Fiordland Kiwi Diaries: Stoats and possums in nests

Department of Conservation —  13/12/2017

We caught up with Tim, a ranger on the front lines of the Save Our Iconic Kiwi initiative. This is the seventh in a series following the work he’s doing to save the Fiordland tokoeka (kiwi). Tim and his team have been studying the population of kiwi at Shy Lake to find out how to best protect them from predators like stoats. They have captured a number of kiwi and put transmitters on them, and are now monitoring them through the breeding season to find out how well the adults and chicks survive without pest control. 

You can find the first post here, and the entire series here.

On a rare long weekend of pure sunshine, we head back in to Shy Lake to check on the Fiordland tokoeka chicks.

Tokoeka chick Muffin is still safe and sound in the nest with dad Cake, although the trailcam footage reveals multiple stoat visits to the nest.  And more good news, contractor Jane finds a new chick in T-rex’s nest.  It’s just reachable during the day by the long arms of ranger Hamish, and a transmitter is duly fitted.

Less good across the basin, where I visit Hook and Smee’s nest.  The egg here should have hatched at the start of our previous trip but didn’t, and I don’t have high hopes.  I’m not surprised to find that Hook and Smee have abandoned the nest, but I am surprised to find a well developed chick/embryo lying dead among pieces of shell membrane.  The trailcam at that nest gives us an unusually good view of the adult sitting on the nest, and as far we can work out, the chick never hatched; but at least a week after it was due, the shell was broken open either deliberately or accidentally by one of the parents.  It’s a shame to see how close it got to becoming a healthy wee chick, but it’s not uncommon.  Kiwi across the country have low hatchability rates, partly because they incubate for so long (about 75 days).  That’s a long time for things not to go wrong.

Next up I visit Commando and Blackbeard’s nest, and am stoked to see on the trailcam’s tiny screen, a chick emerging from the nest a few nights previously.  But back at the hut, things take a grimmer turn: closer inspection of the footage reveals that just two nights after first emergence, the chick heads out and never returns.  It doesn’t show at all the following night, and when we revisit the nest the following day it still hasn’t appeared.  It’s too young to have fledged the nest so we can be confident it’s dead.  It’s possible that it fell into a hole or the creek, but stoat visits at the nest suggest the most likely cause.  Jane and kiwi dog Sea have a poke around the nest area to try and locate a carcass, but no luck.

Meanwhile Hamish has built a deck between our two small bivvies.  It’s a joy not to have to pull on gumboots every time for the few steps through the mud between our two small bivvies.  A robust tarp is soon to follow, so that if the wind stays down, we won’t have to take our wet jackets, packs and boots inside with us.  Life is feeling pretty good as we relax on the deck in the evening sunshine after a long day.


The new deck at Celmisia Lodge. Photo: Tim/DOC

But there’s no rest for the wicked: we have some night work ahead of us.  Our bivvy site’s local female tokoeka, Myrtle, has started nesting according to the activity patterns communicated by her radio transmitter.  The catch is that we don’t have a transmitter on her mate – he would never come quite close enough during catching season for us to get our hands on him.  Since the male is the one that incubates during the day, it’s the male that we’ve been tracking to find every nest so far.  The female will take a turn on the egg at some point during the night, but just when Myrtle will visit the nest is anyone’s guess.  Jane heads out around sunset and waits a discrete distance from Myrtle, waiting for her to stop moving around, which might indicate she is sitting tight on an egg and can be pinpointed to install a trailcam.  But five hours later on a frosty night, Myrtle shows no sign of stopping and a chilly Jane has to seek the sanctuary of her sleeping bag.

The following night it’s my turn.  I reach Myrtle before she gets up for the night, but a quick squizz in her burrow shows that she’s in there alone and it isn’t the nest.  So I back off, get comfy and wait.  An hour later, just on dark, I hear a male call; I estimate direction and distance and mark a point on my GPS.  At this stage I don’t know if it’s Myrtle’s mate, but another hour later Myrtle hops out of bed and heads off that way.  I follow at a distance through the patchy leatherwood, beech and tussock.  I hear her call and make another stab at the location.  I have the two points about 25 m apart, which is promising – the error in my estimates means they could easily have called from the same place and the nest could be around here.

Myrtle, however, wanders off downhill and once again refuses to play ball.  At 1 a.m. I slink off to bed, but in the morning Jane returns with Sea to the area of the calls.  And Sea proves her worth: not only does she find Myrtle in a day roost, but soon afterwards the male on an egg!  Jane installs a trailcam and returns victorious to the bivvy in time for the incoming chopper.

This is the seventh in a series of posts about Tim’s work, follow the Conservation Blog to keep up to date on his progress.

One response to Fiordland Kiwi Diaries: Stoats and possums in nests

    Kim Brandon 16/12/2017 at 5:20 pm

    Love this diary format. Kiwis are busy parents.