Kea Conservation Trust Summer Survey - 2011
At the beginning of 2011, Andy joined in for a few days on the Kea Conservation Trust's annual Summer Survey. The Summer Survey goes on for approximately two weeks at the start of each year and takes in Kea heartlands in the Hawdon Valley near Arthur's Pass, Borland in Fiordland and the Nelson Lakes region. The Survey combines the efforts of the New Zealand Department of Conservation (DoC), a number of PhD students and the Kea Conservation Trust in order to find out as much information about the Kea as can be obtained at once. This involves taking note of where and when Kea are seen in these regions, but also capturing Kea and giving them specific combinations of coloured leg bands in order to allow them to be identified as a specific individual when they are seen again. In addition to this, the PhD students compile information or conduct tests whilst the Kea are captured - taking blood samples or feather samples for example - to further the knowledge of the species. The DoC staff were particularly interested in calculating survival rates of fledgling Kea. To this end, male or female Kea that were clearly in breeding pairs were (if caught) fitted with small radio transmitters to allow the DoC staff to track the birds to their nests to band, test and measure any eggs, hatchlings or fledglings that could be found.
Andy tagged along for three days of the survey, which for him started on the 9th January. After a pleasant scenic drive from Christchurch Airport out to the Hawdon Valley - 30 kilometres before reaching Arthur's Pass, Andy arrived at the base for the Survey - Kidson House, a facility not dissimilar from a superb backcountry hut, but privately owned by Christchurch Boys School. Kidson House sits at the base of Woolshed Hill, a steep 1400 metre peak on the ridgeline up the Eastern side of the Hawdon Valley. By the time Andy arrived, the other volunteers on the Summer Survey had returned to Kidson House after a few nights camped out on the Woolshed Hill ridgeline on the Savannah Range. The results of the Kea survey on the ridge were mixed, with the survey site nearest base and the site furthest from the base proving to be the most fruitful sites for Kea capture and testing. With the team having come down from a number of nights in the bush, the decision was made to relax at Kidson House for the day. In order to test my own fitness, I decided to walk the steep trail from Kidson House up to (just shy) of the summit of Woolshed Hill. The two-hour round trip followed a steep route uphill through native bush, populated with various bird life - Bellbirds, Grey Warblers, Riflemen, Brown Creepers. The walk was a quite tiring uphill slog, but thankfully short enough to not tire me out for the work ahead. The view at the bush line across the Hawdon Valley was superb, providing a great view of the Hawdon River and it's confluence with the Waimakariri.
Heading back down to the Base, it was time for dinner and to meet the whole of the Team. It certainly was a multi-national crew with representation from Ireland, South Africa, Canada and Lithuania as well as a number of Kiwis. The evening meal was a superb group effort of bangers and mash - the sausages cooked expertly Braai style by our South African representative. After the meal, there was time for an impromptu game of cricket/baseball involving a baseball and one of a selection of branches of wood. Trying our best to avoid being devoured by sandflies, the game was great entertainment, despite the dangerously rocky and lumpy outfield. Then off to bed in preparation for a hard day's slog the next day.
The next day dawned with exceptional weather for our team walk up the Hawdon Valley. The volunteers were all paired up - Andy was paired with the Irish representative - an experienced Kea handler doing a PhD at Canterbury University. Given Andy's lack of experience and comparative lack of fitness, they were given the easiest survey site. The mere matter of an 7 mile trek up the Hawdon River to Hawdon Hut followed by an hour long climb up towards Walker Pass. The track up to Hawdon Hut follows and criss-crosses the Hawdon River numerous times, ensuring that your socks and shoes get soaked through. At the Hawdon River's confluence with East Hawdon Stream, the two DoC workers split away to from the rest of us to take up their position up on Blackball Ridge overlooking the confluence - supposedly the most difficult site to access. As the rest of us continued up the Hawdon Valley, pairs gradually split off taking up positions on each side of the valley. By the time Hawdon Hut was reached, there were just two pairs left. After a break, Andy's pairing continued up to the 'easy site' just shy of Walker Pass at about 1100 metres.
The site was bleak, with no obvious space to pitch a tent between the rocky bluffs, the rocky outcrops and the rocky rocks. In order to pitch the tent, two hours were painstakingly spent extracting rocks from a generally flattish area to allow a tent to be pitched. Sadly, despite the effort employed, the tent opened into a gorse bush and the base of the tent was still incredibly lumpy due to some rocks being wholly inextractable. With the tent pitched and a rehydrated meal eaten, it was time to start Kea surveying. In fact, the first Kea to arrive appeared almost as soon as we reached the site. A pair of Kea landed and started indulging in some courtship behaviour with the male of the pair allopreening and allofeeding the female. The female then crouched down and extended her wings, and with the male looking decidedly interested in the female, they sadly flew off - possibly distracted by the presence of the Kea survey team.
To the survey itself, and the Kea activity in the survey period (between 6 and 9pm) was fairly low. A number of Kea flew over the survey site from the Walker Pass direction over and further up the Hawdon Valley. A group of two Kea landed and looked intently at the survey team whilst a third Kea investigated the campsite. This third Kea stole a sock that was drying on a guy rope and flew over the campsite with it in his beak, depositing the sock in another gorse bush. Activity tailed off through the middle of the survey before the same male and female that had been courting earlier returned. This time, after a bit more allofeeding, they stuck around to investigate what was going on. Now, I'm not going to go into how you actually catch a Kea in case any readers have an overwhelming desire to do so themselves, but suffice it to say that the male Kea - who was particularly intrigued - proved to be highly cheeky. Firstly, he rummaged through Andy's camera bag before stealing the bait from a trap and hopping off with it.
Eventually, he was caught. He was unbanded, and so he quickly found himself fitted with a new fetching set of jewellery on his legs that would help identify him in the future. His beak length was measured, his head size was measured, he was weighed (920g, by the way. Pretty hefty for a bird that flies so well), some feather samples were taken and a small amount of blood taken. Andy had to hold the Kea, and given his size he was a particularly strong bird and he struggled throughout the testing. Despite this, Andy managed to avoid being bitten (though possibly may have caused his survey partner to be bitten when the bird briefly got his beak free when the feather samples were being taken). Andy got the opportunity to name the bird. Given his propensity to be a little bit cheeky, coupled with the fact that he was a rather large bird, Andy decided to call him "Wideboy". The Kea's feathers were incredibly deep and thick; not a surprise given they mostly live in alpine areas. This probably also helps explain why they're mainly active at dawn and dusk during the summer.
Wideboy had only been caught bang on the 9pm mark, and by the time he had been processed, it had gone 10pm and it was getting dark and cold on the pass. Wideboy was released and immediately flew off to join his mate. So, that was it for the night.
The next phase of the survey was due to start at 6am the next morning, and after hearing Kea calls at about 5.30am expectations were high. Sure enough, pretty soon Wideboy and his partner were back. Wideboy was a little bit more circumspect after having been caught the day before, but his mate was still curious about what we were up to. Wideboy flew around the pass calling for the female, trying to drag her away from the interesting things that the survey team had on the peak. Wideboy did manage to lure her away eventually though, however. Twice more, the same pair returned to the survey site only to fly off again. Other than that, the morning survey was uneventful. Over the radio, it turned out that it had been a quiet night for all the other survey sites (except for the DoC group who'd had an incredibly busy site) and so the decision was made to return to base at Kidson House. Just as the tent was about to be disassembled, the pair of Kea returned and the female was captured almost immediately.
The female had already been banded before, and she turned out to be a Kea called "Sally". She felt much, much smaller than Wideboy and had a much smaller beak. She still had signs of yellow colouration round the beak and cere, an indication that she wasn't yet a mature adult; though she had clearly paired up with Wideboy. Sally was processed in much the same way as Wideboy had been the previous night, only this time a radio transmitter was expertly attached to the bird to hopefully allow the DoC to track down any nest that Sally and Wideboy make in the future. Unlike Wideboy the night before, Sally hardly struggled against being handled; either due to being a much more placid bird or due to having been caught before.
With that completed, the tent was packed away and the long trek back to base began. It was another hot day - cooled only by the frequent crossing of the Hawdon River providing a cool chill of water on the feet. Most of the teams regrouped at the river confluence again, though a couple of others were still making their way down off the hills. Those who'd reconvened back at the confluence were afforded the opportunity take an extra walk up the side of the Woolshed Hill to see the nest of a Kea that the DoC guys had previously identified. The DoC workers needed to visit the nest in order to radio tag the fledglings therein as part of their research on Kea fledgling mortality rates. Really, this was an opportunity that no one could turn down so a fairly large group took the extremely steep off-track path to the nest site. Although this was only a couple of additional hours round trip, the path was very steep and was formed in very loose dirt - if formed at all. This made it not only tough to hike up, but very easy to slip back down. Nevertheless, once the nest was reached everyone was very glad to have made the trip.
One other thing that should be mentioned is that one of the DoC guys had an extremely well trained dog accompany him. The dog, named Hoki, is apparently particularly well trained as seeking out Whio (Blue Duck) nests, birds and feathers but had recently started training on the Kea. The DoC guy had collected a bag of all the Kea feathers that Hoki had found on the trip and it amounted to quite a sample. On the way up to the nest, Hoki got excited at one point over apparently nothing, but a couple of turned over stones later, and lo and behold... a Kea feather. It was quite incredible to see the dog in action.
Anyway, at the nest site (which tend to be holes dug in earth banks) the fledglings were extracted (again, I'm not going to detail how) and then processed in an small clearing in the trees. The fledglings had already been banded on a previous DoC trip to the nest, so the processing was mainly focused around fitting them with radio transmitters. Throughout the processing time, the two concerned parents circled above the site or perched in nearly trees calling repeatedly. The mournful squawking of the fledglings cut sadly through the clearing. Much like the male and female caught up on the pass, the male fledgling struggled throughout processing whilst the female seemed much more relaxed.
Once the fledglings had been placed back in the nest, it was time for a very rapid descent back to the river. During this descent, Andy managed to slip on his arse a number of times, but to be honest, he wasn't the only one. In fact, both of the DoC guys slipped over at least once.
Before long though, everyone was back at Base having spent a good couple of days out in the bush on the lookout for Kea. Andy drove back to Christchurch that night and was very helpfully put up by Pete and Chantal. During the 12 hours or so in Christchurch, there was at least one noticeable aftershock from the 7.1 earthquake a couple of months earlier. So, they weren't making it up!
Andy returned to the Hawdon Valley the next year, in January 2012. Read more about the 2012 Kea Conservation Trust Summer Survey here.
view from the top of the Woolshed Hill track showing the confluence of
the Hawdon River with the Waimakariri River. The Waimakariri flows all
the way down from here to the coast near Christchurch and is a prime
example of a braided river.
Top Right: Another view from the same location back up the Hawdon River valley showing in the distance where the valley splits at the confluence of the Hawdon River and East Hawdon Stream; part of the route that was taken up to the survey sites on the 2nd day.
Right: The Hawdon River on the walk up towards the survey points.
Bottom Left: A similar view of the river looking further up the Hawdon Valley.
Bottom Right: The whole Arthur's Pass survey team taking a well earned break on the way up the Hawdon Valley at the confluence of the Hawdon River with East Hawdon Stream.
Wideboy the Kea perched up on a rock in the evening, prior
to being captured.
Top Right: Wideboy again, this time perched in a tree looking uninterested.
Left: The campsite up on the Walker Pass, showing how bleak and barren the area was. Also, the rock in the bottom centre of the picture gives some indication of the type of stuff that had to be slept on. It made for a pretty uncomfortable night of non-sleep. Andy had a rock right under his feet that proved far from comfortable.
Bottom Left: Dawn breaking from the Walker Pass looking back down the Hawdon Valley along the river that had been trekked up the previous day.
Bottom Right: Sally the Kea. Easy to tell her apart from Wideboy due to her beak being much shorter. Also, she's already got bands round her legs which have lost their colour somewhat from the time they'd been attached to her. It was also noted that Sally had a bit of a habit of chewing her leg rings which probably also helped the colour deteriorate quickly.
|Top Left: Sally
again, this time
having a preen.
Top Right: One of the fledglings being handled by the Lithuanian representative on the Kea Survey Team
Left: Andy with Sally the Kea. It still looks as if she's got a little bit of yellow around the eye. The yellow colouration shows a Kea to be younger. More yellow, the younger the Kea (compare Sally to the fledgling in the Top Right picture, for example, who has yellow round the eye, cere and lower mandible)
Bottom Left/Right: Two pictures of Andy with Wideboy the Kea. Bottom left is pretty much a zoomed in version on the bottom right. Apologies for the slightly lower quality of these photos, taken with a different camera and in twilight conditions. You can see just how much longer Wideboy's upper mandible is than Sally's and also get an appreciation of how much bigger he is.
|Left: A picture across the Canterbury Plains from somewhere in the Selwyn District between Darfield and Canterbury. This was taken on the way back from Arthur's Pass down to Canterbury. Sunset, fields and the Tranz Alpine railway. What more could you want?|