Working bee meets kiwi

Looking on to the main land from the shores of Mana Island

I have had my sights set on visiting Mana Island for quite some time as it is one of the off shore island sanctuaries for kiwi birds near Wellington. Yep, that’s right – the chase is still on. Although Mana Island has enjoyed a huge eco restoration success, and is only a stone’s throw away from its bigger, better known cousin Kapiti Island, quite a lot of people I mentioned it to surprisingly had never heard about it.

The island is Department of Conservation (DOC) managed but it also gets support by the local community through a volunteer organisation called Friends of Mana Island (FOMI). A great opportunity to explore the island in the darkness of the night, the preferred hang out time for my avian friends, is by joining one of the FOMI multi-day volunteer working bee trips. I figured that becoming friends with FOMI would be hugely beneficial. That was easy as. Against a nominal membership fee I got onto FOMI’s mailing list for volunteer opportunities. In less than a week of befriending FOMI, I got an email notification of a working bee party coming up in early October. I sat patiently fingertips at the ready in anticipation of the official email to come through. Thanks to my hawkish vigilance and eager typing skills I made it to the shortlist of volunteers. These trips are very, very popular and it isn’t an exaggeration to say that places get snatched within minutes. Now that I had secured a spot, I just had to sit back and hold my breath for another week or so as the organisers were going to make a final call, depending on the weather forecast, on whether the trip was going to go ahead. Around 9pm the day before our scheduled departure we got the all clear.

Good weather but disappointing news to begin with

Departure was on Friday, 4 Oct, at 4pm from Mana marina. I just made it on time as I caught the train from town to Paremata station, in Porirua, and had some troubles figuring out how to get to the marina. It turned out I had to walk quite a long way down the main road which runs parallel to the marina, go passed the marina, before I could take a turn to access it. In hindsight, it may have been less confusing to get off at the next stop, Mana station. However, I made it there just when the other volunteers were leaving the car park and heading for the boat.

Once on the boat I shared a bench with two of the other volunteers. The first question they both asked me was how I had come to know about Mana Island. I happily started babbling on about my kiwi passion and how I have come across wild reports about the abundance of kiwi hanging around the hut and so on and so forth. I concluded with smugness that it was almost guaranteed that I would see a kiwi. To my hugest, deepest disappointment I was told by one of my companions (who is regularly out there on the island for research work – in short, a credible source) that 8 out of the 24 kiwi (that’s 1/3 of the population!) had been deported to their home country of the West Coast as the island was getting a little too small for them all, and they needed more space to flap their wings or whatever is that kiwi birds need space for. At this moment in time the boat got pretty much airborne (choppy would be an understatement for the water conditions that day) so I did not have much time to ponder and feel sad about the news. Instead I started staring intently at the horizon for the rest of the crossing and once the boat made it to the island I could only be proud of holding it all in as it were – no tears shed.

Off the boat and on our way to the quarantine room

On the island we had to get through a quarantine room first and thoroughly examine the contents of our backpacks for seeds or anything else living and nonnative which could contaminate the island’s flora and fauna. The island is pest and rodent free which requires effort and rigour to keep it that way, especially that it is open to visitors. It took awhile as we went through all the contents in our backpacks one by one.

Once we all had gone through the quarantine room and claimed our bunk beds we gathered into the hut kitchen for a briefing on the Do’s and Dont’s by the Island’s DOC Ranger on duty. What I found very interesting and hadn’t come across before was that no one is allowed to take anything from the island. That is absolutely nothing, no shells, no stones, no plants. This struck me as a beautiful concept and reminded me of Asteya, one of the 8 limbs of yoga (which translates as non-stealing).

The speckled skinks mission

As soon as the briefing was over a group of 4 of us headed off on to our first mission, speckled skink trap setting. This needs a little explaining I guess. Right, so speckled skinks were released onto the island some years back but no sightings have been recorded since. By setting friendly traps it is hoped that it could be found out if they have been successful at establishing themselves on the island or not. Our job consisted of making platters (broad green leaves) loaded with yummy food (cat food and chopped up pear) to attract insects. When we had the platters loaded we  placed them at the bottom of buckets dug into the ground (the traps). The idea is that the insects will be attracted by the food which would in turn attract the skinks. We did not come across any speckleds but there were plenty of other beauties as could be seen in the photos above, common gecko and tree weta to name a few.  After we were done with the 20 or so traps it was time to get some platters of tasty food ourselves.

Dinner and introductions

For dinner we had been asked to bring a couple of dishes to feed 3-4 people and share with the rest of the group. It worked wonderfully, especially that there were so many yummy veggie dishes. After or before dinner (the order of events eludes me here)  we had to introduce ourselves to the rest of the group and why we were here. There were 17 of us. Apart from myself and one other everyone else had been here before. Furthermore, the majority of the people were from natural science backgrounds or had been involved in one sort of conservation work or another previously. How cool was that! As it was my turn to introduce myself and what had made me come to the island I talked about my desire to see kiwi in the wild. No one was laughing or made me feel weird about my kiwi adoration. I instantly knew that I was with the right crowd.

Flax weevil and other adorable critters

Look at the size of this flax bush

After dinner and the introductions we were out onto our second mission for the night, flax weevil hunting. I know, I will get into this in a moment but before that I had a very special encounter which has to be talked about first and foremost. We had to walk up a wee hill through the dark to get to the sight of the flax bushes. About 10 minutes into the walk a whisper travelled through the still night air, ‘Torches off! Kiwi!’. My ears pricked up and I picked up my pace and got to the front, positioning myself near those of the group who had red light torches on. I could clearly hear the kiwi rummaging in the bush next to the path where we were standing. It was so very close. Please come out birdie! That seemed to work! In a few minutes’ time it stumbled out of the bush and onto the path right in front of us. It did not hang around with us all that long but wild magic usually is over at the blink of an eye.  That was a special moment and that it happened during kiwi month (October) only added to its special-ness.

I could now shift my focus and attention to what lay ahead, the flax weevil hunt. The flax weevil is quite rare and apart from Mana Island and some other offshore islands it’s only to be found at the top of the Tararua ranges on the main land. They were introduced here not long ago and have established themselves so well  that they have been causing damage and even killing some of the flax plants.

Once we got to the sight of the flax bushes we were divided into two teams of five, four hunters and one scribe / time keeper. Each team had 40 flax plants to strip off all flax weevil we could possibly find within a minute. Additionally, we had to shout out the names of any other bugs we got to see. It took me awhile to start seeing things but how joyful it was once I did. Two bugs which deserve a special mention apart from the flax weevil are the tree and giant weta. The first weta I came across was a very juicy tree weta.

I shouted out: Weta!

Scribe: Which one?

Me: Don’t know. May be a giant – looks pretty beastly. Can someone come have a look? Poor show I must admit, considering that I had seen one earlier in broad daylight.

Teammate: It’s a tree weta. When you see a giant you will know it. It is HUGE and has a sort of armoured body.

I didn’t have to wait long before I got to see the giant. Oh my! What a beautiful beast! That giant weta was as big as the palm of my hand. It is a dinosaur as bugs go. Has a very cute face too.

We concluded the hunt with a box full of flax weevil which was only a temporary accommodation for them. They were released later. This was a seriously, insanely fun thing to do. Who would have thought! By the time we got back to the hut it was well past 11pm so had time only for a short sleep as we had to be ready to leave the hut by 8pm the following morning.


2 - xEmKPfM
Hard at work weeding the wetland pathway. Photo credit Christopher Stephens.

The weather forecast for Saturday was for rain but not until late in the afternoon. I was on weeding duties. We spent the better part of the morning until about 11am pulling out thistles, inkweed and some other weeds which were trying to claim the wetland pathway their own. All I have to say is that those weeds are pesky things! The thistle would grow quite virtually anywhere and grow an impossibly deep and robust root system. It was quite satisfying getting piles of them out, freeing some breathing space for the other plants.

We had a morning tea break around 11am after which it was time for more weeding. This time we moved to a place called the gecko site. The idea is to have a fenced off, protected area where geckos will be released and given the opportunity to establish themselves. We had to clear a narrow path, about half a meter wide, and some 40ish meters in length (maybe shorter but it felt very, very long) for the potential fence to be built in. It was grass we had to pull out this time. This grass was anything but easy to get out as it had gotten intertwined with some bizarre roots which seemed to be just that, roots. After a couple of hours of weeding we headed back to the hut for lunch at which point the weather was starting to turn. After lunch it had begun drizzling gently but we decided to head back to the gecko site for another hour or so of weeding. It was fun weeding in the rain as it seemed to make the grass come out more easily and we managed to make some good progress which was satisfying. It was about four o’clock by the time we made it back to the hut and I was pretty much ready to call it a day at this point. It was an early night for me as all that weed pulling got the better of me.

Painting seabirds

The following day we woke up to glorious sunshine and clear skies. Today I was going to get creative and paint some gannets. There has been this idea of establishing a gannet colony on the island. There are 80 odd ceramic (or of some other similar material) gannets scattered along the cliff edges of the island. The hope is that they and a solar powered sound system, playing the sounds of a natural seabird colony, would encourage real birds to colonise the site. This approach has produced success elsewhere.

The fruits of our labour, looking very much like real gannets, I’d like to think.

Our task was to repaint the birds and make them look more like real gannets. We had the perfect weather conditions and views for this type of artistic work. It was perfectly still and sunny with clear views of the beautiful scenery all around, with the Makara wind turbines to the south, Kapiti Island to the north and the Tararua ranges to the northeast. As the morning progressed more and more boats started coming out on the water which only added to the beauty of the scenery.

I loved this job as it required attention and focus and was almost like a meditation. For the several hours of painting our group of four only managed to get through 23 birds. I’d say it’s still quite a good effort considering the level of detail we painted them in (as evident in the photo above, right).

Before departure we had a communal tidy up of the hut which was a quick affair, with everyone chipping in. The boat ride back was a lot more pleasant since the water was pancake flat.

This was such a joyful, soulful and rare experience that I am so grateful to my new friends of Mana island for this opportunity and for opening up my eyes to the beauty of bugs and other critters I wouldn’t ordinarily take much note of. Thank you and see you again soon, friends.

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