Chasing Grey Ghosts

In search of the South Island kōkako

My bird nerd status was earned at age ten with school holidays spent helping to release saddleback on Kapiti Island. A lifelong obsession was fledged. Now, as a 30-something with kids, time in the wild is hard to come by, but a couple of times a year a group of city-bound mates and I escape to the hills. We’ve combined these trips with places where the saddleback’s elusive cousin, the South Island kōkako, has been (possibly) sighted.

The South Island kōkako and saddleback are members of the wattlebird family, a group of birds who whakapapa way back and are endemic to New Zealand; another cousin is the extinct huia. A blue-wattled North Island relative of the South Island kōkako survives in forests where introduced predators are suppressed: nimbly dancing along branches like Zorro practising sword moves.

About the size of a magpie, the kōkako’s colouring — 50 shades of grey cloak, black masquerade mask, orange/blue cravat — is elegant (see the design work in Auckland’s Kokako Café). But its claim to twitcher fame is its haunting call. Plangent — ‘loud and resonant, with a mournful tone’ — is the perfect descriptor. To experience it live, from a rewarewa or tōtora stage, is an audio version of the Te Waikoropupū springs or [insert your own 100% Pure metaphor].

The sound is spine chilling and makes for a dawn chorus of the eco fables. Pioneer explorer Charlie Douglas wrote of South Island kōkako: ‘Their notes are very few, but the sweetest and most mellow toned I ever heard a bird produce.’

Until 2013 the South Island kōkako’s last officially accepted sighting was in 1967, but dozens of reports since have convinced a dedicated band of South Island kōkako (SIK) acolytes that the ‘grey ghost’ (as it’s known) still lives. Despite tantalising encounters, the bird’s ‘subtle’ behavior and a lack of hard evidence make its presence a nebulous one to confirm. Recently the Ornithological Society accepted a 2007 sighting and changed its status from ‘extinct’ to ‘data deficient’.

For my mates and I, joining in the search combines a sense of mission and romance — is it our version of the Tassie Tiger? Is its mournful call a dirge for ecological loss? — but it’s basically an excuse to go bush.

An early spring trip for our ‘grey ghost gang’ was to Cobb Valley in Kahurangi National Park. We (Paul, Tim, Laurence, Geoff) hit up SIK supporter Alec Milne for local sightings, downloaded North Island kōkako ‘mew’ calls as lure — ‘sounds like a strangled cat,’ said newbie Geoff — and set off early on a Friday morning.

From Nelson Airport, we hired a rental and wound our way over Takaka Hill to Cobb Reservoir. En route Tim spotted a weka whānau fossicking roadside and we stopped for photos and air. A four-hour stroll up the valley to Fenella Hut followed, accompanied by bellbirds, riroriro and robins.

With distinctive glaciated geology and the old grey rocks of Xenicus and Mt Cobb overseeing a zen garden tarn two furlongs from the hut, Fenella is a theatrical location. The hut’s builders included Tim’s parents — with Tim in utero — and the long drop must be a contender for most picturesque DOC hut dunny.

We set some Victor rat traps (provided courtesy of the Enhancing the Halo Project) outside. Weka and possum called through the night, but no kiwi. As we played 500 and the burner turned the hut into a sauna, the traps scored two rats. Birds: 2. Predators: 0.

A robin checking out the haul in the morning offered a thought-provoking image. As did the weka pecking the used tampon by the porch. Humans: red card.

Most of the forecast rain fell overnight, but it was still drizzly for the day trip to Kākāpo Peak. Up through the Dracophyllum forest (Dr Suess's truffula trees?) we stopped to catch breath and, spurred by Alec Milne’s ‘South Island Kokako: Wanted’ sign in the hut, played calls by the saddle leading to Waingaro Peak. (No luck.)

Crampons proved unnecessary and axes were walking sticks for the trudge through the soft spring snow. Talk of politics and property prices petered out as we grunted along the ridge in wind and cloud, with no view to be granted as reward and the peak’s namesake long gone.

Descending we posed for photos with vegetable sheep, and wondered at food sources for the mountain tui swan-diving 1,500 metres up.

Being in the clouds at the bush-line reminded me of the mossy trees higher up in the Tararua Ranges. There, when the wind’s howling, you can stand on tree roots that creak and shift half a foot or more; roots entwined in one gnarly mat so that the whole forest feels like it’s breathing. There’s now as much of a chance of seeing a hobbit as a huia there — the birds were scarce even when Pākehā arrived — but I’m drawn to wonder how awesome (in the old sense of the word) it must have been to encounter a pair in the mist. The black clerical robes, blood orange wattles, the marked bill dimorphism between the sexes, and the iconic tail feathers with the white tips dipped in mana. One can sense the mystical impression they must’ve made.

If New Zealand birds are to be revered, then the huia is the high priest. I mused that its wattlebird cousin, the kōkako is the lonely soloist left in the beech forest chapel, its call a willed haunting, a lament for a prelapsarian paradise. Is this part of our urge to find it, to prove ‘we’ haven’t stuffed it all up?

The next day — the sun finally out — we climbed up to the saddle and trooped east along the Lockett Range, with grand views across to Mt Snowdon and yesterday’s route to Kākāpō. Sidling along steep deer trails through the snow and scree gave us a heavy dose of kea envy as four drag-raced high above us.

With time running out to make our flight we dropped down beneath Mt Benson and found a trap line, down to Cobb River. Still, we had time for some experimental call playback. Daft Punk’s disco techno lured a yellow-crowned kākāriki for chit-chat. And expedition botanist Tim found a threatened pittosporum patulum aka ‘pit-pat.’

Being back in bed in Wellington for Sunday night was disorientating, with the keeeeeaaaa call from a children’s toy providing an echo of our dip into Kahurangi’s big country. Our grey ghost hunt provided no fodder for hopers, but hang on … what was that plaintive note peeling over the tarn? Too pure for a croaky tui? The mist fingers through the gnarly goblin forest and the Cobb wearies me to sleep …