Let the birds back in

August 8, 2018 12:00 pm

Wellington’s birds are coming back and about to take off.

Following tui, kākā and kererū, expect kiwi to start appearing in capital city backyards soon.

The return of our native wildlife is being orchestrated by Predator Free Wellington and Capital Kiwi, both freshly constituted as charitable entities and backed by a $3.275 million grant from Predator Free 2050 Limited.

Its conductors are James Wilcocks and Paul Ward, who last year prepared separate expressions of interest for funding.

James works for Predator Free Wellington, a partnership between Wellington City Council, Greater Wellington Regional Council and the NEXT Foundation.

He is supporting and connecting the many passionate community trapping groups in the city’s suburbs, helping grow populations of native birds and creating a halo effect around the Zealandia sanctuary.

In Miramar a single tui counted in the late 1990s has become 146 in the latest community survey, kererū and kingfishers have returned, and little blue penguins, native lizard and gecko populations are thriving with intensive predator control.

The peninsula was declared possum free in 2006 through work led by Greater Wellington Regional Council. New plans aim to remove rats and stoats, spread the success formula into Seatoun, Island Bay and the city, then in successive waves north to Porirua.

“Predator Free Wellington is following the energy in suburbs and schools,” James says. “We provide coordination, resources and technical support so we can realise measurable conservation outcomes.”

In the trees behind The Garage Project in Aro Valley, Paul points out where kākā have “tagged” upper branches. A couple of years ago kākā were a rare sight, but now the boisterous parrot is part of the identity of suburbs surrounding Zealandia. Paul meets at the brewery regularly with fellow trail runners and mountain bikers who check trap lines in Polhill Reserve and off tracks bordering Brooklyn and Highbury.

He had a eureka moment when he sat down with conservation mates and realised the scrub-covered 20,000 hectares south and west of the city could become perfect kiwi habitat, if they could find a way to get rid of stoats.

Mike Grace is a director of the biggest chunk of it, Terawhiti Station, and it’s been owned by his family since it was first logged and burnt in the late 1800s.

He’s been dreaming of breathing life back into the “degraded, crumbling hill country”, diversifying use – through wind generation, carbon capture, honey production, tourism – and creating a premium beef brand.

“Bringing kiwi back is one of the pathways to get us there, using the land for what it’s best suited for.”

Paul established Capital Kiwi to realise the mission. He has just returned from a visit to Whakatāne Kiwi Trust to look at how the community is responding to the kiwi that spill from neighbouring hills into backyards and works with local dog owners on kiwi aversion programmes.

He explains how New Zealand needs bigger chunks of predator-free country because populations of birds like kiwi, kakapō, kōkako, tieke, hihi and others have reached carrying capacity on many of the offshore islands they are currently restricted to.

Paul and James have now combined the energy and resources of the two projects.

Kate Hiatt from the Wellington Community Trust admires the way they have communicated their vision and built relationships – with iwi, businesses, land owners and community groups – that will be necessary for success. They knocked on the trust’s door just as it was considering how to disburse accumulated reserves for significant legacy projects. “Timing is important.”

A recent survey of businesses on Miramar showed 96 percent were willing to participate by changing behaviours and having a predator control device on their premises.

Political leaders are enthusiastic too. Greater Wellington Regional Council Chairman Chris Laidlaw lives in Karori and says he has a morning coffee watching kākā on his veranda, tilting their heads as if to query what he’s up to.

His answer is the same as most people in the capital – let the birds back in.

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