The battle for the birds of Motupōhue

Dec 19, 2017

Removing introduced pests and predators from “The Bluff” – an iconic landmark overlooking Te Ara a Kewa (Foveaux Strait) – is the result of a concerted community effort by 25 volunteers from the Bluff Hill (Motupōhue) Environment Trust. The Trust’s work was publicly recognised in November when it won the Environmental Action in the Community Award at the 2017 Southland Community Environment Awards, hosted by Environment Southland. Kaituhi ROB TIPA went south to catch up with Trust Chair Estelle Pera Leask, and discover what is at the heart of their success.

Pied oystercatchers on Bluff Harbour.

Walking through a magnificent stand of ancient native forest on Motupōhue on a glorious spring day, conversation is drowned out by a concert of bird song. Everywhere you look there are birds. Those you can’t see you can certainly hear, as feathered forest divas compete for the loudest voice and the last word.

A pair of low-flying tūī, locked in aerial combat, duck and dive through the trees at head height to settle a territorial dispute. Well-fed kererū swoop overhead like heavily-laden bombers, using the bush track as an easy flight path. On a branch just off the track, another fluffed-up parsonbird nonchalantly preens itself, oblivious to the aerobatic displays and the procession of open-mouthed tourists. For any nature-loving Kiwi, such an audacious display of biodiversity at work is heart-warming. To witness this environmental rescue story on mainland New Zealand is remarkable. The fact that the turnaround has taken less than a decade is a small miracle.

Estelle Pera Leask (Ngāi Tahu, Whakatōhea, Ngāti Ruanui), has been an active volunteer on the Trust since day one. She took a leadership role as its chair seven years ago. Estelle says the Trust’s aim was to bring back birdsong to Bluff Hill, and provide a safe haven for native birds, plants, and invertebrates to thrive, not just survive.

The birds are now the Trust’s best advocates, she says. “They are the reason we have such amazing support from the community; because everyone’s feeding tūī and seeing native birds about.” As well as the community itself, the Trust has had strong support from Awarua Rūnanga, the Department of Conservation (DOC), Environment Southland, and half a dozen generous sponsors.

Born and raised in Bluff, Estelle has always had a strong bond to Bluff Hill, which stands 265 metres tall, overlooking Awarua township. She went to school in Awarua, and explored every corner of this adventure playground as a child. After a period living in Auckland and travelling overseas, she was drawn back to this special place with her son, Fabian (now 32), to explore her whakapapa links to Whenua Hou (Codfish Island). Whenua Hou, west of Rakiura (Stewart Island), was one of the country’s earliest multicultural sealing settlements, first established in 1810. Estelle was named after her tupuna Ester Pura, one of six young Ngāi Tahu women who were deliberately brought south to Whenua Hou from Kaiapoi by Ngāi Tahu chiefs, to escape the southern raids of Ngāti Toa chief Te Rauparaha during the early 1800s.

“I visited the pā site where our ancestors had lived, and the connection was a powerful experience. I knew this was where I belonged, my tūrangawaewae. Without sounding arrogant, I felt a sense of ownership and had an idea of wanting to protect it as well.”
Estelle Pera Leask Ngāi Tahu, Whakatōhea, Ngāti Ruanui

“My mother (Ngaire Hanning) always told me I was named after a beautiful Ngāi Tahu princess who came from a special island; and I always grew up with that vision in my mind,” she says.

Estelle learnt that the only way to visit Whenua Hou, now a predator-free bird sanctuary, was to volunteer for the Department of Conservation’s Kākāpō Recovery Programme.

“So, I did, and it was the most amazing experience landing on the island, and being there for two weeks. From that day on, I was hooked,” she says.

“When I landed on the island, I was one of the few Ngāi Tahu volunteers the programme had ever had. Apart from DOC staff and me, most of the volunteers were foreigners who had gone to great trouble to get there, so I figured the island must be special.

“I visited the pā site where our ancestors had lived, and the connection was a powerful experience. I knew this was where I belonged, my tūrangawaewae. Without sounding arrogant, I felt a sense of ownership and had an idea of wanting to protect it as well.”

Estelle Leask, Chair of the Bluff Hill (Motupōhue) Environment Trust.

Since then, Estelle has revisited the island many times as a DOC volunteer, and for the last four or five years, as part of her leadership role on the Whenua Hou Committee, which manages the island. On her return to the mainland, Estelle saw an advertisement for a meeting to bring back the bird song to Bluff Hill.

“I attended the meeting. I was only one of two Bluff people and the only Ngāi Tahu person there, and that shocked me. I thought, these people who don’t even come from here could see the value of something I’d been looking at all my life; and they opened my eyes.

“They made me realise how lucky we are to have what we have here. So, I signed up straight away and I’ve been involved ever since.”

In the first four or five years, volunteers – including Estelle, her husband Peter Leask, an oyster boat skipper, and his crew – carved out a network of tracks through 204 hectares of the Bluff Hill (Motupōhue) Reserve, a rare remnant of original podocarp/broadleaf forest on the east coast of Te Waipounamu. They started predator control by targeting mustelids – stoats, weasels, and ferrets – and caught a huge number of these indiscriminate killers in traps, especially around two tītī (muttonbird) colonies on the coast. The Trust monitors these colonies, and recorded an immediate recovery in fledging chick numbers after trapping.

Volunteers then turned their sights on reducing the large number of possums on Motupōhue, setting a network of traps every 100 metres. In nine years, they have caught more than 1000 possums.

Environment Southland’s pest monitoring has shown that residual trap catches of possums have dropped from 30 per cent to zero within the reserve*. However, there are still pockets outside the control area that require ongoing trapping and spotlighting to prevent reinvasion.

The next challenge was to control rat numbers.

“Rats are a huge issue because they breed every six weeks,” Estelle says. “In any community, anywhere there are humans there are rats. For every one you see, there are 50 you don’t see. Because of that, we had to put in a really intensive rat control programme over 200 hectares of the reserve, with a rat trap and a rat bait station every 50 metres.

“We were going through so much toxin, you could smell dead rats for months. Once we got on top of it a month or two later, you could hear birds.”

Pest control operations have been very successful. With residual populations of possums and rats dropping below 5 per cent the Trust has started reintroducing native birds to Motupōhue.

With so much of her time and energy committed to conservation, Estelle is close to completing a Bachelor of Environmental Management degree at the Southern Institute of Technology (SIT) in Waihōpai (Invercargill).

“I just wanted people to take me seriously, and without credentials I don’t think people do,” she says. “It has been amazing. It’s such a broad course and I’ve learnt so much. You do a lot of fieldwork, water quality work, and energy auditing. I’ve loved every bit of it.”

As her third-year research project, Estelle managed the successful translocation of 41 kakariwai (Petroica australis, the South Island robin), from Waikaia, west of Lumsden, to Bluff Hill. The stakes are high, for, as Estelle points out, this is “a bird that hasn’t been heard here for over a century.”

For the translocation to be successful, the birds need to breed. Estelle says the signs are promising, with the birds already pairing up in an ideal habitat for native species. She has now filed an application with DOC for her second translocation project, to bring back tīeke (Philesturnis carunculatus, saddlebacks) to Motupōhue. However, this application is conditional on the Trust undertaking intensive feral cat monitoring and control.

Estelle checking, cleaning and re baiting a mustelid trap on Joeys Island.

On Estelle’s initiative, students from the SIT Environment Management course now help out with all aspects of the Trust’s work, from collecting locally-sourced seed and growing it in the Trust’s native plant nursery, to learning about trapping techniques and monitoring tītī (muttonbird) and mātātā (fernbird) populations.

The Trust now recognises the potential to make Bluff predator-free. This ambitious undertaking would be made somewhat easier by the fact that the port town is almost an island – just a narrow isthmus of 300 metres of low-lying ground at Ocean Beach connects Bluff to the mainland. The Trust has extended its operations to include a 6 km pest trap line from Ka Kau Tapapa (Joeys Island, in Awarua/Bluff Harbour), to Pikaroro Point, on the east coast of Rakiura. There are also plans for additional trap lines at Green Point (near Tikore Island), and at a wind farm at Turakanui a Rua, near Ocean Beach.

“We’ve done what we can in the forest. Now we want to do what we can around the coast to protect nesting seabirds. And it’s working,” Estelle says. “It’s such a special area that needs protection.”

Forest birds on Motupōhue include flocks of kererū and bellbirds, tūī, red-crowned parakeets, fantails, tomtits, and even mātātā (fernbirds) and weka.

Seabird colonies of tītī, four species of penguins, and four species of shag nest around the coast, and there are huge colonies of mottled petrels, banded dotterels, red-billed gulls, pied oyster catchers, pied stilts and royal spoonbills, which are either resident or seasonal visitors to the sand flats of Bluff Harbour.

Estelle is excited about a positive future for Bluff, with the commitment of the new Government to a predator-free New Zealand by 2050. If the authorities want Rakiura to be predator-free, she believes Bluff also needs to be predator-free, being the main service port for Rakiura. Estelle says a predator-free Bluff is possible if two factors are met: one, getting the community to trap rats in residential areas, and two, winning the support of two other major landowners outside Bluff (South Port and the Invercargill City Council).

For Estelle, walking in the footsteps of her tupuna was a defining moment in her life. Her current path truly began when she stood in culturally special places like Whenua Hou and Motupōhue. Both motu and maunga were protected under a tōpuni status, and gifted back to Ngāi Tahu as part of the Treaty of Waitangi settlement. Now Estelle in turn gives back to these two places.

“I don’t do what I do for me. I do it for my community, and I learnt that from my dad (Karia Pera),” she says. “It’s our kaupapa. I see myself and our community as kaitiaki (guardians) of this place, and there is a huge proportion of Ngāi Tahu people in this small community. If we can all work together, we can make this whole island predator-free.”

The Bluff Hill Motupōhue Environment Trust:

* After pest control efforts such as poisoning, traps may be set with the aim of catching surviving pests, as a gauge for the success of the operation. The numbers caught are called the residual trap catch. DOC aims for a 5 per cent catch rate or lower.