Recollections of a visit to Whenua Hou / Codfish Island to remove an avian predator during the winter of 1981.
Off the west coast of Rakiura / Stewart Island, Codfish Island / Whenua Hou is a small piece of primal New Zealand. In the winter of 1981, I was privileged to spend two weeks there as a NZ Wildlife Service volunteer helping remove a native avian predator. Forty years on, the recollections of the visit are as fresh and memorable as the day I left the island.
Away from the sports field Robert Muldoon was Prime Minister, "an orchestrated litany of lies" entered the New Zealand lexicon when Justice Peter Mahon released his controversial report into the 1979 Air New Zealand Erebus disaster and the kiwi classic "Smash Palace" starring Bruno Lawrence and Greer Robson was released to launch the directing career of Roger Donaldson.
Clearing the island of weka was preparation for the transfer of kakapo from Rakiura / Stewart Island and live-trapping possums was to capture disease free animals for research being carried out by the then Ministry of Agriculture. We also spent time blazing new tracks to expand the track network across the island, especially the rugged heights of the south coast.
Codfish Island is a small island of 1,400 hectares with a broad north-westerly facing valley extending from the south coast cliffs to the sandy beach at Sealers Bay. A shorter and steeper catchment forms the northern part of the island and both valleys are clothed in luxuriant podocarp broadleaf forest.
Never having been cleared or grazed, except by possums, the forest has abundant understorey and ground cover and as you walked through the ground fern, flocks of parakeets would rise into the trees with a cacophony of chattering. Whenua Hou is the only place I have been in New Zealand where for two weeks I did not positively identify an introduced species of bird.
Weka do not naturally occur on small islands and were introduced before 1894. However, being an introduced predator, albeit a native one, they were a risk to plans to transfer kakapo from Stewart Island so they had to go. Overall, around 1,000 weka were captured and transferred back to Rakiura from 1979 and our trip was to help mop-up the few remaining birds.
Possums were removed between 1984 and 1987 and kiore, the only rodent present, were eradicated in 1998. Subsequently, kakapo, mohua / yellowhead and Campbell Island teal have all been transferred to the island.
Being a winter visit the weather was cold, but thankfully mostly fine. After the freezing overnight temperatures, if you got to the beach soon after sunrise the smooth sand was a bejewelled carpet of tiny ice crystals glistening in the sun, each crowned with a tiny pinhead of sand.
At the other end of the day you could return to the beach to watch yellow-eyed penguin / hoiho porpoise into the bay, surf through the breakers and waddle across the sand before disappearing into the dune vegetation to roost for the night. After dark a leopard seal could be found resting above the high tide line, no doubt tired after hunting penguins! Nature, red in tooth and claw.
Whenua Hou is today a conservation jewel and a lifeboat for rare and threatened species that both occur there naturally and as a result of deliberate introduction. It is protected as a closed Nature Reserve and is testament to the benefits of successful predator eradication, both avian and mammalian.
What's in a Name?
The familiar saying "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush" warns about the risks that come with trying to achieve more by challenging the status quo.