By Karlene Taylor, Department of Conservation
Not many people can say they have had a hands-on experience with takahē but last month, I was lucky enough to travel to Fiordland to learn more about the Takahē Recovery Programme and get a behind the scenes taste of what happens at the Burwood Takahē Centre – the hub of the takahē breeding programme in Te Anau.
Day one – Feed out!
Up bright and early, my colleague Benhi Dixon and I meet Takahē Advocacy Ranger, Julie Harvey at DOC’s Te Anau office for a quick ‘meet and greet’ before driving 30 minutes to the Burwood Takahē Centre. On arrival we meet Burwood Supervisor, Nichy Brown, who showed us around the facility and explained the day’s events.
Today is feed out day – where takahē receive supplementary feeding. Nichy and Julie fill their hoppers (plastic containers where the takahē can access their food easily) with specially formulated pellets and clean and fill their water ponds. Even though the takahē have a natural food source the supplementary feeding helps maximise the birds productivity. Being breeding season, feed outs also provide an opportunity to see who could potentially be sitting on a nest. The takahē at Burwood live in large pens, approximately 1.5 – 2 hectares each in which a pair or family of takahē will inhabit.
After donning our gumboots, touring the old brooder room and equipping ourselves we were off! At the sites we cleaned our boots in a special solution before climbing over the high, electrified fences into our first pen.
Because there may be chicks around we tread carefully, chicks are small and usually hide under the tussock where you can’t see them. We follow Nichy as she carefully navigates us through the pen. Walking through the tussock is hard work, they are much larger when you are among them! We push our way through the tussock to our first set of hoppers which are indicated by a tall orange marker. After Julie wipes the hoppers clean and fills them we quietly stand back, then I hear it, a low, deep ‘Ooomphing’ sound. The takahē warning call – I was amazed. I never knew takahē made this sound! Slowly and tentatively the takahē emerge from the tussock to take their fill from the hoppers, we watch silently before creeping on to the next pen.
At the next pen we hear the ‘Ooomph Ooomph’ of the takahē long before we reach the hoppers, this time a family emerge and we can hear the soft high pitch sound of a chick! The chick is buried beneath the tussock so we can’t see it. After the adult takahē satisfy themselves they proceeded to carry pellets in their beak to feed to the young chick and we catch a glimpse of black fuzz darting through the grass.
Once all hoppers and ponds were replenished we head back to the main building where Nichy put us to work cleaning all the gear before discussing tomorrows activities – Chick checks!
Day two – Chick checks and egg candling
It’s another hot day in beautiful Fiordland and we arrive back at Burwood to meet Takahē Ranger, Chris Phillips and his takahē dog Pai.
Today Chris and Pai will be conducting chick checks. Pai has been specially trained to sniff out takahē nests so Chris can see if the birds are sitting on eggs or have chicks. We head back to the pens we visited yesterday, Benhi, Julie and I stay quietly by the fence line so Pai can get to work without distraction.
We get through three pens when Pai indicates she has found a nest, it contains an egg! At the next pen we hit the jackpot – Pai sniffs out a family of takahē who have a little black fluffy chick. Chris checks the chick over before returning it to mum who wasn’t very pleased about the whole situation.
After lunch Chris, Benhi, Nichy and I return to one of the pens to candle two eggs to see if they are fertile. Nichy and Benhi clamber under a thick cover ready to candle the eggs while Chris collects them off the nest. He carefully passes the eggs one by one to Nichy who uses a torch to see inside the egg – both eggs are fertile, fantastic news for the team!
Day three – Capturing takahē
It’s 5.30 am and we are at one of the holding pens, where we are about to capture two takahē to be transferred. The takahē don’t know it yet but they are about to get a wake up call!
There are four of us present and, after navigating the ladder into the pen, we form a line and slowly start walking forward while clapping and making as much noise as possible to wake the pair up. We spot the takahē in the far corner… perfect! We move our line forward and get ready to block any escapees! Nichy and Julie catch the takahē with expert precision and carry them over to the boxes they will be transported in.
Before they are put in their boxes Nichy gives them a quick looking over to ensure everything is in order. I get a very close look at the takahē and I’m surprised at how big they are close up. I see their transmitters among their iridescent plumage, their strong legs and feet and get a hint of their sweet, musky smell. Once secure in their boxes Julie transports the precious birds to Queenstown airport.
It was a real privilege to take part in some of the work that happens at Burwood. The Takahē Recovery Team do a marvelous job to help these taonga species and I can’t wait to visit again.
For more on our unique Fiordland takahē: meet Tumbles & Kawa, last year’s ‘Goodsorts’ at Te Anau’s bird park.