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A Moonlight Sonata with Bronwen & Alfie Kākā

A Moonlight Sonata with Bronwen & Alfie Kākā

A big full moon the other night, and I took the opportunity to catch up with some of my pals for a few sugar waters at the dam feeders. It was a great occasion, with plenty of skraarking, whistling and merriment after what has seemed a late start to spring. When it came time to roost, the night was still clear and flooded with moonlight, and feeling a little light-headed, I took the long way home to Valley View, following the moonbeams up to the western scarp, then wheeling left along the ridges to the upper valley so I could glide slowly home and just soak up the view. Night sounds rose up, the whistle of kiwi, a ruru in the distance, and the last calls of the other kākā as they said their goodbyes to each other.

Then far below me I saw a person, racing swiftly downhill from a clearing and disappearing under the canopy far from any of the paths. An unusual sight this late, so curious, I dropped into a tight turn, aiming for a perch on a māhoe tree nearby.

For some reason I misjudged it a little and landed rather heavily, which attracted the young woman’s attention. I recognised her at once as Bronwen who I’d first seen when she was monitoring kākā nests. She laughed cheerily as she recognised me.

Bronwen: Hey Alfie!

Alfie: Hey Bronwen!

Bronwen: What’s with the crash landing – enjoyed too many sugar waters perhaps?

Alfie: “What a great night to be out Bronwen. There’s something special about a night tour around the valley don’t you think? There’s so much more to see. But I don’t see many other humans around. What are you doing here – not monitoring kākā nests surely?”

Bronwen: Isn’t it beautiful Alfie, and you’re right. The valley is just amazing at night. Right now I’m tracking ducks, helping Katie Sheridan with her research on their habitat behaviour. You remember, Katie, you interviewed her last year. Forest ducks, brown teal, or to put it simply, pāteke.

Alfie: Of course. What are you up to with them now?

Bronwen: Katie’s project is exploring how far they move during the day and the night, what their ideal habitat is, and whether they consistently roost and forage in the same locations.

Alfie: How do you do that?

Bronwen: We have about 10 pāteke wearing small transmitter backpacks. We can locate the birds using this hand-held receiver. I know it looks like an old TV aerial but you would call it a Yagi-Uda tracking antenna. When the receiver picks up a signals from a duck with a transmitter it beeps. The closer you get to a duck wearing a transmitter, the louder the beeps.

Alfie: Yagi-Uda. Those old things. But why not just use binoculars like you use for us kākā? Or even…the closer you get to the duck, the louder the quack?

Bronwen: Ha! Because pāteke are most active at night Alfie, they like to hide in dense vegetation, and they don’t quack all the time.

Alfie: OK. So what have you found out about them so far?

Bronwen: They really are forest ducks. And they can climb quite high up the hills to roost in warm dry areas during the day. Not where you would expect to see a duck at all. We track them coming down to feed in the creeks and along the lakes at night. They can travel big distances. The fun part of my job is clambering through bush, up and down steep slopes, off-track, and in the dark, and at times up to my knees in mud.

Alfie: That sounds very intrepid Bronwen. But is it really fun?

Bronwen: Well you get better at getting around in the dark with practice. You get a feel as to where you are without being able to see. It’s great fun, the wilder the better.

Alfie: And what will the research tell us?

Bronwen: Most of what we know about pāteke has been by found by observing them where there are bigger populations, like Northland, Great Barrier Island, and Coromandel. Because the birds are so rare, DoC and others are working to help them recover and establish new areas where they can be safe. By studying them in Zealandia, we are seeing how they behave in a forested environment. That helps us choose new habitats where they will thrive.

Alfie: And enjoy their lives too! That’s awesome Bronwen. How did you get involved as a volunteer?

Bronwen: The first volunteering I did at Zealandia was guiding, then I started monitoring kākāriki and kākā…

Alfie: Excellent!

Bronwen: … up here in the upper valley mostly, plus pest audits and winter planting. I also helped with kiwi tracking and catching and holding kiwi while DNA samples were taken for a project Dr Helen Taylor was doing to study kiwi genetics and breeding success. That got me started on night work in the valley as well as going to Long Island in the Marlborough Sounds.

Alfie: It must be tricky working at night here.

Bronwen: I love it Alfie. When you first visit Zealandia at night it’s a different world. At first, particularly off-track, I felt like an interloper in an environment where wildlife is so at home, it’s as different…

Alfie: …as night from day?

Bronwen: Right Alfie! It’s such an amazing experience. I think we humans forget sometimes that the valley doesn’t shut down at 6pm. Everything comes alive, in a whole new way. For a start, there are creatures that might hardly ever be seen otherwise. Kiwi, pāteke, and ruru are the obvious ones people think of, but there are heaps of others too. And even the animals that you can see in daylight behave differently at night. Tuatara can be very active. I’ve seen them on tracks every few metres after a warm day. And after a while it’s the whole nocturnal ecosystem you start to notice. I love the little things that come alive at night, like koura (crayfish) and freshwater fish. They come out in the creeks where you wouldn’t generally see them during the day. And the tree wētā come crawling out of wherever they’ve been hiding. There are also lots of geckos, skinks, and beautiful green leaf-veined slugs. Then there are the special times when the valley can appear like an enchanted forest. There have been magical experiences. Glow worms surrounding a waterfall in starlight. Galaxies everywhere…

Just then, the moon went behind a solitary cloud, the light faded, deepening the shadows around us and making the stars appear brighter. We were both quiet for a while as we took it all in. Then I heard a strange beeping from the direction of the Yagi-Uda.

Bronwen: Hey, that’s a pāteke I need to track. Nice to see you old buddy, but I’ve got to fly.

She skipped off quickly and disappeared down a steep ridge heading to the lake. “Got to fly”. What was that about? How can they be so happy without being able to? Still, a wise old bird once told me of the dangers of inappropriate aviamorphism, so I put the thought aside, then all thoughts, as I rose on a freshening breeze and banked into a lazy glide back to Valley View. Approaching the lake, I looked down as a reflection of the moon appeared, and nearing home, I suddenly saw stars of light flash in the water near the shore. Dabbling ducks perhaps.

Want to learn more about pāteke research? Join us for Katie Sheridan’s Seminar on Wednesday 14th October 2015.

You can also read more about Helen Taylor’s little spotted kiwi research here.

Bronwen working with pāteke & little spotted kiwi. Photos by Helen Taylor (kiwi) & Katie Sheridan (pāteke)
Katie Sheridan tracking pāteke using telemetry gear. Photo by Bronwen Shepherd
Katie Sheridan holding a pāteke. Photo by Bronwen Shepherd
Native leaf-veined slug. Photo by Bronwen Shepherd

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