Bat steals robin's thunder in race to be named Bird of the Year

The long-tailed bat. Photo: Ian Davidson-Watts / RNZ
The long-tailed bat. Photo: Ian Davidson-Watts / RNZ
The long-tailed bat beat its feathered frontrunners to take a commanding victory in the annual New Zealand Bird of the Year competition.

Forest and Bird spokesperson Lissy Fehnker-Heather told Morning Report the competition saw the highest number of votes ever with the bat winning by 3000.

Second place went to the kākāpō, titipounamu was third, the kea was fourth and the toroa was fifth. The black robin/kakaruia, kororā, ruru, whio, and Rockhopper penguin made up the rest of the top 10.

South Island long-tailed bats were once a common sight in Christchurch, where they roosted under the wooden bridges across the Avon River until 1885. But recent surveys indicate they are rarer than previously thought. 

South Canterbury supports the only known long-tailed bat population on the east coast of the South Island. Bats are limited to a small area from Peel Forest in the north, southwards through the foothill gorges of the Orari, Waihi, and Te Moana Rivers, Geraldine, and the Kakahu and Opihi Rivers.

On the willow-lined Opihi, bats have been reported regularly from Arowhenua and inland to the gullies of The Brothers and to the Opuha Gorge. The core of the population is centred on forest remnants and limestone areas around Hanging Rock. Geraldine is one of the few towns in New Zealand where it is possible to see long-tailed bats. They flit like large butterflies at dusk as they emerge from giant totara and matai in Talbot Forest.

Fehnker-Heather said bats are threatened by pests such as possums, stoats, rats and cats. Bird of the Year was an opportunity to give them a moment in the sun - something they literally don't experience every day.

"Bats are New Zealand's only native land mammals, and they are classed as nationally critical, and they face a lot of the same threats that our native birds do.

"This year, we thought we'll try and get more people aware of bats and the threats that they face.

"We thought we'll include them in the Bird of the Year because there's only two bats [species], so having bat of the year would not have been very exciting."

Including the bat attracted controversy this year, and Fehnker-Heather wasn't against future competitions throwing the metaphorical cat amongst the pigeons.

"It wouldn't be Bird of the Year without some scandal, so we never know what will happen."

South Canterbury long-tailed bats

Most remaining bat populations are associated with extensive native forest. However, South Canterbury is special because this is one of the few places where bats have persisted in a rural landscape.

DOC researchers have been collecting information about bats in the Hanging Rock area. The population is small and vulnerable, numbering only about 100 bats and still declining.

By learning why bats have survived here, the researchers hope to make recommendations that will help restore bat populations in South Canterbury and other parts of New Zealand.

Bats are dependent on old-aged trees that provide cavities with the correct conditions for breeding. They prefer to roost in the native trees that are now scarce. However, they will roost in introduced trees that are allowed to get old and large enough for natural cavities to form.

The bats in South Canterbury have had to adapt to using species such as willows, poplars, macrocarpa, and pines.

Four special roosts used by female bats to nurse young were found in the Geraldine area. Three of these trees were intended for firewood.

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