14 Aug 2023

Watch: Looking for New Zealand's most elusive bird

8:30 pm on 14 August 2023

By Sally Blundell for Frank Film

Behind the sound of footfall, the chatter of silvereyes and the clatter of weka, there is silence. Standing in a grove of old beech trees, ferns and spiky-leaved dracophyllum in a gully near the edge of Abel Tasman National Park, ornithologist Rhys Buckingham listens into the forest as he has listened into the forest for over 40 years.

Again, silence.

Buckingham has been on the trail of the South Island kōkako since 1977. That year, while walking towards the head of Lake Monowai in Fiordland, in the quiet of dusk, he heard "an ethereal tolling bell call".

"I was almost hypnotised by this beautiful call," he tells Frank Film. "It's like a cathedral bell or a church bell, continuously ringing. Once you have heard this amazing call of the South Island kōkako it would be hard to stop looking for it."

At 75, Buckingham is now retired, living in Māpua in the South Island's Tasman Bay. But still he makes repeated expeditions into the deep forests of Te Waipounamu, searching for evidence of a bird now known as the "grey ghost".

The South Island kōkako, he says, must be on its way out. Predator numbers are increasing; its habit of hopping or bounding along the forest floor makes it even more vulnerable. A recording on a motion-sensor video camera, one of the 21 installed in the area, shows a small, hunched figure. "Damned rat," he mutters.

But still he is confident. Buckingham has had several glimpses of the South Island kōkako, including on Stewart Island in 1984, then near Nelson Lakes in 1996. In 2020 he was servicing a camera near this gully when he heard two calls identical to that of the North Island kōkako.

"What was absolutely and truly remarkable is after these wonderful calls the tūī above me, which had been making normal calls up until then, started making alarm calls. One of the birds started copying one of the kōkako that called. It was a dramatic change."

Now, he looks around the still forest.

"There's a bird here somewhere."

Bigger than a tūī, smaller than a kererū, the South Island kōkako with its distinctive orange wattle is - or was - part of an ancient family of wattled birds that includes the now-extinct huia, the North and South Island saddleback and the North Island kōkako, brought back from the brink of extinction in recent decades. It once populated the forests on both sides of the Southern Alps, on Stewart Island and in parts of Otago and Southland but even by the late 1800s numbers seemed to be declining.

In 2007, after no accepted sightings for 40 years, it was declared extinct, but a sighting that year was later accepted by the Ornithological Society and in 2013 its status was reclassified to "Data deficient". The South Island Kōkako Trust, co-founded by Buckingham in 2010, now offers a $10,000 reward for conclusive evidence that the bird exists. Last year, global conservation movement Re:wild added the South Island kōkako to its list of the Top 25 Most Wanted Lost Species.

Further glimpses and descriptions of its melancholic, echo-ey call have kept the notoriously secretive bird in the public imagination.

But evidence remains tantalisingly out of reach. A photographic slide taken near Haast in the 1950s or '60s is now lost to history; a kōkako-like feather found on Stewart Island in 1986 was missing for decades before turning up, uncatalogued, in an envelope in Te Papa Tongarewa; a 20-second recording thought to be two kōkako taken near Charleston in 1998 was destroyed in a fire. "An absolute tragedy," says Buckingham.

In "Looking for New Zealand's most elusive bird", Frank Film includes footage taken by director Gerard Smyth in 2001 with Buckingham and former Wildlife Service ranger Ron Nilsson in Granville Forest between Greymouth and Reefton. In the footage, Nilsson, who died last year, plays back a recording of the North Island kōkako. Within seconds a bird responds. Nilsson freezes in intense concentration. It was "very very interesting", Buckingham says now. Was it a copycat song from a kākā, bellbird or tūī? "It might have been a response from kōkako," he says.

Such almost-close encounters - and his hope that future generations will hear this "amazing call" in its natural habitat - keep him returning to the remote areas of the South Island bush.

"I'm sustained by these moments when the bird decides to reveal itself. Usually when I'm just on the point of thinking, I give up - the bird calls. I'm hooked for another five years."

Get the RNZ app

for ad-free news and current affairs