Six weeks at Pukaha National Wildlife Centre

by Calum Sweeney

After my degree in Applied Plant Biology at UCC I decided to travel to New Zealand on a working holiday Visa. After exploring the north island for a few weeks in September, I secured a voluntary position at Pukaha National Wildlife Centre for six weeks. Pukaha is a 1000-hectare wildlife reserve consisting of ancient podocarp forests teaming with native birds, many of which are endangered. Most of the conservation work happens in 70 hectares of the reserve. The abundance of birds is no accident though, the populations of birds in the reserve survive and grow thanks to past and ongoing conservation work done by the rangers here. Breeding programmes are used to increase the populations of bird species from the reserve and other native species such as the critically endangered shore plover (Thinornis novaeseelandiae) of which there are approximately 180 left. The breeding of wild populations of Kaka (Nestor meridionalis) is promoted by the use of predator proof nesting boxes throughout the reserve. Following the experts on a recent survey of the nesting boxes we found three active kaka nests and it’s only the start of the breeding season!

But, increasing the numbers of birds doesn’t help if they all get eaten by the invasive rats, stoats, ferrets and possums. So, in addition to breeding, the reserve itself has been fortified as a kind of inland biosecure island, preventing predator incursions. This is achieved by trapping programmes all through the reserve and an aerial application of the pesticide sodium fluoroacetate commonly known as “1080”. Seven hundred self-reloading, bolt action scent traps called A12s and A24s have been installed in the reserve alongside traditional bait traps. The use of 1080 is strongly opposed by some but sanctioned by government who have deemed it necessary to preserve long suffering native bird populations. The use of 1080 allows the Department of Conservation (DOC) to suppress pest species numbers across vast areas rapidly. Bait pellets containing 1080 are coloured green and flavoured with cinnamon to lure pest species but deter birds. Unfortunately, there are some small number of birds which die from the toxin but the benefits to the over all populations far outweighs any losses. Following past climatic patterns, the upcoming year is forecast to be a beech masting year which will cause a population explosion in pest species. An event which presses the need for a tool like 1080.

There are Tuatara, eels and geckos on display around the visitors centre. Visitors can come and see all of the birds and wildlife but the primary focus of the reserve is conservation. During my six weeks here, I will spend three weeks with the team which looks after birds found in the bush or “bush birds” and three weeks in “south end”. Bush birds consists of aviaries viewable by the public and houses the newly crowned bird of the year Kererū (Hemiphaga novaeseelandia), the critically endangered Orange Fronted Parakeet (Cyanoramphus auriceps), Stitchbirds (Notiomystis cincta) as well as Kaka and others which are all encouraged to breed while also act as species ambassadors, raising awareness. The idea is to allow people to see endangered or out of reach birds close up.

Its Spring here now, which means cold mornings with the chance of balmy afternoons if your lucky and another Antarctic southerly doesn’t have you eating your morning porridge in thermals! By eight o’clock all the staff are in the service block. Here we prepare the diets for all captive birds and some of the wild birds. I chop up fruit into 3mm cubes known as “smoothie” and prepare nectar and honey liquid feeds using a powder called Womboroo and honey contributed by local beekeepers which contains bits so must be strained. Next, we each go off on feed rounds to different aviaries. Once there the old food tray must be removed and kept for weighing (to monitor eating habits), new food dependant on the species is set up in the feeder. Fruit chunks are stabbed onto branches (stab fruit) near the front of the aviaries as an addition to the diets and to encourage foraging. The types of fruit used are rotated and have specific days when they are given. Next, I check the mouse traps, brush up old food from under the feeder and scan the ground for fallen stab fruit. If it were a Monday I would also wash down the feeder. While doing all this I keep a look out for the birds, taking a mental note of their behaviour and appearance.

Morning tea at 10:30 is where the eight or so rangers and volunteers discuss the goings on of the park over sandwiches and tea. Meetings can also be held at this time such as two days ago we discussed the upcoming re-branding/ open day and what our jobs will be for the day. I will be posted at the kiwi house and the free flight aviary during the open day where I should talk to visitors about the birds and keep noise levels to kiwi-tolerable levels! We were told to direct questions about 1080 to the ‘sausage sizzle’ barbeque event run by the DOC outside the visitors centre. The re-branding is partly being done to incorporate the lesser known but equally scintillating birds such as Kōkako (Callaeas cinarea) into the branding of Pukaha, moving away from using Manukura (meaning ‘of chiefly status’), the white kiwi (not albino) who’s long been an icon for the centre.

In the afternoons I collect browse from the bush following the trap lines set out by rangers. I saw down Lemonwood (Pittosporum eugenioides), Coprosmas spp., Black matipo (Pittosporum tenuifolium), Five finger (Pseudopanax arboreus) and other branches trying not to trip over supple jack vines while I’m doing it. I bring these to the aviaries to enrich the environment for the birds. I also collect leaf litter for the same reason. The forest is rich in epiphytes such as the nest epiphyte kowharawhara (Astelia solandri) which I’m told is the silent killer. It becomes water logged and dislodged during extreme rain events crushing people without warning. Next, I go into the hot insect room and feed the crickets and locusts usually congratulating myself for not having any escapees. We breed them for Tuatara and kiwi feed. By 4:30 we’ve set out equipment for the following day, written up essential jobs on the whiteboards and cleaned down all surfaces in the service block. The evenings are usually spent chilling with the other three volunteers/ intern in the Vollie house.

While my experience here isn’t directly related to my degree discipline it is proving very useful conservation experience and I count myself lucky to be here. I am learning about local invasive species, local plants, the care and breeding of endangered birds including many new skills from the team here at Pukaha.

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