbreak in 2013 which seems to have run its course.

John noted also some milestones with the project. In 2013 he photographed the first Tuhua-bred bird, herself breeding, with one of the older translocated males. John was also especially pleased that several pairs took to the nest boxes he installed, as he had his doubters that this attempt to extend the range of breeding sites would work.

Weka Get One-way Trip

It was early in the piece that we decided Puangiangi needed to be given a fair shot at becoming the seabird island it once was. Our minds were focussed in December 2012 when we discovered sooty shearwater visiting one of the speaker sites.

Weka are known predators of seabirds, and are well known to attack chicks in their burrows or nearby. We now have lots of film of weka trying to get into the shearwater burrows on Puangiangi. Peter obtained a permit to remove weka from Puangiangi and to translocate them to the Garne and Saville Scenic Reserve about 30 minutes by car from French Pass on the mainland, which should be far enough away that they don’t swim back.

Weka were very obvious on the island when we arrived to begin the project in May 2012. My ultra-scientific estimate put the population at 20. We find that weka are drawn in to the field centre where they are attracted by food, shiny new plumbing fittings and for some reason my dive booties which they love to drag away. Through hand netting, cage trapping and even grabbing one while it was poking through our gear on the landing beach, we have caught 97 of the 20 as at June 2015. Encouragingly, the catch and encounter rates are much lower now, but we still know of one or two on the island. We can hear them calling from Tinui (where the population must be at carrying capacity), and Peter is aware of one on Wakaterepapanui, but we have no idea of the re-invasion rate if any from the other islands in the group.