In tune with nature: Project Island Song

In tune with nature: Project Island Song

Since 2009 Project Island Song has provided a pest-mammal free wildlife sanctuary for several rare and endangered species across the seven main islands of Ipipiri in the eastern Bay of Islands.

It’s complex and demanding work. Keeping track of bird populations can be tricky – especially when a certain species seems to keep their banded legs tucked away. However thanks to some feeding stations, remote cameras and our delicious millet, the project team has started off on the right foot…

Across the seven islands at the heart of Project Island Song the key focus is on planting, pest and weed control, and species reintroduction.

Tens of thousands of trees have been planted and there have been seven major species translocations to date, with at least fourteen more currently being planned for. That’s just the beginning of the wide-ranging vision for the islands and the flora and fauna that makes their home here.

One species, the kakariki, was reintroduced to the islands in 2017. Topflite was approached to provide millet for their feeding stations in the wild. This seed needed to be heat-treated and sterilised for bio-security reasons – there can be no risk of outside seed germinating on the islands.

It all sounded quite fascinating when word initially got back so we started chatting with the good people at Project Island Song about how the millet was being used.

Richard Robbins works for the Guardians of the Bay of Islands, a community group that has partnered with the local hapu (Ngati Kuta and Patukeha) and the Department of Conservation for the project. After ten years working for the islands it’s safe to say there’s not much Richard doesn’t know about the past, present and future of the island habitats.

That’s why he was the perfect man to sit down and talk to about tagging, feeding, hopping, anchoring and all the other motivations and inspiration on the islands…

"Jack of all trades" Richard Robbins. Photo courtesy of Project Island Song.  
"Jack of all trades" Richard Robbins. Photo courtesy of Project Island Song. 


What does your daily work involve?

It’s extremely varied! I’m doing everything from planning for volunteer management and coordination to species work to pest management and incursion response to fundraising and marketing. You really have to be a jack of all trades.

The days are always interesting. Today I’ve been on two islands and I’m back in Russell now and then back out to the islands tonight. Yes, there’s a lot of office work. But there’s a lot out and about too and every day is different. For example, tomorrow I have twenty volunteers helping to do kakariki survey, so my work today will be spent planning for getting them out and set up.


What does this monitoring work involve?

Monitoring post-release kakariki is quite difficult. When the birds are released they are given leg bands to help with identification and monitoring. However they have short stubby legs that tuck up when they’re flying and when they land they’re predominantly sitting, so you can’t see them (the bands) then. And they don’t like you getting too close either. That’s why we’ve set-up supplementary feed stations with millet.

Now, there is plenty of food available in the environment for them. However, for some reason, these wild birds that have never tasted millet before, well, they love it. When we catch kakariki we aviary them and feed them millet which they absolutely crave.

“From this approach we have even learned what leg the kakariki predominantly favour.”

So it was groundbreaking for kakariki relocations when this was discovered. That’s because they were the first species we released that could leave the islands – and we had to encourage them to stay on the pest-free islands.

What technology do you use here?

We set up several stations with sporadic placed millet feed to try and draw them in. Then we had three motion-activated cameras placed. The benefit of this is that when the birds come in to eat they left their leg up – and se can see the leg band combinations.

From this approach we have even learned what leg the kakariki predominantly favour. It’s gone from an experiment to where it’s now best practise. And the results have been extraordinary.

When they were first released back in June of 2017 it was assumed that we wouldn’t be able to record many of the birds. But that wasn’t the case.

With monitoring carried out after the release we started to detect fledglings that had been raised on the island, which was fantastic. By the following February we knew we still had a minimum of 37 of the 40 birds that had been released – which is groundbreaking. The other three birds may have still been there but they may have not been coming into the feeding stations.


Do you help the birds in any other ways or is it more of a hands-off approach for now?

We have also put up supplementary nesting boxes. That’s because kakariki tend to nest in small crevasses or rotten logs. Our habitat is a restoring one, so we don’t have a lot of older trees with those natural types of spots. But that’s really for when the population grows – the boxes aren’t really needed at the moment.

With the cameras we can see relationships between the birds. So we saw birds that had paired up and we saw the dominant birds – when they arrived the other birds flew off.

How have you noticed the sanctuary has changed over the years?

The vast majority of the islands had previously been modified by humans for farming. So we’re working on the long-term restoration of the habitat and what plant species are needed for the diversity within the habitat. 

“In 2019 we celebrated being 10 years pest free. The impact this has had on the habitat is huge.”

In 2019 we celebrated being 10 years pest free. The impact this has had on the habitat is huge. It’s not just the bird life – we work with reptiles and invertebrates. Since the pests have been removed we’re now detecting quite a few gecko species, which is fantastic.

There are also some of the more complex relationships around our burrow nesting seabirds, which are the main drivers for our ecosystem. A couple of years ago we used a specially trained dog to search for them. We know the islands have started to be re-colonised but, at some point, we may need to help these bird species too.

What do visitors think of these changes?

A big thing about these seven islands is the accessibility. Our closest point to the mainland is only 600 metres. We’re one of the most visited pest-free islands in New Zealand.

As an iconic visitor destination the feedback we get is great. People simply love the sound of the birdcalls here. They hear the kakariki, the saddlebacks, and they’re just blown away.

There are a lot of different facets that ensures the continued success of the sanctuary. What do you consider to be the most important thing to get right?

The key thing is to keep people on board. Without people we wouldn’t be able to keep doing what we’re doing. There are so many stakeholders involved. It’s a big job. We’re slightly different compared to other places in that we’re seven pest-free islands, with private landowners, Māori land and public land there are a lot of people working together.  

What else has been important to the success of the project?

We acknowledge the kaitiakitanga of all mana whenua of Te Hauturu-o-Toi, in particular Ngāti Manuhiri, Ngātiwai, and Ngāti Rehua. We also recognise the dedication of the Little Barrier Supporters Trust. It’s a very special place. We’ve just reintroduced the wētāpunga/giant wētā and were recently at Hauturu to take 12 more wētāpunga off the island for the captive breeding programme at Auckland Zoo. We wouldn’t be able to do our work if it wasn’t for their efforts.

Of the new species to be reintroduced, which are you most looking forward to? Are there any favourites?

One of the real benchmarks for us is to bring back the korimako (bellbird). There has never been a successful translocation of them to date. However the nearest population is only about 40 kilometres away.

So one of the big goals is to have the environment here where they could self reintroduce quite easily. We need the diversity within the habitat to support these birds however. And that is what we’re working hard to achieve.           


Project Island Song is a unique partnership between: Community group the Guardians of the Bay of Islands / Te Rawhiti hapū (Ngati Kuta and Patukeha) / The Department of Conservation.

This partnership is dedicated to restoring ecological balance to the islands of the Eastern Bay of Islands (Ipipiri). Drawing together the energy, talent and culture of local people to bring the birdsong back to Ipipiri, note by note.

If you’d like to find out more about the good work Richard and the team are doing at Project Island Song, go to

Update: Project Island Song was a recipient of SOAR Initiative Funding for 2022 and 2023. Find out more about how the SOAR fund is supporting conservation efforts New Zealand-wide. 
Biodiversity Bird Champions conservation Native birds New Zealand native bIrds Pest control Planting