Southland: Encounter with the prince of parrots

By Dianne Blumhardt

The nonchalant Sirocco doesn't seem to realise how important he is to the survival of his species. Diane Blumhardt pays him a visit.

Sirocco the kakapo loves human contact. Photo / Don Merton
Sirocco the kakapo loves human contact. Photo / Don Merton

It is hardly surprising we were a bit tense at the prospect of meeting one of only 86 kakapo left in the world.

But, despite his importance, Sirocco, who gave an audience in a special enclosure, attended by his minder Jo, was a very down-to-earth bird.

We'd read of the opportunity to get close to a kakapo in the Let's Go NZ column of Herald Travel and it seemed too good an opportunity to miss.

We travelled to the southernmost part of the country, first to Stewart Island, then to Ulva Island, where Sirocco was residing temporarily.

Darkness had fallen swiftly during our 20-minute walk from the small wharf at Ulva Island where our sturdy boat had landed us.

After a routine quarantine check to make sure we weren't carrying rats, mice or seeds to this predator-free, open bird sanctuary, we were given torches and a briefing to prepare us for our meeting with the famous bird.

Armed with the torches we traipsed in single file along a well-formed path within a primeval forest of mainly rimu and kamahi, interspersed with a multitude of ferns and mosses, until a lantern held by our Ulva Island Trust host - who went by the name of Ulva - suddenly illuminated a perspex surround and we realised we were in the presence of a star.

We were told that Sirocco - hand-reared by Department of Conservation staff from his birth in March 1997 - enjoyed the adulation of humans and that if we kept our voices down Sirocco would respond to our company. And so he did.

As we approached the enclosure, the soft light revealed a large, lumbering bird clawing its way along a fallen branch to scramble on to the wooden ledge holding the perspex barrier.

Owl-like, his whiskery face peered into the 14 faces all staring in at him.

Excited whispers came from everyone at once.

"Here he comes ... Wow, he's big ... Look how friendly he is ... I bet those claws are sharp."

Sirocco's plumage of layered white, pale green and black looked soft and silky - good camouflage for this nocturnal ground-dwelling parrot.

Jo, Sirocco's full-time minder on the island, appeared in the enclosure coaxing the kakapo on to her arm as she moved about, enhancing our view of this endearing bird.

Using grapes - his favourite food - Jo tried to lure him on to a small perch attached to weighing scales.

"Just like Plunket, everybody," said our guide, while we watched spellbound as Sirocco constantly side-stepped the perch to take the grapes and miss the weigh-in.

Finally he stepped on to register 2.6kg. Jo explained that a male at reproductive age and in season weighs as much as 4kg.

A female, after breeding, can weigh as little as 900g. Females lay between one and four eggs in a season, and Sirocco was one of two born to his proud mother, Zephyr.

Released on nearby Codfish Island in November 1997 - following intensive hand-rearing, because he had a respiratory problem - Sirocco continued to relate well to people and regularly visited the DoC base on Codfish Island.

This affinity with humans made him an ideal bird to show the public, to enhance awareness of the Kakapo Recovery Programme and the importance of its ongoing work to raise the numbers of this endangered living treasure.

With such a limited gene pool available, interbreeding could be a problem and the DoC programme aims to avoid that.

Fortunately, Sirocco has shown signs of breeding readiness - evident by his early attempts to create a "track and bowl" system - and he was returned to Codfish Island for the summer breeding season where it was hoped he would develop his own distinctive "booming" call to attract a female.

A transmitter fitted under his feathers lets DoC offers know where he is, whatever he gets up to.

Kakapo are herbivores and feed only on seeds and leaves, and they need to eat in considerable quantities to fuel their heavy, bulky bodies.

The birds have powerful legs and large feet and are capable of strong walking, running and climbing.

Although flightless, kakapo have vestigial wings, short and rounded, and Sirocco spread his as he clambered along the fallen trees within his enclosure. Using his small, sharp bill he soon devoured the grapes on offer.

Jo reminded us that this beak is capable of tearing strips off leaves and branches and easily cracking fruits and seeds for which the bird forages on the forest floor.

Our time with Sirocco drew to a close all too soon. Jo left the enclosure, to screeches of disapproval, and showed us what remains after a kakapo has eaten.

After the birds extract liquids and nutrients from the leaves, the fibres are ejected to lie as "chews" on the forest floor.

Smelling these chews we could pick up the resinous odours of the fibres but some feathers Jo showed us had a faintly sweet smell reminiscent of coconut oil.

"Did everyone smell the poos?" our guide's voice rang out in the quiet stillness of the night.

"What did you think they smelled like?"

Smelling stronger than the feathers, "the poos" had a similar sweet odour.

But the time had come to find our way out of the forest, back along the path to the wharf, Sirocco's farewell screeches echoing in our ears.

As our skipper headed back to the civilisation of Halfmoon Bay we all sat quietly, reflecting on a very special experience, a meeting with an extraordinary bird.

CHECKLIST

Parrot watch: For more on kakapo conservation efforts, see kakaporecovery.org.nz.

Further information: See stewartislandflights.co.nz or stewartislandexperience.co.nz.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n4 at 16 Sep 2014 23:50:25 Processing Time: 1353ms