Chatham Islands: Rare birds common enough to eat

By Jim Eagles

Driving round the main Chatham island you see weka everywhere - in fact, they're a pest, writes Jim Eagles.

The rare Chatham Islands parea or local wood pigeon. Photo / Jim Eagles
The rare Chatham Islands parea or local wood pigeon. Photo / Jim Eagles

How many places in the world can you see five rare and endangered birds in the wild in a couple of days? And actually eat one for dinner?

Okay, I'm twisting the facts a little in claiming to have eaten a rare bird for dinner, but only a little. What I had as an entrée at Hotel Chatham - the main accommodation house on the Chatham Islands - was a roast leg of buff weka on a bed of salad.

The buff weka became extinct in its native habitat of Otago and Canterbury many years ago.

But on the Chathams, where they were introduced in 1905, the weka population has exploded over the years to the point where it's now a pest. Driving around the main Chatham island you see weka everywhere, foraging along road edges, pecking away at paddocks, scuttling around gardens even sidling up to picnic groups in the hope of a snack.

So, on the one hand, the Department of Conservation last year released some weka from the Chathams near Lake Wanaka in the hope of reintroducing the species to the South Island.

But, on the other, people on the Chathams are allowed to hunt the birds ... and, to judge from the drumstick I enjoyed at Hotel Chatham, they're well worth eating.

Some of the other rare birds on the Chathams would probably also make great eating. The local woodpigeon, or parea, for instance, is considerably bigger than the kereru once highly prized by Maori, so would obviously provide a good feed. But like many of the birds native to the island they really are rare.

The Chathams - 860km east of Christchurch - has suffered like the rest of New Zealand from the wholesale clearance of forest and the introduction of rats, mice, pigs, possums, hedgehogs, cats and dogs. As a result, several species of birds have become extinct and many more are under threat.

The parea got down to just 40 birds in the late 1980s, and even though numbers are now up to about 500, they're still considered endangered.

But you'd hardly have known that if you'd come with us to the Awatotara Valley - an island of bush reserve on an island which has largely been cleared for farming - where our island guide Val Croon Jnr took us in hope of seeing the equally rare Chatham Islands tui.

As we drove up the hill in our mini-bus we suddenly saw three large, greyish birds flying across the road and down into the bush. "Parea," shouted Val, and we leaped out to take a look.

Sure enough, not far below the road three fine, fat pigeons were feeding enthusiastically on some berries, kindly posing while I lined up my big lens and took some photos.

A bit further up the road, we spotted an even bigger parea sitting in a macrocarpa tree. It sat unconcerned while I sneaked up and snapped some nice portraits, then turned around so I could also photograph its wing plumage. And I'd no sooner finished than yet another parea landed on the branch above. This rare bird seemed altogether too common.

As we drove up out of the valley, we saw three or four parea more sitting on the pasture just through the fence. Then there were half-a-dozen more sitting on the road, so confident they let me walk up to within a few metres before taking off, providing the opportunity for further photos. There were so many, I half expected to see parea on the menu when I got back to the hotel.

The tui, which we'd gone there to see, weren't quite so accommodating though I did spy a couple of birds with that distinctive flight pattern flying from one treetop to another, and I'm confident they were tui.

The local tui, like the pigeon, is much bigger than the New Zealand variety and it, too, has been hard hit by bush clearance. In fact, it became extinct on Chatham island itself, surviving only on smallish Rangatira island.

Last year - and again earlier this year - groups of tui from Rangatira were released in the Awatotara Valley and according to Val, "they've gone very well because there've been reports of tuis from all round the island".

Val also took us to see a colony of the Chatham islands shag hunched in a howling gale on a rocky point above one of the island's spectacular blowholes. The nest site was so inaccessible that you'd think they'd be invulnerable to predators, but their numbers are thought to have fallen to only 500.

And walking round the spectacular coast near Wharekauri we came across a dozen torea, the Chatham Islands oystercatcher, perched on the rocks and feeding on the beach. Like the pigeons they seemed in good shape, but a decade ago numbers had dropped to a mere 200 though they have almost doubled since.

Of all the rare birds on the Chathams, however, the most famous would have to be the black robin and the taiko.

The Chatham Islands black robin must surely be the poster bird for recovery programmes. In 1980 there was only one breeding pair left but today there are about 200 birds on their Mangere Island sanctuary and numbers are thought to have stabilised. But equally remarkable is the story of the taiko, the Chatham Islands petrel, which was thought to be extinct until it was rediscovered in 1978 by the marvellously named Whangarei ornithologist David Crockett.

There are 16 known breeding pairs and a population of less than 150 making them, according to DoC, "among New Zealand's most endangered species, considered to be on the brink of extinction".

Still, at least there is hope. Local landowners Liz and Bruce Tuanui have put a protective covenant on the 2.5ha of their land at Sweetwater where taiko burrows have been found. The Taiko Trust, set up by Crocket, has built a predator-proof fence around the area. DoC and trust volunteers have an intensive recovery programme under way.

We didn't get to see taiko but we were able to look across the Awatotara Valley to see a cluster of huts, which Val described as "taiko city", the camp used by the conservation workers.

And, who knows, given what's happened with the parea population, maybe one day visitors will be able to see flocks of taiko feeding on the road ... or even find them on the menu.

CHECKLIST

Further information: Pukekohe Travel run all-inclusive tours to the Chatham Islands. Phone 0800 785 386.

Jim Eagles was taken to the Chatham Islands by Pukekohe Travel.

- NZ Herald

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on red akl_n1 at 23 Sep 2014 21:08:35 Processing Time: 702ms