It's that time of the year when the Zealandia valley fills with the sounds of "Mum, mum, mum, mum" as newly fledged kākā chicks are weaned and taught how to fend for themselves. On a late afternoon walk yesterday, I heard those unmistakable cries near the Top Dam kākā feeders, and after a bit of hunting found the culprit high up a tree being tended by her Mum. It was none other than RB-M - the very first chick we banded this season and the first fledgling I've seen out of the nest this season. You might remember her from this story...
RB-M's mum is the lovely V-YW. She's about ten years old now (lordy how time flies!) and unusually became a mother at a very young age - at just one year old. She's onto at least her second fella though, this time an unbanded chap of unknown parentage.
Despite having fledged over six weeks ago, RB-M is still quite clumsy and gravity is not her friend. Kākā cannot fly when they fledge - it can take them a couple of weeks to get the hang of it and even longer to get proficient. Thank goodness we have the Zealandia fence to keep predators out and give these fledgling a good start in life!
A perfect way to end a lovely summer afternoon at Zealandia!
In the coming days and weeks, do keep an eye and ear out for these hilarious characters. If they have a large purple cohort band, you'll know it's a youngster. There are also unbanded fledglings out there too, and it can be hard at a glance to differentiate them from their mothers. The mothers also have yellow eye rings and will beg for food too. The chicks, however, appear much more gormless and naive, and their feathers are usually fresher too.
Earlier this week, I was checking on some kākā nestboxes at Zealandia EcoSanctuary. We do this to get an estimate of the chicks ages so we know when to band them (see this previous blog on banding baby kākā). There are special protocols we follow when checking boxes to minimize disturbance, so there can be a lot of waiting around.
We stay at a respectful distance when monitoring, but kākā like to know what's going on so we don't hide ourselves. Kākā observe their observers as much as we observe them. Mama is fluffing up because she's also begging to Papa for food for the bubs. Papa feeds her and she then feeds the chicks. It's a lot of regurgitation, but it does the trick. They did this right above my head so I was lying on my back trying to photograph directly up - it's not easy with a zoom lens so I only got this photo!
After many years of experimentation, Zealandia settled on using PVC conduit for the artifical nestboxes. They tend to result in healthier, cleaner, drier nests with less fly strike than a traditional wooden box. They also can be reused each year. Wooden panels are screwed inside for kākā to chew and climb on, and are replaced each season. I describe the design as inspired by NZ architect Ian Atfield (who loved organic round shapes and round portals), compared to the original wooden bungalow that dot the hills of Wellington.
Through incubation, and when the chicks are very young, Mama spends most of her time in the box, coming out every hour for a break and a feed from Papa. Once the chicks are bigger and older, she'll spend more time out of the box, entering to feed and preen the chicks, and to make more nesting material by peeling the wooden panels inside into shavings.
The nestbox porthole is the way kākā get in and out of the nest. For us humans, we have a hinged door on the side that we can open to get full access. It's totally up to these wild kākā to use these boxes if they wish to. Plenty choose not to and instead find natural nests in tree cavities. There are about 35 nestboxes throughout the Zealandia valley.
It's not until the chicks are about 7 weeks old that they start climbing the inside of the nestbox and testing their wings. Nestbox monitors will report hearing the scratching as they climb up and then the flapping of wings before the inevitable thud as they fall back into the nest, often to complaints from their nestmates. By about 8 weeks they're ready to fledge and will spend a lot of time climbing up and looking out, until one day, with some coaxing from Mama and Papa, they'll take a leap of faith and flutter-fall down to the ground ready to take on the world. Fortunately the nestboxes are all low to the ground but natural nests can be many metres up a tree.
It takes at least a couple of weeks to learn to fly with confidence, so initially the chicks climb everywhere. They're incredibly vulnerable to predation at this stage, which is why it's so important to attract our wild kākā to nest in the fenced Zealandia valley where they are safe from predators. The Zealandia fence is not just any old fence - it's scientifically designed to keep out predators. Kākā who breed outside the valley in suburban Wellington reserves suffer a much higher attrition rate due to predation from cats, dogs, stoats, weasels and other mammalian predators.
We are so fortunate to have this amazing rare manu in our city and it's been a privilege to be involved in their breeding success. This season's cohort are getting gorgeous purple bands - be on the look-out for them as they've started fledging and will soon be showing up at the kākā feeding stations at Zealandia.
For over a decade now (how time flies!), Linton and I have helped run the kākā conservation and research program at Zealandia EcoSanctuary as volunteers. In earlier days, we were focused on the conservation aspects and the chicks were closely monitored throughout the season. Now the focus is more on research and the aim is to enable researchers to easily identify individual kākā at a distance. To do this, we attach three coloured rings to their legs when they are still nestlings. They're about six weeks old, full of personality and with nearly fully-grown legs, but without the strength in their jaws to bite hard - the perfect age!
Working hands-on with wild native birds and banding them requires significant training, permits, and certification from the Department of Conservation.
At Zealandia, we have around 35 artifical nestboxes that the wild kākā can choose to use. Many choose natural nest cavities instead. We now only monitor and band those kākā in the nestboxes, rather than the entire population, so there are many unbanded kākā about.
At banding age, we take one chick out of the nestbox at a time, let them have a stress crap and then immediately pop them into a cloth bag for weighing. Kākā typically have 1 to 6 chicks, rarely 7, with most nests ending up with around 3-4 chicks varying over a 5 day age range. This nest has 4 chicks, all girls.
"Got your nose!" Linton carefully uses vernier calipers to measure the length and width of the beak, while Rachael gently holds. This clutch of chicks were charming and well-behaved, but some chicks will wrestle and wriggle and do everything in their power to not cooperate, giving the handler a lot to manage.
Once weighed, we expose their head from the bag to measure their beak, and then remove them entirely to measure their wing, tail, and tarsus (leg bone). We also do a health check for signs of metabolic bone disease, parasites, etc. Then they are leg-banded and popped back into the nest where they immediately tell their nestmates just how terrible the outside world is!
Special pliers are used to attach the stainless steel cohort band. It takes a lot of training to get these bands to fit just right, without a gap and without sharp edges. This season's cohort colour is a gorgeous purple. Here Linton holds the kākā's toes while applying the band to her tarsus while Rachael holds the leg. Look at those gorgeous feathers on the upper leg!
A single coloured cohort band, indicating the season, is attached to one leg and two narrower coloured metal bands are attached to the other. The colour combinations are unique. The purple band is coded M for Mauve (as we already use P for Pink). The cohort band also has a unique number embossed on it. These records are kept by the Banding Office of the Department of Conservation.
Mama kākā usually turns up when she hears the skrarking of the first chick coming out of the nest. She may or may not hang around for the entire banding process. She will also call in her posse of friends, who all yell at us until they get bored. Occasionally, they'll throw sticks down on us, but the parents never think to attack us despite having a swiss-army knife for a beak!
Ellen holds the first chick to be banded for the 2021/22 season, as she prepares to return her to the nest. Watch out for RB-M (Red over Blue on the left and Mauve on the right). She'll fledge in a couple of weeks and then spend a couple of months learning how to be a kākā. Eventually, mama will bring her to the kākā feeding stations - probably by January or February - where we'll all be able to see their antics.
As of the end of last season, we've banded over 1100 kākā at Zealandia - an amazing result from a founding population of just 14 birds, twenty years ago. They're now a common sight throughout Wellington, and it gives me great joy to have them visit our garden nearly every day.
Rachael's latest kākā project is fascinating - she's using AI algorithms to recognise individual kākā from mugshots. The kākā, of course, have other ideas, and have done everything from licking the camera lens, to throwing the camera down a steep bank! She and her students have some significant challenges to overcome!
With Wellington moving into Level 2, we took advantage of Zealandia reopening, masked-up, and went hunting for signs of spring. I do hope you're able to get out and enjoy nature in your neighbourhood, and that you enjoy this wee photo essay...
What are your favourite signs of spring?
After 11 days in the Galápagos [see previous story], we arrived back in Quito to head to a very different sort of paradise - the Bella Vista Cloud Forest. This high-altitude region of Ecuador is considered one of the best birding spots in the world. And conveniently, with travel to the Galápagos leaving from Quito it's easy to tack on a side trip.
This region was in danger of having forest converted into farms, but may farmers have now found there is more money to be had from tourism. Although tourism has huge environmental impacts, in this case, it is also having a positive effect of saving this precious and unique ecosystem.
The biggest attraction is of course the hummingbirds! Such an incredible variety from tiny booted rackettails with their little ugg boots to the brilliants with their iridescent colours. And despite being tiny, each had huge ferocious attitude! As we climbed in altitude, the species of hummingbirds changed, each evolved and adapted to that specific height. They were also quite tricky to photograph in the dappled forest, as they zipped around from flower to flower, stretching my novice photography skills.
The area is also famous for birds from the toucan family, including the giant bumble-bee tummied pale-mandibled araçari and paint-box coloured plate-billed mountain toucan. My favourite bird from the entire trip though was the diminutive crimson-rumped toucanet who we found bathing in a bromeliad (see photo-art at top of this story). It is so fascinating to see these improbably birds eat as they have to toss the food up with their giant bills and hopefully catch it in the back of their throats.
We're not twitchers but we did keep count of the number of species we saw in the four days we spent exploring - an incredible 127 (confirmed by our knowledgeable guide)! I much prefer spending extended time with just one species, getting to know them intimately, but on a whistle-stop trip like this, it's just not possible. And we weren't even trying to knock off as many as possible, it's just that there are that many different birds to see! It's really quite overwhelming, which is why here I decided to post about just the hummingbirds and toucans.
Like I did for the Galápagos leg of the trip, I'd like to add some notes about travelling with a chronic illness. I was very anxious before the trip about the effects of altitude and potential altitude sickness. Alongside anxiety about seasickness, I'm surprised Lynn ever convinced me to go! So before the trip, we went through two rounds of "altitude training". This involves breathing a high-nitrogen mix of air through a mask for about an hour a day for three weeks. You can hire a system to do at home or there is a clinic downtown. Breathing this mix helps create new red blood cells which can then carry more oxygen and give a bit more energy. The effects last around 3 weeks or so. Other than huffing and puffing a bit more and having some trouble sleeping, we didn't have any altitude-related issues, so I'm glad we went to the effort.
What I did notice though was "land sickness". For about a week after getting off the boat after 11 days at sea, I felt the world moving as if I was still onboard. It was quite unexpected, but apparently it is a thing, and sometimes people never recover. Fortunately it wore off!
I was shooting with the Panasonic GX7 and 20mm, 100-300mm, and 35-100mm lenses, all bought especially for this trip and I loved how lightweight it all was. I was still learning how to use the gear, so a lot of the photos are sub-par. I'd love to return with my latest kit and better knowledge of how to get the best out of shooting in dappled forests (even with good gear, it's hard).
Do you have a bucket-list birding destination for when we can travel again?
Bathtime in Bella Vista (crimson-rumped toucanet)
A splish and a splash as these tiny toucanets pop in and out of the cloud-forest bromeliads, drinking and bathing. Habitat for toucanets and many other bird species in Ecuador is being saved and restored as farmers change their land use from farming and hunting to eco-tourism, such as at Angel Paz's reserve in Mindo.
Exhibited in: "Birds on a Wire" solo exhibition (April, 2018). Published in: Artists Down Under magazine (Feb, 2018).
10% of the artist's proceeds goes to the American Bird Conservancy to support their conservation efforts in Ecuador.
Price includes 15% GST for New Zealand sales.
crimson-rumped toucanet, Aulacorhynchus haematopygus
With no big bucket-list travel plans on the horizon, I thought I might spelunk my archives and relive some old adventures. Here's hoping we all get to explore further fields again some day! This story is inspired by this week's Art of Birding photo challenge, which is "one from the archives." It's all about the time we visited the Galápagos Islands - a huge, wonderful and scary adventure we undertook in 2014. I'd not travelled for years and never intrepidly - this was well out of my comfort zone! It took much arm-twisting and encouragement from the lovely Lynn. But I'm so glad I took the plunge, not least of all because it sparked a love of wildlife photography. Because it was a photography trip, that was the impetus to buy my first decent camera (ironically most people on the trip were not photographers). It was a pivotal trip in my first steps towards becoming an artist, although I didn't know it at the time. Thanks Lynn and thanks Tui for a trip of a lifetime!
Lynn also twisted the arms of other Zealandia-associated people, making for a lovely, friendly group of people to travel with, along with a few brave souls from other parts of the world who found themselves surrounded by kiwi bird-nerds. Leaving from Ecuador, we flew to the islands and set sail on a little boat for an 11 day cruise. We each chose a “spirit animal” that we most wanted to see. I chose the Blue-footed Booby – a most ridiculous and improbable bird with bright blue feet and intricate courtship rituals, which involves showing off said feet and offering sticks to their beloved.
We learned so much from the amazing Tui de Roy - the wildlife photographer leading the tour - and a Galápagos native. My biggest take-home was to get on-level with my critter and not take “roadkill” shots looking down on them. That sometimes involves getting down in the sand and dirt, but we were also fortunate to get great angles on albatross that were launching themselves off a cliff face.
Landings on the islands are strictly controlled and timed. Because we were a photography tour, we got the early morning and late afternoon slots, which made for fabulous light (though some very early starts!).
The hardest outing, but the most rewarding, was getting out to the waved albatross colony, which involved walking a couple of km over pebbly rocks - exhausting! The albatross are amazing, and so beautiful with their delicate patterning and big eyes. We got to see their courtship rituals where they mimic each other in a choreographed dance, usually with a competitor looking on. My favourite shot from the entire trip is the one above.
I was blown away to see flamingos up close, peacefully feeding in the shallows. Such stunning birds. They're not endemic to the islands, but it was the first time I'd ever seen one.
Getting up close was a theme of the trip. Most of the birds evolved without seeing humans as a threat. We were able to walk through their breeding colonies and if we kept quietly to ourselves, they simply didn't give a shit that we were there. There was no need for a super long lens or tripod on this trip! Most of these photos were taken with a 35-100mm or 100-300mm zoom (4/3rds camera).
The Galápagos are filled with improbable critters, and the stories of their evolution are fascinating. Possibly the most improbable though is the Galápagos penguin - yes a penguin - found in the tropics at the equator! Curiously, the waters around the islands are cold due to the Humboldt current, which brings cold water up from southern Chile. This photo is a wee bit blurry because the zodiac was pitching up and down.
Another improbable bird was the short-eared owl that lives in cavities out on the volcanic flats - this was Lynn's spirit bird. We only spotted one once it started flapping its wings frantically.
It's always problematic to take long-haul travel to visit rare and endangered birds, but the Galápagos can only afford to look after these precious ecosystems with the money they get from tourism. It's a delicate balance with no easy answers. If you do get the opportunity to go, do go - there's nothing else like it on earth. But do your research first and choose your tour operator carefully to ensure they put the welfare of the critters first (Lynn did just this, and chose brilliantly!)
Next story, I'll show you some amazing birds from the side-trip we took to the Bella Vista Cloud Forest in Ecuador - just as amazing and totally different!
A P.S. about pottying and intrepid travelling...
One thing tour operators are often bad at is telling you how much fitness is needed for a trip and practical things like how long the walks are and how often you'll get a potty break - information I need before committing to a trip. People who have chronic illnesses can manage quite intrepid travelling if fully informed and well prepared. Fortunately the folk at Galapagos Travel were super helpful and allayed all my concerns.
If you're thinking of touring the Galápagos, know there are no loos on most of the islands, so you need to hold on for a couple of hours (most outings were for no longer than that). Most of the islands are covered in scrubby bush, so there's no ducking behind a tree, and even if you don't mind hanging it all out, it's discouraged. I managed by giving up coffee (a diuretic) before the trip, and only having a proper drink once we returned from the morning's outing. I only took judicious sips of water while out walking, just enough to avoid dehydration. I also had an emergency pee/poo/puke bag filled with absorbant crystals that could be used for emergencies, but thankfully never had to use it (pick them up online or from a travel/outdoors store for the peace-of-mind if nothing else).
Typically there were three things to do each day: a morning excursion, an afternoon snorkel, and a late afternoon/evening excursion. Some of the excursions were just cruising in the zodiacs and some involved getting out and walking. I usually chose just two of the three events a day to manage my energy levels and stayed on the boat otherwise. I didn't miss out on any show-stopper outings, and cleverly avoided climbing the volcano in the mist to not get a view and not get covered in mud 😂. I was converted to small boat cruises as a way to travel - you only unpack the once, and it's easier to skip an outing because you know you're not going to be left behind!
Happy to answer any questions you may have about travelling in the Galápagos in the comments below...
Last weekend, Linton and I finally went venturing up to Whanganui to visit the fenced sanctuary at Bushy Park - yes a busman's holiday! We stayed at the old homestead and walked all the trails, admiring the incredible forest with ancient rimu and rata, dripping with lichens and epiphytes. Although the Zealandia bush (our regular haunt) is filling in, it's got centuries to go to look like Bushy Park.
And of course the birdlife was amazing too, with baby birds abounding. The toutouwai were everywhere, and usually too close to focus on with the big lens. The korimako kids were begging incessantly while gorging on muhlenbekia berries. And the highlight was seeing a wee ruru trying to snooze on the side of the track, despite the protestations from the tīeke and hihi.
We were also fascinated to see flocks of cockatoos and eastern rosellas (perhaps attracted by the nearby walnut farm!), making us feel that perhaps we had crossed the ditch and were having a long-overdue Aussie adventure with Sydney-based Aunty Helen.
And the flocks of kererū - I lost count at 30! The abiding sound of the bush was the whomp-whomp-whomp of those big wings crashing around through the bush.
We would have spent more time exploring the park and Whanganui itself, but Level 2 came down unexpectedly so we decided to head home early, consoling ourselves with an evil steak and cheese pie in Foxton while charging the car.
Where do you recommend we head on our next outing? There's so much of New Zealand we have yet to explore.
Access Octomono Masonry Settings
Judi Lapsley Miller
Fine art inspired by the stories of birds and the natural world. Starting with photographs, I let my imagination take me on flights of fancy. What is real and what is imagined is blurred. What is physical and what is virtual is disrupted. Bursting with colour and life.
Art, birds, photography, wildlife - be the first to find out what's happening...