Whio Journal: Anne Richardson – A bird-breeding pioneer

Department of Conservation —  16/03/2021

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.

Whio at The Isaac Conservation and Wildlife Trust.

For Whio Awareness Month we want to celebrate our whio heroes, so have dedicated this Journal to a person who has worked tirelessly to grow the population of the blue duck – the inimitable Anne Richardson. For the last 28 years, Anne has worked at The Isaac Conservation and Wildlife Trust (ICWT) in Christchurch as the Wildlife Manager. During this time she has helped develop various native bird breeding programmes that have been crucial to the survival of not only whio, but several other of the world’s rarest birds such as the orange-fronted parakeet/kākāriki karaka, kakī/black stilt, pāteke/brown teal and New Zealand shore plover/tūturuatu. Last year, she was awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to wildlife conservation.  

Anne Richardson wearing the ONZM on the day she was awarded the New Zealand Order of Merit for her services to wildlife conservation.
📷: Anne Richardson

For Anne, it was never a question of not working with animals. Growing up in Christchurch, it was always her dream to work in a zoo – a wish she got after volunteering at Orana Wildlife Park. Initially drawn to the charismatic monkeys and big cats, Anne soon found that working with native birds was the challenge she was looking for. At that stage, it was not only difficult to keep captive birds alive, but it was even more problematic to get them to breed. At the Park, Anne also discovered a knack as an interior designer/landscape designer to the birds, creating aviaries from scratch to reflect their wild habitat.

After ten years at Orana, Lady Diana Isaac of Isaac Construction, specialists in construction services, approached Anne for advice on birds and building aviaries. Based at McLean’s Island, Isaac Construction had quarried shingle there for roading projects, and owners Sir Neil and Lady Diana Isaac had embarked on restoring the land to create a sustainable and expansive habitat for flora and fauna. After seeking out Anne’s advice, a strong relationship was forged between the two, and Lady Diana made Anne an offer she couldn’t refuse – to join the Isaac Conservation and Wildlife Trust as the Wildlife Manager.

When Anne arrived in 1992, there were quite a few aviaries already in place. With a solid base to build off, she used her connections at the Department of Conservation (DOC) to start working with endangered native birds, using the road equipment and machinery available at hand to build custom aviaries to suit each species.

A whio aviary at the ICWT – the front is land-based allowing for staff to easily and safely enter for cleaning, feeding and observe whio.
📷: Anne Richardson
A whio aviary at the ICWT – the back is cantilevered over / within the water allowing for natural waterflow and all the tiny invertebrates this brings, to replicate the natural environment of whio as closely as possible. Special modifications prevent predators such as eels, rats and stoats from entering.
📷: Anne Richardson

In the mid-90s, ICWT began breeding North Island whio. With the ability to easily design and build aviaries, and the freedom to test out and perfect new techniques, Anne developed a highly successful whio breeding programme. ICWT was the first to try ‘flock mating’ (when birds breed at random within a selected population), as well as the first to get whio to breed from the age of 9 months, as opposed to the previous age of around 4 years.

Flock mating in the raceways at the Isaac Conservation and Wildlife Trust.

ICWT also moved away from feeding them an offered diet to hand-rearing whio ducklings, as they found whio tried to seek out their main diet of aquatic invertebrates, ultimately becoming malnourished. It was probably at this point that Anne fell head over heels for whio, caring for the gorgeous, high-octane fluff balls they are on day dot, to the inquisitive fledglings they grow into, before being released into the wild.

Freshly hatched whiolings at the Isaac Conservation and Wildlife Trust.
📷: Anne Richardson

Growing an endangered species’ population is a numbers game, and thankfully whio are a great bird to captive breed, as they will often produce three clutches of eggs per season by lifting the eggs off them. As the whio breeding programme developed throughout the country, ICWT began to exclusively breed South Island whio through captive pairs, as well as through WHIONE (Whio Operation Nest Egg), where DOC rangers retrieve eggs in the wild to be incubated, hatched, reared, and finally released back into the area they came from.

A whio fledgling from ICWT being released into the Oparara River at Kahurangi National Park.
📷: Anne Richardson

Aviaries customised for whio have meant that ICWT have become the backbone of the whio breeding programme in the South Island. One aviary allows whio to flock mate, from which pairs are sent to other institutions such as Punanga Manu o Te Anau/Te Anau Bird Sanctuary to breed ducklings for release. Likewise, their fast-water aviary provides a whio ‘bootcamp’ for all the South Island ducklings reared by various organisations to come to, allowing them to perfect their swimming technique before being released into the wild, increasing their chance of survival.

Learning how to swim in one of the whio aviaries at the Isaac Conservation and Wildlife Trust.

However, the biggest risk to the survival of whio in the wild are predators, namely stoats. Anne reflects that the losses in the wild are the low of the job and is what motivates her to breed as many whio as possible. It comes as no surprise then, that the high for Anne is attending whio releases into the protected Whio Security Sites, which are monitored by intense predator control. These two streams of work – the breeding programme and predator control – are the drivers of success for Whio Forever, which has seen the Whio Recovery Programme achieve many of its short-term goals well ahead of time. Today, five of the eight security sites have now exceeded their whio pair-target, with the others not far behind.

When asked how it felt to be awarded Officer of the New Zealand Order of Merit for Services to Wildlife Conservation, Anne replies, “I was tickled pink! Really this isn’t a job to me, it’s my life and to get acknowledged for it was quite humbling.”

Asked what advice she would give to people wanting to work in wildlife conservation, she replies that you need to be passionate about birds, and have experience working in the forest and controlling predators. She suggests the best way to start is to do some voluntary work to get the feel for the job. Sage advice from a sage woman.

Inspecting the new feathers on a whio fledgling at the Isaac Conservation and Wildlife Trust.
📷: Anne Richardson

Whio Breed for Release Co-ordinator, Peter Russell concludes, “The breed-for-release programme is extremely fortunate to have a breeder and conservationist of the high calibre of Anne Richardson, working with us.” We couldn’t agree more!

The Isaac Conservation and Wildlife Trust is the legacy of Sir Neil and Lady Diana Isaac. It is a beautiful, elaborate and wide-ranging conservation space – one that upholds and protects the fragile natural treasures of New Zealand. The Isaac Conservation and Wildlife Trust is private and not open to the public. Further information about ICWT can be found on their website and Facebook.

3 responses to Whio Journal: Anne Richardson – A bird-breeding pioneer

    Lillian Karaka 22/04/2021 at 8:38 pm

    Really enjoyed reading about the Whio and your amazing mahi Anne. Such an unselfish contribution to the preservation of this wonderful taonga, thank you!

    Peter Mence 04/04/2021 at 1:58 pm

    Great work being done for these beautiful birds, congratulations.
    I venture into the tongoriro nat.park from time to time on the 42 traverse track, and have spent some time down on the wanganui River whilst there. Always see 1 or 2 pairs in the river, they don’t seem to be disturbed by humans and carry on regardless.
    Sad to hear about there numbers but great to see whats being done to enhance this.
    I must also commend DOC on the general bird presence in that area, best of seen over most of the north island forest parks i have been to. Guess its something to do with the thousands of stoat,/weasel traps about.

    liz stockman 03/04/2021 at 6:25 pm

    What an amazing powerful body of work!