Kokako Log 1992 by Sid Marsh
On the morning of the 16th October I had my best contact ever with a Coromandel kokako - a bird whose identity and location I will keep secret:
The kokako starts calling with 'Koe ... kaa ... koe' sequences every minute or so. He is singing atop a tall tawa tree forming part of a beautiful glade - a real picture against mist-clad valleys and the coming sunrise. Kokako and tui dawn chorus gives the scene a magical quality.
I see the bird's gliding silhouette disappearing northbound into a gully. I am tempted to follow but have a hunch he will head to his habitual songposts and eating stations via the old mining track, so I sprint off in the opposite direction with fingers crossed.
Three hundred metres further north I again link up with the kokako. 'Foo-foo-foo-foo' whistles are heard but I have yet to sight him, so I try drawing him in with a series of clicks with my tongue ... to my surprise it works! The big bird comes bounding in through the sub-canopy and passes by within metres. I watch him scale a high tree and then go through the curious dawn chorus ritual: wing-flapping, neck-arching with head and bill pointing upwards. I try answering back with tongue-clicks; popping sounds with index finger in mouth; and 'Koe ... kaa ... koe' whistles. These sounds excite the kokako, and he scurries through the branches and leafage pausing every now and then to sing a snatch of song and to listen out for further responses. I take my cue and either '3 click' or whistle 'Koe ... kaa ... koe'. Suddenly the bird does an incredible on-the-wing power dive to a songpost nearer to me. He sings some more, eats some leaves and then searches the understorey for the 'other bird'.
The kokako pauses just three metres from me, and with his head lowered right down below his feet, continues to ferret about for the 'other kokako'. He moves on, singing as he goes and I join him in a duet e.g. The bird leads with 'Koe ... kaa ...' and I finish by whistling the 'Koe' note. This really gets him going and with renewed vigour he 'bongs' and 'chimes', stopping in between bursts of song to hurry through the low vegetation, systematically searching, or power-diving right over my head to another high perch.
I stop vocalising and the kokako begins 'Mewing' for more. A 'Mew' is like a long, drawn-out whine. He searches diligently for the 'other bird' all around me, mewing and uttering low chuckling sounds as if trying to communicate on intimate terms. It is sad ... as if this kokako hasn't seen another of his kind in a very long time.
From a distance of eight metres I watch him do a full preen: each and every tail feather; through both of his short, wispy wings; wingpits; wing-head rubs; puffing body feathers right out, as well as some excessive shaking of his rump and tail feathers. When finished the kokako sends out penetrating mews as if saying 'Here I am ... Where are you?' I refrain from answering. He searches the ground some more, then climbs to a new songpost to sing on. At 0926hrs the kokako glides off out of sight. The contact has lasted 3 hours and 15 minutes.
November 1992 was an outstanding month with four separate kokako contacts: just under eleven hours of close-quarter observations. One of these contacts took place near dusk in the headwater region of the Maratoto Stream. I watched a solitary kokako sing and skittishly move about over a two hour period.
This is the bird we have named Alby, one of a pair. The mate wasn't seen at all, a disturbing sign. As I see it, one of three things has happened i/. The mate has died ii/. Abandoned her partner or iii/. Is absent incubating eggs in a nest. Only time will tell.
On November 28th Waikino wildlife photographer Clive Watson accompanied me into the Grace Darling catchment to photograph kokako. Clive is a mountain safety instructor and is also interested in the region's native frogs and other little seen 'creepy-crawlies'. On the way into kokako country he led me to several mining drives where we found a variety of creatures: glow worms, cave weta, one paua slug, as well as three Hochstetter's frogs. These frogs are coloured brown, green or black and are about 40mm long. They are primitive creatures that have somehow skipped the free-swimming tadpole stage in the normal frog life cycle, from egg-encased embryo, to tail-less froglets.
From the old mining drives Clive and I headed further north. After an hour of footslogging we set up camp just outside a kokako territory, ate a bit of food and waited. The following morning our cue came when the resident kokako began its dawn chorus at 0532hrs:
We sight the bird at 0546hrs, but to get a clear photographic view of it is easier said than done. For half an hour the kokako keeps its distance until unexpectedly it launches itself from a tree and swoops directly towards Clive and me. Airborne on the edge of its flight envelope the birds wingbeats have an incredible 'air brake-like' sound as it decelerates to land on the stump of an upturned tree. Three metres away from us the bird hops along the topside of this overgrown tree trunk ignoring us to strip seed capsules with its bill from a clump of grass. The kokako is probably as close to us as it will ever be. This is the time for a photograph. I wait impatiently for the click of a camera shutter ... it doesn't come because Clive is stranded out of line-of-sight on the far side of the tree trunk. After its quick snack on the hop the bird traverses a thicket then again stops, momentarily framed by branches and leaves. Clive focuses his telephoto lens and this time zaps the Waitekauri kokako - possibly the first photograph ever taken of these special local animals.