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The list of New Zealand native birds declared extinct, even by 1920, was extensive. Most people will know of the huia, but few may have heard of snipe, piopio or laughing owl. Thirty-two ground birds had gone by the time the Europeans arrived. Kiore and kuri and the effects of hunting by Maori had already put paid to a good number of native ducks, rails, coots, the North Island takahe and every one of the various species of moa.
Alongside every New Zealand species still extant or surviving today is the classification system that determines its conservation status from "at risk" to "nationally critical", the latter facing a high risk of immediate extinction. Kakapo, of course, is one of these. It’s not often a species moves down in status, that is, becomes less at risk, but the tieke/South Island saddleback (Philesturnus carunculatus) is one such species. Its Maori name, tieke, is onomatopoeic: ti-eeee-ke. Play it often enough and it becomes almost irritating, until you remember this bird was once on the brink of extinction. We should be happy to hear it, over and over again.
We’re playing the recording (over and over again) and listening for the real thing. It’s August 2017, and Brent Beaven of the Department of Conservation has set up a mist net within the bush on Breaksea Island.
A small speaker is wired to his smart phone, and he scrolls through variations of the call, hoping to entice the curious and territorial tieke to fly into the "invisible" black net. It’s a game of patience, hoping the birds might arrive before the rain does. Breaksea is aptly named. This small island (156ha) sits squarely at the entrance of Breaksea Sound. If there’s rain, Breaksea cops it. The shoreline is pounded by the ocean, no matter what the swell conditions. As a result, it’s a damp spot, the rocky shore is lethal underfoot.
It’s also a magic spot. We’re camped in the one relatively level area on the island, around the remains of the original hut that was headquarters for a major rat eradication operation in the late 1980s. We’re competing for space with kekeno/fur seals and tawaki/Fiordland crested penguins, with a decent amount of seal shit on the gumboots.
This is the way New Zealand used to be — the forest here is chocker with mohua, South Island robins, bellbirds and hundreds of tieke. On the drier, northern side of the island, rare Fiordland skinks sun themselves on the rocks. There’s another wee gem here: the flax weevil. We’ll come to them later.
This week-long mission is to catch and band up to 200 tieke and translocate them across to Five Fingers Peninsula. We’re just one team of many; there are several other birders on Te Kahahu/Chalky Island, further south. It’s a big operation, one which many are hoping will be an important chapter in an already great story.
The rescue of the tieke/South Island saddleback, down to just 36 birds in 1964, set world firsts. Central to the narrative are a few blokes who went out on a limb (and into the southern ocean), who carried on despite advice from "above", and used the best of No8 wire ingenuity and common sense to create conservation history.
The tieke is the last of the South Island wattlebirds, its bright red wattles (fleshy lobes) hanging at both sides of its beak. The other New Zealand wattlebirds (Callaeidae) were the huia and the kokako.
The huia was only ever found in the North Island, prized for its feathers but declared extinct by the 1920s. The North Island kokako numbers are recovering. There have been suspected sightings of its South Island counterpart, the "grey ghost", in the mountains behind Golden Bay, but most assume it’s now extinct.
It was once thought that the North Island and South Island saddlebacks were the same species (the term is "conspecific"). The South Island saddleback, however, has its own call (a little more melodious than the North Island tieke, accused of sounding like a creaking door).
Unlike the North Islander, the juvenile southern saddlebacks, known as jackbirds, don’t have a full set of wattles until they’re at least a year old. They were also the rarer of the two species, living much of their life close to the ground and within easy striking distance of rats.
Richard Henry saw them in the late 1890s up the Seaforth River, but by 1901 he could not find a single bird. In 1905, the only surviving tieke were those residing on islands off the southwestern end of Rakiura/Stewart Island. And within a few decades, the largest of those islands, Taukihepa/Big South Cape Island, only 1040ha, rugged and isolated, had the last tieke, but also the last Stewart Island snipe, the last matuhi/ Stead’s bush wren, and the last few greater short-tailed bats. (We know this because another early conservationist, Herbert Guthrie-Smith, a farmer from Tutira Station in Hawke’s Bay, journeyed to Big South Cape Island in 1913, identified the birds and passed on the information to George M. Thomson. Thomson wrote a document titled the Red Data Book, listing the New Zealand native birds desperately in need of protection.
The precarious nature of these birds’ existence was known to the government for over 50 years.
Most of the islands around Rakiura are a second home to local iwi, with whanau travelling to the islands every autumn to harvest titi/sooty shearwaters, or muttonbirds. In 1964, a muttonbirder raised the alarm: ship rats had arrived on Big South Cape. It defies belief that those in positions of authority in wildlife management at that time actually thought native ground birds would adapt to the presence of rats. Despite so many cases of previous extinction, so many bird populations decimated, despite the field notes and warnings from rangers like Richard Henry decades earlier, lead scientists actually believed the birds would find a way to put up with the arrival of the predator and find "a natural equilibrium".
On Big South Cape, that equilibrium equated with destruction. The muttonbirders’ hut was destroyed first, wallpaper stripped and eaten, food supplies broken into, and rat droppings and urine throughout.
Beyond the hut, the island’s vegetation was stripped bare, every seedling consumed, the forest floor barren. Little wonder the birds, for the most part poor flyers or nesting close to the ground, were fast disappearing.
Enter Brian Bell and Don Merton from the New Zealand Wildlife Service, heroes of this story. They grabbed as many bird boxes as they could and a few mist nets. With them were Wildlife Service trainees, including Dick Veitch and Jim O’Brien, accompanied by his Labrador, Scout. Along with assistance from the Royal New Zealand Navy (Don Merton’s brother was the captain of HNMNZ Maroro), the team voyaged to Big South Cape Island.
They worked fast, catching what birds they could and moving them to three other rat-free muttonbird islands. Despite the near-subantarctic weather and heavy swells (landing never easy), they netted and moved 36 tieke to safety. The two surviving Stewart Island snipe died before they could be transferred, and six Stead’s bush wren died shortly after translocation.
Snipe and bush wren were now extinct. Only the tieke survived. And that in itself made history: it was the first time a translocation saved an endangered species, anywhere in the world. Over the next few decades, as islands were cleared of predators, the progeny of those 36 surviving tieke were moved to one island after another, including Te Kakahu/Chalky Island and Breaksea and Anchor islands.
Back on Breaksea, the rain has held off, and we hold our breath as a jackbird flies in, curious at the recorded call. We stand as still as we can. He’s wary. He’s also beautiful — the beginnings of wattles, a curious eye and and inimical call. Tieke prefer the stunted forest here on the lower slopes, the tangled branches of olearia and dracophyllum providing ideal habitat. Boof. He’s in the net, and within minutes Brent Beaven has untangled the black feet, beak and wings and has placed the jackbird gently in a cloth bag. Within the hour we have another bird, and another. Beaven measures, bands and places the birds in a warm, protective box with fruit and mealworms (tiny beetle larvae) to keep them entertained and fed.
The population of tieke is now estimated at more than 3000, and their conservation status has gone from "critically endangered" to "at risk". These results are about to get better, if all goes to plan.
Breaksea Island is now full. So, too, are Anchor and Chalky islands. Scientists believe that when the birds reach maximum numbers on each island — dependent on size of territory, habitat and food availability — nesting and breeding ebbs. Whatever birds we extract from here on Breaksea will be replaced, in the next few nesting seasons. But in order to increase the population, and bring tieke even further down the classification status, it means taking a risk. There are no more predator-free islands. There are only those on which predators are controlled.
Master-minding this operation is Lindsay Wilson. However idealistic, Wilson knows that Predator Free 2050 is still a way off and "largely aspirational". He wants to know if New Zealand native birds can survive, if not thrive, on islands where there are low numbers of predators. Tieke are extremely vulnerable to stoats, but Wilson argues that they could well be the "canary down the coal mine". By moving tieke to Five Fingers Peninsula, a vast area of 3300ha with ideal habitat for saddlebacks, it could show just how many stoats are too many or too few to affect the population. It’s a move that, if successful, could potentially treble numbers of tieke.
This particular operation is controversial. Some experts say that one stoat is one too many, it’s all for nought. In the previous 10 years a few stoats have been caught in traps on the northern half of Five Fingers Peninsula, but no stoats have been recorded in the southern half since 2007. Others give Wilson their full support, saying that every advance in conservation has been achieved by people taking a risk, just as Brian Bell and Don Merton did in 1964 by saving the bird in the first place.
Lindsay Wilson chooses to ignore the naysayers. He believes that with a robust number of tieke now spread over 20 offshore islands, there is no risk to the overall population. There is also minimal cost to the taxpayer as the majority of funds for this operation came from Fiordland Conservation Trust and its private benefactors.
The best spot for catching tieke is the hardest to get to, particularly in gumboots. Off the northern shore of Breaksea, Beaven and fellow ranger Shinji Kameyama wrangle poles, nets and boxes around the cliffs on to a small bush-topped rocky islet. The swells lick below.
It’s not a long way down, but enough to break more than bird boxes. This is exposed habitat. You’d expect only seabirds to make their home here.
"Saddlebacks prefer the ecotonal edge," Beaven explains, "where two ecosystems meet, or two habitats overlap. You get twice as many species here. It means plenty of food for the birds, mainly invertebrates."
It is why the exposed scrub on the west coast of Five Fingers Peninsula is also perfect tieke habitat, rugged and inhospitable as it looks.
Within 24 hours of the first tieke being caught, the helicopter arrives to fly them to Five Fingers. It’s imperative to release the birds as soon as possible. The machine shuts down amid the thick tussocks on the cliffs. This is wild west coast. The Tasman Sea is grey and turbulent, and north and south from here is a constant haze of white spray, waves crashing against the rocks. Fur seals are littered across every slab of granite rock. They’re almost invisible between tussocks, until they arch up with teeth bared, or come barrelling down from the hillsides, barking furiously.
By the end of that week, 138 tieke are moved to Five Fingers, and within another six months that number reached 188 birds, banded and recorded. In 2018, 60 more tieke were moved to Pigeon Island. A year later, searches would be under way on Five Fingers Peninsula to observe and count the birds, in the hope they have nested and successfully bred.
The rescue of South Island saddleback from Great South Cape Island in 1964 was a turning point because it saved a species, and it also highlighted the importance of pest- and predator-free offshore islands. Suddenly it was all about getting rid of rats. And Breaksea Island is where it all happened; another story of Kiwi-can-do, the genesis of today’s entire Tamatea/Dusky Sound conservation and restoration project.