Local Govt | National News Video | Parliament Headlines | Politics Headlines | Search


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.”

Ron Nilsson (left) with Rhys Buckingham (second from left) on a search expedition in 2017 (with Geoff Reid and Liz Murray, fit and enthusiastic volunteers).

© Scoop Media

Parliament Headlines | Politics Headlines | Regional Headlines

Gordon Campbell: On The Politics Of Using The Word “Fascist”

“Fascist” is one of those labels with the ability to capsize any debate. Call your opponents “fascists” – or “agitators” or “terrorists” or “scum” and you’ve taken the option of mutual respect and compromise off the table. Interesting then to see the ( paywalled) Washington Post seriously debating with itself yesterday over whether… Hmm, is it now finally time to bring out the f-word in connection with the presidency of Donald J. Trump, and with his enablers in the Republican Party..? More>>


RNZ: Covid-19 rules and restrictions on businesses to be lifted under alert level 1

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern says there will still be strict controls on the border, but all current rules and restrictions on businesses and services will be "essentially lifted" under alert level 1.
She said the lower alert level would also put an end to restrictions for hospitality businesses, and gatherings - including funerals and tangihanga - of any size could take place..... More>>


Gordon Campbell: On The Twitter Wars, And The Muller Muddles

Whatever the failings of our own politicians, spare a kind thought for the majority of Americans who did not vote for Donald Trump. Sure, it was depressing this week to watch Todd Muller clinging for dear life to his talking points on Q&A, ... More>>


Green Party: Statement On The Death Of George Floyd

“Today and every day we stand in solidarity with George Floyd’s family, friends and community who feel pain and fear about his untimely death at the hands of Minneapolis police”, said Green Party Co-leader and Māori Development spokesperson Marama ... More>>


Government: Freshwater Package Backed By Comprehensive Economic Analysis

Decisions on the Action for Healthy Waterways package are supported by comprehensive environmental and economic impact analysis by leading New Zealand research institutes, universities, and private sector firms. More>>


National: "Todd Muller Announces Shape Of Next Government"

National Party Leader Todd Muller has announced the line-up of the next Government. “New Zealand is facing perhaps the toughest time that almost anyone alive can remember. “We are borrowing tens of billions of dollars to get us through this crisis. There ... More>>


Gordon Campbell: On National’s Day Of Reckoning

Congratulations. You are one of the 55 members of the National caucus being called together tomorrow to choose who will lead you to either (a) catastrophic or (b) honourable defeat on September 19, thereby saving some (but not all) of the jobs currently on the line. Good luck. Your decision process starts NOW... More>>


Budget 2020: Jobs Budget To Get Economy Moving Again

Investments to both save and create jobs in Budget 2020 mean unemployment can be back to pre COVID-19 levels within two years and could see the economy growing again as early as next year. More>>


Government: Queen's Birthday Honours List 2020

The New Zealand Order of Merit The Queen has been pleased, on the occasion of the celebration of Her Majesty's Birthday, to make the following appointments to The New Zealand Order of Merit: DNZM To be Dames Companion of the said Order: Distinguished ... More>>

Government: Support For Arts And Music Sector Recovery

A jobseekers programme for the creative sector and four new funds have been set up by the Government to help our arts and music industry recover from the blow of COVID-19. Thousands of jobs will be supported through today’s $175 million package ... More>>


Government: New Zealand Joins Global Search For COVID-19 Vaccine

Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters, Research, Science and Innovation Minister Megan Woods, and Health Minister David Clark today announced a COVID-19 vaccine strategy, which will enable New Zealand scientists to contribute to global research efforts ... More>>


The Dig: Steady State Economics: We’ve Got Some (systems) Thinking To Do

In this time of impending economic and ecological crises, we urgently need to aim for a sustainable or ‘steady state’ economy. In order to get there, we will need to adopt a ‘systems-thinking’ outlook taking into account the interconnections of our complex world.

In short, we’ve got some systems thinking to do... More>>


Election 2020: Parties Get Into gear

The Green Party is pleased to reveal its candidate list for the upcoming election. With a mix of familiar faces and fresh new talent, this exceptional group of candidates are ready to lead the Greens back into Government. Using the most democratic list ... More>>


Insight Into Regenerative Agriculture In New Zealand

There is a fast growing movement in New Zealand that has been happening out in paddocks, fields, gardens and hill country across the nation. It is a movement that holds the promise to reshape our productive land use industries towards systems that work with the natural environment to regenerate the land. The movement is that of regenerative agriculture. More>>


Covid-19: Tracer App Released To Support Contact Tracing

The Ministry of Health has today formally released the NZ COVID Tracer app to support contact tracing in New Zealand. Kiwis who download the app will create a digital diary of the places they visit by scanning QR codes displayed at the entrances to ... More>>


Govt: Deep Concern At Hong Kong National Security Legislation
Foreign Affairs Minister Winston Peters today reiterated the deep concern of the New Zealand Government following confirmation by China’s National People’s Congress of national security legislation relating to Hong Kong.... More>>






InfoPages News Channels