Te Papa

In Search of the Grey Ghost

The South Island kōkako is widely believed to have died out a half century ago, but some committed bird experts are convinced there are signs a few remain: disturbed moss, glimpses of grey wings and orange wattles, an occasional haunting call. Yet despite decades scouring southern forests, the kōkako has remained elusive—a single feather is the closest the searchers may have come to proving the bird still exists.

Written by       Photographed by Tim Cuff and Petr Hlavacek

The Southern Alps stand white against a clear blue sky, the verges sparkle with frost. On a nondescript bend in the highway between Lake Moeraki and Haast, I follow Rhys Buckingham off the road and into the forest. It’s an auspicious day to look for a ghost.

We are immediately enveloped in a chorus of tui, bellbirds and chattering silvereyes. Vibrating wings whirr overhead, fluorescent green kidney ferns glow in the low winter sunlight, and carpets of filmy ferns blur the outlines of fallen trunks. As we climb through the damp undergrowth, tripping on supplejack vines, tomtits and fantails flit into view to examine us.

But there’s no sign, yet, of the bird Buckingham has spent half his life looking for—a bird so elusive it’s been christened ‘the Grey Ghost’.

The orange-wattled South Island kōkako, Callaeas cinerea, haunted southern forests for up to 40 million years, one of five species of the ancient wattlebird family that includes the extinct huia, the North Island kōkako and two kinds of saddleback.

Rhys Buckingham (below) installs an audio recorder in the South Westland bush near Lake Moeraki noting time and GPS location, as well as observations of the forest and other birds. “Rhys is one of the most superb bird people I’ve ever met. He’s a consummate bushman,” says South Island Kōkako Trust Chairman Euan Kennedy. “The tragedy is he was born 100 years too late. If he’d been born a century ago, he would have preserved these birds for us. Or at least he would have preserved knowledge of their biology that we simply don’t have.”
Rhys Buckingham (below) installs an audio recorder in the South Westland bush near Lake Moeraki noting time and GPS location, as well as observations of the forest and other birds. “Rhys is one of the most superb bird people I’ve ever met. He’s a consummate bushman,” says South Island Kōkako Trust Chairman Euan Kennedy. “The tragedy is he was born 100 years too late. If he’d been born a century ago, he would have preserved these birds for us. Or at least he would have preserved knowledge of their biology that we simply don’t have.”

Like so many others, the South Island kōkako was decimated by the arrival of introduced mammals, and was already rare by the late 1800s. The last recognised 20th century sighting was in 1967, and some critics don’t even accept this report, suspecting the species died out even earlier. There are no surviving photographs of the bird, and in 2008, the Department of Conservation (DOC) pronounced it officially extinct.

But in three and half decades of searching—a total of years spent living in the bush—Buckingham has come across a host of tantalising signs that there may still be a handful of kōkako hiding out in forests across the South Island.

He and a few other committed seekers are convinced that New Zealanders have a responsibility to find and protect them before it’s too late.

For Buckingham, it began in Fiordland in 1977. He was tramping and heard “an ethereal tolling bell call” at dusk at the head of Lake Monowai, near the location of a historical kōkako report.

He was intrigued, and in 1979, after hearing rumours of kōkako sightings on Stewart Island, Buckingham went bush for three months, searching Freshwater Valley, the Ruggedy Range and the Rakeahua River for any sign of the bird. He heard a few kōkako-like calls, but saw nothing.

Then, in 1984, he went back to follow up another report, and “things started to get really hot”. In a very remote branch of Freshwater, walking at dusk in heavy rain, he heard a lone tui. A short time later, it flew right over his head—and he realised it wasn’t a tui. It was a large grey bird, with a long tail and a slow, laboured wingbeat: “the blessed thing was a kōkako!”

The Wildlife Service sent in reinforcements, and momentum seemed to be building. Buckingham and a colleague, Kerry Adams, managed to record some calls, and a bird they nicknamed ‘Titus Groan’ began responding to them. They left an orange rind out as a lure and the next day discovered a perfect imprint of a bird’s bill—later identified as closely matching a kōkako.

They put out a model bird, played the call recordings, and hid up a tree, camera trained on the spot. They heard shuffling in the undergrowth—but the bird never came out. It was toying with them.

In December that year, the celebrated ornithologist John Kendrick flew in by helicopter and joined the search.

“John didn’t muck around, he wanted to hear the recordings. So we played them, and the bird called outside our tent right above our heads, making beautiful organ notes,” Buckingham recounts. “Johnny raced out of the tent at such speed that he broke our mosquito netting. Kerry and I couldn’t contain ourselves from bursting into laughter.

“Here’s Johnny Kendrick straining up trying to see the bird, and yet we knew damn well that even Kendrick, with all his expertise and his keen vision, would have a hard time spotting it.

“He said, ‘This bird is impossible; it’s calling right beside me but there’s absolutely no sign of it!’ So it became known as the Grey Ghost.

“Most people think we’re wrong, that the bird was extinct even then. And yet Johnny Kendrick, who was the best ornithologist I’ve ever worked for, knew kōkako were there and people didn’t even believe him.”

That summer was the start of years of dedicated searching, funded by the Forest Service, the Wildlife Service and, from 1987, the Department of Conservation.

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When interest waned, Buckingham paid for his own trips. “I suppose I spent a lot of money on it, but it was my hobby too, my passion.”

He believes he’s seen the bird six times in three decades, and heard its full ‘cathedral organ’ song just three times. But if any sceptic heard what he has heard, Buckingham says, they would doubt no more.

“This call is the most phenomenal sound,” he says. “The cathedral tolling is integral to the whole story of South Island kōkako for me and is why I’m still looking for the confounded turkeys! Once you’ve heard the tolling ‘bong’ of the South Island kōkako you are hooked on the bird for life.”

[Chapter Break]

In the lush bush above Lake Moeraki, I’m hoping to hear that bong for myself.

Buckingham leads the way, pointing out plump coprosma berries, fuchsia, rangiora: “This is a very rich shrub hardwood habitat, there’s a profuseness and a diversity of berrying plants, it’s an absolute ice-cream parlour for kōkako.” There’s no sign of possum damage, and DOC has been dropping 1080 here for the past seven years. “It’s possible that’s kept the last few kōkako left in the area alive.”

Buckingham heard about this place from a Māori man in Greymouth, who told him he’d seen multiple kōkako here in the early 90s. “He said if we wanted to find kōkako, we needed to go to this little valley called Venture Creek.”

In a natural clearing at the base of a fallen tree, I sit down with Buckingham to listen. “My ears are always turned on,” he says. “I move quietly, and if something is interesting, that’s when I get into camouflage mode.”

The South Island kōkako perches on a native fuchsia branch in this 19th-century painting by Dutch artist J G Keulemans. Without a photo of the bird, we can’t be sure how life-like the image is, says Rosie Ibbotson, an art historian from the University of Canterbury. “For most of Aotearoa’s birds that he drew, Keulemans never actually encountered them live,” she says. “He was based in the United Kingdom at the time, and often had to prepare his own taxidermy models from bird skins he received.”

Just a few metres from here, in 2010, he made his best recording of putative South Island kōkako—a ringing double note in a minor key. That’s what he plays now, from his mobile phone hooked up to a speaker.

We wait.

Tui and bellbirds continue singing merrily. My eyes scan the forest. I see a large bird in the shadows—it soon reveals itself as a kererū.

After half an hour, nothing unusual has happened. We spend about five hours in the bush, occasionally playing back calls in different locations—still nothing.

It’s anticlimactic, though not surprising. Even on Stewart Island in the 1980s, Buckingham reminds me, “when it was relatively easy to get onto a bird, you couldn’t just go in overnight and expect to hear it. You needed to spend weeks.”

Of course, there might not be a kōkako there at all. And yet, there in the bush with Buckingham, I find it hard to hold on to my scepticism.

For if the takahē was hiding all along in the Murchison Mountains, if the New Zealand Storm Petrel—thought extinct for 100 years—was breeding on the back of Little Barrier, isn’t it possible that a handful of South Island kōkako may have survived too?

[Chapter Break]

You could argue (as many do) that if the bird were still there, surely some kind of hard evidence would have turned up by now. But from the start, the quest for the South Island kōkako has been plagued by bad luck, and worse timing.

In 2000, Buckingham was told about a guy called Dan MacKinnon, who reckoned he’d seen a pair of kōkako and recorded their song near his farm out the back of Charleston. Buckingham tracked him down in Westport, and MacKinnon happened to have the recorder with him, so he played the tape.

“I virtually fell off my chair. It was around 20 seconds of full organ song, absolutely unquestionable… He had borrowed a professional recorder, and he must have done everything right, if he wasn’t pulling the tits of a greenie.” The recording was so good, Buckingham wondered if MacKinnon had manufactured it. But he and a colleague went into the bush with the farmer, who described seeing and hearing kōkako so convincingly they came to believe he was genuine: “He had no reason to lie.”

Buckingham set up a meeting with DOC, planning to surprise staff there with the tape.

Then, a few weeks before the appointed day, MacKinnon’s house burned down—taking with it the only copy of the precious recording.

“So he had in his hands the unequivocal evidence of South Island kōkako, the most recent definite evidence, and he lost it.”

Cameras, too, have been uncooperative. Buckingham’s best sighting was in 1996 in the Glenroy River, while he was doing a bird survey for Timberlands West Coast. He played a tape, heard a bird call, stalked it, and then saw a big dark-grey bird walking upside down along a branch, quite close. It flipped upright, and he saw straw-coloured wattles. He carefully reached into his bag for his camera… and it was gone, never to be found. “It’s as though there is a jinx working here.”

 Few artefacts remain of the South Island kōkako—this nest (right, with replica eggs) is one of them. It was collected in Milford Sound in 1873 and is held by Te Papa.
Few artefacts remain of the South Island kōkako—this nest (right, with replica eggs) is one of them. It was collected in Milford Sound in 1873 and is held by Te Papa.

Then there’s the matter of the missing feather—found on Stewart Island in 1986, identified as kōkako, then lost for decades. [See sidebar]

So many missed opportunities, so many dead ends, so few rewards for so much work. How does Buckingham sustain the energy?

Actually, he told me, he was about to give up this year. He resigned from the South Island Kōkako Trust, and thought about buying a bach on Great Barrier Island, having a life again, getting away from the south and the endless search.

But then, in May, there was another sighting in the Marsden Valley, just out of Nelson, half an hour from Buckingham’s house. It was exciting enough that he put some camera traps and audio recorders into the bush. A week later, I flew to Nelson to check it out.

[Chapter Break]

“‘The cry of the crow is indescribably mournful. The wail of the wind through a leafless forest is cheerful compared to it. Perhaps the whistling of the wind through the neck of an empty whisky bottle is the nearest approach to it, and is sadly suggestive of departed spirits.’” It’s a chilly May evening in Mapua, near Nelson, and, over smoked-fish pie and red wine, Rhys Buckingham is reading aloud from Westland explorer Charlie Douglas’ 1899 description of what he called the “New Zealand crow”—the South Island kōkako.

It’s not only for my benefit—environmental campaigner Geoff Reid, a barefoot, peripatetic 24-year-old, has just hitched up from Glenorchy to help Buckingham follow up the recent sighting.

Reid caught the bug early last year, when he met Buckingham by chance in the Marsden Valley. He happened to be in Nelson when he heard about a kōkako report there, so thought he would have a bit of a look. As he came out of the forest, he ran into Buckingham going in—they didn’t find the bird, but they found each other.

“He’s kind of like a soul-brother,” Buckingham told me later. The pair have since gone on several kōkako expeditions together, and Buckingham sees aspects of his younger self in Reid. “He’s an exceptional observer, very, very fit, just runs up trees, and he navigates very well in the bush,” he says.

Over dinner, Reid encourages Buckingham’s storytelling—asking questions about dates, precise locations. “I’m not working much or studying at uni so I figure the universe is my classroom; I’m trying to learn from our elders,” he says. “There’s definitely an ongoing chain, trying to pick up where someone else left off. It’s like a treasure hunt—you listen to all these clues and try to string it together and keep the search alive.”

Geoff Reid installs a camera trap, while Rhys Buckingham examines the characteristic ‘moss-grubbing’ sign he believes is associated with South Island kōkako. The ‘powder puffs’ of moss have been snipped off from their attachment to the forest floor or fallen branches, and—strangely—grouped together and arranged, more as a pattern of behaviour than feeding. They never reattach, but continue to grow, enabling Buckingham to approximately date the sign: these are several years old. This behaviour isn’t known for any New Zealand animal, but Buckingham has frequently observed it in places he’s heard or seen kōkako. “It’s a unique sign that in itself is becoming extinct,” he says.

Like me, Reid is staying over at Buckingham’s little two-room house: ‘think of it as a DOC hut’, says Buckingham. (In fact, neither of these two outdoorsmen actually sleeps in the house; Reid puts up an inflatable mattress on the deck, and at the end of the night the older man retires, as he always does, to his ‘cubby house’ in the garden.)

That evening, Buckingham also reads to us from Herbert Guthrie-Smith’s 1925 book, Bird Life on Island and Shore. Guthrie-Smith, a Hawke’s Bay farmer, spent four seasons on Stewart Island trying to photograph the ‘orange-wattled crow’ and its nest—a bird locals assured him was, if not common, at least still around. “‘In vain, trembling with hope and fear, we trudged the forest from daylight until dusk; in vain we climbed the Remarkables; in vain we beat through the seaside scrub. We never heard or saw the crow.’”

The description resonates strongly with Buckingham. “It describes exactly my experiences in the early days on Stewart Island,” he says. “So perhaps it’s personal for me. It tells me that he had difficulty even then. It indicates they’re not an easy bird.”

This is one of Buckingham’s key rejoinders to the sceptics, something he mentions again and again—that this bird is a lot quieter than its North Island cousin. “We rely so much on a bird being vocal, and if you’ve got a bird that hardly ever calls, you’re going to have immense difficulty in pinning it down.”

Buckingham finds confirmation of his theory in Charlie Douglas’ account of the birds’ song, which he reads with gusto:

“‘Few people are aware that the crow is a song-bird, as it is only in the depths of the forest they can be heard to perfection. Their notes are very few, but they are the sweetest and most mellow-toned I ever heard a bird produce. When singing, they cast their eyes upwards like a street musician expecting coppers from a fourth-storey window, and pour forth three or four notes, softer and sweeter than an Aeolian harp or a well-toned clarinet.’

“Now,” Buckingham asks, “does [Douglas] mean people know the bird but don’t hear its song? We can’t tell, but that would fit into what we’re finding, which is that when we’re lucky enough to get onto a kōkako, extremely rarely does it sing.”

I start to wonder whether Buckingham sees himself as a kind of latter-day Charlie Douglas. With so much of New Zealand already explored, perhaps finding a bird believed to be extinct is the equivalent of discovering a new species, mapping a new valley, naming a mountain range.

“Charlie’s a cult hero for me; I would have been his best friend, I think!” Buckingham tells me later. They’re both a bit reclusive, both bushmen, both bird-lovers and bachelors. “We have so much in common,” he says. “I was just born 100 years too late.”

[Chapter Break]

The following morning, Buckingham, Reid and I drive to the Marsden Valley Conservation Area to meet Don Sullivan, the guy who believes he saw a kōkako there in early May. Just 15 minutes from central Nelson, past joggers, dog-walkers and the toy-town of a new subdivision, the road ends in a steep-sided valley. On one side there’s a mature pine plantation, half of the other has recently been clear-felled and replanted, but in the middle there’s a dark, rugged slice of very well-tended native bush.

Sullivan is one of the people taking care of it. The gruff retired butcher has devoted the past 10 years to the Marsden Valley. Some months he spends upwards of 100 hours in the bush: making and maintaining tracks, pulling out old man’s beard, installing nest boxes—and coordinating a team that lays and monitors 750 rodent traps.

Sullivan’s had several encounters with birds he now believes were the same lone kōkako, including two sightings this year. The most recent time, he explains, he was enlarging a track, when he happened to look up and see a blue-grey bird landing in a nearby pine tree. He got closer, and saw it had a curved beak and a black eye patch, and was between a tui and a woodpigeon in size. “I thought, I gotta get a photo, so I rushed down to my pack, which was 15 or 20 metres down the track,” Sullivan says. “I grabbed the bag, ran up trying to get my camera out… it took off.” To Buckingham’s chagrin, he forgot to look for wattles.

Reid and Buckingham look for signs of kōkako in the Marsden Valley, near Nelson (far left). Don Sullivan’s sightings there are too recent to feature on this map of reports published in Notornis in 2014 by Golden Bay kōkako chasers Alec Milne and Richard Stocker. They assessed 105 reports of South Island kōkako between 1990 and 2012, and the map shows the 36 the authors judged to be most convincing. That meant a close sighting of a bird fitting the description of kōkako, either by an experienced observer, or where wattles or ‘defining behaviour’ were also seen—running along branches or logs, leaping or bounding.

Reid and Buckingham find Sullivan’s report pretty convincing. His descriptions are thorough, “he doesn’t have anyone to please or anything to prove,” says Reid, and the intensive trapping may just have given one or two birds a chance. If there is a kōkako there, it’s most likely to be a wily old male (kōkako can live more than 20 years), as females are disproportionally killed by predators.

A week later, the kōkako team and I head up one of Sullivan’s tracks to the spot. Reid changes the SD memory cards on the audio recorders—Buckingham will take them home and painstakingly go through them on the computer, scanning the waveforms for low-frequency notes. Then to the top of the ridge, so he can show me the unique ‘moss-grubbing’ sign he believes is a key part of the story of South Island kōkako.

Close to the edge of the rough 4WD track, he points out a scattering of half a dozen loose discs of moss about the size of a saucer. Buckingham calls them ‘powder-puffs’ and that’s exactly what they look like. “It’s as though a pair of scissors has come and clipped the bottom of it,” he says.

A few years ago, Sullivan was showing Buckingham through the Marsden Valley after one of his sightings. “I saw this moss grubbing sign and I just about flipped—I’ve been looking for it for years, ever since I saw it on Stewart Island,” says Buckingham.

The sign hasn’t been scientifically described (though Buckingham is working on a paper) and isn’t known behaviour for North Island kōkako—or in fact any other New Zealand animal. “So people could fairly be critical… but [the theory] is based on a huge amount of circumstantial evidence.”

A couple of historical reports mention moss disturbance in relation to kōkako, and over and over, starting in Stewart Island in the early 80s, Buckingham says when he’s found fresh moss-grubbing, it’s coincided with hearing kōkako-like calls.

These particular powder-puffs could be several years old, he believes, because of the way the moss is regrowing. “It’s very obvious if it’s been detached quite recently.” He’s since found fresher signs in the Marsden Valley area, and set up motion-sensor video cameras at those sites, but they so far haven’t revealed what’s making them.

Buckingham speculates it’s a kōkako mating display, but without eyewitness or video evidence, there’s no proof—like everything else concerning the Grey Ghost.

Geoff Reid wants to be the one who proves the South Island kōkako isn’t extinct. “I want to photograph that bird. I want it to be recorded. But the task is so daunting.”

He would happily spend months in the bush, camera cocked (and Instagram at the ready). But there’s a limit to how much he can do as a volunteer. “There aren’t enough resources to help people like myself that are willing to go out there. All I need is a bit of food.”

Right now, he’s got a weekend free, so he prepares to spend it sleeping out in the Marsden Valley.

He calls me a few days later, excited: “I heard Don’s bird!” Reid was perched on the hillside looking back across at Sullivan’s report site when an unusual tone made him sit up. The tui started copying the sound, and then he heard it again, louder.

“It just rung out, a perfect mew note, it was incredible.” After a minute, one more note. He felt unexpectedly emotional. “It was a sad call, melancholy. A pretty special moment.”

The calls sounded like they came from very close to Buckingham’s high-quality audio recorder. Reid realised only later that it had been set to stop recording from 1pm to 2pm each day, to give Buckingham a chance to change the cards without corrupting the files. Reid heard his three mew calls at 1.13 p.m.

[Chapter Break]

Even if the recorder had been switched on, the calls wouldn’t have closed the case.

Laura Molles, an expert on North Island kōkako song behaviour and senior lecturer at Lincoln University, says there are several problems with identifying kōkako from a recording. The first is that we don’t have any unequivocal South Island kōkako song to compare it against.

“So the next best thing I can do is compare it to what a North Island kōkako sounds like, and even that is quite complicated. The birds can sound really different from place to place, and over time, and can have a huge variety of notes,” Molles says.

The second problem is ruling out other birds—particularly tui and kākā. “Even on the North Island, after all the time I’ve spent with them, occasionally a tui would catch me out. I’d hear something and think, kōkako, but listen for a few more minutes, hear more notes, and realise it’s actually a tui.”

“When North Island kōkako really get going with their song, it’s like a full sentence, complex sequences they put together lasting 30 seconds or more. And that’s one of things that if we got it from a South Island area I’d think it was pretty convincing.”

She has been intrigued by some of the things she’s heard from the south. Buckingham sent her his 2010 Venture Creek recording—the double note—and Molles says it’s the most persuasive one yet. “If I’d heard it on the North Island I would have thought it was a kōkako, but I wouldn’t have been 100 per cent certain, unless I’d been watching a kōkako right nearby or heard a lot more song.”

She doesn’t rule out the possibility of a South Island bird, though. “Not capturing sounds doesn’t necessarily mean they’re not there—if there are very few birds, they’re not going to have much reason to sing.”

The kōkako chasers leave audio recorders in likely places, hoping to pick up unusual bird calls. They generate a lot of data to sift through, and in isolation, ornithologists and DOC officials don’t consider recordings of kōkako-like calls definitive evidence of the bird. It’s too easy to mis-identify them. “Two big problem birds on the South Island are kākā and tui, both of which can make a huge range of sounds and have really flexible songs which can change from place to place,” says North Island kōkako expert Laura Molles.
The kōkako chasers leave audio recorders in likely places, hoping to pick up unusual bird calls. They generate a lot of data to sift through, and in isolation, ornithologists and DOC officials don’t consider recordings of kōkako-like calls definitive evidence of the bird. It’s too easy to mis-identify them. “Two big problem birds on the South Island are kākā and tui, both of which can make a huge range of sounds and have really flexible songs which can change from place to place,” says North Island kōkako expert Laura Molles.

Other North Island kōkako experts are more sceptical. Ian Flux, former chair of the Kōkako Recovery Group, believes there’s no chance any orange-wattled crows survived in sufficient numbers to keep breeding over the past half century.

“Absolutely not. I don’t think it’s scientifically plausible,” he says.

In the early 2000s, his group sent observers out to report sites in the South Island for three months. They came back with nothing, he says.

“Kōkako have quite small territories… So people going with tape recorders immediately after a report should be able to pick the birds up or hear the calls again,” Flux says.

He doesn’t buy Buckingham’s theory that the birds are just quiet.

“If there were birds left in the South Island you would think they would be really keen to find a mate and interact. So if you played even a North Island call it should be similar enough that they’d respond. And that’s what we’ve found in the last remnants of North Island populations: they were desperate to interact with the tape recorder.”

In fact, Flux doesn’t think any more money should be spent on the search, when the North Island kōkako could do with more funding.

“I really question the idea of putting money in year after year into looking for a species that probably doesn’t exist when we could be doing something concrete to help a species that’s currently threatened.

“At some stage you have to look at these things in a logical way and say, what’s the balance of effort we should put into something that no one’s found for the last 30 years, compared with something that’s really going down the gurgler right now.”

South Island kōkako sightings are just wishful thinking, he says.

“We also get continual sightings of kākāpō in the North Island and moose in Fiordland. People in general are known to be poor eyewitnesses.”

[Chapter Break]

Yet the people who are looking for the South Island kōkako can’t be easily dismissed as sloppy observers or nutters. Among those under the spell of the Grey Ghost are scientists and rangers with vast experience of the bush and New Zealand’s rare birds.

Former Wildlife Service ranger Ron Nilsson, who worked with Don Merton to save the kākāpō and black robin, and ecologist Euan Kennedy, DOC’s national adviser for island biosecurity and a founding member of the Yellow-Eyed Penguin Trust, are both key members of the brotherhood (and yes, they are all men).

Nilsson has been looking for the bird even longer than Buckingham, and describes himself as the ‘Wikipedia of South Island kōkako”. Kennedy was leading the weka eradication programme on Codfish Island (Whenua Hou) in the early 1980s when he met Buckingham and got drawn into the search.

[sidebar-1]

These days, he isn’t totally persuaded the South Island kōkako still survives—he says he’s an “optimistic sceptic”.

“I know the mathematical probability of the birds being there are infinitesimally low. Small population ecology tells us that chance plays a greater and greater role in the fate of a population the smaller it becomes. And these birds, if they are still there, must be in desperately low numbers,” says Kennedy.

“But I also know—and we have learned from other birds like the takahē—that mathematical probabilities aren’t the same as biological probabilities. So while my head says mathematically they can’t be there, my heart says, biologically, there’s still a chance.

“And if there is a chance, we must seize it.”

In 2010, Nilsson, Buckingham and some others set up the South Island Kōkako Trust to do just that. Kennedy is the current chairman.

“It became clear that after 30 years of looking for this bird, these helter-skelter flying-squad approaches weren’t working. Some pretty compelling evidence had turned up, but we still didn’t have definitive evidence that it exists,” he says.

“Our role is to make the public of New Zealand aware that this bird was extraordinarily special, and that it might still be there, and then go and find the bloody thing, and let the experts get on with saving it. So long as it’s not too late.”

New life was breathed into the search in 2013, when the species’ conservation status was reclassified—the South Island kōkako is no longer officially ‘extinct’ but ‘data deficient’. That made it easier for the Ornithological Society’s records appraisal committee to accept a 2007 sighting near Reefton, the first since 1967.

Geoff Reid camps out in the Marsden Valley, hoping to find evidence of the kōkako Don Sullivan believes he saw in May. “It would be such a shame to lose it. I’m not an expert, I’m just someone that’s interested and passionate, but where’s the evidence it’s extinct? That’s what gets me,” he says. He’d love to spend more time looking for it. “The [South Island Kōkako] Trust was really good to me last year—they even paid me.” This year, though, funding has run out, so Reid has to search in his spare time. “Otherwise the search dies. We’re not going to be able to prove whether it exists or not if we’re not in the bush.”
Geoff Reid camps out in the Marsden Valley, hoping to find evidence of the kōkako Don Sullivan believes he saw in May. “It would be such a shame to lose it. I’m not an expert, I’m just someone that’s interested and passionate, but where’s the evidence it’s extinct? That’s what gets me,” he says. He’d love to spend more time looking for it. “The [South Island Kōkako] Trust was really good to me last year—they even paid me.” This year, though, funding has run out, so Reid has to search in his spare time. “Otherwise the search dies. We’re not going to be able to prove whether it exists or not if we’re not in the bush.”
The trust is now fundraising to be able to put experienced people like Buckingham and Reid into targeted sites for long enough to have a chance of encountering “what must absolutely be very few birds indeed”, Kennedy says.

They’re also hopeful the Department of Conservation will provide, if not funding, at least some logistical support—to train front-desk staff to take kōkako reports seriously, and put up posters about the bird in backcountry huts, so that rangers, trampers, anglers and hunters know what to look out for.

This raises the question: Where has the government been in this story?

“DOC’s attitude has been, and this is so deeply frustrating, ‘You guys go and do the work, and if you find the bird, we’ll help you save it,’” says Kennedy.

“So it’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. They won’t help us find the bird, and so it will drift to extinction, and they’ll say, ‘We always knew it was extinct, so we’re pleased we didn’t waste any money on it.’”

DOC’s Director-General, Lou Sanson, says the department did help to fund some expeditions in the first 15 years of the search, but over the past decade has pulled back.

“If something interesting comes up then we’ll re-engage, but we’ve given it a lot of resource and time already. There is not enough information to justify putting more government money in at the moment.”

Sanson has known Buckingham for decades and believes “he’s certainly seen something.” But it will take a photograph, an unequivocal recording or a strong sighting by multiple people to change DOC’s stance.

“If they are discovered, we’ll be in there boots and all,” says Sanson.

But Kennedy is concerned a ‘disquieting’ new ideology he sees creeping into international conservation—the concept of ‘triage’, or planned extinction—could give policymakers an excuse not to waste money on species seen to be ‘hopeless cases’.

“If that was the prevailing attitude back in the 70s we wouldn’t have black robins today, we wouldn’t have kākāpō. We wouldn’t have takahē or North Island kōkako,” he says.

“Once you embrace the notion of planned extinctions, you throw away the moral argument for funding conservation at all. If you take it to its logical extreme, we’ll end up with a landscape full of black-backed gulls and gorse, because that’s all we can afford.”

[Chapter Break]

Rhys Buckingham is 68 now, and the frustrations of the long search are piling up.

“What I’ve seen in these last 30 years is an increasingly desperate and difficult situation. I lived for what I called my ‘fix of the bongs’, this beautiful cathedral call, but I have not heard that for many, many years.”

In his darker moments, he blames himself for not finding the bird in those early days when there was money and momentum.

“I thought in the 1980s we could not fail, this bird is here, surely we’d be able to save it. But unfortunately South Island kōkako is several steps up in difficulty than any other bird,” he says. “This is a bird that doesn’t want to be found.”

But yet… he can’t help himself from checking, just one more time. It was dusk when I left him at Venture Creek in June. He walked off down a boggy four-wheel-drive track to his hidden campsite—a small clearing of marshy ground a few hundred metres from the road. He thought he would boil water for a cup of tea and set up his tarpaulin, before night came and he was alone in the bush. At dawn, he planned to head back up the ridge, playing his tapes, stalking the wild places of South Westland in search of a wild thing, a phantom remnant chord of the lost symphony of our forests.

Taxidermied museum specimens may be all that remains of the South Island kōkako, which were often seen in large groups, according to the records of 19th-century writers. “Never again in human experience can that grand sight of twenty kōkakos in single file be seen hopping through the bush like a flock of sheep, for its ground-feeding habits have laid this slate-blue sylph open to the attacks of enemies,” wrote Mona Gordon in ‘Children of Tane’ in 1938. “Slipping through the low mānuka scrub, there goes the grey wraith of kōkako, passing to inevitable extinction, except where the inmost seclusion of the southern forest serves to turn that ghost into lingering reality.”
Taxidermied museum specimens may be all that remains of the South Island kōkako, which were often seen in large groups, according to the records of 19th-century writers. “Never again in human experience can that grand sight of twenty kōkakos in single file be seen hopping through the bush like a flock of sheep, for its ground-feeding habits have laid this slate-blue sylph open to the attacks of enemies,” wrote Mona Gordon in ‘Children of Tane’ in 1938. “Slipping through the low mānuka scrub, there goes the grey wraith of kōkako, passing to inevitable extinction, except where the inmost seclusion of the southern forest serves to turn that ghost into lingering reality.”

And what if he finds one? Or not one, but the holy grail—a pair of blue-grey, orange-wattled New Zealand crows? (Ron Nilsson has had some expensive whisky set aside for the past 20 years, waiting for that happy day.)

The questions pile up. How would we catch them? Would they be brought into captivity? Would we crossbreed them with North Island kōkako to improve the genetic diversity? Which island would we shift them to? Or would we leave them where they are, build a fence and line it with traps?

“We’d love to be in a position of agonising about these things,” says Kennedy. “Saving them would be a huge task. But that’s what we’re good at.

“The conservation industry in New Zealand is looked upon internationally as an outrageously audacious pioneer. DOC is stuffed full of people who are world leaders in their field. That extends not just to looking after critically endangered birds, but also to ridding islands of pests. The world beats a path to our door for advice and expertise.

“So if any country has the tools to save the South Island kōkako, it’s this one. It’s us.”

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