FOR the first time in at least 100 years, the North Island robin is back breeding in Gisborne.
Once prolific on the East Coast, the North Island robin was wiped out by rats, cats and stoats in lowland Poverty Bay.
Now, thanks to a conservation initiative by Ecoworks founder Steve Sawyer and Jeremy and Dame Anne Salmond, the reintroduced native species has just hatched its first chicks at Longbush Reserve.
Having spent the past 10 years clearing the reserve of predators, Mr Sawyer translocated North Island robins from Bill and Sally Gaddum’s Matawai property to the Riverside Road wildlife sanctuary about two years ago.
The robins have just hatched their first chicks.
“This is the first time North Island robins have bred in Gisborne for a century or two,” says Mr Sawyer.
“It’s great to see a threatened species restored to its historic habitat.”
The North Island robin’s preferred habitat is tall native beech or podocarp forest with even canopies.
The nest is generally built in the fork of a tree trunk though the robin spends a lot of time on the ground where it forages in the leaf litter for bugs and insects. Its diet includes grubs, worms, beetles, moths, caterpillars and spiders.
The robin’s feeding habits make it vulnerable to predators. This is why they have mostly confined themselves to beech forests in high country, says Mr Sawyer.
“They are still reasonably common in high-country areas but there are none in the Gisborne coastal area when they would have been abundant at one time.
“Robins are good breeders under the right conditions. If you can keep predators out and get the habitat right, the North Island robin breeds prolifically. These newly-hatched chicks should start breeding next year.”
Mr Sawyer says The Longbush Eco Trust aim is to turn Longbush Reserve into the wildlife equivalent of Eastwoodhill Arboretum.
The North Island robin breeding programme is the first step towards introducing other threatened native species such as bellbirds, tui, kereru and geckos to the reserve.
In an ecological sense, the robin is the canary in the mine.
“If the robins flourish, it’s an indicator our pest control methods are on the right track and the forest is in good health.
“Robins are seen nationally as a health indicator of forest health and low pest numbers. If you have rat populations at low density, you’ll get robins breeding. The robins are the first step.”
There is another reason why robins are popular as indicator species.
“The robin is a very nice song-bird. They’re very vocal.”
Lincoln College agricultural zoology lecturer Gordon Williams says the robin’s clear sustained song, with its richness and variety of phrasing, is perhaps the finest possessed by any native species.
The Longbush Reserve project has been made possible through sponsorship from the Williams trusts and biodiversity condition fund, says Mr Sawyer.
“It has been a big job co-ordinating the project, getting funding and permits. But seeing the chicks has been a major highlight.”