Kokako Log 1993 by Sid Marsh
The Kauaeranga/Motutapere area was once clothed in one of the most remarkable rain forests in the world - for thousands of years - a sub-tropical ecosystem bounded by craggy peaks and river valleys, and dominated by rimu, totara, kahikatea; gnarled rata trees and great-boled kauri. Up to 150 years ago this forest teemed with native animal life: rails, blue ducks, brown teal in the waterways; whiteheads, robins, saddlebacks, falcons and wrens; large flocks of pigeon, kaka, and kakariki. The nights were dominated by giant weta, kiwi, archaic frog species, bats, geckos, skinks, snails and legions of burrowing petrels. Higher up in the hills isolated colonies of tuatara may have persisted. On some of the highest peaks there might even have been a handful of male kakapo left. Throughout this primeval world there were certainly thousands of kokako.
Over the course of several short decades of goldmining, logging and burn-offs for kauri gum collecting and farming, this special environment was erased for ever, and is being further eroded by the cumulative impacts of human 'progress'.
Up until fairly recently there was a remnant population of kokako scattered about the flanks of Motutapere and the headwaters of the Kauaeranga River basin. The rounded hump of Motutapere is notable in that similar to an island, it retains a surviving stand of virgin kauri forest surrounded by a huge area of cut-over, and burnt, second-growth forest. The Motutapere stand of mature mid-to-high altitude kauri is the second or third largest of its type left in the Coromandel Ranges, 300 dead, dying and healthy trees centred on an isolated step overlooking the Third Branch of the Tairua River. Two of these trees - the Hoyte/Tairua kauri - are among the twenty largest kauri in the country. Motutapere, with its kauri, kiwi and kokako, has fascinated me for more than a decade.
Last year I talked to a longtime Coromandel resident who farmed a block of farmland, several kilometres north-east of Motutapere, near Hikuai. She told me of a localised kokako migration she had witnessed about 40 years previously on to the Ovesen farm: A flock of six birds had somehow crossed (using a bridge?) the Tairua River to end up on her farm. These kokako found their way into some plum trees and set about eating the blossoms. They later overnighted in the plum trees - singing, clicking, screeching and buzzing - before heading off back into the hills. This flocking only happened once.
In 1979, in the hills up from this farm, I had my first introduction to the Coromandel crow. The contact took place on the main ridge separating the Paton Stream from the Third Branch of the Tairua River. I was part of a group being led in to an old kauri-drive dam by Doug Johansen. It was around midday on a windy, overcast day when two kokako came within earshot, calling out as they moved along. Doug halted the group and everybody scanned the treetops hoping for a sighting, but all we heard apart from the calls, was the receding sound of slow, heavy wingbeats as the birds flew away.
Over the years others have reported kokako contacts further south of Motutapere, and on its western slopes falling away into the Hihi Stream. In the Kauaeranga birds have been seen/heard in the headwaters of the Waiora and Hotoritori Streams. Since May of last year I have done a number of expeditions into the Kauaeranga/Motutapere area, searching for kokako as well as other special birds like kiwi and kaka. The ultimate outcome of these trips will be covered in the next Kokako Log.
In my photograph album there is a photograph of my brother Ted looking up the barrel of a very large kauri tree. It is an impressive image taken in 1982 in the hard-to-get-to stand of kauri on the eastern slopes of Motutapere. We didn't measure this tree (perhaps we should have), and it is large with a notable girth and a long, clean-boled trunk. It would have been a large tree when Lieutenant James Cook sailed along the Coromandel coastline 224 years ago. Over the centuries before Cook's historic arrival, this same kauri would have been used for its shelter, as a roost site, feeding station, song and hunting post by many remarkable NZ creatures. Bizarre and beautiful creatures some of which are now regionally or nationally extinct: Harvestman arachnida resembling miniature pincer-bearing spider crabs; rain forest geckos and skinks; different species of moa; Haast's eagle, a giant raptor with a three metre wingspan; little spotted kiwi, takahe and even kakapo.
This one tree would have witnessed a succession of Coromandel eras, from Polynesian moa-hunting expeditions through to the recent invasion of the brushtail possum into the region.
In May 1992, I was again in the vicinity of Motutapere, briefly studying this tree along with its 300 or so neighbouring kauri with my binoculars from a vantage point several hundred metres distant: a major ridge near where I had first heard kokako in 1979. I was back looking for those same kokako, or their descendants. Doug Johansen had recently supplied me with a map grid reference where he had had another close-quarters contact with a bird many years before, so using this grid reference I wanted to establish if there were still kokako in the Paton Stream area:
It is just after dawn. I walk as quickly as possible to the grid reference, brushing past shin-high hangehange along the track and passing occasional big totara, rimu and rata. Two or three moderate-sized kauri, clumps of kauri grass, kiekie, tawa, kanono, kohekohe, mapau are noted too. There is lots of possum sign and die-back: droppings, scratchmarks on tree trunks, and dying rata heads and smaller trees. Catch a whiff of billy goat smell in places, and before long I actually sight eight goats, including one white and grey billy with an impressive head. This herd bolts off out-of-sight. On a razorback ridge four eastern rosellas chatter and fly all around - noisy blurs of red, yellow, white, green, blue and black. I also watch a harrier soaring back and forth in the updrafts at ridgetop level. Further north is the rotting remains of a seven metre round kauri trunk that has snapped off four metres from ground level. Even in death it is still an impressive barrel of wood. Another dying kauri stands not far away. There are two big and barren slip sites straddling Doug's plotted grid reference, and I would guess they have occurred since Doug's late seventies kokako encounter. These cleared areas have substantially degraded the kokako habitat here. Fringing the lower ends of these two slips are impenetrable tracts of supple-jack, mangemange, and bush lawyer growing up out of the scree around pukatea, rata, rimu and nikau palms. I use an old tape-recorder to broadcast snatches of 'Te Taniwha song' (Grace Darling catchment kokako dialect recorded by Dave King) hoping it will draw kokako in. There are no immediate results though.
From 1005hrs until 1111hrs I hear - on and off - a series of slow 'Foo-foo-foo-foo' whistles. At the end of one of these sets is a kokako-like whine. The sets are coming from 200 metres downslope, but gradually they get closer. My hopes rise. There follows some tui song, magpie warbles and then a kokako 'Foo-foo-foo-foo'. Through the scrub the bird responsible for these calls suddenly appears before me, singing gaily on a perch ... it is a tui, another one of Aotearoa's expert mimickers.