By Anthony Behrens
With so many of you getting in touch with photos and anecdotes of your encounters with whio, we thought we’d end Whio Awareness Month with the story of a couple who love to mark special occasions with whio. Last August, Anthony Behrens and his partner Fiona spent her birthday trapping for rats and stoats to protect whio on the Waimarino River, with the hope of seeing a few along the way.
We hadn’t been away from home since lockdown and it was my partner Fiona’s birthday. What were we going to do to celebrate? Take a drive to Ruapehu for a luxury, gin-infused holiday in the old-world comfort of The Chateau?
“Nah. We need some exercise.”
Go to Rotovegas for a mountain bike blast?
“Nah. Too dangerous for us amateurs.”
“Go for a tramp in the Tararua?” I suggested in desperation.
“Yeah…?” Fiona replied in a non-committed way.
“We could always go and do a trapline,” I suggested doubtfully. “How about doing a really special trapline. With lots of whio. In a place we’ve never been – the Waimarino River in the Kaimanawa.”
“Really? That sounds great,” replied the birthday girl.
We like to tramp with a purpose, and clearing maggoty rats and stoats out of wooden boxes on the sides of rivers is the kind of purpose we love.
“You’ll see heaps of ducks,” promised Nick Singers, one of the guys behind the Blue Duck Trust’s Waimarino River trapping programme, after the exchange of a few messages on Facebook.
“Perfect,” I replied.
Nick Singers is a freelance ecologist based in Turangi but also spends at least a day each week on numerous community conservation projects. One of his favourites is on the Waimarino River in the western Kaimanawa Ranges. He first went there in 1999, clearing tall buddleia which had taken over the river’s edge. Buddleia is long gone but now he pulls out hundreds of willow seedlings.
Whio have always been reasonably abundant on the Waimarino River but had disappeared from adjoining rivers. After monitoring the whio population in the area for two years and noticing minimal fledging survival, Nick started stoat control in 2014. The project is now administered by the Blue Duck Project Trust, which also traps along the nearby Tongariro River to protect whio. Nick looks after nearly 100 single-set DOC 200s in the upper reaches of the river, while a friend services another 40.
Nick reckons that the area of river they work in is exceptional whio habitat because it’s trout-free and has a fairly stable flow. Nick traps an area of the river above two waterfalls, and he explains that the rats and stoats tend to stick to the lower reaches where there is koura.
“I’ve done necropsies on stoats that we’ve caught down below the waterfalls and their stomachs are full of koura,” says Nick. “The stoats are like otters down there.” They also eat dying trout after spawning.
When Nick and his friends first put their traps in, they cleared out a good number of stoats, but unlike the area we protect in Southern Ruahine, the mustelids haven’t come back in any great numbers. A nearby Ospri 1080 operation has helped along with continuous trapping.
Since trapping started, the resident whio population has increased from 10 to 16 pairs, and about 110 ducklings have fledged over those six years. In the best year, 44 ducklings fledged. It’s “A grade” whio country.
We’re used to trapping on well-trod Ruahine tracks, so it was a bit daunting following Nick down to the river and the start of his trapline. There’s no track, and what markers there are, are few and far between. Thankfully Nick had some pink tape that he helpfully decorated the occasional tree with. He would be leaving us there and we needed to be able to find our way out again. Fiona and I felt a bit like Hansel and Gretel.
“On your way out could you take the tape down?” He asked as he put the last marker out. He sees it as pollution, and as he is usually the only one walking there, he doesn’t need it.
“OK,” we replied. Not being much good with a GPS I was a bit nervous. Fiona who is very good with a GPS was too.
The Waimarino River is more open than the Oroua and Pohangina rivers back home, a standout feature being the steep pumice cliffs that guide the river to Lake Taupo.
We ducked in and out of the bush and river as we went from trap to trap. Nick had been in the week before and re-baited the first half of his line, so many of the traps that we cleared contained fresh rats. This is why Nick carries a fancy looking machete.
When I’d first seen it, I imagined that we would be walking through thick undergrowth.
The fresh rat was now in two pieces. One positioned at the entrance and one in the back vestibule of the single DOC 200 trap. Nick works like us – make the traps as attractive to a stoat as possible and you’re more likely to attract the clever little buggers in.
Nick was also carrying a brand new squeezy bottle of stoat mayonnaise – the newly released Connovation Eggselent stoat lure. “It’s like having an egg in a squirt bottle but thicker and stickier,” it says on their website. It looks good enough to spread on your sandwiches, but don’t try this at home… and don’t ask me how I know.
A few kilometres upstream (and no whio later) Nick introduced us to his campsite. It sits amongst trees on what would be an island in a storm. He’s got a fly and a couple of camp stretchers stashed under a tree there for comfort.
“Whio, whio!” “Grumble, growl!” Finally, we’d struck whio gold! Four of them were residing on the river by our new home.
We still had half the line to do, so we parted ways with Nick and shot off upstream. As we made our way westward, we met more whio. But while we were impressed with life on the river, we were shocked to see the deer damage on its banks. Trodden and bare… even the toetoe was chewed.
The area’s sika deer are known for their browsing ability and the forest undergrowth is in poor health. Many of the broadleaf plants that New Zealand’s forests are known for are missing. But it’s not all bad in the Kaimanawa bush. In another sign that predator numbers are low, New Zealand robin / toutouwai were constant companions throughout the day.
Finding traps in unfamiliar territory is always difficult and it soon became apparent that we may not get the job done before dark. As the afternoon wore on, we got slower and more frustrated. We spent a lot of time hunched over the screen of Fiona’s GPS while walking in circles. Just as we were about to give up…
“Yes! An arrow!” From the depths of the App’s menu Fiona finally found the function that we needed. Like Pokemon Go players we were soon being guided from trap to trap.
Stressed by our slow trip upriver we hadn’t been able to enjoy the whio we met, but on our return we relaxed into the place. The evening light was low and golden without a whisper of wind. As Nick promised, it was cold. We made a fire and hunkered down for a smoke-filled evening. As the local ruru harmonised with the resident whio, we got onto the luxurious camp stretchers and quickly drifted off.
As we walked out the next morning we were pleasantly surprised by our overnight tally. The Eggsellent lure and Nick’s machete had worked. We were soon cutting “our own” rats in half, albeit with a slightly blunt pocketknife!
We also saw many of the whio we’d missed out on the day before. When they’re not around they seem shy and secretive, but when they’re out and about they’re one of the most relaxed and entertaining of New Zealand’s endemic birds. It almost seems like they enjoy putting on a show, but I reckon they just love being on the water.
We only stopped at the traps we had to empty, so the morning was over quickly, and we got to our Waimarino exit point at about noon… and got lost almost straight away! We’d find one pink ribbon, but not the next. Thanks to the GPX Nick had given us we had a good idea of the direction we needed to follow.
It was tiring. It was frustrating. But it was also a great test of our skills and patience, and by the time we got back to the car we were pretty pleased with ourselves. We’d come to see whio, get to know a new river and do a little bit of good. We’d achieved exactly that.
As we changed out of our dirty gear and loaded the car, one of the area’s many toutouwai pecked at the ground around our feet. Our little holiday had been just what we’d hoped for.
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.