An ensemble piece: Helping Project Island Song soar

An ensemble piece: Helping Project Island Song soar

Topflite have been long-time fans of efforts of Project Island Song as the charitable endeavour aimed high and worked hard to replant, restore and replenish Ipipiri / eastern Bay of Islands. We recently formalised our support using the SOAR Initiative – which gave us a good excuse to get back in touch with the legendary Richard Robbins for a chat.

Topflite’s SOAR funding is going towards crucial support for the translocation and continued protection of the Northland Green Gecko. Since we last caught up with General Manager Richard Robbins, the charitable trust has made impressive gains towards the ecological restoration of Ipipiri. Here’s the latest:

There are seven beautiful islands at the heart of Project Island Song. What makes this place special?

We’re actually the most visited pest-free islands in New Zealand. Prior to the pandemic we had around 150,000 visitors each year coming via the commercial operators as well as the locals and domestic visitors who come in private boats.

Many visitors are returning and realising that things are changing, more species are returning, there’s more of a dawn chorus and more animals and birds around. The next step for the project is looking at how we can use the seven pest-free islands as a tool for broader wildlife management as well.

The Project must have experienced Covid-based challenges over recent years – as have we all. How has the vision for Ipipiri progressed in the face of setbacks?

Our volunteer program had some restrictions around what we could and couldn’t do. We also wanted to protect our volunteers, so we adapted what we were doing and how we were doing it. As part of that we received lots of feedback around how important it was for people to reconnect with the things they loved doing.

Another impact was on planning. We had a full reptile survey planned that had been in the works for nearly ten years. That’s because you have to wait for remnant populations to stabilise before introducing other species, which is what we want to do on the islands.

What also became apparent during the pandemic is how important open spaces and engaging with wildlife are for people’s mental health. Hopefully this renewed appreciation of nature continues.

You’ve translocated a number of species to date. Who’s thriving on the islands?

All the species are heading in the right direction — we’re really pleased with that. Whether we can call it a success depends on the species. Yes, we’ve managed to have each species survive the translocation. But it can take 5 - 10 years for populations to establish so I’m always a bit cautious about blowing our own trumpet before we can say it with certainty.

One that is thriving is the tieke, or North Island saddleback, which has now been on the island for seven years. They’re doing very, very well – I can say they’re ‘established’. But we also can’t just walk away from them. We have to be careful of risks like severe droughts and pest incursions. These pest incursions are the top priority for managing the tieke, as they’re very susceptible to pest predation. And, unfortunately, we do get incursions each year.

The risk of these incursions must be high with all the boats moving around the islands, right?

We normally get about four to six incursions a year — usually young male Norway rats. We think they’re a mixture of swimmers and hitchhikers (on boats). We tend to detect them and manage them really quickly. The big risk is around stoats – they can swim several kilometres and pose a real threat.

How do you detect these pest incursions?

We have a few methods. Firstly, we have an incursion management infrastructure, which is a network of hundreds of predator traps and tracking tunnels. The tracking tunnels have an ink pad inside and we put peanut butter in the middle. If they’re intrigued, they’ll walk through it so we can detect footprints.

We also have conservation dogs, who come on a quarterly basis and are specially trained to sniff out a certain pest species. Visitors and volunteers can sight pests too, and we ask people to report anything spotted. At that stage we’ll get a conservation dog into the area to investigate further. They’re absolutely stunning those dogs – we have a rodent dog and another trained to detect cats too.

With a number of successful translocations of species chalked up, who’s next on the list?

The Northland Green Gecko, of course. But we are also at the very beginning of research around titipounamu – the rifleman – which is New Zealand’s smallest bird.

We only have one titipounamu remnant mainland population north of Auckland, and it’s at real risk. We’d like to set up an ‘insurance’ population of the rifleman on two of the islands.

They’re a difficult bird to translocate however. Once they’re caught you have to move them very quickly as they get stressed quickly. They’re also very susceptible to heat changes and are so small – it blows my mind how small they are. The rifleman weighs around six grams, which is equivalent to six paperclips!

We’re also looking at the hihi, or stitchbird for translocations. It’s very early days yet but we’re just seeing what might be feasible.

What role does the Northland green gecko play in the ecosystem of the islands? How is it faring?

Up here we’re right on the boundary of two green gecko species, the elegant gecko and Northland green gecko. The sad thing is they’re declining out of our sight. However, while we don’t always see them,  we do know they’re declining because of pests and land use changes.

As for their role in the ecosystem, they’re arboreal, spending most of their time in the trees. They feed on nectar and we think a few of our native plant species have evolved in line with the gecko species for pollinating purposes. Pohutukawa is a great example. If there’s pohutukawa in flower with no pests present, you’ll often see lots of geckos feeding on the nectar. It seems that the shape of the flower has evolved to suit the heads and tongues of geckos.

The geckos are also a good seed disperser, eating berries and ejecting the seeds – along with a little fertiliser package to get the seeds going. As part of the food chain, they are an integral part of the ecosystem. They eat invertebrates and in turn are predated by the ruru and larger reptiles like the tuatara.

The Northland green gecko does not have a secure backup population so we hope that numbers will increase on the pest-free islands. We can then ‘harvest’ them to repopulate other protected areas.

What’s needed to ensure the Project tracks toward its targets?

We’re a charity so everything we do is down to support. We rely on volunteers, donations and members to keep going. We’ve got a really good base of volunteers – they’re the powerhouse of the project really. Whether it’s weeding, planting, advocacy or events, they’re there to help.

Unfortunately, DoC has had to scale back their involvement in the project. So right now we need to focus on operations to maintain the pest-free status of the islands. We’re about to take on our own ranger and we have a purpose-built boat under construction that will really help with transportation of wildlife and movement around the islands.


Biodiversity Bird Champions Hoiho Made in NZ Native planting New Zealand native bIrds Planting Reptiles SOAR Initiative