We caught up with Tim, a ranger on the front lines of the Save Our Iconic Kiwi initiative. This is the eleventh 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.
As the first season of the Shy Lake project draws to a close, we’re back to check on the second clutch nests of Pegleg and Sinbad Colby. We’re dropped near their territories and set up a tent camp in a magical spot – much friendlier at this time of year than when I was here in June and the sun never made it over the horizon.
We check Pegleg’s nest in the day time, and are stoked to see that it’s second time lucky for Pegleg, despite the frequent kea visits to his nest: a fluffy chick nestles under him at the back of the nest. I try to reach in and get it, but it’s a stretch to the nest bowl and the chick immediately moves to the back of the burrow, while Pegleg lunges and hisses at me. The trailcam shows the chick has not yet fully left the nest but is visible in the entrance, so we decide to come back that night and hopefully grab it on one of its explorations. Worryingly, there are also several stoat visits in the last couple of days.
Full of optimism, we return at sunset. The chick is nestled out of reach but we’re exasperated to see that ten minutes earlier, it was standing in the nest entrance. We layer up to wait, perched on the steep muddy bank and thankful for the warm night (by southern standards).
Two hours later, we’re getting pretty uncomfortable and bored. We have no guarantee that the chick will come within range tonight – maybe our earlier visit has disturbed its rhythm. It’s too dark to see into the nest but I decide that reaching in in the dark, I may be able to surprise the chick that would otherwise move away from the torchlight. Pegleg takes me by surprise however – whereas before he was defending the chick, this time he immediately bails from the nest. I grab him as he squeezes by my shoulder and pass him to ranger Em, and am meanwhile able to stretch in and get my fingers round the chick’s leg. Gently lifting it out, we put Pegleg back in the nest and pop a pack over the entrance to keep him there – we don’t want the chick left undefended in the nest if possible.
It’s a good-sized chick and a transmitter is quickly fitted. We return it to the nest and I’m gratified to see Pegleg immediately tuck it under his breast and start brooding. We’re lucky that the birds here seem to be pretty resilient when it comes to us messing around at the nest. Some of the North Island brown kiwi populations are much more flighty and liable to abandon the nest if disturbed too much.
Two days later we check up on it before our departure. The trailcam shows that a couple of hours after we left, the chick made its first foray out of the nest – surely a good sign that we didn’t stress it out too badly. But we don’t see it on the camera again and the transmitter signal isn’t coming from the nest – it’s coming from down the hill. We follow it to a large hollow log, where we spend ninety minutes investigating a labyrinth of holes, roots and rocks.
Eventually we admit defeat and leave. Like with T-rex’s chick in November, the chick is unrecoverable, but we can be pretty sure what happened. With stoats on the camera both before and after our visit to the nest, this poor little chick looks to have been eaten on its very first trip out of the nest. Didn’t stand a chance.
In the interim, Em has been to check Sinbad Colby’s nest. The results are unexpected. The video footage shows that the chick hatched, but emerged from the nest several days earlier than we predicted. Just after eleven, out it came and poked around for a few minutes, before returning to the nest burrow.
Just one minute later, a familiar form appears. The stoat sniffs around, its eyes glowing in the infra-red camera light. Eight minutes later it enters the nest, before flashing out again after a few seconds, presumably in response to an irate Sinbad Colby. But forty minutes later, out comes the chick again without a care in the world. It’s tense viewing. For a few nights the chick gets away with it – but by the time Em visits, it hasn’t been seen for two nights. At about 10 days old when last seen, it’s probably a bit young to have left the nest completely, and it’s likely that its luck ran out. If so, that’s nine out of nine chicks dead in the first three weeks. I believe all of them to be from stoat predation, although I only have incontrovertible evidence for about half.
To double check that the chick isn’t still there, Em pokes a torch into the nest and videos with his phone at arm’s length around the bend in the burrow. As expected there’s no chick visible, but Sinbad Colby is still there and the real surprise is he is on an egg. We thought these birds only had one egg per clutch – that has been the case for every nest so far, and also for the northern Fiordland tokoeka that have been studied in the Murchison Mountains and Clinton valley. We’re not sure whether one female has laid two eggs, or perhaps Sinbad Colby has got himself a harem or family group, although we’ve seen no evidence of this on the camera. We might not find out for sure, but we’ll be back soon to check on the progress of the last egg of the season.
This is the eleventh in a series of posts about Tim’s work, follow the Conservation Blog to keep up to date on his progress.