“Kea are a unique and endangered parrot (psittacine) species endemic to the Southern Alps of New Zealand. They are one of three parrot species which evolved in isolation over millions of years, playing an important role as alpine seed distributors and ‘cleaners’ and are highly valued as one of the most intelligent bird species in the world.” Notes the New Zealand Conservation Trust, the organisation.”

This is the overview written by the Kea Conservation Trust (KCT), a charitable trust set up in 2006 to assist in conservation of wild Kea (Nestor notabilis) in their natural habitat. The trust works to increase the husbandry standards and advocacy potential of those Kea held in captive facilities within New Zealand.

Earth Sea Sky ambassador, Lydia McLean works catching, banding, tracking and monitoring kea for the Department of Conservation and the Kea Conservation Trust, work that takes her into the most remote parts of the Southern Alps.

Lydia is working on a PhD researching aspects of kea behaviour and foraging ecology that are applicable to conservation management. By comparing stable isotopes in kea tissues to potential food sources she can model diet variations between individuals, regions, lead poisoning status and seasons. This information is used to understand how diet interplays with these variables. Lydia also study aspects of kea behaviour and sensory perception with an aim to understand and mitigate risks during predator control operations.

The Kea Conservation Trust has a lot of field projects on the go. Lydia describes the ones she is most involved with….

Matukituki River valleys – Central Otago
Monitoring kea nesting success by fitting radio transmitters to adult females in summer and tracking them to nests in spring. Alongside this is predator monitoring using motion-activated trail cameras throughout the east and west Matukituki valleys to try to detect cats and stoats.

Cats are incredibly difficult to detect but we know there are lots in the Matukituki because people see them from time to time. We want find how much of a problem cats are in comparison to other predators such as stoats. Regular flyovers are made in a fixed-wing plane, fitted with aerials,  to check on the kea with transmitters. If they don’t move for 24h they go into ‘mortality mode’ (a double beep) which means either the kea has died or it has chewed the transmitter off. Where an adult female starts moving less than usual the transmitter flicks into nesting pulse (40 pulses per minute rather than 20). When any mortality or nesting signals are picked up from the plane we make the best guess as to its location and go in on foot with a handheld aerial to find these. If we find a dead bird we collect it and send it off to Massey for post-mortem to try and get DNA evidence of the killer.

 Murchison and Stuart Mountains, Fiordland
We work in partnership with the Wapiti foundation doing nest monitoring to determine whether the trap network in the Murchies (for the takahe) results in better nesting success for kea compared to the Stuarts with very little predator control.

We have only managed to find one nest in each mountain range over the last two years – for some reason they aren’t nesting so we don’t know any answers yet. In summer we go into the Wapiti blocks in the Stuart mountains with hunters from the Wapiti foundation to catch and band birds and to fit transmitters to adult females. These trips are always great for conservationists and hunters to realise we are on the same page.

Kahurangi/Golden Bay
Conflict resolution, especially in forestry areas where kea can cause many thousands of dollars of damage to equipment in one night.

Throughout the South Island
Lead testing and removal.  Testing kea throughout their habitat to identify lead hotspots and figuring out where the lead is coming from. Then facilitating removal wherever possible. It has become apparent that this isn’t only a problem around townships (Arthurs Pass and Mt Cook) but also in remote places such as the upper Perth (Westland).