The elusive grey ghost: Searching for the South Island kōkako

By David Mitchell In Ecologic, From Our Archive

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NZ LISTENER 11 July 1987, #2472, p48

Painting of a North Island kōkako (blue wattle) and a South Island kōkako (orange wattle) by JG Keulemans

In a remote part of Stewart Island, there is a sudden flash of grey and a large bird emerges from the top of a rimu and flies a short distance to another tree-top. It disappears into the branches , calls, and then in another blur of darker grey against the slate-grey sky crosses to a further rimu, where again it disappears into the branches. Just another bird? Not to the naturalist who has rushed from a nearby tent, binoculars and camera in hand.

The bird’s bell-like call could be that of a tui, but bird-watcher Rhys Buckingham is convinced by the bird’s size, wing shape and flight rhythm, that it is the South Island kōkako, a bird many people believe is extinct.

Observations are carefully written down and the tape-recorded bird-songs are painstakingly replayed and studied. Later the songs will be electronically analysed and enhanced in an attempt to pin down this elusive bird.

For six years Buckingham’s quest has been supported at various stages by the Forest Service, Wildlife Service and friends. However, the search for the South Island kōkako has been largely a personal crusade. No one else has been involved in the search for the South Island kōkako so continuously and with such dedication. Last summer Buckingham’s perseverance was finally rewarded with several positive sightings and a small item of definite proof, a feather identified as coming from the kōkako.

The South Island kōkako, almost identical in appearance to its North Island cousin, has distinctive orange wattles (ears) instead of the royal-blue around the bill of the North Island species.

According to Maori tradition, kōkako were once more abundant than tuis, and in the mid-1800s were present in good numbers in parts of Canterbury, Otago, Fiordland and Nelson. But by then it appears populations were declining, with birds reported in Dunedin and the Catlins but not in between.

On the West Coast, kōkako were numerous in places. In the early 1890s explorer Charlie Douglas wrote from his camp in the Whitcombe Valley that kōkako were “about in dozens” (from Mr Explorer Douglas, edited by John Pascoe). Now the destruction of habitat, predators and competitors has beaten the birds back to such an extent that any survivors must be living in extremely isolated pockets, and are likely to die out.

From his intermittent searches in different parts of the South Island, Buckingham, 39, has remained convinced that kōkako survive in several areas. With the caution of an experienced survivalist, Buckingham says circumstantial evidence suggests South Island kōkako “exist in very low numbers in some areas of forest in the South Island and on Stewart Island”.

Buckingham’s background includes a BSc in zoology from Otago University in 1971. “I was very keen on entomology, but they made it all so academic it drove me up the wall,” he says. So, abandoning academia, he took to the hills, taking a variety of jobs, running nature programmes, cutting tracks, exploring and recording material for government departments. His work has taken him to Fiordland, south-east, central and north Otago, Nelson, Marlborough and Stewart Island.

Buckingham lives the life of a migrant bird himself, spending part of the year in North Island forests studying the North Island kōkako and part searching various locations in the South Island. He camps in remote areas, going through a daily routine of checking various sites and recording observations, but often a week’s work comes to naught. Home, when he calls there, is a bach in Nelson where he keeps written records and precious tape-recordings. He has few material assets save seven tape recorders, his photographic equipment and camping gear. But as a result of his labours, Buckingham has a collection of tape-recorded calls he believes were made by kōkako.

A North Island kōkako, photo/Matt Binns

While on Stewart Island in 1980 Buckingham learned of a population of kōkako still thought to be surviving, and since then he has sought confirmation of what he regarded as solid reports. After extensive searching he has shown that kōkako still survive in scrubby terrace country cut by ravines in the northeast branch of the Freshwater, one of two large rivers draining into Patterson Inlet. Buckingham also believes he heard kōkako during a three-month stay by a tributary of the Caples River, north of Lake Wakatipu.

In between work on the kōkako, Buckingham has also been involved in hunts in north-west Nelson and Fiordland, looking for another threatened bird, the kakapo. “It was a real relief to do the kakapo work,” says Buckingham. “Other scientists say the kakapo is difficult to work with because it is so shy and elusive. But the difficulties fade into insignificance compared with the kōkako.”

Why then does he persist with such a difficult quest?

“Because of the quality of the bird. I am quite sure it has some individual characteristics that make it extraordinary.” He has found signs indicating kōkako grubbing in moss at certain times of the year, which he describes as “very unusual behaviour”. The other quality that entices and encourages the search is that haunting organ-like call of the kōkako, which is part sound and part vibration.

Some of the calls Buckingham has recorded, and which he believes were made by the kōkako, are almost identical to those made by the North Island kōkako, others sound different to the North Island bird. Last summer by the Freshwater, Buckingham recorded “unequivocal kōkako calls”.

The resonant bell-like sound appears similar to recorded calls of the North Island kōkako, but simply identifying the call for certain provides problems. The kōkako, like some other native birds, is a born mimic. In the North Island, kōkako living in isolated situations have been found to copy other birds’ songs, particularly tuis.

But the kōkako does have its own distinctive call, with the best description coming from Charlie Douglas: “Indescribably mournful. The wail of the wind through a leafless forest is cheerful compared to it. Perhaps the whistling of the wind through the neck of an empty whisky bottle is the nearest approach to it, and is sadly suggestive of departed spirits.”

(To hear sound recordings of a North Island kōkako, click here.)

The 19th-century New Zealand bird authority W L Buller kept a South Island kōkako in captivity. He said its melancholy call in a high key sounded exactly like “Ko wai koe?” (“Who are you?”). “At other times it produced a short mellifluous whistle and every now and then a liquid bell-note, quite indistinguishable from the evening tolling of a tui,” he wrote in the Manual of the Birds of New Zealand (1882). “It occasionally, but not often, sounded like a rich organ-note, short but of surpassing sweetness.”

Some bird-lovers feel the South Island kōkako is already extinct, but over the past 20 years there have been persistent reports of possible sightings, with the most authoritative reports coming from specific areas in Nelson and Mt Aspiring and Fiordland national parks. However, until last summer, none of these sightings was confirmed.

The kōkako features in legends of Maui’s attempts to get the sun to travel more slowly across the sky so he could have a longer day. When Maui wanted to slake his thirst after the battle, he asked several birds to help him. Tieke (the saddleback), hihi (the stitch-bird) and toutouwai (a robin) failed to help him and incurred his displeasure. But the kōkako obliged, bringing a draught of water in its distinctive wattles. As a reward, the legend says, Maui pulled its legs, making them long, as they are today. To show appreciation kōkako moved along the ground in leaping hops rather than flying through the air like the other forest children of Tane.

Now Buckingham has proved the existence of South Island kōkako in at  least very small numbers, there lies another question – is there any hope of saving the grey ghost? Unanswerable questions follow one after another. Is it already too late? Has Buckingham located the last of the South Island kōkako? Is it already doomed to go the way of the huia? Obviously, Buckingham thinks not. But how long will his work for this elusive bird go on? Buckingham responds: “For as long as the South Island kōkako doesn’t become extinct before I do.”

Note: the South Island kōkako was declared extinct by the Department of Conservation in January 2007. Despite this, sightings are occasionally reported. Rhys Buckingham and other enthusiasts continue to search for it.

See also:

Rediscovering the takahē
The last huia



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