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Here’s how things are looking right now for mohua/yellowhead; and why conservation will continue to require a lot of ingenuity and quick thinking, in advance of meeting our Predator Free 2050 goal.

Which makes for some weird and wonderful work stories …

By the Department of Conservation

Mohua / yellowhead bird on Anchor Island
📷: Leon Berard – leonberardphotography.co.nz

We’re worried about mohua—not just mohua, but definitely mohua—as these tiny kowhai/yellow creatures are currently embroiled in a battle for survival they’re too small, too bright, too loud and too smelly to win on their own.

(More on smells soon).

For a long time we’ve been working to protect the mohua population from predators by means of moving birds to create new colonies, and doing extensive predator control at the most important sites on the mainland.

Recently, we had our Predator Free Manager Brent Beaven on the DOC Sounds of Science podcast to talk about our goal of ridding Aotearoa of rats, stoats and possums by 2050.

Brent has several decades of hands-on conservation experience.

And sometimes feet on, too.

We’ll let him explain that.

Audio extract from the DOC Sounds of Science Podcast

Transcript of the above clip:

Brent: “I was catching mohua—or yellowhead—on the island, and we’d struggled for days. And we’d only had 15 birds. And you normally want 30 to 50 to try to start a population … and we’re 15 minutes to go till we called it quits and the helicopter arrived.

“I caught 30 mohua in one go. So they’re in the net and they’re everywhere. The only problem was, I didn’t expect that. And there was only me. And I didn’t have enough catch bags.

“So I took my socks off. And I stuffed some mohua in my socks. And I tied my sleeves up on my raincoat and put mohua in the raincoat. Every little pocket, and everything I could do, I had filled with mohua.”

Brent Beaven

To get to the point where mohua need to be in Brent’s socks to be safe is …. alarming.

But it is at that stage.

New Zealand has one of the worst extinction records of any nation and, today, some 4,000 native species are considered to be at some kind of risk. Around a quarter of those are in real danger of extinction. Mohua are in this mix.

Mohua were once widespread across the whole of the South Island, but have been radically reduced to a few fragmented and sparse populations since humans arrived — and even these are still declining.

Overall, the mohua population (currently estimated at 5000-20,000) has declined on the mainland in the last 150 years and there are concerns this trend will continue without further intervention.

The evolution

As most Conservation Blog readers will know, native species in Aotearoa evolved in the absence of most mammals. The only mammals that are from here are seals, sea lions, and bats, none of which present a problem to our endemic bird populations.

When predators like rats, stoats and possums were introduced, our problems began.

Mammalian predators like these ones hunt by tīare/scent, sound and sight. They sniff out and track down the things they want to eat. Like mohua, hence we opened this blog by calling them loud and smelly. It wasn’t to be mean, more to point out the odds are stacked against them.

Most stoat predation occurs when the chicks are large and vocal: a stoat can hear them begging for miles around a nest, which acts as a large summoning bell for predators.

(Interestingly, mohua don’t smell quite as distinctive as kākāpō, who are known for their particularly floral pong. The distinct scent of kākāpō birds and nests has been likened to potpourri, or the inside of a violin case, or a bunch of very strong roses).

Checking a mohua nest in the Catlins
📷: DOC

For both kākāpō and mohua, their habits make them easy pickings—kākāpō nest on the ground, and mohua nest and roost each night in tree holes.

Our birds, having evolved without land-based mammalian predators, were used to looking out and up for ruru and Haast’s eagle and the like. Their defence was to stay still and quiet and wait for the predator to keep flying.

It’s also why our native species are fauna coloured – no neon parakeet pinks or mcaw reds for our birds. We stick to the blues of water, the yellows of flowers and greens of the ngahere.

Our birds need to blend.

But blending is no good when you smell, and when you’re loud, and you nest in very easy-to-reach places.

We’ve lost too many of our native species in the last 800 years.

So we’re in a bind.

A big, bird bind.

We could do a deep dive on all of our Threatened and At Risk species, but today it’s mohua.

Close up of kākāpō feathers showing their distinct kākāriki/green foliage colours
📷: Sabine Bernert

How are mohua doing, you ask? Not great

Mohua are a taonga for Ngāi Tahu. They’re sparrow-sized, yellow-headed birds found only in the South Island in native forest.

Mohua were once widespread, found all over the beech forests of the South Island. But by the mid-1990s the population was in Very Serious Trouble. By this time, mohua had disappeared from more than 90% of the South Island. In places like the Landsborough Valley, there were just over a dozen left.

Mohua were looking extinction in the face.

Through intensive predator control, the decline in the Landsborough Valley was reversed.

But we’re a long way from home safe for mohua.

Our predator control has not been intensive enough at most of the other core sites.

Because mohua are extremely sensitive to predators, they’re often an indicator species for how successful predator control is in an area. If you see lots of mohua, things are going great.

But we’re not seeing that in many places.

Mohua / yellowhead bird on Anchor Island
📷: Leon Berard – leonberardphotography.co.nz

Mohua are responding well to predator control in the Landsborough in South Westland and Hurunui South Branch in Canterbury, but are currently declining at other key sites such as the Catlins, Blue Mountains and Dart and Eglinton valleys.

We know for a fact that aerial 1080 saves species, and we wouldn’t have a hope of keeping anything alive without it. We’re on the lookout for a better tool, but until then, 1080 is the only large-scale option we have.

For mohua, just like all endangered native species, the period between mast and 1080 application is critical and requires extensive complementary trapping networks to keep stoat numbers down.

Let’s walk through this:

In Landsborough and Hurunui South Branch, where there’s 1080 use as well as extensive trapping networks to keep predator number under control in between mast times, mohua are having a ball*

(*Well, close. They’re slowly increasing, but compared to rapidly decreasing, that’s a ball).

However, at sites such as the Catlins, Blue Mountains and Dart and Eglinton valleys, they’re still declining. The reasons behind this are complex but it’s to do with masts.

The predator plague cycle as influenced by forest mast
📷: DOC

A mast is when more flowering trees leads to more seed, leads to more predators, leads to more predation. (Here’s an animated short showing how this works). It doesn’t happen every year, but when it does, there’s an explosion in predator numbers.

There are a few reasons for mohua to be struggling in some sites, despite our best efforts.

Monitoring shows that using aerial 1080 to control beech mast predator plagues is more effective in silver beech forest than in red beech, which produces more seed.

And predator control regimes relying on aerial 1080 without extensive complementary trapping networks to keep stoats down between forest masts also seem less effective for mohua.

Climate change plays a factor too, as the increasing frequency in forest masts means species like mohua have less time to recover between masts, because more rats naturally survive the winter.

The Mohua Recovery Group, which includes Department of Conservation and Ngāi Tahu representatives, is looking at options to improve management at these sites to try and turn this trend around.

And it’s fair to say that conservationists and Predator Free experts, like Brent, are busting a gut trying to do their best for mohua.

There are also mohua populations which appear to be stable on the eight pest-free offshore islands in Fiordland and Southland, where additional populations (estimated at 3000 birds) have been successfully established.

But these populations are reliant on everybody undertaking good island biosecurity. Pest incursions to these islands would be costly and deadly for precious species.

This is all to say: mohua aren’t yet in the green, despite improvement at some sites.

Mohua in hand
📷: Colin O’Donnell DOC

So what?

This is why Brent’s story about catching mohua in his socks was a laugh-then cry moment.

One of those ‘oof that’s funny but dire’ situations.

Someone catching birds in their socks and popping them in pockets is funny.

The fact they’re doing it because the species is in dire straits and will die out unless we can get enough birds to translocate them to offshore islands, which is currently the only way we can be confident about their survival is not so funny.

Brent told us the mohua-sock story recently and we published it on the podcast last week, but the actual sock-catching happened years ago. This was on Breaksea Island to get enough birds to successfully establish a population on Whenua Hou.

It worked.

Brent’s socks weren’t an elegant solution, but they were a solution. 

The mohua population on Whenua Hou is doing pretty well, because it’s a predator free island.

If we can meet our ambitious goal of making all of Aotearoa Predator Free by 2050, our mohua could become a frequent sight on our main islands.

Imagine mohua all around Te Waipounamu/the South Island!

That would be neat.

To hear Brent explain the PF2050 goal and lay out the key mahi, have a listen to the DOC Sounds of Science Podcast, available wherever you get your podcasts. Part 2 of our chat with Brent will be out next week.


Episode 13: Predator Free and me (part one) DOC Sounds of Science Podcast

Brent Beaven tells us everything we need to know about New Zealand's goal to be Predator Free by 2050. How will we? What is this? Is it even possible? Brent has the answers. In fact he has so many, we’ve split his interview in two. Brent is an expert on predator control and has decades of hands-on field experience. He's herded sea lions, been hounded by kiwi, and caught mohua in his socks. In the world of threatened species conservation, you name it and Brent has done it. Listen and learn. Show notes available at http://www.doc.govt.nz/podcast

For more about mohua see: https://www.doc.govt.nz/get-involved/run-a-project/translocation/translocation-success/mohua/

In March the Fox River landfill partially washed away during an extraordinary flood event. Meet some of the amazing volunteers lending a hand at Fox River to help with the clean-up…


Denise Lahood

Tell me about yourself and why you are here volunteering?

I’m from the Hawke’s Bay and currently house-sitting up in Whataroa. I am pretty close and I’m not working at the moment so happy to get involved.

Where did you find out about this volunteering opportunity?

The South Westland Coastal Cleanup Facebook page.

How much time will you be spending here at Fox?

Three days a week. I want to pace myself, I did three days last week and was pretty knackered.

What are/were your expectations for this volunteer position

No expectations. Just bloody happy to help. It’s quite soul destroying, witnessing how deep the rubbish is buried.

What keeps you motivated on the tough days?

Listening to music, when the sun comes out, the warm weather. The beautiful nature.


Katie Radley

Why you are here volunteering?

I’m living in Wanaka at the moment. I have been following this on Facebook and hearing about the tragic event that happened back in March and wanted to get out here, get involved. I finally had some time off and got some mates together. Four of us came over from Wanaka.

What were your expectations?

I was expecting it to be dirty rubbish, like nappies and stuff but the rubbish is mostly hard plastics, none of the really dirty things.

Why do you like volunteering?

Just because everyone else does it. We are all kiwis, this is our home. We need to help restore it to its beauty and serenity.

What do you do during your free time?

We went up to Franz Josef and up to the hot pools up there. It was nice to have a soak and relax after a long day. The food at the pub was really good.


Desmond Watson

Why are you here volunteering?

I’m basically here to clean up as much of this rubbish as possible, it’s an epidemic how far and wide it has spread out. More hands are needed.

How did you find out about this?

I have been picking up rubbish for the last six months, volunteering, travelling around New Zealand and I was in Queenstown when I heard about the landfill wash out.

How much time will you be spending here in Fox?

I’m here for about three weeks, then I will continue my own little mission – Kiwis Clean Aotearoa.

Why do you like volunteering?

I just basically think we can all do something more and jump out of our comfort zones and get out there. Whether its planting, picking up rubbish or helping the elderly or the homeless it’s a good thing to do.


Genevieve Robinson

Why you are here volunteering?

I have been watching it since the whole development of the flooding and the aftermath and I have wanted to come for so long. But I guess, for some people it’s the logistics of getting here but once you’re here its actually amazing I mean look at the scenery. And the people are hilarious. But I’m here mostly because I am an advocate for the Hector’s and Māui dolphin. I don’t know if everyone knows but 5000 Hectors  dolphins live along this coastline.  I was really worried about them and a lot of the group I’m involved with were like you need to go! You need to go! So here I am. And it’s great, I want to stay longer.

What were your expectations for this volunteer position?

I was really expecting anything. I was really open minded. They thing I really struggled with was how I was going to feel about being here and seeing this rubbish but once you get stuck in, it’s actually quite enjoyable. It’s not ideal but I want to just push myself and make things happen too.

What do you most enjoy working with other volunteers?

They are open hilarious people from different walks of life I love the nationality, the broad nationality. There is a lady from Italy, France, and then just locals.

What keeps you motivated on the tough days?

The good breaks. We have really good muffins. Also the scenery as I take a lot of photos for myself and share them on Facebook and Instagram. Just those comments from people sharing the load and the emotion.


We need your help!

Operation Tidy Fox is a massive push to clean up the Fox River. We’re looking for loads of volunteers to help. We are supplying accommodation, lunch and dinner. Volunteers will also be transported to and from the work area.

It’s a great opportunity for you to contribute to an environmental project, have fun with other volunteers, and explore the beautiful West Coast!

Register as a volunteer at www.doc.govt.nz/operation-tidy-fox-volunteer or contact operationtidyfox@doc.govt.nz if you have any questions.

Check out Part II of our Volunteer Q+A

By Isobel Campbell and Hazel Ross

With its expansive rainforests, dramatic coastline and incredible wildlife, the West Coast is a must-visit location for more than just glaciers. In this blog we cover some of the awesome spots in this untamed West Coast wilderness south of the Waiho River from Fox Glacier, to Haast and beyond. If you are interested in locations north of the Waiho, check out our first blog in the series.

Where the mountains meet the sea, the unique intersection of ancient vegetation, glaciated valleys, and coastal ecosystems has created a land of hidden gems. Containing part of the Te Wāhipounamu – South West New Zealand UNESCO World Heritage area, the almost untouched landscape is the world’s best representation of the ancient lands of Gondwana. So, as you plan your South Island road-trip, it is well worth adding a few of our favourite West Coast walks and stops to the list.

Mirror, mirror on the wall, which is the best view of them all?
📷: Arran Bee (Creative Commons).

Lake Matheson / Te Ara Kairaumati – 1 hr 30 min return

With its mirror-like reflections, this is a must-visit location for any explorer on the West Coast. On a clear, still day, Lake Matheson delivers awe-inspiring views of Aoraki/Mount Cook and Mount Tasman. Formed 14,000 years ago as Fox Glacier retreated, the magnificent reflections are due to the dark brown tea colour in the water, resulting from organic matter breaking down in the surrounding native forest. These dark waters hold more than just reflections; you might even see the native long-finned eel lurking beneath. These can reach 2 metres long weighing in excess of 25kg. Surrounded by ancient podocarp forest, this family friendly walk loops around the lake.

The tongue of Fox Glacier carving down the valley
📷: Isobel Campbell

Creeping ridgelines above a blanket of cloud
📷: Isobel Campbell

Mount Fox – 7 – 8 hr return

When a trail climbs over 1000 metres in less than 4 kilometres, you know you’ve got a serious climb. With the support of well-placed tree roots, this steep and challenging scramble will reward you with spectacular views. On a clear day the lovely tussock covered peaks provide 360-degree views overlooking Fox Glacier, the Southern Alps / Kā Tiritiri o te Moana, and the Tasman Sea. Beware, if the top is shrouded in cloud your views are seriously limited. Make sure you check the forecast and start early to reach the summit before the cloud rolls in (often around mid-day). Remember your layers and a raincoat as alpine conditions can change rapidly. Needless to say, this track requires good fitness, confidence in steep and uneven terrain, and route-finding experience to ensure you make it back in one piece!

Where the mountains meet the sea
📷: Cisco Fahnestock

A West Coast sunset
📷: Cisco Fahnestock

Gillespies Beach

Leaving Fox Glacier wind your way down a narrow, unsealed road to the picturesque Gillespies Beach. There are a variety of short tracks exploring historic gold mining relics from the 1860s. If you stand at the shore and look back over the estuary and ancient forest, you will see the imposing snow-capped peaks of Aoraki/Mount Cook, Mount Tasman and the Southern Alps / Kā Tiritiri o te Moana. Lastly, settling in for the night at the DOC campsite will perfectly set you up for a stunning West Coast sunset over the pebbled coastline.

The milky turquoise glacial fed waters of the Copland River
📷: Cisco Fahnestock

Cosy home for the night
📷: Hazel Ross

Copland Track to Welcome Flat Hut – 7 hr each way, 2 days

Natural hot pools. Pristine blue rivers. Giant swing bridges. What more could you want on an overnight tramp? Welcome Flat offers some of the best natural hot pools in the South Island surrounded by the snow-capped peaks of the Sierra Ranges. While soaking in the pools keep an eye on the sky for cheeky kea flying above by day or the Milky Way by night.

The track to Welcome Flat Hut creeps alongside the Karangarua and Copland rivers for 18 km with several river and stream crossings. The luxurious double storey 31 bunk hut is complete with flushing toilets and a wood-fired stove for heating. However, as this is a back-country hut ensure you bring all your own gear including sleeping bags and food. There are no gas cookers or utensils provided. Make sure you have a booking before heading out as this popular overnight spot can fill up.

I don’t know about gold at the end of the rainbow, but you might spot trout!
📷: Chris Monson

Lake Paringa

As you cruise along SH6, Lake Paringa is a great place to stretch the legs or settle in for the night at the DOC campsite. With stunning lake views and cheeky kea, it is a perfect family location. There is plenty of space for swimming or leisurely fishing. You can also bring your boat or kayaks if you want to explore further out onto the lake!

Waves rolling in on Monro Beach
📷: Petrus Hedman

You might be lucky enough to spot a tawaki/Fiordland Crested Penguin!
📷: Andrew Walmsley

Monro Beach – 1 hr 30 min return

Monro Beach is a wildlife-lover’s dream. Meld ancient rainforests with rich coastal food sources, and you have the perfect home for the forest-dwelling tawaki / Fiordland crested penguins. Spotting these endangered critters with their dapper yellow brows is a real treat. The best time to see them is during their breeding season from July to November. They can also sometimes be seen during their moulting season from January to March. If you are lucky enough to find them, make sure you keep your distance as disturbance can cause penguins to abandon their nests. Even if they aren’t around, the walk through gorgeous Gondwana-age forest to the coast is well worth the visit.

Can you see a seal in the distance? Yeah neither can I, but look through binoculars and you might.
📷: Cisco Fahnestock

Knight’s Point

Knight’s Point provides exceptional views along the coast, drawing in stunning turquoise waters and waves crashing around the cliff-lined shore below. Looking towards Arnott Point you may be able to make out New Zealand fur seals sunning themselves on the beach below. There is also a picnic area and bathroom facilities, making it ideal for a driving break. The views from the lookout platform make this spot well worth a stop, the ideal backdrop for that perfect Instagram shot.

The Kahikatea Swamp Forest exemplifying the natural values deserving of the UNESCO World Heritage status.
📷: Neroli Nolan

Do you know how Ship Creek got its name? Large fragments of a ship wreckage from Victoria, Australia washed up here from the 1870s.
📷: Neroli Nolan

Ship Creek – 20 – 30 min return

Home to the Tauparikākā Marine Reserve this convenient stop north of Haast is well worth a look. Just out of the carpark is a two-storey viewing tower with incredible coastal views. It’s great fun for the kids! If you’re lucky, you may spot Hector dolphins playing in the surf. These special creatures are the world’s smallest marine dolphins and have a distinctive rounded black dorsal fin.

Ship Creek also has some fantastic short walks showcasing the UNESCO World Heritage site. The 20-minute wheelchair-accessible Kahikatea Swamp Forest Walk winds through a wetland area with the ancient trees towering over the easy boardwalk track. The 30-minute Dune Lake Walk is a refreshing track heading out on a boardwalk over sand dunes, then looping through coastal forest to viewpoints along the rugged coastline and beautiful sand dune lake.

A vibrant sunset over the Hapuka Estuary.
📷: Neroli Nolan

An incredible spot to reflect.
📷: Neroli Nolan

Hapuka Estuary – 20 min loop

This serene coastal wetland is home to a large variety of native birds. South Westland estuaries are one of the few places you can see the southern crested grebe, fernbird and bittern.

The board walk winds its way through the intertidal zone surrounded by reeds and flax bushes. Over summer the flax flowers attract tūī and bellbirds who regularly visit to collect nectar. It is a fantastic stop for families and even has a tower to climb to soak in the views.

Lake Ellery

Lake Ellery – 1 – 2 hr return

Glacier-formed lakes are dotted across South Westland, and Lake Ellery is a stunning afternoon walk. The well-formed forest track is as gentle as the slow-moving Ellery stream that it follows. Keep an eye on the water as you may spot trout waiting in the larger pools for their next meal. After 3 km the track emerges to a picnic table and pristine views of the lake. The dark waters create beautiful reflections of the surrounding ancient forest.

Enjoy the 360 degree views whilst eating fresh fish and chips.
📷: Neroli Nolan

Jackson Bay – Wharekai–Te Kou Walk – 20 min

Jackson Bay is the hidden gem at the bottom of South Westland, 30 minutes from the SH6 Haast turnoff. Follow the coastal Haast-Jackson Bay road as far as it will take you to explore this peaceful harbour. The coast along here is sheltered from the rough West Coast waves and is an ideal location for a swim. You may even see NZ fur seals and Hector dolphins!

At the end of Jackson Bay the Wharekai–Te Kou Walk winds its way across the forested headland to a secluded bay on the far side. At high tide the waves wildly crash against the rocky shore, while low tide exposes rich rockpools teeming with shellfish and small fish.

Rocky shore hidden at the end of the Wharekai–Te Kou Walk from Jackson Bay.
📷: Hazel Ross

Fantail Falls.
📷: Neroli Nolan

Waterfalls of Haast Pass – 5 – 25 min return

No trip through the Haast Pass would be complete without capturing at least one of the three spectacular waterfalls adorning this route. Each with its own unique and special flavour, you won’t be disappointed.

From the lovely fan-shaped Fantail Falls, to the immense power of Roaring Billy cascading down the slope, to the pin drop beauty of the 96 metre Thunder Creek, there’s something for everyone. A photographer’s delight! You may just have to check out all three to pick a favourite. And don’t despair if it’s a little wet, the waterfalls are most impressive after rain, so count yourself lucky!

As you explore the crystal-clear blue pools, don’t forget to keep an eye out for the birdlife!

Blue Pools – 1 hr return

The Blue Pools are worth visiting for more than the crystal-clear waters from which it draws its name. This is home to some of our more uncommon birds including rifleman, yellowheads, tūī, bellbirds and tomtits. NZ’s smallest bird, the rifleman, flit from tree to tree perfectly camouflaged against mossy trunks with a distinctive high-pitched chatter as they search for insects. As the walk meanders across spectacular swing bridges, the full magnificence of the blue pools will come into view. The vivid turquoise colour is a result of light refraction in the clear icy water.

If you are interested in locations north of the Waiho, check out our first blog in the series which explores fantastic spots from Franz Josef Glacier up to Hokitika.

If you are also looking to visit the glaciers, before heading out check the daily status on the Glacier Country Website or at the DOC visitor centre. Sometimes vehicle and foot access can be lost due to storm events and changing conditions in the valley. Both Fox and Franz Josef glaciers are currently inaccessible as of April 2019. However, you can still fly up to the glaciers for the spectacular aerial views or guided walks on the ice. Read about the possibilities for flights and other activities in this article on the Tourism West Coast website.