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Doing their bit to save weka

(by Anne Glogowski)

When Karangahake couple Elaine and Gary Staples agreed to do their bit for conservation and raise native weka, they did not realise what they were taking on.

For the past 12 months they have devoted themselves to an intensive bird breeding programme for the Royal Forest and Bird Protection Society.

It is part of the Department of Conservation's North Island weka recovery plan.

Mr and Mrs Staples are among members of the society breeding weka in captivity to provide young birds to create a new population.

Their dedication has been rewarded in successful hatchings and a fortnight ago six male weka were released from the Staples' aviaries on Crown Hill.

Fitted with radio transmitters, the young weka will be tracked and monitoredtodetermine their movements and breeding patterns in the wild.

The birds are under a 'soft release' which means they still have access to the aviaries and food if required.

Other birds are being raised for eventual release at the Staples' aviaries.

And last Friday the first chick of yet another clutch emerged.

It is the first time such an intensive programme has been initiated in New Zealand.

"It has been a fulltime commitment," Mrs Staples said, "but well worth while.

"We became totally absorbed in the project. All the birds have names and are easily recognised.

"There have been one or two casualties along the way and a little heartbreak, but all-in-all it is a success story."

Strolling around a penful of healthy weka, Elaine and Gary Staples are obviously proudoftheir achievements.

Massey University student Gary Bramley, who is preparing a thesis on weka, will track the birds for a few weeks after their release.

The radio tracking will be in addition to sighting the birds.

Karangahake school-children and other local residents are being encouraged to report any sightings, which would be recorded on an aerial map at the school.

It was hoped the young birds which had not established their own territory would be encouraged to stay in the Karangahake Gorge area.

Karangahake was chosen because of its good vegetation, water and food supply.

"North Island weka have recently been listed as a threatened species. This project is therefore of national significance and it will be good if our community can help establish a new colony and assist to bring the bird back from its threat of extinction," say Gary and Elaine.

"If this project succeeds it will be the first native bird re-established on mainland New Zealand."

Other breeders of weka in this region are located at Waikino, Katikati and Tauranga.

There are about 15 pair of weka with people, one in Lower Hutt, one in Kaitaia and various localities in between.

Not many have raised chicks yet because almost all pairs of birds were young and only this summer will be old enough to breed.

This mischievous bird used to be widespread throughout the North Island and until recently was common in the Gisborne district.

Although reasons for weka decline are far from clear, it seems that major factors have been drought, bringing starvation, possibly introduced bird diseases, hunting by humans and dogs and accidental trapping and poisoning.

The total population of weka in New Zealand is estimated to be between 3000-5000.

Weka's diet includes insects, grubs, worms and plants, particularly fruits like inkweed and coprosma berries.

Weka may perish when food is scarce, especially in times of drought.

Karangahake was chosen because it offers a variety of habitats, conservation park, forest scrub and pasture, weeds and wildflower verges and stream margins. There is no highly managed agriculture or horticulture which tends to 'tidy up' marginal areas.

If any weka arrive at your place and you wish to encourage it to stay around, the important thing to provide is water.

It can also be given food scraps, bread (preferably wholemeal and definitely not mouldy), meat or chicken bones.

Weka will clean up slugs, snails, crickets and other insects. They are keen on mice and will kill rats.

Mr Bramley is carrying out his thesis on weka with the help of a grant from the Forest and Bird Society.

Trilogy Business Systems has sponsored the project to cover the cost of the release aviary and monitoring.

"Supplies of fresh worms for the new weka chick will be welcome at the Crown Hill aviaries," Mrs Staples said.