Volunteering with whio in Turangi

Department of Conservation —  11/04/2018

Massey University student, Victoria Buckley, tells us about her opportunity to work at the Whio Crèche in Turangi this summer.

This summer I was given the opportunity to work at the Whio Crèche, also called the Hardening Facility which is based in the Tongariro National Trout Centre in Turangi .

Whio are a torrent duck, meaning they live in fast moving rivers. They are one of only four species of torrent duck world-wide. In New Zealand we have less than 3,000 whio left in the wild making them a nationally vulnerable species.

Victoria (right) is releasing some new arrivals. Photo: Sarah O'Sullivan.

Victoria (right) is releasing some new arrivals. Photo: Sarah O’Sullivan

The Tongariro National Trout Centre hosts the Whio Creche or Hardening Facility. This facility is designed to teach captive bred whio to swim, dive and fly in an environment with realistic rapids and complete safety. This greatly improves the survival of the ducklings when they are released. Juveniles come to the creche at about two months old and are released into the wild at secure, pest-controlled sites after about a month’s stay.

My day to day duties working at the creche were basically just to clean up after the ducks. In the morning I would wash down the aviaries and scrub the poop off the rocks. I would also have to change the trays in the roost boxes and, of course, feed the ducks. During this time I would also watch the ducks to make sure no-one was sick or injured.

Every 10 days we would give the ducks a health check. This involved catching all the ducks, by using a black tube attached to their shelter, which can be quite difficult especially when you have 21 to catch all at once.

During these health checks I got valuable experience handling whio. On the whio their wings are the most powerful part of their body so a firm grip around their wings is all that is needed to keep control over the duck. I also learnt how to identify symptoms of poor health, which thankfully there wasn’t much of in our beautiful ducklings.

Whio arrivals

Most arrivals were days full of waiting and were normally had just a few ducks arrive at a time. Once they got here we did quick health checks and then let them free in the aviaries. On our biggest arrival day we had 26 ducks arrive on the same day.

Although it was a crazy busy day we managed to process all the ducks and get them all safely in their aviaries. It was quite incredible seeing so many of these taonga all in one space and it was even better that they all got along very well right from the start.

We had ducks from all over the country including Ngā Manu Nature Reserve, Pukaha Mount Bruce, Auckland and Hamilton Zoos, as well as the Issac Conservation Trust in Christchurch.

Victoria banding a whio. Photo: Sarah O'Sullivan.

Victoria banding a whio. Photo: Sarah O’Sullivan

Whio releases

Transporting these precious birds is chilly business. The air-con in the car must be on its coldest for the whole journey. This meant that we had to wrap up warm in double pants, thermals and I even took a blanket with me. There is also no radio but you do often get serenaded with the whistles and growls of your avian passengers.

I was lucky enough to attend one release of three Whio. After a karakia we trekked off up into a small stream on Mount Taranaki. Our boys were eager to escape their transport boxes and immediately started feeding off the rocks in the stream. It was magical to see birds I had raised happy and safe out where they are meant to be.

The rest of our ducks – 46 in total – were released on Mount Taranaki, in the southern end of Tongariro National Park, and in the Whanganui National Park.

Whio. Photo: Victoria Buckley.

Whio. Photo: Victoria Buckley

Living at the Trout Centre

During my time volunteering I got to live on-site at the trout centre. There is heaps of gorgeous native bush and good predator control meaning you are also surrounded with native birds. There are of course, Tui, Kereru and Fantail in great abundance but I was also so excited to also see grey warbler, white head and a north island robin. The Tongariro river also runs alongside the Trout Centre so I also got to see wild whio regularly as well.

I’ve also had an opportunity to make some awesome new friends from all over the world. Living together has been a challenge but also amazing.

Victoria on a staff kayak trip. Photo: Sarah O'Sullivan.

Victoria on a staff kayak trip. Photo: Sarah O’Sullivan

Other opportunities

I was able to help out with school groups that were getting tours of the trout centre. It meant that I got to talk to the kids about the fish and other wild life. I also got to help the kids collect invertebrates out of the river. The collected bugs made tasty snacks for the whio, which was really exciting for the kids to see. I also helped with the holiday programme, collecting the invertebrates out of the stream.

We were taken on an epic road trip to visit Pukaha Mount Bruce, this was to see where some of our whio were born and to see how they were cared for before arriving at the creche. We got an amazing tour of the grounds at Mount Bruce. They have some awesome projects there as well as great biodiversity!

We became a whio rescue team after some bad weather. A mother whio and her 6 duckling were trapped in a fishing pond on site. After a failed attempt to build a ramp and let them rescue themselves we had to relocate them ourselves. I was very new so I supervised but the team got in the pond and caught mama and her ducklings. We then released them on to the river. The family stayed close by so I was able to watch these babies grow up.

After another storm they got stuck again, thankfully they were able to get themselves up the ramp this time. Mum and Dad (who only had one eye) managed to get 6 ducklings to fledge which is an incredible effort and I was very lucky to be able to observe them so regularly (they lived on the river by my house).

Mum and baby whio. Photo: Victoria Buckley.

Mum and baby whio. Photo: Victoria Buckley

I spent most of my days off, and down time, following around Miriam. She is a volunteer for the trout side of the Tongariro National Trout Centre.

We would zip around on the golf cart, which is way too much fun. I liked helping feed fish and check the trap the most. Checking the trap meant I had to put on waders and catch trout that had been caught in a trap to collect data from them before releasing them up stream. One day we got to move fry, baby fish, into a bigger tank. That meant catching about 5000 fish in little nets and putting them in the new tank. I feel like I should get a fishing award for that.

Another opportunity I was given was spending a few days out on the fisheries boat on Lake Taupō. It was as much work as it was relaxing. We had to check fishing boats to ensure all people fishing had a licence and survey them about their fishing experience. It was interesting getting to chat to all the people out on the lake.

One of the questions we had to ask was, “Is there anything that is taking away from your fishing experience?”. On every boat the person who was catching the most fish was blamed for ruining the day, which I thought was pretty funny. On one of these boat trips I also got to see a large colony of Black Billed Gulls, a native gull that also has the title of the worlds most endangered gull.

I was able to do some work at the Wairakei golf course. The course is surrounded by a predator proof fence and kiwi are released in there to grow until they are big enough to fight off a stoat. As with any wild animal, they don’t always listen to the plan. A few of the birds had dropped their transmitter and were “lost” within the sanctuary. The lost male had started calling at night so I went along to set up some sound recorders to hopefully pinpoint which area he was calling from.

Whio at Tongariro Trout Centre.

Whio at Tongariro Trout Centre

A month later I went back to try and find that same male. I got to set up camp behind the golf course with Renee, the kiwi ranger and Jo, who had a kiwi sniffing dog (called Rua). Jo and Rua went out to try find some sign of the kiwi while Renee and I cooked a nice camp dinner of Hell Pizza. Once it was too dark for the dog to work we tried playing some kiwi calls to see if we could hear the male ourselves. It worked, and we heard both the lost male and a female calling. It was surreal to be standing on the 14th hole of a golf course listening to these precious natives.

The next morning, we were up early so Jo and Rua, and another dog team, Martin (human) and Toby (dog) could start the search. I got to learn how to use the receiver for the transmitters and locate some kiwi, just to make sure we weren’t finding birds that didn’t need to be caught. It wasn’t long before Toby found one, it was an old female who was kept in the sanctuary to keep the lost male calling. This was my first close up experience with a kiwi. Unfortunately, the lost male is still lost, but he is safe inside the predator-proof fence. In the afternoon I got to help with releasing some new chicks into the sanctuary. I leant how to properly hold a kiwi chick as well as learning how to make a good burrow for the babies to be released into. This was certainly an amazing experience that I am very grateful for.

As part of my whio volunteering I was able to go rafting and whio spotting on the Tongariro. We saw 6 whio, most seemed to have just fledged due to the lack of adult characteristics. I spent most of the time laughing my head off or yelling in fear on this trip. Part way down we got to jump off a cliff, which was very refreshing. We also swam down one section, my life jacket meant I got stuck on my back and my helmet fell down so I couldn’t see either. I also enjoyed the rapid where we were instructed to stand up.

Volunteers at work - Emma (right).

Volunteers at work – Emma (right)

I have had the most incredible summer working at the Tongariro National Trout Centre Whio Creche. It has provided me with many new, valuable experiences. These will help me in my future career in conservation as well as in general life. I am so grateful for the opportunity and I wish I didn’t have to leave.

Whio Awareness Month

April 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!

3 responses to Volunteering with whio in Turangi


    sounds a brilliant summer – love the pic of mum and passenger duckling!


    Lovely to read of your experience and to learn about the Centre. Keep up the good work.

    Kim Brandon 11/04/2018 at 7:44 pm

    Fantastic experiences you have had. Very good job by all involved looking after wild life.