We chatter quietly away and then someone hears the first kōkako calls

Author and photo credit: Kathryn JonesDate: 10th February 2024

It’s 4.30 am, pitch dark, on a morning in early December.  I woke before my alarm went off. Time to start my day. Luckily I am a morning person. I get dressed in my work clothes quickly and quietly, trying to make as little noise as possible so others can continue to sleep. Outside I look up at the moon, the stars, and the lighthouse lights with awe. The team gathers in the bunkhouse kitchen and dining area for a bit of breakfast, and then we each go through our own routine to get ready to go out into the field. Boots, water bottle, binoculars, hand-held radio, pack with snacks and other miscellaneous gear, head torch with red light on. We walk across the grass to the implement shed to sign out and have a safety briefing. It is still dark. We head out to where we are going to look for our first pair of kōkako for the day.

Often we head up Coronary Hill and admire the early dawn colours, and then head quickly away. Sometimes, walking along Ridge Rd, ruru fly past you and brush ever so slightly against your arm. We chatter quietly away and then someone hears the-first kōkako calls and we then all listen intently.  We reach the area we are going to be working in, and the team leader organises us into starting positions around the territory and does a communications check to make sure we can hear each other on the radios. There is a sense of anticipation about today’s mission. We are listening out for the first kōkako calls from the pair we are looking for. If the dawn chorus is underway, it is fabulous to listen to it as I am patrolling my allocated area. Then someone in the team will call through the radio that they have heard kōkako calling. This may be anything from a single note, to tuks, to soft calls, to a territorial call. This is where the kōkako pair are starting their day. 

Left: Bátor as a fledgling eating dandelion flowers on the lawn behind the bunkhouseRight: Awenga as a nestling with two smaller siblings

We find them by following their calls to the source. We go into the bush when it is light enough to see. It may take a bit longer for it to be light enough to see the bands to identify the individual kōkako. This is an art in itself, because you may be able to see one leg, but not the other depending on what the bird is doing. Patience is needed! The kōkako move to and call from a few trees in their territory to let other kōkako know to stay out. We follow them to wherever they have moved to. Sometimes this is straightforward, and other times we are navigating lots of tree branches and flax! Also the pair may split up, so we are then following two separate birds. Working with a team of people makes the job easier because there are other eyes and ears on the pair, greatly increasing our odds of keeping tabs on them. There is enough light now to see the bands and identify the individuals. 

Left: Hina as a fledgling learning to move from tree to tree at the North East end of the IslandRight: Moby as a fledgling still with his parents being groomed by his dad, Te Koha Wait, at the middle water station on the Wattle Track

We keep watching their behaviour until we can determine where they are at in the breeding cycle – courtship, nest building, incubating eggs, rearing chicks. Sometimes this is more obvious than other times! There are lots of smiles and dancing when we regroup if we have located a new nest site. Then we move onto the next pair of kōkako, and start again. 

We come back to the bunkhouse sometime between 10 and 12 and have second breakfast, clean and pack up, and then often have an early lunch. Team members coming onto the Island for the day are briefed and we then decide what work we are going to do in the afternoon. At this time of year there are a number of the pairs of kōkako on nests. We do nest watches to determine whether the nest is still being used, and if so whether the female is laying eggs, incubating or brooding nestlings, and if the male is coming in to feed them. I like nest watches. It is a still, focused activity and I feel a sense of privilege at being there. Often you can only see brief movement because the nest is so well hidden. I always leave the site with a sense of satisfaction if the nest is active, and sadness if it has been abandoned. 

Left: Jenny (in the middle) and her parents having a bath at a takahē water station at Nohoa's junctionRight: Fledgling having a bath up at the Visitor's Centre

Over time I have got to know the personalities of some of the kōkako and take that into consideration when monitoring the individuals. Tiritiri Matangi is their place, their home, and I am a visitor who wants to help to increase the number of the species and help it to thrive. I am lucky that I am part of a team working toward that goal! We get great reports on sightings of kōkako from other people, which helps with the monitoring. We get back into the bunkhouse between 5 and 6 pm. After signing in, a shower is very welcome. Tea next, and a debrief and plan for the morning hatched, and then in my case an early night!