Fiordland Kiwi Diaries: Annual transmitter change

Department of Conservation —  18/04/2020

We’re on the front lines of the Save Our Iconic Kiwi initiative. 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. We come to you with this guest entry from Louise McLaughlin as she takes on her annual transmitter change before Alert Level 4 lock down.

Each autumn after the end of the breeding season, we catch the adult tokoeka in our study and change their radio transmitters for ones with fresh batteries.  This is the only time we handle the adults during the year, so we also take the chance to give them a health check and connect a bit with these taonga. – Louise Mclaughlin

A cool morning on the first day. Heli drop-off point in Birthday Basin, below point 1336m.
📷: Louise McLaughlin

I am jammed into a hole under a tree. My face is pressed against a cold and damp tree root, my eyes are closed as I stretch my hand out against the floor of the burrow and tentatively feel my way around trying to find the leg of a male kiwi called Commando. I wiggle in a bit more, my shoulders pressed in under the entrance to the burrow. Jamie and I had dug and cut at the entrance to make it bigger, but that one solid tree root prevents us from reaching our quarry. He is backed up against the edge of the burrow and no amount of stretching and wiggling (and cursing) can get us closer. It’s time to call it. Commando: 1, Rangers: 0 (and covered in mud).

Let’s see if I can fit in Commando’s burrow…
📷: Louise McLaughlin

It is transmitter changing time at Shy Lake once again. The sky is blue bird, the bush is damp. The kiwi are sleeping in their burrows. A light dusting of snow greets us on the first day, and between the four of us, four kiwi get a transmitter change and two escape capture (I blame the thick tangle of scrub). After a long walk back to the biv, it’s nice to be greeted with a hot cuppa and dinner.

Catching kiwi is thirsty work!
📷: Jamie McAulay

Day two dawns bright and clear -it’s another blue bird day (which I have never seen up here at Shy Lake). Jamie and I spend another day tracking Kiwi – this is the day we try to catch Commando but luck is not on our side and the day ends with no captures. We had 3 encounters with one kiwi, Blackbeard, who gives us a run for our money. But, alas, she is too fast and too sneaky and dodges all attempts at capture. A check up on the trail cameras at two nests reveal several visits by not only stoats, but a possum as well…there is now only one chick left from this season. We end the day by climbing the track back up to the biv, and to enjoy the setting sun as we wait for Tim and Kaz to come back. The day ends with a tally of three kiwi with new transmitters and three eluding capture.

Autumnal down from Ceimisia Lodge.
📷: Louise McLaughlin

On day three I am with Tim and our day begins exceedingly well. Not only is the dawn impressive but we score a pair, happily snug together in an easily accessible burrow under a tree. Gulliver comes out first – Tim must reach right in (my arms are a fraction too short to reach). And my pack is used as a stuffer so Barbosa won’t come out. Once Gulliver has been weighed (he’s huge for a male) and measured and his transmitter changed, I hold onto him as Tim reaches back into the burrow to get Barbosa. She has grown bold during her wait and attempts to escape past Tim’s face. I can see her beak and then she pushes past Tim’s head (which is stuck in the burrow) and makes a run for it. Tim is a green blur as he bounces off through the forest and I see a flying leap and then…nothing…5 seconds pass. And Tim stands up, triumphant, holding Barbosa. She is not happy about the chase but calms down and we begin the transmitter change.

Holding Sinbad Colby, third catch of the day!
📷: Tim Raemaekers

We spend the rest of the day tracking down another 2 kiwi and also a transmitter that fell off when the harness broke. At the end of the day we are picked up from Shy Lake as the chopper comes in. The clouds are beginning to march in, and the wind is changing. It is time to leave before the wet weather arrives. At the end of this trip we have changed 13 of the 27 transmitters. Another trip awaits to ensure that all transmitters are changed before they are dropped. It’s goodbye to Shy Lake for now, hopefully I can come back and chase kiwi again soon, with as good weather!

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

One response to Fiordland Kiwi Diaries: Annual transmitter change

    Richard Hursthouse 04/05/2020 at 9:27 pm

    This work is inspirational thankyou. Tough territory and great research.