Trampers around the country are heading off-track to help save native birds from the brink of extinction. George Driver discovers the tales of the trapline trampers.
Rugged peaks, beech forest, glacial valleys – the features of Matukituki Valley in Mt Aspiring National Park kept drawing Gillian Crombie and her family back for decades. But on a trip with her husband in 2012, she noticed one of the valley’s most iconic features was gone – not a mountain or glacier, but a bird.
“We went up to French Ridge Hut and we would always see kea there – a few would always come and try and steal your socks. But we didn’t see any at all.”
Concerned, Crombie went straight to the Wanaka DOC office.
“We said ‘what’s happening and what can we do?’.”
Three months later, the Crombies set up the Matukituki Charitable Trust and got funding to start a trapping campaign. The trust now has a network of 750 traps throughout the valley. A core of 20 volunteers walk traplines from the precipitous Shotover Saddle, through to the well-trodden Rob Roy Track and beyond to the valley head. They have now killed more than 1500 pests and Crombie says the morning chorus is back.
“We’ve had people complain to DOC that the birds are too noisy in the morning at Aspiring Hut,” Crombie says. “That’s a big success.
“South Island robins are spread right through the valley now. It’s hard to go anywhere and not have them come up to you. We also get reports of about a dozen kea around French Ridge and Liverpool huts.”
Rock wren and kakariki have also rebounded and kaka, kereru and even native bats have been seen more regularly.
It’s a scene that’s repeated around the country: trampers heading off track, a stack of DOC 200 traps strapped to their backs in a bid to bring back the birds.
In Pureora, tramping clubs have helped bring one of the most revered sounds of the bush back from the brink of extinction. North Island kokako were once renowned for their sonorous song, but it’s a call few trampers have heard. Twenty years ago there were just 330 pairs left, but that has rebounded to 1595 pairs and birds are re-establishing in areas which have been silent for decades. In the thick forest of Pureora Forest Park, four Auckland tramping clubs have played a vital role in helping the call of the kokako to return.
It first started 21 years ago, when the Howick Tramping Club stayed at Rangitoto Station near Pureora Forest – one of the last strongholds of the bird.
“A trust had purchased the station and they were trying to save the last kokako,” club member Colleen Grayling recalls. “A remnant population had only survived there due to previous aerial 1080 applications to prevent TB spreading from possums to cattle on the surrounding farms.”
The club offered to volunteer in the kokako recovery work and soon got a grant to manage the project. Every year since, club members have set up and monitored a network of bait stations in the 1000ha Mangatutu Ecological Area in order to all-but eradicate rats prior to the kokako breeding season. Working with the Native Forest Restoration Trust, the club has also helped expand the network to 1680 bait stations across 1600ha. Pukekohe Tramping Club and the Toitoi Trekkers have also become involved, volunteering to walk the baitlines through the rugged terrain.
The results have been resounding. Kokako numbers in Mangatutu have gone from just seven pairs in 1995, to 185 in 2016, when the last bird count was conducted.
Auckland Tramping Club got involved eight years ago after club member Liz Ware and her husband volunteered to help transfer kokako to the Waitakere Ranges. Ware rustled up some volunteers from the club and they started a predator control project in a 660ha block of bush adjacent to the area the Howick club controlled, as their kokako began to spread. The number of kokako in this area has since doubled, from 13 pairs in 2011, to 26 in 2016. “When we first went down we didn’t see or hear kokako at all. Now we always hear them, and often see them,” Ware says. “Their song is absolutely magical. It echoes across the bush and when you hear it, it stops you in your tracks. It’s so melodious.”
Ware says the project isn’t just benefiting kokako – other natives have also been making a comeback.
“We never used to see or hear robins. Now they are on every track. It’s amazing.”
Kokako from these areas have been translocated to Pukaka/Mt Bruce, Ark in the Park in the Waitakere Ranges, the Hunua Ranges and Maungatautari, while North Island robins have also been translocated to sanctuaries around the North Island.
Further south, the Masterton Tramping Club has started an ambitious project to reintroduce North Island robin to one of the most popular tramping spots in the Tararua Ranges.
Project co-founder and tramping club member Nigel Boniface was inspired to start the project seven years ago.
“I was coming back from a tramp and walking through Donnelly Flat, near Holdsworth Lodge, when I saw a family of tui,” Boniface says. “There was mum and dad tui showing the young ones how to fly, and they were chasing one another around the trees. I must have watched them for five minutes and thought ‘you don’t see enough of that around here’.”
Working with DOC, Boniface got a group of volunteers together – about half from the Masterton Tramping Club – and started trapping 60ha. But although monitoring showed the traps were having an impact on rat numbers, the birds were slow to return, and a lack of regular bird monitoring made it difficult to see progress.
“We still don’t see a heck of a lot of birds, but it’s hard to say why.”
So the group decided to set a new goal – to reintroduce North Island robin. But when DOC told the club that required trapping 1000ha, Boniface says it seemed an almost unachievable goal.
“We thought ‘how on earth are we going to do that?’”
A little while later, serendipity called.
“DOC came and said ‘we’ve got a surprise. Someone from Australia has left $100,000 in their will to be spent on biodiversity in the Holdsworth area and we want to help your project’.”
The group put out a call for more volunteers and purchased 421 Good Nature self-resetting traps to be used on off-track routes throughout Donnelly Flat. The last trap was installed in June, but there is still a way to go yet – they estimate they will need a further 600 traps to meet their target. The group is now forming a trust – the Holdsworth Restoration Trust – in order to raise $120,000 to complete the job.
“It might be another five or six years before we can establish a population of robins, but we’ve got so much momentum now,” Boniface says.
Meanwhile, in the South Island, Rangiora Tramping Club has been helping save one of the rarest birds in the country. For the past five years, the club has been trapping the Waimakariri Valley, near Arthur’s Pass, in a bid to protect the critically endangered orange-fronted parakeet. The fate of the bird is still in the balance – there are only about 100 left, all of which are in a 30km radius of Canterbury beech forest.
Club member and organiser Geoff Swailes said the project started after a local DOC ranger asked if the club could help save the species.
“I said you tell me what you need and we’ll do it,” Swailes says.
Ever since, about 18 club members have been regularly monitoring about 300 traps on Woolshed Hill, Mt Binser and alongside the Waimakariri River.
“Everybody enjoys it,” Swailes says. “We want to see the predators down and we want to see more birds. It’s about tramping with a purpose.”
Swailes says the best part is the camaraderie of a day out with the club, and spending more time in the backcountry.
“It’s a jolly good day out. The scenery down the Waimakariri River Valley is fantastic – it’s always a privilege to be there.”
But it’s hard yacker, following traplines through swamps and rough terrain – no small feat for the 78-year-old.
“You have to be fit, so we have to be selective with who comes along. I admit I try to get the easier lines now.”
Despite the effort, Swailes says it can be difficult to see tangible achievement for the work. DOC says the nearby Hawdon Valley is the easiest location to see the parakeet, but he has never seen one.
“But they won’t be here tomorrow if they are not protected.”
Being a trapping tramper doesn’t mean spending hours driving to a far-off reserve. The Otago Tramping and Mountaineering Club has started trapping a hill on the edge of Dunedin in a bid to help native birds spread their wings beyond the bounds of the Orokonui Ecosanctuary. The club has 50 traps on a 400ha bush block beside the sanctuary as part of the Halo Project, which aims to trap a 4000ha buffer around Orokonui. It has already caught 11 stoats in seven months, making it the busiest site in the project zone.
Halo volunteer coordinator Matt Thomson says having volunteers who are experienced in travelling through the dense bush is vital to the survival of the sanctuary’s birds.
“People nearby have reported having four or five kaka in their garden,” Thomson says. “But we know up to 90 per cent of kaka nests fail without predator control, so we need to be on top of where they are spreading.”
So for trampers thinking about starting a trapping project of their own, how can they go about it?
Predator Free New Zealand general manager Jessi Morgan says the best way is to contact existing trapping groups, who will already have a funding structure and have gone through teething problems. A map showing trapping projects throughout the country is available on the PFNZ website (predatorfreenz.org).
“It’s so important to break down silos between community groups so everyone is sharing information and tips and you can coordinate towards a bigger goal,” Morgan says. “They’ll also likely have funding and processes already set up, which will save a lot of time and be more efficient.”
The Matukituki Charitable Trust is planning to coordinate with trapping groups from Queenstown to Makarora to identify gaps in the trapping network and share tips.
But for clubs that want to start and run their own project, Morgan says having a clear goal is important – as the Masterton Tramping Club discovered in the Tararuas.
“A goal keeps volunteers focused, and having a clear idea of why you are doing it is also important for funding.”
The Queenstown Climbing Club has been trapping a popular crag in Wye Creek for six years and club conservation officer Philip Green recommends doing monitoring work before starting a trapping project, so you are able to track progress.
“Whether that’s using tracking tunnels, chew cards or bird counters, it’s a really good idea because you don’t get a chance to find that baseline once you’ve started,” Green says.
One of the best ways to keep volunteers motivated is to make it fun. All of the clubs Wilderness spoke to said camaraderie was one of the main reasons they continued to volunteer.
“The main thing is to build a good group dynamic so everybody enjoys working together,” Liz Ware says.
Crombie says food can also play a vital role.
“When we do overnight trapping trips, we make sure we take good food and drink. It makes it something they look forward to and it doesn’t take much extra effort.”
Morgan says even solo trampers can make a difference.
“I’ve got a friend who takes a rat trap on tramps and sets it up wherever he stays,” Morgan says.
It also helps if you’re trapping in a spectacular location – whether that’s the Matukituki Valley, Pureora Forest or the Tararuas.