13 December 2007


Whio & chicks on pool
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 whionow 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 whio chickuntil 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 whio chickthe 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.
So much depends upon/these leatherwood leaves/glazed with rainwater/beside the yellow flowers [3].
As we climb, I think of the whio photos stored on those small cards, safely tucked away in my pack, and it occurs to me that no matter how good they might be, they’re at best second rate. They’re not the event, not the whio; they’re merely a visual record. No matter how evocative, no photo delivers the actual moment, the sound of rushing water, the sharp, pungent smell of wet rock, the feel of riverbed gravel under your elbows and legs as you lie stretched out, watching the whio and their chicks just a few metres away across the transparent, rippling pool. The best that can be hoped for, of any photo, is that it will recall for you, and engender in others, the emotions of the moment. Anything else is pretence.

Whio swimming

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.

Photos (click to enlarge them):
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.
Photos and words © 2007 Pete McGregor


Theriomorph said...

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.


Thanks for this post, Pete, and glad to see the whio photos! Spectacular images & words.

Ruahines said...

Stunning photos Pete! When that first shot popped up on my screen it took my breath away. I have seen many Whio along the way in the Ruahines and have never bothered taking a photo as I know I couldn't come close to capturing the moment and no one would understand nor appreciate a poor photo. To me they are the soul of the Ruahines and when I close my eyes and recollect my treasured encounters with them your photos are as close as it gets to being there. Well done, trust the trip was enjoyable.

Duncan said...

Wonderful post Pete.

pohanginapete said...

Theriomorph, thanks. One of the difficulties I had preparing this post was trying to choose the photos — of the 300-odd, a fair proportion are keepers. Glad I don't have to pay for film and processing.

Robb, the Ruahine rivers are perhaps the most beautiful I've ever seen, anywhere, and whio seem to epitomise the sense of those rivers. Very glad the photos evoked such strong memories for you. (Yes, a wonderful trip). Cheers.

Thanks Duncan :^) We have so many Australian birds, or closely similar species, so it's good to be able to show you something uniquely New Zealand.

Anne-Marie said...

Pete, I love the way you've written this. Well worth all that struggling!

I am so glad you had this memorable experience - and that we can experience it vicariously through you. Even if, as you say, we're not experiencing the actual event.

On my journey up the Whanganui River a while back I made a short detour up the Manganui-a-te-Ao River but unfortunately didn't see any whio.

I am a firm believer in happiness coming from life's small things. Love, sunshine, photographing whio chicks, tomato and bacon sandwiches :-) As long as these things, and others like them, exist, happiness will always be found some where. I think perhaps you have the same attitude.

You poor thing, I hope you're not too traumatised and wounded by the titipounamu attack :-)


Anonymous said...

The colours of the birds, the rocks and the water are so beautifully matched and so realistic. I felt, while reading your post, that I, too, was crouched under a rock ledge, doing a bit of delousing and keeping an eye on my chicks.
The people who imported rainbow trout from Scotland all those years ago (hopefully) did it with the best of intentions.

pohanginapete said...

It's tough, but I'm managing to get over the titipounamu attack, Anne-Marie ;^D

Thanks for the thoughts. It's a delight to be able to share at least some aspects of these marvellous times — and I agree wholeheartedly about the importance of small things.

Mmmm... tomato and bacon sandwich...

RR: Crikey, I'll have to be more careful what I write! Maybe it's a good thing the photos and words can't completely recover the actual event ;^)

Good point about the introduction of trout. It's certainly been wonderful in many respects (we have some of the best fishing in the world here), but not all consequences have been positive. It's not just whio; native fish have also suffered, and there are likely to be many more adverse consequences.

TR Ryan said...

Wow! Now that is a blog!!! Beautiful.

pohanginapete said...

T.R.: Wow! That says such a lot in so few words. Thanks, and welcome :^)

Ruahines said...

Kia ora Pete. I keep sneaking back to look at those photos again. They are really beautiful. By far and away the best capturing of the Whio I have seen, and with the chicks as well. That is one sight I have not seen. You nailed the perfect combination of the colours of the Whio blended to the environment, makes me wonder how many I have missed as well. Thanks again for the vicarious trip to the ranges.

Anonymous said...

Amazing photos Pete! As Robb says, we have seen Whio many times in the Ruahines' inner rivers, but I have always had my Nikon with a 50mm lens which wasn't up to the task (and even if I was better prepared, I couldn't come close to taking outstanding photos like yours). A beautiful bird in its sadly shrinking beautiful environment. You capture their essence with your camera and the attendent tragedy with the text. Great work Pete.
Nigel (appreciating the whio from Korea)

pohanginapete said...

Robb, thankyou. It really is remarkable how well these birds are camouflaged — particularly the chicks. The markings on the chicks' heads mimic the fractures in the rock astonishingly well.

Nigel, delighted you're able to enjoy the Ruahine through these words and photos. Every place has its own beauty, but it's a lot easier to recognise it in places like the Ruahine; a lot harder in some of the world's grim places. I trust you'll be able to recognise plenty, or at least enough, in Korea.

Great to get this sort of appreciation from you guys, who know the Ruahine so well.

Anonymous said...

Wonderful photographs of the Whio. I can well imagine how it must feel to have a good selection of keepers!

pohanginapete said...

Thanks Bev!

polona said...

each time i come here i'm reminded how much i enjoy your photos and words. wonderful!

pohanginapete said...

Polona, I'm pleased they might provide some warmth for your winter. Thankyou :^)

Zhoen said...

Made me think of Douglas Adams description of the little penquin (Blue?) that survived on an island by reproducing very, very slowly. Change has not been kind to the species as a result.
Thank you for the peek into your experience, one I will never have in person.

vegetablej said...

Beautiful bird portraits. Beautiful land. What a great place to spend Christmas. I hope you have a wonderful one. :)

pohanginapete said...

Zhoen, New Zealand's offshore islands are crucial refuges for many of our endangered species. We have far too many species on the brink of, or declining towards, extinction, but at least we can protect them more easily on some of those islands. So many countries don't have that option. Moreover, some of the species surviving on the mainland are far more at risk than they appear, because they're long-lived. Kiwi, for example, still have populations of seemingly reasonable size, but they're all aging adults; chicks hatched into some populations are all killed, mostly by stoats.

vj: Thankyou! It is indeed a wonderful place to enjoy Christmas (and the rest of the year). Thanks also for your generous words on your blog, and best Christmas wishes to you too :^)

Beth said...

Hi Pete, Merry Christmas and thank you for the gift of these wonderful photos - I really feel like I'm sitting close and experiencing the spirit fo these birds along with you. May they live long and raise many chicks - and may you survive any future attacks by fierce little riflemen! My treat today was seeing a large owl as we drove back up to Montreal; it was hopping/floating to a different tree branch and I was lucky enough to spot it - I wasn't expecting an owl at 2:00 in the afternoon.

pohanginapete said...

Thankyou, Beth, and compliments of the season to you also. Owls are fascinating and beautiful birds; so strange and evocative. And the way they fly... "floating" is an apt word.