Protecting the Kōtuku: West Coast business’s winter war against predators

04 July 2023
Development West Coast
During the quiet winter months, Whataroa on the West Coast transforms into a front line against invasive pests.

Dion Arnold and his team at White Heron Sanctuary Tours intensify their predator control measures to help protect the kōtuku's (white heron) only known nesting site in New Zealand.

Kōtuku are critically endangered in the country, with an estimated population of only 150-200. The elusive birds are rarely sighted outside their breeding ground - the Waitangiroto Nature Reserve in Whataroa. In Māori oratory to see one of these birds just once in a lifetime was believed to be good fortune.

The secluded nesting site was first discovered by chance in 1865 by the pioneer surveyor Gerhard Mueller, who was mapping South Westland at the time. He came across a population of 50 to 60 herons while camped near the mouth of the Waitangitaona River. In a letter to his wife, he described the nesting birds as "the crowning beauty" and "a glorious sight". However, this discovery inadvertently put the rare birds at risk.

Dion with a stoat
Dion Arnold

Dion Arnold, who is from a fifth generation Whataroa family, explained how the kōtuku population, limited due to their sole nesting site, faced an additional threat from fashion trends in the 1930s. “Feathers were very fashionable on ladies’ hats and the white heron were hunted for their fine lacy plumes to supply demand for fashion.”

Dion checking a trap 2
Dion checking a trap

Kōtuku also faced threats from the introduction of pests into the area. The kōtuku population came perilously close to extinction. By 1944 only four nests were recorded.

This alarming reduction prompted concerted conservation efforts. In 1949 the area was declared a Flora and Fauna Nature Reserve, entry by permit only. The reserve is now administered by the Department of Conservation (DOC). In 1987, Arnold's family collaborated with DOC to start guiding tours and raise awareness about the kōtuku's situation.

Part of this awareness drive involves population monitoring and predator control work, crucial for protecting the habitat and allowing the birdlife to thrive.

"We've invested in a lot of the trapping network that surrounds the nature reserve," said Arnold. White Heron Sanctuary Tours currently maintains over 150 traps targeting mainly stoats, rats, and possums.

Arnold explains that the down time from visitors during the winter period can be a blessing in disguise, "In the winter months when the birds are not around nesting... we get to expand our predator control and really intensify it."

They use traditional box traps with imitation eggs and scented lures to attract pests.

Given the recent egg shortage across the country, the use of imitation eggs has proven to be beneficial. “It doesn't seem to bother the stoats at all. And we’ll combine that with a scented lure, and in most cases a salmon scented lure. Stoats, especially, like to investigate the smell of fish and that lures them in nicely.”

Trap with a stoat
A stoat caught in a trap

Another advantage of doing pest control work during winter according to Arnold, is that the predators tend to be more inquisitive during this season. With fewer eggs and young birds available to prey on, stoats become more likely to investigate the carefully arranged traps. The winter months provide a strategic window to intensify trapping efforts and keep persistent pressure on the predator population.

White Heron Sanctuary van
White Heron Sanctuary Tours

White Heron Sanctuary Tour’s predator control effort doesn’t exist in isolation.

“We get a lot of support from the local community and landowners surrounding the nature reserve. Access out to the nature reserve is through private farmland and the landowners are very supportive of looking after the environment that surrounds the nature reserve.”

This is all part of a broader initiative for predator control involving community groups, DOC, the Zero Invasive Predators (ZIP) programme, and the Predator Free South Westland initiative. Arnold highlights, "We're just another link in the chain of all the other networks that are working around the area, and in other parts of the country as well ... all working towards that goal of Predator Free 2050."

The hard work is paying off. Arnold shares the signs of progress: “With the kōtuku nesting, we're absolutely starting to see evidence where they're more successful at hatching their eggs and raising their chicks.”

The weather can play a big part in that, but Arnold stresses “the only good stoat is a dead stoat. And if we can keep them away … it's a really good effort.”

"This summer was the first time we had heard kākāriki, and even got a sighting of a few kākāriki around the edge of the nature reserve. We hadn’t encountered that in our time out here."

The concept of regenerative tourism is central to the sanctuary's operation. Visitors not only enjoy the beauty of the nesting site but also get involved in the predator control work, learning about the ecological challenges and contributing to the solutions. "Guests get right involved. They're happy to check traps and see what we've got."

Zak Shaw, Development West Coast’s Nature economy project lead, says “the work being done by Dion and his team at White Heron Sanctuary Tours is a genuine effort by a West Coast tourism operator to protect our taonga species and indigenous ecological habitat.”

“I take my hat off to Dion and commend the vital species protection work he is conducting in the Waitangiroto Nature Reserve.”

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