Team battles for birdsong

COMMITTED TRIO: Pukenui Trust team Gerry Brackenbury, left, Jane Norman and Max Hutchings are meeting their goals to see new species of birds being released into the forest. PHOTO/MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM
COMMITTED TRIO: Pukenui Trust team Gerry Brackenbury, left, Jane Norman and Max Hutchings are meeting their goals to see new species of birds being released into the forest. PHOTO/MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM

A kiwi reserve right in the heart of Whangarei city or a forest with such pristine bio-diversity it could be gated like Zealandia in Karori, Wellington. These are the dreams and hope of the Pukenui Trust for the future of Pukenui Forest, the 'lungs of the city'.

Reporter SOPHIE RYAN and photographer MICHAEL CUNNINGHAM went on a walk with Pukenui Trust volunteers to see how the hard work put into predator control is protecting the forest and preparing it for the introduction of native birds.

The hum of distant traffic from as far away as State Highway One hovers over the forest as we come off Kamo farmland and into Pukenui forest.

The white breast of a kukupa, the native woodpigeon, passes above and all heads turn to follow its path out of the forest into town.

Pukenui Forest, the biggest forest in Whangarei at 2000 hectares, is silent, forest ranger Gerry Brackenbury says. Where there would have once been a cacophony of calls, only a couple of birds can be heard while we are in the forest.

A grey warbler chirps and a tui chimes, but the loudest sounds are our heavy boots upon the forest floor.

The Pukenui Trust wants to change this. They imagine the opportunity for people to be able to walk to Whau Valley dam and hear a full dawn chorus.

"People drive past this every day and probably don't even know it, or know the forest as the Western Hills. It's our best-kept secret. There's this opportunity for a true wilderness experience right on the city's doorstep," Gerry says.

To reach this goal, the trust has had volunteers working long days in tough conditions to monitor, trap and kill predators such as rats, stoats and goats.

In three years 700 goats have been taken out of the forest by a team of hunstmen. Now the trust believes only a few goats remain in the forest, a great improvement to have achieved.

Gerry says it feels like they are making a real difference already.

Two volunteers, Max Hutchings and Ian Buckley, along with a professional trapper, are in the bush three days a week laying, checking and resetting traps.

Max Hutchings is a close neighbour to the forest on the Kamo side and feels it's his duty to take care of it.

Two days a week he cuts a line through the forest, checking bait traps and placing new ones.

They work through huge kahikatea, taraire and totara, which are home to long-tailed bats and would have once fed thousands of birds. It's a tough job, with some parts of the forest being so steep Max is climbing hand over head to continue his path.

The team will lay 2000 traps to cover the forest. But it's worth it, Max says, as long as people can enjoy the forest as it should be, full of native birds.

They have the number of rats in the forest down from 89 per cent of the area of forest populated by rats to 6 per cent, and have recently reached the milestone of 400 hectares set with traps to manage predators. They can now apply to the Department of Conservation to release a species into the forest.

Gerry thinks it is likely native sparrow the whitehead, or popokotea, will be the first to be released into the forest. At present the whiteheads are rare in Northland, but Gerry says there should be lots of them.

The green-crowned parakeet, the North Island robin and the rifleman are all possibilities in Gerry's books, and the ultimate goal is to have kiwi reintroduced.

There is a real possibility of a kiwi reserve five minutes from Kamo shops.

Jane Norman is working with the Pukenui Trust as part of a Royal Society Primary Science Teacher Fellowship to investigate how biodiversity is being restored in the forest.

Jane is a teacher at Kamo Primary School and uses the forest as an outdoor classroom, bringing her pupils through to check out weta, learn about the importance of trapping predators and participate in tree planting.

She is researching the number of geckos in the forest, and can hardly wait to open her hiding spots in December and count how many she comes across.

"What we are trying to do is restore it [the forest] to what it would have been like," Gerry says.

It is hard to imagine what the forest was like before kauri logging carved out tracks and removed the native resource from the early 1900s, until we come across an enormous kauri tree that could be 500 or 600 years old, according to Max.

Off the track, the giant tree soars above the forest, a reminder of what was here before us and what Max, Gerry, Jane and the whole team of volunteers are working to restore.

- Northern Advocate

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