Last week I was excited to take Frauke to Motuara Island for our monthly health check of all our young rowi. Frauke is one of the head kiwi rangers at Willowbank Wildlife Reserve, where we transport our rowi eggs once we have rescued them from the Okarito forest. Here they are artificially incubated and hatched before their release on Motuara Island where they live for about a year before they travel back to their original birthplace in Okarito forest.
Frauke looking after a kiwi egg at Willowbank.
Frauke has an extremely important job, ensuring our rowi eggs hatch and subsequently put on enough weight so that they are ready for the island.
I was excited to take her up to see more of what we do in the field and for her to see all the chicks she saw hatch and grow at Willowbank, doing well on their island paradise! Motuara is a special place as there are no mammalian predators that can harm rowi chicks, so they can live in peace and grow to over 1.2 kg – a weight considered large enough for kiwi to protect themselves against stoats.
We travelled up with some precious cargo; six rowi chicks ready for release on the island.
As we travelled out to Motuara on the ferry, we were lucky enough to see a small pod of dolphins. They came over to check out our boat and show us a new calf! We were also lucky to see king shags, lots of Australasian gannets and many other species on our way out.
On our arrival in the late afternoon, we carefully attached small transmitters to the chicks’ legs using a small band with the transmitter attached. This will allow us to find the chicks on our next visit to make sure they are gaining weight and doing well.
Attaching a transmitter to a rowi leg.
Once all the transmitters were fitted, we headed up the hill to ‘Kiwi town’, one of the areas on the island where we sometimes release the chicks as they travel up from Willowbank. We arrived just before dark and released the chicks into their burrow, wishing them well for their first night out in the ‘wild’.
For the next two days our task was to locate all the other rowi chicks that are roaming the island from previous releases. Some of these chicks needed a health check which involves weighing them to ensure they are putting on weight and measuring their bills, as well as a general check over to make sure they look happy and healthy.
Me checking a rowi on Motuara.
One of the unique characteristics about rowi is that they are known as the whanau kiwi, and we definitely see this on the island. Although they will grow up and find their own territory to live in when they are back in Okarito, they are more than happy to nest together in burrows on the island. Sometimes we can find up to 11 chicks in a large burrow together! This makes our task of checking them all much easier!
There are, however, always a few who like to travel far and wide and will nest well away from the others at each end of the island. We definitely need at least a couple of days to find them all!
With Frauke’s help, we had a successful mission, finding each chick doing well and gaining weight. Exactly what a rowi ranger likes to see.
It was a typical hot sunny day on the West Coast. Sarah and I set off in the heat to replace the transmitter on a relatively close pair of rowi called Tony and Alexis. Our walk today was through some lovely pakihi or swamp forest although, due to the amazing hot weather, it was not very muddy. This sort of forest is typified by scrubby trees such as manuka and heaps of bracken fern. There was also a fair bit of garnia – a kiwi rangers most disliked native plant – otherwise known as cutty grass. Ironically it is often a rowi’s favourite place to bed down when they are not breeding.
(I often wonder if the rowi’s preference for cutty grass is directly related to outsmarting the rangers who have to catch them).
Rowi out in Okarito bush.
So, surprise surprise, our radio tracking has led us to a cluster of Garnia bushes. Right, we must be very, very quiet….take off your pack….unzip your pocket and get your headtorch ready zzzzzzziiiiiiiipppppp …shhhhhhhh! Look for holes at the bottom of the grass. Quietly kneel and have a look in the hole for kiwi evidence…your gaiters and boots swish loudly against the grass (cringing at the thought of past memories of kiwi bursting out any side of the bush) I try to see if anyones home. Yes, I can see a leg, quick as a flash I reach for it… Ive got it! But, alas, it was the female without the transmitter. Not to worry as we still need to weigh her and collect feather samples for DNA analysis.
In the meantime the male had made his escape so after we had finished with Alexis and checked she was looking in top condition we continued tracking into Tony.
A minute or two later it became apparent that he must have nestled into another garnia bush – cheers Tony. So, same deal as before, quiet as a mouse wearing noisey gaiters and boots, we have a look and suddenly Sarah shouts, “he’s coming your way”. He pops out of the bush and runs up the hill. I turn and chase after him, getting close enough to dive on the ground but… I missed. Fiddlesticks he got away.
So we tried again, again and again… Tony just moved from one garnia bush to another and could hear us coming long before we could get close… he would often sneak slowly away while we thought we were getting closer to him.
Our mission to catch Tony ended when I turned to Sarah and said with a sigh we’ll give it one more go… we have to get him this time”. We had his garnia hideout pin-pointed and, when he burst out the other side, I followed him running parallel to the top of the hill where the track was. He made a sharp right turn on to the track and I followed, hoofing along the track. I called out to Sarah who I knew was ahead of me “he’s on the track..”. Tony, with me hot on his heals, rounded a corner and there was Sarah squatting square in the centre of the track with her arms out and Tony ran right into her arms she grabbed him and rolled back legs in the air. Got him!!! Phew!
So after the transmitter change and a lot of laughing, we sent Tony on his way for another year with his shiny new transmitter.