Just on daybreak, the Manawahe bush is filled with a chorus of pure, spine tingling notes.
“That sound,” says Murray Hays, President of the Manawahe Kokako Trust, “is what gets me out of my warm bed at half past five on a cold Saturday morning.”
Murray, a Whakatane dentist, first heard a recording of a kokako song in 1997. Then president of the Whakatane Rotary Club, he was contacted by Jeff Hudson, a Department of Conservation field worker. A small declining population of kokako at Manawahe needed saving before it was lost. DOC couldn’t officially help because the birds were on private land. Would the Rotary Club be interested in taking them on as a project?
They were keen, and pledged willing workers and funds to get started. Jeff offered to oversee the project as advisor drawing on his experience with the recovery of kokako in Te Urewera National Park and in a few weeks, the Manawahe Kokako Trust was born.
The Trust’s brief was simple: protect the kokako from introduced predators and allow them to breed unmolested. To do this they had to carry out an intensive programme every spring to eradicate the abundant possums and rats that were hastening the bird’s demise. The control area, home to fourteen kokako, covered about three hundred hectares of regrowth native bush on the south side of the Manawahe hills in the Eastern Bay of Plenty.
Up to forty volunteers gave up their days off to slash tracks through the bush and nail bait stations to trees. From August to December a mixed bag of business people, professionals and farmers put on their tramping boots and lugged backpacks full of poison over the bush clad ridges.
It was satisfying work.
“Dead possums littered the tracks in those early days,” says Murray. And occasionally, volunteers were treated to kokako singing their gratitude.
But killing the possums proved a double-edged sword. The bush recovered quickly after years of uninterrupted grazing and the carefully cleared tracks disappeared under a profusion of new growth. There was going to be no shortage of work for the keen volunteers.
After five years the kokako population had shot up to 32. They were breeding like rabbits in the safer environment, and the Trust’s success didn’t go unnoticed. They won an environmental award and, shaking off their humility, invited the public to come and hear their results at open days. The BOP Regional Council offered to fully fund the Trust and end the annual scramble for money. The decision to accept came only after long hours of discussion.
“Members were afraid the Trust would lose its independence,” says Murray. “Being on private land, we didn’t have to answer to anyone but the landowners and they were fully involved. Now there was this bureaucratic organisation wanting to control us.”
The change brought an increase in responsibilities: counting predators as well as birds, and reporting, reporting, reporting. It serves its purpose though and after nineteen years the Trust is as strong as ever. Many of the core group of workers are still there, although the years are beginning to tell. Creaky knees and dodgy hearts hamper some volunteers but they won’t give up. They have invested blood, sweat and a few tears up on those ridges for the kokako.
There are now over 300 bait stations and 60 stoat traps to be serviced and, surprisingly, no shortage of volunteers to carry out the work. The Trust’s volunteer co-ordinator, Ken Laurent says, “There’s no obligation to come to working bees. They’re busy people but they keep turning up.”
Volunteers will have to turn up for a few years yet. Despite their dedication and hard work, the current kokako population sits at about 30. While a significant overall increase, the number has been declining for some years. To find out why it was happening in what appeared to be a favourable habitat, the Trust embarked on a new project in 2015.
Substantial funding was secured from the Lotteries Grant Board for a three year investigation involving scientists, researchers and DOC field workers with Manawahe Kokako Trust volunteers collecting the data. After all the years they had been going up to Manawahe, the volunteers still didn’t know much about the birds. They had been too busy killing pests and it was enough to just hear them and get an occasional glimpse, they didn’t need to be kokako experts as well. All that changed, though in the next three years.
The plan was to gauge breeding success as an indication of the bird’s health. It meant finding nests, watching nest activity and taking samples from chicks. None of it was as easy as it sounded and it took probably two years of training and practice before they got it right. They were guided by Ian Flux, the world authority on kokako and Gaye Payze who was contracted to carry out bird surveys, find the nests and oversee the programme.
The volunteers threw themselves into the project with enthusiasm and gained a bunch of new skills and knowledge along the way. The results, when they finally came were devastating. Abandoned nests and infertile eggs were a recurring theme and they still had more questions than answers. There were plenty of theories.
Gaye said, “It could be a genetic bottleneck or the block may have a low carrying capacity due to browsing by wallabies and deer. They tend to like the same trees the kokako like.”
Whatever is causing the problem, now is not the time to give up. It will mean more time in the bush for this passionate group of people, but they know that if it wasn’t for them, the Manawahe hills would be silent. They don’t plan to walk away while there is still work to do.
Ken will continue to rally the troops for working bees and Murray will cook the sausages at the barbeques afterwards. They will keep giving up their Saturdays for a song no one wants to lose until the future of the Manawahe kokako is safe.