Birdman’s passion began in Tamahere


One time Tamahere resident and renowned recordist of many New Zealand bird calls, John Kendrick, has featured on Radio NZ’s Saturday programme.

John Kendrick honoured with a QSM in 2010 by the Governor General Sir Anand Satyanand

In a fascinating and wide-ranging interview with Kim Hill, Kendrick, 89, talked of a childhood in Tamahere which charted his course as an ornithologist, wildlife film-maker and initiator of the daily, Morning Report bird calls.

Some of Kendrick’s bird calls, many collected with other conservation legends like the late Don Merton, have now been collected on a CD as part of the book, New Zealand Bird Calls.

Kendrick received the Queen’s Service Medal for services to wildlife in 2010. The citation noted that he had contributed to conservation as a wildlife film-maker and sound recordist for more than 40 years.

He was a Wildlife Service audio-visual officer for more than 20 years, and has travelled to many parts of New Zealand to record bird song. He was instrumental in the establishment of the Wildlife Service’s Wildlife Sound Library, photographed and made wildlife films on endangered native birds and, in 1974, helped to film New Zealand segments for a David Attenborough series about extinction. His documentaries including ‘Caught in Time’, ‘Adams Island’, and ‘Canada Goose in New Zealand’. He instigated the playing of native birdsong on National Radio’s ‘Morning Report’ in the late 1960s. Mr Kendrick has been a member of Forest and Bird for over 50 years and in 2009 was awarded an Old Blue, the organisation’s highest honour, for his work in his field.

In 2005, I interviewed the delightful Kendrick for a column in the NZ Herald after a suggestion the bird calls might be dropped from Morning Report.

From his Waipu vege garden where he was planting parsnips the then 82-year-old Kendrick told me a similar misguided move “stirred enormous sentiment” in the 1970s.

He thinks there might have been a poll taken that showed the birdcall was the most popular thing on the radio, and the saga featured in the Listener.

Known to many as Johnny, Kendrick was with the NZ Wildlife Service for 20 years, signing on in 1964 as a visual aids officer – a broad brief that meant he filmed and recorded the sounds of wildlife from bush depths to mountain heights.

It enabled Kendrick to pioneer natural sound recording in New Zealand and, with colleagues like black robin saviour Don Merton – a mere trainee when Kendrick first met him – to use recorded bird songs to capture and transfer endangered birds to predator-free islands.

As his sound library grew so did his irritation at a monotonous bird squawk played regularly on the wireless. Around 1969 he supplied National Radio with 16 more pleasing monophonic birdcall recordings. His equipment improved, he moved to stereophonic recording and more birdsong was supplied to National Radio. He’s not sure how many he supplied but nearly 40 years on they are still the calls listeners hear every morning.

Many recordings were made “with great difficulty and a lot of persistence.”

The kakapo gave him the biggest physical challenge. Weighed down with 40kg of gear he tramped for five hours into the Tutuko Valley near Milford Sound to get the first recording of the bird.

There were many firsts and, tragically, some lasts. Sadly, bird-loving Kendrick has been the final witness of several birds that have become extinct.

He is one of the few to have heard the loud but melodious call of the now extinct piopio, the native thrush, and is on record for making the final sighting of the North Island wren. “It was 28th of January 1956. I remember it very clearly.”

He took the only film of the greater short tailed bat before it became extinct but more happily, on Adams Island, 500km south of New Zealand, spotted the first Auckland Island snipe seen in 102 years.

In 1976, he had a four-month scholarship to study wildlife recording with the esteemed BBC Natural History Unit, met David Attenborough, and later accompanied a BBC team filming here.

Work, he says, was wonderful. “I was doing what I loved and getting paid for it.”

The recordings were used in the training of service staff and Kendrick also did 50 lectures a year to schools and service clubs.

“At the end of each year I would’ve talked to 6000 kids and lost my voice,” he said.

The Wildlife Service library of film – much of it transferred to video – and sound went to the Conservation Department and Kendrick lost track of its whereabouts.

He saved some film from the dustbin and after retiring in 1982 spent eight years building up his own sound archive. He separately filmed many of his work experiences on his own camera and estimates he also has 100,000 feet of film plus soundtrack.

At the behest of his daughter, zoologist Karen Baird who has followed her father’s wildlife and adventure lifestyle, Kendrick has identified the location of every shot.

Baird says her father’s love of the outdoors and legendary storytelling set her on her life’s path.

“He has lovely stories about everything. A bird was not just a name, it was an adventure story as well.”

Click for the interview on Radio NZ.

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