Freddy the fearless NZ falcon, and an update on the status of native birds in the West Matukituki Valley

There are cautionary things to be learnt from being under a bird – things that can come back to haunt us from childhood:

I was about four years old when hand-in-hand with my mother, like my hand in hers while my other held a flavoured and much savoured ice cream. All was good I recall, until suddenly with a plop, a passing sea gull dropped a deposit on it. I was gutted, but perhaps it was good start to training for life!

Fast forward a few too many decades to when I was recently working 6-7 months a year up the West Matukituki Valley in Mt Aspiring National Park looking after huts, and also monitoring birds and doing some trapping; all in an ice cream free zone.

It was the beginning of a relationship of sorts with four NZ falcon / kāreareas. The two parents had accepted me so it became the norm for them and their fledglings to hang out nearby, notably in the early autumn when there would be some serious training going on that was all about catching mice in the long grass by Aspiring Hut. It became a fascinating privilege to have them around me albeit ignoring me in a sort of aloof way.

A juvenile learning to hunt for mice, using hearing more than sight, but make no mistake they’re very aware of the slightest movement in the grass even when airborne and 30-40 mts away…

NZ falcon / kārearea by a DOC sign


This juvenile failed to find a mouse for lunch so flew up into a nearby tree and made such a racket hoping the nearby parents would supply some food – none was forth coming however…
Juvenile NZ falcon / kārearea


Adult NZ falcon / kārearea with a fresh lunch at Aspiring Hut…
NZ falcon / kārearea with a mouse


Three years on and the family had shifted a little down valley, but I was remembered as I awkwardly squirmed under this alpine shrubbery, and then even more awkwardly got the camera activated and pointed upwards. The bird literally yawned and then got on with dealing with an itchy ear, while I’m less than two meters away!
NZ falcon / kārearea


So that was one thing going on in the West Matukituki Valley near Wanaka, where predator control is on-going after a significant upscaling of same back in 2014 by the Dept. of Conservation [DOC] and the Matukituki Charitable Trust.

In a nut-shell it’s working with an increase of all bird species, to the point that people staying in the valley at Aspiring Hut this summer past of 2017-18 reported that the dawn chorus woke them up too early!

Amongst an impressive line up of New Zealand song birds the melodious bellbird / korimako takes line honours in the “what a lovely day for singing my best tunes” stakes. They are also very clever at being able to mimic other sounds they encounter, even other birds, or noisy plumbing pipes in a lodge…
NZ bellbird / korimako


The flighty tomtit is one of the indicator species that signals that the bird habitat is getting back in balance to their advantage. The other being the rifleman and south island robin / toutouwai. All are increasingly evident in the area…
NZ tomtit


For two years now we’ve delighted in the valley to hear again the haunting calls of the morepork /ruru at night. We’ve seen them with fledglings too, and even hanging about Aspiring Hut catching moths drawn to the light, where they delight with their ability to arrive in a ghost like manner with absolutely no wind noise. Gentle souls! This one I got to know quite well after discovering him with a badly damaged wing. Sadly it’d been fly-blown, and the injury was not survivable despite vet intervention and antibiotics…
Morepork / ruru


And of special note, because they’re such an expensive species to help, is that kea numbers have increased – the valley is indeed still a nursery…
Kea


To get to this happy point required much planning and thousands of hours of work by volunteers and DOC staff.

What gave the birds a real “leg up” in the initial stages was an aerial application of 1080 poison, one that I was actually present for, as in living in the area and monitoring results. Then the installation of hundreds of new traps got fast forwarded by getting a large DOC Community Fund grant to buy them, and when done the bird populations got the most significant boost ever when the valley qualified again [based on gathered data] for another 1080 application in the spring of 2017.

And while we don’t know so much about numbers of predators that have died of poison, we do know that 3958 have been trapped by various trusts and DOC in the seasons 2016-17 and 2017-18 between Wanaka and the West Matukituki operation, as discussed here. The information is very detailed now as well, so hot-spots can be identified [relative to species of predator], and the choice of lure and trap types refined.

Here are some photos of some of the stages:

Finding out which species of predator needed to be knocked back in numbers meant installing tracking tunnels – an awkward task at best, but very necessary…
Tracking Tunnels, Mt Aspiring National Park


When the line is set up then at regular intervals during the year an inked card is placed in each tunnel overnight. What hungry critters are about are attracted to a lump of peanut butter in the centre and after a nibble they leave tracks on departing. By contrast an opossum will simply pull the card out and partially rip it up…Examining tracking tunnel cards for footprints


 

Carrying these slick funnels designed to catch beech tree seeds [so as to be able to predict how much food in advance will be available to predators] was another memorable job, especially in dense bush and up and down steep banks  – not one I’d like to repeat often! The stakes are used to support the funnels, which are fitted with some panty-hose at the bottom…
NZ beech forest seed funnels


DOC staff and volunteers counting beech seeds – a fun evening. Each handful, which were shot down in this instance with a shotgun/large calibre bullet, was host to about 100 seeds…
DOC staff and volunteers counting beech seeds

Traps now totalling almost 800 have been installed from way down the valley by Mt Aspiring Station to above Liverpool and French Ridge [pictured] huts, even in terrain that is snow covered in the winter. At this altitude the at risk species is the amazing rock wren, which hibernates under the snow for the winter…
French Ridge hut


 

Training up fit and competent teams to safely service the traps and tunnels in this typical southern alps terrain was another step along the way…
River Crossing, NZ


Installing a virtual barrier of traps to stop the migration of predators wishing to enter the valley was carried out at Hells Gates just a few Km upstream from Mt Aspiring Station’s homestead it is comprised of about 110 traps offset at 50 mt spacings, across this gap…
Hells Gates Matukituki Valley


Here are a few thoughts on some of the details and relationships that need to be considered and planned for in any “big picture” project like this one:

Of all predators the cat is the hardest one to entice into either a live catch cage, or the likes of a DOC 200 trap, and has to be lured in, often by laying food outside until trust is established over a number of days. Also cats apparently have a range of 20kms. It’s a fickle and time consuming exercise.

Education is critical for cat control, political or not. Education of children is very effective, then they go home and pester the parents, and simultaneously hopefully talk them into back yard trapping and home moggie management.

Meanwhile targeting the rabbits for miles around is known to be effective. Stoats for one will also travel vast distances for a tasty rabbit, and when they get scarce the stoat then targets birds. I imagine the same applies to ferrets and cats. Eliminate rabbits and the problem diminishes.


Dead stoat and eggs used for lures…
Dead stoat and eggs

Mice are another critical species to get under control, and that’s a challenge all over NZ!

Since a rat plague usually follows on from a mouse one, [which follows a prolific seeding of trees, which follows warmer seasons].


It’s been a definite advantage in the valley to have 4wd access, but every now and then after a severe rain event, the road has to be repaired…
DOC 4wd and digger

The opossum numbers have to be quantified also, and appropriate strategies worked out to get their numbers down, and then the quality of the forest habitat soars in favour of the birds.

Baby opossum near Wilson’s Bluff. A little usual to see one like this in broad daylight, but it was sick I think, as it had a damaged eye and was very sluggish…
Baby opossum


Lastly hedgehogs seem to hold a special place in the heart of NZ gardeners, but are known to be as efficient as a stoat at eating eggs and killing fledglings. More education required here too, and despite their tiny legs they’re now found and trapped at relatively high altitudes in our remote high country and even in damp environments such as braided river deltas.

Tools of the trade, a DOC 200 trap and lures used such as rabbit paste. I think the local robin / toutouwai knows the benefits of good gear – actually while trapping it is quite normal to become friends with the locals, and to cement the relationship scuffing up some moss and dirt to reveal grubs is good form….
DOC 200 and baits


South Island robin / toutouwai
South Island robin / toutouwai


Frost in the valley. I’ve included this to illustrate that on the clearing on the right, called Butlers, the south island robin / toutouwai is now regularly seen. About a doz. were translocated to Aspiring Hut [2 hours walk up the valley] about a decade ago. We’ve known for sometime that they’ve been doing well especially of late, but I’m now very pleased that they’ve migrated this far away from the area they were released, which by-the-way is also by the mouth of the Rob Roy Glacier valley/walk, and quite close to the carpark/trailhead. 
Frost


Kaka – apparently 5 of were spotted several months ago at the Aspinall Family’s old Mt Aspiring Station Homestead at the mouth of the east branch of the Matukituki river, [donated to Dunstan High School and converted into a comfortable Lodge]. The observer was my friend Eric who has taught school courses there for many many years, and he said it’s the first time he’s seen more than one there. This good news will be due to what is known as the halo effect, DOC’s efforts, and to trapping by my late friend Sam Mcleod who sadly passed away just a few weeks ago. We’re looking forward to knowing more about what is in this valley quite soon – some trips are planned!
Kaka portrait

Lastly a heads-up about a new project I’m involved with for the Makarora catchment – the Aspiring Biodiversity Trust. I took on the building of the web site >>


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