First the bad news. After more than 13 years of being predator-free, Ulva Island had an invasion of rats over the Christmas period.
Rat trapping is a continual process on Ulva Island (as a precautionary measure) if you don't rat trap you don't know if you are rat-free. On average Ulva Island catches three rats per year in these traps. It's difficult to keep an open sanctuary completely predator free but when it was recorded over Christmas that six rats had been caught (including two juveniles) our worst fears were realised. A breeding population of rats had established itself on Ulva Island.
At last count 70+ plus rats have been caught which is worrying time for the Stewart Island community because Ulva Island is one of the main draws to this part of the world. But it really isn't the time to go on a witch hunt to apportion blame. Everyone is of the same opinion; Ulva Island must be re-eradicated of rats as soon as possible. Unfortunately there will be some casualties; Stewart Island Robin, South Island Saddleback and Stewart Island Weka.
As a trustee of the Ulva Island Charitable Trust, I've attended a number of meetings in the past weeks. Ulva Island is seen as a blueprint of how to run an open sanctuary ie. a predator-free island that is open to the public. This is a sad chapter in its history but we must look on the positive side and move forward. It doesn't have to spell disaster - we can learn from this and so can other islands and eco sanctuaries.
Hopefully sooner rather than later Ulva Island can return as the precious jewel in the crown of Rakiura National Park.
2011 on Ulva Island has turned up some gems in terms of guided trips that I've led there. We've seen Yellow-crowned Kakariki feeding young at the nest; Jackbirds (juvenile Saddleback) foraging with their parents through the bush; and high in the canopy the pleasing flutey calls of Yellowhead above us. In a ten-day period I've been fortunate enough to see six daytime sightings of Stewart Island Brown Kiwi on Ulva Island and the best experience of all has to be watching two male kiwi fight for 35 minutes. A lady in my group who was filming this actually had her feet in the same shot as the fighting kiwis, as they were so intent on their battle for territory that they didn't give us a second glance. After the loser slumped away looking a bit sorry for himself the victor called his iconic kiwi call that you really only associate with evenings on Stewart Island - and all this before 10am!
Other highlights include a number of pelagics with Aurora Charters as the Birding Bonanza combination trip with Ulva's Guided Walks continues to be a success with serious birdwatchers and photographers.
One hugely successful trip to Wreck Reef on the east coast of Stewart Island began quite uneventfully. Not even a Southern Royal Albatross showed up. A single Fairy Prion, Cook's Petrel and White-chinned Petrel were about all we'd seen and then on the horizon a bird came lazily flying towards us. At first I thought it could be a Buller's Shearwater but as it got closer I realised that it was something different. It had a large white collar and black cap to the head. I shouted "White-naped Petrel" but cut myself short because I've only seen them in books. I've been doing some homework in preparation for a Three Kings pelagic next month, and knew if this was a White-naped Petrel it was way out of its range. The nearest breeding population is the Kermedec Islands, an archipelago north of New Zealand's North Island. These birds normally migrate north - as far away as Hawaii.
There was about 22 people on board that day (Tuesday 15th February) and I got everyone onto the bird, quickly rattling off ten photos as it wasn't lingering about. Ty, the skipper, asked what I thought it was and I replied that it could be a White-naped Petrel. We checked my photos against the field guide on the boat and when I got back onto dry land I phoned Sav Saville of Wrybill Tours. Sav said the only other thing it could possibly be was a Great Shearwater, but I've seen these in the UK and was convinced it wasn't one. I sent my photos off to Sav and he confirmed that it was indeed a White-naped Petrel. It could be the southern-most record of this species and possibly never recorded around Stewart Island - I'm filing the rarities report with the OSNZ as we speak. I was just happy to get a lifer!