Jobs at DOC: Maud Island Ranger, Chris Birmingham

Chris Birmingham —  14/09/2012

Come behind the scenes and into the jobs, the challenges, the highlights, and the personalities of the people who work at the Department of Conservation (DOC).

Today we profile Acting Programme Manager – Biodiversity Assets, Chris Birmingham.

Chris Birmingham holding Rangi the kakapo in native bush.

Me with Rangi the kākāpō, unfound for 21 years until that fateful Waitangi Day in 2009

Position: Usually I am the Island Ranger/Manager of Te Hoiere/Maud Island Scientific Reserve in Pelorus Sound, but I am currently ‘pretend’ Programme Manager Biodiversity Assets in the Sounds Area Office for four months.

At work…

What kind of things do you do in your role?  

I manage Maud Island Scientific Reserve. This involves a plethora of things: monitoring the takahē population, quarantine and biosecurity, driving boats, driving tractors, managing visitors —including researchers and volunteers. We run day trips for the public in summer and host conservation volunteers and overnight school groups from the local area.

We do pines and other weed control, infrastructure management including the alternative energy set up on Maud, predator control and trapping, species monitoring and translocations, we even manage a small flock of sheep. I don’t sheer them though. I am an Area Warranted Officer and, oh yes, perhaps my biggest challenge, keeping a certain big green budgie in the manner to which he has become accustomed while he isn’t tied up with his Spokesbird activities.

Two pesky and noicy pukeko standing on Chris Birminham's deck.

The pesky noisy neighbours over for a cuppa

What is the best part about your job?  

Simple, I live and work on a beautiful island! I step outside and there I am, at work, no commuting necessary!

We share our house with geckos, giant weta and takahē to name a few… and we have a real live “fort” on Maud which might have one of the best views in the country—great spot for an after work beverage.

What is the hardest part about your job?

Linda and Chris standing on Maud Island with a bay in the background on a very sunny day.

Linda and I at home on Maud Island, Home Bay in the background, corker day

Isolation can be an issue. Careful planning is required to ensure things like fresh coffee, beer, wine, and cheese don’t run out. Thankfully we have a good relationship with the Pelorus mailboat.

I also miss family and friends, social engagements and family affairs. Luckily my fiancée Linda and I see this as an advantage sometimes too!

There are some work issues to deal with as well, of course!

The Fort on Maud Island, a concrete structure with a bicycle in the middle and islands in the background.

The Fort on Maud Island, every young (and older) boy’s dream!

What led you to your role in DOC? 

A Bachelor of the Arts in Sociology (relevant much?), followed by several years applying that as a bicycle courier on the mean streets of Auckland before a move into the office. This was followed by a sudden revelation that I didn’t want to do that forever more, provoked by a visit to a DOC friend on Rakiura. Six months later I was back there as a “weedo” exploring all the beauty and splendour of Stewart Island. For a boy from Auckland you can imagine the culture shock! No ecology/zoology/wildlife diplomas or degrees, I snuck in the back door! Since then I have spent a lot of time on islands… and the rest they say, is history.

What was your highlight from the month just gone? 

A dark grey Navy Seasprite helicopter lifts a new electricity generator on to the island beside a lighthouse.

Navy Seasprite lifting a new generator into place, Takapourewa/Stephens Island

Working with the Navy to effect the Takapourewa/Stephens Island resupply, moving six ton of equipment from Picton to Wellington onto the HMNZS Canterbury who then flew it onto Takapourewa with their Seasprite helicopter. The logistics were huge, the weather was atrocious, but at the end of it all everything panned out nicely. Credit to the Navy who hung about and waited for the wind to drop below 50 knots! A great example of interagency cooperation.

The rule of three…

Three loves

  1. Islands—in particular the islands of Aotearoa, but I am fascinated by islands in general as microcosms of biology.
  2. Bicycles, usually old, sometimes in pieces, mostly unrideable. It’s not really a love, more of an addiction and I should maybe seek help.
  3. Music. I don’t understand people who don’t enjoy quality music in some form or other and settle for the pfaff that commercial radio chucks at you. Justin Bieber and Katy Perry, I’m looking at you!

Three pet peeves

  1. Cats, feral and otherwise. Well, actually all introduced mammals.
  2. The Maud Island takahē when they decide that 3.30am is an acceptable time to call out (while on our front lawn or even front deck) to their mate, “I’m overrrrrrr heeeeere!” Who then responds, and they have a duelling banjos kind of stand off for 10 minutes. Life is tough!
  3. The pukeko who see fit to remove plants from our garden on Maud for the apparent fun of it, not to mention the ngaio that were so lovingly planted by volunteers.

Three foods

  1. All spicy food really, I like food you can taste!
  2. Linda’s Asian delights.
    Cheese and quality boutique beer from Marlborough brewers like Moa and Renaissance—beer is a food!

Three favourite places in New Zealand other than Maud Island/Te Hoiere

  1. Dusky Sound. I was lucky enough to live and work there on Anchor Island for a while and believe every New Zealander needs to visit the outer reaches of Fiordand if they can. Milford Sound is nice, Doubtful is pretty cool, BUT Dusky rules them all!
  2. Little Barrier Island, a fine example of primordial New Zealand. I lived there once, I met my wife to be Linda there, and one day we’ll get back.
  3. Te Anau—beautiful little town full of awesome people and stunning views.
Chris Birmingham standing on on a peak at dusk with various islands behind him.

Anchoria, Dusky Sound, with Reso in the background, in the footsteps of Richard Henry, can you smell the serenity?

Favourite movie, album, book

  1. Movie: The Big Lebowski – “the dude does not abide!”
  2. Album: Bailter Space – Robot World, seminal Noo Zilland band. Don’t blame me if you don’t like it though!
  3. Book: Currently I am reading Song of the Dodo by David Quammen, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Deep and meaningful…

What piece of advice would you tell your 18 year old self? 

Self, I would say, go and learn a trade before you do anything else. It will stand you in good stead later in life wherever you are and whatever you do. And don’t draw down all that student loan, you’ll still be paying it off in 20 years!

Who or what inspires you and why?

Good managers, who lead by example, who can get the most out of staff and help them realise their potential. I have always been (mostly) lucky to work under such managers in different organisations. Also Richard Henry, following in his Dusky footsteps (sometimes literally) is something I will remember forever.

When you were a kid, what did you want to be when you grew up? 

Taller! My mother always said I’d grow but I hoped it would happen before I was 17! Thanks Mum.

And now, if you weren’t working at DOC, what would you want to be?

I hate to think what could have become of me. I found my niche when I left Auckland and headed south!

Chris Birmingham on a rugged, rocky coast with three others filming a television show.

Chalky Island, filming Wild Coasts Fiordland with Craig Potton, nice work if you can get it!

What sustainability tip would you like to pass on? 

Leave your car at home if you can, or catch a ride with a friend. Better yet, use public transport or your bike.

Which green behaviour would you like to adopt this year—at home? At work?

We already recycle everything and live off grid! So probably better composting practices at home on Maud involving more Saturday afternoon sheep pellet scooping missions! At work, trying to make the island houses more sustainable and nicer to live in with better insulation, double glazing and more efficient, modern heating.

If you could be any New Zealand native species for a day, what would you be and why?    

Either a kārearea or a kea. The falcon because the idea of flying fast appeals and being at the right end of the food chain would be good! The kea because, well it just looks like fun being a kea doesn’t it? Not to mention being the avian equivalent of a border collie with all that brain power!

What piece of advice or message would you want to give to New Zealanders when it comes to conservation? 

We’re on a big drive to get kiwis to engage in, and value conservation. To me that doesn’t necessarily mean getting out there and running a trap line, pouring your hard earned money into a community project or giving up valuable time to help save a species. It can be as simple as reducing your waste levels, not replacing the family cat (can you tell I don’t like cats?) or planting native trees in your garden for our birds. Even just becoming aware of the plight of our native flora and fauna. Every little bit helps.

5 responses to Jobs at DOC: Maud Island Ranger, Chris Birmingham

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    Great blog Chris, very inspiring! I was lucky enough to spend a week on Maud Island in 2001 and also visited Hauturu some years ago – there is a magic about islands and the best of course is no pests. Keep up that excellent work _ DOC rangers are rare and endangered species. :o)

    Laree Anderson 15/09/2012 at 4:35 am


    Serra Kilduff 14/09/2012 at 4:36 pm

    Great blog Chris 🙂