Instrumental in removing cats from Te-Hauturu-o-Toi/Little Barrier Island, Dick Veitch returns, with 22 others from the 1970s eradication team, to delight in an island transformed. Here’s his story….
I was off the boat, through the quarantine shed and heading to grab the bunk of my choice when it hit me—the continuous bird song almost blasting across the flat. Incredible!
The others caught up, the kettle boiled, and we settled down for the official welcome from the island ranger. But he soon had to play second fiddle to a kokako happily drinking from the spouting. Incredible again!
The next day I almost tripped over a robin hopping from the quarantine shed across the track looking for food—just like the blackbirds and thrushes hopping over the lawn back at home. Incredible times three!
I returned to Te Hauturu-o-Toi, or Little Barrier Island in two shifts, with 22 of the 139 people who helped get rid of cats on the island in the late 1970s. Back then the forest was quiet. A visiting photographer at the time demanded “The forest is silent. Where are all the birds?” My response was “It’s mid-afternoon. What do you expect?”
The bird song is now continuous—mostly bellbirds, some kokako and saddleback, and the occasional tui. Birds sing day and night. I’ve been back to Little Barrier occasionally since it became cat free and seen the changes slowly building the magic of the place (not that we didn’t think it was magical before!). But what must be going through the heads of those who were with me who hadn’t been back to the island in more than 30 years!
The last cat was removed in 1980. We patted ourselves on the back and put saddlebacks back onto the island—cats had wiped them out in the 1880s. With cats gone we expected some seabirds to return, but knew the next pest down the line, the rats, would slow any bird recovery.
In 1980 no one had any idea it would be possible to eradicate rats from such a rugged 3,000 hectare island. But in the 1990s, when rat eradications from small islands were becoming standard, talk started up about getting rid of the rats from Little Barrier. And what do you know, the island was declared rat free in 2004!
This was the real game changer. Cats eat rats and birds, true. But rats eat birds as well as insects, eggs, plants and seeds. With no cats and no rats, plants and birds are flourishing on Hauturu. This was expected, but the amazing thing is that some bird numbers have almost doubled, and plants we have only ever seen flowering are laden with fruit.
It will take time for lizard and seabird numbers to increase. Forest birds can have several nesting attempts each summer, but seabirds are generally limited to one egg a year, and lizards to two or three eggs or young, sometimes only every second year. But there have already been some amazing successes.
The most amazing find is the NZ storm petrel. Once thought extinct, sightings at sea off north-east NZ began in January 2003. Now a diligent team of seabird enthusiasts have found the bird breeding on Little Barrier. Just how this tiny bird survived the rats and cats remains a mystery.
With the exception of the extinct Little Barrier snipe, all the birds decimated by the cats and rats are now back in abundance or still increasing. The banded rail, last seen in the 1940s, has been seen with chicks on the island, and a crake species, not previously seen, has also been sighted – just not well enough to see whether it’s a spotless crake or marsh crake.
There is surely more change to come but it is hard to imagine that it will be any more wonderful that it is now.
Thanks to DOC staff in Warkworth and on the island for their help in organizing our trip.
Dick Veitch is an expert in eradicating pests from islands. He worked for the Wildlife Service and DOC for about 40 years.