Animal Health Board staff help save kakapo

Department of Conservation —  11/08/2011
For lucky Animal Health Board (AHB) staff members, District Disease Control Manager Jane Sinclair and Finance Manager Joy Tracey, the adventure of travelling to a secluded island surrounded by native birds became a reality when they won a trip to Whenua Hou/Codfish Island.

The purpose of the two week excursion to Codfish Island was to volunteer with the Kakapo Recovery programme.

Joy Tracey bravely places her finger in the mouth of adult kakapo, Rooster. While he does bite, he's known to be gentle

Jane’s experience

My adventure began when I first put my hand up at the AHB’s Christmas function auction. A few nervous minutes later and I was the proud winner of a two week stint on the kakapo sanctuary at Codfish Island. To prepare, I spent the next few Sunday mornings carrying my pack up Kakepuku—a 400-metre volcanic cone near Te Awamutu—and eating my breakfast at the top. It was hot, sticky work which ultimately proved to be worthwhile.

I arrived at the Department of Conservation quarantine office in Invercargill, where all my possessions were carefully inspected for seeds, dirt and mice. We were then put in an impossibly small plane (with just one pilot and three passengers) on our way to Codfish Island. We touched down at the landing on the beach at Sealers Bay.

As you might expect, Codfish Island has no roads and can only be reached by light plane or helicopter. The island is a specially protected nature reserve and no unauthorised landing is permitted. Flights in and out of the island are carefully managed to avoid any unwanted pests that could stowaway and cause untold destruction on the kakapo community

On our arrival, there was a mad scramble to off-load our gear as another group was ready to disembark the island. We were given an induction on what our roles would entail and the following day we each headed out with a map to tackle the feed-out run. Here’s where my Sunday morning training sessions came into effect. Carrying a 13 kilogram pack, it took me seven hours to complete that first day and I was seriously wondering how I would cope for a full two weeks.

After a great cup of tea and a good night’s sleep however, I was up and away the next day. I was finished in just under five hours and felt completely elated. The island’s vegetation is incredibly varied, spanning large forests to knee high scrub at the 500 metre summit. Peat also makes the underfoot conditions soft and, in some places, muddy. Everywhere on the island there were tomtits, tui, kaka, bellbirds, wood pigeons, rifleman and kakariki. Feed-out runs were divided into four different routes, looking after 28 birds in total. We had every third day off.

This feed station can only be activated by the kakapo with the correct radio frequency tag

On my first day off, I was asked to help with locating and catching a 2009 born kakapo named Hillary. We headed up to the summit and used telemetry to locate a signal off the North West Hut track.

Once we thought the bird was close, it was a case of quietly manoeuvring through head high vegetation until we were on top of it. Once caught, Hillary was weighed, given a thorough health check and released. It was a magical experience to be so close to one of these magnificent birds.

I was then asked if I would like to do some nest minding and spent the next four nights in a two man tent, high up on the island, looking after Flossie’s chick. When the chicks weigh less than 500 grams, they are given extra heat at night when the mother leaves the nest. A beam-activated door bell lets you know when the mother kakapo leaves her nest.

We were privileged to see a number of little kakapo chicks, one just hours old. Most of the chicks weigh-in at various sizes and look like little balls of white fluff with a huge beak. But, it goes without saying, they are incredibly cute

A small battery powered duvet is then placed over the chick and lifted every 10 minutes to ensure it is okay. Telemetry is used to indicate when the mother is returning and infra-red recordings of the nest are made and reviewed every 24 hours.

The dedication of the rangers was truly inspiring. When they’re on the island it is a 24-hour commitment over the entire month. They would literally run up the hill at any time of the night to check on a chick’s wellbeing. I must say, my two weeks on Codfish Island came to an end all too quickly.

I left feeling the fittest I‘ve ever been and encouraged that the kakapo are in such excellent hands. The work being carried out is achieving wonderful results, with 11 chicks that wouldn’t have survived without intervention this year. I have every confidence in the long-term future of this remarkable bird.

Written by Jane Sinclair for TB Matters.

One kakapo manages to slip in some dinner