Ducks Unlimited NZ

Displaying items by tag: Conservation

Monday, 04 September 2017 12:00

Australian Duckshooting - here in NZ

Seasonal Change
The onset of autumn sees not only the change in seasons, it also signals a hugely
exciting time of the year with hunters and their canine companions excitedly make
their plans for the annual ritual of spending time in the field hunting duck, quail & deer.
The home team
Duck team - the home crowd:
Chris Thomas, David Macnab,
Diane Pritt, Graeme Berry and
John Clayton.
(Yes, ducks were shot).
Autumn signals the start of waterfowl seasons in three states of south eastern Australia, waterfowl hunting in the Northern Territory gets underway later in the year.
Keen quail hunters spend days assessing habitat in readiness for quail hunting seasons around south eastern Australia. These elusive game birds are Australia’s premier game bird for pointing and flushing breeds of gun dogs. Whatever the views held about hunting by our increasingly urbanised community, the longstanding cultural tradition of hunting game holds an important place in the human ecology.
In 2013 hunting contributed $439 million into the Victorian economy, and that doesn’t include the important work on conservation and management of habitat. Conservation and hunting are intrinsically linked, a fact that has been demonstrated for generations. However this link is not intuitively evident to our urbanised community, where thanks to technology people are more connected than ever before. Yet these same people are largely more disconnected than ever before from the practical realities of how food is sourced, indeed from many of the realities of rural life.
Hunters also contribute to research, and Field & Game Australia has been active in collecting data for several studies. Some programs have run for many years, others are emerging opportunities, such as research into Avian Influenza. The past two years have presented me with very different hunting experiences. While I remain very involved in hunting and related issues, there’s very little time to participate in hunting. The weeks are spent working and liaising with government, agencies, media, and the unfortunate reality that is the anti-hunting movement in a highly politicised environment. The irony is this, in spite of all the drama generated by the anti-hunting activists in an attempt to draw public sentiment; it’s difficult to see where all the anti-hunting effort demonstrates any significant access to habitat or improved breeding conditions.
The facts are that duck hunting in Australia, and in particular in Victoria, continues to grow. The unique public/private partnership created in 1958 between government and conservationists in response to reports that the Pacific Black Duck (Grey duck in NZ), could be extinct in as little as 10 years due to loss of habitat.
Wetlands conservation
This unique private/public partnership created a game licensing system, and the funds from licences purchased by hunters delivered revenue that allowed government to acquire threatened wetlands. These wetlands provide critical breeding sanctuary for native waterbirds, offsetting habitat lost by drainage for agricultural and other purposes, and facilitate legal hunting during the prescribed season – a purpose that is often overlooked.
This important initiative established a network of State Game Reserves (SGR), that today encompasses more than 75,000 hectares of wetlands in Victoria, and there are more in South Australia, for the purposes of conservation, and hunting. The most recent SGR was announced in August 2016, and is the 200th SGR in Victoria and recognises the role that habitat plays in sustainable hunting, as well as the importance of access to public land for lawful hunting activities.
It’s acknowledged by many, although not the anti-hunting and animal rights activists, that habitat, not hunting, is the single biggest factor affecting waterfowl populations. The 2016 duck season provided significant challenges and interference. Hunters were moved off a State Game Reserve on the eve of duck opening because of the presence of blue bill ducks. While these are a rare species, they are however one that demonstrates vastly different behaviour to game species.
Other wetlands were closed to hunting due to the presence of Australasian Bittern, again on a State Game Reserve purchased and preserved thanks to hunters working with government. However that historical approach to delivering practical environmental outcomes in partnership has become lost with the current management approach that defers to extreme precaution, is not based on facts and data, and defers to a strategy that actively avoids any notion of ‘disturbance’ of wildlife. It’s not clear what ‘disturbance’ means from a scientific perspective, I’m pretty sure a fox hunting the wetland fringe creates its fair share of disturbance, yet that appears acceptable.
NZ Hunting
It’s in this context that I travelled to New Zealand’s North Island for my first experience of duck opening “across the ditch.” What a wonderful experience, memorable for so many reasons. As an aside, to hear mention of the Bittern during my trip to NZ put me into a sweat! That there is research into this cryptic bird, funded by DU in NZ, is to be commended. I’m looking forward to reading the conclusions that are reported from this study.
Making new friends and the local customs of duck hunting in NZ made for a very enjoyable experience. The use of maimais was a novel and very comfortable method of hunting. By contrast so much of the Australian waterfowl hunting experience is about being mobile, scouting for ducks and habitat in a vast and largely dry
Gamebird Festival
The “Gamebird Festival” is a sensational initiative. We are unable to bring game into the commercial food system in Australia; there are exceptions around the country with commercially harvested game and pest animals. To sit down to professionally prepared, cooked and presented ducks after a hunt is exceptional. Yet it’s also a no-brainer for any hunter seeking to put wild food on the table for family and friends.
I also enjoyed listening to stories of the Friday school bus run before opening day, with students swapping notes with each other about where their family was hunting the next morning. I’m a long time rugby fan and acutely aware of how Kiwis value their rugby, more often than not to my chagrin. To learn that rugby games are deferred on the opening weekend of duck season due to a lack of players is so refreshing, and a practical demonstration of the acceptance of the cultural traditions of hunting. This is a highlight to be celebrated.
The properties I had the privilege of hunting in my NZ trip shared the commitment by hunters to wetland rehabilitation and improvement. Developing and maintaining these wetlands requires real commitment, time, money, diesel, access to plant and equipment. Yes, they provide a wonderful hunting experience. And it’s this hunting experience for a few short weeks each year that generates the motivation and the revenue to create wetlands and reverse the trend in land use everywhere that sees wetlands drained for agricultural or residential development.
The lessons are the same everywhere. Create value for our natural resources, and the same people who seek to use that resource are motivated to ensure its use is sustainable. Field & Game Australia was invited to present at the conference for the Conservation through Sustainable Use of Wildlife. The paper prepared for the conference is available at the FGA website The conference brought together a huge array of specialists in a variety of wildlife. In addition to the FGA presentation, topics covering game birds were presented by Delta Waterfowl from North America, the UK’s Game & Wildlife Conservation Trust on their fascinating grey partridge projects, and your own Fish & Game. I had the pleasure of spending time with the Fish & Game team during my visit to NZ, and I’m pleased to continue to develop the great relationship that exists between our two organisations.
Field & Game Australia 
In our presentation, FGA covered the initiatives we have been busy putting in place. I’ll draw on elements of my presentation to provide the following overview of our initiatives. FGA has responded to this changed environment including making a series of recommendations to the regulator. Our recommendations are based on securing greater commitment to improving wetland habitat for water birds, and an adaptive management model, through greater focus on monitoring abundance with unmodified seasons to standardise and simplify management of our waterfowl populations. This permits the collection of more accurate data for the longterm regulation of hunting.
In addition, FGA is doing the following:
• Addressing the misconceptions and perceptions around hunting through our new publishing and media platform. This includes targeted messages on radio, billboards and digital media, with brand ambassadors telling their stories as “Australia’s most surprising conservationists”.
• In conjunction with Associate Professor Graham Hall from the University of New England, we have identified the need for surveys of key regions and wetlands to gather evidence and data on those wetlands that are consistently important in providing breeding habitat. This aligns with the need to develop a more cohesive approach to gathering specific data relevant to the requirements of game management.
• Conducting, and assisting with scientific research into Australian waterfowl, including hybridisation with introduced Mallard ducks, avian influenza, and Ross River virus.
• Working with government and other authorities to ensure the best practice for sustainable hunting and the improvement and conservation of our wetland habitats.
FGA is also proud of its achievements through its 20 years journey of establishing a recognised environmental trust, the WET Trust. This has created practical conservation partnerships, that are highly valued and delivering great ecological and social outcomes. The WET Trust has developed a model to restore degraded wetlands after 100 years of agriculture, funded by hunters who value the privilege of access.
The Heart Morass, near Sale in Victoria’s Gippsland region, is one of the WET Trust success stories. After 10 years of hunter-led conservation, this wetland has been transformed from depleted grazing land with salinity problems to a thriving wetland with healthy biodiversity and improved water quality. Importantly, it has demonstrated that good environmental projects create great partnerships. A new model of private partnerships to acquire and rehabilitate wetlands has since emerged. This is underpinned by dedicated, local
The issue is whether the multitude of government resources applied to manage our natural environments through parks and public land (including SGRs) are delivering the optimal ecological and environmental outcomes. This can be determined by the response to the question: Is this multi-layer management designed to achieve specific outcomes, or is it an outcome of a broader bureaucratic organisational design? The WET Trust is nearing completion of the first stage of another project, the Connewarre Wetlands Centre (CWC). Near Geelong in Victoria, this project includes construction of a building designed for community and educational use, a feature wetland, and access to the adjoining Lake Connewarre Complex of State Game Reserves, declared in 1983 a “wetland of international significance” under the Ramsar convention.
Success stories in practical conservation such as the Heart Morass and CWC provide evidence that private conservation models with pools of volunteer resources have the potential to deliver great outcomes for conservation. Hunting has other benefits. The Victorian state government has offered $10 per fox scalp in a bounty program that began in 2011. Since then, over 410,000 foxes have been removed by hunters in Victoria. Aside from the conservation impact, one of the most valuable aspects of the fox bounty program is the ability to collect data on hunter activity – raw numbers – that will allow better informed decisions and policy in the future.
Wildlife management
We can’t forget, or indeed ignore, the role of people in the complex equation of wildlife management. People have created this highly modified landscape. People have the privilege of harvesting our natural resources. People today have an obligation to manage the landscape and our natural resources. We also have an incredible opportunity. With access to technology to gather facts and data, we are more connected than we have ever been and can share knowledge and information. That connectivity we enjoy today provides us with access to world best practice in habitat and wildlife management.
Australia provides an incredible landscape and diverse climate that gives us the opportunity to bring these aspects together. However that’s not to say we need collaboration, in fact we need to be wary of collaboration unless it delivers practical results that create a tangible benefit, and doesn’t provide the excuse for people to engage in activism, rather than focusing on real outcomes.
FGA is a hunter organisation but we are heavily invested in conservation, always have been, we want science and public policy that supports better habitat for wildlife and for us – the people in the equation, to utilise. In the Australian context our priority remains on an increased commitment to habitat and water for our native waterfowl. Complemented by the gathering of data and real insight to build greater knowledge of our Australian waterfowl, leads to the opportunity to manage a dynamic population. This is in contrast to managing population dynamics. Underpinned with a cohesive strategy and an adaptive resource management model, that integrates research and monitoring in a systems approach. The opportunity is here to embrace technology such as drones, remote tracking devices, game cameras, satellite imagery of hydrology. However, it is critical that the data collected is designed for the purposes it will be used for; too often we find decisions on hunting in Australia are not based on data designed for game management.
We have the wonderful opportunity that comes with public land access for hunting, a diversity of game species, and a culture of hunting developed over many years that is underpinned with a conservation ethos. In Victoria, game is managed by a statutory authority, a first in this country. And yet we continue to work furiously to maintain the status quo in a highly politicised environment, where decisions are made by bureaucrats and politicians in capital cities. The debate remains fixed on whether to hunt ducks or not, rather than improving and creating more vital habitat for our Australian waterfowl.
I experienced a wonderful visit to NZ for the 2016 duck opening, personally and professionally. My sincere thanks to everyone who made my visit so welcoming. I can still picture those mallards circling the hills beyond our maimai at the edge of a pristine wetland developed by keen hunters/conservationists, watching the birds as they make another pass and waiting expectantly with my fellow hunters and our canine companions.
David Macnab
Published in Issue 170
Monday, 04 September 2017 11:58

On the Scent - Bittern

On the trail
It’s a beautiful morning on Lake Whatumā. As the last of the fog lifts and disperses, leaving the lake’s clear water exposed, Kimi and I float along the edge of the western shore quietly in our kayak. We’re looking for bittern nests and listening for the tell-tale bubbling call of chicks.
Nearby, peering out of two separate maimais are the heads of Finn McCool and Bernie Kelly. They’re watching careful for any signs of movement within the Raupo – an important job. Kimi and I can’t see more than a few metres in front of us as we move through the Raupo so we always need ‘spotters’ to detect the birds that are present but try to sneak away from us.
Suddenly, Kimi’s black Labrador nose begins to twitch. She’s picked up some scent. Her tail flicks up and begins to bounce from side to side as she reaches forward across the kayak. I slip off the kayak giving her permission to do the same. It is at this moment that we transform into our swamp alter egos. Kimi becomes an elegant torpedo - her otter-like tail propelling her beautifully through the water, until she silently disappears into the Raupo.
And me? Not so much.
My transformation is somewhat less fortuitous. Knee deep in mud, one foot already stuck and water up to my waist - my movements are best described as cloddish and ungainly. I slosh awkwardly after her trying my best not to sound like a heffalump bombing in a swimming pool. As I enter the Raupo, my radio crackles and Bernie announces that a bittern has flushed south of our location. We can never be sure of the sex of a bittern when we see one, but there are a few tell-tale signs that give us a clue.
Firstly, females are noticeably smaller than males, and secondly, in the case of Lake Whatuma, we know that none of the females are wearing radio-transmitters (yet!). Both Bernie and Finn carry radio-receivers. These devices detect the pulse-like signals emitted from any bird that’s been caught and still carries a Ducks Unlimited transmitter. If a radio-signal is detected, Finn and Bernie can identify the bird and follow its movements even if they can’t see it in the thick Raupo – so when a relatively small bittern flushes and they don’t get a signal on their receivers they know it’s likely to be a female.
The excitement in Bernie’s voice tells me this bird fits this criteria even before his words confirm it. Another female is great news. We’ve been searching bittern territories at Lake Whatuma for females and nests for a while now. We started unobtrusively by watching over known territories in October for something known as a ‘female foraging flight’. These flights are supposedly undertaken by females when they leave the nest to find food, a behaviour they have to do regularly because the males don’t feed them or the chicks. Such flights are noticeable and have enabled researchers to find nests overseas. By November, we have only witnessed a handful of these flights, and after investigating them further none suggested the presence of a nest. This surprised us. In previous years we’ve found nests by accident and all of them were (or would have been) at chick stage by November.
It was time to up the ante…and go in with the dog. Since November we’ve swept every known territory on foot looking for evidence of nesting. Up till now, and with the help of spotters like Bernie and Finn, we’ve been able to find at least four small unmarked birds (females), but none of them appear to show any interest in breeding. This latest bird would be the fifth. Bitterns are polygynous, meaning males often have more than one female. So it’s reasonable to expect up to five females to every male. To only find five on the whole lake – a site with at least twelve booming males – is somewhat concerning. If not down-right depressing.
To add to our concerns – the five males that still carry Ducks Unlimited transmitters at Lake Whatuma have been very unstable in their territories. They started off well, with all five returning to the lake in August to boom as usual and fight over the usual patches of real estate. Yet by October only two appeared to have claimed a Raupo patch. The others had spent all their time interfering with their neighbours before leaving to try elsewhere. Why are they not finding what they need at L. Whatuma?
So when Bernie confirms a fifth female. I think we can be forgiven for thinking we’d won the lottery. He immediately directs me southwards towards where the bird came up...but Kimi has different plans and starts heading northwards into the breeze. I pause for a second. On one hand I have a confirmed sighting to the south. A rare opportunity to reward the dog on fresh scent and a possibility that there was a nest nearby. On the other hand my dog clearly thinks she’s onto something better, and as I can’t be sure what the dog nose knows and John Cheyne is always telling me to ‘always trust your dog’…I decided to abandon the sterling advice of the spotter and follow Kimi’s lead.
I wasn’t disappointed. It took us awhile to find the four perfectly formed olive eggs that were tucked away on a carefully constructed platform in the thick Raupo. We think the nest belonged to the same bird that the spotter saw. Kimi has been trained on feathers and the live bird’s scent, and in this case the wind would have been wrong for her to detect the flushed female. Instead we suspect that the female moved south to evade us as we entered the Raupo. Kimi hit its scent track and was able to follow it back through the vegetation. It was definitely a team effort requiring all parties - the spotters, dog and handler.
Finding Nests
There are several reasons why we’re particularly interested in finding nests this season. We have little knowledge of how successful bitterns are in breeding and whether chicks survive to adulthood. Nests are notoriously difficult to find and this is part of our problem. To date we’ve had great success in developing methods for monitoring male bitterns (through their conspicuous booming call) but have no means for detecting females and chicks. Yet it’s the females and chicks that are our capacity to save the species. Just like money in the bank, the more we start with, the greater the capacity to grow our fund (or bittern population). One male can fertilise several females, so it’s the females that limit the size of our deposit. The more eggs she lays the higher the interest rate, and the more chicks that survive the greater the deposit in the following year.
…and of course to achieve this you have to prevent your significant other from hammering your credit card (prevent threats) in the meantime – this is tricky for bitterns as we’re still working out how many we’ve got, who’s hammering the bittern credit card and how much they’re spending…and there are so many potential spenders out there i.e. predators, poor water clarity, fluctuating water levels, poor food availability. We have many reasons to believe our bittern credit card is out of balance. In the last 12 months five starving nestlings have been found by members of the public right in the heart of urban areas – two females in Christchurch, and two males and a female in Tauranga - unusual behaviours for a secretive wetland specialist species. What happened to the parent that caused these birds to wander? Why were they nesting near to such accessible, high-disturbance areas in the first place? All five birds went into captive care and four survived to be released later in the year with healthy weights. We followed these birds post-release using Ducks Unlimited transmitters. To date two have died of starvation, one is missing – leaving a lone female surviving in Tauranga as our starting deposit.
Extinction Looms
As recently as 2010, surveyors at Whangamarino wetland – a site touted to be the national stronghold for bitterns – regularly recorded 50 + bittern calls within 15 minute long surveys. The number of birds calling could be as many as 12 individual birds per listening post and there were 40
listening posts – that was a lot of noise and a lot of birds. So many that observers regularly complained that they couldn’t keep track of them all.
Sadly these days are gone. Now the same locations are eerily silent, and observers are lucky to find seven birds across the whole wetland. The Australasian bittern is no longer Nationally Endangered. It is now Nationally Critical - the same threat classification as Kakapo – and the last threat classification before Extinction. The clock ticks…all year around multiple threats hammered away at the bittern credit card…and once a year there’s a short opportunity for bitterns to make their deposits. …how much longer before the balance turns red?
Emma Williams
Published in Issue 170
Monday, 04 September 2017 00:31

Out there for the Long Haul

One of our DUNZ directors featured recently in an issue of the National Farming Review. That person is Dan Steel of Blue Duck Station. The writer was none other than Lou Sanson, Director-General of the Department of Conservation.
Dan was eager to point out that Blue Duck Station is 100 percent effective. Every square metre does its bit for biodiversity in one way or another, be it pasture, native bush, wetland, river bank or the sites housing beehives.
Mr Sanson says DOC cannot achieve all its conservation targets alone and he therefore considers Dan Steele as one of the enthusiasts contributing to DOC’s 2025 targets for pest management and attracting international visitors. As most DU members will know, Dan has his own freehold property along with a family lease that covers 2800 ha. This farmed area carries 5400 breeding ewes, 1000 hoggets, 100 deer, 330 breeding cows and 470 other cattle.
However it is the blue duck (Whio) and kiwi populations on which Dan has focused efforts for the last 10 years. After losing a brood of ducklings he quickly set about organising an efficient pest control programme. Pest control is only part of the answer as flooding streams and rivers mean the Whio nests and eggs can easily be washed away. Dan recovers eggs and sends them to incubate at nest egg facilities. After hatching they go to DOC’s blue duck hardening facility at Turangi, and eventually return to the river. Dan said the Whio are still only holding their own, though kiwi numbers are increasing.
(The above material are excerpts from the original story in the December issue of National Farming Review,
written by Lou Sanson, Director General, DOC).
Published in Issue 170
Monday, 04 September 2017 00:11

Photo Competition

Flight will have space for three winners from each of three categories.
So take your camera where ever you go these coming months. We are looking for photos of ducks and other water birds. Or good scenic shots of the wetlands where they live.

Published in Issue 170
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