Ruby and the kākāpō

Ruby and the kākāpō

The 2019 breeding season report.

The kākāpō breeding season is always one of nervous anticipation for New Zealand’s conservationists and bird lovers. From small, predator-free islands this season is predicted to be one of the biggest breeding seasons to date. There is hope of 30 to 50 new chicks to add to the population – which is a huge boost to the only 147 kākāpō in existence today

Topflite’s Ruby was on the ground off the coast of Stewart Island on Whenua Hou Island this year. Over her two and a half week stay she helped keep the important programme on track and, upon her return, we asked her how it was.

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Why did you want to travel down to work with the kākāpō programme?

I knew I wanted to go down (to help with kākāpō) for a while. But it was at the recent Parrot Society convention that I decided to apply to be a part of the volunteer program for the upcoming breeding season. There I listened to Dr Andrew Digby talk about the Kākāpō Recovery Programme and the upcoming breeding season. He predicted there was going to be the largest number of females breeding, and therefore the biggest breeding season yet. I knew I wanted to be a part of it.

Have you ever done anything like this in the past?

I had done some volunteering in native bird monitoring and trap setting but I hadn’t done it for a while.

How long were you down there – was it ok getting time off work?

I was on the island for two and a half weeks and, yes, it was ok to get the time off. Everyone at Topflite were very supportive (even to the point that I got sponsored for a week while I was away!) Greg and the team know how special it was for me to be a part of the season and how important the work is for this incredible parrot.

What did you think before you went? What were you hoping to experience?

It was mostly just anticipation of the unknown and what the experience would be like. It’s not a destination you can just book a holiday for – only if you’re a DOC worker, scientist or you go through the volunteer process is it possible to get on the island. So I was unsure of what the whole experience including hiking in the forest day in and out would be like.  

One experience I was hoping to have was to see a kākāpō! Seeing them is not guaranteed. I also really wanted to see some chicks I wasn’t sure if any hatching would take place while I was there.

Were there any challenges?

It was physically quite demanding. I was briefed about what to expect and, playing sport three times a week, I think I’m relatively fit. But by the second day I realised it was fairly rugged terrain in most parts of the island and I needed to carry a heavy pack everyday up and down the steep bush.

I would spend on average seven hours a day hiking up through the bush and into these pretty rugged hills. It was a good workout. For bird lovers who want to step up their training it’s the perfect working holiday! And it does get easier. There was one track, the Wounded Knee, which was a real struggle the first day. By the end of my stay I was doing it with ease.

How many were on the team down there?

The people (DOC staff, scientist and fellow volunteers) were amazing. They are all so passionate and they worked so hard to get everything done. It’s such a special place – everyone knew what needed to be done and just did it without thinking twice. Even if that meant, after a full day of work, going out and waiting at a nest all night for nocturnal kākāpō to go foraging so we could check their eggs.

What was the best part of the trip?

It’s hard to pinpoint one ‘part’ but seeing a kākāpō in the wild and being involved with the chicks was amazing and was a definite highlight.

While most of my days were spent checking and re-stocking feed stations, I managed to get the opportunity to go out with the A.I (Artificial Insemination) team on a couple of days. It’s their job to capture the males, collect sperm and then track and capture females and inseminate them to help increase fertility. Tagging along with the team gave me my first opportunity to see a Kākāpō, called Gumboot. Yes, that was his name; all the rangers know the birds by their names since there are so few left in the world.

Another highlight was experiencing what the native birdlife was like on the island. It was incredible – there’s such a huge range of birdsong. Seeing the vision of what New Zealand could look like has inspired me to be a bit more proactive in my pest control regime around home too. I hope that one day my son will get to see and experience that kind of bird life on the mainland.

Why was the work important to you?

Fundamentally it is important to help, to be a part of such an important programme, and to get this special parrot back on track with a healthy population.

But also it was valuable to help my understanding of what the team down there goes through and what is required with a project of this scale to bring back a species from the brink of extinction. I hope with the knowledge I’ve gained I can now spread the 

word by sharing my experience with others.

Would you go back?

It was an extremely special time there and I felt honoured to be involved. So, yes, I would definitely go back.

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If you’d like to know more about the Kākāpō Recovery Programme, and how you can help, we suggest clicking here.