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.

Nelson Mail - - Front Page -

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.

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