Over the last two years, there have been six sightings of a lone male whio reported throughout the Tararua Ranges from Smith Creek to the Upper Ruamahanga. These sightings have been confirmed by an eagle-eyed Norwegian tramper who captured images of the whio in the Upper Ruamahanga while visiting New Zealand in April.
Before this, the last reported Tararua sighting was in the 1920s. Whio are found nowhere else in the world and are rarer than some species of kiwi.
“The presence of this whio, in an area that hasn’t had a population for several decades, is an exciting turn of events,” says Andrew Glaser, DOC Whakatane Senior Biodiversity Ranger and leader of the Whio Recovery Group. “There are less than 3,000 birds in the whole of New Zealand, and less than 200 pairs in the lower North Island.
“This bird is probably from the Ruahine population. That he’s moved out into this area suggests there’s a growth population, which is an indication that conservation efforts are making a difference.
“The sightings in the last two years have also been all around this area in the Tararua, from Smith Creek tributary to the Upper Ruamahanga. So he’s moving around a lot.
“This behaviour indicates that our single male is looking for a mate.”
Between April and July, whio start looking for a mate, find their match, and settle down. Once whio pair up they tend to remain in the area and are very territorial.
Sadly, this male is unlikely to find a mate in the Tararua Ranges this breeding season. Males are more widely distributed than females, who don’t move around very much. There are also more males than females in the dwindling population.
However, the future could be brighter for this lone male looking for love.
The Whio Recovery Group have identified the Tararua Ranges as a site where they would like to see whio re-established.
This view is supported by Mireille Hicks, Captive Breeding Ranger at Pūkaha National Wildlife Centre who looks after whio currently bred for release in the central North Island.
“The sighting of whio in the Tararua Ranges is an indication that the quality of the environment is good,” she says.
“Their preferred area is often higher up as they are torrent ducks, so they like fast-flowing water. This might be a good starting point to consider releasing whio into the Tararua Ranges in the future. They used to be there and it would be fantastic if we could come full circle and release them so close to their breeding zone here at Pūkaha.
“It is hopeful for the whio in this region and is also indicative of the success of predator control measures in the surrounding areas.”