Fiordland Kiwi Diaries: Guest post by Emma Feenstra

Department of Conservation —  05/06/2019

We’re on the front lines of the Save Our Iconic Kiwi initiative. This is the nineteenth in a series following the work being done to save the Fiordland tokoeka (kiwi). Our ranger 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. 

Today’s guest post comes from Emma Feenstra. Emma is a PhD candidate studying Rakiura tokoeka. She took some time out from her researches to head to Shy Lake to help map the territories of our study birds.  Read more about Emma’s work.

The helicopter hovered on the side of the mountain as the pilot checked out a landing spot, turning to ask me, “Is here ok?”  Being new to the depths of Southern Fiordland and usually found roaming in terrain closer to sea level, I replied, “Your guess is as good as mine!”

The pilot maneuvered slowly around, making sure he wasn’t dropping me on an inescapable bluff, and landed. After pointing out the bivvy location, my new home for the week, hidden by trees on a ridge some 1.5km away, he lifted off and they were gone. I stood to watch and look around me, amazed that kiwi lived here. High, steep and exposed terrain, on the side of mountain 1068 (meters high that is), which would soon be covered in snow come winter.


View from my helicopter drop spot. 📷: Emma Feenstra

I sat with my map for a few minutes to get my bearings, turned on my inReach tracking device and radio, popped a piece of chocolate in my mouth, got my kiwi tracking gear on, found the channels of my first birds, Hook & Smee, and headed down and across the mountain to try and pick up a signal.

We were a team of five; three girls based at the bivvy, and two boys based at a camp above Shy Lake. Our task – to track individual kiwi to their daytime locations using the audio signal from their transmitters. Over time, the locations of individuals can be plotted to build a map of their territories. Territory mapping like this occurs here at Shy Lake, and at other sites around the country (including two locations on Stewart Island) every five years. These territory maps can be compared over time, and provide us with information on the survival and movement of individuals, pairs, and the bigger picture of population trajectory (increasing, decreasing, stable).

Six sites are being set up in Fiordland to monitor what is happening to kiwi populations under different pest control regimes, and Shy Lake is the second of these to be territory mapped. Here there will be a 1080 drop between this territory mapping trip and the next, 4-5 years away. The 1080 drop’s main target is stoats, and if you’ve been following this blog series, you’ll know about the devastating impact stoats have had on kiwi breeding success & recruitment here. This trip was a good time to establish some baseline data before human intervention, and hopefully some resulting chick survival occurs.

As the three of us girls made our way separately back to the bivvy over that first day, tracking kiwi as we went, the clouds and rain rolled in.  This did nothing to dampen our spirits. We live for the days where we get to wander alone in the wilderness, in unfamiliar terrain, looking for cryptic birds. And those last 50 meters… when we switch to stealth mode and creep as quietly as we can to where the kiwi is sleeping, if we’re lucky we might get a peak of its feathers at the back of a dark, snug burrow before we take a quick waypoint… and then sneak away to find the next bird.

Over the week we spent at Shy Lake it felt like being on the set of a soap opera, with all the stars from earlier blog episodes. Including Bolts, who repeatedly fought off a stoat trying to enter her nest; Commando, who gave a weka a good seeing to; and T-Rex & T-Regina, who pulled everyone’s heart strings with their missing chick. There were some interesting discoveries too, as twice we found kiwi in burrows with a tiny entrance they had purposefully covered with fern fronds and flax, and more than once we found kiwi who are supposed to live in neighboring territories suspiciously close to one another.


Burrow entrance of Long John Silver and Jemima. 📷: Emma Feenstra

We had some challenging days, where high stone cliffs, steep bluffs and deep creeks prevented us from reaching birds; and we had glorious days, exploring new country with wide blue skies and only endless peaks to look out on. It was always a good feeling to reach ‘Home Ridge’ at dusk and hear the kea announcing our arrival (and time for mischief) back at the bivvy.

Pic kea.JPG

Anya photographs a local trouble maker. 📷: Emma Feenstra

It was the first time I’ve been on an all-girls field trip… the only notable difference was the single conversation about hair-dos, where it was agreed that top knots (a convenient way to tie long, dirty hair out of one’s face) are a frustrating way to get yourself caught in bushes.

Before we knew it the helicopter was back and we were whisked back to civilization…

So soon?


Helicopter ride home. 📷: Emma Feenstra

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

4 responses to Fiordland Kiwi Diaries: Guest post by Emma Feenstra

    Sarah Forder 09/06/2019 at 9:22 am

    Good story! Such a memorable trip 🙂


    Great names for tracking the kiwis. Thanks so much for the rich description and images too as your blog continues to tackle kiwi conservation


    The very low survival rate of chicks in such an isolated area of Fiordland must surely warrant a quicker response than 4-5 years away?


      Hi Greg, you’re right – the 1080 drop is scheduled for this year. It’s just the next territory mapping will be 4-5 years away.