For the first Christmas in more than a century, a native New Zealand bird, the North Island saddleback, will be flitting around unfettered in New Zealand bush.
Thirty-six saddlebacks, or tieke as they are called by Maori, hitherto confined to offshore islands or a predator-proof sanctuary, have been living in the Hawke’s Bay in an area known as a mainland ‘island.’ Here, New Zealand conservationists are attempting to keep pests and predators at bay to allow the country’s flora and fauna to flourish again.
“It is a real highlight for conservation in New Zealand that we are ready to trial the re-introduction of saddlebacks from an island sanctuary to a mainland site that is not protected by predator-proof fencing,” says Department of Conservation ranger Wendy Sullivan.
“There is no guarantee of success, but a measure of the progress we have made is that ten years ago, there is no way we could have considered a translocation of saddlebacks to an unfenced mainland site.”
Mainland islands, which were established in 1996, are the spearhead of DOC’s conservation efforts. The Hawke’s Bay ‘island’, where the saddlebacks are now living, is an 800-hectare scenic reserve called Boundary Stream, not far form the city of Napier. Here the conservation agency is intensively managing the pests and predators. In 2003-04, 70 stoats, 93 cats and 190 hedgehogs were trapped at the Boundary Stream reserve.
Already, North Island robin, the North Island brown kiwi and North Island kokako have been successfully re-established into the reserve and, says DOC, the dawn chorus now boasts the songs of tui, bellbird, rifleman, whitehead and grey warbler.
The hope now is that the ‘island’ saddlebacks will breed once they have settled into their new habitat. DOC is monitoring at least five pairs that have formed since the birds were released in September. “They saw them actually copulating near the track,” says DOC’S Jill Hudson, “so they were very excited that we may actually get some chicks.”
Saddlebacks, like kokako and the extinct huia, are members of the wattlebird family (Callaeidae), which is found only in New Zealand. The once plentiful birds had become extinct on the mainland of New Zealand by the end of the 19th century, decimated by rats, mustelids and cats.
By 1910 just 500 North Island saddlebacks were left on an island off the east coast of Northland and 36 South Island saddlebacks remained on Big South Cape Island, off Stewart Island.
In the early 1960s, disaster struck the southern species, DOC’s website recounts. A boat accidentally brought rats to the island where the birds were living. The rats then spread to two other offshore islands. The result was an ecological nightmare for many endemic species and caused the extinction of the Stewart Island snipe, Stead’s bush wren and the greater short-tailed bat.
But early in 1964, New Zealand conservationists successfully transferred North Island saddlebacks between islands and then the besieged South Island saddlebacks were moved from their rat-plagued islands to predator-free ones.
The success of the transfers of saddlebacks and the intensive work on lowering predator numbers have seen the birds rebound from near-extinction to a population of more than 7000 in the North Island and 1200 in the South Island.