The stump fairly thrummed as we placed our hands on its bark-stripped surface.
It stands about four metres high in a patch of bush not far from where we live, stark and white against the lush green canopy, surrounded by ponga and nīkau and scarred with burrows and holes. It used to stand in what was a main thoroughfare for rats until a decent trapping and poisoning project rid the area (hopefully) of them.
One of the best signs that these pests are losing ground when it comes to populating our tiny corner of Waiheke was the vibrations coming from inside this stump: the incessant protests of two kōtare/kingfisher chicks waiting for their parents’ return visits and a mouthful or two of insects or something pierced from the nearby stream.
In years gone by – before the attempts to eradicate rats and stoats reached its current head of steam – a nest in the hole on the side of a stump not five feet from the ground would have been fair game for predators. But, as we felt and heard the persistent hum of its inhabitants and – having retreated – watched the ongoing stream of parental feeding trips, it was clear that this stump was helping produce yet more kotare and the valley would again this year echo to that shrill kek-kek-kek of their call.
About 20 yards further down the valley, we sat on a wooden-slatted bridge over the tiny stream and, while surrounded by skittering red damselfly, watched a pool ripple with kōkopu. The largest of these freshwater fish was about 12cm long with a dark greeny-bluish back. Two others were slightly smaller and of a lighter colour, and then there were about a dozen more ranging in size down to about a thumbnail’s width, all of which looked fragile and translucent.
As we watched these fish darting around their home – a patch of still, shallow water no more than two metres by two metres off to the edge of the burbling stream – two shortfin eels lazily slunk out from among the tree roots which had formed cool, dark hiding holes on either side of the pool. A quick hunt for some worms later, and we spent a fine couple of hours feeding these blue-eyed mini monsters.
Although shortfin eels are classified as being not threatened throughout New Zealand, their habitats on Waiheke are continually under pressure from development and it’s always thrilling to find them seemingly thriving so close to homes. Many native freshwater fish such as kōkopu, on the other hand, are under threat. A 2017 Ministry for the Environment report detailed that “Of New Zealand’s remaining 39 known native freshwater fish species, 72 percent were either threatened with extinction (12 species) or at risk of extinction (16 species)”. Seeing these small fish in a pool so close to where we live was not only an enjoyable way to spend a Sunday afternoon, but also a reminder that on Waiheke we all live cheek by jowl to some increasingly rare flora and fauna.
For example, it’s only five months since the announcement that the island was home to a “hotspot” of giant kōkopu. After searching 25 streams through Auckland, Auckland Council’s biodiversity team had found none of these vulnerable native fish, which can grow up to 45cm long, until they discovered 31 in a stream on the eastern end of the island. At the time, the team was focussing on Waiheke as the main giant kōkopu stronghold in the Auckland region with ecologist Matthew Bloxham honing in on the point that because the mainland populations are generally all failing, they were functionally extinct. “So we’re putting most of our efforts into giant kōkopu recovery on Waiheke, because we think it holds the greatest promise.”
Ahead of a final editorial before we embark on the 2020s, and in light of the fact that, no doubt, a fair few of you reading these words are either occasional or one-off visitors to Waiheke, a Sunday stroll around the natural neighbourhood provided a fair time for reflecting on how we want to develop this island and the resonance of a phrase such as “holding the greatest promise”.
All of us enjoy the views, the beaches, the wineries and the restaurants, for sure. But many people coming here – and many, many of us who live here – love the island specifically because you can find stumps of dead trees humming with the nests of native birds, and pool and streams running almost under the eaves of family homes where fish dart and eels languish.
In the next few years, there are serious decisions to be made about how we will share the island – not just between those who call it home and those who come because it’s advertised as a perfect holiday destination, but also between the humans and plants and animals who inhabit Waiheke. What we have here is fragile – as fragile as a bird’s nest in a hollowed tree or an ecosystem hemmed in by a shallow rocky pool – and it would be so easily lost. • James Belfield