Birds of feather fly Air NZ

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By ROBYN BRISTOW

As a young girl Nicola Toki was an avid fan of natural history documentaries, particularly those about efforts to save the takahe, New Zealand’s flightless native bird.

Nicola, who lives in Waipara and is the Department of Conservation’s threatened species ambassador, has now become an integral part of a ground-breaking effort to increase the endangered population.

She was involved earlier this month as the department made the first release of the takahe back into the wild on the mainland as part of efforts to increase their population.

“It was pretty exciting to be part of this epic adventure,” Nicola says.

“I will consider this a career highlight. It has taken two years of planning by my incredibly dedicated DOC colleagues for this to happen.”

She says DOC has managed to increase the population of takahe by 10 percent every year for the past few years to 300.

Its status has improved from “nationally critical” to “nationally vulnerable” and with the increased numbers, there is less room for takahe on island and mainland sanctuary sites.

“Now we are trying something new by putting takahe back in the wild on the mainland, with the exception of the Murchison Mountains where they were rediscovered by Dr Geoffrey Orbell in 1948,” Nicola says.

While she says she was really just along for the “ride”, she found herself helping catch a takahe at the Burwood Takahe Centre near Te Anau as part of a consignment of 18 of the large birds destined for the Kahurangi National Park, Nelson.

“It was an epic adventure in DOC utes, charter flights and helicopters,” says Nicola who accompanied the birds from Te Anau to Nelson and on to the park.

Each bird had a name, a boarding pass and was buckled in its own seat on an Air New Zealand flight.

Travelling in comfort … The takahe travelled on a special Air New Zealand charter flight,
with each bird issued with a boarding pass and allocated a seat. PHOTO: FILE

They were transferred to a helicopter on landing in Nelson and taken to their new home – Gouland Downs, near the Heaphy Track in Kahurangi National Park.

Nicola says they were released in family groups, beside the same family group they had lived beside at Burwood.

“Takahe are really family orientated and if they are released with their family group and beside each other, they stick around and look after each.

“It was pretty special for me to be able to travel with these birds all the way from Te Anau to Kahurangi National Park.”

DOC takahe operations manager Deidre Vercoe says moving the birds marks the next step in takahe recovery.

“These taonga birds only have one large wild site to call home – the remote Murchison Mountains of Fiordland.

“Trying to establish another large wild population is a bold move and it might not work, but we must push the boundaries if we are to learn and make progress.

“If the birds released successfully establish in Kahurangi, we are a significant step closer to achieving our goal of seeing takahe in growing numbers in large areas of their former natural
range.”

Safely moving 18 large, flightless birds from the Burwood Takahe Centre near Te Anau to their new home has been a team effort, with Air New Zealand operating a special direct charter service to fly them from Queenstown to Nelson.

Others involvement comes from Fulton Hogan (national partner for takahe); Ngai Tahu; Mitre 10 (official supplier to the programme), Air NZ (which paid for trapping in the habitat and ships wildlife all over the country), and DOC.