Thursday, May 21, 2009

New Zealand raptors

Rachel Stewart sent the following pictures from her farm in New Zealand:

Her garden of native plants.

The hill out back. I suppose a person could get used to seeing this every morning...

Australasian harrier or kahu (Circus approximans) on roadkill

New Zealand falcon or karearea (Falco novaeseelandiae)

The karearea appears on the NZ $20 bill [sorry for the tiny picture, but notice how nicely the green matches Rachel's photo!] and is endemic to New Zealand. The kahu is also found in the wetter parts of Australia and on many of the region's islands. Apart from an occasional Australian kestrel (Falco cenchroides), which occurs as a vagrant, there are no other living diurnal raptors in New Zealand.

New Zealand also has one owl, Ninox novaeseelandiae, called ruru in Maori and morepork in English; both names relate to its two-note call. [Photo below courtesy of the Maungatautari Ecological Island Trust.]

Rachel writes that it's frustrating to see such magnificent raptors on a regular basis knowing she'll likely never be allowed to fly them, due to New Zealand's ban on falconry: "You Americans don't know how lucky you are!! Actually, you probably do know how lucky you are and, indeed, it has been more hard work than luck. Praise be to NAFA!"

A few decades ago, when falconry was unregulated but not explicitly banned, a man named Rob Wheeldon enjoyed very modest success flying kahu at (introduced) rabbits. In a 1992 Hawk Chalk article, he recalled that 14 rabbits in a season had been his best record:

It goes without saying that the harrier is certainly not the ideal falconer’s bird. Nevertheless, this bird does provide a challenge to get the very best out of its limited potential and possibly that of the falconer as well, which when everything goes according to plan makes the sweet smell of success just so much greater.

The ban may very well have been enacted as a direct response to Mr. Wheeldon's activities, which is especially unfortunate since he seems to have been a typical falconer/conservationist. In addition to rehabilitating injured harriers, he and his wife ran a breeding-and-hacking project aimed at bolstering the population of the New Zealand falcon.

Karearea have been also captive-bred abroad, and are perhaps most notably employed by Nick Fox's mounted hunt in the UK, the Northumberland Crow Falcons. Sadly, they seem to be on the decline in their home country despite legal protection. But Dr. Fox, who wrote his dissertation on the New Zealand falcon, has embarked on an interesting conservation programme called Falcons for Grapes, the goal of which is to provide nesting sites in New Zealand's vineyards; the falcons in turn should reduce losses to depredating birds such as starlings, blackbirds, and thrushes.

Essentially we propose to use one wildlife problem—the conservation of falcons—to mitigate another one: bird damage to grapes. Conservation is a luxury; it costs more money than it generates. In this project we plan to generate funding from commercial beneficiaries—the wine industry—to conserve the falcons. It will be a symbiotic relationship.

Unlike most bird abatement projects employing raptors, Falcons for Grapes does not require that the birds be trained or actively managed. But there are, I suspect, a few enthusiasts like Rachel who would love to have the opportunity to train and fly their native raptors at quarry. Given the negligible impact of well-regulated falconry on both raptor and game populations—not to mention the fact that so much of the likely quarry in New Zealand is non-indigenous anyway—I can think of no compelling reason they should not be allowed to do so.

I've encouraged Rachel to get together with Australia's Peter Nolan and other like-minded people to form an "ANZAC Falconers' Association" to lobby both governments for a change, and I'm sure that many NAFA members would be glad to share the benefit of their experiences in opening up previously closed states and provinces. Free the Antipodes!


Blaze said...

Hey Mark, great read. I send a couple of photos and you turn it into a well-researched, beautifully crafted story. Are you sure you've never been to NZ? Anyhow, it's not a bad place to live - if you haven't fallen for falconry as I have. Guess I'll just have to keep coming Stateside to get my regular fix. Darn it.

Rachel S

Lauren said...

Absolutely excellent post, Mark! Greatly enjoyed it.