ELUSIVE KOKAKO by Doug Johansen
Hauraki Herald, Saturday March 8, 1980
The following article by Pauanui environmentalist Doug Johansen tells of his late 1970s search for the rare blue wattled crow in the Coromandel Range.
In January 1978 I was guiding a group of people over the old Hihi pack track to show them the most complete Kauri Dam left that we know of, which I had found three years previously.
We had just passed through a dense stand of Tawa trees and New Zealand Grass trees or Dracophyllum, a beautiful elegant tree, and were about to cross a razor back saddle connecting two high ridges.
Suddenly a bird called from the understorey trees above my head with a very clear resounding note.
I stopped dead and told the party to stop and be quiet.
It called again and I knew for certain it was the same bird I had heard only weeks before on Rei Hamon's tapes, our beautiful and rare Kokako or Blue Wattle Crow.
The party was very excited when I told them what it was and we listened and watched as the three Kokako in total climbed through the trees above us enchanting us with their magnificent flutelike calls as they did so.
It was now eighteen months later and I had been waiting for several months for the right day to go looking for them again.
I felt I knew where they would be living and had studied the valley with binoculars each time I was up that way.
It had rained through the night and once I was on the high ridge I had a clear view out over the Hikuai Valley.
The view was superb in the early morning sun and the sea in the distance seemed to extend in to the valley which was filled with a heavy mist; only hilltops and the odd tree showed above the mist like tiny islands on an inland sea.
The surrounding bush through which I walked was heavily laden with moisture, with droplets hanging on the ends of the leaves.
The early morning sun reflecting through them made them flash with a brilliant array of colours ranging from bright reds and oranges to the sombre blues and purples.
Cobwebs, spread across the track like lace netting, stood out clearly against the dark green of the surrounding bush.
As I climbed a steep part of the track I thought, "How nice it would be to have a "flunkey" there to carry my pack for me.
Which was full with a tape recorder and tapes and assorted other gear.
But no I thought, that would ruin it as there is nothing quite like being in the bush on your own if you love the bush as much as I do, as any true bushman will tell you.
The tranquillity and peace of mind you can find in our forests if you let yourself become part of it can be quite overwhelming at times, our towns and cities could be a 1000 miles away.
I passed the spot where I had seen the Kokako 18 months previously and crossed the razor back ridge.
Growing beside the track on the ridge are thousands of our delicate and translucent kidney ferns and clumps here and there of our beautiful Tree Moss or Dawsonia Superba, the tallest moss in the world, standing like tiny forests of trees which no doubt they are to our smaller insects and native slugs and snails which are common in this area.
I cut off the track and started dropping down a very steep ridge towards the valley floor where I felt the Kokako were living.
I came face to face with a huge dead Kauri which I had seen many times.
This tree never fails to impress me with its huge grey 8ft wide trunk rising before you like a wall of wood.
The trunk is about 30ft high to where it has lost its head, probably in a howling easterly storm or hit by lightening, as the tremendous top branches lay scattered around the base of the tree slowly decaying to feed the younger kauris which are sprouting up amongst the debris, showing a pattern of evolution which has gone on for thousands of years.
As I moved down the ridge it became steeper and the bush more dense by the yard. Near the bottom of the ridge as it flattened out I found myself walking between majestic fully grown Rimus and large gnarled ratas their tall trunks standing like columns in a roman temple.
At this point I moved off the ridge to the right to head for the top of the valley.
Almost immediately I was clambering over moss covered boulders lying between thousands of our beautiful Hen and Chicken ferns, some up to 5ft in height.
I have never seen an area where they are growing in such profusion, as far as you could see across the floor of the forest.
Another 100 yards and I was in the middle of a mass of supple-jack growing like a crazy puzzle making me fight for every foot and seemingly getting nowhere.
Finally I found the spot I was looking for, a beautiful, level clearing under a canopy of Kohekohe trees.
The clearing was about 30 yards across and very open, ideal I thought to draw the Kokako in if they were here, as they could come and see me without getting too close, also I could see them as the trees above were very open.
The sun was shining through the trees leaving a dappled effect on the forest floor as I unpacked the tape recorder and tapes, not a breath of wind was stirring, ideal for taping the bird calls.
I had decided earlier to play the tape for an hour before moving to a different place if there was no response.
I turned the tape on and the melodious calls of Rei's Maumaupaki birds echoed through the surrounding forest.
Then to my surprise and delight after playing the tape for only two minutes I spotted a Kokako coming straight at me through the understorey.
My excitement rose as he moved helter skelter from branch to branch until he was directly above the tape recorder. Twenty-five feet above me he sat eyeing me up and down as I was to him. Then with his chest fluffed out and throat quivering, he gave out one of his flute like calls, the same type of call I had heard 18 months before.
The calls of the birds in this area are completely different to the calls of the birds on Maumaupaki, or Tapu hill which sound very similar to the Tuis and yet this little fellow obviously recognised the calls I was playing as a Kokako.
As he called I switched tapes, fumbling in my excitement and started to tape him.
He was moving quickly through the Kohekohe trees in a circle round the clearing, stopping only to look me over and to put on his mating display by fanning out his tail and fluttering his wings very fast, obviously the tape recorder looked and sounded pretty good to him.
Every so often I would play the alarm call of the Kokako which I had on tape and this would get very excited, he would rush busily onto a branch 15ft above my head, cock his head on one side to watch me then break into his own song. What a beautiful song he had, very clear and hauntingly plaintive when heard deep in the bush.
The Kokako is a fairly large bird, about twice the size of a Tui, they are bluey grey in colour and have bright blue wattles hanging on each side of the beak.
Their call is louder and clearer than a Tui and they have a much greater variety of notes.
At times his calls sounded almost electronic but no musical instrument I have heard would compete with this fellow's song.
After taping his calls I played them back to him and he took great interest in this and at times mimicked the calls on tape with his calls again so I heard them in perfect unison with the bird a split second after the tape each time.
While sitting there I heard two other Kokako but they would not come in as perhaps I was in his territory and it was near mating time.
He kept me company for three hours feeding as he did so on Kohekohe leaves, ferns growing in the trees and liverworts.
The fact that he was eating Kohekohe leaves interested me as in the books I have studied on the Kokako the leaves of the Kohekohe is not listed as one of their foods.
I found it a little sad to leave him when the time came as he was still cavorting in the tree tops, calling to me as he did.
I had decided to walk out down the valley playing the tapes in certain spots as I did to try and pick up more Kokako.
Once more I was fighting my way through a tangle of Supplejack as I pushed my way down the valley to link up with an old hauler track I knew which I would walk out on.
The terrain was extremely steep and several creeks I crossed were just tumbling waterfalls cascading down the hill disappearing into the dense foliage within a few yards as they rushed onwards to the bigger creek 400ft below.
Finally I scrambled down into the creek myself.
The creek bed was very flat and it struck me as like being in a watery tunnel, the overhead canopy of trees and pongas were so dense.
After crossing the creek I started to climb the almost sheer sides to gain some height.
When only 50 yards on I came across a pile of shells which could only mean a Maori midden or a spot where some of the old bushmen had taken a well earned rest to sample some Pipis and Tuatuas.
A few more feet and I found the remains of a very old hauler road, where it came from and where it was going I did not know but it is locked in my mind and one day I will follow it to answer these questions.
The bush from here on out to the hauler road I was seeking became very open almost parklike and the terrain quite flat, very pleasant to walk on.
I tried the tape again in several spots to no avail and it is my opinion that these beautiful and elusive birds survive in only a very few places.
They are so trusting and innocent that we need to do all we can to preserve their habitats if our children's children are to have the opportunity to hear and see our magnificent Kokako.
Hauraki Herald, Saturday March 8, 1980