March 2016 – Return of the rifleman

Rifleman

‘Bring back the birds’ is the slogan of the Aongatete Forest Project. In previous years the eggs and chicks of birds like fantails, robins and kereru were eaten by rats, stoats, feral cats and possums. Now that pest control is reducing the number of these predators, the birds are getting a chance to breed. We are helping to ‘bring back the birds’!

An extra bonus which was not expected is the appearance of a new species – the rifleman or titipounamu. Of course riflemen must have always been in the forest but in such low numbers that we had not seen them, nor had they been previously recorded in the Kaimais. Now there are a number of riflemen in the pest-controlled area and a family can regularly be seen near the Outdoor Education Lodge, on the loop track where the giant puriri split and a great branch fell in a storm last year.

Kiore

The tiny rifleman is a very special bird. It belongs to a small and ancient family, called ‘wrens’, found only in New Zealand. There were once at least seven species but now only two survive. Four species were probably flightless, easy prey for the Polynesian rats (kiore) which were the first rats to arrive here. The bush wren became extinct on Stewart Island in 1972. The Stephens Island wren declined until only a tiny number survived on Stephens Island. Then at the end of the 19th century, a lighthouse was built on the island. Probably it was the lighthouse keeper’s cat which killed the last little bird.

Now the only surviving members of this family of birds are the riflemen, scattered in some forests, and the rare rock wren, which only lives in a few sites near the snow line in the mountains of the South Island.

How lucky we are to have the rifleman in our tiny rat-free island of forest.

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