Punakaiki: Where plucky petrels get the homecoming they deserve

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Punakaiki: Where plucky petrels get the homecoming they deserve

The Westland petrel or tāiko
The Westland petrel or tāiko

The West Coast town of Punakaiki attracts around a half-million visitors each year to its pancake rocks, blowholes and dramatic coastal scenery. But come summer’s end, a new local attraction is gaining a following. Barbara Fountain reports

The tāiko has a propensity to be disoriented by the lights of Punakaiki – the birds land near the lights and are unable to take flight again

The annual return of the godwits from their Siberian sojourn has become a fixture on the Kiwi calendar. Now another bird with a slightly less onerous commute, but a tendency to make life difficult for itself, is getting an annual celebration.

The bird is the Westland petrel, or Procellaria westlandica (tāiko). Every year in late March to early April, this black bird with an ivory white bill and dark legs, returns from as far afield as Chile to an 8km stretch of coastal forest in the foothills of the Paparoa Ranges just south of Punakaiki.

Celebrating the birds’ return from South America, and raising money to support conservation efforts is the focus of the Tāiko Festival, a three-day music and conservation festival now in its fourth year.

The tāiko does not make life easy for itself. Along with breeding in the winter, it lives in burrows one to two metres long, built into the slopes anywhere between 50 and 200 metres above sea level, in the dense coastal forest. For added difficulty, tāiko fly at night to avoid predators.

Unable to fly from a standing start, the birds bash through the forest about an hour before sunrise, climbing trees to find a launch pad to throw themselves off. They’re heading out to sea to feed, being partial to hoki and often found scavenging around fishing boats.

Come dusk, the birds return to their burrows, crashing through the bush as they come in to land. Around the time of courtship, mating and the emergence of their chicks, the bush is alive with the sound of squawking. The birds mate for life and produce one egg each season.

By August, the eggs are hatching and, beginning late September, the birds start leaving for South America, the fledglings staying away for up to 10 years before returning to breed.

It is just after twilight when the petrels return to their burrows
Taiko Festival later this month

Tāiko Festival director Jed Findlay is a local and manages the Punakaiki Beach Camp. He describes how the festival starts – this year on 27 April – with festival-goers parading at dusk on McMillan Beach just south of Punakaiki, officially welcoming the birds home. It’s an impressive sight as the birds come in from the sea. “There are so many birds flying overhead, thousands of them,” Mr Findlay says.

The parade is followed by a musical jam session at the Pancake Rocks Café on Friday night. On Saturday morning, the main road by the entrance to the rocks is lined with a community market, and festival-goers take part in native bush plantings at the Punakaiki Coastal Restoration Project site, again just south of the town. Children’s activities get under way at the beach camp in the afternoon preceding the main musical event. The headliner this year is Tauranga-based Tiki Taane who will be joined by last year’s hit act Runaway, from Westport, Fox River band New Munster, Coast DJs The Nomad and Miss Implicit, and singer/songwriter Bronwyn.

Last year, the festival raised about $3000 to help the tāiko. The tāiko is yet to score the same heady heights of literary recognition attained by godwits with The Godwits Fly by Robin Hyde, but they make an appearance in Cold Hard Murder.

Set in Punakaiki, this thriller by Wellington writer Trish McCormack sees murder and violence come to the town when the community is divided by plans for a commercial tourism venture in the national park. One of the suspects is involved with rescuing injured tāiko.

Master plan for future proofing township
The Paparoa Ranges

Early this year, conservation minister Eugenie Sage made mention of the birds when she announced $100,000 funding to help develop a master plan to future-proof the township.

In recent years, extreme weather has severely eroded the Punakaiki coastline, threatening houses, the camping ground and the main road. In a media release, Ms Sage says protecting wildlife is also an aspect of future-proofing. She noted the propensity of the tāiko to be disoriented by the lights of Punakaiki. The birds land near the lights and are unable to take flight again.

“Finding solutions that help all of the locals – both human and wildlife – is a priority,” Ms Sage says. The plan will be developed and implemented from 2019 onwards.

With the opening of the Paparoa Track in 2019, crossing through the magnificent karst landscape and dense, luscious forests of the Paparoa National Park, news of the plucky, determined antics of the tāiko is likely to spread further afield, as will word of the festival celebrating the home-town hero.

Says Mr Findlay in a Facebook post: “We’re trying to create something with the festival that’s quintessentially New Zealand – it’s about the bush, beach, birds, fun people and great vibes.”

Additional information: NZ Birds Online

Declaration of interest: The author is a regular visitor to Punakaiki, set alongside the stunning Paparoa Ranges with beautiful river canyons, soaring trees, wild beaches and a maze of unpredictable karst landforms 

Looking back the pancake rocks towards McMillan Beach where the welcome parade is held for the petrels
Paparoa’s in summer where the petrels build their burrows
Punakaiki Coast