By Laura Young 31/01/2020

Peak summertime can feel like a wonderful place in the South Island mountains.

This year it feels alive, almost burgeoning with young kea fledglings in some places. Twin Stream valley (near Glentanner), for instance, has had a group of at least 12 young kea through January 2020. Some of them are shown in this incredible photo (above), captured by Peter Könitzer who has recently contributed to the kea sightings database.

Fledglings generally refer to those which have recently fledged the nesting site. Kea fledging generally occurs around Dec-Jan but of course can happen any time outside of that depending on the seasonal abundance and availability of food resources, weather and climate conditions, breeding success, predators and a range of other factors.

Fledgling kea (first years) are most readily distinguished from other older kea by the bright white-yellow crown feathers (top of the head – see photo above), bright yellow eyelids, cere (above the bill), lower bill and creamy coloured legs. As time goes on, the yellow colouring all fades and at 3-4 years of age, these features are almost completely dark.

These young kea often spend the first few weeks or more after leaving the nest, reasonably near to the natal site, learning vital skills like feeding and flying from their parents. Then they start to flock together – this is when the trouble often starts! They congregate at particular sites (akin to groups of teenagers at a mall) and start learning from each other, often getting into trouble where they come into contact with humans and their stuff!

It is a delight, particularly this day in age, to see such large groups again. For 5-10 years now, we have heard numerous and widespread anecdotes of kea declining (right along the eastern flanks of the Southern Alps especially). This decline is always very difficult to quantify since kea are wild, and can readily roam – you know, those long-distance travelling types. However, with SO many people saying the same thing – must there be some truth to the matter!?

There are various ways to understand what people might mean by kea ‘decline’. These include: kea absence from areas where they were previously consistently seen; smaller groups sizes (one or a few are commonly reported nowadays where there were often reports of groups >20 twenty or so years ago); and lack of recruitment (not seeing any young ones about).

This is the very reason we created the Kea Sightings Database, and the new Kea Survey Tool – to allow all of the observant citizen scientists among you to contribute to the knowledge gap of attempting to quantify kea numbers and how these might change over time. We are now in the third year of the sightings database and between the information we are learning from all of you, along with the things we’ve picked up along the way during many years of fieldwork with the teams out in the mountains, we think we can at least say that, while we may have had some noticeably poor years in recent times, the last two breeding seasons appear to have been relatively successful, with kea making appearances in some areas where they’ve been absent for quite some time as well as lots of reports of big flocks in some places AND lots of babies!

It’s not all good news though. For example, some key areas where kea once thrived, let’s say in the time period of 20 or more years ago, (e.g. Nelson Lakes) or were at least present from year to year (e.g. Puketeraki ranges, Richmond Ranges), it is still noticeably quiet on the kea front. Kea can be conspicuous by their absence. On a fieldwork trip in mid-January 2020, we covered the Waiau catchment over four days and sadly, didn’t hear one at all.

There are short- and longer-term patterns to be aware of. Said ‘short-term patterns’ are not really patterns. Kea, like any other species, would fluctuate in their productivity from year to year. In order to determine whether a species decline is real or perceived, and to quantify this somehow, we need to declare which time frame we are referring to at the outset. 30-40 years, since the legal protection of kea and the cessation of the bounty system? Something more recent? Longer? Are we referring to the entire population or will we look at certain areas more closely to inform us of the bigger picture? A bunch of us are attempting to publish something a tad more scientific on the matter in the near future so watch this space!

A final massive thanks for all of your contributions to the sightings database over the past two years!

This post was originally published on the Kea Sightings Project website.