By Jenna Gersie
After living in the tropics for nine months, traveling for a week on the North Island during New Zealand’s winter had me shivering, layering, and seeking warmth indoors. I spent as much time outdoors in the middle, and warmest part, of the day as I could. When I drove the twelve kilometres of winding, gravel road to Boundary Stream Scenic Reserve on the eastern coast of the North Island on my way from Gisborne to Napier, I stepped out of the car to very cold weather; it almost felt like it might snow. I grabbed an extra layer and my binoculars and set out on a walk.
For how cold it was (to me, at least), I was surprised to hear so much birdsong. All around me I heard the chirps of Fantails and the distinctive melodies of the Tui, a black honeyeater with an iridescent sheen and two white tufts of feathers at the throat. Almost as soon as I entered the trail, I heard a rustling above me, and raised my binoculars, expecting to see a Tui or another common bird. But feeding high in the tree was a very large bird. The shade from the tree prevented me from seeing the olive and crimson colours of some of the feathers, so it just seemed black. But as I watched, I suddenly saw through my binoculars a huge, parrot-like beak, picking fruit from the tree. I breathed a “wow” to myself when I saw the size of this beak, never having seen such a large parrot before, and certainly not in the wild. The bird above me was the Kaka, an endemic forest parrot.
Boundary Stream Scenic Reserve is a home for rare endemic New Zealand birds like the Kaka. It is one of six original Mainland Islands set up on the New Zealand mainland in the 1990s. These Mainland Islands have been set up to intensively manage introduced pests in order to restore native species and ecosystems. By continually removing introduced predators, this ongoing project creates islands of native habitat and species on New Zealand’s North and South Islands. Encompassing 802 hectares, Boundary Stream was established in 1996. It is located in the Maungaharuru Range, which is fitting, because Maori legend tells that the name Maungaharuru, meaning “rumbling mountain,” was given after a priest thrust a staff onto the mountain range, and as the staff fell, the range erupted with the song of thousands of birds.
Sadly, as the forest was converted to farmland beginning in the 1870s, many of those birds began to disappear. Herbert Guthrie-Smith, a naturalist and farmer who moved to the region in 1882, kept copious notes on the environment and species present in the area for nearly sixty years. His notes have given scientists great insight as to what Boundary Stream should look like, and this has helped with both pest control and native species reintroduction. His records have also been inspiring for local people to restore the forest to what it once was.
Guthrie-Smith recorded comments by local Maori elders, stating that the endemic Kokako, Saddleback, and North Island Robin were once common in the area. By the time Guthrie-Smith arrived in the area, however, only the robins still existed, and they were few in number. These robins were the first birds to be reintroduced to the area. In 1998, twenty-eight robins were set free in the reserve. The robins are now dispersed throughout Boundary Stream and are breeding happily. The reintroduction of the robin offered the first proof that pest control is a successful means of re-establishing native habitat and species. As I walked along the trail, I noticed a gray bird hopping right in front of a sign explaining the reintroduction of the robin. As I got closer, I saw that it was indeed a North Island Robin, prancing about and showing off the sign dedicated to him.
In 2000, New Zealand’s national icon, the Kiwi, was introduced to the reserve, and in 2001, Kokako were introduced. When the project began in 1996, the Kokako had not been seen or heard in more than 100 years. In 2001, five pairs of Kokako were brought from Te Urewera National Park. The pairs were settled into an aviary at Boundary Stream; the birds were kept captive because they have a very strong homing instinct. When these Kokako bred, the offspring were released within Boundary Stream to establish new wild populations. In addition to the populations of North Island Robins, Kiwis, and Kokakos, native Whitehead and Rifleman populations are also doing well in the area.
Rangers and volunteers trap introduced predators such as cats, possums, and rats. They also remove unwanted animals like goats and deer to protect the forest understorey. In the first few years of the project, when an understorey was nearly non-existent, 2,000 goats were killed; now a healthy sub-canopy supports the forest’s tall trees. Seedlings of native plants like Kaka Beak (Clianthus puniceus) and Yellow-flowered Mistletoe (Alepis flavida) are planted. This type of land management and predator control has offered birdlife the chance to live in a habitat similar to that which covered the North Island before the arrival of introduced species. With continued efforts by staff and volunteers, New Zealand’s native wildlife will continue to thrive.