The Weka is a large brown flightless rail (Rallidae – Gallirallus group) endemic to New Zealand.
Once-prolific, the North Island Weka is now a threatened species.
Until the early 1980's this personable bird still abounded in many regions throughout New Zealand. The Gisborne district, being one of the last refuges, still supported isolated groups until the late 1980's, but they too, became rare, and by the early 1990's this curious, feisty and bold bird had become officially endangered.
Breeding programmes have been established and attempts made to re-introduce the birds to sympathetic environments. This is one of those stories.
In the early 1990's, Gary and Elaine Staples set up an enclosure to begin a weka breeding programme, under an initiative by Forest & Bird, supported by Department of Conservation. The aim was to breed, and then to release birds into the Karangahake Gorge, Ohinemuri District – this was an area which was thought to be suitable, and had not had Weka present for approximately 70 years. The Gorge had a variety of habitats, good vegetation, water and food supply for the Weka; invertebrates, including crickets, slugs, snails are part of the diet. Weka have been known to kill rats and mice.
Because of a very strong homing instinct, the programme was set up to breed in the area where release was envisaged. The eventual aim of the programme was to establish a self-sustaining population in the Gorge.
When Gary and Elaine embarked on the programme, there was initial disappointment as none of the first 13 eggs laid were hatched out. However, by the end of 1992 there were 12 young Weka ready to release. They had been assembled from various breeding programmes around New Zealand, and held for six weeks at the Staples' enclosure prior to being released into the Gorge. Forest & Bird, the organizers, expected that young birds would stay in their new environment and establish their own territories.
The local community were keen to assist and had been asked to keep dogs controlled, and to provide food scraps for the Weka to eat. Sightings of Weka were to be reported back. Radio transmitters were attached to the birds, and a university student was to track and monitor progress.
By this time, Elaine and Gary had found success with the hatching rate in their enclosure, and although it required copious energy and attention, their enthusiasm for the project was undeterred.
Elaine began writing Weka Watch in 1994. These articles were published in the Waihi Gazette and Paeroa Gazette, and tell a story of hope and despair, of triumphs and failures; they also tell a story of personal dedication to saving one of New Zealand's most personable birds, the North Island Weka.
Can the Weka once more be nurtured in the Ohinemuri?
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