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.
To celebrate our Conservation Week kids photography competition, photographer Anthony Behrens shares with us a particularly challenging weekend he spent trying to photograph whio in the Ruahine Ranges – challenging personally, and for his purpose-made tramping kilt!
The trouble with being a Ruahine Whio Protector AND a photographer of Ruahine whio is that the two activities rarely happen without some sort of drama thanks to the ranges’ difficult terrain and changeable weather. Perhaps I should have known better when Ruahine Whio Protection Trust member Ian Rasmussen asked me to go along with him to install traps in the upper reaches of the Pohangina River. But I’d just bought a brand new (and preposterously large) 600mm lens that I was dying to try out.
The trapline of the upper Pohangina River protects a small but stable population of North Island whio. It’s not easy getting into the top of the river at the best of times, but it gets harder when you have to carry traps, gas canisters, bait and more than 3 kgs of camera gear – on top of food and warm clothes. My pack was on the verge of being too heavy for the work I’d be doing, which isn’t a great combination with slimy river rocks!
I’ll take the high road…
After spending Friday night in Longview Hut, we made our way down an unmarked trail to Pohangina River on a warm, clear and calm Saturday morning. The river was low, and the rocks weren’t too slippery. The location of the twelve Goodnature A24 traps we were to install was at the southern end of the day’s walk, and we spent the morning re-gassing and re-baiting older A24s. The sun kept us warm and the river kept us cool.
I knew that there would be one gorge that we would have to pack-float down so had brought plenty of dry bags to protect my camera gear. But when we arrived at the entrance I chickened out and decided to take what I reasoned would be a less risky route – up and over a cliff that appeared to be a feasible dry alternative. For some reason Ian agreed and we soon found ourselves perching precariously over a drop.
Ian may remember our cliff-top journey differently – but I remember being shocked by my lack of judgement and my inability to move when I got to the top. As my boots dislodged slippery gobs of moss and my hands grasped at tiny tufts of grass, my heart skipped several beats and I wondered…possibly out loud, “should I just jump in and get it over with? “
With a fair bit of luck and a whole lot of careful footwork Ian made it down first, and I eventually followed. As we caught our breath and pondered our sanity, we talked it through and agreed that we’d pack-float the next time.
Friendly whio and expensive mistakes
I may spend a lot of time trapping stoats on the Oroua River in the southern Ruahine Ranges to protect whio, but I rarely spend time in the presence of actual whio. They’re not like mallards which are easily bribed with a loaf of stale bread. To meet a southern Ruahine whio you really have to work at it. So, you could understand my excitement when at the end of that long, hard day, we came around the corner to find two relaxed whio sunning themselves on rocks.
While I unbagged my gear and switched to my new lens, they preened and paddled, whistled and growled. As I crawled through the undergrowth toward them, they almost seemed to welcome my intrusion.
Peering through the viewfinder the day’s dramas melted away. My moment had come.
Ian patiently waited as I snapped away from the banks of the river. The ducks performed and I was more than happy and possibly a little too excited. We weren’t very far from the hut, so I decided to leave the big lens on in case I struck it lucky again. But as I slung my pack over my back I watched as the other lens fell from my loose pack pocket.
Shocked, I watched its death spiral in a kind of high-definition horror. There was a slow-motion splash as it hit the water. There was a long spinning journey to the bottom of a crystal-clear pool. I could almost hear the sand shift as the lens nestled peacefully at my feet. I imagined that I could even hear a fizz as bubbles escaped its expensive black body.
The two whio growled and whistled at each other as I scooped the now useless lump of metal, plastic and glass from the river. But I had my photos. I was happy…
Storm’s a brewing
As we huddled in front of Leon Kinvig Hut’s fireplace that night a new westerly wind roared up the valley. Huge winds pushed the smoke back down the fireplace and into our faces – a foreboding sign that we had a difficult Sunday ahead. The route out would take us along an exposed 10 km ridgeline that ends just above Longview Hut where we’d spent our Friday night.
On a good day it’s a good tramp. On a bad day…it’s a nightmare.
Wayward kilts and bloody knees
One detail I forgot to mention: I wear a kilt when I tramp. It’s a well-designed kilt. It’s been on plenty of windy hilltops, mountains and highways and it usually behaves itself. However, up until that Sunday it had never been in a Force 11 Gale!
Much of the walking we did that day was done on a 45-degree angle, leaning into the wind so that we didn’t get blown over. My pleated skirt generally behaved, but random gusts that whipped up from unexpected angles prompted Ian to ask if he could walk in the front. As we rounded Rocky Knob I was more than willing to oblige.
The only way to leave the ridgeline before heading down to the carpark is to follow a track over a very exposed hilltop and it was here that things got rough. The roar of the wind was so loud we couldn’t hear each other. Hand and arm signals were out too because we couldn’t even turn to face each other. It was each man to himself.
Crouching amongst the horizontal tussock I watched as Ian slowly made his way up and over the hill. I was out of breath. The wind was so strong my lungs couldn’t catch any of the air it contained. If I turned toward it, my face got sandblasted. I was alone and on bloodied knees. As the roar became deafening, I couldn’t stand up anymore and I was soon crawling…very…very slowly.
Photographing and protecting whio
Working with whio is as much about the place they live, as it is about the birds themselves. Yes, I do it for the birds, but I also do it because it takes me to some of New Zealand’s most beautiful nooks and crannies. While a day out in our beautiful backcountry can be really challenging, as it was that weekend, on a good day there is nothing more fulfilling than spending a day negotiating boulders, rapids, the occasional emerald pool, a gorge or two and plenty of slippery waterfalls.
I have been volunteering with the Ruahine Whio Protectors since 2012 with my partner Whiona Burleigh. They are an awesome bunch of people including die-hard trampers and hunters who spend their spare time clearing and rebaiting traps in the Ruahine Ranges to protect the North Island’s southern-most whio.
Anthony has just returned from an amazing weekend out on the Waimarino River near Tūrangi, where he lost count of the number of whio he encountered. We’ll bring you that ripping yarn later in the year. But for now, mā te wā.