Brown Teal, Tiritiri Matangi

The Honeyeaters' Tree

My peregrinations were taking me along the Hobbs Beach Track and away from the island’s wooded section, where my target passerines lurked. I retraced, peered into the empty little penguin nest boxes on my way and headed uphill to the trees. I didn’t get that far before my next lifer, not a passerine, but a duck.

Even New Zealand‘s mobile waterfowl had a hard time against the coming of Man. Most of them could fly but their principal predator, the swamp harrier, hunted from the air. It was more effective to freeze and let camouflage do the work. This is futile in the face of a dog, cat or a mustelid. What’s one of those? It’s a stoat, weasel or ferret. They’re all totally alien to the country and they’re not exactly pets gone wild. Nor are they farm animals.

Get this. Some idiot decided ferrets would control rabbits.

Even bigger idiots introduced them to do this and, as with the Queensland cane toad, that’s about the last thing the creatures did, preferring instead to go for sitting ducks – literally. So the brown teal is now critically endangered; there are fewer than 1,000 in the entire world. They’re as good as extinct. There’s really no way back from that low a number.

Oh, some people – very fine people – try but the future history is written. Rising populations of all the world’s endangered species does not fit with 7 billion human beings, doubling every 50 years and doubling its per capita resources grab even faster. Something will have to give, some choice will have to be made. A crunch, environmental not credit, will come and the smart money is on Homo sapiens to muscle its way to the top of the pile. We’ll sacrifice the lot before being the last to go down.

So, while it could, my life list went up by one with a pair of brown teal lurking on the edge of a pool in New Zealand’s biggest zoo. I didn’t feel guilty about ticking them, nor any of the other survivors, in those circumstances. There wouldn’t be another chance.

And the ducks were where they were supposed to be. A few centuries earlier I’d have been tripping over them. Just like our ospreys, red kites and sea eagles, and California’s condors, all of which are also on my life list. They look like success stories now but the spectre of the crunch looms for them too.

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