Richard Robinson

The hunting of the snipe

An unlikely crew is given the assignment of catching birds in butterfly nets on a weather-beaten subantarctic island.

Written by       Photographed by Richard Robinson

They sailed south from Bluff, past Stewart Island, and into the heaving seas of the Southern Ocean: four Department of Conservation rangers, one asset inspector, one museum-exhibition preparator, one Ngāi Tahu volunteer, one photographer, and one Australian real-estate developer.

After several days rolling over six-metre swells, they sighted the pale, bush-topped cliffs of the Snares Islands. Deep in the Roaring Forties, the archipelago has never been invaded by rats, and it shows. Penguins, sea lions and fur seals lounge on its coasts, muttonbirds fill its skies, and its forests are home to three bird species found nowhere else: the Snares Island fernbird, tomtit and snipe.

The team were there, variously, to pull down a rickety old hut, photograph the Snares crested penguin, and capture tutukiwi, Snares Island snipe, for a translocation to Whenua Hou, or Codfish Island.

Snipe are not one of the stars of New Zealand’s pantheon of threatened birds. Small, speckled brown, with a long probing beak like a kiwi, they look like a wading bird that’s gone bush. Their eyes seem set too far back in their heads, giving them a dopey expression. Perfect rat-bait, they’ve long been gone from the mainland, and most New Zealanders have never seen one.

But the story of snipe is one of tragedy and mystery, miraculous resurrection and myth. Almost flightless by day, the snipe’s terrifying alter-ego, the hākawai, haunts the night sky. Catching them involves prancing through the scrub with a butterfly net.

[Chapter Break]

The term ‘snipe hunting’ is used in North America to describe a wild goose chase, an endeavour with little chance of success. It seemed an apt description for the translocation mission, as its leaders wondered countless times whether they would ever pull it off.

Getting to the Snares isn’t easy, nor it is cheap. Jo Hiscock and Ros Cole, senior biodiversity rangers at DOC’s Southland office, needed to top up an ‘insurance’ population of Snares Island snipe on Whenua Hou, a predator-free island off the coast of Stewart Island. Thirty birds had been moved there in 2012—the bare minimum for a viable, genetically diverse population.

There was a more urgent task on the Snares, too. A research hut built in the 1960s was falling into disrepair. There was a risk it could collapse and send Pink Batts and sheets of corrugated iron flying around the island, maybe decapitate a sealion or two. Canterbury Museum wanted the hut for an exhibition. But it’s tough to get the funds for a trip to the subantarctic.

Snares Island snipe (Coenocorypha huegeli) are called ‘tutukiwi’, or ‘little kiwi’, in Māori. But most New Zealanders would be hard-pressed to identify one—they’re only found on remote, offshore islands. Snipe are usually found in twos—either a courting pair, or parent and chick. They are an egalitarian species: each nest usually has two eggs, and once they hatch, parents each take care of one of the chicks.

That was where Lorraine Lovatt came in. The Gold Coast real-estate executive had been trying to reach the Snares for years, as part of a personal mission to photograph every penguin species in the world.

“I was a notorious workaholic,” she says, “and when my younger sister passed away with motor neurone disease, I made a promise to her that I’d do more than just continually work. And one of the big things was my penguins.”

Lovatt tried three times to visit the Snares on cruises—tourists aren’t allowed to land, but can approach the shore on boats—and each time was foiled by the weather. On the last trip she got talking to someone from DOC, who put her onto Hiscock.

“Jo was straight up—she told me the amount of money they needed to go down,” says Lovatt. “I weighed it up and thought, the Snares penguin is the hardest one to photograph in the world, and you know what New Zealand weather is like. They needed a sponsor, I needed to get there. It was perfect.”

Lovatt’s donation meant the expedition could go ahead, but its main priority was dismantling the hut. The snipe hunt would have to come second, if there was time.

Only four people could spend the night on North East Island: rangers Kathryn Pemberton and Jo Hiscock, right, were two of the skeleton crew chosen for hunting snipe during the short subantarctic night. Key attributes for night-hunting include fast reflexes and sealion awareness, says Hiscock: “They can get a bit rarked up with the headtorches.” Nine snipe were captured the first night.

Meanwhile, Hiscock and Cole were short on mealworms, which are essential for keeping captured snipe alive. DOC’s commercial supplier had run out.

“We called in favours from everyone we knew who might have a few going spare,” says Hiscock.

Estelle Pera-Leask, a trustee of Ngāi Tahu’s Whenua Hou committee, happened to have 2000 mealworms in an ice-cream container in her fridge. She’d been feeding them up on banana skins in preparation for a translocation of South Island robins to Bluff Hill.

“DOC rang me and said, ‘How’s this for a deal: if you give us your mealworms you can come with us to the Snares’,” she says.

Pera-Leask’s family has a long connection to the Snares Islands. Her ancestors have lived in Bluff and on Stewart Island for 12 generations.

“My grandfather was a cod man,” she says. “He fished right down to the Snares.”

Now she’d get to see the islands for herself—if the weather cleared.

Storms delayed departure, and then the seas were so wild the yacht had to shelter at Stewart Island.

The delay meant the team had less than a week in the Snares. Cole and Hiscock revised their expectations—they’d be lucky to get 12 birds. They had enough mealworms to keep the snipe alive for just a few days, so catching them would have to wait until the last minute.

DOC ranger Chris Bennett went to the Snares to pull down a hut, but soon found himself armed with a net chasing snipe: “They just sort of beetle around on the ground like a mini kiwi.” That meant the snipers had to pursue them through the Snares bush. There are just 22 plant species on the islands, and the forest is dominated by two kinds of tree daisy. “Sometimes the scrub was that thick that you couldn’t move, you’d get hung up in a tree, completely tangled,” says Jo Hiscock.
Snipe rarely fly during the day, and nest at ground level, meaning they are extremely vulnerable to introduced mammals. Defences that evolved to deal with birds of prey don’t work on a predator with a good nose. “They just crouch and hope you’ll go away,” says Colin Miskelly. “If people can catch them with hand nets, any predator is going to find the nest, eat the chicks, and probably pounce on the adults as well.”

First, they helped pull the old hut on North East Island apart, and then everyone, including the ship’s crew, received a lesson in the art of snipe-hunting.

Chris Bennett, a DOC ranger from the Catlins, thought his sole job on the Snares was to dismantle a hut. Suddenly he found himself holding a butterfly net, tracking a tiny bird through tangled trunks at the bottom of the world.

“It was a bit of a hoot,” says Bennett, “charging round the place trying to catch these wee buggers.”

There are two techniques for hunting snipe. By night, you creep out after dark with a headtorch and net, avoiding the black bulk of resting sealions. When the beam of light strikes a snipe, you whack the net over it before it realises what is happening.

“The first few nights the birds are completely naïve,” says Hiscock. “If you diddle around they’ll take off on you, of course, but as long as you don’t muck around, it’s like catching butterflies.”

By day, the tactics are different, requiring hunters to work together. When a bird is spotted, the group encircles it, herding it to a spot where someone can get a net over it.

“If anyone could see you they’d wonder what the hell you were up to,” says Bennett.

During the night, the team caught nine birds, and the following day, 10 more, but two that looked unhealthy were released. The next morning, Cole and Hiscock sent the newly minted snipe hunters out for a last attempt while they prepared the captured birds for departure.

“I think they thought they’d just get us out of the way for a while, that we’d just go out there and blunder around,” says Bennett. “But we came back with three of them.”

That made a total of 20 snipe, far exceeding expectations. Hiscock was stoked: “We absolutely nailed it.”

But the weather still had to hold long enough to make it back to Whenua Hou without delay. Hiscock wasn’t sure they had enough mealworms to last the journey.

She had good reason to worry. The birds may be small, but they need a constant supply of invertebrate food—a lesson learned in the last days of the South Island snipe.

[Chapter Break]

Far to the north, in an underground room below Te Papa in Wellington, terrestrial vertebrates curator Colin Miskelly opens the cupboard containing the museum’s collection of New Zealand snipe. An array of drawers holds the taxidermied bodies known in museum parlance as ‘study skins’—wings tucked in, beaks stretched forward, ancient labels tied with string around crumpled claws.

There’s a tray for the Snares Island snipe, for the Chatham Islands snipe, one for each of the three subspecies of subantarctic snipe, and one more for the South Island snipe, last seen alive in 1964.

A couple of tiny islands off the coast of Stewart Island, barely specks on a map, were the final refuges of the mainland snipe. Naturalists reported finding them at the start of the 20th century on two ‘tītī’ islands frequented by muttonbirders—Pukeokaoka, or Jacky Lee Island, and Taukihepa, or Big South Cape Island.

Ros Cole, Kathryn Pemberton and Jo Hiscock prepared the snipe for their voyage, feeding them a hydrating solution and plenty of mealworms. On the trip north, they stopped off for another feeding session at Easy Harbour, near the bottom of Stewart Island, before landing at Whenua Hou, below.

By 1928, the birds had disappeared from Jacky Lee Island—probably because of the introduction of weka, says Miskelly—but they hung on at Taukihepa until the 1960s.

Then in 1963, ship rats jumped off a fishing boat and it was all over. When muttonbirders returned for the harvest the following year, the island was crawling with the rodents. They had trashed the huts, eating the wallpaper off the walls, and their impact on the wildlife was even worse.

The invasion spelled the end for three endemic species. The greater short-tailed bat hasn’t been seen since 1965 and is believed extinct. The heroic efforts of a team led by Don Merton and Brian Bell captured and translocated enough South Island saddlebacks to rescue the species. The last six Stead’s bush wrens weren’t so lucky. They were moved to nearby Kaimohu Island, but they didn’t survive.

Merton and Bell also captured three South Island snipe. One escaped, and the other two had a voracious appetite. Mealworms weren’t commercially available in 1964, and terrible weather kept the Wildlife Service team trapped on Taukihepa.

They spent every waking hour digging for grubs and worms to feed the snipe, but the rats had devastated the island’s invertebrates, and the team couldn’t find enough food. The birds faded and died before their eyes.

Merton later said it was one of the lowest points in his career.

Those two snipe now lie in a drawer in Te Papa’s ‘bird room’. One was known to be male, and Miskelly recently sexed the second bird for the first time. It had been preserved in ethanol for half a century, and no one had checked. It turned out both were male.

“We know now that they were functionally extinct,” he says. “It’s an added poignancy.”

Miskelly knows more about snipe than anyone else in New Zealand. He’s been publishing papers about them for three decades, and has Snares Island snipe footprints engraved into his wedding band (his wife, a botanist, has plants on hers).

Miskelly reckons he was born a bird nerd. As a child, he collected Gregg’s Jelly cards depicting native birds, and pored over his parents’ 1955 copy of WRB Oliver’s New Zealand Birds. He joined the Ornithological Society of New Zealand as a 13-year-old, and has been a member ever since.

In the early 1980s he started researching Snares Island snipe for his PhD thesis, and spent six summers on the archipelago, observing their ecology and behaviour.

Then in 1997, a brand-new snipe was found on Jacquemart Island, an inhospitable rocky pillar off the coast of Campbell Island, far to the south of the Snares. Miskelly believes Norway rats swam ashore on Campbell after a shipwreck in 1828, 12 years before the first naturalists reached it. No one had recorded any sign of snipe on the island until this living population turned up.

It was an incredible discovery, and Miskelly was desperate to get down there. In 2001, rats were spectacularly eradicated from Campbell Island, and in 2005, Miskelly joined dog-handler James Fraser and Percy the conservation dog on a trip to Campbell to look for snipe.

Sure enough, they were there. Snipe had self-introduced onto the main island, having flown across the channel from Jacquemart and begun breeding. The trio caught 12 adults and three chicks in a week, and found the first-ever Campbell Island snipe nest.

As a result, Miskelly had the very bird-nerdy pleasure of naming and describing the new snipe, which is now regarded as a subspecies of subantarctic snipe. In an even nerdier pun-fest, he named it Coenocorypha aucklandica perseverance.

Ros Cole carries the snipe to their new home on Whenua Hou, watched over by a pouwhenua, Hinekete. Carved by the late Bluff kaumatua Harold Ashwell, Hinekete is a tribute to the Ngāi Tahu women who formed the first settlement on the island in the 1820s, alongside their European sealer husbands. One of those women was Estelle Pera-Leask’s great-great-great-great grandmother. “Many Ngāi Tahu families descend from those women,” she says.

Not only did the snipe persevere for nearly 200 years on a 19-hectare scrap of rock, but Perseverance was the name of the first ship to visit Campbell Island, in 1810. That same sealing brig was the one that was wrecked there in 1828, likely introducing the rats—and it also gave its name to the island’s main harbour, where snipe can now be seen.

“I was really hoping that the dog Percy’s name was short for Perseverance too,” he says, “but unfortunately, no.”

To name a species, taxonomists require a ‘type specimen’, a taxidermied animal that serves as a reference. These are difficult to obtain now that conservationists prefer to keep rare birds alive rather than shoot them for specimens. (Miskelly’s predecessor at the museum had a shotgun in his office for exactly that purpose.)

But Te Papa does have a type specimen for the new subspecies in its labelled drawer.

“This one got injured when we were capturing it, and we had to euthanise it,” says Miskelly. “But if this one hadn’t accidentally been killed, we wouldn’t have a name for the species—and would people value a bird without a name?”

In the years since Miskelly’s visit, Campbell Island snipe have multiplied. It’s thought there are now hundreds of them roaming the main island—a recovery so impressive that in May 2017, they were switched from the highest threat category, ‘nationally critical’, to the lowest, ‘nationally vulnerable’.

While snipe are making a comeback, the arrival of one pregnant rat could wipe them out in a flash. That’s why insurance populations, such as the one on Whenua Hou, are so important.

[Chapter Break]

The skies are stormy over Stewart Island as 20 little birds bob in their boxes on a Zodiac weaving through rolling lines of surf towards the beach.

Pera-Leask recites a karakia to welcome the birds to their new home (see opposite). One by one, the boxes are opened, and the snipe make a dash for freedom. They are now free to colonise the whole of Whenua Hou, an island more than four times the size of their homeland.

Given that Snares Island snipe have already been translocated onto several tītī islands, the species is now in the unusual position of being more numerous than ever before.

Sebastian Denize, an exhibition preparator from Canterbury Museum, went to the Snares to supervise the dismantling of a hut. After helping catch snipe, he was then able to release a pair into their new home, Whenua Hou. Unlike the island’s closely-monitored kākāpō population, the snipe won’t wear transmitters or receive breeding assistance—they’ll be left to their own devices.

Miskelly wants to go further. Ultimately, as population numbers grow, he’d like to see Snares Island snipe fill the space left by the extinct South Island snipe, on predator-free islands from Fiordland to the Marlborough Sounds.

“You’ve got all of this habitat that’s just waiting for snipe to move into,” he says.

That may just solve one of the snipe’s biggest problems—its obscurity.

“Unless you’re a pretty keen bird-nerdy conservationist you’ve probably never heard of a snipe, and that’s because it’s so hard to see one. It’s out of sight, out of mind. The only place you can see any of our New Zealand snipes is on Enderby Island in the Auckland Islands. You have to sign up on a two-week trip to get there, and it’s not cheap.

“Hopefully we can get to the point where they’re introduced to open islands and fenced sanctuaries, so that people can say, ‘Let’s go and look at a snipe today.’ Wouldn’t that be wonderful?”

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