If there was a Kiwibuild programme for our native bird species, the rifleman that live in Aongatete forest have scooped the ballot! Thanks to the perseverance of volunteer Barry Pethybridge, nest boxes purpose-built for titipounamu (rifleman) are boasting their first confirmed breeding success at the top of Wright Road.

Nest box in use at Aongatete forest. Photo: Barry Pethybridge

Rifleman were first confirmed as present at Aongatete about five years ago, a hugely encouraging sign for the dedicated members of Aongatete Forest Project (AFP), who have been pursuing multiple pest control initiatives in 500 hectares of lower Kaimai bush since 2005. By reducing predator pressure from rats, stoats and possums, forest flora and bird populations are given the chance to restore themselves.

A discussion among the core AFP team three years ago somehow included mention of a NZ research paper that had shown nest boxes increased the fledging success of rifleman by five times. That was enough for Barry. “Get me the plans” he said, “and I’ll build some for us”.

Fifteen boxes were duly constructed based on the study protocols and placed on suitable trees within the Short Loop track prior to the 2016 nesting season. Barry then monitored the boxes. First year – nothing. 2017 – nothing. The most recent 2018 ‘property inspection’ was at the end of October. He’d visited 14 boxes and still nothing. Then, just as he was about to move on from his five-minute stakeout at Box 15: bingo!  A rifleman appeared and dived into the nest box. As he watched, it became apparent that both a male and female were carrying out feeding duties. “This is good,” Barry thought (with typical understatement). Next day, armed with camera, tripod and a chair – on account of a dodgy knee – he settled in to get some shots as proof.

Female rifleman making a delivery run to the chicks inside a nest box in Aongatete forest, Oct 18. Photo: Barry Pethybridge

Spurred on to recheck the other sites again, he confirmed a second box was in use. On reflection, Barry wonders if perhaps his surveillance technique was a little hasty – he can’t be sure that by not watching for longer he hasn’t missed evidence of a box being used earlier this season or possibly even last year.

It turns out rifleman are not that well studied in general, but it is known is that they’ll breed more than once in a season, and it’s thought that family may stay around to help raise the second brood. At one of the nest box sites, three adults (two females and a male) were seen in close proximity. Maybe that particular box is indeed on its second use as a maternity ward for 2018?

Rifleman can lay 4 to 5 eggs, so it’s handy that more than one adult is available to feed the young. Thanks to Barry’s photos and the expertise of local entomologist Dr Peter Maddison, the birds have been identified as successfully foraging for weta, both green and brown crane fly, caterpillars and our native cockroach amongst other insects. This demonstrates yet another crucial link in the chain of a robust ecosystem – a healthy forest is flush with invertebrates meaning rifleman have access to plentiful fuel to raise their chicks.

Once nesting is completely finished for the season, Barry plans to take down all 15 boxes. They can be inspected for signs of nest activity and then thoroughly cleaned to enhance the chances that a box will be re-used by a new pair next year (rifleman have never been observed to re-use a natural nesting site).

They might be our smallest native bird, and one of the hardest to hear, but with Barry ‘Box’ Pethybridge on the case, the forest at Aongatete and the humans who enjoy it will be better off with more of these charming wee treasures calling it home.