People right in the heart of New Zealand's northernmost city could soon hear the raspy call of kiwi from just up the road.
After 10 years of dealing to animal and plant pests in the rugged, forest-cloaked hills fringing Whangarei's inner suburbs and CBD, the Pukenui Western Hills Trust is ready to release 12 kiwi into a managed 3500ha area.
''It will be the first translocation in New Zealand to be so close to a city's CBD,'' trust chairman Max Hutchings said.
The Department of Conservation (DoC) has given its backing for the first in a series of releases of about 40 birds altogether over three years, he said.
A blessing ceremony to welcome kiwi back to the 17,000ha greater Pukenui forest is planned for March 17, followed by the birds' release into the wild, well away from the public eye later that night.
In some ways the juvenile kiwi will be returning home, bringing local DNA with them. The birds were raised on Hauraki Gulf kiwi-creche island Motuora, but incubated at Auckland Zoo from eggs taken from the western section of the greater Whangarei Kiwi Sanctuary.
The later releases into Pukenui's steep and deep forest will be of birds raised on the kiwi creche Matakohe-Limestone Island in Whangarei Harbour, Mr Hutchings said.
The great swathe of Pukenui forest — where magnificent, ancient kauri still stand because the land was too rugged to extract them from — is listed by DoC as "a level one site of ecological significance", and has the second highest level of vegetation and biodiversity in the wider ecological district.
After 10 years of work by the trust, and also due to the inner forest's density, it is "relatively" weed-free, although ginger plant and other weeds grow around its urban fringe, fulltime ranger Bevan Cramp said.
Last year 30 mustelids (24 stoats, four weasels and one ferret), more than 250 rats and nine feral cats were trapped, most on the buffer zone, he said.
The introduced kiwi will be a long way inland from that buffer zone, and big enough to protect themselves from such predators, he said.
"Every kiwi will be fitted with a transmitter and they'll be monitored weekly for 12 weeks, then monthly three times," Mr Hutchings said.
"The only time we may need to handle them is when the transmitter gets taken off."
As for where those kiwi might toddle off to once in the wild: "They'll do what they like. Some of them will probably just walk right on out."
If they do, they could meet up with wild kin as there are now generations of them breeding in the Kiwi Sanctuary's rural western reserves.
Recent reports of the raspy night-time shriek being heard in the Pukenui Western Hills might relate to kiwi which have wandered into the "back of the hills", but more likely were pukeko or other birds.
While signs of old burrows and broken eggs have been found in the hills, no living birds have been proven to live there for many years, probably decades.
Readiness for the March release has been achieved in collaboration with Richard Shepherd, from the Ngati Kahu O Torongare hapu, Whangarei District Council, Northland Regional Council and DoC.
The pre-release ceremony on March 17 will be at Maunu Primary School. Four public meetings are planned at different venues in February to engage the wider community about Pukenui, kiwi and the threat uncontrolled dogs pose to them.
They will be at Kara Kokopu Community Hall, Hurupaki School, Maunu Primary School and Whangarei Quarry Gardens.
Anyone who wants to sponsor one of the kiwi can email email@example.com for details. All proceeds from this will go to Pukenui Western Hills Forest Charitable Trust for the continued effort to protect native species and restore Pukenui forest, Mr Cramp said.