By Liz Carlson, Young Adventuress
Whio are one of those incredibly rare birds in New Zealand, that when you finally lay eyes on one, you know you’ve had a special moment.
My first whio experience was an unexpected surprise. I had just taken a friend tramping up to Lake Marian in Fiordland, and we were making our way back to the car. As we walked by Marian Falls, a series of cascades and waterfalls near the carpark, I happened to look to my left, and sure enough, there was a whio bobbing about in the rapids. What a surprise!
Here are some of my favorite whio facts and things I have learned that you can enjoy too.
1. Whio live in fast rivers
Whio/blue duck are one of the most unique ducks out there because they have adapted to live in fast-flowing rivers. Native to New Zealand, they are a very special bird, and they even appear on the ten dollar note. Whio live in river rapids, they have big webbed feet for swimming in the fast-flowing water. They need the cleanest rivers to live in, so you’ll only spot them in healthy rivers.
2. They are very endangered
Whio are one of New Zealand’s most endangered birds, there are less than 3000 left. They are twenty times rarer than kiwi, and the biggest threat to whio are stoats. It’s very difficult to protect whio because they have large territories on rivers only, and they can’t be placed on predator-free islands. They are incredibly vulnerable on the nest, between August to October or later. It takes a week to lay a nest and then they sit on it for 40 days which is when they are most at risk because they are literally sitting ducks. Unfortunately ninety percent of nests fail without any management and up to forty percent of females have been known to be predated on during breeding and molting so they really need our help.
3. Whio dogs
DOC specially trains dogs for tracking and finding whio. They are very smart and good at their jobs and can sniff them out from kilometers away, making it much easier for rangers to find and monitor whio in the wild.
4. Whio have interesting calls
Male whio have a high pitched whistle and the females have a low growl, which is a bit of a reversal of what you might expect.
5. Whio aren’t shy
One of the most curious things I learned about spending time around whio was that they aren’t actually too afraid of people, and they aren’t always hard to find. Once you spot them, they don’t usually fly away, so you can peacefully observe them in the water. Whio all have their own personalities, and they are not too afraid of people or dogs, and can be quite interested and curious. While whio may seem tame and unafraid, in order to keep them safe, it’s best to give them space and watch them from a distance in their natural habitat.
6. Whio have funny beaks
Whio have a special soft lip on the end of their bill which acts like a head on a vacuum cleaner, allowing them to scrape off insect larvae that clings to rocks. Their bill is adapted to allow them to feed on rocks almost like a fish, without wearing it down.
7. They are tenacious
Whio cannot be kept with other species of ducks because they fight too much, and they even fight amongst themselves. They are super territorial and will defend their spots from other ducks and males. Sometimes they even chase each other up and down the rivers pulling on their tail feathers.
8. They pair up
Some whio mate for life, while others switch up partners every few years. And one time there was a male whio on the Milford Track nicknamed Hugh because he had a newer, younger mate every year, which is unusual.
9. Whio ducklings are actually the cutest
Even when they are tiny, whio chicks still bop around in the rapids like little fluffballs, and they can fly after about 70 days. Whio make great parents, and you can see them teaching them how to negotiate the rapids.
10. They need your help
Even though they are doing better than ever, whio still need are help and are still very vulnerable. This year in the Iris Burn on the Kepler Track – every pair had ducklings bringing it up to 30 ducklings, most of which reached independence, which is way up from seven years ago when there was only one pair. Another great success story is back on around Mt. Taranaki in the 1970’s whio were locally extinct, and now they have reached the target of 100 birds.
You can get involved by reporting whio sightings to your local DOC office, and you can help out with checking traps and keeping rivers clean.
Whio Awareness Month
March is Whio Awareness Month – a time to celebrate and promote our endangered blue duck. Since 2011, DOC and Genesis Energy have worked in partnership to support the Whio Forever project. This project works to raise awareness of whio, and undertakes intensive work to protect and grow numbers of whio at key sites around New Zealand. Find out more about whio and how you can get involved!