Ducks Unlimited
Saturday, 09 November 2019 09:21

‘The biggest conservation project on Earth’

Dan Steele, the man with the gavel at the yearly DU auctions, headed to Wellington the week after the AGM to play to a different kind of crowd – at Homewood, the home of the British high commissioner, as part of Wellington on a Plate, the city’s month-long celebration of good food.

Dan and UK chef Jack Cashmore teamed up to offer guests a 10-course degustation menu, finishing the meal with a discussion by Dan on conservation, sustainability and a better New Zealand.

Dan said in an interview after the event: “New Zealand could be the biggest conservation project on Earth.

 

“For me, the big picture is that New Zealand could lead the world in producing quality products which world-class chefs, like Jack Cashmore, want to use in the best restaurants in the world. We can also lead in the realm of biodiversity management and conservation.

“It’s a big ask to get the primary industries on board to work closely together, but if we can pull it off and be recognised as the biggest conservation project on Earth at the same time as continuing to farm, then every product in New Zealand will become more valuable,” he said.

Sharing in his philosophy is Jack, who has worked in two Michelin-starred restaurants and was head chef at Anglo in London. Since meeting almost 10 years ago, Jack and Dan have shared a vision for both the farm and New Zealand.

Their goal is for Blue Duck Station and its pop-up restaurant, The Chef’s Table at Blue Duck Station, which was open last summer, to be the best overnight and fine-dining experience in New Zealand – based on the philosophy of nature conservation and sustainability.

Jack said it was New Zealand’s array of biodiversity, open culture, and sense of community that kept him coming back. Now his second home, Blue Duck Station offers him the chance to build a small restaurant from scratch.

 

 

Published in Issue 177
Saturday, 09 November 2019 09:15

You win some, you lose some

In 2012 a wetland was created at DU Director Dan Steele’s property, Blue Duck Station in the Ruapehu district, but things haven’t gone exactly as planned. Water has tunnelled under the pumice layer – the hills are predominantly pumice – to the next hard layer, first creating an underground leak, which DU’s John and Gail Cheyne noticed during a visit.

Next came the washout: Dan says, “We first noticed pumice floating down the Retaruke River before we found the washout.”

As of publication date, the problem is still waiting for a solution.

Meantime Dan has not been idle but had to climb out of his gumboots for a day or two to head to the city, see The biggest conservation project on Earth.

 

Published in Issue 177
Tuesday, 02 April 2019 08:18

Trans-Tasman bittern knowledge exchange

Australian wildlife ecologist and bittern expert Matt Herring visited last year and took the time to catch up with his New Zealand counterparts.

“The best thing we can do for nature is simply spend more time in it. From there, reverence grows and action flows.” M Herring, 2013

What a wonderful trip. It was as if we spent a week compiling precious pieces of a rare, incomplete jigsaw puzzle called “Australasian Bittern Ecology and Conservation”. 

After several years of being in touch via email and phone, it was so nice to finally get together with the New Zealand bittern crew and see some of their sites first hand. 

There is some great work happening across the ditch and a strong sense of being united in working towards reversing the decline of this iconic waterbird that we share. It is affectionately known as matuku hūrepo in Māori, or matuku for short.

The knowledge exchange began with the biennial National Wetland Restoration Symposium in Napier where I was honoured to be a keynote speaker, focusing on the importance of community engagement, novel habitats and active management.

We then had a day visiting wetlands around Hawke’s Bay, including Pekapeka Swamp, followed by a successful bittern workshop day organised by Matt Brady from DOC. It was now crystal clear to me that there’s a lot of love for matuku in New Zealand. 

With much discussion about wetland restoration targeting bitterns, it was astounding for many folk to learn about bitterns in rice and how bare, ploughed paddocks ready for sowing are able to support nesting bitterns less than three months later. There was a range of inspiring case studies from around New Zealand at the workshop, and we got to visit some local work in Hawke’s Bay with Hans Rook.
After that, it was time to begin a broader tour of bittern sites across the North Island. First stop was Lake Whatuma, and thanks to John Cheyne and Bernie Kelly, we were able to track some bitterns while kayaking. 

We discussed key issues like willow control, raupo (cumbungi) harriers as bittern nest predators. 

This wetland has up to nine booming males, but far fewer females, perhaps only three. The apparent shortage of female bitterns across New Zealand is something DOC’s Emma Williams is very concerned about. We may well have the same problem in Australia. 

males in rice fields have up to three nesting females in a single territory, there is emerging evidence that would support a general shortage of females here too. It’s definitely something we should consider: a booming male may not be a sufficient indicator of breeding 
or site quality.

It was now October and time to visit the 7200-hectare Whangamarino Wetland, between Auckland and Hamilton. This Ramsar site was once the world’s most important wetland for the Australasian bittern, with more than 140 booming males in 1980. 

Nowadays, there’s only about a dozen. I learnt about the many issues that are implicated in the decline, such as introduced species and water quality, but I think the huge water level fluctuations are central.

Near Tauranga, we visited the Lower Kaituna Wetland, and were lucky enough to spot a bittern feeding in the eleocharis. Part of the restoration work in the broader area is starting from scratch, essentially constructing new wetlands. 

And on the edge of Tauranga itself, right on the coast, we visited a bittern breeding site that was tidal. This was quite perplexing. The vegetation is low and we wondered where they build their nests without being flooded. 

Unfledged chicks have been found in land nearby, including a recreational park. We talked about how this site would be suitable for a thermal drone in locating nests and monitoring breeding success.

All in all, a wonderful trip, with special thanks to all who made it possible. I’m looking forward to returning the favour! 

The love for matuku in New Zealand is admirable, and the conservation work being done is inspiring

 

 

Published in Issue 176
Sunday, 20 January 2019 05:35

DU directors in the news

DU directors in the news – for good reasons

Two DU directors, John Dermer and Dan Steele made the news this year, 
both appearing in mainly rural papers, and both for very good reasons.

 

Dan Steele - Conservation and tourism with farming 

Dan Steele is the main driving force behind Blue Duck Station, central North Island, with the Retaruke River close by and Whanganui National Park on the boundary, it is the ideal place for a conservation minded man and his family.
The 1440ha station the cattle and sheep are important, but looking after the environment is always foremost in the running of the property. As a committed conservationist and a committed Ducks Unlimited member birds, particularly Whio (Blue Ducks), receive special care. 
 
By allowing 800ha of land to regenerate,  the bird life is returning along with the regeneration of the bush. There are 450 predator traps in use, water quality in streams and rivers has improved, and bird numbers continue to increase. Kereru and tui in particular, plus there are brown kiwi, native bats, and native fish.
 
Dan and his family, and his parents living next door, are all keen on seeing the conservation side increase. Young visitors from around the world are welcome at Blue Duck Station, where they are known as Eco Warriors, helping with the conservation programme jobs that take time and they get educated along the way.
 
But it is not only the backpackers who head for Blue Duck Station, Dan has built accommodation, and tourists are welcome. Hunting, horse-trekking, kayaking, hiking and even bush safaris are offered.
 
Dan has been a director of DUNZ for some time now, and has recently taken over the important role of auctioneer for fund raising at the annual DU AGM. 

John Dermer – the ultimate Farm Forrester

John and Diny Dermer were this year named as the North Island’s top farm foresters. They both love trees, and their farm at Cheltenham near Feilding reflects the attention that has been put into enhancing the landscape with a wide variety of native and exotic trees.
 
Selected as top forester in the North Island, John received a Husqvarna chainsaw. The foresters are tested on their tree knowledge, along with how well their trees are planted and managed.
 
John, a long time director of DUNZ, is obviously also keen on the birds. Ponds and nesting places are available around the farm. He is always on the lookout for yet another spot to be turned into a haven for water fowl. The trees, radiata pine, cypress, redwood and eucalyptus are mostly planted on land that would be difficult to farm effectively. Many older trees including large oaks and several large fruit trees in the original old orchard show the love of trees was encouraged long ago.
 
The Dermers also grow cereal cash crops, do bull finishing, lamb finishing and run a small ewe breeding flock. Oh – and there are turkey’s that have the freedom of the farm.
 
Diny also maintains a large number of hens, and several Peking ducks. Diny keeps the garden in order and has several citrus trees including an orange, grapefruit and several lemon trees always covered in fruit. They do well around the house. There are also several camellias. But Diny is also the extra farm hand, and is often to be found out on the tractor or helping in the wool shed.
 

 

Published in Issue 161
Sunday, 20 January 2019 05:27

Conservation Week

Conservation week November 1-9

New Zealand is full of great places and hidden treasures. DOC knows because they manage over 1400 great places, each with its own special appeal.

This Conservation Week DOC is making it fun and easy to get out and explore the great outdoors. They are hosting activities and events around the country. Even if you can’t make it to an event you can encourage some mates to join you in an adventure, tell your friends about somewhere you love to go, or get your kids to be creative.

There is a range of things to do and see so head out with family and friends and explore the great outdoors – it’s fun and easy! Go to www.doc.govt.nz for more information.

Published in Issue 161
Thursday, 12 April 2018 04:29

Captive Whio and new facility

It is looking like another record year of ducklings being produced with hopefully 39 being released. Peacock Springs with 18, Mt Bruce with 16 and Orana with five. Could have been more but you can never count your ducklings till you have them on the ground.
 
It is really great to see more ducklings produced each year and could be more if all the breeders had new pairs.
 
This facility has been build at the Tongariro National Trout Centre in some of the trout runs. I did go up earlier in the year and with helping Andrew Smart did the shaping of what you can see in the photos.
 
There were 12 ducks in the enclosures doing well and a lot flying around and diving into the water. Another 11 birds were put in the other side.
 
New Hardening Facility
 
This new facility will make it easier for  North Island breeders to send their birds there, rather than the South Island for hardening.
 
On December 4 last year I took six birds, that came from Peacock Springs, up to the Trout Centre for the opening of the Hardening Facility by the Minister of Conservation Maggie Barry and the CEO of Genesis Albert Brantley, as this was a joint project between Genesis and the Department.
 
At the opening there was a welcome from Haukainga for the visitors and then a welcome from Mihi/Whakatau to manuhiri/ visitors - Ned Wikaira followed by a reply on behalf of the visitors -Pou Tairanghau. We had refreshments by the new facility and heard speeches from Albert Brantley, Maggie Barry and then the National Whio Recovery Group Leader Andrew Glaser.
 
The Minister and Genesis CEO then cut the ribbon to declare the facility open. This facility was funded by Genesis and the Department of Conservation.
 
The birds were released into the new enclosure which was great.
 
Peter Russell
Whio Captive Co-ordinator  
 
 

 

Published in Issue 163
Thursday, 12 April 2018 04:10

The secret life of male bitterns

Finally revealed by DU transmitters

Last issue I introduced Australasian bitterns, a rare, secretive wetland bird that often lives within a stones’ throw of people’s houses – yet only the lucky few who spend time in wetlands know this species exists!
As our  bittern is the rarest in the world, we have  several reasons to be concerned about the population here in New Zealand.
 
In the last DU issue I discussed several threats known to limit bittern populations overseas - threats that are unfortunately also present in New Zealand. These threats include habitat loss (here in NZ this loss amounts to a shocking 90 percent!), introduced predators, modified water levels, poor water quality and inconsistent food availability. Unfortunately, despite knowing this, we still have little information about what’s happening with the bittern population here in New Zealand.
This is mainly because bitterns are almost impossible to find and study due to their camoflage plumage and elusive behaviour. Not being able to find this species also means conservationists can’t tell if their efforts to save the species are working.
 
To solve this problem we’ve been developing several monitoring methods that can be used to detect and count breeding male bitterns. This year we wanted to measure how well these methods work.
To do this we needed to catch and ‘mark’ as many male bitterns  as possible on Lake Whatuma, in Central Hawke’s Bay. We knew this would be tricky because to-date few bitterns have been caught.  However, as a team we collectively had several years of bird catching experience using a variety of methods…knowledge of two methods that had been used successfully to catch bitterns overseas…an ability to adapt as we went…and a ridiculous amount of dogged determination… And it worked!
Since September we’ve been able to catch six  male bitterns at Lake Whatuma. We caught all six birds by luring them into cage traps using a combination of calls and mirrors.
 
Playing bittern booming calls within a bird’s territory worked because it tricked the resident male into thinking that a rival male is challenging it. The resident male tries to creep up on this fake rival male intending to see it off. Eventually it sees its own reflection in the back of the cage trap, which it mistakes for the intruding bird, causing it to enter the trap. As soon as the resident male steps on the treadle plate inside the trap, it’s weight releases a catch, dropping the cage door shut, and capturing the bird.
 
Once caught, we banded each bittern with a metal M-band to make them uniquely identifiable in the hand. 
We also attached the radio transmitters provided by Ducks Unlimited sponsorship to help us locate and  identify the bird even when it was hidden from  us in the thick vegetation.
 
Before releasing the bird we weighed it, took a range of measurements (such as length of tarsus, bill, wing and tail), and some photos of its bill and feather patterns.
Photos and measurements can be used to crudely determine the health of the bird and as a general guide to help us confirm its age and sex. Each captured bittern was named in the honour of a deceased crooner – so by November we had caught Barry White, Bing Crosby, Tama Tomoana, Prince Tui Teka, Howard Morrison and Elvis Presley.
 
Once we’d finished processing each captured bird we released them back into their territories.
After that we regularly located birds using the signals emitted from their transmitters. Locations of marked bitterns were plotted to map their territories. We also checked where birds were located during our monitoring sessions and noted if a bird called during monitoring periods, and for those birds that did call we looked to see if observers had succeeded in detecting them. 
 
The results of our monitoring trial are still being analysed but preliminary results already show that breeding male bitterns have high site fidelity during the breeding season, meaning they always boom from the same area.
This is good news for our monitoring methods as it allows us to assume that booms heard at the same location at different times during the breeding season were produced by the same bird.
 
There was one exception. Bing Crosby, a bird caught in the northern end of the lake, permanently left his territory in October (midway through the breeding season). However, we have reason to believe that Bing was not as popular with the opposite sex as his namesake – and therefore does not count as a breeding male. Indeed we suspect he left the lake because he was single and  wanted to try his luck at wooing a female  elsewhere. There are several reasons why we suspect this. Firstly, the quality of Bing’s booming, something that’s associated with mate attraction, dropped steadily throughout the breeding season. This was not observed with the other marked males. Secondly, we had fewer observations of unmarked non-booming birds (females?) within Bing’s territory compared to some of the other booming males. This causes us to suspect that any visiting females were not staying for long. 
Thirdly, in the final days leading up to Bings disappearance he became more transient, often appearing in places that seemed well outside of his usual territory.
 
For example, two days before his disappearance he was found in the heart of his neighbour’s territory cavorting with two unmarked non-booming bitterns. His neighbour was booming within 100 metres of these liaisons - A final desperate attempt at securing a Lake Whatuma female perhaps??
 
Finally, after Bing’s disappearance we searched his territory for evidence of nest  attempts and were unable to find anything  to suggest he had attempted to mate with a female. We believe he was a single male trying his luck, but still can’t say this with certainty because many of the birds interacting with Bing were still unmarked and the sex of bitterns is difficult to determine from plumage alone.
Still, if we had not had the transmitter on him we would have never known that about these behaviours. Interestingly we observed similar transient behaviours with the other five marked bitterns. Although for them these observations occurred much later in the season and coincided with the time when we were expecting bittern chicks to fledge.
At this time of year (December/January), it makes sense for males to be more mobile, as chicks are supposed  to be relatively independent after fledging,  leaving few reasons for males to invest time and effort in maintaining their territories.
 
As you can see we still have much to learn about bitterns, their needs and behaviours. However, just in these last six months, through the use of the transmitters provided by Ducks Unlimited, we’ve been able to associate some of our observations with individual birds allowing us to put these observations into greater context.
 
All six of our marked bitterns have now left Lake Whatuma – again something we did not (and could not) have known would happen if our marked birds were not carrying transmitters.
We plan to continue following these six bitterns over the next six months. Hopefully the more we learn about them, their movements and habitat requirements, the more these observed behaviours will start to make sense.
 

 

Published in Issue 163
Monday, 19 March 2018 06:05

Did You Know

Did You Know?

Ducks Unlimited was incorporated by Joseph Knapp, EH Low and Robert Winthrop in January 29, 1937, in Washington, DC, USA as a result of their concerns (and those of other sportsmen), about the loss of wetlands as habitat for waterfowl and the impact this would have on waterfowl hunting. 
 
Ducks Unlimited Canada was incorporated in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada in March, 1937. Other chapters have since become operation in Latin America, Mexico, New Zealand and Australia. 
 
Anti-hunting lobbyists have consequently had an historically difficult relationship with DU and accuse DU of simply breeding ducks to be shot.
 
It was waterfowl hunters intent on preserving their recreational interests who founded DU USA, and it remains a pro-hunting organisation. Supporters counter the anti-hunting lobby by pointing out that many species besides waterfowl live in the habitat restored and protected by DU.  Wetlands  improve the overall health of the environment by recharging and purifying groundwater,  moderating floods and reducing soil erosion.  
DU has become a leader in waterfowl habitat conservation and has conserved more than 12.8 million acres (46,900km²) of waterfowl habitat in North America.
 
DU USA partners with a wide range of corporations, governments, non-governmental organisations, landowners, and private citizens to restore and manage areas that have been degraded and to prevent further degradation of wetlands. 
 
DU USA, in keeping with its founders’ intentions, also promotes the continuation of safe and regulated waterfowl hunting.
 
The majority of financial contributors and members are waterfowl hunters, and over 90 percent of those who read DU’s magazine are hunters.
 

 

Published in Issue 164
Sunday, 25 February 2018 09:33

Joining the dots on Watermouse

WetlandCare Australia has obtained funding through various local government grants to try and locate the vulnerable water mouse, Xeromys myoides. Working with consultant and Sunshine Coast based water mouse researcher, Janina Kaluza UQ, WetlandCare Australia will be out in the mangroves and saltmarsh from Jacobs Well to Beachmere on the hunt for signs of the water mouse.

With support of several organisations, Janina Kaluza has been surveying, monitoring and researching the water mouse in a number of locations throughout the Wide Bay and South East Queensland region since February 2012. This work has expanded and built on previous research in the past 15 to 20 years by scientists within State Government and the broader community. However, gaps remain on information that Janina aims to fill.

The water mouse inhabits coastal areas of central and south east Queensland, Northern Territory and New Guinea, and is typically found in coastal saltmarsh and mangrove areas. A key sign of their presence is their nesting mounds that range from free-standing mounds in saltwater couch grasslands to sheltered mounds in sites such as the base of old grey mangrove trees (Avicennia marina) located within the intertidal zone. The water mouse forages in the mangroves at night, feasting on invertebrates such as crabs, shellfish and snails. Loss, fragmentation and degradation of their habitats are key threats to their survival.

Working with local councils, WetlandCare Australia has been awarded funding to undertake a number of small local projects to survey potential water mice habitat areas. The combined information from these projects will contribute towards completing the jigsaw puzzle on water mice in south east Queensland.
Not much is known about this Australian native rodent, with the data collected being an important step in assisting the implementation of the ‘National Recovery Plan for the water mouse (false water rat) Xeromys myoides’ and the delivery of a coordinated approach to its conservation.

Another project focuses on surveying key habitat areas on Russell Island, one of the Southern Moreton Bay Islands, with funding support from a Redland City Council’s Conservation Grant. The water mouse was recorded on the island in the 1990s. The project aims to determine if the water mouse is still present and identify current threats to its habitat and survival. Surveys undertaken over three days in May this year and the data and survey results are currently being collated.

Funding through the City of Gold Coast’s Community Grants Program, WetlandCare Australia will be focussing water mouse survey effort in the Jacobs Well area in early 2016. Survey work will build on knowledge obtained in the 1990s that recorded the presence of the water mouse in this area. Logan City Council, through their Enviro Grants allows for surveying potential habitat areas on the Logan River in search of the water mouse. Approximately 40ha of mangrove areas will be surveyed in early 2016 to record the presence or absence of nests.

Water mice surveys will also be undertaken in early 2016 over 80ha of mangrove vegetation near the mouth of the Caboolture River with funding through the Moreton Bay Regional Council’s Community Grants Program. This project aims to identify the presence or absence of the water mouse in this area. The water mouse has been recorded previously at nearby Donnybrook.
Published in Issue 165
Sunday, 25 February 2018 07:47

Australasian bittern/matuku

Bitterns are found throughout New Zealand - in the North Island they predominantly inhabit Northland, Waikato and East Coast wetlands; while in the South Island they mostly inhabit West Coast, Canterbury and Southland wetlands. The most important bittern site nationally is Whangamarino Wetland, a large and diverse wetland complex in the Waikato.

Bitterns are large, stocky birds, with streaky dark brown and beige plumage on their throat, breast, abdomen and thighs; and dark brown on the neck and back. The head is dark except for pale beige around the cheek, forming a pale eyebrow. Plumage can vary significantly and may be age related.

Bitterns are rarely sighted due to their exceptionally cryptic behaviour, inconspicuous plumage resulting in excellent camouflage and the inaccessibility of many wetlands. They are mostly active at dawn, dusk and throughout the night. Bitterns are occasionally spotted in the open along wetland edges, drains, flooded farmland and roadsides.

They are very sensitive to disturbance and will silently creep away to avoid detection, or adopt the infamous ‘freeze’ stance (with the bill pointing skyward) if approached. This allows bitterns to blend into many environments, whilst maintaining a close watch of surroundings. If an observer continues to advance on a bittern, then it will eventually take flight in a laborious manner.

Often the only sign of bittern presence in a wetland is the male’s distinctive booming call at the beginning of the breeding season. Each call sequence may consist of 1-10 individual booms, with an average of 3 booms. Boom sequences are repeated at regular intervals, and normally preceded with inhalations or gasps. Females are mostly silent, apart from producing an occasional ‘bubbling’ sound upon return to the nest, or a nasal ‘kau’ when alarmed. Bitterns in flight may produce a resonant ‘kau’ or ‘kau kau’.

The breeding season is extremely long, spread over a 10-month period. Females construct a reed platform nest amongst dense vegetation deep within wetlands.

A clutch of 3-6 eggs is produced between August and December (peaking in November), and then incubated solely by the female for 25 days. Chicks remain in the nest for 7 weeks and fledge from November to May. Bitterns are considered an indicator of wetland health, as they are dependent on the presence of high quality and ecologically diverse habitats, which are rich in food supplies (such as eels, fish, freshwater crayfish, aquatic insects, molluscs, worms, spiders, frogs and lizards).

Bittern numbers have declined drastically since the arrival of European settlers, with over 90 percent of freshwater wetlands now drained and cleared. Ongoing wetland degradation continues to be the chief threat, resulting in habitat modification and loss, reduced food availability and poor water quality. Other threats contributing to bittern declines include predation by introduced mammals (particularly cats, rats, dogs and mustelids), human disturbance of nesting bitterns, as well as power-line and vehicle collisions.

You can help bitterns by becoming involved in wetland conservation and reporting all sightings (or calls) to your local Department of Conservation office. Most importantly you can protect wetlands on your property by planting native vegitation to create riparian buffers and fencing waterways from livestock.

Sabrina Luecht
Wildlife Project Administrator
(supplied by The Isaac Conservation and Wildlife Trust)

Published in Issue 165
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