Monday, 4 August 2014

Codfish Island

Codfish Island is a mecca for most bird lovers; it holds the major population of the world's heaviest, longest-lived and most endangered parrot, the kakapo. Codfish Island (Whenua Hou) is a jewel in New Zealand's crown, being a pest-free paradise for the more delicate native wildlife. My advisor and I were going for the sole reason of collecting Cantuaria delli, the Codfish Island trapdoor spider.

We drove for seven hours down to Invercargill, stayed overnight and then reported at 6.30 am to the Department of Conservation quarantine facility. Because Codfish is free of mammals (except for endemic bats), and largely free of other non-native things, every item that we were bringing to the island had to be examined for seeds and dirt and signs of contact with animals. Some stuff also had to be sprayed with Trigene disinfectant to minimise the risk of spreading disease to the kakapo. We were not to bring sleeping bags, our own packs, gaiters, or towels to the island: they were all provided for us to minimise the amount of stuff that had to be quarantined.

We clambered aboard a tiny plane with a bunch of staff from the Kakapo Recovery Project. The little plane gurgled and roared its way into the sky above Southland, soaring over the Foveaux Strait, as majestic as a mosquito carrying heavy shopping. After a brief stopover at Mason Bay, we landed finally on the beach at Sealer's Bay on Codfish Island.

The hut was close to the beach, and pretty luxurious compared to what I was expecting. Kakapo Recovery team members are present there all year round to monitor the birds, and the hut had everything needed to be comfortable - a pantry stocked with food, a shower (running on tea-coloured creek water),  rain water and creek water systems, and a coal fire with a wetback. Best of all were the beds - nice hard mattresses with woollen covers, and down sleeping bags with silk linings. The weather on the island was constantly damp, overcast and cold. Without heating and warm beds, life in the hut would get miserable pretty fast.

After going through the final stage of quarantine, and then an induction session, we went out to explore for a bit and look for spiders. We wandered along trails in lush native bush, spotting kaka, kakariki, and other cool natives along the way. In particular, stag beetles were super abundant. At one point our path was blocked by two yellow-eyed penguins, the most endangered penguins in the world. We had to dive into deep bush and struggle our way around them so as not to disturb them.

Focusing on the sides of the path, which looked to me like ideal habitat for Cantuaria, I didn't spot the big trees to the left of us. The mounds of earth from which they grew were perfect for trapdoors. Luckily, my advisor pointed them out, and within a couple of minutes of searching I had found a population of Cantuaria (and a hell of a lot of stag beetles).

The next challenge was how to catch the spiders. I wasn't able to bring Pete the beetle along to Codfish because he wouldn't have got past quarantine. Instead I ended up lassoing an amphipod crustacean from the beach, keeping it cool and salty for as long as possible, and using that to tempt out spiders after the sun had gone down.

One member of the kakapo team was excited to come with us to see Codfish Island's trapdoor spiders, and how they were caught. We tramped together back through the bush in the dark, noticing a few minibeasts along the way that had come out for their night-time prowl.

The amphipod got tired of crawling about on the end of a leash pretty quickly, so we did have to dig out a couple of the spiders. Eventually we managed to collect our quota of five.

Walking back in the dark, the kakapo team member who had accompanied us pointed out a wild kakapo perched in a tree (they can't fly, but they have surprisingly good climbing ability).

I think the spiders are better, but it does seem to be a matter of personal preference.

Thanks to Cor Vink for the use of his photos, and to the Kakapo Recovery Team for putting us up and putting up with us!

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