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Kea Conservation Trust Summer Survey - 2012

Sunset over the Hawdon Valley
Sunset over the Hawdon Valley from Woolshed Ridge. The river in the background is the Waimakariri River.

A full year following the previous Kea Conservation Trust Summer Survey, Andy headed back down to the Southern Alps for another dose of Kea surveying. This time, Andy had managed to convince a friend, Ryan to come along as well which made the trip much easier. Ryan, despite living in Wellington, originally hails from Christchurch and had based himself down there for the summer months. This meant that transport and local knowledge were readily accessible. After the success of the 2011 survey, Andy had put aside 5 days for the excursion, hopefully allowing 2 trips up the Hawdon Valley rather than one. Arriving late on a Friday night at Christchurch Airport, Ryan picked Andy up and immediately hit the road up through the Canterbury Plains, through Darfield up towards Arthur's Pass. By the time they arrived at the Hawdon Valley, it was well past dark and navigating the off-road sections of the track up to Kidson House proved to be tricky. On arrival, it was good to see a number of familiar faces from the year before. Immediately off to bed with thoughts of the exercise planned for the next day.

However, the next day dawned with atrocious weather driving in from the West, across the Southern Alps. The rain was bucketing down, and the news from the Department of Conservation was that the wet weather was set to continue for three days. This really threw a spanner in the works, as given the weather was that bad down at Kidson House, at about 700m above sea level, there was a real risk of snow, freezing temperatures and dangerous conditions at the survey sites, which were mainly at sites over 1,400m above sea level or higher. Also, Kea are less likely to be out foraging or causing mischief when the weather's poor. The meant that we wouldn't be able to access our survey sites for a number of days and we would be confined to the hut, or potentially venturing down to either Arthur's Pass or Cass villages in order to entertain ourselves. Ryan and I discussed the situation, and given we had his car for transport and that the weather showed no sign of improving for a number of days, we decided that we'd decamp back down to Christchurch where we'd be more likely to find something to keep us entertained.

As we drove back down to the Canterbury Plains, the weather slowly improved. We stopped at Castle Hill - only about 30km from the Hawdon Valley. By this time, the weather had largely cleared up, but looking back towards the Southern Alps, thick black-grey clouds were camped out atop the mountains and we knew that whilst the weather was okay in Castle Hill, there's no way it had improved up the Hawdon. We got out and walked around the unusual rock formations of Castle Hill to ensure that we kept our minds in the zone required for the hiking that we'd be hoping to do later in the week. We arranged to meet Pete and Chantal down at Pomeroy's Old Brewery Inn in Christchurch later that day and soon hit the road back through the Canterbury Plains to Christchurch. By the time we reached there, the sun was largely out and we would have been completely oblivious to the terrible weather up in the Southern Alps if we hadn't been there only a couple of hours previously.

Well, if you can't go out tramping and catching Kea, then surely sitting in a pub drinking craft beers is a decent compromise?

So, Andy found lodgings at the ever-dependable Pete and Chantal's and Ryan and Andy stayed down in Christchurch for a couple of days, receiving daily weather updates from the rest of the crew up in the Hawdon. In the meantime, Andy and Ryan were able to take in a 20:20 match between Canterbury and Wellington at the scenic Hagley Oval in Central Christchurch, and were both able to view some of the devastation in Christchurch following the series of earthquakes over the previous twelve months. The majority of the City Centre remained closed, but the devastation was obvious from a distance. In the cricket, Canterbury easily overwhelmed a lacklustre Wellington outfit. Black Caps, Rob Nicol (48 from 30 balls) and Dean Brownlie (24 off 12 balls) helped Canterbury to a score of 193 - 3 from their 20 overs, despite Jeetan Patel's bowling effort of 4 - 0 - 18 - 1. In reply, Wellington lost regular wickets with only James Franklin (28 from 24) and Grant Elliott (51 from 32) offering any resistance. Wellington collapsed from 108 - 3 after 12 overs to 123 all out after 17 overs. To be fair, the result was very typical of a disappointing season of 20:20 for Wellington. You can see the scorecard here.

More beers were imbibed at Pomeroy's over the course of the time in Christchurch, but eventually on the morning of the 16th January, Andy got the call from the Hawdon Valley that the weather was set fair for the day ahead and that finally the Kea survey would begin. Stopping off briefly at Darfield to pick up some supplies for the group, Andy and Ryan headed for the hills once again and by 11am, were back up at Kidson House, preparing to depart. The teams and sites had been allocated. The news was that Ryan had been paired up with Raoul and they'd be walking to the top of Woolshed Hill and then along the ridgeline to camp at a large tarn at about 1,600m height. Andy had been grouped up with the Team Leader, Paul and a local volunteer, Neil. They'd be walking up the same way, but not covering so much distance - only walking part way along the ridgeline and camping at about 1,400m.

The walk was considerably different to the one up to Walker Pass in 2011. The distance covered was considerably less, but a very steep climb from 700m to 1,400m was required before hitting the ridgeline. The first section of the walk was up through native sub-alpine bush up to the treeline at about 1,200m before a more steady climb up through scrub and scree towards the campsite. The bush was a bit quieter than I remembered from the year before, with only the distant sound of a Grey Warbler piercing through the forest from time to time. The lack of bird song was probably not helped by us climbing in a group of five, plus Paul's trained bird-dog, Hoki. At 1,350m there was a small tarn which allowed the group to stop for a top-up of water before pressing on. Before long, Andy, Paul and Neil were at their camp site and Ryan and Raoul continued up the ridgeline and before long were out of sight.

The campsite for Andy's group was thoroughly pleasant, sheltered in a bowl just below the ridgeline - soft with tree-fallen leaves. Given the winds were chilly and gusting up from time to time, the shelter of the bowl made the campsite a much easier place to set a fire and relax in than sitting up on the ridgeline. Arriving at the site a few hours before the official survey start time of 6pm, there was time available to perform some telemetry checking. Telemetry checking involves holding an aerial attached to a scanner. The scanner can be adjusted to select from one of many different radio frequencies. Various Kea in the Hawdon Valley have had radio transmitters attached to them in the past; including the female that Andy had caught in 2011 (Sally). Each radio transmitter is set to a different frequency so that when you have the aerial and scanner, you should be able to track down the individual bird. In theory. However, in practice this turns out to be a very tricky task. The frequency range for a transmitter is very narrow, so for each frequency you also have to scan through a full range of fine tuning. As such, scanning for one frequency can take 2 to 3 minutes. Further complicating matters is that the signal given off is a regular 'beep' sound; which can be very quiet if the bird if a fair distance away. Also, even when you do manage to find a signal with the aerial pointing in a particular direction, there's no guarantee that the bird will be in that direction as the radio signals can bounce off the sides of the valley and the direction you've detected the signal from could be thoroughly misleading.

The telemetry work was time consuming, but did pick up signals from a few birds including 'Pete Townshend', 'Queenie Pow Pow' and also Sally.

And so it was on to the work. At 6pm, groups had to shift up to their respective survey sites. For Andy, it was a two minute walk slightly uphill to the survey site. For Ryan, it was a bit further. At Andy's site, the first part of the survey was very quiet with no sign or sound of Kea for a while. After about 45 minutes, two birds could be seen in the distance flying towards the West along a ridgeline running at right angles to the one we were on. This sign of activity spurred us into action with Paul unleashing a number of methods to attract their attention and draw them down to the survey site. At first, we thought these techniques had failed as it looked like the pair of birds had disappeared over the ridgeline towards Ryan and Raoul's location. However, it seems they'd perched at the top of the ridge and were eventually lured down to our site. Neil and Paul set up traps as the birds landed near our site and started to scope the place out. The birds were a pair of recent fledglings with plenty of yellow around beak and cere to identify their age and with pale feathers on their crown and even a few downy feathers remaining from their time on the nest. It was incredible how capable of flying they were given they could only have fledged within a couple of weeks before our survey. They wheeled and circled our site and flew low over it a couple of times before deciding that we had stuff that would entertain them and pique their interest.

Initially, most of their interest seemed to be in Neil's holdall rather than any of the lures that we'd placed to attract the birds to our traps. For a while, the pair stuck closely together with one in particular leading the charge to get into Neil's bag. The other bird quickly became bored by Neil's bag and instead became more interested in Neil himself - which was good news as Neil was manning his trap. Sure enough, before too long the bird was interested in the bait around the trap and was very quickly captured by Neil at the first attempt. 

As in 2011, the bird then had to be processed. The bird was a male fledgling and was weighed, measured, banded and had blood samples taken. He struggled and misbehaved for Neil which made it particularly awkward for Neil who was holding the bird. The difficulty was made even worse by the need to attach a satellite transmitter to the bird, which turned out to be a very awkward, time consuming process. By now, the noise and activity had caused a couple of other Kea to turn up. By this time, it looked like there were three fledglings (including the one being processed) but also a rather large adult male had turned up and was checking out what the team were doing by sitting and staring at the site from the top of a tree. Neil and Paul continued to process the first bird, but before too long the other birds started to get interested in the traps that had been set. So, Andy attempted to catch one of the other birds whilst the others frantically tried to finish processing the first bird. Gradually, the big adult male made his way to one of the traps and Andy was set to catch him. Unfortunately, when Andy sprung the trap, it went right over the top of the bird and it flew off along with all the other birds that had been hanging around.

This was unfortunate, but Paul had a plan B. He thought the birds were likely to hang around nearby as it was likely to be a family group concerned about the bird being processed. As such, Paul thought that if they put the captured bird into a bird bag (a safe, calming storage bag for the bird) then the others may return. Sure enough, not long after the bird had been processed, the rest of the group returned. With Paul and Neil back in the game, it wasn't long before a second bird was captured - this one a fledgling female.

This time, Andy was given the task of handling the bird, which Neil had christened 'Maude'. This bird behaved much better and was processed much more quickly than the first bird. However, none of the other birds stuck around after we released the one we'd held in the bag and so once Maude had been released, that was pretty much the night's activity over for the team. It had been an action packed evening session though, and hopes were high for another successful survey in the morning.

The next morning dawned cold - Ryan's group up at 1,600m reported the formation of icicles in their tents caused by condensation. Things were slightly more comfortable at 1,400m but it was still pretty cold for the start of the morning survey at 6am. There was no need for an alarm to be set though as at about 5.45am, Kea were calling from the trees surrounding the campsite. The team quickly got up, just in time to see the birds fly off up the ridgeline. However, this pushed expectations up further for a busy morning. However, the rest of the morning was very disappointing. The occasional Kea-call was heard in the middle distance, and a couple of times a bird could be seen flying up the valley in the distance - certainly not close enough to lure to the survey point. So, the team sat and watched the sunrise and after the survey period ended at 9am, another quick round of telemetry checks were made before pulling camp and heading back down to Kidson House.

The news from Ryan's site wasn't quite so positive with barely a sign of a Kea in either survey session, with the only activity being a curious bird who turned up just before nightfall.

And that was the 2012 survey for Andy and Ryan. A shame the first three days had been a washout as there was no chance of getting another attempt in with Andy due to catch a plane back to Wellington later that same day.

Anyone fancy a Retail Level turnover budget?
Top Left: From Andy's time down in Christchurch, this is a pair of Black Swans courting on the Avon River just outside Pomeroy's Old Brewery Inn.

Top Right: From the cricket Andy and Ryan watched at Hagley Oval. This photo shows New Zealand (and Canterbury) batsman Rob Nicol hitting the ball into the leg side.

Right: Great to see that even the professionals need a few throw downs before they go out to bat from time to time. Wellington batsman Harry Boam (nearest the camera) receives a few throw downs from the coach.

Bottom Left: A photograph of the unusual rock formations at Castle Hill at the foot of the Southern Alps, just about on the Canterbury Plains.

Bottom Right: A view from the top of Castle Hill showing the weather in the direction of Arthur's Pass.
No. I haven't done that sodding outlet level retail budget yet.
Anyone fancy a Retail Level turnover budget?
Top Left: Looking up the Hawdon Valley from Woolshed Ridge. The Hawdon Valley splits in two in the centre of the picture. In 2011, Andy took the left branch up to where the valley splits again, then climbed up to Walker Pass. From the view point on Woolshed Ridge, it looked a bloody long way away.

Top Right: A view out of the Hawdon Valley from the campsite on Woolshed Ridge. The Waimakariri River can be seen in the distance wending its way down towards Christchurch.

Left: Hoki the Bird Detecting Dog looking out from Woolshed Ridge towards the Waimakariri River catchment.

Bottom Left: Finally - some Kea! Watching us from a distance, trying to work out whether we're worth investigating further. From the large amount of yellow colouration round the beak and cere and the pale feathers on the bird's crown that this is a young bird. Given the length of the upper mandible, this is probably the male Kea that Neil caught first.

Bottom Right: The same bird coming in a little bit closer to where the group were surveying.
I found it, I found it and it was THIS big!!
No. I haven't done that sodding outlet level retail budget yet.
Taking some affirmative action.
Top Left: The female fledgling thinking about having a rummage around in Neil's holdall. Fortunately, it quickly bored of the bag and went looking for other, more entertaining objects.

Top Right: The first fledgling captured being handled by Paul, giving the bird a quick inspection before starting to process the bird with bands, transmitter et. al.

Left: Andy releasing Maude the Kea having been processed. A quick run and she soon took to the air and flew off, calling, to rejoin her family group.

Bottom Left/Right: Two pictures of Maude the Kea. Firstly, investigating a tent-peg bag that had been left around, and secondly a photo of her as she got nearer to the camera.
No. I haven't done that sodding outlet level retail budget yet.