An ambitious project to restore native wildlife in the Bay of Islands has notched up a major milestone with the first sighting of a native gecko.
The 15cm-long Pacific gecko was spotted on the wall of a building by a caretaker on Moturua Island, one of the Ipipiri islands between Russell and Cape Brett. He sent the photo to the Project Island Song team, where it caused considerable excitement.
While the nocturnal, tree-dwelling Pacific gecko is not endangered it is mostly confined to offshore islands where it is safe from rats and other pests. However, like other native geckos, it has never been recorded on the Ipipiri islands.
Project co-ordinator Richard Robbins said the caretaker's find proved that geckos had managed to hang on when the islands were overrun by pests. A small population may have been able to survive on cliffs or a rock face where rats and mice couldn't reach them.
It generally took 10 years after pest removal before native reptiles started to reappear, he said. It was now eight years since pests were eradicated from the islands by a combination of poison drops and trapping.
"To see evidence that these species are hanging on is fantastic. We hope to see other species turn up in future. The fact that they have persisted is also an indication that the restoration is going in the right direction."
At the end of the year the group was planning to re-introduce Duvaucel's gecko to Okahu Island. Growing up to 30cm long, Duvaucel's gecko is New Zealand's largest lizard. It is the country's largest reptile after the tuatara.
Mr Robbins said Okahu had been chosen because it was furthest from the mainland and there were no plans to relocate any forest birds, which could eat young geckos, to Okahu.
Because of its size there was little chance Duvaucel's gecko had survived while pests were still on the islands.
A recent reptile survey on Okahu had found only shore skinks but what appeared to be gecko footprints had been seen on Urupukapuka, the largest island in the group. A reptile survey would be carried out on Moturua, where the Pacific gecko was seen, to see what else had clung on.
Moturua was the scene of a predator scare earlier this year when a cat jumped off a yacht and swam to the island. It took three weeks to catch the cat using a cage trap baited with tinned tuna.
Project Island Song is a community-led initiative to restore native flora and fauna to the Ipipiri islands. It brings together conservation group Guardians of the Bay of Islands, the Department of Conservation, Rawhiti hapu and island landowners. Species re-introduced so far include the tieke (saddleback), popokatea (whitehead) and toutouwai (North Island robin).