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Twenty-one years down the track

Whinray Reserve restoration brings birdsong back to Motu

In 1770, gentleman scientist Joseph Banks described the almost overwhelming volume and melody of birdsong in Queen Charlotte Sound.

“This morn I was awakd by the singing of the birds ashore from whence we are distant not a quarter of a mile, the numbers of them were certainly very great who seemd to strain their throats with emulation perhaps; their voices were certainly the most melodious wild musick I have ever heard, almost imitating small bells but with the most tuneable silver sound imaginable, to which maybe the distance was no small addition.”

Such forests are mostly silent now, as predators such as rats and stoats have exterminated many bird species.

But through the Whinray Eco Trust, Motu community members and other volunteers aim to turn the clock back and replicate the Queen Charlotte Sound’s cacophony of birdsong at Whinray Scenic Reserve, said Ecoworks co-founder Steve Sawyer.

After 21 years of forest restoration, the reserve is on track to achieve the dream of restoring the level of birdlife Banks experienced during James Cook’s venture into New Zealand.

“Forest bird populations have increased massively since 2014 when intensive rat control began.

“Prior to this, the forest was very quiet with extremely low bird numbers. I think we got there just in time — before we lost key species.

“Over recent years, we have recorded flocks of 30 kereru in neighbouring gardens in Motu.”

Miromiro, mokomoko and more in Motu

“The North Island robin was also a rare find, and we now have breeding pairs scattered across the reserve.”

Robins are badly impacted by rats and stoats, and, because the females incubate the eggs, they are often killed first, said Steve.

While robins might be spotted in some forests, most robin populations are made up of males on the search for a mate.

“This summer, the robins will be trained to feed on meal worms. They will be monitored closely by Carol Wakelin and Tina Drummond so we can gauge how well they are breeding in the reserve.”

Other species such as North Island tomtit/miromiro, whitehead/popokotea, rifleman/titipounamu, bellbird/korimako, warbler/riroriro and falcon/karearea are also commonly seen and heard. “Even the North Island kaka has returned recently.”

At ground level, one of the most exciting discoveries recently made at the reserve was that of the striped skink.

“This is a small tree-climbing lizard from the East Coast of New Zealand.

“After years of pest control, it has recovered and lives within mature totara forest in Whinray Reserve.”

The native long-tailed bat population is also flourishing.

To monitor the bats, Whinray Eco Trust members use acoustic recorders that detect the mammal’s ultra-high frequency clicks as they navigate their way along forest-covered streams inside the reserve.

Native Hochstetter’s frogs are more abundant in the pest management area.

“Searches during the early 2000s often revealed nothing, but, over the past few years, we have found three new colonies in small gully heads.”

All three colonies are protected by pest trapping.

Kiwi thriving

Eighteen out of every 20 kiwi chicks are killed each year by stoats, which means New Zealand’s brown kiwi population is disappearing rapidly.

In the past 21 years, however, the stoat control project has allowed kiwi and many other species to recover.

When restoration work started at Whinray Scenic Reserve in 1999, only eight kiwi remained.

Ferrets and other pests had killed all but the last brown kiwi in the area.

Thanks to the efforts of the Motu community and Whinray Eco Trust, who manage pest control and wildlife recovery in the reserve, the site is now home to more than 30 adult and juvenile kiwi.

Many others live on private farmland in the surrounding Motu area.

Eight kiwi are radio tagged at Whinray Reserve and breeding is set to start again.

The first eggs are expected to be laid in July this year.

Radio transmitters last only 12 months and are being replaced with new, $360 VHF radio transmitters that will enable the Whinray Kiwi team to monitor the birds and their breeding this season.

Pest control

Over the past 21 years, several hundred stoats have been removed.

As well as stoats, the pest control programme at Whinray Reserve and the greater Motu area has controlled more than 2500 possums, and at least 8000 ship rats, ferrets, weasels, wild cats, deer and pigs.

“This has allowed the bush to regenerate, forest birds to breed successfully and even lizards, weta and native bats to increase hugely in number,” Steve said.

This is all thanks to a 21 year effort by the local Motu community and the many sponsors and supporters in the Tairawhiti community and across New Zealand who have helped the Trust make restoration, Steve said.

“The Whinray Scenic Reserve is getting better with age.

“It is now one of the only untouched forest reserves in the Gisborne and East Cape Region to hold such a variety of amazing species within original 800-year-old kahikatea-matai forest.

“The Whinray Scenic Reserve is definitely worth a visit on a sunny morning.”

Cacophony of sound: The restoration of the Whinray Scenic Reserve in Motu has seen forest bird populations increase, such as the North Island robin (above). Pictures supplied
Motu ecology: The restoration of the Whinray Scenic Reserve in Motu has seen forest bird populations increase. Pictures supplied