The Murchison Mountains Survey: Finding takahē in the field

Department of Conservation —  27/12/2017

Over the past 6 weeks the Te Anau based Takahē Recovery Rangers have been in the field walking alpine tussock areas in search of the wild takahē population of the Murchison Mountains. We caught up with Julie Harvey to tell us about her experience in the field for the second of a three-part series to show the work and results behind the survey.

Heading to the Murchison Mountains via helicopter. Photo: DOC

I’m Julie, DOC’s Takahē Advocacy Ranger. I spend 20hrs a week planning and delivery ways to help tell the takahē story to New Zealanders to help raise awareness of this very special bird. I don’t spend as much time out in the field as the rest of the team – so today was a real treat for me and nothing beats the opportunity of seeing takahē in the wild!

To access the Murchison Mountains, where the sole wild population of takahē live, is a 10-minute helicopter flight across Lake Te Anau. It’s a blue-sky day and to be honest, even the scenic flight there is a treat – Fiordland is amazing from the air.

The valleys of the Murchison Mountains, like the majority of Fiordland, were carved out by glaciers, they are deep wide U-shaped valleys towered over by bare rugged ridge lines (some of which are still holding on to some snow).

Mystery Burn. Photo: DOC

As we leave the lake and head into the inner reaches of the mountain range, we fly up the valley known as the Mystery Burn. As we follow the valley up we leave the beach forest behind and enter the alpine grasslands – into takahē country!

Alison Balance holding the fox pro. Photo: DOC

We head up over the ridge into the neighbouring valley, named Lake Creek and drop two of our rangers, Phil and Nichy, beside a tarn nestled at the top of the valley. The resident birds of this territory could be located anywhere so it could be a quick find of the nest, close to their drop off point or it could be a half day mission if the pair are nested lower in the valley. Takahē are very territorial and depending on the habitat quality, the pair may defend up to 40ha.

Glen, Jas, Alison Balance (who was shadowing the rangers for the week to learn more about the Takahē Recovery Programme) and myself, fly back over the ridge and are set down in a small hanging valley, which feeds into the Mystery Burn.

The takahē team home in on wild takahē. Photo: DOC

After the noise of the helicopter recedes, we play the ‘fox pro’ – a hand held speaker (which is like a small mega phone) which plays recordings of takahē to encourage warning calls from resident birds to say, “hey this territory is taken – back off”, which tells us there are birds in the area and gives away their general location in the valley.

We play both a recording of a duet and a single bird call for several minutes. A pair of kea also think that the takahē call recording is worth calling back too.  But in between the racket of the kea we hear one distance call of a wild takahē.

The valley is a mosaic of shrubs (largely hebe and dracophyllum), tussock and snow grasses interspersed with boulder fields. Takahē generally nest in the most fertile and lush areas of the valley. Between the direction of the call and looking at the available habitat we close in on where we think they are located. On the tussock covered slope the three of us take different levels and walk parallel with the valley floor. Alison is our eyes to catch any sign of movement if we disturb a bird.  Thankfully there is no breeze so it’s easy to identify a takahē rustling through the vegetation.

To help confirm we are in the right area, there is a lot of fresh feeding sign, tussock tillers pulled from many of the bushes which are not completely dried up and fresh takahē droppings. Because of their fibrous diet takahē can produce up 7-9m of droppings in a day! A well-formed pile of droppings, known as a latrine, is an indication that a nest is nearby and takahē usually don’t stray far from the nest.

Takahē tracks in the snow. Photo: DOC

As Jason and I move further into the area we think they are, Glen takes a seat on a high vantage point above the habitat. Then we hear it – the deep eerie ‘whoompf’ of a takahē – warning us away. Jason manages to flush the bird from its roost under a large tussock and glimpses its leg bands (a unique combination of two bands per leg) – its Orange Metal, Orange Black – Glen checks the register and its Little Ta.  I’m thrilled as he was one of the birds we released on my first ever trip into the Murchison Mountains in November 2015. He dropped his transmitter soon after his release so it’s fantastic to see that he is alive and paired up.

Candling the egg. Photo: DOC

Male and female takahē share the incubation of the eggs and stay close to the nest while it’s not their turn. About 10m down the hill we find a latrine, it has a strong odour, so we know its fresh and there, hidden deep, up a large overhanging tussock we spy Little Ta’s mate on a nest. She is an un-banded wild bird and slipped away in the other direction. Glen candles the egg to see if it is fertile, but it is too fresh to tell – it’s only just been laid– so we return the egg and leave the area quietly, so the female will return to her nest.

Takahē egg in nest. Photo: DOC

The Takahē Recovery team will continue with this work, moving through all the known takahē breeding territories in the Murchison Mountains confirming the presence and hopefully identity and marital status of the birds in the wild population.


This is the second of a three-part series, follow the conservation blog for part three The Murchison Mountains survey: results

3 responses to The Murchison Mountains Survey: Finding takahē in the field

  1. 
    Kim Brandon 27/12/2017 at 4:45 pm

    Great factual story telling. Great work.

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  1. The Murchison Mountains survey: The results are in « Conservation blog - February 10, 2018

    […] Recovery Team found. This is the third blog in the takahē survey series. Check out the first and second blogs for more […]