Recording the elusive Kōkako

Sound recordist Clive Williamson first visited Mapara Wildlife Reserve on New Zealand’s North Island in 1996, hoping to capture the haunting song of one of NZ’s rarest birds, the Kōkako, with his digital tape recorder… only to be caught in a thunderstorm! The thunder itself – rolling gently and echoing across the surrounding hills and countryside – sounded wonderful enough to be a highlight of the track “Waitomo & King Country” on the album New Zealand Naturally, but Clive was always disappointed that the timing had not been right to hear a Kōkako sing that day!

Returning twenty-one years later to make more recordings (in 2017), Clive headed once more for Mapara Reserve with wife and photographer Nora Correa Jimenez, in the hope that they would be lucky this time… Now fully fenced off and designated a ‘Mainland Island’, Mapara is an important part of nature conservancy in NZ and is one of very few locations where it is possible to find the Kōkako. Entering the reserve via the bridge over a stream which helps protect the Reserve from introduced predators such as cats, rats and possums, Clive & Nora were greeted first by calls of a Kōtare (NZ Kingfisher), then by a chorus of chaffinches, a species which was originally introduced to the area by early settlers from England. As Clive moved the recording equipment to a new location further inside the Reserve, they first heard the beautiful, plaintive call of a Kōkako high above them. The Kōkako is unique to New Zealand and is critically endangered. Despite the best efforts of NZ’s Department of Conservation and numerous volunteers, there are still only about 1600 breeding pairs, so the couple appreciated how lucky they were to hear this elusive bird at all… but then two Kōkako flew down into a tree nearby and they were blessed by being able to watch the birds at close quarters for a while.

Famously, the Kōkako is not a great flyer, so once they had landed in the tree they began clambering back up to a place where they were confident to set off again on the wing. During that time Nora and Clive were able get a good view one of the birds and of the lovely blue wattles at its throat; and Nora managed to take the photos above. You can now hear Clive’s recording of the Kōkako’s haunting calls on the track “A Kokako’s Dream – Mapara Wildlife Reserve” on the album New Zealand Naturally.