Tip toeing through the traps, dripping with rat guts

This is what we do it for — a thriving native bird population. Seen here, three kakarikis on the Boat Line in Makarora.

Ok, the headline may be overly dramatic but it was my first time trapping with Forest and Bird’s Central Otago-Lakes volunteer trap team so I’m taking creative license with my adjectives. 

Joining the volunteer roster means hiking for one day a month on one of ten trap lines, clearing dead predators out of the traps, cleaning them and renewing the bait. This is all for the good of our native birds and a community service I thought I could really get behind. 

Whilst I was big on romantic notions of volunteer service and doing my bit for New Zealand, what I hadn’t factored in was that I am. Grossly. Hideously. Unfit. 

What was supposed to be a four-hour mission, turned into six hours (thanks to moi) of off-track hiking, carrying a day pack plus bags of tools, dozens of eggs, and a smorgasbord of predator bait. 

Imagine if you may, a heaving, sweating woman, swearing like a sailor as she slides on her fat behind down a gully because she hasn’t got the quad strength to walk down. Yeah —  that was pretty much me for the whole day. 

But rewind, because it wasn’t all that bad. The best part of the day was my partner on the trapping roster... Chris Kjelgaard who celebrated her 73rd birthday scraping dead rat guts out of traps with me. She is so fit and strong I stand in AWE. She was galloping ahead like a nimble mountain goat, smashing through neck-high bracken and scaling down gullies like she practically had wings. She has legs like steel pistons and quadriceps made of dynamite. Each time we finished a trap, *boom* she was off like a shot. 

Chris never slid down a gully on her derriere, holding on to trees for dear life. No. She had a bucket of eggs in one hand and ambled down without holding onto anything. She was cool as a cucumber and still wearing long sleeve wool; whilst I was beetroot red, sweating like a fat man in a sauna and down to a t-shirt. I want to be Chris when I grow up. 

Chris taught me everything I needed to know about the Boat Line and how to clean and re-set DOC traps, plus the more sophisticated Good Nature traps. She was fast, efficient and extremely gracious about my lack of fitness. She’s also an amateur ornithologist and was able to identify the shrills of many birds we saw through the day. Sadly, no mohua, the most endangered bird which this entire trap grid was set up to protect. 

Mohua are vulnerable to climbing ship rats and stoats as they nest in holes in old or rotten trees. Since the arrival of these introduced predators, mohua numbers have plummeted, from being the second most abundant bird in forests across the whole South Island, to just a few thousand in isolated populations.

She explained how bad it’s been during this mast season; a fact backed up by the data from Jane and Mo Turnbull who are the volunteer coordinators for the trapping team. Every few years, the forest explodes with huge amounts of seeds. Once upon a  time, these seeds were a bonus for the birds. But now, these seeds provide a massive food source for rats. When those seeds run out, they turn to our native birds. 

In October last year, the trap network caught 205 rats. The normal amount is 197 in a year. 

As trapping alone hardly touches the sides of predators in a mast year, a 1080 drop in early November helped kill off untold amounts of rats. But it’s not plain sailing, even when 1080 and trapping work to complement each other. A stoat explosion is due about now as all the babies born in spring leave the nest. 

Forest and Bird’s Makarora Valley project consists of 485 rat, stoat and possum traps on 10 traplines and two close-spaced grids in the Makarora and Blue valleys. They also clear a very long (73 trap) line in the Young Valley for the Department of Conservation during the spring nesting season.

It takes 40 volunteers on the roster to head out once (sometimes twice) a month to clear the lines, which means a lot of administrative time for Jane and Mo —  not just drawing up the roster, but ordering bait, managing stock levels, servicing the traps and repairing broken ones, inputting endless data which feeds into larger data banks on predators. 

This is where you, dear reader, come in. Are you a systems expert or a whizz with data? Can you design an online system where each trap team can input their own data? Can you work your magic so the entire operation is more streamlined?  Perhaps you don't want to do "boots on the ground" but you, or your business would like to sponsor a few new traps? Could you keep a record of damaged traps and maintenance issues, and organise trap replacements in the field so that Jane and Mo can do what they really love to do, get out in the forest, instead of managing endless amounts of paperwork?

If you think you can help out, email centralotagolakes.branch@forestandbird.org.nz.

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