Back on the trail of the ‘grey ghost’
A possible sighting of the South Island ko¯kako in Golden Bay has raised hopes that a bird thought to be extinct may still survive. Tim Newman reports.
When Liam Beattie walked the Heaphy Track last month, he was hoping to catch a glimpse of one of New Zealand’s rarest birds.
Instead, he may have stumbled across another, which is supposed to be extinct.
Having heard about the release of endangered takahe¯ into Kahurangi National Park, Beattie and his father decided to have a look for the rare bird during their tramp on the Heaphy between the West Coast and Golden Bay.
However, the bird Beattie saw while wandering near the Gouland Downs Hut was not a takahe¯ .
It was larger than the other birds in the area, with grey feathers and two distinctive orange wattles on its neck.
Beattie said it flew on to a lowhanging tree branch, hopped to the ground, and then flew away after about 10 seconds.
‘‘It was just chilling out. It seemed pretty relaxed and didn’t seem to be in a hurry to go anywhere.’’
Beattie noted that the bird seemed unusual, but didn’t think much more of it until he arrived at the DOC hut about an hour later.
On the wall of the hut was a picture of a bird with the caption: ‘‘Wanted: preferably alive – South Island ko¯ kako, $10,000 reward.’’
‘‘Initially, I thought it was a joke – that was the bird I had just seen.’’
Once he realised the significance of the sighting, Beattie got in touch with the group responsible for the poster, the South Island Ko¯kako Charitable Trust.
Since January 2017, the South Island ko¯ kako, known as the ‘‘grey ghost’’ has been the most wanted bird in the country, with the trust putting up a $10,000 reward to anyone who can provide photographic evidence of it in the wild.
The last verified sighting of the South Island ko¯ kako in the 20th century was in 1967, with the species being officially declared extinct by DOC in 2008.
However, after a 2007 sighting near Reefton was accepted as accurate, DOC upgraded the bird’s status to ‘‘data deficient’’ in 2013.
Ornithologist and long-time ko¯ kako searcher Rhys Chamberlain said Beattie’s sighting was one of the most encouraging in recent years.
‘‘I think it is a highly rated one. The observer saw it at close range, and it had the right colour and the right movements.’’
In October, more potential kokako discoveries were made, this time on Takaka Hill between Riwaka and Golden Bay.
One person recorded an audio file of birdsong resembling that of a ko¯kako, with another catching a glimpse of large grey bird while driving over the hill.
Steve Catalinac said he saw two birds, one of which flew across his path while travelling down towards Takaka.
‘‘It lasted about two or three seconds. After I saw it, I didn’t believe it myself for a moment.
‘‘It was a grey colour, bigger than a tui and definitely not a wood pigeon – I’m pretty certain it was a ko¯ kako.’’
Chamberlain said that while an area like Takaka Hill would be difficult to search, with its rugged terrain, there was no reason why there couldn’t be a bird in the area.
South Island Ko¯ kako Charitable Trust general manager Inger Perkins said the recent sightings had brought the total number of reports since the campaign started to 120.
From its own research, Perkins said the trust had found about 430 reports or sightings of the bird since 1990.
‘‘The reports are coming from all over the place.
‘‘When we started the public launch for the search in January last year, we were hoping it would help us narrow down the areas, but its actually broadened it out.’’
While many people have claimed to hear or see the bird since the campaign started, photographic evidence remains elusive.
Chamberlain said that unlike their North Island relatives, South Island ko¯ kako had always been difficult to pin down.
‘‘They’re still around, they’re still breeding, but it is in such low numbers.
‘‘If you’ve got a really quiet bird out there in the forest, it’s going to be really hard to detect.’’
With the probability of so few birds being left, Chamberlain said it was likely the bird was ‘‘functionally extinct’’.
He said there was still hope for the ko¯kako if live birds could be captured, by either matching breeding pairs or crossbreeding them with the North Island species.
‘‘That could start the process of saving the bird. We’ve already lost so many, but this one is so special.
‘‘The call of the ko¯ kako is stunning – they’ve just got to call more.’’
‘‘It’s going to be really hard to detect.’’
Rhys Chamberlain, ornithologist and long-time ko¯ kako searcher
The South Island ko¯ kako, right, with its distinctive orange wattles, is a relative of the North Island ko¯ kako, left. A tramper has reported another possible sighting of the bird, thought to be extinct, in Kahurangi National Park, and there is a $10,000 reward on offer for anyone who can provide photographic evidence of it in the wild.