Returning takahē to the wild: lessons learned

Department of Conservation —  11/07/2020

Two years ago, the Takahē Recovery Team made the first step towards what has never-been-done-before: to re-establish a new wild population in the Kahurangi National Park.

Takahē Release at Gouland Downs | Photo: Danillo Hegg

The first 30 takahē were reintroduced onto Gouland Downs in Autumn 2018. Since then, the team has worked tirelessly to monitor the Kahurangi population, faced with unexpected challenges, including extreme weather, low levels of breeding and rogue takahē in the tussock.

With the lessons learned, the team expects to reach the milestone of 500 takahē next year and will continue to push towards reaching the ultimate goal of returning takahē to the wild.

Gouland Downs | Photo: Danillo Hegg

Settling into their new home

For the majority of time since the release, takahē survivorship in Gouland Downs has been high, and after a significant amount of initial partner swapping, breeding has been recorded.

During their first summer, we observed three nesting attempts with two chicks fledging. In the second summer this year there were seven known nests across the Kahurangi population, but unfortunately, a period of extreme weather meant that most of these nests failed. Although the low levels of recruitment (young reaching adulthood) in the wild population is disappointing, the breeding attempts themselves are an encouraging sign of the new site’s potential.

From the original seven takahē pairs released onto the Downs, only one has remained together. This disproved our theory that sending formed family groups would encourage the birds to settle quicker in their new home. However, six pairs are now holding solid territories in the core of the Gouland Downs’ habitat.

The Heaphy Track is providing the unique opportunity to see takahē in the wild, with lots of positive takahē comments in the hut visitor books. Takahē Scoop and Erewhon are frequently observed around Gouland Downs Hut and Tametame and Temple around Saxon Hut. Kapakapapanui decided quite early on to head off on her own (not an ideal move for helping grow the population) and has set up camp further down the track at James Mackay Hut.

Scoop the takahē at Gouland Downs Hut | Photo: DOC

Free ranging takahē roaming too far

Despite showing a surprising level of stability since their release, 2020 has seen a number of Gouland Downs’ latest residents wandering. Single birds and even one family group have been observed roaming beyond the boundaries of the Downs, and in some cases beyond the boundaries of the National Park. Catlin, who left her long-term partner Shadowfax, has walked herself into the neighbouring farmland, twice.

Dispersal is a common occurrence with animal releases and was an expected outcome for at least some of the reintroduced takahē. Takahē in the Murchison Mountains have been tracked covering over 34kms, as the crow flies, from their original release sites.  Unlike the Murchison Mountains, which is a peninsula surrounding by Lake Te Anau on three sides, Gouland Downs has no natural physical barriers to keep the birds anchored on its tussock grassland habitat.

Takahē in the tussock | Photo: Jake Osborne

Surviving the third winter

Up until this autumn, only one bird (Pipper) had been lost to the population and all birds caught for management purposes were found to be in healthy weight ranges. Since March 2020 there have been 6 more deaths. Shadowfax and Hyde, whose deaths have been attributed to predation, had dispersed beyond the Gouland Downs’ predator trapping network. The remaining four are of unknown cause, although low body weight was a common theme. However, the observed level of mortality is not alarming when considered across the nearly two and a half years since their reintroduction into Gouland Downs.

The decreased body condition of the birds is of concern, as is the recent spike in deaths. However, clear conclusions cannot be drawn at this stage, and are not unusual compared to other takahē sites during winter.  The tussock mast (mass seeding) observed in Gouland Downs in, which was not available to the birds this year may have had some influence.

The coming breeding season will be a telling factor, as birds will only attempt to nest if they are in healthy enough body condition. Regular monitoring over the next few months will provide the team with this critical survivorship and breeding information.

Takahē and chick | Photo: Sabine Bernert ©

Next steps for the Takahē Recovery Team

Despite recent findings, we are far from drawing the conclusion that Gouland Downs area is unsuitable for takahē. The majority of the population remains stable and appear in good condition – as can be attested by the numerous photos in social media.

The Takahē Recovery Team are working to understand the recent lighter weights, deaths and wanderings. Aspects of the age and origin of founder birds, and most importantly whether these observations are due to too many, or not enough takahē at the site and being considered. However, it is more than likely a combination of behavioural and physiological factors at play.

Takahē Ranger Jason van de Wetering tracking takahē | Photo: DOC

Establishing new wild populations is a complex process and challenges are to be expected. Taking learnings from other conservation projects around the world, successfully establishing new populations generally require 1) a number of large releases and 2) the subsequent, locally reared generations to cement its establishment.

With this in mind, a further cohort of around 20 young takahē is planned to be released into Gouland Downs this coming summer. It is hoped that these young birds will be best equipped to adapt to the wild and will help bolster the population.

As a whole, the wider Takahē Recovery Programme is going from strength to strength, and we expect to reach the big 500 takahē milestone next year. We will continue to work closely with iwi and the Golden Bay DOC team, with the support of our national partner Fulton Hogan, to help ensure the Kahurangi takahē have the best possible chance to thrive in their new home.

2 responses to Returning takahē to the wild: lessons learned

    Andrew Vandine 29/07/2020 at 9:35 am

    Wonderful information in this post, thanks for the update. Fascinated by the whereabouts of the individuals. Hopefully they can start to settle in more with each year that passes. I was fortunate enough to have two separate sightings while crossing the Heaphy on 10/11/19. One I assume must have been Kapakapapanui since I saw her at James Mackay hut. The other I saw while taking a break at Gouland Downs hut. I am curious if it was Scoop or Erewhon. I have grainy photos and a short video of the encounter. Are there any easily identifiable features to distinguish between the two?

    Shirley Newman 16/07/2020 at 9:49 am

    Lovely birds. Very special. Thanks DOC for your hard work 👍