A 24-year-old Dutch student has spent much of the past five months walking through the Bushy Park rainforest and looking for tiny, flitting yellow birds.

Ellis Bemelmans, a masters-level biology student from Wageningen in Holland, volunteered to monitor the endangered hihi (stitchbirds) introduced to the 90-hectare predator-free forest reserve near Wanganui.

Her specialist interest is animal behaviour and she saved up to pay for her trip. It has been money well spent, as it is an experience she would happily repeat.

"It was a wonderful chance to experience what it's like to be in the field for a very long time."


She has been staying at the historic Bushy Park homestead, 25km from Wanganui, with its managers. A nice place, but isolated, she said, adding that she had missed being able to bike anywhere she wanted within 10 minutes.

It was what she had heard about New Zealand's scenery and bird life that prompted her to look for field work in this country.

Forty-four hihi were released at the bush reserve in March this year. They were all youngsters, caught on Tiritiri Matangi Island. Feeding stations and nest boxes were set up for them before they arrived.

Miss Bemelmans' job has been to assess their behaviour and survival. She does that by walking the forest and sitting by the feeding stations, noting the location and the colour bands of the hihi she sees.

She knows for sure that at least 20 have survived the shift.

"My survival rates are based on what I actually see. The females are very hard to spot - they're just brown, and quieter as well, and they seem to use the feeders a lot less and the feeders are the best place to spot them."

A cat killed one male bird that flew out of the reserve to a nearby garden, and a few others are said to have been killed by morepork and falcons.

Recently, a group from the Tiritiri Matangi project visited. They said the birds seemed bigger, brighter and louder at Bushy Park.


"They seem to be doing fine, they seem to like it here," Miss Bemelmans said.

This is the first breeding season for the young birds and the signs are encouraging. They have already built two nests and another is on the way.

"They don't have very obvious mates. That's not surprising, because stitchbirds as a species have a wide variety of mating systems, not just pairs."

Hihi are native to the North Island and its outlying islands, but became limited to Little Barrier Island. Populations have since been established on Kapiti, Mokoia and Tiritiri Matangi islands, and on the mainland at Zealandia, Maungatautari near Cambridge, in the Waitakere Ranges and now Bushy Park.

Having a lot of different populations should add genetic diversity and spread the risk of extinction, Miss Bemelmans said.

She is now analysing her data and writing a report, to be checked by Wanganui ornithologist Peter Frost and handed to her supervisor in The Netherlands. She leaves Bushy Park next month, to tour New Zealand with her boyfriend and return home in December.