Whio! That was a long day
The Kepler Track offered a new challenge for long term local stoat trapper and one time Kepler Challenger John Carter last week: The Iris Burn River Survey.
The purpose was to look for Whio/Blue Ducks and armed with canine conservation ranger 'Oscar' (and owner 'Max') it was just another walk in the park…15km of slippery river bouldering later we still faced the 15km walk out from Rocky Point, and it was already 3pm!
The nose that knows - Oscar the tracking dog.
Starting from a Te Anau helicopter hangar at first light the first part of the frosty dawn breaker was easy (see GPS photo for airspeed).
We met Iris Burn conservation rangers Marianne and Robbie at their hut and together walked to the Iris Burn Falls to start the trip, Oscar's nose was busy immediately and we found one Whio pair under a bank on the way... very close to where John had noted 5 Whio on a winter volunteer trip, tidying traps in July 2012.
Oscar and Max worked the river stopping for field sign, mostly preened feathers and droppings - which look like sand but smell like crayfish - drip-feeding his keen followers with interesting Whio facts: they have baleen in their beaks just like some whales use for feeding on small creatures.
The track has held up well to the immense deluges we experienced over December, from the river however it's a whole new valley and it has changed shape around areas the hut wardens called Stuff-Up Creek and Margarine Creek, after Ponytail Falls and the Big Slip area drains and the rock changes. Margarine Creek has 'spread out' further downstream of the track. Rocky Point looks very different from the river, the new shelter and picnic area have shrugged off the weather well.
The four pairs of Whio-ducks discovered are clearly using all the river habitat from the Iris Burn Falls to Rocky Point, and Max expects more to be in the gorge where the new Heartbreak Hill alignment now looks very established.
Due to the early start and extensive searching the survey ceased there, Marianne returned to Iris Burn and the rest of the team jogged out with Oscar making many friends along the way: even with a muzzle and high viz the dark wire-haired 'Czeski-Foscik' looked like he was smiling the whole way, a great ambassador for the birdlife that is benefitting from the trapping effort.
Whio are effectively extinct in the wilderness without active management so to have at least eight birds alongside the Kepler Track is a credit to all involved - especially the runners who fund the flights for the trappers to access the valley as an easy day trip.
Motorau was like Club Med with many backpackers trying out for tans without tan-lines on the white sands next to a mirror calm Manapouri…The group exited at Rainbow Reach at about 7pm completing a thoroughly rejuvenating 12hr mission - 2 hrs longer than John's Kepler Challenge time and only half the distance.