What is the biggest fish that has been caught in Fiordland? Today Takahe is classified as nationally vulnerable and has a population of over 400 birds. For several decades, it was assumed that takahē were extinct in both the North and South Islands – until being rediscovered in 1948. To understand, we need to first look at the takahe’s closest relative, the pukeko. Did the latter take a wrong turn in the race for survival? Supplied Newly hatched takahē chicks are entirely black. Drastic action was required. Mōho were taller and more slender than takahē, and share a common ancestor with living pukeko. Contrary to its name, the hound must have been surpris­ingly gentle, for this fourth specimen, purchased by the government for £250 and displayed in the Otago Museum, was the best preserved of all four. Take the stoat, for example. Neither we nor the Murchisons need the story of another lost tribe. “Let’s face it. I am told that the kokako nearest me, banded red, yellow and green, has been nicknamed Bob Marley. But what about Goose Cove? It flies with a contorted jerky motion, but only for a short distance, alighting on any tree handy, and staggering among the branches as if intoxicated. There was also a bird almost identical to the takahe in New Caledonia. It seems an apt metaphor, because for most of our native birds the arrival of such a serpent has meant expulsion from an avian paradise, a slow but irrevoca­ble banishment towards extinction. For example takahe were always thought to be vegetarians, but on Tiritiri the details of their diet have been precisely determined. . Ask your librarian to subscribe to this service next year. For 12 years, during the red deer plague in Fiordland, Orbell was a govern­ment hunter. [15] It is a stocky, powerful bird, with short strong legs and a massive bill which can deliver a painful bite to the unwary. But back in the chopper I knew none of that, and so I continued to ruminate on the narcissistic nature of science. From the air they resem­ble an archipelago of bald islands rising from the rainforest: snow-white against dark green, serrated contours chiselled by ice-age glaciers, their rock faces and couloirs never scaled by climbers. Some birds starved after spending so much time confronting one another through the fences that they failed to eat sufficient food, although an abundance of food was available. Huge numbers of people came to Mt Bruce to view the ‘back from extinction’ takahē. “Takahe evolved from a pukeko-like bird, and being able to watch the two co­exist has been a unique opportunity,” Steve Trewick, an Otago University zoologist, tells me. Orbell is unfazed. DOC” Orbell is a big man with wide shoulders and a voice that seems a little loud and harsh until you notice his hearing aid. Such an environment allows an opportunity to study the birds on a day-to-day basis—a luxury that is almost impossible in the wilds of the Murchisons, where every trip is an expedition. In other words, on neighbouring islands, but independ­ently from each other, two separate waves of swamphen migration took the same evolutionary path to become a bird we today label as takahe. My first reaction was to think how small it was. It is a stocky bird, with reduced wings, strong legs and a massive bill. Of those four, one produces consistently infertile eggs. can’t quite see. “This was a major step towards the long-term goal of securing self-sustaining populations in areas of their former natural range,” Ms Sage said. When you’re About to meet Geoffrey Orbell for the first time it’s impossible not to let your imagination run ahead a little and conjure up fanciful visions of the man whose name has become synonymous with takahe. Survival in the altering temperature was not tolerable by this group of birds. I can hear the sewing-machine chatter of an antique film projector, its beam piercing a dark room full of pipe smoke—and on the wall shaky images of takahe, recorded witll a hand-held movie camera, bringing back to life the bird that was supposed to be extinct. Catlin, who left her long-term partner Shadowfax, has walked herself into the neighbouring farmland, twice. There are now recovery programmes to prevent the extinction of New Zealand's biggest flightless bird. The introduced red deer has stripped large swathes of Fiordland of its native vegetation. The Department of Conservation’s annual takahē count has tallied bird numbers to over 400 for the first time in at least a century. It is territorial and remains in the grassland until the arrival of snow, when it descends to the forest or scrub. With no need to escape from ground predators, the birds could afford to lose the power of flight. If islands are indeed Nature’s laboratories, is the takahe an experiment gone astray—an avian offshoot that has branched so far from the evolutionary main trunk that it is now collapsing under its own weight? In all my days of working with animals, it was the creepiest thing I’ve seen.”. Common, too, is the kea—”an exceedingly brainy parrot locked in a body that offers limited means of expression,” as a Dunedin neurologist once told me. But the wild population of the takahē living there was shrinking. [20], Although it is indigenous to swamps, humans have turned its swampland habitats into farmland, and the takahē was forced to move upland into the grasslands. The two birds were genetically quite divergent—more so, for example, than moho and today’s pukeko, which are genetically very close. In June 2006 a pair of Takahē were relocated to the Maungatautari Restoration Project. Along the southern shore there is an even more telling example: a band of mountain beech killed by frost when the lowest recorded temperature hit: minus 23°C. I see my first bird, a female namedll, on a ridge near the lighthouse. The first recorded European encounter with takahe was in 1849, when a gang of Dusky Bay sealers found and followed the trail of a large and unknown bird. Cartons lined with newspapers were flown in and opened, and the birds scuttled into the tussock, ambassadors of hope return­ing to the homeland they have never seen. The bird's name comes from the word takahi, to stamp or trample. VVhat if they can’t feed properly, and don’t survive the winter? Stuffed, mounted and captioned Notornis mantelli, this first specimen of takahe was shipped to the British Museum in London. (1996). . The truth is, in the Murchisons takahe haven’t lived very well. A nursery was estab­lished, annually producing 20,000 saplings from seeds gathered on the island, and, in an extraordinary voluntary effort, some 200,000 trees have been planted: flax and cabbage, pohutukawa and karo, taraire, kohekohe and puriri. On the inside, the unit resembles a small maternity ward, though you wear sterilised white gumboots instead of slippers. [12] Pukeko are members of a widespread species of swamphen, but based on fossil evidence have only been in New Zealand for a few hundred years, arriving from Australia after the islands were first settled by Polynesians. The introduction of red deer (Cervus elaphus) represent a severe competition for food, while the stoats (Mustela erminea) take a role as predators. Piece by piece, a sketchy replica of a prehistoric ecosystem was recreated. “OK, let’s move on to the next one!” came the voice again. One is snatched by a gang of pukeko, another one by an eel, the third dies of an infection. [11], Over the second half of the 20th century, the two Notornis species were gradually relegated to subspecies: Notornis mantelli mantelli in the North Island, and Notornis mantelli hochstetteri in the South. “We’ve found him!”, Scientists were sceptical, and so, on November 20, Orbell and his mates were back at the lake, equipped with a camera and 30 yards of rabbiting net which Orbell had borrowed from one of his patients. After the final bird was captured in 1898, and no more were to be found, the species was presumed extinct. “Supposed to be extinct” was exactly the phrase Susan Orbell used when she showed her son a picture of the takahe published in a 1911 Christmas issue of the Otago Witness. Two chicks taken to the reserve were killed by their parents during their first night there. A hunter once told me how he came across a stoat while duck shooting: “I gave ‘im a 12-gauge charge at close range, no more than eight metres. It sounded as if someone were whistling across the top of an empty .303 cartridge. Elsewhere in this Madame Tussaud’s hall of faunal fame lie the less con­spicuous and the less renowned—creatures that lacked teeth and claws, or a size that earned them notoriety. Huia, with its crescent-moon beak and faded orange wattles: died December 28, 1907. . Apparently not. The two males fed together and preened each other but ignored the female. There are only 418 takahē left, after they were found again in 1948 in the Murchison mountains in the South Island. They have 20 takahe on the island, but only four breeding pairs. No moho was ever seen again. The news of what he found there stirred up the ornithological world and made headlines across the globe. The takahē census is carried out on October 1 when the previous breeding season’s chicks are a year old and are added to the total population count. 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