If you have ever sat inside a grove of forest giants, closed your eyes, and listened, you will appreciate the magical tones of an ecosystem alive with birds. But in a country still plagued with pests those experiences are not as common as they should be.
Many of our native birds need a hand to return to the forest remnants, national parks and reserves they used to call home, because they cannot fly through the open spaces in between. And they cannot cope with the threats posed by predators.
Moving our unique birds is a lot more intricate than it might appear. Among other things, it involves considering the role each species plays in the ecosystems they live, their vulnerabilities, and wider planning for ecological restoration so their new homes are not compromised. It is planned thoroughly – and of critical importance is making sure birds are introduced into sanctuaries protected from mammalian predators.
The next stage is when specialists like Kevin Parker (Parker Conservation) are called in.
Kevin and a trained team recently applied their skills to welcome a flock of 52 long-lost residents, the treasured pōpokotea whitehead, back into Whanganui’s predator-free sanctuary, Bushy Park Tarapuruhi (a partnership between Forest & Bird, Bushy Park Trust, and Ngaa Rauru Kiitahi).
He tells us what’s involved in these extraordinary projects - called translocations - to restore bird species to their natural ecosystems.
Translocations are not trivial
He begins by emphasising that translocations are not a trivial exercise – they are very multi-layered processes with many people involved.
“We need to remember they are a forever project and very serious, especially for the birds concerned,” Kevin explains. “At the heart of it is animal welfare – it drives everything we do.”
“We are conscious that some bird species, and some individuals, become more stressed than others, so it’s critical we remain hypervigilant about all potential stressors, from capture through to release, and post release management – to ensure our birds adapt to their new home.
“Their needs must be put ahead of what people want for a particular site, and if we can’t provide what birds [or other species] need, the translocation won't work.”
Before the team gets to the stage of the actual translocation, all partners involved must agree to the project - and all funding and permits must be approved and in place.
There is a two-step application process that is assessed by the Department of Conservation. This sits alongside consultation with our Te Tiriti partners. The gifting and recipient iwi/hapu talk about what the translocation means for them and how they want to proceed.
“It is critical we respect the many relationships involved so that all values are met.”
Once all the approvals and permits are in place (and everyone agrees) the team get down to the practical details.
Getting down to the essentials
”I have done translocations with teams of two through to teams of almost 30 people,” Kevin says. “The challenges are myriad. It all depends on the sites and the species.
“First, we need to ensure we are moving birds to the best site possible. Second, there are all of the logistical challenges, including weather, site access [especially at difficult and remote sites], a suitable team and having transport on hand to move the birds as quickly and easily as possible.”
It’s a bit like juggling 10 balls in the air at the same time.
Kevin explains that most catchers and handlers in his translocation teams have a permit of some sort from the Department of Conservation.
“Catchers and handlers must be highly skilled, so that high animal welfare standards are maintained throughout,” he explains. “I also need skilled animal husbandry people when birds are being kept for any length of time.”
It’s these catchers, handlers and animal husbandry specialists who form the core of Kevin’s teams. But there are also ‘extras.’ “Nice people, volunteers, who are fit and comfortable in diverse outdoor environments and keen to pitch in with whatever jobs need doing.”
Collecting data to improve success
One of the roles that Kevin takes on himself is gathering accurate measurements from each animal, along with banding them.
“All birds are measured, weighed and banded so we know the age composition and sex ratio,” he says.
“We also assess the health status of every individual we translocate. If a bird has something else going on, we will not translocate them as the extra stress could be harmful.
“Banding animals lets us identify each bird after we release them so we can track their survival, whether they breed and any individual differences in their behaviour.
“Having this ongoing information allows us to continually improve our translocation methods and choose the best possible sites.”
So far at Bushy Park Tarapuruhi, Kevin has translocated hihi stitchbird and pōpokatotea whiteheads to the sanctuary. The reserve has also been gifted tīeke saddleback and toutouwai North Island robins – which flourished so abundantly that Kevin has used them as source populations for translocations to other sites.
It’s allowed Rotokare Scenic Reserve, South Taranaki to receive tīeke and toutouwai and Turitea Reserve, Palmerston North to receive toutouwai. Being able to provide birds to other sanctuaries is a real mark of success for predator-free reserves like Bushy Park Tarapuruhi.
Kevin gets great satisfaction from returning to the reserve (and other sites) sometimes years later and seeing a thriving population.
“Knowing I’ve played a small part in bringing these birds back ‘home’ is immensely rewarding,” he says. “Thankfully, Bushy Park Tarapuruhi is an outstanding release site. I just wish we had more like this, right across the country.”
Sanctuary manager Mandy Brooke couldn’t agree more. Looking out her office window she is charmed by her new residents, with their pale plumage, chirruping melodiously in the forest.