Stephen Jaquiery visits the offshore sanctuary of Codfish Island, a small island to the west of Stewart Island, where he finds the delightful kakapo is not the only interesting island-dweller.
Kakapo overcrowding may force return to island
Happy in a small tin shed
How friendly is too friendly?
An unusual chick has recently been relocated by Doc to the offshore sanctuary of Codfish Island and no, it is not a kakapo.
This bird does share similar traits, however. Both species are solitary, flightless, live to the ripe old age of 80-plus in good conditions and both are cute.
Liz Whitwell (31) is a ranger who has spent all but a few months of the past nine years living on isolated off-shore island reserves, employed by the Department of Conservation.
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Liz Whitwell on patrol on Raoul Island. Photo supplied.
For Liz it was literally a baptism of fire, a 20-month stint living on the volcanic Raoul Island in the Kermadecs, a tiny South Pacific oasis 1100km north-northeast of New Zealand.
Responding to a newspaper advertisement, Liz was short-listed for the year-long weeding and weather monitoring job on Raoul Island, but first had to be judged of sound mind by a psychiatrist, visit a dentist and get a clean bill of health from a doctor.
Her previous job as a Conservation corps tutor, where she picked up skills such as practical conservation, driving ATVs and tractors, and chainsaw use, was to count in her favour when being considered as a modern-day MacGyver, someone capable of living in a small isolated team with limited outside assistance.
Applicants were told they were unable to leave the island even if a parent or sibling died and to be prepared for a 48-hour wait for help, even in the event of a most dire medical emergency.
After being accepted for the position, Liz volunteered for extra training as a medic and spent two weeks in the Middlemore Hospital emergency department observing and helping with car accident victims and learning to apply intravenous drips.
Her skills were to be put to good use, administering treatment to a man who broke his collarbone and stitching up deep cuts to a knee; Liz's eyes still sparkle when she recounts injecting local anaesthetic directly into the wound.
Quietly nervous but also excited, Liz left Auckland on the 30m ship Braveheart with a year's food supply in 100 fish-tubs and the four other Doc contact staff, who were also heading to live and work on Raoul. Chronically sea-sick for the two and a-half day journey, her reward was immediate upon arrival: 14 hours hard labour manhandling all the equipment into woolpacks and up a rocky cliff face via wire derrick.
Work on the 3000ha island was physically hard, ridding this sea-bird stronghold of exotic weeds such as Brazilian buttercup and black passion-fruit. Weather readings were taken daily for the Met Service, including releasing a high weather hydrogen balloon.
Work was five days on, two off, just like a town job. Days off included snorkelling in the semi-tropical sea, photography, tramping around the network of huts or just kicking back and recovering body and soul.
Liz said working in isolation in a small team proved a great way to make close friends but there was friction ... especially when it came to food. Mix some vegetarians with pukekos raiding the garden, all the food ordered by the previous team and unpopular rationing of popular items and it was hardly surprising. Running out of fresh potatoes, however, made the cooks very inventive with potato flakes.
Supplies were parachuted in every three to four months by the Air Force, and the drop was welcomed with great excitement. Several bins of dress-up clothing and home-brew beer added fun to occasional parties. Christmas was celebrated with a traditionally large meal, the exchanging of presents and perhaps a game of volleyball or tennis and a phone-call home via (expensive) satellite phone (the only thing on the island individuals had to pay for).
Coming home to New Zealand 20 months after leaving felt weird. Liz's nostrils were in overdrive with unfamiliar odours; she could pick up a chewing-gum chewer a room away, had lost track of current and world events, lost her traffic sense and couldn't believe how quickly cars seemed to travel.
Liz arrived home one June and took up a position on Little Barrier in August the same year, where she stayed for the next five and a-half years. The job involved more weeding, infrastructure maintenance, some species work and visitor management.
Spare time was occupied with diving and photography, adding 50,000 images to her collection. With Little Barrier being so close to the mainland, Liz allowed herself the luxury of holidays away; a whole two weeks a year.
Leaving Little Barrier on December 21, 2010, Liz spent a night in Invercargill before taking up her current position as a kakapo ranger on Codfish Island on the 22nd for her nine-month contract.
Looking after some of the world's most endangered birds made a change from pulling weeds. Tracking, feeding, weighing and monitoring bird health is done to a strict routine, despite the fickle weather.
With the pressure off, however, Liz has her camera clicking, not unlike an excited American tourist, when Solstice One, offspring of the last surviving kakapo found on Stewart Island, chooses to hang out with the humans after a health check.
Time is running out for Liz. She is counting down the weeks to the end of her Doc contract and looking forward to a much anticipated three-month overseas trip, travelling to the Amazon, Bolivia and Chile and doing a month's volunteer work in the Galapagos.
• It is the heaviest parrot in the world. Males can weight 4kg.
• Although it cannot fly, (it's the only parrot that can't), it is good at climbing trees.
• The birds are herbivores and eat a variety of roots, leaves and fruit.
• The known population is 131. All have been given names.
• Possibly as a defence against their ancient predator the giant eagle, they became nocturnal and have learned to freeze at times of danger.
• They were once numerous throughout New Zealand.
• The male kakapo makes a loud booming noise, which can travel up to 5km when mating, to attract females.
• They only breed in years when the rimu tree tree is fruiting (every two or three years).
By Stephen Jacquiery
Source: ODT Online