Fiordland Kiwi Diaries: The time I helped catch a kiwi 

Department of Conservation —  15/06/2023 — Leave a comment

By Lucy Holyoake, Digital Channels Analyst 

Work to save kiwi at Shy Lake in Fiordland is ongoing, and we’ve made a mini-series about it. Lucy is part of the creative team making the series, and she recently went into the heart of Fiordland to capture some behind-the-scenes content. Read on for the latest in this long-running blog series (and now miniseries!) the Fiordland Kiwi Diaries. 

Celmisia Bivvy in Shy Lake, Fiordland 
📷: Lucy Holyoake, DOC  

Our eyes were locked, both of us frozen, afraid to move and startle the other. 

“Do you see it?” Tim asked. 

I sure did. It was right in front of my outstretched hand – a juvenile kiwi, one of the only surviving chicks from the year before. 

In October 2022 we flew into Shy Lake in a long sweeping curve, the pilot showing off the wild panorama of southern Fiordland. I saw the famous jagged white peaks, cascading waterfalls and dense bush extending in every direction. 

Fiordland is massive. 

I knew it was. People had told me, I’d seen pictures, and I’d done some tramping in the area. 

But it wasn’t until I was sat in the helicopter feeling very small that I comprehended how vast and remote Fiordland is. 

Looking down at Lake Sweet Spot and the vast expanse of Fiordland National Park 
📷: DOC 

After dropping us on a bluff above the most dramatic waterfall I’ve ever seen, the helicopter disappeared over a distant ridgeline, leaving us in sudden silence. 

Taking in the unbelievable view in front of me, I had one of those ‘I am merely a spec in this vast expanse’ moments. 

There’s something strangely comforting about feeling so small. 

My colleague Belle and I were joining Fiordland kiwi rangers Tim and Chris (Doddy) at Shy Lake to do some filming for the Fiordland Kiwi Diaries mini-series

Belle filming under a waterfall in Shy Lake 
📷: Lucy Holyoake, DOC 

Our plan was to follow Tim and Doddy for the next few days, capturing as much content as we could while they carried out their kiwi monitoring work. 

If you’ve read the previous blogs on this topic, you’ll be up to speed, but if you haven’t, here’s a fast run down: 

Over three years, none of the 34 tokoeka kiwi chicks monitored at Shy Lake survived to adulthood. 

Most were victims of stoats, a huge setback for this already endangered species. The Shy Lake area is rugged, remote, vast and wet, making trapping impossible. The tool that gives us the best chance of supressing rats, stoats and possums in this terrain is aerially applied 1080 toxic bait. 

In 2020, the Shy Lake area was treated with 1080 for the first time and predator numbers were heavily reduced. 

Following this, there has been a clear improvement in the number of chicks making it to safe weight (1kg), which is when a kiwi is big enough to stand a chance of defending themselves against stoats. 

Belle setting up a shot with Tim 
📷: Lucy Holyoake, DOC 

Task #1: Operation (hopefully) find a chick 

Straight after landing, we filmed a few shots with the rangers up on the bluff, as they explained some of the background of the project, and how this work feeds the big goal of Predator Free 2050. 

Then we regrouped to go over the plan for the rest of the day. 

Job number one for the rangers was to track down a chick from the 2022 breeding season so Doddy and Tim could do some monitoring checks. 

The rangers led the way down a steep track into a gulley. They made it look smooth and easy, which I can confirm it wasn’t. My workmate and I are reasonably experienced trampers, but we’re nowhere near the level of skill these rangers have, and we clumsily navigated the sponge-like moss and knee-deep mud. 

Carrying all the camera and sound gear didn’t make it any easier! 

The aftermath of misinterpreting the depth of a muddy patch… 
📷: Lucy Holyoake, DOC 

After descending into the gulley, we crossed a stream and moved through dense bush, carefully scrambling over mossy dead trees and getting our packs caught on branches every few steps. 

It was far from the manicured tracks I was used to.  

Belle filming Tim and Doddy as they navigate the dense undergrowth.
📷: Lucy Holyoake, DOC 

As we approached the kiwi nest, Tim and Doddy gave us the signal and we quietly followed them to a burrow beneath a tree. Cameras rolling, we watched Tim half disappear into the earth. 

I knew it wasn’t a guarantee that we would even get to see kiwi on this trip, much less a chick. Stoats have decimated the kiwi population here. The team’s hopeful that the 1080 operation bought the chicks enough time to reach safe weight. But we couldn’t be sure that stoat numbers hadn’t regenerated fast enough to kill all of the season’s chicks. 

So I was trying to keep my excitement in check. 

After a few minutes of gentle rummaging, Tim emerged slowly with a small ball of fluff cradled in his arms. 

That ball of fluff was a very much alive kiwi chick.  

Doddy and Tim completing some of their monitoring tasks with a surviving chick from the 2022 breeding season. 
📷: Lucy Holyoake, DOC

Tim carefully held its disproportionately large feet and placed it into a cotton bag, to keep it calm and safe while they prepared their monitoring tools. 

As Doddy took the ball of fluff out of the bag, it wiggled around a bit, but quickly calmed down as the team got to work measuring its small bill, checking its weight and swapping the transmitter battery.  

In somewhat of a trance, I realised my foot had gone numb, having been filming in the same position for over 15 minutes. The pins and needles kicked in, but I barely noticed. I was so incredibly lucky to be there, filming something so precious. 

Looking at Tim and Doddy’s faces, I saw the same excitement and awe that I was feeling reflected back at me. Even though this is their day-to-day, their passion for this work is infectious. 

Doddy didn’t hide his excitement over finding a healthy chick in the nest 
📷: Lucy Holyoake, DOC 

Task #2: Catch a juvenile kiwi hiding in the most difficult place possible 

After lunch, we headed to an area where a juvenile kiwi (a surviving chick from the previous year) was hanging out.  

This juvenile was particularly special – it was the first chick from this breeding pair to reach safe weight since the study began. Because of the time afforded by the 1080 operation, this chick would be much more able to fend off stoat attacks. 

Because this chick had ventured away from the nest, we were carefully using the transmitter beeps to find the exact spot the kiwi was hiding.  

After directing us down a steep bank, the beeps eventually led up to the base of a very large tree stump full of roots, crevasses and suspiciously kiwi sized tunnels.  

The beeps were loud and clear – it was in here. 

Tim reaching in to one of the tree stump crevasses, in search of the juvenile kiwi.
📷: Belle Gwilliam, DOC 

We each moved to a different spot around the stump, to cover the exits. I was positioned beside one of the holes, ready to stand in the way in case of a strategic get away (ignoring the massive spider webs). 

Torches out, Tim and Doddy reached into each of the tree stump crevasses, feeling around and hoping for feathers amidst the dirt. 

Finally, when Tim pushed his hand right to the back of one of the tunnels, sudden movement and a grunt (I thought it was Tim at first) caught my attention. A split second later, the kiwi appeared right in front of me! I was blocking its exit path! 

It froze as we spotted each other. 

“Do you see it?” Tim asked. 

“Yes, it’s right here!” I held my hand up in front of the hole and the kiwi glared at me (fair enough we’d showed up at its home without any notice. I’d be mad too). 

The keen black eyes of the kiwi bore into mine. Its feathers were puffy and ruffled. It looked perfectly round, and a lot plumper than the chick we’d seen earlier. I realised how lucky I was to see the signs of growth on this juvenile that had escaped predation. 

Then, Doddy came to take my place. I stepped aside as he swiftly grabbed the kiwi’s legs and pulled him carefully out of the hole. 

Tim and Doddy quickly got to work measuring the kiwi’s weight and bill and changing the transmitter battery. This kiwi had a lot more fight in it, he was quite a bit sassier and wrigglier than the chick—watching this, I understood why they have a better chance of fending off stoats than under 1kg chicks do. 

Tim and Doddy carefully changing the transmitter battery.
📷: Lucy Holyoake, DOC

When it was time to say goodbye, Tim gently popped it down and it toddled off into the bush. Tim said normally they shoot off incredibly quickly, but this one just slowly meandered back to its hiding spot. None of us were expecting that!  

Tim releasing the juvenile kiwi post-check up.
📷: Lucy Holyoake, DOC

Task #3: Try to keep up with the rangers as we climb back up to our home for the night 

The final part of the day involved a short (it looked short on the map, but it didn’t feel it) and sharp climb up to the hut. I’ll admit, as a procrastination tactic for catching my breath, I pretended to film for an extra few seconds—and not for the first time, I marvelled at how fit rangers in Fiordland are.  

We spent the evening admiring the view and chatting. I learned a lot about this team’s work, their skill and passion for what they do.  

As I got into my sleeping bag, I reflected on how special and important this work is. The team are literally saving kiwi, and I was incredibly lucky to have been able to see one up close. So many Kiwi folks have never seen a kiwi.  

With the success of this project, it’s a good case for how we can level up this work, and step closer and closer to the big goal of being predator free here in Aotearoa.  

Maybe then, everyone will get the chance to see a kiwi. 

Something Doddy said at the hut has stuck with me. He said, “My dream is for kiwi to be common enough for all New Zealanders to see one in their own backyard.” 

Lucy, Belle, Tim and Doddy at Shy Lake 
📷: Lucy Holyoake, DOC

Watch the first episode of the Fiordland Kiwi Diaries here:

Fiordland Kiwi Diaries Episode 1 | Kiwi monitoring in remote New Zealand wilderness

There are three episodes, all under 12 minutes, following Tim, Doddy and Monty as they fight the elements to reduce the rapidly growing predator numbers and attempt to save this unique and precious species. 

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