New Zealand

Green Needles in a Tall Green Haystack!

Monitoring New Zealand’s rarest mainland parakeet

“Jitter – Jitter – jitter-jittery-jeek!!” Just as I craned my neck up, focused my binoculars on the green blob, 20-30m up high up in the beech forest canopy, it zipped away, disappearing into the green Unknown. Grasping onto my gear, I bolted off, tearing through the undergrowth with the grace of a young fawn, leaping over small streams, being whipped in the face by sapling beech trees and – stop – listen – I scanned the canopy for movement. Three days of  walking and searching, for two seconds of an unconfirmed sighting!? But wait, what’s that coming from further up the slope? “Jittery jittery jeek!!!” Ah ha, you are still around… what are you hiding? This was the drill during a season of monitoring New Zealand’s Lost Cousin: The Orange-Fronted Parakeet.

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Image: OFP Team 2010-11: From front left – John Kearvell, Cindy, Nick Bolton, Corey Lane, Megan Farey, Lucy Garrett and Simon Elkington.

The Orange-Fronted Parakeet, OFP for short, also known as Malberbe’s Parakeet Cyanoramphus malherbi was critically endangered and remains the rarest mainland parakeet. For a long time OFPs were only thought to be a rare colour-morph of the Yellow-crowned parakeet Cyanoramphus auriceps. This was until a team of dedicated ornithologists lead by John Kearvell, Conservation Officer at New Zealand Government’s Department of Conservation, DOC,  and with Wee-Ming Boon and other scientists at Victoria University of Wellington proved once and for all with DNA analysis that it was indeed its own species. Under John’s mentorship I got to know the differences morphologically and in behaviour between the closely related cousins, the orange-fronted parakeet and the rare yet more numerous yellow-crowned parakeet. Essentially, they are both very small, songbird-sized green parakeets. However orange-fronts have an orange stripe between the eyes and a lemon yellow crown, and yellow-crown’s have a red eye-stripe and a golden yellow crown. Orange fronts are more bluish sea green in their body feathers whereas yellow-crown’s are more chartreuse to grass-green. There are nuances in the tone of their calls to highly experienced ears, but essentially they both announce their presence high in the canopy with a “jitter-jittery – err-oh – err-oh” and then, helpfully, they do not hang about.

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Image: Orange fronted parakeet (left) and yellow crowned parakeet (right)

My then girlfriend, now wife Lucy and I left our dangerous jobs working in a local school in England, for the safety and security of the life working as New Zealand Department of Conservation Biodiverisity Rangers in the OFP Team. Now, the year and a bit working for a local comprehensive gave us a lifetime of interesting stories, but for me the life of an OFP team member takes some beating. Daily commutes from our base in Arthur’s Pass, affectionately known as House 2 (house 1’s chimney had leaked during heavy snow the previous winter) involved driving the OFP team in a DOC pick-up through the New Zealand Southern Alps to the head of whichever valley we were searching that week, and then an hour’s ride by quad-bike up a boulder-strewn braided river, making hairy crossings as we snaked up the valley. A little different from the A40 bus.

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Image: Quad bike commute

Once parked, we split up, each taking a section of the valley that we had tactically reserved from our knowledge of previous trips, narrowing down the search to a pair of OFPs we suspected were nesting in the area. But essentially these sections, with ominous names like The Unknow-en and Unforgiven Pass, were huge steep slopes on the valley sides cloaked in southern beech forest, where we would wander and carry out listening stops in the vain hope of spotting any parakeets. The search was on… and on… and on… sometimes nothing was seen all week. Patience was a virtue that if not held before OFP work, it was most definitely developed over time. Only the daily visits by the ever-curious New Zealand robins, flitty flirty fantails or occasional golden yellow mohua made the waiting bearable. On such a wonderous occasion when parakeets did make an appearance, the reaction was so full of excitement – you had to be careful not to give yourself a black-eye with your binoculars!!! – Once the binos were trained on the parakeet, the dance around the tree trunks would begin. Finding the perfect light with a backdrop of leaves, whilst praying for the little darlings to look down to show you their eye stripe, you shadowed them like you were linked by puppet strings whilst always keeping a low profile yourself so as not to be spotted. And if you lost them suddenly, you searched for their nest with the hawk-eyes of a sniper, looking for a woodpecker or knot hole in the tree trunks. And then the stake-out would begin, waiting to see if the adult bird flew out. It would take another visit or two to confirm if the nest was active.

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Image: My stake-out companion: the New Zealand robin

Our first task was to find and record sightings of OFPs, building a picture of their use of the forest, and then find as many nests as possible. Once these nests were found, the next task was to protect the nest tree from rats and possums, their main predators, and set traps for European stoats, another lethal introduced species. New Zealand was the last of the continental islands to be colonised by humans, and with no native mammals except bats, it was a land dominated by birds. They filled every niche. From herds of giant moa, the tallest land birds ever to walk the earth, to the smallest rock wrens and riflemen.  For the bizarre: look to the fur-feathered kiwi species that whistle and to the flightless world’s heaviest parrot, the Kakapo, that booms.  When humans arrived, most probably the ancestors of the Maori people who sailed from Polynesia to New Zealand just under 1000 years ago, the moa were hunted to extinction. Yet it was the settlement of Europeans, just over 150 years ago,  that triggered the near collapse of an entire ecosystem through the introduction of European mammals: rats and stoats killed ground nesting birds, even the humble west European hedgehog ate their eggs, whilst browsing animals such as red deer gradually removed nesting cover. Vast areas of native forest were felled and cleared for sheep farming. However, there is hope as New Zealand’s people are turning back the clock and have become world-leaders in species conservation and island restoration. Huge areas of native forest still exist. And our Orange-fronted parakeets cling on in just three valleys on the mainland with 70-300 birds estimated. They have also bred in captivity and their young have been marooned on restored islands. And so it was to this aim that lead us to the climax of the season, climbing up to their nests and the nest egg rescue.

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Image: Beech seeds – they are the key to good parakeet breeding years, but the mast years bring with them a plague of predators such as rats and stoats.

The team were ready. Lucy and I were on helicopter watch on the far side of the valley, Cindy and Corey were down on the landing pad of a grassy clearing back from the river, and John and Megan had set up the climbing ropes and were poised to climb. We just needed helicopter arrival to coincide with a moment when the parents left the nest. Sure enough, the sequence of events worked like clockwork. We gave the signal through the our radios that the chopper had arrived, Meg shimmied up the amazing climbing rig, and rescued the eggs from the very precarious standing dead tree. They were safely lowered down on a pulley in a very soft lined container and transferred into a portable incubator and tip-toed to the personal air-transport and smoothly flown to the breeding centre. We had done it!!! Adding genes to the breeding stock to increase the population, by ensuring that these eggs survived to chicks and adulthood, whilst stimulating the wild pair to attempt to breed again that season and crucially these birds or their offspring will supplement the conservation insurance policy of the marooned island populations.

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Image: Climbing up to the nest to record chick numbers.  I think the rope could take my weight?  I had enjoyed a few NZ pies!!!

Now it was my turn to access one of the nests I found that season. We had received excellent training from DOC in rope access tree climbing and aerial rescue. John is a superb shot with a catapult and within minutes we had secured a line over a sturdy looking branch and it was time to climb. What I did not factor in was the effect of the steep slope the tree was on. So as I rose level with the nest hole, I was in fact over 20m up from the path below. Adding to this, because of the crooked shape of the tree, John had to swing me into the trunk. This gave me the look of a giant Koala-bear as I secured into the tree with a strap. Now I could calmly get on with the business of checking how the nest was doing. And to my great surprise and pleasure, I was greeted by half a dozen almost fully developed chicks. A couple of discarded nest feathers were collected for DNA analysis, I took a quick photo and I was on my way down to get my feet on terra-firma once more.

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Image: OFP chicks in their nest

In 2013, the success of all the rangers over all the seasons since the millennium had paid off as the Orange-fronted Parakeet was down listed to Nationally Endangered. Yet danger for this little Kakariki still looms. A beech mast in 2014 brought a plague of rats. Can the populations be sustained on the mainland?  It seems a tall ask, but I believe that New Zealand Government workers, scientists and the New Zealand public together have their sights set high and will find the answers.

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