By Ranger Kate Hebblethwaite, Te Anau
Cake and gambling aren’t the usual bedfellows of river birds. For Whio Awareness Month, however, Fiordland DOC staff were prepared to set aside diets and principals.
Hot on the success of the inaugural Great Fiordland Whio Race last year, the 2016 event, held on Te Anau’s Upukerora River on 19 March, was yet another action packed affair. Doubling the field from 2015, 200 blue rubber ducks competed under the watchful eye of conservation dog Oska, specially trained to sniff out whio in the wilds of Fiordland.
Betting opened at 11am and all ducks were quickly sold in a frenzy that rivalled anything seen in Las Vegas.
Conservation Services Ranger, Andrew ‘Max’ Smart, who manages the Fiordland whio programme, released the thoroughbred racers into the river. With a race course of 300m, involving rapids, eddies, weeds and rock, this was no time to be a lame duck. Oska was on hand to round up any wily quackers that tried to escape.
After two preliminary heats and a Grand Final, the eventual race victor was 5 year-old Ianthe Macmillan-Armstrong, who was thrilled to receive the coveted Champions trophy.
As well as the duck race, the whio family fun day also included face-painting, a scavenger hunt, and a chance to meet Oska himself.
Competition prizes were generously donated by Real Journeys, Air New Zealand and Genesis Energy, and the Fiordland Wapiti Foundation, who maintain stoat trapping lines in the Glaisnock Wilderness area, cooked up a sausage storm on the BBQ.
Earlier in the week, blue food colouring was the hero ingredient in a whio-themed cupcake sale. Cakes were generously provided by the Wapiti Bakery in Te Anau, and businesses throughout the town placed orders for their quacking good morning tea.
The amount raised through the two events – over $600; the advocacy value – priceless.
With an estimated nationwide population of less than 2,500 birds, whio are rarer than kiwi. Fiordland is home to a sizeable population of whio, and numbers are increasing in areas where pest eradication measures are in place.
The support of Genesis Energy is enabling DOC to double the number of fully secure whio breeding sites throughout the country, boost pest control efforts and enhance productivity and survival for these rare native ducks.
This year has been a bumper breeding season for Fiordland whio, allowing a number of juveniles to be translocated into Mount Aspiring National Park to increase pair numbers there. In Fiordland, a number of local whio translocations have also taken place to ensure wild population numbers continue to grow.