Keeping Faith With An Ancient Friend
The haunting harmonics of the South Island kōkako are missing now from the dawn chorus in our great southern forests. Or are they?
On 31 May 2010, the South Island Kōkako Charitable Trust took its first full breath as a champion of this ancient New Zealand bird species. The founding trustees had one abiding purpose in mind – to determine where the bird might still survive on Te Waipounamu South Island and Rakiura Stewart Island. Conserving remaining populations or their precious genes would hang tenuously on their early discovery.
Who were these kōkako champions, and how has their belief in kōkako survival transcended the pessimism of those who say the bird must be extinct by now?
Founding Trustees Ron Nilsson and Rhys Buckingham have been constantly alert for the South Island kōkako since surveying vast tracts of native forest in the 1970s and 80s. Back then, both worked for the NZ Wildlife Service. Like the founders of the Service itself, they became acutely aware of New Zealand’s vanishing natural heritage.
Trust Chair, Nigel Babbage explains:
“Both men, now in their 70s, are convinced that the South Island kōkako is still there in our southern native forests. Today, they do all they can to maintain the search. Their efforts are driven by truly compelling suggestions of the bird’s survival. They’ve acquired those clues through observations of their own and from the reports of other backcountry folk. Rhys searches tirelessly at sites of most promise. Ron remains a Trustee, specialising in the review of encounter reports and follow-up field work.”
Rhys and Ron established the Trust to broaden the search for kōkako and to muster the resources for professional, systematic surveys. A strategic plan followed, developed through the careful collating and ranking of new and older encounter reports. The strategy governed the Trust’s investments to
- obtain unequivocal evidence that South Island kōkako still exist,
- evaluate the current distribution and relative abundance of the species,
- learn enough of the species’ biology and habits to make recovery a realistic prospect.
Based on encounter type and frequency, the strategy selected six sites for follow-up field work: Oparara Valley (Karamea), Cobb/Waingaro Valley (NW Nelson), Upper Inangahua Valley (Reefton), Lake Moeraki and Waiatoto River (both South Westland, and Waitutu-Wairaurahiri (southern Fiordland).
For the first time, searches in these areas could be prolonged and properly equipped using grants obtained by the Trust at that time. Two of those sites remain of special interest.
The Trust’s efforts acquired further credibility in 2013 when DOC lifted the bird’s conservation status from ‘extinct’ to ‘data deficient’. The new classification acknowledged the possibility of survival in response to two detailed sighting reports at Rainy Creek in the Upper Inangahua Valley near Reefton.
The Trust deployed professional ornithologists and new tools such as camera traps to confirm the Reefton sighting. Generous donors subsidised the surveillance hardware. But the bird or birds remained elusive. As if teasing the Reefton searchers, occasional reports of kōkako or their sign continue to reach the Trust today.
“The Trust has received reports from within a few kilometres west and south of the original search site,” Mr Babbage confirms. “Quite possibly this is a lone bird moving around in a very large territory.”
He adds, “Rhys considers the Moeraki area in South Westland a very likely encounter site. He has devoted many hundreds of hours to camping there, listening for the kōkako’s distinctive song and watching for a conclusive glimpse of the bird itself. His camera traps and automatic listening devices have required many more hundreds of hours to review images and sound files. I can’t imagine how many thousands of dollars his efforts have cost him.”
“On one occasion, travellers reported what they believed was a kōkako flying across the state highway close by soon after Rhys had left the site. Coupled with tantalising recordings of kōkako-like song, that report and others from independent observers have drawn Rhys back to Lake Moeraki again and again.”
With funds very hard to come by for intensive field searches of its own, the Trust changed tack in 2016. Trustees socialised the search effort by encouraging backcountry users of all kinds to be alert for kōkako in their travels. By way of incentive, the Trust launched a reward campaign in January 2017. The campaign attracted widespread interest from media here and abroad. The $10,000 reward for definitive evidence of the bird has resulted in more than 200 new reports of possible encounters, many of which the Trust considers credible and worth pursuing.
To focus the public searching for maximum effect, the Trust sought expert help from GIS volunteer, Jordan Miller. Mr Miller prepared an interactive online map to guide searchers to the most promising sites. The native bird communities at many of those sites have benefitted from long-term and sustained predator control.
“We launched our map in 2019 and update it regularly with new reports. It tells backcountry folk where they can visit reported encounter sites and how recent the information is. Our aim is to highlight kōkako hot spots, especially those that are most recent. These are the most compelling of the reports we receive from the length of the South Island and large tracts of Stewart Island.”
“Now that Alert Level 2 allows us to get out into our forests again, we can renew our appeal to all outdoors people: when you’re out and about, tramping, hunting, biking or trapping for example, passing through native forest on foot, by bike or in a vehicle, please pay attention to unusual bird sounds and sights. We’d be delighted to hear of any possible encounter with this elusive and precious bird.”
Mr Babbage continued:
“As we head into our eleventh year, we believe the Trust’s mission is as valid as ever. Of course, as time passes, it becomes more urgent. We’ll continue to tell Kiwis the story of this most ancient New Zealander. We’re committed to informing outdoors folk about priority encounter sites. We’ve been blown away by the interest and support we’ve received from Kiwis who cherish our natural heritage and the chance to participate in conserving this utterly distinctive part of it.”
“You know,” Mr Babbage says in conclusion, “this remarkable bird is defining for New Zealand. It is an original New Zealander, thus it defines who we are as Kiwis. So does the inspired effort to find and conserve it for our biological and cultural futures. So we feel very much that the Trust and the thousands of Kiwis who have responded so warmly to the kōkako story are keeping faith with an ancient friend of our wilderness and our communities.”