Takahē mission in the Murchison Mountains

Department of Conservation —  17/04/2014

By Helen Dodson, Takahē Engagement Ranger

What do an All Black and a DOC takahē ranger have in common? Tricky footwork and some good catching skills!

Nifty cornering and tackling are a pre-requisite for catching a takahē in a small pen, but substitute that pen with a 50,000 hectare mountain range and you really have your work cut out for you!

DOC rangers banding a takahē in the Murchison Mountains.

Banding takahē in the Murchison Mountains

In early autumn the ‘Tark Team’ (DOC takahē programme rangers based in Fiordland) headed off into the Murchison Mountains to catch takahē. We wanted to get an idea of how many chicks had successfully hatched over the summer, fit them with identifying leg bands and transmitters and change some transmitters on adult birds. It was also a good chance to get a rough census of the wild takahē population too.

The Murchison Mountains.

A fine day in the Murchison Mountains

Luckily for us, about half the birds in the Murchison Mountains are fitted with transmitters which helps narrow the search considerably. We also had our team supplemented with some specially trained DOC species dogs, including takahē tracker extraordinaire “Yuki”. But it still didn’t all go our way.

Looking for takahē.

Looking for takahē

We used the radio signals emitted by the transmitters to locate the takahē in the large alpine basins. Alternatively the dogs would signal the presence of birds without transmitters.

Then, hunkered down behind tussocks, we played recordings of takahē calling to coax birds toward us, or at least get them to call back and reveal their exact location.

Takahē are territorial and will often reply to the call and even move to intercept an interloper. Our strategy seemed sound, and it worked… mostly…sort of.. except for those birds in Takahē Valley who consistently evaded us.

If you’ve ever seen a takahē, they look large and slow and act quite casual and relaxed. But be aware that it’s all a front. They are fast on their feet and amazingly skilled at ducking and dodging. Our best hope of catching them was when they froze under a tussock thinking we couldn’t see them. The trouble is quite often we couldn’t… and once we could they were gone!

Here’s where I admit I’m not an experienced takahē catcher. Scrambling through and over thick scrub is not a problem and launching into a dive tackle is okay, but the speed that the birds can change directions and appear somewhere completely different to where they were the moment before, is mind boggling.

Thankfully we do have some experienced folk so, if the All Blacks coach is looking for a new wing, I can recommend ranger Glen. Second five eight call ranger Martin and for an open-side flanker you just couldn’t bypass ranger Phil!

A juvenile takahē.

Caught! A young takahē

The good news is we’re fairly confident that this season we’ve got 8-10 new takahē chicks in our wild population in the Murchison Mountains. The other news is sometime soon we’ll be spending a few more days trying to catch those birds that outsmarted and evaded us in Takahē Valley.