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!
My favourite project for Zealandia EcoSanctuary is creating the annual fund-raising calendar! And it takes around 18 months to create if you account for the effort required to obtain a seasonal range of photos. Many of us aim to get that calendar-worthy shot on every visit to Zealandia, and we visit year-round, often weekly.
Planning starts in December, and sometime in the New Year a call goes out to the volunteer Sanctuary Storyteller photographers and to regulars on the ZEALANDIA Visitor Art & Photography Facebook page to start submitting their photos. We aim to include at least three photos per month, with each month having a theme. It's a 13-month calendar, because it's created from folder A3 paper (to make an A4 calendar). This gives 4 pages for every piece of paper. A 12-month calendar plus cover only fills 26 of 28 pages.
Around March, the selections are made and photos edited and approved by the contributing photographers and staff. This year, preparations coincided with lock-down giving me a most-welcome distraction.
The coveted spot is of course the cover - that image needs to be compelling, have some negative space for branding, and be recognizable from a distance. Congratulations to Jason Plaisted for his wonderful kākāriki photo that graces the 2021 cover.
Once the photos are set, over autumn, the Storyteller writers conjure up inspiring stories to match the theme and images. Some keen contributors aim for the complete sweep with a set of themed photos and a matching story. But most months are a mix of many contributors.
As we head into winter, the fact-checkers and researchers dig in and confirm all the species are identified correctly, that the dates and moon-phases are correct, the Te Reo Māori is correct (including macrons), as are the holidays and observations. The pedants among us relish this task, and many lively discussions can ensue. I'm sure some of you are also pedants and are interested in some of the behind-the-scenes decisions (if not, skim down to the end to find out how to get hold of a calendar!)
I always fear the dates will somehow be wrong, but I use this amazing plug-in for InDesign (Calendar Wizard) that is a pig to use but when you conquer it, it automatically generates all the spreads. It's a life- and time-saver.
We set the moon phase as it is in Wellington - anywhere else in the country (or world) can be off by a day as the phase often changes in the middle of the night. There is often confusion as one of the definitive guides online has the correct phases, but uses the wrong Northern-hemisphere icons (yes, the moon is upside down in the Southern hemisphere - a fun fact that has confused many of my Northern-hemisphere friends).
Scientific names can be quite fluid for NZ species, with researchers actively updating taxonomies, but with scientific consensus and adoption of new names taking some time. For instance, you may have noticed that our gecko names have transitioned back and forth over recent years, and it's still not settled. Te Reo names are also fluid as old knowledge is reclaimed by local iwi, or new names are needed. Of great debate is whether transliterations for months and other European concepts should be used or maramataka months (from the Māori lunar calendar, which is based on moon phases). These decisions and recommendations are made with such care and much consultation. In recent years we have decided on the transliterations. I would love to some day help with a maramataka calendar too.
Some people wonder why we don't include specific observations and holidays. We strive to include many conservation-related observances, but the sponsoring organizations often don't advertise their dates (or haven't decided on them) for the coming year in time to include in the calendar (I won't name and shame). We also don't tend to include religious holidays unless they're an official public holiday.
Not including the Matariki period (the Māori New Year) seems like an oversight to many, and we do hope to include it next year. But there are many variations across different iwi in how the period is defined. This makes a lot of sense when you consider its all about observational astronomy: the appearance of the constellation Matariki on the horizon. And this of course depends on where you are in the country and barriers like hills. Some iwi use other constellations. It is a fascinating subject and there are some amazing Māori astronomers working on it. With talk of Matariki becoming an official public holiday, it will be interesting to see how consensus is reached because the aim is to have one date for the entire country (but which will at least vary each year), so by definition, some of what the Matariki period means will be lost to convenience.
Back to the Zealandia calendar, once the dust has settled and the facts established the best we can, it's then down to multiple rounds of proofing and sign-off from every part of the organization. We strive for no errors, but is that ever possible? By the end of the process, once the calendar comes off the production line, I'm too afraid to look! People tell me that it's absolutely gorgeous, so I'm going to trust their judgment...
If you're keen to participate, do join the Facebook group and start working on your photography. You're more likely to be successful if you've taken a fabulous photo featuring a subject we haven't previously had in the calendar (e.g., kākā, tūī, kākāriki, and takahē have had more than enough exposure). We also love photos that show wildlife interacting with its environment or showing an interesting behaviour.
In addition, do join my Art of Birding Wildlife and Nature photography challenge. Many of the successful contributors are doing the challenge, which is designed to upskill photographers for wildlife advocacy, and with outcomes like the calendar in mind.
If you want to lay your hands on a calendar for yourself, your friends, and your family, pick them up at the Visitor Centre or check out the offer above.
[Update 3 Nov 2020: You can now buy them directly from Zealandia through their new online gift shop!]
Finally, such huge thanks to the contributors for 2021:
Photography: Brendon Doran, Andrew Hawke, Loralee Hyde, Judi Lapsley Miller, Bianca Maddox, Amanda Main, Janice McKenna, Linton Miller, Jason Plaisted, Karen Rankin, Alison Valentine, Rory Wilsher.
Stories: Leon Berard, Vanya Bootham, Rosemary Cole, Loralee Hyde, Judi Lapsley Miller, Katherine Miller, Louise Slocombe.
Design: Judi Lapsley Miller.
Research & editing: Vanya Bootham, Libby Clark, Rosemary Cole, Chris Gee, Loralee Hyde, Judi Lapsley Miller, Linton Miller, Louise Slocombe, Rory Wilsher.
This fella cracks me up! I can just imagine him out for a moonlit stroll chortling away to himself. I don't know what the joke is, but it's a good one. Listen out, if you're in kiwi territory, for their distinctive snuffling and snorting as they go about their business.
It's not easy to get good kiwi pukupuku (little-spotted kiwi) photos - they are nocturnal after all. But I was fortunate to get the opportunity to photograph this chap during the day as he foraged for grass grubs. Conservation staff thought he was likely in a territory dispute, so rather than take on his foe, he decided to take the peaceful option and forage in the daytime instead. It was such a rare opportunity that I shot a couple of thousand photos! And I couldn't resist reimagining him in a more familiar night-time scene.
More typically, photo opportunities are at night and lit by red torchlight (converting to black and white is the only option). Shutter-speeds are slow and ISO is high, making for a grainy photo with motion blur. Despite these limitations, I do love the above photo with the oversized shadow in the iconic kiwi shape.
I've been fortunate to be involved with some of the kiwi research at Zealandia EcoSanctuary, helping out Andrew Digby (before he became a kākāpō and takahē guru) and Helen Taylor. I never did get to see a kiwi chick, but I did get to see many adults. A highlight was watching a fight late one night, with the two kiwi "beak-fighting" like their beaks were rapiers.
We (literally!) dug kiwi out of their burrows during the day for health checks. This provided some unique opportunities to get close-up photos of their tiny wings and their huge eggs.
Helen's research suggests that all is not well for kiwi pukupuku. Despite their breeding success at Zealandia, Kāpiti, and other places around New Zealand, they are descended from only a handful of birds. This genetic bottlenecking decreases the fertility of each generation and lowers their genetic diversity. Helen's research has been instrumental in helping conservation organizations get a handle on how many individuals are needed to successfully translocate a species to a new home - typically many more than once thought.
If you found this page because you're after kiwi photos, I've donated a number to Wikimedia Commons with a CC-BY-4.0 licence which means they're free to use with attribution. Links to my fine-art prints featuring the kiwi are below, with sales supporting conservation at Zealandia.
Fine art prints featuring kiwi pukupuku
A real kiwi joker (kiwi pukupuku)
Out for an early evening stroll under a rising moon, our kiwi friend is chuckling to himself - I wonder what the joke is?
10% of the artist's proceeds goes to Zealandia EcoSanctuary to support their conservation efforts. Price includes 15% GST for New Zealand sales.
This fine-art print comes on archival Breathing Color Elegance Velvet paper. Each print is hand-signed and editioned.
kiwi pukupuku, little-spotted kiwi, Apteryx owenii
After midnight (kiwi pukupuku)
A snuffle, a rustle, then a ghostly image appears, silvery light dappling over his fluffy feathers - this is the rare and endangered kiwi pukupuku (little-spotted kiwi) out for a moonlit stroll. Long cat-like whiskers and a heightened sense of smell ensures this kiwi will find a tasty dinner.
10% of the artist's proceeds goes to Zealandia EcoSanctuary to support their conservation efforts.
Price includes 15% GST for New Zealand sales.
kiwi pukupuku, little-spotted kiwi, Apteryx owenii
Yesterday we got the opportunity to visit with and photograph Zealandia's takahē chick - the first chick for the eco-sanctuary and one of only about 370 takahē left in the world. As you can imagine, every chick is precious and vital for the survival of their species. So for now, there is restricted access, but hopefully soon the general public will be able to see the chick too. (Our access was due to our roles as volunteer Sanctuary Storytellers).
And not only do we have a calendar, but through October and November, selected and additional photographs and longer stories from the calendar will be on exhibition in the Zealandia Stairwell Gallery. Come and find out why we love Zealandia so much!
With stories by Louise Slocombe, Vanya Bootham, Chris Gee, and Lynn Freeman, and photographs by Janice McKenna, Hayley May, Andrew Hawke, Linton Miller, Chris Gee, Lynn Freeman, Brendon Doran, and myself, there is something of interest for everyone.
And now the 2019 calendar is sorted, I'm already thinking about 2020 - what would you like to see featured?
The volunteer Storytellers' support Zealandia's fundraising efforts with the calendar and postcards, amongst many other activities. Individual artists and photographers also have high-quality prints and photographs available in the store. Proceeds from sales go directly to support Zealandia's not-for-profit conservation and restoration efforts.
From teeny-tiny fungi to crazy kākā, the 2018 Zealandia calendar is a cracker! The creating of the calendar is one of the biggest projects my volunteer Sanctuary Storytellers group at Zealandia undertakes. Every year it gets better and better, with gorgeous wildlife photography and compelling stories. And at $19.90, it makes the perfect stocking stuffer or secret Santa gift. You can get it from the Visitors Centre shop.
Not only are there 13 months, but NZ holidays are marked along with significant wildlife and conservation days. And every cent made goes back into conservation.
A true team effort with photos, writing, research, and editing from: myself, Vanya Bootham, Rosemary Cole, Brendon Doran, Lynn Freeman, Chris Gee, Chris Helliwell, Eeva-Katri Kumpula, Hayley May, Janice McKenna, Linton Miller, Ali McDonald, and Louise Slocombe.
For over three years I've been searching for Zealandia's kākā kura - a very rare red colour morph (variation), seen and photographed by a lucky few, but not by me. And finally I saw a wee orange head emerge repeatedly from within a clump of muehlenbeckia to feed. She was unmistakable! With salmon-orange feathering on and around her head, rather than grey and yellow, and an overall colour of burnished mahogany, she was drop-dead gorgeous. And nothing like any other kākā I'd ever seen.
Such a shy character too, but given how much she ate, I suspect she has many hungry mouths to feed and so was willing to take the risk of being seen by humans. Kākā are not normally that shy, but I suspect only kākā kura with shy genes survived the onslaught of Victorian collectors, who were hell-bent on scoring yellow, white, and red kākā colour-morph skins for their pathetic but highly-prized collections. If only they had cameras rather than shot-guns...
And this shy girl is of special significance to me - she came from one of the nests I monitor and I'd even held and cuddled her when she was banded and micro-chipped back in 2010 (and this is why I left the leg-bands in the image rather than photo-shopping them out). Back then, her colouring was normal so it presumably only changed after her first moult - she wasn't seen again until 2013. So as she's a banded bird, we know for sure it's the same bird each time she shows up, and we do know a little bit about her history.
Her mum "Pinky-B" was one of the first generation of kākā to hatch at Zealandia after the initial translocation. Her dad "Heath" hatched the year after. Both mum and dad are the progeny of the infamous Alfie Kākā and his first partner, making them brother and sister, albeit from different nests. Pinky-B and Heath were prodigious breeders too, so who knows what other interesting recessive genes and mutations are out there. Heath disappeared some years ago, but Pinky-B keeps going, though now she's partnered with her son/nephew and her fertility has dropped.
Monitoring bird nestboxes often involves lots of waiting around for mum to leave the nest, often to find there was no one in the nestbox to begin with. One way to expedite this process with some species is to use a small car mechanic's inspection mirror (which has an adjustable-angle mirror and a telescoping handle) and a flashlight to get a glimpse of the box contents. This can take a lot of futzing around to get the angles right, and some of us just don't seem to have the coordination required.
After a particularly frustrating kākā-monitoring outing with various failed attempts at using a mirror, I wondered if it might simply be easier to stick my Nexus 5X into the nestbox "porthole" and take a quick HDR+ photo without any additional light or flash. (The entrance porthole is for birds to get in and out of the nestbox - for kākā it's about 10cm wide and about 50cm above the floor of the nestbox which makes it a convenient size for a mobile phone.)
Et voila! It worked. Not only was I able to ascertain whether the nestboxes were active or not, but the pictures were clear enough in some cases to count the eggs and age the chicks, such that I didn't need to open the box. The whole process (for me at least!) was much faster than mirroring, meaning less disturbance to the nest occupants, as well as providing a permanent record of the nest check.
The 2017 ZEALANDIA calendar is now available and it's filled to the brim with gorgeous nature photography, including my enthusiastic mating kākā photo! This year, the images came from the 2016 "Spirit of ZEALANDIA" photo competition, judged by National Geographic and Photo Ark photographer Joel Sartore. There is a wide mix of bird photos, other critters, plants, and landscapes, all taken within the Sanctuary valley. The accompanying stories were lovingly crafted by volunteer Sanctuary Storyteller and Radio NZ journalist, Lynn Freeman. The calendar itself was researched, designed and edited by the Sanctuary Storyteller team. It's a pleasure to convene this team of talented and dedicated people. The calendar is a true labour of love and we are all glad to be able to use our talents to support ZEALANDIA in a tangible way.
The calendar makes a perfect Christmas present and all proceeds go directly to supporting ZEALANDIA's vision.
You can buy it online here or pop into the Visitors Centre.
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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.
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