A booming sound reverberates around the rainforest clad hills and out over the ocean. It’s the mating call of a male Kākāpō, a flightless nocturnal parrot who has inflated his chest to make the resonant sound. The hill tops of Anchor Island are crisscrossed with pathways and neatly groomed hollows called Lekking bowls, acting as natural amphitheatres for the males to broadcast their boom. This is one of four islands on which the Kākāpō run wild, having been driven to extinction on the mainland.
Kākāpōs were once widespread across mainland New Zealand. They have evolved to effectively evade predators native to New Zealand – mostly birds of prey, including the extinct Haast eagle. When standing still they are hard to distinguish from the vibrant green understory and they feed under the cover of darkness. The mainland population was almost entirely wiped out by the late 20th Century due to humans and the predators they brought with them – especially rats and stoats which predate the nests. When the Kākāpō Recovery Programme started in 1995 there were a total of 51 birds remaining. Kākāpōs can live to over 100 years old and despite only breeding every few years, there are 210 birds at the time of writing thanks to intense conservation efforts.
I was lucky to be a Kākāpō Recovery Programme volunteer on Anchor Island during the 2015/16 breeding season. The rainforested island is nestled between islands and peninsulas in Dusky Sound, Fiordland. At the time the oldest chick on the island, named Dusky, was 70 days old. We were a team of 10 volunteers and rangers, ensuring the survival of as many chicks as possible. My job was to top up the feed stations dotted across the island, to supplement the mums’ natural diet of Rimu fruit. Some of the feed stations had scales built in to record the weight of feeding mothers using the radio trackers on their backs. In this way the parrot food, macadamia nut and linseed oil mix could be tailored for the nutritional needs of each bird. Every day I would walk a different track over the island, through the daily downpours and vibrant rainforest, being treated to exceptional landscapes and seascapes.
As well as the mothers we weighed the chicks, this time at night when the mums were off the nest feeding. Again, with the help of radio trackers and sensors around the nest we knew when the mums were away from the nest. Since the population has such a narrow gene pool, some birds will lay a clutch of infertile eggs, whereas some may lay 4 fertile eggs. To make sure as many birds as possible make it to adulthood, the fertile eggs are distributed between the nests so that each Mum rears 1 or 2 chicks. The descendants of Richard Henry, a mainland bird with invaluable genetic variety, are particularly valuable to the long- term success of the population and often have a mother to themselves.
The time on Anchor Island was shared with some wonderful people. Everyone contributed an individual energy that made the fortnight on the island a magical experience. Tim(Tam) aka NightHawk, a Scot who had been a Kakapo ranger for years, celebrated his birthday on the island with a Ceilidh. For the occasion one of the other rangers Jo, with an impressive baking repertoire, baked a cake topped with Rimu fruit and Brett (also a baker), provided homebrew. For me the time on the island was partly defined by the excellent food. Theo brought with him venison he hunted on the mainland, and caught Paua and butterfish whilst freediving in the harbour. The last two rangers were Liam and Rachel, two Australian acroyogis. They kindly took me under their wing once we left the island for a hike up Gertrude Saddle and Little Barrier knob, and Rachel introduced me to the wonders of CoYo. Lucie was our resident chef, aided by sous-chef Eskil the Elk, and Conservationists Lizzie and Ben completed our fellowship.
There are no permanent residents other than the wildlife, however there is a constant presence of rangers during the breeding seasons, supplemented by volunteers. When we weren’t doing our various jobs, we baked, had movie nights and went freediving in the harbour. We were joined by dolphin researchers - two Daves and Chloe - who took us out in their boat as they carried out a census of the bottle-nose population of Dusky Sound. Each breaching dolphin was photographed and later identified by their dorsal fins.
I was there for the Kakapo, but all of the birdlife was a breathtaking insight into what NZ would have been like before the introduction of predators. In my travel journal I describe an experience on one of my first days: “I look up and realise I’m being vocally accosted by a flock of Mohua [yellowheads]. Meanwhile bellbirds were chiming melodiously overhead. Then the pīwakawaka [fantails] joined in, darting in front of my face, whilst the robins flanked and circled me. Then came a pair of tīeke [saddlebacks]. One had a definitive saddle and wattles, one not so distinct. And then in the background I spied a yellow-crowned parakeet!” it truly was a feast for all the senses.
The two weeks flew by and before I knew it we were whisked off the island by helicopter, buffeting around in stormy weather. The Kakapo population continues grow, with another successful breeding season in 2019. One day perhaps, if NZ achieves its predator-free ambitions, they will roam the forests of the mainland once more.
I am hugely grateful to DOC, Kakapo Recovery Programme and everyone else who made it such an unforgettable experience. And a big shout out to Jane, Kuia, Konini, Stella, Wai, Blake, Manu, Hauturu, Hine Moa, Hine Taumai, Araki, Evohe, Roha, Ngatapa, Ra, Robbie, Toititi, Tiwhiri, Jem, Jemma, Morama, Yasmine, Basil, Trevor, and any others I’ve forgotten.