Sometimes the best action is to take no action; sometimes the best choice is to carry on doing what you were doing, which might mean doing nothing much at all. Like sitting quietly, watching the dawn river river slide by, green-tinged and transparent beneath an overcast sky. Like realigning a few feathers or nibbling at a wingpit louse; digesting a dawn feed of caddis larvae; waiting until the light reaches the intensity that says time to hide away, to return to the cool dark, deep under the log jam or beneath the overhanging, tangled bank. To act differently, or even to act at all, can draw attention; to become alarmed, to whistle or rattle would say, “Over here; we're over here so keep away.” Then, of course, the predator knows.
These whio, sitting quietly on their rock shelf on the far side of the pool, know this, but not as we know it. It's just what they do. They survive now because this is what they've done for thousands of years. But will it ensure they survive the next thousand years — or even the next 30?
A thousand years ago, the only predators these whio faced would have been birds and eels. But then humans and their rodents arrived, then their stoats and possums, cats and dogs. Whio eggs and chicks and perhaps the occasional brooding adult provided good food for voracious predators. Axes and fires converted vast tracts of diverse, lowland forest into farmland dominated by ryegrass and white clover, and whio retreated into higher, more remote rivers. Introduced brown and rainbow trout colonised the rivers, competing for the caddises and other invertebrates on which whio feed — and perhaps a big backcountry trout wouldn't scorn a newly hatched chick if it had the chance. Trout grow big in Aotearoa. Hydro-electric power schemes beheaded some of the rivers where whio formerly lived. Now, only about 640 pairs of whio survive in the North Island, with perhaps 700 pairs in the South Island, and the number continues to decline [1, 2].
Sitting still and keeping quiet might have served them well in the past and still seems like a good strategy, at least for defence against some predators. We were anything but predators, yet we'd walked right past them and it wasn't until Duncan looked back to say something to me that he saw them, quiet and motionless on the low rock shelf above the pool. Even last night, when we first saw them swimming in the middle of a pool at a bend in the Waikamaka about 20 minutes downstream from Wakelings hut, they'd been remarkably silent — just an occasional, brief whistle from the male; a hint of a rattle from the female. Usually it's the whistle that gives them away, and now I wonder — how often have whio sat quietly and watched me walk past?
But sitting still’s not a good option when a stoat comes hunting, and stoats are one of the main threats to these birds’ survival. Sitting still does nothing to protect you when the water drains away to a trickle, diverted to provide power to keep lights burning, smelters working around the clock to produce aluminium, computers running, air conditioners pampering.
Millennia of evolution taught you to sit still, keep quiet. The predators then came from the sky or haunted the waters. Fly, and you’d be struck down; swim and your chicks would be swallowed. Now, you still sit on your rocky shelf, almost invisible save for that bright bill, and wait for the danger to pass by. You sit still on your rocky shelf as the stoat approaches and the water drains away.
We, though, are no danger to you today. Stretched out here on the awkward boulders at the river’s edge, I watch and photograph and wish you well; hope both your surviving chicks live long enough to raise chicks of their own. You preen and stretch and ignore me, for which I’m grateful. When I move, I do so slowly, trying not to disturb you.
When we leave, I thank you silently. At last, I have photos better than the first, all those years ago. Mid winter, 1996, in the big pool below the mid Pohangina swingbridge; as I crossed it on the way out, I whistled and immediately received a reply; dropping my pack, I climbed down to the riverbed and photographed whio for the first time. Now, 11 years later, I’ve been gifted photographic opportunities as good as I could hope for.
We return to the hut, pack our gear, and walk a long day to Waikamaka hut, checking the big side streams on the way. Up the bouldery river bed, the day perfect for walking beneath an ominous sky; river flats yellow and green below red beech forest dense on steep mountainsides; water so clear you could read through metres of it, pools reflecting the colours of the bush, rock, flax, toetoe. At Waikamaka the sky’s so heavy that evening arrives hours early but still the rain holds off. I stand outside, looking up at the big snowgrass basin, and the ground’s so dry it doesn’t even dampen my socks.
A pair of riflemen flit about behind the hut. Not much light, but I fit the big lens and dial the ISO up to 800. The shutter speed’s still very low, so I push it to 1600, hoping it might deliver something useable. Meanwhile, the birds have disappeared, so I purse my lips and try for the high-pitched squeaking sound that seems to be a generic small-bird attractant. Immediately the riflemen reappear, flitting about close by. The female spreads her wings and vibrates them rapidly, facing me. I manage a couple of photos and try the squeaking sound again, hoping to keep them nearby.
To my astonishment, the female flies straight at me, darting just overhead and alighting close by. Another photo of her; a couple of the more distinctly coloured male. The female circles me. Curious about her reaction, I try squeaking again, and again she swoops at me, so close I instinctively dip my head. They must have a nest nearby. Enough — I don’t wish to disturb them further, so I retreat, driven away by this ferocious imp, New Zealand’s smallest bird.
Back in the hut, I’m still grinning. Duncan looks up from his book.
“I’ve just been attacked by a rifleman,” I tell him, and he laughs. “I almost expected to come back with a rifleman embedded in my forehead, or clinging to my eyebrows, pecking furiously.”
During the night sporadic drizzle becomes persistent, turning to steady rain at dawn. It’ll be good for the bush, which shows some signs of stress. It eases in the late morning, but returns about midday, bringing a blustery wind as well. We check the river upstream, towards Rangi Saddle, but see no whio and no sign — not surprising, given the very low flow. Then, in the early afternoon, we leave the hut and its riflemen, and begin the walk to Waipawa Saddle, on to Waipawa hut where we’ll stay the night before heading to the road in the morning. Light rain encourages me to pull the parka hood over my head as we climb to the saddle. Brilliant, canary-yellow Ranunculus flowers brighten the sombre day. Dark, misty cloud; the dull gleam of wet rock; the faint outline of a distant ridge.
1. Department of Conservation (DOC). Facts about blue duck/whio. http://www.doc.govt.nz/templates/page.aspx?id=33064 (accessed 9 December 2007).
2. DOC. Threats to blue duck/whio. http://www.doc.govt.nz/templates/page.aspx?id=33065 (accessed 9 December 2007).
3. Apologies to William Carlos Williams.
1. Whio (Hymenolaimus malacorhynchos) with chicks, Waikamaka River, Ruahine Range. Late evening on 4 December '07, downstream from Wakelings hut.
2, 7. Whio, a little further downriver the next morning.
3, 4. Whio chicks, loc. cit.
5. Titipounamu, the rifleman (Acanthisitta chloris). This is the female who attacked me — all 6–7 grams of her.
6. Ranunculus sp., head of the Waikamaka River below Waipawa Saddle.