D-G Direct: An update from Lou Sanson

Department of Conservation —  17/05/2016

By Lou Sanson, Director-General

Battle for our Birds

On Saturday 7 May Minister Barry announced $20.7 million funding for Battle for our Birds.

This programme will see us deliver pest control on more than 800,000 hectares of land and, together with the pest control operations delivered by OSPRI, it will give our wildlife a much stronger chance of survival in the face of significant threats from pests.

See the DOC website for more on the Battle for our Birds.

Kea. Photo: Herb Christophers.

Kea. Photo: Herb Christophers

Saving the rare Archey’s frog

On a recent trip to Hamilton, I heard the amazing story of the work our Te Kuiti staff are doing on the conservation of the Archey’s frog, one of our most primitive and ancient species.

Archey’s frog is found only on the Coromandel Peninsula and near Te Kuiti. It has changed little over 200 million years and is essentially a living fossil. Males prepare the nests and the adult frogs communicate through chemical signals.

Since 2002 149 Archey’s frogs have been translocated from Wharerino Forest to other sites and in April, a further 80 frogs were collected from the forest and taken to Auckland Zoo ahead of translocation to Pukeokahu near Taihape. Twenty of these will be kept at the Zoo for captive breeding.

Iwi from the source site, along with iwi from the receiving site and other interested stakeholders will be on-hand for the spring release at Pukeokahu.

Since 1990 these frogs have been in significant decline but thanks to the work of the Te Kuiti staff and Auckland Zoo we have a once in a lifetime chance to turn this species around.

Archey’s frog is a primitive and ancient species. Photo: Amanda Haigh.

Archey’s frog is a primitive and ancient species. Photo: Amanda Haigh

Hakarimata Walkway – ‘the outdoor gym for the Waikato’

Healthy Nature Healthy People has come to life in Ngaruawahia, where we have been working with Tainui and the local community on a new walkway along the Hakarimata Ranges (a culturally significant site for Tainui).

Through developing our partnership with Iwi, Corrections and the community, we have been able to increase usage of the Hakarimata Walkway from 5,000 annual users in 2011 to 138,000 users in 2016.

The 12 kilometre track has become a critical part of the story of ‘Healthy Nature Healthy People’. As our Waikato operations manager Ray Scrimgeour says, it has become the ‘outdoor gym for the Waikato’. It’s also part of the nationwide Te Araroa Trail.

We are working with Waikato-Tainui to develop a smartphone app to tell the story of Kauri dieback as people walk the track. The community now help with track maintenance and 150 hectares of predator control across the range. DOC provides track metal, Corrections bags the metal for us, and walkers carry the bags of metal to where it’s needed on the track – everybody wins!

View from the top of the Hakarimata Summit Track.

View from the top of the Hakarimata Summit Track

Kākāpō Recovery Programme success – Whenua Hou visit

Two weeks ago I was fortunate to take a potential new sponsor to Whenua Hou/Codfish Island, along with Ngāi Tahu and a significant conservation donor. We were there to witness the remarkable success our kākāpō team is having with the 2016 Kākāpō Recovery Programme.

The team worked through a severe El Nino summer with severe winds, rain and mosquitoes, and from 132 eggs successfully hatched 47 chicks, of which 36 survive. Unfortunately three chicks were lost in one overnight storm event on Anchor Island.

This programme has seen four months of intensive management by our staff and volunteers, focused on nest management and chick health. If all the chicks survive, it will take the number of birds from 123 to 159 – a 30% increase in the population. This is the largest number of chicks we have had in the 25-year history of the programme.

Kākāpō chicks at the Invercargill rearing facility.

Kākāpō chicks at the Invercargill rearing facility

Significantly I saw the work of DOC’s specialist engineering unit led by Stu Cockburn and how science and technology is rapidly increasing the success of our conservation efforts. Stu and his team have constructed remote nest ‘snarks’ to monitor the movement of birds in and out of their nests and special feeding hoppers that are specific to certain birds to stop other birds going on a food raiding missions around the island.  New technology transmits information from ’smart transmitters’ via satellite, allowing the team to find out from anywhere in the world which birds mated the night before.

It was also fascinating to hear about the work being done by some of the best scientists in the world from Spain and India on artificial insemination. The recent publicity of our scientific work has raised USD$45,000 in crowdfunded donations to the kākāpō genome project.

Our kākāpō scientist, Andrew Digby, has reached almost half a million people in four weeks with his Twitter account (@takapodigs) and 2.2 million people worldwide engaged with kākāpō-related content during April as our staff battled the elements to save chicks. These communications have contributed to around $100,000 in general donations from around the world.

Our largest donor has been Helmuth and Margit Hennig from Hong Kong who gave a single donation of $25,000 to kākāpō conservation and a further $15,000 to predator free work in the Rimutakas.

I was also able to visit the new facility built by workers from the Department of Corrections for rearing chicks in Invercargill and saw a large group of people being welcomed by DOC to see some of the most amazing chicks in the world.

One challenge the kākāpō team briefed me on is the success of this whole programme, we really now need to accelerate other predator free areas as our current kākāpō islands come close to carrying capacity.

Kākāpō scientist Dr Andrew Digby and Kākāpō Recovery Programme manager Deidre Vercoe on Whenua Hou.

Kākāpō scientist Dr Andrew Digby and Kākāpō Recovery Programme manager Deidre Vercoe on Whenua Hou

Controlling the spread of wilding pines

Peter Willemse, Senior Ranger, Twizel

Peter Willemse is based at our Twizel office and over the last decade has devoted a large part of his time to clearing wilding pines from our iconic Mackenzie Basin landscapes. He has 202,000 hectares of public conservation land under sustained control and by June 2016, 120,000 hectares will be a zero population maintenance control.

Peter Willemse, Senior Ranger in Twizel.

Peter Willemse, Senior Ranger in Twizel

Peter has been active in leading new technology to combat this significant problem for New Zealand. He has helped pioneer new herbicide applications, helicopter control and use of volunteers. Of real note has been his ability to lead a coalition of DOC, Environment Canterbury and local farmers to integrate use of all our resources against the spread of wildings. His next challenge is to complete wilding pines control in the conservation estate in Mackenzie Basin before he retires.

With warmer winters, pines are having an increasing advantage in these landscapes with significant young pines emerging through the Ben Ohau mountain ranges all the way to Aoraki/Mt Cook National Park.

Grahame Sydney.

Grahame Sydney

Grahame Sydney, artist, Otago

Over ANZAC weekend I visited St Bathans to meet with the artist Grahame Sydney, who has made many of our Central Otago landscapes famous through his wonderful landscape paintings.

Grahame is one of the people who’s championed the cause of getting wilding pines under control in Otago. The Central Otago Wilding Conifers Control Group was granted $150,000 from the DOC Community Fund late last year to help control the spread of wildings from Naseby Forest.

Grahame showed me some of his work with the newly formed Group and their initial focus on the Naseby area but also emerging wilding conifer issues near Alexandra and the Dunstan Ranges.

Through this work, Otago Regional Council is now moving to increase its priority focus on this problem, and with early attention this iconic landscape – the home of our Otago Rail Trail – can be saved from ‘going green’.

One single tree's wildings at St Bathans—ten years apart.

One single tree’s wildings at St Bathans—ten years apart

Canterbury’s braided rivers

In Geraldine I met with staff who have established a new predator control programme along the upper Rangitata River to protect black-fronted terns and wrybills (famous for their curved bills).

There are only 5,000 wrybills left in the world and 40% of all birds live in the Rangitata and Rakaia Rivers. The Geraldine team have set 1,700 kill traps and 700 leghold traps along the river, supported by Arawai Kakariki (DOC), LINZ, ECAN and Rangitata Landcare Group. The wrybill chicks are “like little bumblebees” and “absolutely beautiful” according to biodiversity ranger Brad Edwards.

In previous seasons 80% of all black-fronted tern nests were lost to predation but this season our staff have achieved a remarkable turnaround with no predation observed. Like the wrybills there are only 5,000-6,000 of this species left.

Our staff have been significantly helped by the cooperation from adjoining landowners, supporting the project with access rights as required.

Black fronted terns approach our remote predator cam on Pukaiki River.

Black fronted terns approach our remote predator cam on Pukaiki River

Black stilts – on the edge

Black stilts/kaki are incredibly fragile and beautiful birds. Today’s wild population of 77 makes the black stilt rarer than the kākāpō – in 1985 the population got down to just 23.

Our Twizel-based aviculturist Liz Brown took me out to the black stilt rearing unit which tragically suffered significant snow damage in June 2015.

Liz has been at Twizel for seven years and has hand-reared close to 1,000 of these critically endangered birds. The Kaki Recovery Team works closely with the Isaac Conservation and Wildlife Trust in Christchurch to raise 100-150 chicks a year for release. Without these releases, black stilts would be extinct within seven years.

Lisa Brown in front of the black stilt rearing unit.

Liz Brown in front of the black stilt rearing unit

With an average of 28% recruitment and 20-25% adult mortality, the Kaki Recovery Team face a difficult battle to prevent extinction of this unique species.

Black stilts are predated by stoats, cats, rats, hedgehogs, along with falcons and harrier hawks along the Mackenzie Basin braided rivers.

Project River Recovery, supported by our partners Meridian Energy and Genesis Energy, has funded much of the habitat restoration where our black stilts live and breed.

Unfortunately the snows of 2015 did over $600,000 damage to our aviaries and we can now only produce about 80 chicks a year until the aviaries are replaced.  Unless we are releasing over 100 birds per year, the population will fall into decline.

Kakī/black stilk. Photo: Sabine Bernert.

Kakī/black stilk. Photo: Sabine Bernert

Hollyford Conservation Trust, Fiordland – success in predator control

In midwinter 2014, Minister Nick Smith and DD-G Partnerships Kay Booth attended a remarkable small ceremony on the beach at Martins Bay, Fiordland, to give $250,000 from the DOC Community Fund to the Hollyford Conservation Trust.

Significantly it was the last time one of our key Fiordland conservation advocates, Dave Comer, was present before he died from cancer. His partner Peta Carey played a critical role in establishing the Trust and continues to do so with the Trust’s chair Ron Anderson.

This area sits within one of our major Battle for our Birds aerial 1080 sites and includes all the private land in the lower Hollyford Valley.

Lower Hollyford Valley Restoration Programme—stoat traps.

Lower Hollyford Valley Restoration Programme—stoat traps

Over the last 19 months the Trust has established 2,300 bait stations and 280 stoat traps across the entire lower Hollyford in one of our most remote community predator management programmes in New Zealand.

Already they are seeing a dramatic response to predator which is bringing birds back into lowland podocarp forest. The real success here though has been how the Trust has brought together all the private landowners to kill pests.

2 responses to D-G Direct: An update from Lou Sanson

    Paki Nikora 21/05/2016 at 9:55 am

    Awesone initiatives Lou – Regards Paki Nikora NWR

    Mirjana Polimac 18/05/2016 at 1:43 pm

    Great job. Best wishes in further success from one Croatian Forester who is recently arrived in New Zealand and felt in love with breathtaking beauty of your country.