Just before the news of the level 4 lockdown, on a warm Canterbury day in March, Sam Rowland attended a translocation of 15 juvenile orange-fronted parakeets/kākāriki karaka from the Isaac Conservation and Wildlife Trust to their new home in the South Branch of the Hurunui, Lake Sumner Forest Park.
Sam Rowland, Threatened Species Ambassador Team Coordinator
Kākāriki karaka is in the same threat category as the kākāpō and is our rarest mainland forest bird. With only one remaining mainland habitat, it is restricted to the beech forest of upland valleys in Lake Sumner Forest Park and Arthur’s Pass National Park.
This nationally critical bird has had a dramatic past. They were declared extinct twice – once in 1919 and once in 1965, only to be rediscovered in North Canterbury’s Hope Valley in the 1980s. In 1995 they were found in the South Branch of the Hurunui, this population allowed researchers to determine that these birds were a distinct parakeet species, and in fact our rarest. Now, to survive, they need all the help they can get.
The population of kākāriki karaka is estimated to be just 200 to 300 birds. The species is vulnerable to predation from stoats, rats and possums, especially in the years of a beech mast where an abundance of food increases predator numbers. Last year was the biggest beech mast recorded in 40 years, which brought with it a record breeding season. The Tiakina Ngā Manu programme doubled aerial predator control efforts in the South Branch to give these birds a fighting chance.
We work in partnership with Ngāi Tahu leading a recovery programme for kākāriki. This includes extensive predator control and releasing captive-bred birds into the wild. The programme relies heavily on The Isaac Conservation and Wildlife Trust and other facilities like Orana Wildlife Park and Auckland Zoo for breeding and raising the birds, and Christchurch Helicopters for advocacy and flying them to Canterbury release sites.
This was the 12th release in the South Branch of the Hurunui, but the first time for this new site; 2.5 km downstream from previous releases. Unbanded kākāriki had been spotted nearby, so boosting this site with more birds will eventually encourage the population to spread further down the valley. The main goal was to encourage these birds to make their permanent home near the release site.
We transferred the birds into aviaries on site to allow them to adjust to their new environment before being released into the wild. The aviaries were filled with tree branches and ample supplies of food and water. As we opened the crates, the kākāriki flew out as a flash of green, then hid amongst the aviary foliage, their familiar chattering ringing out from above us.
Just two days later, and five days before the level 4 lockdown on the 21st March, a team of rangers released the birds out of the aviaries into the wild.
It’s not survival of the fittest, though. Even in the outside world the birds have a helping hand. There are automated feeding stations and water bowls adjacent to the soft release aviaries to provide kākāriki with supplementary food while they learn to forage. A huge network of predator traps and bait stations are placed at the site as part of DOC’s Tiakina Ngā Manu predator control programme.
With the news of the impending lockdown, rangers worked incredibly hard to get the area ready for the newly released birds. Traps were cleared and automatic self-resetting traps were added. More feeders were installed and put on slow release to ensure that supplementary food would last while they couldn’t get out to replenish supplies. All released birds have small radio transmitters attached to enable them to be tracked.
Tracking before lockdown has shown that the released birds had teamed up with wild parakeets in the area. This is a great sign as the wild birds teach them how to survive; they’ll lead them to suitable roost holes, wild food and afford them the protection of being part of a flock. The released birds have been seen returning to the feeding stations to eat and were even spotted catching insects with yellowhead/mohua.
The release has so far been a success, with the young kākāriki staying near the site and settling into their new home. While monitoring had to be put on hold during lockdown, the transmitters and bands attached to the birds will help rangers find and identify them when they go back to the site.
The orange-fronted kākāriki team together with The Isaac Wildlife and Conservation Trust have released over 150 birds into the South Branch of the Hurunui over the last few years. According to one DOC scientist this species would be extinct by now if it wasn’t for The Isaac Conservation and Wildlife Trust.
Ever-improving release techniques such as the temporary aviaries and feeders mean that we are now confident the recent release of our rarest kākāriki will be a success. Hopefully one day soon we will have the privilege of seeing these charismatic birds in more places around New Zealand.
Now that we have moved into Level 3, the orange-fronted kākāriki team have gone into the site to check on the birds and to release another 18 kākāriki into the area. You can read more about this latest kākāriki release here.