Te Papa’s curator of terrestrial vertebrates Dr Colin Miskelly is researching the life and work of the Canterbury naturalist Edgar Stead (1881-1949). This includes re-taking Stead’s photos from the same photo-point, taking other images to illustrate his diaries, and describing how the ecology and wildlife of each of 9 islands has changed since Stead’s visits.
Jacky Lee Island (Pukeokaoka) is one of a cluster of islands lying off the north-east coast of Rakiura / Stewart Island. Edgar Stead became interested in the island after studying snipe on Big South Cape Island in 1931. Jacky Lee Island was the only other island off Stewart Island where snipe were known to occur; they had been seen there by John McLean and Herbert Guthrie-Smith in 1911.
Unfortunately, weka had been introduced to Jacky Lee Island since McLean & Guthrie-Smith’s visit. Weka were abundant when Edgar Stead and Major Robert Wilson stayed on Jacky Lee Island in December 1932, as they were 79 years later when I visited. Weka predation caused the extirpation of snipe, mioweka (banded rail) and fernbird from Jacky Lee Island, and also huge reductions (if not extirpation) in populations of broad-billed prions, fairy prions and common diving petrels.
Stead found other bird species to attract his attention on Jacky Lee Island, particularly the abundant population of brown creepers (pipipi). Brown creepers are the main host of the long-tailed cuckoo in the South Island and Stewart Island, and Stead & Wilson found several brown creeper nests containing long-tailed cuckoo eggs and chicks. As a result, Stead was able to sort out long-standing confusion over what the egg of the long-tailed cuckoo looked like. This confusion resulted from Walter Buller having been given a pullet’s egg that was reported to be a cuckoo egg – possibly as a deliberate hoax.
My visit to Jacky Lee Island was approved by the Rakiura Titi Islands Administering Body, with boat support provided by the Department of Conservation. Together they were assessing the feasibility of eradicating weka from the island.
The Maori name for Jacky Lee Island – Pukeokaoka – means ‘hill of stinging nettle’. The name is apt! As in Stead’s time, the island’s vegetation is a horrible tangle of tree nettle, Muehlenbeckia vine, bush lawyer and supplejack. I concur with Major Wilson’s observation that “it [is] the worst bush to get through of any island we have been on”.
Previous posts on Edgar Stead: