Takahē and Lake Orbell, Fiordland National Park

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.

A close up of Lake Orbell. With favoured takahē style habitat to the right.
Looking back at the historic hut
We did not see a takahē though. This was no surprise to me – 16,000 hectares of often boggy and difficult ground would take an age to search. However it’s pretty easy to get up close and personal with them at the Orokonui Eco Sanctuary near Dunedin.

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.

Looking up Lake Te Anau from the wharf.

For more back ground on the Takahē Recovery Program >>

And on Dr Orbell’s story >>

Unless otherwise above all photos by myself, Donald, or my son Red.

Many thanks for Te Anau Dept. of Conservation and Real Journeys for making this trip possible.

Update on inland Otago bio diversity

kea; aspiring; hut

Tena koutou katoa

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!

One of the locals – tūturiwhatu / banded dotterel strutting his/her stuff

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.

Here is a now out-of-date map showing the gaps to filled up the valley. Glendhu Bay being on the left. Last I heard over 1600 traps.
The Matukituki Trust has just installed a new trap line up to the top of Cascade Saddle at 1800 mts
And another up an old track to the right here of Shovel Flat. Again up into the subalpine. The track being a rough line, up to Glengyle, put in by our old friend Geoff who ran Mountain Recreation climbing instruction courses for years out of Shovel Flat.


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.

Incoming kea at Aspiring Hut. Right now there are several juveniles frequenting the facilities daily. Just like they did when I worked there for a few years.They’re doing a manic job of ripping apart anything rubbery on parked up mt. bikes. I so hope they are wise enough to not eat it!


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

———-

Back in 2014 – 17 there were only two kaka in the valley. And then I found one dead near a trappinator [‘possum trap]. After much forensic work we decided both it and a stoat had taken an interest in a dead possum and the stoat pounced on the kaka.

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.

I’ve not mentioned the vast Makarora catchment. Good things are happening there also >>

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.

And on Radio NZ over the weekend – some very useful good thoughts during 27 mins. of:
Lonely Planet founder Tony Wheeler.

Braided River Bird Monitoring – how it works

Braided rivers are a common in Alaska, Canada, New Zealand’s South Island, and the Himalayas, which all contain young, rapidly eroding mountains. They are a unique environment inhabited by equally unique birds.

They simply cannot contain a river in a straight line. In floods especially they carry sediment, and in places where the flow slows down this settles on the bottom, thus raising it. And the water flows off to the side of least resistance. This will happen constantly during floods.

The technique for gathering bird numbers on these sort of rivers is quite simple: a team of four people spread out, in radio contact with each other, walk downstream counting every bird they see in front of them. On the ground or airborne.

And at that point the simplicity vanishes! Very finely tuned river crossing skills are needed, as well as “an eye” for the line that will give the best results. Plus physical stamina.

The tools of the trade are: a radio each, walking pole to aid crossings, binoculars, sun-cream, sun hat, good boots and gaiters [to stop gravels getting in the socks], GPS each, and a pen/paper/clipboard. Plus lunch, warm clothing, a camera etc. Warm dry socks also help at the end of the day.

A view upstream of the Hunter River that feeds Lake Hawea in Otago, New Zealand
Preparation. In this case to get into the very remote Hunter Valley. In the Wanaka area two other rivers, the Matukituki and Makarora are also done, and they don’t require a helicopter drop in. There is 25 years now of history – each river being monitored every third year.

The three year cycle is sometimes hard to maintain. The work has to be done in the spring when the birds are breeding, and this is when there is a high frequency of floods, with high levels due to snow melt.
After a short but steep climb in the helicopter from Makarora town-ship, on popping over the ridge the large and rugged Mckerrow Range come into full panoramic view [actually named after a close friend’s grandfather who did lots of surveying and exploring.
Dropping the over-night gear off by a hut, before flying further up the valley to begin the survey.
On the left [note the silt in the grass!] where we only go to avoid a complex river crossing; and where we do – the gravel on the right.
One species of many that we’re looking for. The ‎nationally vulnerable banded dotterel / tūturiwhatu, is the most common small plover of New Zealand seashores, estuaries and riverbeds.

This one is feigning a broken wing to lead the surveyor/photographer away from a nest.

After breeding, they either remain at the nesting area or move relatively short distances to nearby estuaries.
Typical nesting surface, and one of the team striding it out. Being very careful to not stand on eggs!
On the wing. A black fronted tern. Not in the Hunter though, but the Tasman River near Mt Cook. The blue colouring of the very cold water is caused by rock ground up by glaciers.

There are about six species that are primarily dependent on the braided river habitat: wrybill, banded dotterel, south island pied oyster-catcher, black-fronted tern, black-billed gull, black stilt) as well as the caspian tern and the pied stilt. The villain of the piece though is the black-back gull, as they predate on the eggs of the others.

Teaming up – linking arms for mutual support. Lots of concentration is required so it’s harder to observe what maybe in the air ahead. However the most experienced person leading the crossing, which is nearly done, has in this instance time to look. River crossing is best done by not looking down, which upsets balance, and with great care – there is no Plan B if people get swept away.
When not to cross at all – just too big and not braided into smaller channels.
The job is going well!
What we don’t want to see, but if we do, weeds are recorded as Way Points on a GPS, so that DOC staff can return later to deal to them. The most often encountered on the above mentioned rivers is this area, is often broom.

We don’t encounter many lupins in the above mentioned rivers. This photo is in the nearby Ahuriri. Lupins, which the birds don’t like, offer cover to predators. Foolishly seeds were spread many decades ago by well meaning people wanting to add some colour to the grey landscape. And the seeds can remain for years until uncovered by a flood as they’re coated with a protective oil.
A sad aspect of some surveys is that we know that after a bank-to-bank spring flood hundreds of these young birds are washed away. These are a few surviving gulls after such an event in the Matukituki a few years back.
Knock off time – a classic old-time hut.
Every hut has one
Evening and time for sleep. Tomorrow morning the survey will resume tidying up the riverbed to the right.
Job over and pickup
The long and sometimes bumpy drive home beside Lake Hawea

Obviously the results of such monitoring give a good guide as to the health of the environments concerned.

However the data as regards where breeding colonies are located, can be used for the most efficient locations for a new trapping lines. There is an attrition of traps though – during floods despite them being anchored by a chain to a long steel stake hammered in, they get washed away. Often the best compromise often considered, is for them to be near a bank that exhibits a history of stability, and place them with a shorter distance apart than the 200 mt standard in the bush, so as to create a fence of sorts.

A new challenge in life

A few months ago I was surprised to learn I’d been appointed to the Otago Conservation Board, a statutory body. This had quite a flow to it so I decided it must have meant to be!

The first thought I had was “goodness, Otago is a really large and diverse place”. For it spans east west from the sea in the east of the South Island that hosts a very wonderful bunch of species, to the very large and extensive mountains including Mt Aspiring National Park, with the brown (now turning green), of Central Otago in-between.

Otago Conservation Board members 2019
The board members up the Matukituki Valley on a familiarisation field trip. The valley is an important entry point to Mt Aspiring National Park.

If you’d like to understand more about the role 15 such boards have in New Zealand Conservation then >> What conservation boards do

Freddy the fearless NZ falcon, and an update on the status of native birds in the West Matukituki Valley

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…

NZ falcon / kārearea by a DOC sign


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…
Juvenile NZ falcon / kārearea


Adult NZ falcon / kārearea with a fresh lunch at Aspiring Hut…
NZ falcon / kārearea with a mouse


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!
NZ falcon / kārearea


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…
NZ bellbird / korimako


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…
NZ tomtit


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…
Morepork / ruru


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…
Kea


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…
Tracking Tunnels, Mt Aspiring National Park


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…Examining tracking tunnel cards for footprints


 

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…
NZ beech forest seed funnels


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…
DOC staff and volunteers counting beech 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…
French Ridge hut


 

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…
River Crossing, NZ


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…
Hells Gates Matukituki Valley


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…
Dead stoat and eggs

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…
DOC 4wd and digger

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…
Baby opossum


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….
DOC 200 and baits


South Island robin / toutouwai
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. 
Frost


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!
Kaka portrait

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 >>