Whio Journal: Whio thrive despite bad weather, mega-mast and global pandemic

Department of Conservation —  16/07/2020

The whio, or blue duck, appears on our $10 note and the wild rivers of the back country, and not many places in between. As such, few New Zealanders know whio exist, and most will have never seen or heard one. With just 3,000 left in the wild, a partnership between Genesis and DOC called Whio Forever was created in 2011 to protect and grow the population of this national taonga. In this ‘Whio Journal’, we wait with bated breath for the 2020 tally of protected whio breeding pairs.

At this time of year, the Whio Forever team sit nervously on the edge of their seats, frequently checking their emails. That’s because we find out how the eight Security Sites and various Recovery Sites have fared over the recent whio breeding season, and what the official new number of protected whio breeding pairs is. We were perhaps a bit more nervous this year because it has been a season defined by drama including a mega-mast, severe flooding, and predator control delays due to bad weather and Covid-19.

So when it was announced during an internal online meeting that the new national number for whio breeding pairs had risen by 23 pairs to 748 pairs, there was some fist pumping and a collective sigh of relief! That’s an 151% increase since the Whio Forever partnership between DOC and Genesis began in 2011, when there was just 298 breeding pairs.

Whio pair.
📷: Matt Binns

To put the success of this year’s tally into perspective, let’s start at the beginning of the season. As many of you may remember, it had been a cool, wet spring which meant that the breeding season started later than usual. This had the knock-on effect of less ducklings as the majority of whio pairs produced just one clutch of eggs, rather than two. So whio were already off to a less than average start.

The flooding caused by the wet spring also wiped out some whio nests, often located in log jams and boulders at ground level. These severe weather events also caused damage to traplines and tracks in two of the Security Sites, the Central Southern Alps and Northern Fiordland sites, meaning that whio were not fully protected in some areas of the sites.

Looking for whio.
📷: Sabine Bernert

The effects of the bad weather also delayed much-needed Tiakina Ngā Manu operations to suppress the exceptionally high numbers of rat and stoat populations fueled by a national mega-mast. This is when trees and other plants produce prolific amounts of seed that provide extra food for rodents such as rats, growing their numbers well beyond normal levels. The numbers of mustelids such as stoats (the major predator of whio), who prey on rodents, subsequently skyrocket.

And then of course, Covid-19 hit. While the timing of the lockdown came at a relatively good time for whio, as the breeding season had mostly wound up, progress waddled to a halt. Delayed Tiakina Nga Manu Operations were further delayed, and rangers and contractors were not able to trap predators or monitor and survey (count) whio.

Conducting a whio survey on Mt Taranaki with Marti the Whio Conservation Dog.
📷: Lyn Hassell

The fact that the whio population continued to climb despite these challenges is fantastic news for this plucky duck. But of course, this result could not have been achieved without the hard work of a dedicated group of people.

Whio whanau.
📷: Bubs Smith

Nigel Clark, Executive General Manager – Wholesale Operations for Genesis agrees it takes a community to raise a whio. “This incredible result is driven not only by the partnership between DOC and Genesis but also through the hard work of many individual trapping enthusiasts, privately run trusts and businesses that hold whio breeding pairs, hatch whio eggs and raise their chicks.”

As for the tumultuous breeding season, DOC Whio Recovery Leader, Andy Glaser, sums it up this way:

“In the 36 years of my involvement in whio recovery I had never seen a year like the past season, so it is incredible to achieve this increase in pairs. These results are testament to the resilience this iconic species of New Zealand’s waterways and all the hard slog that our whio team do around the country. It’s a collaborative effort, and our partnership with Genesis has been the catalyst for securing and increasing our whio populations. We are now reaping the benefits of their investment and the work undertaken by our communities, iwi, trappers and DOC staff. I couldn’t be prouder of such an amazing team of people.”

Six whio.
📷: Andy Glaser

There are plenty of regional highlights from the 2019/20 whio breeding season to share over the next months, so stay tuned. For now, mā te wā.

One response to Whio Journal: Whio thrive despite bad weather, mega-mast and global pandemic

    Paula Smith 18/07/2020 at 3:31 pm

    Beautiful photos. Good news.