Lake Orbell in the Murchison Mountains has long been a restricted area. It is the home of the Takahē Recovery Program. Run by New Zealand’s Dept. of Conservation.
Sure I have a personal interest in all things New Zealand native birds! But the re-discovery of takahē by Dr G. Orbell in 1948 has a link to my childhood. He must have retired to Oamaru from Invercargill in the 1950’s as he used to live next door to my grandparents.
As a little kid I remember him waving to me from a high up window, in his two story house in Reed Street. He always seemed a friendly sort. And by then was definitely famous. So I knew about the takahē from an early age.
Photo courtesy of a DOC interpretation board Te Anau
The Murchison Mountains is a restricted area in the Fiordland National Park. To get a permit would be difficult, as a member of the public.
I’d known this for years, but of course forbidden fruit always leaves room for hankering. It can manifest a sense of mystery. Then one day I discovered DOC in Te Anau run the occasional day trip.
And this is my story of such a day:
My son on the right, and an old and dear friend on the left get ready to embark on a Real Journeys boat.
The destination across Lake Te Anau takes about 30 mins. to reach. There is a wharf there used for the popular Glow Worm Caves trip.
The trip across reminded us of Dusky, Preservation and Doubtful Sounds to the west across the mountains.
After disembarking we are very soon on our way into some surprisingly rugged country. But the route is quite moderate, as far as such lines go in Fiordland.
The rock on the left is limestone. And as we’re traveling upward parallel to a creek called Tunnel Creek I realised it feeds into the glow worm cave system now below us.
Speleologists can get permission annually to explore 6 + km of caves.
There is predator trap at the bottom of the photo. To the left of the marker.
Taking a breather. The route is relentless. After about two and half hours we branched left off a broad ridge and down a steep descent to said creek.
Red beech is a predominant tree here abouts. And I saw a weka and a tom tit. Occasionally we heard bell birds and south island robins.
After the frustration of not getting a view, suddenly we knew we were close to the real sub alpine environment. So time for a very brief nibble and drink. And refill of drink bottles.
Next we were able to cross the stream dry-shod using some awkward, but thankfully short boulder hops. It took about 30 mins. to get to the nearby hut though. A series of frustrating wind-falls had to be overcome.
And suddenly there we were. The Takahē Heritage hut. And Lake Orbell to be seen on peeking around it’s corner, to the left.
All too soon though – we had to depart to catch the boat back at 5 pm. However not before a welcome brew at the hut.
We had a bonus on the descent.
An older kea followed us down almost all the way. Occasionally on the ground, And when flying – his shadow was constantly zooming over us. Sometimes he’d land on the most wobbly tree branch available, and gyrate about. Perhaps showing off!
This is not the kea though. We had no time to develop a relationship for a modelling session. But this bird is of a similar age.
We made it – bang on 5 pm. To my relief, as I was the slowest.
I’ve had it in mind for a wee while to do a sort of good news newsletter, so here it is.
The new year of 2012 has progressed into feelings of autumn in the air. Things were pretty hectic for me at the end of last year. Family and close friends stuff – mostly health issues (now resolved) and a couple of deaths.
So here is my news garnered from a few sources – people at the coal face doing the work. Two of which are retired DOC people. With a lifetime of experience in many responsible roles:
Ten years ago 25 Sth Island robin were bought back into the West Matukituki Valley and released near Aspiring Hut. Now they total an estimated 300 and have spread up valley and down to into the Rob Roy valley and the East branch of the Matukituki.
The initial instigator of this was my good friend Stu. He and Heather are still tracking the birds and are now close to saying the project is closed.
Prior to 3 poison drops since 2014 and the subsequent installation of nearly a thousand traps by the Matukituki Trust in partnership with DOC, the survival rate has gone up from 1 fledgling out of 4 surviving to 4 out of 4, estimated.
The buff weka project – another relocation by Stu. At least 30 years ago he bought a bunch of birds back from the Chatham Islands and established an aviary on Stevenson Island on Lake Wanaka. So each hatching had the best chance of success. Then they were re-estabished on other islands in the immediate area around Wanaka and Queenstown.
One way or another I’ve taken an interest in this project too, after doing work on the island long ago. I will soon be mooting for getting some up-to-data data on numbers and well being. And likewise I’m taking quite an interest in braided river species/locals. Over a decade I’ve helped on many of the surveys. Based on what we’ve learnt I think how they are done needs a reexamination. Work in progress – best done before next spring!
Another old friend Paul has gone from advancing the Matukituki Trust plans to coordinating several trusts and organisations trapping between Wanaka and the upper West Matukituki and lower East Matukituki.
While looking at the above photo note that is French Ridge in the shade above the trampers. There is another line up there also, to away above the winter snow line. And in the valley to the right of the ridge we have Gloomy Gorge. Home of a rock wren population and bunch of stoats. So there is another line in there as well. All this is in extremely steep and rugged terrain. A lot of the trappings is done with helicopter support. Groups being dropped off at the top, just like farmers now do mustering.
Also up to 14 have been hanging about French Ridge – probably the same birds. And other good news has been 27 spotted on Cascade Saddle by a ski touring friend. On the weekend before Labour weekend last year. Not in our area, but also an unprecedented 13 of, are now frequenting the Red Tarns track at Mt Cook village
Now it’s a similar story to the robins: there are several down valley and up the East Branch
On closing Wanaka/Matukituki news: other species are back in abundance, which means the dawn chorus is back – no more sleeping in at Aspiring Hut!
Also the potential hut rebuild decision-making with the Alpine Club and DOC is still fraught with tough calls. Geo technical in nature. Nothing will be a happening this season.
And Forest and Bird, the old timers in the area, are still doing the work of unsung heroes. Trapping, trapping and trapping. Also trialing electronic means for traps to send info via satellite as to their status.
Ngā mihi Donald
PS If you haven’t seen it already and have 4 minutes to kill then check out this attached link to the video taken by Crux on the Matukituki Charitable Trust a couple of weeks ago.
Up until a couple off months ago I’d not done much in the way of New Zealand native bird photography for awhile, so wanting to visit relatives on the east coast starting from Timaru then proceeding through Oamaru to Dunedin and as I’ve done before I hatched a plan to visit favourite inland places that are quiet and lonely, such as the central lakes Ohau, Pukaki and Tekapo, where I could slowly walk or sit with my camera and wait.
Last time I visited the head of Lake Pukaki I had a marvellous time observing a number of endangered species including the black-fronted tern which live only in New Zealand – they feed on insects, lizards and small fish, and in this photo a few of them demonstrated their skill as low level aviators above the unique glacial blue waters of the Tasman River, which originates just upstream a little in Mt Cook National Park…
However on this trip that began in mid Nov. 2018, the weather changed the game plan – it was about as extreme as you ever get in New Zealand. Relatively speaking there was not a lot of damage fortunately but it played havoc with roads, notably in Central Otago where lots of rain over a short period of time is not the norm., thus as the vegetation is sparse there is no “blotter effect” to hold the water back from draining into rivers instantly, instead run-off is immediate and there-in lies the ingredients for overflowing rivers, landslips and general unusual doings.
In fact since then I’ve never seen our southern inland areas so green – Maniototo farm land..
I’ve posted pictures of the trip on a sister site:
There are cautionary things to be learnt from being under a bird – things that can come back to haunt us from childhood:
I was about four years old when hand-in-hand with my mother, like my hand in hers while my other held a flavoured and much savoured ice cream. All was good I recall, until suddenly with a plop, a passing sea gull dropped a deposit on it. I was gutted, but perhaps it was good start to training for life!
Fast forward a few too many decades to when I was recently working 6-7 months a year up the West Matukituki Valley in Mt Aspiring National Park looking after huts, and also monitoring birds and doing some trapping; all in an ice cream free zone.
It was the beginning of a relationship of sorts with four NZ falcon / kāreareas. The two parents had accepted me so it became the norm for them and their fledglings to hang out nearby, notably in the early autumn when there would be some serious training going on that was all about catching mice in the long grass by Aspiring Hut. It became a fascinating privilege to have them around me albeit ignoring me in a sort of aloof way.
A juvenile learning to hunt for mice, using hearing more than sight, but make no mistake they’re very aware of the slightest movement in the grass even when airborne and 30-40 mts away…
This juvenile failed to find a mouse for lunch so flew up into a nearby tree and made such a racket hoping the nearby parents would supply some food – none was forth coming however…
Adult NZ falcon / kārearea with a fresh lunch at Aspiring Hut…
Three years on and the family had shifted a little down valley, but I was remembered as I awkwardly squirmed under this alpine shrubbery, and then even more awkwardly got the camera activated and pointed upwards. The bird literally yawned and then got on with dealing with an itchy ear, while I’m less than two meters away!
So that was one thing going on in the West Matukituki Valley near Wanaka, where predator control is on-going after a significant upscaling of same back in 2014 by the Dept. of Conservation [DOC] and the Matukituki Charitable Trust.
In a nut-shell it’s working with an increase of all bird species, to the point that people staying in the valley at Aspiring Hut this summer past of 2017-18 reported that the dawn chorus woke them up too early!
Amongst an impressive line up of New Zealand song birds the melodious bellbird / korimako takes line honours in the “what a lovely day for singing my best tunes” stakes. They are also very clever at being able to mimic other sounds they encounter, even other birds, or noisy plumbing pipes in a lodge…
The flighty tomtit is one of the indicator species that signals that the bird habitat is getting back in balance to their advantage. The other being the rifleman and south island robin / toutouwai. All are increasingly evident in the area…
For two years now we’ve delighted in the valley to hear again the haunting calls of the morepork /ruru at night. We’ve seen them with fledglings too, and even hanging about Aspiring Hut catching moths drawn to the light, where they delight with their ability to arrive in a ghost like manner with absolutely no wind noise. Gentle souls! This one I got to know quite well after discovering him with a badly damaged wing. Sadly it’d been fly-blown, and the injury was not survivable despite vet intervention and antibiotics…
And of special note, because they’re such an expensive species to help, is that kea numbers have increased – the valley is indeed still a nursery…
To get to this happy point required much planning and thousands of hours of work by volunteers and DOC staff.
What gave the birds a real “leg up” in the initial stages was an aerial application of 1080 poison, one that I was actually present for, as in living in the area and monitoring results. Then the installation of hundreds of new traps got fast forwarded by getting a large DOC Community Fund grant to buy them, and when done the bird populations got the most significant boost ever when the valley qualified again [based on gathered data] for another 1080 application in the spring of 2017.
And while we don’t know so much about numbers of predators that have died of poison, we do know that 3958 have been trapped by various trusts and DOC in the seasons 2016-17 and 2017-18 between Wanaka and the West Matukituki operation, as discussed here. The information is very detailed now as well, so hot-spots can be identified [relative to species of predator], and the choice of lure and trap types refined.
Here are some photos of some of the stages:
Finding out which species of predator needed to be knocked back in numbers meant installing tracking tunnels – an awkward task at best, but very necessary…
When the line is set up then at regular intervals during the year an inked card is placed in each tunnel overnight. What hungry critters are about are attracted to a lump of peanut butter in the centre and after a nibble they leave tracks on departing. By contrast an opossum will simply pull the card out and partially rip it up…
Carrying these slick funnels designed to catch beech tree seeds [so as to be able to predict how much food in advance will be available to predators] was another memorable job, especially in dense bush and up and down steep banks – not one I’d like to repeat often! The stakes are used to support the funnels, which are fitted with some panty-hose at the bottom…
DOC staff and volunteers counting beech seeds – a fun evening. Each handful, which were shot down in this instance with a shotgun/large calibre bullet, was host to about 100 seeds…
Traps now totalling almost 800 have been installed from way down the valley by Mt Aspiring Station to above Liverpool and French Ridge [pictured] huts, even in terrain that is snow covered in the winter. At this altitude the at risk species is the amazing rock wren, which hibernates under the snow for the winter…
Training up fit and competent teams to safely service the traps and tunnels in this typical southern alps terrain was another step along the way…
Installing a virtual barrier of traps to stop the migration of predators wishing to enter the valley was carried out at Hells Gates just a few Km upstream from Mt Aspiring Station’s homestead it is comprised of about 110 traps offset at 50 mt spacings, across this gap…
Here are a few thoughts on some of the details and relationships that need to be considered and planned for in any “big picture” project like this one:
Of all predators the cat is the hardest one to entice into either a live catch cage, or the likes of a DOC 200 trap, and has to be lured in, often by laying food outside until trust is established over a number of days. Also cats apparently have a range of 20kms. It’s a fickle and time consuming exercise.
Education is critical for cat control, political or not. Education of children is very effective, then they go home and pester the parents, and simultaneously hopefully talk them into back yard trapping and home moggie management.
Meanwhile targeting the rabbits for miles around is known to be effective. Stoats for one will also travel vast distances for a tasty rabbit, and when they get scarce the stoat then targets birds. I imagine the same applies to ferrets and cats. Eliminate rabbits and the problem diminishes.
Dead stoat and eggs used for lures…
Mice are another critical species to get under control, and that’s a challenge all over NZ!
Since a rat plague usually follows on from a mouse one, [which follows a prolific seeding of trees, which follows warmer seasons].
It’s been a definite advantage in the valley to have 4wd access, but every now and then after a severe rain event, the road has to be repaired…
The opossum numbers have to be quantified also, and appropriate strategies worked out to get their numbers down, and then the quality of the forest habitat soars in favour of the birds.
Baby opossum near Wilson’s Bluff. A little usual to see one like this in broad daylight, but it was sick I think, as it had a damaged eye and was very sluggish…
Lastly hedgehogs seem to hold a special place in the heart of NZ gardeners, but are known to be as efficient as a stoat at eating eggs and killing fledglings. More education required here too, and despite their tiny legs they’re now found and trapped at relatively high altitudes in our remote high country and even in damp environments such as braided river deltas.
Tools of the trade, a DOC 200 trap and lures used such as rabbit paste. I think the local robin / toutouwai knows the benefits of good gear – actually while trapping it is quite normal to become friends with the locals, and to cement the relationship scuffing up some moss and dirt to reveal grubs is good form….
South Island robin / toutouwai
Frost in the valley. I’ve included this to illustrate that on the clearing on the right, called Butlers, the south island robin / toutouwai is now regularly seen. About a doz. were translocated to Aspiring Hut [2 hours walk up the valley] about a decade ago. We’ve known for sometime that they’ve been doing well especially of late, but I’m now very pleased that they’ve migrated this far away from the area they were released, which by-the-way is also by the mouth of the Rob Roy Glacier valley/walk, and quite close to the carpark/trailhead.
Kaka – apparently 5 of were spotted several months ago at the Aspinall Family’s old Mt Aspiring Station Homestead at the mouth of the east branch of the Matukituki river, [donated to Dunstan High School and converted into a comfortable Lodge]. The observer was my friend Eric who has taught school courses there for many many years, and he said it’s the first time he’s seen more than one there. This good news will be due to what is known as the halo effect, DOC’s efforts, and to trapping by my late friend Sam Mcleod who sadly passed away just a few weeks ago. We’re looking forward to knowing more about what is in this valley quite soon – some trips are planned!
Lastly a heads-up about a new project I’m involved with for the Makarora catchment – the Aspiring Biodiversity Trust. I took on the building of the web site >>
New Zealand’s National Institute of Water and Atmospheric Research [NIWA] has just carried out and published their annual aerial glacier survey, and for all sorts of reasons apart from their most experienced glaciologist taking part, and the pilot, a very experienced mountaineer, both being old friends and integral to it’s success, there is my own interest having traversed many glaciers over decades.
In fact looking back many that I tussled with, negotiating crevasses and ‘schrunds etc. have subsequently ceased to exist. A testament to warmer climes!
I took this photo at a similar time of year to the survey – it’s of Mt Cook and Mt Tasman, with the Hochstetter Icefall draining the Grand Plateau, taken from across the Tasman Glacier in Mt Cook National Park but back in about 1975.
Note the horizontal lines – evidence of lateral moraines, at the lower left and right. Well back in the 50s the Tasman Glacier [flowing right to left] was apparently at that level, and this was confirmed in a conversation I once had with the late Mick Bowie, a very famous mountain guide of this era.
Here is the press release and video of the survey, courtesy of NIWA’s web site [and well done Andy and Trevor]:
NIWA has carried out aerial surveys of over 50 of the South Island’s glaciers every year for more than four decades. The survey’s record the snowline on the glaciers at the end of each summer and provide a time line of glacier-climate interaction stretching back to 1977. Look at the results of the 2018 survey – carried out after New Zealand’s warmest summer on record.