Jeff Neems benefits from the work of many committed volunteers when native birds arrive to enjoy the trees on his urban property.
It happens every summer, sometimes several times a day.
There we are – scrolling our phones, watching TV or listening to music – when a tūī arrives in our front yard, and can be seen through our large window. It’s there to check if our big unkempt flax has come into flower.
Tūī are one of our country’s most famous songbirds. Since moving to the tree-lined established heritage suburb of Hamilton East more than 16 years ago, we’ve seen more and more tūī floating into our yard.
They’re in my yard to feed on the nectar found in the pinky-red flowers of the giant, and somewhat unkempt, harakeke/flax in one of the concrete-edged gardens.
I get all excited and whimsical and try to take a photograph of said tūī while it sups from the flowers. I stumble around for my phone, frantically push icons on the screen… and then just as I am ready to get my picture, the bird is disturbed, gives me an angry look and flies off.
There have been times when two or even three tūī have landed in my yard, and it is an absolute joy to watch. I feel very fortunate they choose our flax. Not much action so far this year, as our flax doesn’t have any flowers yet. But I’m hopeful of seeing some pinky-red flowers and hungry birds in coming weeks.
Ultimately, I’m benefitting from the work of many others when I see tūī in my yard or around my neighbourhood. I’m seeing the result of countless hours of planning and effort by the various organisations and people who’ve contributed to the Hamilton Halo Project, a long-term conservation kaupapa, which sees plenty of volunteers doing predator control and restoration planting in Hamilton, Cambridge and surrounding areas.
The Hamilton Halo Project and work of volunteers reflects this year’s Conservation Week theme –take a moment to act for nature. Volunteering embodies this, to improve and support our natural environment.
Katherine Hay – a long-time conservationist and environmental campaigner – is a member of community group Tūī 2000 (among others), and she’s one of the many people involved in the Hamilton Halo Project.
The tūī like her kōwhai trees and sugar water feeders, and she says there are four birds who seem to reside on her Hamilton East property, a couple of blocks from my place. She’s had up to 10 hanging around at one point.
“There’s one bigger, fatter one who’s probably a dad, based on his size!” she laughs.
“He puffs himself up and tells the world how wonderful he is.”
Tūī 2000 is a fitting moniker for the volunteer group that formed in 1989 and has continually advocated for, and been involved in, various biodiversity and conservation projects in and around Hamilton. As well as boots on the ground and spades in the soil, Tūī 2000 has lobbied for nature, funded projects, taught communities, school children and groups why conservation and biodiversity are important and how people can help.
“Any environmental project is wonderful,” Katherine says. “It gives people a place to go out and experience nature.”
Tūī 2000 clicked into a higher gear in the early 2000s, as momentum grew around the vision of bringing tūī back into Hamilton and Cambridge urban environments. The Hamilton Halo Project was formalised in 2007, with Waikato Regional Council (WRC) taking a lead role, working alongside partners Hamilton City Council and Ngaāti Haua. DOC, Manaaki Whenua Landcare Research, Tūī 2000 and Weedbusters are key supporters, aided by the efforts of other community groups and individuals in and around Hamilton and Cambridge.
Hamilton Halo Project stakeholders and experts believed the intensive control of rats in a 20km radius around the city – with a focus on five known tūī breeding areas – would support population growth for the birds. Tūī 2000 put much of its energy into a community rat control project to protect tūī at Sanitorium Hill, a few minutes from Cambridge.
Katherine says the aims of the Hamilton Halo Project “fitted in with what I believed should be happening around the city. I like being able to look out my window and see native birds sharing my space.”
Predator control, combined with planting of native species, encouraged the birds to re-enter Hamilton’s trees and gullies, “and within a year or two, we had tūī back in the city,” she says.
The Hamilton Halo Project demonstrates what sustained predator control and community and agency partnership can deliver for conservation in the urban environment.
Andrew Thomas, a Biodiversity Officer for Waikato Regional Council, has responsibility for the Hamilton Halo Project, overseeing predator control work at the five tūī breeding sites. The control operations are generally done on a “three years on, two years off” basis.
“A lot of our Hamilton Halo Project pest control operations are underway now, or just completed,” Andrew says. “Ed Hillary Hope Reserve, on the way to Raglan, has been particularly successful – the rats have been knocked back to very low numbers.
“It sets the birds up for a good breeding season.”
While WRC leads on contracted predator control across the five Halo sites, Andrew says the effort of groups such as Tūī 2000 and volunteers like Katherine (who has planted several kōwhai on her property) in urban areas is crucial.
“Community groups and residents are enhancing the urban environment, which welcomes the birds. The tūī would not be moving into a safe environment in the city without the food sources and predator control undertaken by volunteer groups made up of committed residents.
“Volunteers are absolutely critical to the Hamilton Halo Project,” he says.
“You bring the biodiversity back into people’s lives. When we connect with biodiversity, we value it. The volunteers become the kaitiaki or caretakers of places that are important and relevant to them, rather than places they may not have a connection to.”
Andrew says although it’s difficult to separate out Hamilton Halo Project outcomes from broader conservation projects and efforts around Hamilton and Cambridge, there is clearly a correlation.
“What the science has told us since the Hamilton Halo Project began is that tūī numbers have increased 20-fold,” Andrew says.
By any measure that’s a conservation success.
“You can’t go anywhere in Hamilton now without seeing or hearing tūī – and ultimately that’s the outcome everyone involved over the years should be proud of,” he says.
“We all have a part to play in protecting biodiversity. If we have learnt anything from this project, it has been that success like this can only be achieved through the collective efforts of many people working towards a common vision.”
Katherine Hay and the many people who’ve contributed to Tūī 2000 and the Hamilton Halo Project share a common vision, and when next time I see a tūīi out my window, feasting on the flowers of my unkempt flax, I’ll be hugely grateful to them for having such foresight and commitment.
We’re set to crack into our seasonal planting at our place in coming weeks, and my commitment to nature is to get a few more native plants in. I hope seeing more tui in years to come will be my reward for that.
Jeff Neems is our Communications and Media Advisor based in Hamilton. For more information on the Hamilton Halo Project over on waikatoregion.govt.nz