We caught up with Tim, a ranger on the front lines of the Save Our Iconic Kiwi initiative. This is the fifth in a series following the work he’s doing to save the Fiordland tokoeka (kiwi). You can find the first post here, and the entire series here.
It’s been a busy winter at Shy Lake as we follow the southern Fiordland tokoeka through our first monitored breeding season.
Unfortunately the first nest, that of Filibuster and Fotuna, didn’t last too long. We were able to confirm the presence of an egg, but a few weeks after that stoat visit we visit the nest again and find nobody home. The enormous egg is stone cold and when we “candle” it by shining a torch through, there’s no sign of development. Possibly this is a young pair still learning the art of incubation – it’s quite common for animals to need an attempt or two to really get the hang of being a parent.
Meanwhile the nests have come thick and fast at Shy Lake. We try to time our visits every fortnight to collect the activity data from the transmitters, but wintry weather and the odd big snow dump makes planning a bit ad hoc. At the start of each trip a couple of rangers are dropped near the furthest kiwi pair, while the bulk of the gear is dropped at the bivvy site. We then work our way back to the bivvy, visiting nests and taking signals as we go. Every nest gets a trailcam and those already installed get a fresh memory card and batteries. Sometimes an endoscope is used to confirm the presence of an egg. The rest of the trip is filled with finding new nests, further work on the bivvy site and the odd day track cutting. The main track across the valley was beautifully cut by contractors Ben and Stef before the bivvy went in – a trip so frigid that when they went to pack up their tent, the plastic windows shattered! But It’s been incredibly valuable to us, ensuring that any kiwi pair is within a day’s walk of the bivvy, repaying the investment many times over in time saved bush-bashing.
All of the nest camera footage has revealed some sobering results. I guess we already knew that stoats and other potential chick predators would be present, and that they were likely to pose a strong threat. But it’s still shocking to see that from our ten nests, seven have had stoat visits. One nest has had as many as nine separate visits. If the stoat ventures into the nest, it is always repulsed by a hiss and a charge from the vigilant father, but it doesn’t bode well for the defenseless chicks once they leave the nest. Most of the nests have also had multiple possum visits, and these are also quite capable of taking a small kiwi chick. It’s hard to fight the urge to put a trap next to every nest, but we’re playing for bigger stakes here: we want to save not a few kiwi chicks, but thousands across Fiordland. So we watch and wait.
As late September rolls around, Filibuster and Fortuna re-nest and most excitingly, our first chicks are due to hatch. We don’t have a way to assess the actual hatch date, but based on other kiwi types we expect chicks to start making short forays out of the nest from about five days old. The transmitter activity has given us a predicted date for this to happen for each nest, but we still don’t know whether our predictions are accurate. Eagerly I check the trailcam footage from the nest of Sinbad Colby, a male a couple of hours’ walk away from base. I’m delighted to see, a few days earlier, a tiny pale bill emerge from the nest entrance. The bill is followed by a ball of fluff – the project has its first kiwi chick!
That night is stormy so we impatiently sit it out, entering data and checking nest videos. The footage from Sinbad Colby’s nest is ominous: a lithe, sinuous form appears in the corner of the screen and flows around the vegetation and into the entrance of the nest. It gets told where to go by Sinbad Colby, but it doesn’t seem too alarmed; it nonchalantly turns and wanders off. Another visit follows at night with a similar result; but just fifteen minutes later, out comes the chick without a care in the world and exits stage right. Fortunately the stoat seems to have left the vicinity, as later we see the chick return. This tense game of cat and mouse will have to go the chick’s way for another six months before it grows big enough to ward off a stoat. Not good odds.
The following evening the weather clears and ranger Sara and I head out, trying to time our arrival at the nest just before dark. The videos have shown us that the chick generally emerges shortly after dark, so we hope it’ll hold form to save us a long cold wait in the dripping bush. I sit by the nest entrance in the gloaming, watching and waiting.
Suddenly a pale shape comes down the tunnel, just visible without my head torch. I was expecting more caution as usually displayed by the parents. But this little fluffball comes trundling out, oblivious to the dark shape lying in wait and it’s the easiest thing in the world to gather it up.
Elated, we move away from the nest entrance and spread out our gear. The chick is a miniature version of an adult, fully feathered and already probing for some food of its own. Adorable doesn’t cut it: a globe of grey-brown fluff with soft pink feet and bill and lustrous dark eyes. We weigh it at 225 g, a tenth of the size of its dad. The bill clocks in at 45 mm, and all that’s left at this stage is to fit a radio transmitter. The chick is much too small to carry the fancy transmitters worn by the adults, and so gets a tiny 5 g version. The harness is pretty much the same though, a hospital baby wrist band with electrical tape wrapped around.
We name our chick “Waimarie”, meaning “lucky” or “fortunate”; a name given by Ōraka Aparima, the Fiordland rūnaka. As we pop little Waimarie back in the burrow, we hope it proves apt.
This is the fifth in a series of posts about Tim’s work, follow the Conservation Blog to keep up to date on his progress.