Welcome to the spring 2014 edition of Behind the Scenes – your chance to discover what work and research the Department of Conservation (DOC) is carrying out here in Fiordland, as well as what makes it such a special place.
Read about avalanche picnics, kākā, native fish, kākāpō flashback, Resolution Island, chamois control, Battle for our Birds, truffula trees, visitor centres, dolphins, conservation volunteers, and Conservation Week 2014.
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In this issue:
Ever tried an avalanche picnic?
Kākā in the Eglinton
It's 'offishal' –significant native fish find in Fiordland
Restoring Resolution Island
Chamois control in Fiordland
Battle for Our Birds – September 2014 update
Is that a truffula tree?
What's in store at your local DOC Visitor Centre?
Dolphins in Dusky and Doubtful
Conservation volunteers – winter hut rangers on the Kepler
Conservation Week 1–9 November 2014
Snow avalanches can be deadly, but they are also beautiful to watch – and there is one place you can reliably go to see them in complete safety. It's called Lake Marian and you get there from the Hollyford Road, about an hour and a half's drive from Te Anau.
Local Catherine Brimecombe and her friends head there between November and January for an annual avalanche picnic. Here's what she had to say about last year's picnic:
'It was a gorgeous day. There'd been rain and the sun shining through the canopy sparkled on wet leaves. Birds sang, the track was strewn with the fallen flowers of forest vines and tree fuchsia blooms. Even with stops to dissect fallen flowers (there were kids in our party), the steep walk took little more than an hour and a half.
'We came out of the forest, seeing first the walls of the mountain cirque and then experiencing the jaw-dropping reveal of the lake itself. It really does stop you in your tracks. We sat in the sun and ate our sandwiches near the track. As the day warmed, the avalanches began. From where we sat they didn't appear large, but they were accompanied by enormous booms and roars that echoed around the cirque. It was an amazing show and we were reluctant to leave, but the temperature drops quickly in the mountains, even in November, and it's best to head down before the chill sets in.'
Sounds like an adventure! Why not check it out this spring?
Make sure not to walk around the lake edge though, as this may put you in the path of the falling snow and ice – avalanches should be viewed from a safe distance!
Trips and Tramps offer transport to the start of the track, and can also provide more information about when is a good time to do the walk. Contact Steve or Kate Norris on +64 3 249 7081 or visit Trips and Tramps.
The Eglinton Valley is the longest ongoing intensive research site for an upland beech forest in New Zealand. It is home to an extensive ground pest control programme, hardy DOC field workers and a host of special native bird species.
Kākā in the valley have been studied for more than 15 years. Researchers study nesting success, adult and juvenile survival, as well as kākā movements and habitat use. This information provides DOC and others with clues that can assist in the future survival of the kākā.
Jason and Maddie Van De Wetering have been involved in this research, and say that kākā have clearly benefited from stoat trapping work in the valley. Over the past few years, transmitters have been attached to some female adult birds to study survival rates and breeding. Twelve females were wearing transmitters this season.
Looking down into a tree at a kākā nest with chicks
Kākā do not breed every year, usually only laying eggs when there is plenty of food, such as during seasons when the beech trees flower.
This season, Jason and Maddie found nests for 8 of the 12 females with transmitters. They watched the nests closely and all of these chicks fledged (survived until they left the nest), apart from one nest which was preyed on at the egg stage.
How to find a nest
The signal transmitted from the female kākā is radio tracked on a regular basis, until it shows that she is frequently sitting in a hole in a tree (likely nesting). A climbing rope is then set up on the tree. While the female tends the nest, the male is busy collecting food for both her and the chicks. However, she does still leave the nest from time to time, and as soon as this happens, DOC staff climb up to see what is in it. The nest is checked several times to count and age the chicks, and to get an approximate fledging date.
Usually, kākā lay two to six eggs, which hatch after about 25 days, after which it takes a further 60–70 days before the chicks are old enough to leave the nest. This is a very long time, during which the chicks and mother are vulnerable to predation.
Chicks from two nests were banded this year, and a transmitter was fitted on one chick from each brood. Both chicks wearing transmitters fledged, but unfortunately neither survived the winter. One was attacked by (most likely) a stoat. The other had no signs of injury, so succumbed to either the cold, illness or a lack of food.
Following a sighting in 2003, an inventory survey in the Eglinton River catchment in May this year recorded four Gollum galaxias fish (Galaxias gollumoides; conservation status Nationally Vulnerable) at the Upper Eglinton campsite. Named after Tolkien's character from The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings, the species inhabits small, slow-flowing, swampy streams that drain the remnants of the once widespread wetlands across Southland. It's also found on Stewart Island/Rakiura.
This fish completes its entire lifecycle in freshwater. Spawning occurs in spring, with fry visible in backwaters and pools until December. The latest find is significant as it is the first record of this species in Fiordland National Park.
Braydon Moloney, wildlife documentary maker
For several years, DOC has partnered with Otago University's Centre for Science Communication, supporting students who wish to make conservation-themed films. Current Otago University student Braydon Moloney has created a 25-minute documentary Pest Free?, which will premier on 1 November this year at Dunedin's Regent Theatre.
The film addresses the question 'Can New Zealand become pest free?', and looks at what it means to be pest free, what is currently being done and where the future is headed.
For a sneak peak, you can view the demo reel.
Check out the Conservation Week event listings for Te Anau screening dates, when PestFree? and other conservation films from this course will be showcased.
2014 is the 40th anniversary of the 'rediscovery' and recovery of the kākāpō. A photo taken in 1974 is a favourite of Kākāpō Ranger Jim Watts – not only because of the great work done by the people in it, but also because of their outfits! Jim and two other current-day Kākāpō Rangers, Alisha Sherriff and Tim Raemaekers, recreated the scene to celebrate the anniversary.
Chris Smuts-Kennedy, John Cheyne and Don Merton, with dog Mandy in 1974
The kākāpō in the 1974 photo is Jill, the second male captured in the Esperance Valley, Fiordland. In the 2014 photo, Jim is holding Heather One, one of this year's six chicks, and conservation dog Moss, who was on Codfish Island/Whenua Hou undertaking rodent surveillance. The kākāpō population is now up to 126, with six new chicks surviving the breeding season, but several of the older generation having passed away.
Stoat trapping has been undertaken on Resolution Island in Dusky Sound since 2008. Early this year, the first rock wren was sighted on the island by DOC staff member Ian Thorne during a routine stoat trapping check. One wren was seen and another heard close by, near Mt Wales. There has also been a notable increase in South Island robins over the whole island.
Rock wren on Resolution Island
'We are lucky that Resolution Island has a number of native threatened species already present, such as robin, fern bird, kākā, kea, kiwi and now rock wren. All we have to do is control the pests and the native species will return,' said ranger Peter McMurtrie. 'The sheer size of Resolution Island also allows for large, robust native populations to be protected.'
Trapping on the island has ensured that stoat numbers have remained very low and there are no rats present (although there are mice). However, the programme is continually battling against invasions from stoats, which can swim to the island – this particularly happens in years when beech trees mast and a stoat plague occurs.
Well done to all the rangers and volunteers who are putting in the hours to check the traps on this island. They follow in the footsteps of New Zealand conservationist Richard Henry, who first envisioned Resolution as an island sanctuary in the 1890s.
Chamois hunting teritory
Fiordland National Park is the only place in New Zealand where systematic chamois control is undertaken, aiming to keep chamois numbers low and to limit their spread. This work helps to protect vulnerable indigenous ecosystems and alpine plant species from these animals, which live and browse on some of the steepest and harshest terrain in Fiordland.
Chamois are now distributed throughout Fiordland, being most highly concentrated in the northern part of the park. Between the 1970s and early 2000s, chamois densities were periodically reduced in localised areas by Wild Animal Recovery Operations (WARO) and other control measures. By 2003, concern about increasing numbers led to the initiation of helicopter control operations.
Complete eradication of the species is considered unfeasible and unnecessary, but ongoing control is needed to ensure that chamois densities, and impacts on the environment, remain minimal. Should chamois populations reach high numbers across the national park, control would become increasingly difficult and expensive. If left uncontrolled, it is expected that chamois would increase exponentially and occupy all suitable terrain, including forest areas. This would impact significantly on indigenous ecosystems.
Chamois eat a range of native plant species, which are mostly shrubs, but also include herbs and a few grasses. Native species typically consumed include shrubs such as native broom, snowberry and alpine hebes, and herbaceous species such as Mount Cook buttercup, Haast's carrot, mountain daisies and willowherbs.
How are they controlled?
Refuelling while chamois hunting
Chamois control is carried out in midwinter from helicopters, using experienced pilots and shooters. Ideal conditions (a good clear day after fresh snow) only eventuate a few times in a season, so two machines will often hunt on the same day in different areas to maximise the opportunity. Around four runs are done each year, usually lasting 2–3 hours each.
The helicopters are flown in and out of valley heads, and those on board look for animals or tracks on fresh snow above the tree line. This task is much easier in winter than summer, when chamois blend in with their surroundings and don't leave tracks. About 200 chamois per year have been removed from Fiordland since 2003.
If you're a keen hunter, try hunting north and east of the Milford Road, where you're more likely to see chamois!
The chamois control operational boundary includes all of Fiordland National Park south and west of the Milford Road. Initially, control efforts were concentrated around the Murchison and Stuart Mountains, but they are now focused on the mountains around the Milford Track and west of the Eglinton Valley – where the highest numbers remain.
Because it is far more costly to try to count every animal every year than to simply control them, control operations on large mammals typically use a kill per unit effort (usually hours) statistic to assess whether or not the control is effective. If kills per hour decrease in the same areas over time, then control efforts are likely to be successfully reducing numbers.
Between 2003 and 2013, there was a substantial decrease in the number of chamois kills per unit effort (kills per kilometre flown in observable habitat) in the central and southern operational blocks within the Fiordland National Park chamois control operational boundary. This suggests that in these areas chamois numbers are being controlled effectively.
Kills per unit effort also decreased overall in the northern block, but with some periodic increases. These increases seem to reflect renewed control effort in areas not previously hunted or not hunted in recent years, rather than an increase in the chamois population through immigration or recruitment (successful breeding).
A small period of concentrated control effort in this northern block should achieve a large enough reduction in numbers to ensure sustainable control of chamois at low densities across most of Fiordland National Park.
The chamois control programme, alongside commercial deer recovery (WARO), provides a remarkably high level of protection to native flora in indigenous alpine ecosystems across the 1.2 million hectares of Fiordland National Park. This is achieved at a very low cost to the taxpayer, given the size of the area.
How can you help DOC build a better understanding about chamois in Fiordland?
DOC Fiordland would be interested in hearing about the numbers and locations of any chamois you see, especially if they are in Fiordland's forest (an area currently outside the control programme's scope).
Although chamois are generally considered to be an alpine species in New Zealand, breeding populations have established in large forested areas on the West Coast.
Contact Em Oyston on +64 3 249 0200 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
- Chamois (Rupicapra rupicapra) is a goat-antelope type of ungulate that is native to the higher mountain systems in central and southern Europe.
- Introduced to New Zealand at Aoraki/Mt Cook in 1907 to establish a game hunting resource, chamois have dispersed more rapidly than any other wild ungulate introduced in New Zealand.
- Since introduction, they have colonised most of the Southern Alps/Kā Tiritiri o te Moana, ranging from southern Fiordland to northwest Nelson and into Marlborough.
- They have been present in Fiordland National Park since the 1950s.
You may have seen information in the previous Behind the Scenes or in national and local media about 'Battle for our Birds' – a series of predator control operations targeting rats, possums and stoats. These are being carried out in response to heavy beech seeding (mast) events this year driving high predator populations, which, if left unmanaged, will drastically impact on native bird populations.
In Fiordland, beech seed and rodent monitoring has led to operations in Dusky Sound, and the Arthur, Sinbad and upper Hollyford valleys being taken off the list because of relatively low seedfall levels, and as a result, rodents remaining at relatively normal to low levels. Rodent monitoring in the Iris Burn and Waitutu Forest revealed rapidly rising rodent levels, and predator control operations were successfully completed in August. Operations are still forecast for the Clinton valley and lower Hollyford in Fiordland National Park. By dramatically reducing predator numbers, these operations will provide a chance for our native species to nest and fledge successfully this spring and summer.
For more information about these sites and the Battle for our Birds, contact
|Te Rua-o-te-moko / Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre|
|Phone:||+64 3 249 7924|
|Fax:||+64 4 471 1117|
Fiordland National Park
Te Anau 9600
PO Box 29
Te Anau 9640
|Full office details|
The Fiordland bush is full of weird and wonderful plants, and some people collect sightings like others collect Weetbix cards. While working above Breaksea Sound this summer, Jesse Bythell had the pleasure of seeing her first Dracophyllum fiordense. It's a tree that looks remarkably similar to those from the Dr. Seuss book The Lorax (which all good conservationists should read!).
For DOC field workers such as Jesse, fun includes getting up extra early on the last day of a field trip to fit in a bit of botanising before the helicopter pick-up. Well, why wouldn't you, if you're lucky enough to find yourself in a remote part of Fiordland for a few short days?!
Exploring a ridge at dawn, Jesse and her colleagues encountered a diversity of exciting subalpine shrubs, such as Brachyglottis rotundifolia and Olearia crosby-smithiana (At Risk – Naturally Uncommon). Tipped off by a team member who had gone for a quick stalk the night before, they were looking for a 'strange' dracophyllum – and just before deciding to head back they spotted it, a single Dracophyllum fiordense.
This small shrub or tree is only found in the mountainous areas of Fiordland and central Westland. It bears a robust tuft of thick grass-like leaves at the top of its usually single trunk. The leaves are reddish at their tips, 40–70 cm long by 4–5 cm at their widest point, with the tip often curled in a corkscrew fashion. Flowers are produced in a robust dense spike from under the leaf tufts. Typical habitat includes lowland to subalpine regions on steep ridge lines, cliff faces, bluffs, ravines, gully heads and the upper slopes of glaciated valleys. Occasionally, it is also found in tussock grassland.
Keep an eye out for strange and unusual plants when you next explore Fiordland's forests. We would love to hear about what you find.
Know before you go - The Outdoor Safety Code
Before you go into the outdoors get familiar with New Zealand's Outdoor Safety Code. Five simple rules to help you stay safe:
- Plan your trip. Seek local knowledge, plan the route you will take and the amount of time you can reasonably expect it to take.
- Tell someone. Tell someone your plans and leave a date to raise the alarm if you haven't returned.
- Be aware of the weather. New Zealand's weather can be highly unpredictable. Check the forecast and expect weather changes—and know about avalanche risk.
- Know your limits. Challenge yourself within your physical limits and experience.
- Take sufficient supplies. Make sure you have enough food, clothing, equipment and emergency rations for the worst-case scenario. Take an appropriate means of communication.
Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre
Summer is fast approaching. Have you visited the Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre lately? If you're involved in accommodation provision or tourism, education, or conservation projects, it's worth calling by – or if you are simply looking for some great places to visit this summer.
The DOC Visitor Centre is stacked full of information about where to go and what to see in Fiordland National Park: roads and routes, campsites, walks and waterfalls – everything from pushchair access to backcountry tramping routes. For guests and visitors interested in a little more detail, you'll find information on conservation work, species programmes and research being carried out within the park.
You can find information on weather and avalanche conditions, tools to help you discover what to do in the park, safety and alert information, activities, and places to stay. The centre also provides access to experienced DOC staff, who will help you pick and plan activities, and set off on the adventure of a lifetime. Make the most of this amazing resource.
Dolphin in action
Dolphin lovers will be pleased to hear it has been a bumper breeding season! Dusky Sound currently has 128 dolphins including 14 new calves – the highest recorded abundance since monitoring began.
Doubtful Sound dolphins are also doing well, with 71 in the population – the second highest abundance ever recorded. Dolphin monitoring trips this spring will provide a chance to assess calf survival – calf mortality is highest in their first year. We will let you know how this season's calves are going once we have the results.
DOC runs a conservation volunteer programme that you can get involved in. Search 'volunteer' on the DOC website to view the current opportunities, or grab a booklet from the Fiordland National Park Visitor Centre.
Wood is sparse around the Kepler Track's Luxmore Hut, so DOC flies firewood up by helicopter to keep winter trampers warm in the evenings. This past winter, along with the wood, volunteer hut rangers were also flown in. Tasks for these volunteers include collecting hut tickets, lighting the fire, keeping the hut clean and tidy, checking the levels of the winter loo, and sharing conservation stories with hut visitors over hot cups of soup. Occasionally, they also need to advise a visitor to head back down if they have misread the track information guide and turned up to tramp the alpine route without a sleeping bag or a rain jacket – yes, this happens!
The youngest volunteer hut rangers this winter were Fergus Oyston and Maki Kameyama – a nice surprise for grandmotherly sorts walking the track! They enjoyed their stint up above the Te Anau winter fog, and recommend the volunteer role to others.
If you are interested in putting your name down for a week volunteering next winter season, contact Ken Bradley at DOC on +64 3 249 0200 – but be in quick as places fill fast!
Children at the beach
Each year, New Zealand recognizes Conservation Week to celebrate the natural environment and make a connection with our special places. This year's theme is 'Discover the world where you live', and is all about getting out and about to explore your local treasures and special places.
Think about tracks, forests, marine reserves, parks, campgrounds – all of which are found right on your doorstep here in Fiordland.
Look out for activities and events advertised in the lead up to Conservation Week for more ideas!
DOC is planning on making a series of improvements to the Behind the Scenes newsletter. We are interested in hearing your views and so would be grateful if you could take 5 minutes to provide us with feedback.