Tuesday, 14 April 2015

We Finally Quacked it!

Ok, well the corny pun is not quite correct because Blue Ducks (Maori name Whio), don’t quack, they wheeze (female) and whistle (male). Whio (pronounced fee-o) means whistle in Maori.

I’m interrupting the timeline of the blog posts once again to report that we’ve finally found ourselves some elusive Blue Ducks. We’ve been searching for Whio, New Zealand’s rare and endangered endemic duck in many places throughout the North & South Island; Tongariro River, Cobb Valley, Mt Arthur, Fyfe River in Murchison and Oparara Basin amongst others.

On Sunday, after a tip from a bird forum I belong to, we finally found a pair on a hydro canal near Hokitika. And the best bit? We didn’t need to get out of the vehicle to see them! We actually weren't going to go looking on Sunday because of the terrible weather which is still plaguing us and the West Coast, but we went tiki-touring and ended up in Blue Duck territory so we took a chance and struck gold.

We had a little luck on our side. A vehicle track ran along the edge of the hydro canal for a number of kilometres. We crawled along it with me scanning the canal and bank across the other side. Towards the end we came to a large settling pond where we found a guy fishing. The rain had just started in earnest but we stopped beside him and wound our window down to speak to him as he sat in his cab out of the cold & wet. I asked him if he’d seen any Blue Ducks, not expecting him to give a positive response. But he said ‘Yeah, I think two flew over 10 or so minutes ago, they landed up there somewhere, I'm sure they looked blue” pointing up stream and out over the large pond.

We pulled away and I continued scanning around the pond edge until suddenly I spotted them! Resting on a log, in the rain, over the far side of the pond. Just after I grabbed a couple of zoomed in shots (in case they disappeared before our eyes) the duck at the top jumped off into the water and started swimming away. 'Darn', I thought he was off to hide against bank in the darkness. But he stopped a little further up on another log and did a bit of dabbling before swimming on again.

This photo below (not zoomed) shows how hard it is was to spot them, they blend in very well- the two arrows point to the ducks resting on the logs after one had swum off. The dashes you can see all over the photos is the rain and it’s about to get worse. (Remember to click on the photos to see them enlarged)

The Blue Duck/Whio is one of New Zealand’s iconic species, it is rarer than the kiwi and is as well known the Takahe and the Kakapo, other highly threatened endemic birds. It’s a ‘poster boy’ & ambassador for our endangered species with many nationwide community protection projects in place. Genesis Energy have a long association in supporting and protecting Whio who inhabit many of the streams & rivers that supply our hydro energy. It is estimated that there are only 2000-3000 blue ducks remaining in the wild and unlike other threatened birds, whio can’t be moved to predator-free off shore islands, they rely on fast flowing alpine waterways to survive.

I wonder how many New Zealanders can name the bird that appears on our $10 bank note? A bank note that is coloured blue should be a good clue.

Our Whio, the one that had jumped off the log, carried on upstream swimming towards us along the opposite bank. Every time he disappeared behind the plants growing over the edge we thought he’d gone to hide but he’d then pop out further up stream. When he got to the narrower canal he started feeding over the rocks and under the water, working his way quickly upstream. When he dived under we could see him moving about on the stream bed before popping back up like a cork seconds later. We decided it was the male although they both are very similar in plumage. And that's now heavy rain you can see on the water.

Whio are river specialists, they inhabit clean, fast flowing streams in the forested upper catchments of the North and South Island mountain regions. They have several unique features; a streamlined head and large webbed feet with well-developed claws to enable them to feed in fast moving water. The upper bill has a thick semicircular, fleshy ‘lip’ allowing them to scrape insect larvae from rocks without injury. Even the ducklings have oversized feet & strong legs and are ready to swim in swift currents and jump onto large rocks & logs soon after hatching.

Whio mate for life and a pair will fiercely defend their territory which is usually a stretch of river up to 1.5km long. Our pair obviously have dibs on the pond and part of the hydro canal. And so far he is taking no notice of us on the other bank. David's quietly driving the ute along the track as we follow him upstream, I have my window down and the rain is pouring in and drenching everything on my side including me. But who cares. We've found whio!

Conditions were diabolical for taking photos- dark water and overhanging trees were the least of my worries. It was the worst possible weather conditions; by now it was gale force winds, torrential near horizontal rain and there's a thunderstorm raging above us. All of which tested my camera skills to the limit, all settings were wound out to the max in the end. But I am more than pleased with the results, even if they aren't that sharp.

At one stage he disappeared, so I quietly got out of the cab (sheltering my camera as best I could) and peered over the side and there he was standing on a rock below us. I’m not too sure who got the bigger surprise- him stretching his wings or me with my shutter speed to slow!

He wasn’t too perturbed….

….keeping a wary eye on me….

….before ducking his head under the water and giving the rock a going over……

…then checking me one last time…..

…..before swimming off.

He did disappear this time and the rain stopped about 5 minutes later (I was so mad with the weather, if only it had been clearer...but then he might have taken fright earlier or not in fact moved off the original log, so I should just be a little more thankful). What a thrill it was to finally see these beautiful Blue Ducks in their natural environment.

We hunted back and forward but couldn’t locate either duck again- the female having disappeared too. David did spot a large brown trout though.

Guess where we’re going today……


  1. Congratulations - your patience has been rewarded. Such wonderful photos, and we can see how they would be very hard to spot.

    Jenny and Robin - Romany Rambler

    1. Thanks Jenny & Robin, it was a thrill finally to see them and we've been back since and the male again obliged us by feeding close. Now I want to return again :)

  2. Well done! I wish I cld see some. I've looked but no luck so far. They're a lovely colour.

    1. Thanks Olwen, they were a beautiful steely grey/blue colour and the speckled brown really stood out. They were smaller than I had imagined too. Keep persevering, one day you'll get a lucky break.


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