Kokako Log 1992 by Sid Marsh
750 metres high, the domed crown of Whakamoehau swells out of the bush to the north-east of the Maratoto Saddle. Whakamoehau might harbour kokako.
In April/May 1988 John Cook - a possum hunter from Paeroa - was in the headwaters of the Whakamoehau Stream. While sitting down having a smoke about four o'clock in the afternoon, John heard unusual bird screeches about 150 metres from his position. Causing all the racket were 'two grey birds' interacting with each other and hopping from branch to branch feeding in the crown of a large tree. The possumer watched these birds for ten to fifteen minutes, before he and they went their separate ways. While describing the encounter to me over the phone, John admitted that in 30 years of hunting and tramping around the Coromandel and other areas, he had never before encountered such a strange bird.
In the first few weeks of '92 I have been following up this unconfirmed sighting: surveying the terrain west and east of Whakamoehau. To date no kokako have been seen, however I am confident that the birds are there. During one such survey on the 24 Feb, I accompanied DOC officer Fin Buchanan into the bush south-east of Whakamoehau to link up with two other Conservation Officers, Liz Stanway and Rick Thorpe, who had spent a night out listening for kiwi and kokako. At around 0945hrs Fin and I found Liz and Rick, and we had a cuppa while the two gave us a rundown on what they had and hadn't seen: no kiwi or kokako, but two goats - a nanny and a billy - had been drawn in to the tent by the taped song meant for kokako. Fin, Liz, Rick and I talked about goats and the detrimental effect they were having on forest regeneration. This subject, however, was soon eclipsed:
Liz spots movement in the forest canopy. At first she thinks it is a bird. We all look up into the uppermost leafage in time to see the animal leap from that tree on to another - moving rapidly on leaf sprays barely able to support its weight. It is a stoat, the 'number one bad guy' for our native birds ... especially the kokako. In a blur of speed the agile stoat moves several metres then freezes amid the foliage - effectively disappearing. The four of us on the ground are spellbound; but soon we are talking again, this time about stoats. Fin casually stands up to have a stretch and exercise his legs. He picks up his Ruger .223 rifle and walks off a short distance. I watch him lift his rifle to sight along its length, using the telescopic sights to scan for the stoat. Liz, Rick and I continue our conversation.
Perched on the very end of a branch, the stoat is motionless; then imperceptibly an eye flickers and its head tilts slightly ... BOOM! Picking up the movement Fin has shot it. The creature now hangs lifeless, caught in a fork seven metres above the ground. Rick scales the smooth-boled free and dislodges the carcase by vigorously shaking the upper branches. After much effort it falls to the ground, and I rush in to inspect the gut-shot mustelid.
The stoat's body is 30cm long with an 8cm long black-tipped tail. Under-side it is yellow-white, and above, a light brown and from the jaws sprout an array of needle-sharp canine teeth. Unfortunately, the stomach contents cannot be examined because they have been atomised in the 5cm round hole where the bullet has passed through the body ... it would have been depressing anyway, sifting through the semi-digested remains of the birds we love so much.
FOOTNOTE: Stoats were first introduced to New Zealand in 1884 in an effort to control rabbits, which were themselves introduced soon reaching pest proportions. Stoats feed almost entirely on meat - contributing significantly to the nationwide decline of many of New Zealand's unique animals: reptiles, frogs, weta, snails, birds and their eggs. Ironically, the stoat along with its cousins - the weasel and ferret -seemed to have had little effect as predators on the massive rabbit populations earlier this century.
During a kokako-catching operation in the remnants of the Manawahe Forest, Bay of Plenty in February 1994, I was manning a mist-net rig with DOC Contractor Nigel Miller. Nigel was operating a tapedeck and had kokako song playing from a speaker next to me for some while as I sat motionless. A pair of kokako were close by, drawn in by the tape-recorded calls, when I heard another animal moving through the vegetation towards the active speaker. It was a stoat. I watched it stalk closer to the active speaker then freeze as the two kokako moved about in the canopy overhead. For what seemed like many minutes I studied the animal as it sat on its hindquarters and scanned skywards about three metres from where I hid. In the end I moved and the mustelid fled in the direction it had come from. For that day anyway, crows weren't on the menu.
Other kokako predators are ship rats, possums, harriers and probably moreporks and cats. Perhaps the ultimate native predator is karearea, the native falcon. At a mist-net site in the Mapara Forest, King Country, our catching team had four kokako on the edges of the site clearing, and tape-recorded kokako song blaring from speakers when a brown avian blur swooped through at incredible speed. It was a falcon. This bird didn't re-appear ... and neither did the four kokako which had frantically dispersed into the gloom of the forest. Falcon again, feature in a letter from Taupo resident Bill Drower to the Department of Conservation Te Kuiti office:
The incident to which you refer in which a falcon attacked and killed a kokako, took place on the 7 April, 1968 at approximately 0930. The location was about 3+ miles and just south of east from the Pureora Forest headquarters (Compt. 96 on the forest plan)
I had been hunting and was on my way home when I saw a bird plummet to the ground a short distance ahead. It was followed closely by another and from the noise I assumed that one was attacking the other. I moved closer and could see that the falcon was standing on its prey. From memory at this moment all noise ceased and the falcon stood upright. I moved closer to frighten it but it flew off with its prey but dropped it a short distance away. I retrieved it and recognised it as a kokako. I think the bird eventually became one of a group located in Hamilton and used by the then Education Department for school studies.