The tricky job of tīeke translocation

by North & South / 01 October, 2018

A North Island tīeke, or saddleback on Tiritiri Matangi Island. Photo/Getty.

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Par Avian

Tagging along with the bird handlers at a tīeke translocation. 

On 26 May 2018, a crowd of more than 100 people gather at the Shakespear Open Sanctuary on the tip of the Whangaparaoa Peninsula. They are here to witness the liberation of 40 North Island tīeke (saddlebacks), a bird that by the late 19th century had been reduced to a single island population of just 500. Today, with a little help from humans, they can be seen and heard in six mainland locations and at 18 sanctuaries around the North Island, making them one of our greatest conservation success stories.

There are infants in arms, elderly day-trippers, a small media contingent, sanctuary volunteers, council representatives and iwi. But most here to celebrate the release will have little idea how hard Kevin Parker’s team has worked for the translocation to proceed so smoothly.

The Preparation

A week prior to release, two aviaries on Tiritiri Matangi Island – 6km from the release site – are filled with foliage. Parker and his squad of skilled bird handlers have just five days to capture 42 birds from the 220ha island.

“For any translocation, I need a certain number of catchers, handlers and husbandry people, six or seven ideally, people who know how to catch and look after birds – and who aren’t a pain in the arse,” he says. “The people I work with are capable and dedicated, and in a position to volunteer their time. If we had to pay everybody, it would cost a fortune.”

The Field Capture

Four teams range across the island, setting up mist nests in good tīeke catch sites. Careful site selection is crucial, aided by the use of lure calls: recordings of tīeke. Fiercely territorial birds, they’re quick to investigate and see who’s invading their patch.

Mist nets are made of fine nylon and are virtually invisible. They comprise a series of shelves, with pockets hanging below. The material has a lot of give, almost like a trampoline, but horizontal as opposed to vertical. When a bird flies in, the net stretches to soften the impact and stop the bird from hurting itself; the bird then bounces down into one of the pockets.

With minimum fuss, a handler then places the captured bird in a small drawstring bag to be transported to the aviary, where it’s weighed, sexed and banded. By day two, 42 tīeke are ensconced in their transit hotel. The team has a permit to transport 40, but two extra have been caught as a contingency.

Sharon Kast, left, and Cheri Crosby aren't the kind of people you'd expect on catering duty for a small population of native birds. Crosby was once a commercial fisherwoman in Alaska, while Kast was a fashion executive in New York. Photo/Kevin Parker.

Caring for the Birds

Once captured, the tīeke are in the hands of Cheri Crosby and Sharon Kast. Crosby was once a commercial fisherwoman in Alaska while Kast was a fashion executive in New York – not the kind of people you’d expect to be on catering duty for a small population of captive natives. But that’s the wonderful thing about bird people: there are no stereotypes.

Twice daily, at 8am and 2pm, the gregarious and dedicated duo head for their “kitchen” to prepare a feast. They thread fruit onto sticks, carve up the special bird cake (it looked delicious) and mete out portions of wiggling mealworms and wax moths (less appealing). Bird banquet prepared, the chefs restock aviaries with fresh kai. They work quietly and methodically in the foliage-filled grotto. With light filtering through the leaves, even at 2pm it feels like dusk – cool and otherworldly.

Behind the Scenes

The main accommodation on Tiritiri Matangi is a communal bunkroom where the volunteers have some down time for exuberant card games. The conversation covers everything from who is a level-three bird bander (it’s an actual thing) to whether or not you can band birds in your own backyard.

The night before the birds are booked to travel, the 40 black drawstring bags are weighed, because the birds will be weighed again the following day, to see how they’ve fared in captivity. Next comes a detailed briefing; the card game is set aside and Parker’s demeanour takes a stern turn. Translocation is no trivial pursuit. “My job is to make sure those birds survive,” says Parker. “And while aspects of the mission are fun, we have to take it seriously.”

The Aviary Catch-up

Starting at 9am, everyone is kitted out with gloves and eye protection, and vegetation inside the aviary is removed. The group is regularly reminded to keep the foliage low and to be aware of who’s behind them – injuries can occur if the process becomes frantic or noisy.

With nowhere left to hide, one by one the birds are quickly bagged and hung like laundry on a board of nails. They’re weighed again – almost all have made gains – and given a thorough inspection: beak, eyes, feathers. Once a bird is deemed fit, it’s placed in a travelling box.

Volunteer John Stewart’s deft handling makes the birds’ journey from bag to travel box as trauma-free as possible. Eventually, 40 birds are divided between eight boxes, ready to be shipped to their new home. The two contingency birds are released, presumably to regale their friends with exciting tales of kidnap and escape.

Happily Ever After?

When the birds are released just three hours later and the fanfare subsides, Parker can finally relax.

“After the first catch day, back at the bunkhouse, when everyone is celebrating and relaxing, playing cards, maybe having a drink – I can’t relax,” he says. “It was awesome that we caught the birds so easily, but it doesn’t finish for me till release.

“In fact, I think my favourite part of translocation is five to 10 years later. That’s what I love the most. To go back to the release site and see that it worked.”

This article appears as part of On a wing and a prayer: The battle to save our native birds.

This article was first published in the September 2018 issue of North & South.

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