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The wind was strong, but the sun was shining as the first 19 juvenile kaki/black stilt were released onto the Tasman River last week.

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By DOC Ranger, Cody Thyne

As a ranger based in Twizel the main part of my job is supporting the Kakī Recovery Programme.

Kakī/black stilts are one of New Zealand’s rarest birds and the mission of the Kakī Recovery Programme is to increase their population in the wild and ensure this special bird is not lost for future generations.

Kakī/black stilt. Photo: Mike Robb.

Kakī/black stilt

As part of a small team of four permanent and a few seasonal staff, my responsibilities involve managing kakī in the wild. This includes counting how many adults are out there; traipsing up and down numerous braided rivers in the Mackenzie Basin searching for breeding pairs; observing and interpreting behaviour; finding their nests; reading leg bands; and collecting eggs from the wild to bring back to the captive rearing facility in Twizel.

Holding a kakī chick with Jazz the conservation dog in the background.

Kakī chick found thanks to Jazz the conservation dog

Walking up and down large braided rivers isn’t for everyone, particularly if you don’t like uneven ground, stumbling around, getting your feet and other body parts wet, super hot days with no shade, howling winds, abrupt temperature changes, long periods of time staring through a spotting scope with one eye, and your lunchtime sandwiches turning to toast upon being exposed to the dry alpine air. However, the alpine views are breathtaking, and the chance to see wildlife that manages to scrape out a living in this environment, is definitely worth a trip to this part of the country.

Rangers banding a kaki chick.

Rangers from the Kakī Recovery Programme banding a 30 day old chick

The eggs I collect are brought back to the captive rearing facility in Twizel which is also home to a number of kakī pairs for captive breeding.

The facility is where kakī eggs are artificially incubated and the young chicks are raised in captivity.

At 3–9 months they are released into the wild. Rearing them in captivity significantly increases their chances of survival by preventing predation when they are most vulnerable and it also gets them through their first winter, which can be tough for young birds in the wild.

Nick Tomalin was a volunteer with at the captive rearing facility last summer while on sabbatical from The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds in the United Kingdom.

Nick’s help was hugely appreciated at the busiest time of the year, and he managed to film a great short video about the work that goes on at the facility.

Watch Nick’s video of an average day in the life of a kakī aviculturalist:

You can keep up to date with the work of the Kakī Recovery Programme on Facebook and on the DOC website.

By DOC’s Kiersten McKinley, based in South Canterbury

Fingers went numb and noses turned bright red as DOC staff caught kakī/black stilts this morning. It was the first fine day after a southerly blast and the birds were off on an adventure!

Nine staff were needed to catch 43 sub-adult kakī from the Captive Breeding Centre aviaries located in Twizel. The birds were being released today into the Tasman Riverbed near Lake Pukaki – but first they had to be caught!

A DOC ranger removes a kakī caught in a net.

A DOC ranger carefully extracts one of the sub-adult kaki from a net

Armed with large soft nets and a slow, purposeful stride each ranger waited patiently for a young bird to rest on the aviary floor. It’s unhurried and cautious work – one fast or sudden move and these fragile birds could end up with a serious injury. Some of the birds managed to get their bills poked through the soft capture nets so another ranger was flagged to assist in the delicate extraction operation. The long, slender bill of a kakī actually has tiny, fine serrations on it which makes it fabulous for getting caught in nets!

Two kakī are held before being transported and released.

Smiles all round – these kaki look to be in good hands!

Once caught each bird underwent a thorough health check and was carefully weighed. A sub-adult bird is nine months of age and the majority of birds weighed around 200 grams – less than half a tub of margarine! What they lack in weight though they more than make up for in spirit. These are feisty birds and they were certainly ready to spread their wings!

DOC Ranger Liz Brown moving a kakī.

DOC Aviaculturist Liz Brown spends a lot of time looking after the kakī

All the kakī were placed into sturdy plywood boxes and then transported to the release site where they were set free by local school children and interested members of the public.

School students releasing kakī into the wild.

The kakī are released into the wild.

Take part in a kakī release:

Two kakī releases are scheduled every year around August or September. If you would like to attend the next one email DOC Ranger Cody Thyne. It’s a wonderful experience and a chance to see these rare birds up close.

By Kiersten McKinley

Assistance from private land owners helped create a record breeding season for the nationally critical threatened kakī/black stilt this year, but not before giving DOC’s Twizel staff the run around.

A group of juveniles released near Lake Tekapo.

A group of juveniles released near Lake Tekapo

Each year rangers collect kakī eggs from the wild, and up to six captive pairs, for safe incubation at the Captive Breeding Centre in Twizel.

Last spring, when it came time to find nests in the normal riverbed and wetland sites, staff couldn’t find many. Either the population had declined or they had nested elsewhere. Luckily it was the latter: A particular rainy start to the season saw many wet areas and ponds form on private land. These made attractive nesting sites for this threatened wading bird.

“We put the word out that we needed help to locate adult breeding pairs and got a fantastic response. We had one farmer who rang up to say he had found four eggs and he’d wait until we picked them up before moving his sheep into the paddock,” said Biodiversity Ranger Simone Cleland.

Left: Kakī eggs in a farmer’s paddock. Right: Farmers Jim and Maryanne Morris

Left: Kakī eggs in a farmer’s paddock. Right: Farmers Jim and Maryanne Morris

“Another farmer spotted a likely nest from the seat of his tractor. He called up straight away so that we could rescue the eggs and he could carry on working!”

“The farmers I dealt with were very in-tune with their environment and knew exactly what birds they were looking at,” said Biodiversity Ranger Cody Thyne.

“Some people have trouble distinguishing kakī from pied stilts or even oystercatchers,  but these farmers were extremely observant and reliable informants.”

It wasn’t only farmers that responded to DOC’s request for help. Sam Staley, the caretaker stationed at Lake Tekapo Military Camp, rang up on several occasions during the season to report the location of juvenile kakī.

Soon the eggs were rolling in; 172 all up, and that put extra pressure on Aviculturist Liz Brown and her team at the captive rearing centre.

“We managed to successfully incubate and hatch 134 chicks, of which 125 survived to fledge – well up on our previous best of 111,” says Liz.

A collection of kakī egg shells from the busy breeding season.

A collection of kakī egg shells from the busy breeding season

Nearly half of all the wild eggs collected over summer came from eight high country stations in the Mackenzie and Waitaki basins. And, while we’ve always had good ongoing communication with these landowners, the cooperation this season has been excellent and we hope to maintain and develop this relationship in the future.

Left: Cody and Glen carry juvenile kakī for release. Right: Young kaki chick only days old.

Left: Cody and Glen carry juvenile kakī for release. Right: ‘Aren’t I gorgeous?’ a young chick (only days old)

31 of the chicks were released near Tekapo in January, as the capacity of the aviaries to hold birds had been reached. The remainder of the young kakī will be held over winter and released in August this year. If they can survive the first few years then rangers may be collecting their eggs in the future too.

Find out how you can help the black stilt/kakī

After 39 years working in conservation, Dave Murray retired at the end of February from the Te Manahuna Area Office in Twizel. A sociable character, you always knew when Dave was in the room! His lively presence will be missed in the office.

Dave spent the last 30 years working with critically endangered kakī in the Mackenzie Basin. Over this time he developed a huge depth of knowledge on New Zealand’s unique braided rivers, having worked within all major riverbeds from Godley river in the north, to Ahuriri river in the south.

Dave on his honeymoon. In Seaforth Valley, Fiordland

Name: Dave Murray.

Job position: Ranger – Assets-biodiversity, Te Manahuna Area office, Twizel.

How did you get into conservation work?

I started off working for the New Zealand Wildlife Service. The job was very diverse and I was one of the last people to get a job without a degree or the internal traineeship. There were only 200 employees in the Wildlife Service working in the field so you knew everyone—you could ring anybody for advice. It was far less formal, and more relaxed than DOC. There was not much money and you had to do everything on a shoestring.

I spent some time in Rotorua doing law enforcement work and then moved to the West Coast. I spent several years carrying out bird and vegetation counts in the beech forest. We worked from Westport through to Okarito, concentrating on areas that were likely to be involved in logging.

Early days looking after kakī in Mackenzie Basin for the New Zealand Wildlife Service

What was your role with DOC?

After a stint as the sole Wildlife Service officer in Hokitika, I was asked to come and look after the kakī/black stilts in Twizel in 1981. Since that time I have seen the kakī numbers slowly increase. Kakī would have been extinct by now if we hadn’t been doing what we have been doing.

How did the Kakī Recovery Programme get started?

In 1981 there were only 23 kakī left. Ron Neilson was working for the New Zealand Wildlife Service in Dunedin and he came up and realised there were not many kakī. Also, Ray Pierce was doing a thesis at Otago University on black stilts and pied stilts and he figured out that between the two species, there were not many left.

Dave on a kakī release near Lake Tekapo in winter

Have you any thoughts on preservation of our braided rivers and wildlife?

How do people use riverbeds without stuffing them up? It would be good to fence off riverbeds and allow people to walk around them and not be able to drive. I‘ve seen a huge increase in the number of 4WDs in riverbeds over the years. I have also seen people park in the middle of black-fronted tern colonies to go fishing and wonder why the birds are annoying them.

Most winters Dave would run away from the office… here, in Nepal on Chhukung Ri, 5830 metres

What was the best part of your job?

Walking the river deltas on calm, clear days in winter… then spotting banded kakī that I knew and seeing them survive in winter—it’s pretty encouraging.

What is your favourite place?

Okarito on the West Coastis a place that is special to me.

Dave in South Westland

What are your plans now?

I’ve got a lot of images to categorise. I’d also like to photograph new stuff—I have just been photographing saddlebacks and stitchbirds. I take pictures of birds doing things, I don’t like posed pictures.

Dave’s wife Liz, daughter Tara, and Dave after finishing the Kepler Challenge