The Te Anau wildlife Centre is a great opportunity to witness, at close quarters, a selection of New Zealand’s rare and endangered birds. Most, you would not normally encounter in the wild. Children love it here.
Pride of place are the takahe, who roam in a predator proof enclosure, protected with a specially designed fence to keep rats, mustelids and cats at bay.
The aviaries and pens that house the birds are set in beautiful grounds with views of the lake. Free flying birds enjoy the trees planted there and the ducks like the water edge below the boardwalk by the lake.
The Wildlife Centre is open from dawn until dusk and entry is by a gold coin donation.
Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre is on the corner of SH 94 and SH 95 (Te Anau-Manapouri Highway). The start of the track is signposted at the southern end of the visitor centre complex.
Although the centre is free, DoC ask for a gold coin donation to contribute to the bird’s feed and upkeep.
The even level track is metalled all the way. At the wildlife centre a series of tracks weave over the sloped grass areas between enclosures.
The takahe enclosure looks out to the Murchison Mountains, one of their last strongholds in the wild. The takahe were thought to be extinct until 1948, when local naturalist Dr Geoffrey Orbell went hunting in the Murchisons. He initially was not convinced he had spied one, but later forays indeed ‘rediscovered’ the flightless rail.
Other aviaries house kea, kaka, Antipodes Island parakeets, yellow and orange fronted parakeets, kereru, moreporks and weka. A habitat for Paradise ducks, Canada geese and mallards is well-frequented. Information panels give titbits of information on various species. Most birds at the centre were either abandoned, orphaned or injured and f
The Rediscovery of an Extinct Species
The morning’s domestic chores in Te Anau involve a walk along the lakefront to town. At the main intersection is a large fibreglass bird, a bizarre looking creature with blue feathers and a red beak like a French wine drinker’s nose. “What’s that?” I ask my two year old daughter.
“It’s a takahe.”
“And where do takahe live?”
“In the Murchies!”
Such is the life of a child growing up in Te Anau.
The takahe is an emblem of the town, indeed Fiordland as a whole. But this strange looking rail has reached notoriety through a bizarre set of circumstances.
In pre-human times, the takahe’s (Porphyrio hochstetteri) only enemies would have been airborne. The frighteningly large Hasst Eagle, a raptor with a wingspan approaching 3 metres, would have hunted by sight, swooping on adults and chicks alike. Unbelievably for a blue bird, camouflage was its main form of defence. Hiding their red beaks under a wing, they would stay motionless, a technique also employed by kakapo. Even today, takahe are often seen looking nervously skyward to spy possible predators.
With the arrival of the first Polynesians came the kiore (Polynesian rat) and kuri (Polynesian dog). These predators hunted by smell, easily flushing out their flightless and defenceless prey. European arrival however spelled absolute disaster for takahe and many other New Zealand endemic bird species, as mustelids (stoats, ferrets and weasels), Norway rats, ship rats, cats, deer and mice invaded the forests. The annihilation was rapid and comprehensive. New Zealand lost 55 endemic bird species (41% of the land and freshwater inventory). The takahe was nearly unlucky.
Although well known to Maori, only four accounts of European contact with takahe exist. A group of sealers in Duck Cove, Dusky Sound caught and ate a bird in 1849. Apparently it was delicious (especially if you have just been eating seal meat). Walter Mantell, the eminent naturalist, managed to procure a skin and sent it stuffed to the British Museum. This mounted oddity was captioned Notornis mantelli. Mantel’s second skin also found its way to the museum and was displayed next to the dodo. A third bird was caught up the Mararoa River in 1879 and sent to the Dresden Museum, where it survived until the city was levelled by Allied bombs. A fourth found in 1898 near Lake Te Anau’s Middle Fiord was fortunately treated with care by the assailant, a dog named ‘Rough’. Mr Ross, the canine’s owner, sold the skin to the Otago Museum for £250, where it remains today.
With only four sightings over nearly 50 years, the takahe was officially thought extinct, although a few Te Anau locals were apparently familiar with the bird in local swamps. One man who did not subscribe to the takahe’s apparent extinction was an Invercargill doctor, Geoffrey Orbell.
Throughout boyhood he had been fascinated by the bird, an interest sparked by a photograph in his mother’s album of the Otago Museum specimen. He kept reports of footprint sightings and accumulated stories around campfires, tracing their distribution on a map. One pattern emerged. Most sightings were on beaches below the bushline in seasons when winter snows were heavy. Orbell theorised the takahe must continue to exist on the tops and in April 1948 embarked on a hunting sortie with a couple of mates, Neil McCrostie and Rex Watson. Destination - the Murchisons.
They followed a spur above the steep gorge by the Tunnel Burn, exiting at a lake that was to later bear Orbell’s name. Observing footprints on a sandy beach with a distinctively inward bending hallux, Orbell was immediately convinced these prints were the big toe of an adult male Notornis. The party were also flummoxed by curious whistling calls, sounding like air blowing over a .303 cartridge, which echoed around the rocky ramparts encircling the lake.
That November Orbell returned with his mates and Joan Tefler. “Peering excitedly through the long snow-grass we saw a strange looking bird strutting about on a small patch of swampy ground. The bright crayfish beak and dark head were unmistakable,” noted Tefler. They had hit the jackpot. As Orbell described in an interview with New Zealand Geographic’s Derek Grzelewski in 1999, “No more than 20 metres away from us stood a living Notornis.” They netted a couple of birds, tethered them to stakes on the beach and rolled off some film as proof. They had lunch and returned to tell the world. And the world was interested.
Prominent ornithologists travelled to Te Anau, including E.G. Tubott and R.A.Falla, who in January were led to Takahe Valley for the first of many scientific expeditions. They counted 14 birds and chicks, but estimated the total population as 100. The Murchisons were declared a ‘Special Area’, closed off to all except scientists and deer cullers. The journal of the Ornithological Society of New Zealand changed its name to Notornis and newspapers, magazines and TV stations worldwide covered the story. The blue bird was now famous.
That first scientific visit in January 1949 also witnessed the other side of the story - the evidence why takahe were so rare. A nest with a cracked open egg lay next to the partially rotting body of a young chick. The crime scene conclusively pointed to predation by a stoat.
Today’s takahe management is a two pronged attack on their main enemies - deer, who compete for food, and stoats, who predate chicks.
Deer compete for snow tussock, takahe’s staple food source. However, rather than remove the stems to extract the fleshy bases and encourage new growth on the plant, the deer level the entire plant, inhibiting new growth. After deer munching it can take 20 years for a plant to recover. This limits the larder and brings on famine.
Deer were shot by helicopters in the 1970s, a practise that is now uneconomic, as choppers cost around $20 per minute and deer have become wary. Keeping numbers low is now an exercise in population minimisation rather than complete eradication, a density of 1 animal per square km being the target. The entire Murchison deer population is now estimated at 300. Helicopter and ground hunting with dogs kill around 120 per year.
Near the mouth of the Tunnel Burn is a deer trap. The double gated fenced enclosure attracts deer with a succulent broadleaf plant, placed enticingly in the middle. The moment the deer browses the plant a copper wire triggers both gates to slam shut. This also activates a transmitter to let DoC staff know of the capture.
Fenn traps are the bread and butter of stoat traps in New Zealand, as they have a good kill rate and are reliable. 720 are set in the 55,000 hectares of the Murchisons. The trap density leaves a maximum distance of 1 km between traps, which are fixed down with hex head screws to stop kea tampering. The wooden boxes are open at both ends to form a tunnel and two traps baited with hens eggs are placed in the centre. The traps themselves are sandblasted and dipped in wax to increase their longevity. DoC rangers check them four times per year.
Both male and female takahe look alike. Weighing 2 – 3.5 kg. They breed every year and both parents incubate eggs. Four pairs command territories in Takahe Valley. Takahe are loyal partners and extremely territorial. They will fight to defend their patch, sometimes ruffling the plumage of rivals with their strong beaks.
Takahe have an incredibly strong pull and can pull 10 kg with their beaks. They peel of the grassy outer stems, then holding the tiller with their feet, eat the fleshy inner of the tussock. This is a time consuming process, which means the birds spend a lot of time feeding. They can excrete 10 linear metres of dropping a day and these litter the cushioned floor of Takahe Valley like territorial markers. Summer is spent on the mountain tops. When winter sets in they descend to the beech forests, where they forage for the fleshy rhizomes of the Hypolepis millefolium fern, which grows profusely in places. They are also known to eat lizards, insects and worms to supplement their protein intake.
In November DoC’s takahe team visit breeding territories, locate nests and candle eggs, a process which involves holding a light source to the eggs under a dark hood to determine their fertility. Infertile eggs are removed to ensure takahe expend their full efforts on eggs that are likely to hatch. If a nest has two fertile eggs, one egg is flown by helicopter in a portable incubator to Burwood, where it is cared for till hatching. Chicks less than a week old are also flown out to encourage parents to breed again in the season.
Young chicks are reared at Burwood. They are fed with puppet heads that resemble their natural parents and played bird calls to familiarise themselves with their true identities. Foster parents also teach the young how to find the Hypolepis fern in winter, thus removing any traces of a human imprint the sociable chicks might adopt.
Eight incubators are housed at the Burwood facility. It usually takes 28 days for chicks to grow, where eggs are turned every 30 minutes on rollers to mimic normal growth and prevent the embryo from sticking to the egg wall. Temperature is a constant 37 degrees Celsius but varied at five different relative humidities.
Hatching is a slow process. At first the beak protrudes through the air cell inside the egg, and the chick takes its first breath of oxygen. A day later a small pip mark appears as the beak protrudes through the egg wall. The hard work over, the chick literally unzips the egg to be free. Doc midwifes dry the newborns and clean their navels to reduce infections.
Then it’s off to daycare for brooding. Eight separate 1.5 m by 1.5 m pens, each boasting a spacious veranda, serve as home. A grassy lawn introduces chicks to the herbaceous turf they will have to get used to. At this stage it is important they have no human contact. Takahe, like other birds, are incredibly gregarious and will take an irreversible liking to humans, especially if fed. This is all well and good for pets, but for birds who will later be released into the wild, it is important they grow up with a strong sense of self-identity.
An entertainment system is wired to play contact calls, so the chicks really think parents are close-by. A model wooden Mum is perched on piles above a heat pad, so chicks can nestle under her warming plumage.
One-way glass allows the carers to observe daily activities and holes in the walls are used for takahe look-alike puppets to protrude through and feed the hungry chicks. The red wooden beaks are apparently just like the real thing and excited cheeps accompany the frenzied feeding. Feeding is an arduous 12 hour a day activity for the DoC nannies, and takes place every 20 minutes. Mixed veg and Farex baby rice is top of the list with spinach, parsley, vegetable oil and vitamin supplements concocting a watery mixture with the consistency of mash potato.. As growth stages develop the mixture is made thicker then supplemented with pellets distributed from a food stand. By 8 weeks they can feed themselves.
By this time, they also have their own personality and are fostered to adults in the hope those rough character traits can be ironed out. Andrew and Hebe are currently entrusted with this task.
The entire Burwood facility is surrounded by a 1.2 metres high chicken wire predator proof fence, 150mm below ground and electrified to 6,000V. This encloses an 80 ha area of tussock grassland and beech forest, similar to the environment they will later call home. Winter snowfalls also emulate conditions they will experience on the mountaintops.
Chicks are banded with a unique colour combination in preparation for fleeing the nest. This allows ready identification throughout their lifetime. The most exciting day of a young takahe’s life comes at about a year old when they are helicoptered to the Murchisons. A flightless bird in flight.
By this time many have transmitters attached to them. These are worn as backpacks with a glued piece of wetsuit rubber in contact with plumage to provide extra insulation in the winter months. They weigh 50 grams, the bulk of the weight in the batteries. They are programmed to be active for 12 hours then close down for 12 hours, giving them a 5 year lifespan. The signal can be detected up to 10 km away. These devices have dramatically increase the ease with which rangers can capture birds and monitor their wellbeing. Trained dogs are the only other means of efficiently locating birds. Releases are tried with males and females together in the hope adolescent love will perpetuate their kind.
In 2007 takahe’s total population is about 292, of which around 190 are in the Murchisons. Burwood holds 32 chicks and has reared around half the total population. Other islands housing takahe are Mana and Kapiti near Wellington, Tiritiri Matangi near Auckland, Raratoka and Maud Islands.
As Lee and Jamieson write in The Takahe, “For more than 50 years attempts to conserve the takahe have pioneered techniques for protected natural area management, habitat manipulation, captive rearing, wild releases, and island translocations. …The longevity of the conservation programme, and the large volume of research studies…(about 90 since 1949), have intersected many of the important conservation and ecological controversies in New Zealand. Much of our current understanding of the origin of flightlessness, habitat use by herbivorous birds, territoriality, artificial incubation of eggs, captive rearing and release of birds, and viable population sizes, has derived in large part from studies of the takahe.”
They continue to make the point, as demonstrated by my young family’s interest in their plight, that the takahe “have played an important role in the growing public appreciation of, and concern for, the conservation of indigenous biota.” With the successes of the takahe rangers so far, they may ultimately fulfil their objective of putting themselves out of a job.
South Island ▷ Fiordland ▷ Te Anau
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Thanks to all the good people working for the NZ Department of Conservation - for all your hard work - making NZ more beautiful, accessable and healthy! Cheers 😍