So, Scooter, tell us a little bit about your studies
I’m studying the South Island Kaka a curious bird; a highly intelligent forest parrot that once soared above the canopy of vast forests that covered New Zealand. Today, there are less than 5,000 individuals remaining in the species, and they are considered ‘Nationally Vulnerable’.
Why are they so vunerable?
This is due to the large areas of forest being greatly reduced in size or fragmented, and like all of New Zealand’s bird species they have evolved in the absence of mammalian predators. New Zealand’s unique fauna that was dominated by birds, lizards and frogs for over 80 million years has suffered greatly from the introduction of mammals, particularly the mustelid family (ferrets, stoats and weasels), possums and rats to name just a few. This is why numerous New Zealand’s birds have adapted to a life on the ground, evolving away from the ability to fly. Therefore, they do not have natural defences against attack from furry creatures with sharp teeth and claws.
They nest deep in tree cavities and spend several months on the nest with their eggs and chicks. This makes them particularly vulnerable to attack.
New Zealand birds all have their own amazing qualities, when you think of the Kaka, what amazing quality do you think of?
I think they are amazing fliers travelling up to 20kms a day through some pretty dense bush.
Where are you studying them?
At the Orokonui Ecosanctuary. It’s a 307-hectare reserve surrounded by a predator-proof fence here in Dunedin. New Zealand ecosanctuaries – and there are quite a few throughout the country – can be considered an oasis; a glimpse into the past before human settlement of New Zealand. Orokonui Ecosanctuary near Dunedin was established in 2006 and provides a safe-haven for other amazing bird species such as takahe, Haast tokoeka (a kiwi species), South Island robin and kaka; lizards such as the Otago skink and jewelled gecko; as well as the tuatara and invertebrates that wouldn’t otherwise survive in the area.
So the Kaka are doing well at the Orokonui Eco Sanctuary?
Kaka are thriving in the protected environment. This gives the population a stronghold and a safe place to call home. Although given their curiosity and excellent flying capabilities, they are spilling out into the wider landscape. The aim of the ecosanctuaries is to enhance local biodiversity – inside and outside the reserve – so this is a positive effect. Several initiatives such as Beyond Orokonui and Predator Free Dunedin align with these goals and are doing all they can to provide safe and suitable habitat for the species outside of Orokonui.
What’s the purpose of your research? What are your goals?
The purpose of this research is to determine where the kaka are going, now and in the future, and what we can do to assist their success in the wider landscape. Some kaka have been spotted on properties in the surrounding area, sometimes tens of kilometres away. To help understand their movements, GPS transmitters will be fitted to some of the individuals in the population. These kaka will give a location every few hours for several months, and their movement patterns throughout the area can be estimated. This will indicate the habitat and areas they prefer, and if these areas can be made more suitable for their survival and prosperity, particularly around nesting time.
If the movements and behaviours of the kaka are understood, their behaviour can be simulated in a computer model known as an ‘Individual-Based Model’. The behaviour of an individual kaka will be modelled, then any number of these individuals can be ‘released’ in a simulated environment such as a GIS (Geographic Information Systems) map. This will allow the movements of a future, larger population to be estimated. Will the kaka reach ‘carrying-capacity’ in Orokonui? Will they disperse widely to new areas?
This research will have management implications for Orokonui and wider-landscape initiatives such as Beyond Orokonui and Predator Free Dunedin, now and in the future.
Scott is looking to continue his research into Kaka, he will be starting a PHD at the University of Otago and will continue to work with Back to Nature Tours a couple of days a week through the upcoming 2019-20 season. If you would like to listen to the wonderful native birdsong of the Orokonui Eco Sanctuary why not join one of our customized tours that will take you there – north Dunedin is a special place and off the beaten track!