Kokako Log 1991 by Sid Marsh
In this book Te Ika-a-Maui (1855) the missionary Richard Taylor described the kokako as being:
'about the size of a small pullet, with long legs, and remarkably short wings; its eye is of lavender colour; and the head is very small ... The flesh is bitter...'
This description immediately came to mind as I studied one of the Waitekauri kokako one morning early in October. Dave King and I were in the Grace Darling catchment checking out the three birds living on the eastern slopes of a ridge situated west of Golden Cross. The day began as follows:
A cool, gusty 30kt sou'wester has us wide awake in no time. Ten minutes on and we are backpacking in pre-dawn darkness along an old mining road, heading northwards to be on hand for the dawn chorus of Te Taniwha - the most vocal of the Waitekauri kokako. One and a half hours later we near his territory. The bush is alive with bird song. When Te Taniwha calls for the first time it is with that penetrating and distinctive recital: 'Ko-ka-ko...' with a 'Foo-foo-foo-foo' whistle tacked on at the end. Dave sprints off in the direction of the call, and I find myself struggling to stay with him.
On some high ground facing east, I look up, and there directly overhead is the silhouetted shape of a bird in the bush canopy. At first it looks like a blackbird - in the poor light it is difficult to assess distance and therefore to gauge size. In front Dave is already disappearing from sight and I am tempted to follow, but something roots my feet to the ground and I find myself raising the binoculars. The blackbird becomes a kokako ... Te Taniwha. For several minutes I watch him, and Richard Taylor's description of shape and size suddenly seems so apt.
Preceding each recital, Te Taniwha stretches out his wings, gives them a half-hearted flap, and then seems to hunch as his neck vibrates with effort. It is magnificent. When he is done he leaps down off his song perch and springs from branch to branch to disappear behind a wall of greenery. Every now and then he bursts into song. Dave and I listen ... follow ... then catch sight of the kokako. Te Taniwha uses his outstretched wings for 'tight-rope' walking along sagging vines and branches, as well as utilising those long legs as 'springboards' for flying jumps over our heads in the sub canopy vegetation. The bird's forward momentum assists with upward leaps and short flights across gaps in the foliage. In a mapau tree he stops to feed on fruit. His brown-tinged tail feathers look a bit scraggly but otherwise the bird appears to be in good health.
After the feed, Te Taniwha's curiosity gets the better of him. He alights on a branch just eight metres away from where I stand and casually rubs his beak before tilting his head parrot-like for a good look at me. Seconds later he is squirrelling up into the forest canopy.
We lose sight of Te Taniwha. The contact has lasted 30 minutes.
From further south we hear Kathleen - a single kokako located south of the Kathleen Stream. A little later, after a brew of coffee, we begin our outbound trek satisfied that at least two birds in the 'Grace Darling' catchment are alive and well.