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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Looking for the Grey Ghost

Air Date: Week of

Producer Allan Coukell takes us to New Zealand in search of the mysterious and elusive songbird, the South Island Kokako, whose haunting call is unlike any other sound in the animal kingdom


CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. New Zealand was once a paradise of bird species found nowhere else in the world. Some, such as the hairy-feathered nocturnal Kiwi, still exist. Others, such as the seven-foot tall flightless Moa have become extinct. And a few species hover somewhere on the margin.

One of these is the South Island Kokako, which New Zealander Rhys Buckingham calls "the most beautiful songbird in the world." Many experts believe that the South Island Kokako is gone, but Mr. Buckingham has devoted many years of his life to proving them wrong. Allan Coukell produced this audio diary of Mr. Buckingham’s quest of hope and obsession, “Looking for the Grey Ghost.”

(editor’s note: There may be some inaccuracies in the following transcription as the names and voices were not verified.)


BUCKINGHAM: It’s the resonance. The thing about the calls of South Island Kokako, unlike any other bird call I’ve heard in the world, is they seem to be able to produce a natural resonance.

The South Island Kokako (Photo: Courtesy of The Natural History Museum, London)


BUCKINGHAM: The first time I heard it calling for such a long time in the Caples Valley’s Stream, which is a tributary of Caples Valley in Fiordan.

[AUDIO DIARY: Twenty-fifth of the eleventh ’83 (inaudible)]

BUCKINGHAM: It called for two minutes …


BUCKINGHAM: …and I couldn’t believe it. I was virtually – I was hypnotized on the spot, and I said to myself, hey, wait a minute, mate, you’ve got to find this bird. So I raced towards where this incredible call was coming from, and across a river.


BUCKINGHAM: There was quite a flow of water that day. It was after a lot of rain, so the river was as noisy as anything. But these bongs were as clear as a bell above the noise of the river. And then it stopped. It stopped just as I crossed the river.

BUCKINGHAM: Hi, this is Rhys Buckingham, a freelance ornithologist from Mapua, Nelson, introducing the search for the rare, endemic New Zealand bird, the South Island Kokako.


BUCKINGHAM: Today, the 17th of October 2000, we are beginning the expedition which will cover a period of about three months and extend from the northern part of the South Island right through to the southwest corner, the bottom corner, of Stewart Island.

We are beginning here in the Oparara Valley because of reports in the past five or so years. Quite close to this area I heard calls which I believed were from South Island Kokako. And, importantly, these calls were in answer to tape-recorded calls of North Island Kokako.


MALE: You get this call when you’ve got the bird in the hand and you’re swinging it upside down. (LAUGHS). It’s a degree more I think than the last in terms of alarm.

BUCKINGHAM: This beautiful bird is a bluey-gray color, larger than a Tui with a distinctly longish tail. But its main feature, if one’s close enough to see it, is a pair of fleshy wattles. To the early New Zealanders, the pioneers of ornithology, this bird was called the Orange-wattled Crow.


BUCKINGHAM: This is really the basis now of South Island Kokako survey. We try and do something just similar to what they’re doing to survey areas with North Island Kokako. They’re called “walk through” surveys, where you just walk on a route, just playing tapes or whatever, and luring a Kokako.


BUCKINGHAM: As you can see, nothing wants to answer it here so we better move on.


BUCKINGHAM: The first incidents where I thought, wow, Kokako may exist, I had spent so much time tramping through Fiordland I was skeptical when people spoke of South Island Kokako, and any other rare bird for that matter, because I had spent lots of years of just tramping around and I’d heard nothing. And then at the head of Lake Monowai, and I think it was 1977, I heard this call. Last thing, just before nightfall, coming from the head of Lake Monowai. A beautiful, ringing call, and I’d never heard anything like it. It was like a cathedral bell endlessly tolling. I don’t know how long the call went on, but it was a long time. And my immediate thought then – that must be Kokako.

MALE: What I could possibly do is look somewhere, I’ll have the original tape. Really valuable tapes…original (inaudible) cables. Whether it will still play or not, it’s pretty old. Let’s try.


BUCKINGHAM: We’ve actually got another recording, ah, report, at exactly the same site three years ago. Ohh, beautiful long-tailed Kokako.


BUCKINGHAM: It’s not that loud. There it is.


BUCKINGHAM: It should be followed by an unusual double note. That’s it. Both of those. That is the very original. And that particular note is the one we want. You can string them together with a space between them if you like to make them sound as they normally do in the field. This one note. It does this sometimes.


BUCKINGHAM: Copy of alleged South Island Kokako calls. One:


BUCKINGHAM: 18th of October 2000. Glenroy River. This is where an intensive search for South Island Kokako has been carried out in the last five or six years. The main thrust of our effort was in setting up six automatic surveillance cameras. Unfortunately, we failed to get a photograph of the South Island Kokako. Never mind. We heard some very interesting calls. Probably the most interesting was a single, hollow kind of note; it was very deep sounding and quite ghostly, really.

BUCKINGHAM (AUDIO TAPE): Alleged South Island Kokako. Two:

BUCKINGHAM: So, it was extremely mysterious. That, after all – we’re searching for a very, very mysterious bird.


BUCKINGHAM: The first sighting was in Fraser’s Stream, and that was in 1983. I was a wee way off. The bird ran up this log – I’ve never seen a bird before or since run that way. It wasn’t like anything else, it just ran, didn’t hop, just ran. And then it paused. It was a large bird, and I got out my binoculars. And then it just hopped away, disappeared. But it called shortly after it disappeared and I was fairly confident that was a Kokako.

BUCKINGHAM: Single tong note, Kako Basin, dusk, 1st of December 1986.


BUCKINGHAM: 22nd of October. I took off quite early by myself today, and headed to Moria Gate, and from there up ridges southeast. Pretty wild, steep country. Not a iota of a sign of Kokako today.

The draining times, the really psychologically draining times, are simply those times of long periods of time when nothing much happens. You’re playing tapes and nothing responds. You’re giving up, you’re feeling, am I wrong, even?

BUCKINGHAM: Click, call. Recorded at dawn, 3rd of December 1984.


BUCKINGHAM: Did another sequence coming up, this sequence here. Very close to the bird.


BUCKINGHAM: Notice no coughs and splutters.


BUCKINGHAM: At last, call there’s a local dialect to an area northwest Nelson where there were many records of South Island Kokako. And, in fact, one of them should have been accepted – two observers saw the orange wattles, heard the calls, described the calls exactly as we know them now. Confirmed sighting, in my opinion, 1972. So that’s where, if people ask me what’s the last confirmed record of South Island Kokako. I think it’s 1972, 1971 anyway.


BUCKINGHAM: Somewhere in Southland someone had taken a photograph of this bird. And it was taken at a picnic table, the bird was on a picnic table, but there was no question or doubt that bird was – because Robert Fallow wouldn’t make a mistake like that, he’s one of our prestigious and well-known ornithologists. Because he himself had seen the slide; in fact the slide showed clearly the orange wattles. But this slide disappeared. We know the photographer was called Blanchard, because Robert Fallow referred it as the “Blanchard slide.” And he said it completely disappeared. I think this guy Blanchard died and he was trying to get a hold of it from the estate. But it was never found.


BUCKINGHAM: It was probably the 1950s we’re looking at now, but it would be the most recent photograph of South Island Kokako. (LAUGHS) Maybe it’s actually the only photograph!

BUCKINGHAM: November 2000. Yesterday at 5:30 I decided to go for a wander up the valley, and then up a ridge. It was on this ridge I played a tape of juvenile North Island Kokako and then heard, to my amazement, the most beautiful of all calls that Kokako can make. It’s a series of cathedral-life bongs with an ambience and a resonance. It’s quite startling. Ethereal is probably the best way of describing these calls. And this bird was quite a long way away, probably 600-800 meters away. But the ringing nature of the call was staggering and it kept calling constantly, about the rhythm of a cathedral bell tolling. The Tuis and the Bellbirds around were just going berserk. They had been quite quiet, everything had been very ordinary, but after this bird called in the distance the Tuis and the Bellbirds started making alarm calls and general chattering. It was quite staggering. I tried to get recordings of all this but the wind was just a bit too high and the microphone was too sensitive. So then, of course, after – well probably the call lasted for three, four minutes, five minutes, it was a very long sequence – I got a compass bearing and headed off in that direction. But that was it, the bird had run out of steam. And I thought, well, this is big country in here. What chance have I of seeing a bird? There’s probably only one or two left here in this area. So it’s going to be a matter of patience, just persevere, keep coming back. And one day, surely, our luck must change.

CURWOOD: Our search for the South Island Kokako bird of New Zealand continues in just a minute. Stay tuned to Living on Earth.

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[MUSIC: Stephan Micus “The Monk’s Answer” LIFE (ECM – 2004)]

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth. I’m Steve Curwood. The major parts of New Zealand are its South and North Islands, and the North Island Kokako, commonly known as the Blue-wattled Crow, is considered highly endangered, but it is seen from time to time. But its close relative, the South Island Kokako, or Orange-wattled Crow, hasn’t had a fully confirmed sighting since 1972, but it may well have been heard. We continue now with our audio diary, “Looking for the Grey Ghost,” by ornithologist Rhys Buckingham and his companions who have been searching for the South Island Kokako in the jungles of New Zealand for almost two decades.

BUCKINGHAM: Thank goodness for John Kendrick in many respects; otherwise perhaps I wouldn’t be still going now. Wildlife Service sent him in as the consultant just to check how crazy I was. (LAUGHS) They said basically this guy is straight ahead of nearly everyone else in the country on bird calls, bush bird calls, in particular. (LAUGHS) It ended up they didn’t even believe John Kendrick.


KENDRICK: I’d just flown in with Bill Bleck on the helicopter in the Little Anglem branch of the Freshwater river on Stewart Island.

BUCKINGHAM: We called this particular one around camp we call ghost bird. When John flew in by helicopter it was raining quite heavily, so he went inside the tent. He was very eager to hear the recordings I’d made.

KENDRICK: We were playing these tape recordings back in our tent. Rhys, Young Adams and myself, the three of us making up the party.

BUCKINGHAM: And as I was playing him the recordings in the tent…

KENDRICK: …these interesting calls were pealing out from the recorder when all of a sudden –

BUCKINGHAM: The bird outside responded right above the tent…

KENDRICK: An exact replica of what we were playing on the tape.

BUCKINGHAM: John disappeared out of that tent so quickly –

KENDRICK: -- burst through the tent, there was a ripping noise…

BUCKINGHAM: …right through our mosquito netting.

KENDRICK: and we looked up in the Remu -

BUCKINGHAM: We looked…

KENDRICK: We walked round the Remu tree…

BUCKINGHAM: And strained….

KENDRICK: We spend half an hour looking in the tree…without sight or sound of this damn bird.


KENDRICK: That absolutely epitomizes the difficulty of finding the birds. You hear them, but you don’t see them.

BUCKINGHAM: This is one interesting thing about Kokako, you can actually identify it from the single feature that it can call loudly very close but you don’t see it.


BUCKINGHAM: Often a good way of attracting little birds in, just –


BUCKINGHAM: These squeaky noises. There’s a little Tomtit. So we’ve got Brown Creepers, got to be six to eight Brown Creepers, Silvereyes, Tomtits, Chaffinch, Bellbird, Tui, a Blackbird singing, and a Grey Warbler. It’s a great spot.

KENDRICK: I started getting interested in birds before, a little bit, yeah, I think before, I became convinced about Kokako.

BUCKINGHAM: Oh, “ka-ka”…

KENDRICK: Oh, “too-too.” I can hear “too.”

BUCKINGHAM: That time ago I was perhaps a wee bit cautious myself and wondering, well, is the evidence strong enough? Are these birds really here? And about, say, 18 years…18 years ago I was totally convinced, and nothing’s changed since then.


BUCKINGHAM (AUDIO DIARY): 0500 hours, 3/12/84. (inaudible).

BUCKINGHAM: When that bird is calling, when that bird starts calling out there, that bird is there. There’s the excitement, the challenge begins. It’s just when that bird is vocally active, searching for South Island Kokako becomes a real obsession.

BUCKINGHAM (AUDIO DIARY): Five deer bark or buck call, 2nd of December 1984.


BUCKINGHAM (AUDIO DIARY): Six bubble call recorded on the same evening.


BUCKINGHAM: And then I set up my best stereo record system, carried up the tree with my camera. If you can visualize it all, this is the setup, Gary was just up there, and I went away about 100 meters. Now, two of the calls I heard were unmistakable. Unequivocal. They were the organ-like calls, definitely Kokako. All the rest of them, and the ones happened to be around the main record tape-recorder, were oddities such as the Steerback, such as a loud CLACK! And I think there were some other odd calls that night, too. But I heard these beautiful Kokako-like calls which didn’t get recorded, as well as one very hollow note right above my bed. Really loud. It was about three times louder than the loudest Tui call I’ve ever heard. And yet Carrie, whose not very far away, didn’t hear a single thing and it wasn’t recording. So one can assume only one thing: these calls were incredibly directional and, probably, those particular ones that weren’t recorded were aimed at me.


BUCKINGHAM: The Kokako has quite short, rounded wings. (FOUR QUICK BREATH EXHALES). Three, mew, and wing beats. Little Mound Anglem branch of Freshwater, November 1984.





MALE: That stew is divine.

MALE: Perfectly done.

MALE: How would you score it? Ten out of ten?

BUCKINGHAM: (AUDIO DIARY): Granville State Forest. 20th of November 2000. Arrived two days ago. Already in camp were Ron Nolsen and his son, Kit.

“I think it’s time to look for feathers,” he said, and he looked down instead of listening and looking up for a bid. He just looked down and suddenly this feather appears (LAUGHS). And he brought it back. Ron Nolsen was here…

KENDRICK: Kokako, because they’re very ancient birds – they’ve been in New Zealand about 60 million years – and their feather structure is just a little different from other birds. So, John Darby, who is with the Tagi Museum, took this feather and compared it with other feathers. And back came the reply that it looks as though that it’s South Island Kokako. And much later that particular feather went Holland…

BUCKINGHAM: Possibly for DNA sequencing, I’m not sure.

KENDRICK: And was lost. So we can’t even prove to this day that a feather was found on Stewart Island in 1997.


BUCKINGHAM: I think if I add up, I would say three that I’ve got a high degree of certainty. Three that were Kokako. Probably about another six other sightings which possibly were Kokako. Probably my best, most certain sighting was on a very wet day. It was raining constantly – not very heavy rain, but just medium rain – and so I was wandering around. And I carried a pair of binoculars but nothing else. And I heard what I thought was the first Tui I’d heard in this valley. Normally I’d hear this Tui and walk on, but something made me go to below where it was calling, looked up, and then I saw the bird. And I was absolutely astonished was when I looked up it wasn’t a Tui. It was a large bird. It was grey in color; in fact, where the light was shining on it, it was a silvery-grey in color. It took off with slow wing beats and flew in a labored flight out of sight. And as soon as it started singing again I actually thought, I must have been mistaken. I couldn’t have seen anything but a Tui because again, it was singing…I was just trying to think, that wasn’t Kokako, it was a Tui! And then it flew again right above my head and it was then there was no question. On the instant of the sighting I knew it wasn’t a Tui; as soon as it started singing, it has to be a Tui. That’s how the mind works. But when it flew above my head there was no question it was a Kokako. But every note was a mixture of Tui and Bellbird. If I’d recorded that call, no one would have believed me. No one.


BUCKINGHAM: I had a really enjoyable job working with North Island Kokako, which was, I think in the end, ongoing for a couple of years or three years. And it was South Island Kokako season so I just left that job and went voluntary looking for South Island Kokako. I considered really essential to try and save that bird from extinction. So yes, I’ve missed out economically, but in other ways I don’t think I’ve missed out anything. I’ve been privileged to be working with a bird that’s just so remarkable. So I don’t think I’ve missed out on anything.


BUCKINGHAM: There’s various ways of finding it. You can be idiots like me who wander in the bush playing tapes for 21 years and still haven’t found the unequivocal evidence. Or you can go and talk to a number of different people in the hopes that one of them actually already has that unequivocal evidence.

MALE: The first time I seen them I went back a couple times before I actually seen them again. And then after that I kept going back because I was working in that area.

BUCKINGHAM: So now and then you get really good reports that you have to follow up.

MALE: They were there late September ’98. Looked and seen a bird I hadn’t seen before way up in the tops of the tree.

BUCKINGHAM: We get hundreds of reports. I try to interview when I’ve got time.

MALE: Quite a large bird, bluey-grey color, and the Bush where it is, is quite dark. It was hard to pick out the first couple of times.

BUCKINGHAM: Quite often, I listen to the reports, or even hear their evidence if they’ve got tape recordings, video. And it turns out to be a Tui or something common, but that’s fine. But sometimes you get one that’s different, and kind of staggeringly different!

MALE: But the noise that it made was like nothing I ever heard before. To me, it’s like sort of a scary noise, a ghosty noise.

BUCKINGHAM: He was giving the descriptions of the birds he had seen and the calls he had heard. I thought, ah yes, it sounded like it was probably Tui or Kaka.

MALE: So, I just took it from there and kept going back until I managed to catch the noise and tape record it.

BUCKINGHAM: During the interview he brought this recording out and played it, and I just about fell off the chair. There was just no question. It was unequivocal Kokako organ song. And not just one minute of it; there’d be two or three minutes of full song, full loud song! Absolutely definite.

MALE: When I tape-recorded it and had people listen to the tape recorder, and no way was it a Tui.

BUCKINGHAM: That call just mesmerized me, I thought, wow, I hope he gives me a copy of this call.

MALE: I’d copied it to give Rhys a copy, and…

BUCKINGHAM: And what happens?

MALE: I lost the house.

BUCKINGHAM: Poor guy’s house burns down.

MALE: We’d lost everything, and the tapes actually went with it.

BUCKINGHAM: (LAUGHS) That was the unequivocal evidence of the presence of South Island Kokako after 21 years! (LAUGHS) End of story.

MALE: But, they’ve got to still be there somewhere.


BUCKINGHAM: There’s a lot of skepticism and a lot of people here who don’t believe us. But they haven’t really been involved!


BUCKINGHAM: Well, I’ve just got back from Westland, and Kokako 2000 will have to become Kokako 2001 now. I need a little bit of a rest.


BUCKINGHAM: Twenty-two years ago, we really didn’t have very much more than we’ve got now. We haven’t come up with a photograph. We haven’t come up with a really good recording. And it’s understandable a lot of people are going to be skeptical and think that I’m just on a wild goose chase, a tangent.

This feeling that I’ve spent a lot of time on South Island Kokako, and I am getting weary. It’s getting tiring. It’s psychologically very demanding.

But you just sort of keep going, thinking, well, your luck’s got to get better.


BUCKINGHAM: Good morning, we’re walking up Alexander River in the Grey Valley West Coast Bolla Region, and it’s the 13th of April 2002. And we’re having a search for South Island Kokako.


BUCKINGHAM: So, okay, do I believe in ghosts? I could say I believe Kokako. They’re out there all right.


CURWOOD: Our documentary “Looking for the Grey Ghost,” was produced by Allan Coukell.

[MUSIC: Tracy Scott Silverman “Fugue en Groove” TRIP TO THE SUN (Windham Hill – 1999)]



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