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Jim Tait and Kathy Ombler  - Voices of the Kaiwharawhara
ZEALANDIA Ecosanctuary

Jim Tait and Kathy Ombler - Voices of the Kaiwharawhara

Interviews and text by Janel Hull

Jim Tait and Kathy Ombler are Ōtari-Wilton’s Bush volunteers protecting native birds one rat trap at a time.

Jim checks a rat trap on the Kaiwharawhara Trail in Otari-Wilton’s bush, uncovering a trapped mouse. Photo: Janel Hull

On a drizzling spring day, Kathy Ombler and Jim Tait walk along their trap lines in Ōtari-Wilton’s Bush. They are both long-term members of RAMBO, a volunteer group dedicated to trapping pests in the park.

The pair have an encyclopedic knowledge of traps and bait. At the first trap, Jim explains that the wooden box holds a rat trap coated in peanut butter. But not just any peanut butter, it’s a special blend developed by Wellington-based company Fix & Fogg specifically for rats. Kathy jumps in, explaining that they sometimes use mayonnaise or “rabbit jerky” to catch other tricky predators.

Kathy takes charge on the second trap, a DOC 200. She carefully sets off the trap with a raucous bang, then uses a plier-like tool to re-set the metal jaws over the fresh bait.

Listen to Kathy set off the DOC 200 Trap

Kathy unscrews the top of a DOC 200 trap to check for predators and bait. Photo: Janel Hull

Kathy and Jim walk these dedicated trap lines every three or four weeks along with about 15 other RAMBO members. Since trapping and poison efforts began in 1997, the park has mostly eradicated possums, stoats, and weasels. Now, the team find about “100 rats a year, maybe 20 hedgehogs.” The two subtly grimace at the mention of hedgehogs, noting that “hedgehogs do horrible things in the trap because they go mushy and decompose quickly.” These hearty volunteers are not easily fazed.

At a stop along the awa, Kathy shoots Jim a cheeky look and asks “can I tell the story?” With his nod, she explains that one day she was looking out from her home over Ōtari-Wilton’s Bush and saw a helicopter hovering over the bush line.

It turns out, Jim was walking his trap line and had attempted to climb a tree to take a peek at a kākā’s nest. He fell, breaking his leg in two spots and was lifted out to hospital. The duo chuckle at Jim’s leg-breaking enthusiasm for predator trapping.

They now take health and safety very seriously. Jim personally trains new volunteers on safety, they’ve developed a grab and go kit, and staff are prepared to respond to emergencies.

Rat traps are located approximately every 15-metres in the park to protect kākā and other native birds, especially during spring nesting season. Photo: Janel Hull

The team are so dedicated to the trapping pests because they know firsthand how impactful it is for native birds. In over 10 years of volunteering, they’ve seen the magical transformation from “maybe magpies and one tūī on our street just near here,” to a neighbourhood reverberating with the calls of kākā, tūī, kākāriki, and kererū.

As the walk continues, we stop at an ancient hollowed Hinau tree. Two kākā are beginning to nest in the hollows for the spring. Jim clearly has a soft spot for these young kākā, “they can’t fly for about a week and that’s when they’re really vulnerable to things like dogs as well as stoats and cats.” To prepare for breeding season, they monitor their closely spaced rat traps and fence off nesting areas to keep out domestic animals like dogs.

Kathy and Jim know that every Wellingtonian can play a part in a predator-free future for kākā. They note that “Backyard trapping is a good place to start” to support birds. They also encourage park-goers to keep dogs on leads in the park.

In a 2017 study in Ōtari, motion-detecting cameras revealed that a surprising number of dogs were roaming off trail into the bush. Although most neighbours and park-goers respect the rules, these few exceptions can be devastating. Off leash dogs can attack native birds, eggs, and lizards. Dogs can also accidentally eat poisonous bait that is spilled from possum bait stations. To keep both dogs and native birds safe, the team encourage Wellingtonians to keep their dogs on lead except when in dedicated off-leash exercise areas.

At the end of our walk, I ask Jim what makes him hopeful about the future of Ōtari. He immediately responds “the community,” emphasising that “it’s not just the volunteers. It’s all the people walking the park” that contribute to this special park in the heart of Te-Whanganui-a-Tara/Wellington. With all Wellingtonians doing their part, this bird-loving duo is hopeful that the park will continue to ring even louder with the song of native birds.

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