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_DSC5426You could say it’s just a tree stump; or you could say that it’s a hal­lowed place, a spot where some­thing truly spe­cial occurred. For in this stump, on a bank in the Pol­hill Reserve on the slopes between Aro Valley’s Hol­lo­way Road and Zeal­and­ia, two saddle­back chicks hatched late last year — the first time in a cen­tury, accord­ing to experts, that this spe­cies has bred out­side a con­ser­va­tion sanc­tu­ary or off­shore island.

Stand­ing on the path that sits just below the nest­ing site, Marc Slade embod­ies the desire to ensure that this won­der­ful story is no one-off. He leads the Pol­hill Res­tor­a­tion Pro­ject, a group of volun­teers who — with Wel­ling­ton City Coun­cil sup­port and fund­ing — are trap­ping and mon­it­or­ing pred­at­ors in the area. Among oth­er good works, they set up a ‘ring of steel’ around the saddle­back nest, a series of traps designed to catch stoats, weasels, rats and — Beat­rix Pot­ter lov­ers look away — hedgehogs.

Slade, who lives in Brook­lyn Heights, on the edge of the reserve, got involved thanks to that cute and curi­ous ground-hop­per, the North Island robin. “One day we saw a robin in our back garden hop­ping along the side of the raised bed. I did a double-take. I sud­denly thought, these bug­gers are going to get in trouble with pred­at­ors.” So he advert­ised for volun­teers to help him with trap­ping, got “massive” interest, and off he went.

Slade is Brit­ish ori­gin­ally but has lived in Wel­ling­ton longer than any oth­er city. A policy and plan­ning con­sult­ant, but bot­an­ist by train­ing, he’s “obsessed” with our nat­ive trees. “Look at those fuch­sias,” he says, point­ing to some fine spe­ci­mens. “I think they just blaze, like flames…” But at the moment, he can’t focus on the trees too much. It’s all about the traps — and the chew cards, which are just bits of plastic with pea­nut but­ter smeared into the cracks. Pulling a hand­ful of them out of his bag, he explains how you can tell who’s in the area from the tiny pred­at­or bites the cards bear. Stoats leave pin­pricks with their sharp front teeth; pos­sums nuzzle with their gums. “The cards do require some inter­pret­a­tion,” he says, cheer­fully, “but once you get your eye in…”

Slade has grand plans for the future. He fore­sees a reserve restored to a vast forest cloak­ing the hill­sides, mighty trees emer­ging through the can­opy, the air caco­phon­ous with bird­song. There could be kākāriki, kōkako — even kiwi. And why not? So many spe­cies are spill­ing over from Zeal­and­ia — not least the saddle­back — that it all seems possible.

The saddle­backs, how­ever, will def­in­itely need someone to look after them. Like so many of our nat­ive birds, they’re per­fectly designed to flour­ish in an envir­on­ment with no pred­at­ors. In the mod­ern world… not so much. They don’t fly well, they tend to nest near the ground, and — accord­ing to Wiki­pe­dia, any­way — their fledglings “leave the nest to hop around in a typ­ic­ally noisy fash­ion on the ground while they build up strength in their wings”. To which the typ­ic­al stoat says: yum. “That’s why they are so vul­ner­able,” Slade admits. So they’re not really help­ing them­selves, are they? “No. But it isn’t their fault.”

For­tu­nately, saddle­backs do some­times sur­vive, even in the wild. Last year’s his­tor­ic breed­ing pair pro­duced two chicks: one of them van­ished, but the oth­er has made it into 2015 alive, albeit hav­ing at one point lost its tail feath­ers to a pred­at­or. (The feath­ers are, hap­pily, grow­ing back.) Not that we should assume that an intro­duced anim­al was to blame. The remains of anoth­er saddle­back were recently found in the reserve — “and the con­clu­sion was that it prob­ably was a fal­con or a more­pork that killed it,” Slade says. “It just shows you.”

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