Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Allison Ballance and Tuke

I haven't been active on the Tuke front for a while, but a trip to Arthurs Pass where I plan to get to know in more detail the Tuke and their mountain basins is staring me in the face.

I found this fantastic piece of writing by Allison Ballance while googling around. This piece won Ballance the 2007 Royal Society of New Zealand Manhire Prize for Creative Science Writing. It is a great meditation on place and change. Ballance connects with the environment, specifically the mountains of the Southern Alps but in doing so she maintains her perspective. She can see how the mountains like us change, sometimes quickly.

Ballances two main themes are glaciers, and yes tuke, or Rock Wren. Here are a couple of teasers...

I fell in love with the rock wrens, which an early New Zealand climber described as ‘looking for all the world like boiled potatoes with their jackets on, set up on hairpins and let loose on the rocks.’ I nicknamed every bird in our study area Bob, for their endearing habit of constant bobbing

there is a big difference between the potential effects of global warming on rock wrens and glaciers. The worst case scenario is that both will disappear, but the similarity ends there. The rock wrens are irreplaceable – they will join four other ancient New Zealand wrens in the ranks of the extinct. Glaciers are made, not of flesh and blood, but of frozen water; if the world cools, they have the ability to rise from the dead.

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

Some Piccies!

Gareth Hopkins and Becky Wilson from DOC Fox have been doing some rock wren work in deepest darkest westland. Recently they sent me through a couple of their research reports and some photos. I'll summarise the reports in time, but first a couple of best photos...

Rock Wren Nest's

A correspondent sent me through this extract from Herbert Guthrie Smith, a famous New Zealand naturalist and author of the classic "Tutira".

"Guthrie–Smith, H., Sorrows and Joys of a New Zealand Naturalist, 1936.


The orifice of the nest pierced into a fibrous mass of overhanging roots. Partly within and partly beneath this densely matted live growth was built the nest. As we discovered afterwards when ransacking the deserted structure, its remarkable bulk was composed of skeleton leaves, finely shredded grass, and feathers. On this comfortable cushion — the feathers were laid most thickly on the bottom of the nest, or, rather, within this overarching bower — reposed the chicks.

Of the 791 feathers counted, over seven hundred were those of Ocydromus australis (weka), and perhaps O. finschi and O. brachypterus. There were feathers also of considerable numbers of the kakapo and kiwi, showing how high these species ascend in their alpine wanderings; there were also a few kea and a few pigeon feathers. When counted by us, in spite of the deluges of the two preceding days, the interior of the nest and the feathers themselves were fresh and sweet, they betrayed no signs of mould or damp.

Unlike the bush wren which is constantly taking dry feathers in and wet feathers out both during incubation of the eggs and rearing of the young, the rock wren seemed to prefer to make a thorough job at the beginning. Warmth and dryness are obtained once for all by bulk of material, the natural oil of the feathers massed together helping to exclude any dampness that might penetrate, firstly through the live root mass, and, secondly, through the exterior shield of shredded grass and skeleton leaves.

Really interesting stuff. It would be tempting to think that the absence of weka, the vacumn cleaner of the New Zealand forest might have a positive aspect for rock wren, but maybe not! Below is a photo we took of a weka on a recent trip to Kapiti Island.

Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Problem with mice

This came through an email list I monitor, from Elton Smith, Conservation Manager of Orokonui Eco-Sanctuary.

The Problem with Mice

There is no best practice or standard operating procedure to eradicate or control mice

DoC does not intend to write a best practice. There is simply not enough data available

There is no way to predict the success or failure of mice eradications at an early stage – mice are almost impossible to detect at low levels.

38% of mouse eradications fail (5% Norway Rat).

50% of Brodifacoum operations fail in eradicating mice

50% of aerial operations fail to eradicate mice

The preferred habitat of mice is rank grass although in the absence of rats mice can be found in high densities in a wide range of habitats. Densities can reach 160 mice per hectare.

The mean home range of mice can be as little as 8-10m between April and July

A 50m grid is deemed to be too coarse (by some) to accurately detect mice at low levels. The recommended spacing is 10m. Who on earth has the resources to monitor at this rate?

Recent research has show that mice can cover large distances in very low numbers (500m +) and appear to be very trackable in tunnels

Live mice have been seen carried by kaka, morepork, weka and kingfisher.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Species Specific Science on 1080

I am trying to learn as much as I can about the 1080 debate. My subjective view from personal experience of travel in the bush is that 1080, while doubtlessly not the ideal solution, has at least helped our biodiversity hold out against the wave of invaders. I am actively challenging the assumptions I have though by trying to approach this issue with an open mind.

An interesting resource is the Lincoln University database that looks at 1080 at a species specific level through the food web.

Secretary Island Project

I spoke with Megan Willans the other day, she is DOC's programme manager Biodiversity in Te Anau. Megan leads the project that is trying to establish the first population of rock wren in a mostly predator free environment on Secretary island in Fiordland.

Megan reports that there have now being two transfers of birds to Secretary Island from the Murchison mountain totaling 24 birds. Birds have been seen in pairs and carrying nest materials, and hopefully this summer breeding will be confirmed.

Megan has shared her translocation proposal with me and I will upload this information over time in readable chunks! Firstly, the "need"....

An initial transfer of nine birds to Secretary Island took place in March/April 2008. A survey in November located two pairs near the release sites. One of these females was seen carrying nest lining material. Further surveys will take place over the breeding period to ascertain if breeding has occurred.

To develop a genetically viable/robust population a further 20-40 rock wren are proposed to be transferred to Secretary Island over the coming 2-3 years.
As outlined in the initial translocation proposal set below are further details of the need for the establishment of a rock wren population on Secretary Island.

Rock wren inhabit alpine ranges dissected with bush clad valleys and farmland. Their weak flight means that populations are also physically isolated from each other and discrete populations are susceptible to local extinction.
The rock wren is listed as ‘nationally vulnerable’ according to the New Zealand Threat Classification System (Hitchmough, 2005). Relatively little is known about the abundance and distribution of rock wren throughout their range. This lack of information reflects the isolation and relative inaccessibility of the birds’ preferred habitat.

An analysis of database and anecdotal records (Michelsen and Gaze, 2006), as well as some resurveying of past study sites (Willans 2007), have recently taken place to gain more rigorous information on recent trends in rock wren populations. This information has given reason to attempt translocating rock wren to a predator free environment a second time.
Consistent anecdotal accounts of decline throughout the range of rock wren suggest that there is decline occurring in some areas possibly due to predation (Michelsen-Heath and Gaze, 2006). The ground-feeding and hole-nesting habits of rock wren is likely to be a contributing factor in making them vulnerable to introduced mammalian predators.

An intensive population survey of rock wren, undertaken in the Murchison Mountains took place over the summer of 2006/07. Whilst the Murchison Mountains population appears healthy, comparisons made with data collected during the summer of 1984/85 (Michelsen-Heath, 1989) showed a 44% decline in rock wren density over the last twenty years (Willans, 2007). Evidence of predation by stoats and mice on rock wren nests was observed during both studies. Predation of adult or fledged juvenile rock wren was not observed during either study; however this may take place especially to recently fledged juveniles.

The results from this research are likely to reflect their status in other areas on the mainland. It has been concluded that the priority to secure a population of rock wren in a predator free environment remains. Secretary Island provides suitable habitat free of mice, and stoats presently in very low numbers are likely to be eradicated in time.

It is believed that this translocation is appropriate as it will contribute to the Rock Wren Recovery Statement goal (Gaze, 2004) “to ensure that rock wren are established in an environment where a population can be expected to survive in the absence of management”, by securing a self sustaining population on an island near to predator free, creating an additional insurance population for a species which is in decline on the mainland.

One consideration deemed important when choosing the release sight included the present natural range of rock wren. Secretary Island is adjacent to, and contains similar habitat to, the alpine ranges in Doubtful Sound where rock wren still inhabit.

It is planned to reintroduce threatened species to Secretary Island to restore the former biotic community (Wickes, in prep). This restoration programme includes a proposal to introduce rock wren. The extinct relative, bush wren, were likely to be present historically on Secretary Island. It is also possible that rock wren did exist on the island. Reintroducing the taxon to Secretary Island may restore some of the ecological processes lost with their extinction.
Secretary Island is Fiordland’s second largest (8140 hectares), and highest island rising to 1196 metres above sea level. It supports a diverse range of plant communities and habitats, ranging from lowland beech-podocarp forest through to sub-alpine scrub, tussock tops and herb fields. It has been estimated that about 150 hectares may contain suitable rock wren habitat, which would provide a large area to establish a viable population of rock wren.

Secretary Island is not entirely pest free yet. Two pests inhabit the island; deer (Cervus elaphus) and stoats (Mustela erminea). The island is now subject to an intensive pest control programme to eradicate and prevent re-establishment of stoats (Golding et al., 2005) and deer (Crouchley et al., 2007) to provide a sanctuary for threatened species.
Evidence of stoat predation on rock wren chicks and eggs in nests has been documented on a number of occasions in the Murchison Mountains (Michelsen-Heath, 1989 and Willans 2006, 2007). It is expected that on Secretary Island stoats will either stay at very low density (with a trap check and re-bait every six months), or they will be eradicated and therefore will pose minimal risk to translocated rock wren.

Deer pose less threat to rock wren, however they are known to eat many of the same plants rock wren feed on and nest in/under e.g. tussocks, small leafed coprosma’s and other divaricating plants. In the same way deer also impact on the insect community and insects are the key food source in the rock wren diet. Eradicating or maintaining a very low deer density will benefit rock wren on the island.

Secretary Island is isolated from the mainland which has meant other pest species such as rodents (Rattus sp. and Mus musculus) and possums (Trichosurus vulpecula) have not invaded by swimming to the island. Evidence of mouse predation on rock wren nests in the Murchison Mountains has also been documented on a number of occasions (Michelsen-Heath 1989 and Willans 2006, 2007).

Monday, July 6, 2009

University of Otago Rock Wren Project

A team of scientists from the University of Otago led by Dr Bruce Robertson are applying to DOC for a permit to undertake genetic research on the rock wren. I spoke to Bruce and he forwarded me their project outline...

The rock wren is a species in decline due to ongoing predation by introduced mammals and is represented by a fragmented population, but is generally difficult to survey to get accurate estimates of numbers. The purpose of this research is to use genetic tools to identify at-risk populations and potential strongholds of rock wren, and to facilitate management of this threatened but under-studied alpine species. This research is sanctioned by DOC Research & Development, and is partially funded through FRST’s Sustaining & Restoring Biodiversity programme. Using DNA from individual rock wren sampled from across the species’ range throughout the South Island, we will identify populations that are genetically similar, populations with high and low genetic variation, and any genetically unique populations. This information will identify populations that can be used for translocations and reintroductions in the conservation management of the species. A thorough knowledge of genetic population structure will also allow managers to prioritise other management efforts, such as predator control in areas of important rock wren populations. As such, our study will aid the conservation of this unique alpine species.

We are also interested in exploring options for assisted migration. Rock wrens are alpine species threatened by climate change: as the climate warms, alpine habitat is lost. Rock wren populations are at risk of extinction in isolated, low elevation areas because they probably lack the ability to disperse to higher elevation ranges. Isolated, low altitude populations could require assisted migration to high altitude strongholds. Such high altitude refuges (in conjunction with predator control) may be particularly important to ensure the persistence of alpine species such as rock wren because there is only one island refuge (Secretary Island) with sufficient alpine habitat to consider for translocation and this island will only protect a fraction of the species. This study will identify at-risk populations and potential strongholds that could be contemplated as future refuges.

Saturday, July 4, 2009

Tuke video

Just a small snippet of a rock wren flitting around in the shadow of the Darrens. The area around Homer Tunnel enroute to Milford Sound is the most well-known spot for viewing rock wren amongst bird enthusiasts.

Nothing official is known about how many birds approximately exist in this locality. How viable their population is, or how well they are recruiting. Heres hoping this photographic opportunity exists into the future. There are certainly no guarantees!

Monday, June 22, 2009

A replacement for 1080?

This is an interesting new research paper on the potential future replacements for 1080:

It includes very concise backgrounds on the history, use and modes of action of the various options.

Monday, June 15, 2009


The first practical project I am hoping to get started on with rock wren protection is in the subalpine area nestled above the Otira and Bealey Valley. The Otira Basin, the head of the Bealey and Temple Basin. It is an area where rock wren still "hang on" to existence, but we need for a start to determine how many and what predators they co-exist with.

I came across this video on youtube of well know local (to Arthurs Pass) ecologist Gerry McSweeney describing the positive effects of 1080 on theOtira Valley, to see the amazing rata blooming in the Otira then skeletal nearby in the Ahaura is devastating...and listen to the Otira birdsong..

A question I am trying to get to grips with is what effect 1080 may have on a subalpine/alpine environment. We have used it so much in the bush now that its positive effects have been proven to outweigh the negative. Would this be the same? Would the removal of mice in particular from the alpine environment enable invertebrates to flourish, flower numbers to rebound and rock wren to breed more successfully?

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Effect of Climate Change on Rock Wren

From the great National Radio Programme, "Our Changing World"...

Landcare research ecologist Matt McGlone talks about conservation issues with a focus on climate change. Rock wren are discussed briefly as an interesting example of a species at threat.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Tuke in NZ Geographic

I just finished reading the great article "The Also Wren" by Kennedy Warne in the New Zealand Geographic (Num 97, May - June 2009). Warne's article traverses much of the relevant Rock Wren terrain in time and space. From Guthrie Smiths encounters near Milford to the work undertaken by Sue Heath and now Megan Willans in the Murchison Mountains. From the New Zealand wrens in history to the efforts of modern day philanthtopists like Barry Dent and Sue Freitag preventing the rock wren becoming history.

Most importantly though the article examines the trends in time and space. A rock wren reduction of 44% in 30 years in the Murchison Mountains study area, and an overall according to an analysis undertaken by Heath and Peter Gaze of DOC "the rock wrens range had decreased by a quarter since 1984".

Not wanting to take two much from the article which is studded with great quotes from the likes of Herbert Guthrie Smith and great photos, I thought I might just reveal what it says about the meanings of the rock wrens two Maori names...piwauwau and tuke... "Piwauwau means "little complaining bird" - a touch unfortunate, given its merry tweet. Another name for the rock wren is tuke, which can mean elbow, a possible but misleading reference to the rock wren's prominent stripe above the eye (which is by no means elbow-angled), or twitch, a logical allusion to the wren's distinctive bobbing up and down"...Tuke it is then!

Friday, May 22, 2009

Fiordland Expedition

This link is to a great blog by well known photographer Rob Suisted on a recent expedition in Fiordland. Great reading and always like to see rock wren pics...

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Wilderness Magazine Article

A link to the great wilderness magazine article on Tuke by Liz Sherwood

Sunday, April 19, 2009

Predator Research

The idea of this posting or thread will be to gradually collate the mouse research that may be relevant to eventually protecting some rock wren habitat...this is a work in progress!! If anyone stumbles on this and can provide any more information to help me out please leave a comment...just an attempt by a layman to get his head around the issues!


Potential conservation impacts of high-altitude small mammals: a field study and literature review...Includes very good info on mice diet

Researchers Measure Extent of Mouse Menace: Landcare Research scientists investigate mouse abundance in the context of beech release


link to mouse trapping discussion on the wildlife management forum


Movement, diet, and relative abundance of stoats in an alpine habitat
Smith, Jamieson 2003 - suggests independent populations beech/alpine and stoat switch to weta from mice in event of mouse decline after mast cycle

Selection of alpine grasslands over beech forest by stoats (Mustela erminea) in montane southern New Zealand

Dispersal and survival of juvenile feral ferrets
Lancare Research scientists investigate the dispersal of young ferrets and provide some management recomendations...journal article

Saturday, April 4, 2009

Just how unique are the New Zealand wrens?

I have been periodically searching around for interesting Tuke stories, or experiences to add to this blog. The general fruitless of this search, if you exclude the occasional encounters of bird tickers (I'm sure there is a term for this I can't remember!) with the much photographed Tuke of Homer Tunnel, has emphasised to me how little our worlds interact. We live down in our cities, venturing out only occasionally to poke our noses into the bush. They live up there in the alpine world, sheltering in the giant clumps of rock and hopping around alpine basins in the sun, just as they have been since the Southern Alps started rising. Indeed it seems that going back in time is necessary to understand one of the reasons for why the tuke is so special.

Peter Gaze, a DOC Scientist in Nelson, plucked me an excerpt from "Consider the Birds - who they are and what they do" by Colin Tudge 2008. It begins to elucidate just how unique the tuke and its sister the titipounamu (or rifleman) are from an evolutionary perspective,

The New Zealand wrens, family Xenicidae should be treasured not simply as fine little birds but because of their unique evolutionary status. About 80 million years ago, so it seems, the world's first population of passerines split into two. One group evolved to become crows, shrikes, finches, swallows and all the rest - 6000 species of all shapes and way of life. All that remains of the other group is the New Zealand wrens."

Around 80 million years ago is about the same time that New Zealand (then a province of Antarctica) broke away from the great southern land "Gondwana". I only know this in detail because one of my current reads George Gibbs in "Ghosts of Gondwana" says so. Gibbs also notes the importance of the New Zealand wrens, here refered to as of the family Acanthisittidae...

A molecular study has revealed that our tiny acanthisittids possibly represent the closest surviving relict of the ancestral type of passerine bird

Now to be honest this doesn't really mean much to me at all, a layman in a bird mans world, but think of it this way. There are, or were, three endemic (only existing in New Zealand) vertebrate "orders", represented by the Moas, the Kiwis and the Tuatara. There are only nine endemic vertebrate families, these include our wattlebirds (eg kokako or saddleback), our family of frogs, and our special short-tailed bat of the family Mystacina. The frogs are an interesting comparison actually they have existed for a similar period of time to the wrens, have four existing species to the wrens two and three species already extinct to the wrens four.

We have 90 million years of history in our hands...

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Some random info....

A while back some friends and I organised a Mountain Marathon (a two day tramping navigation event). We hoped with this to raise some money for Tuke conservation. In the end we didn't raise anything, but we had fun and so did the competitors exploring the beauty of the new Hakataramea Conservation Park.

For their interest I chucked out a couple of little articles about Tuke and the New Zealand wrens in general with some links. I have reproduced them below.

The NZ Wrens in History(16 April 2008)

Bush wren, the only colour photo that will ever be taken. Don Merton

Ok. So according to Kerry-Jane Wilson's catch-all of NZ conservation "Flight of the Huia" there were six species of New Zealand wren and they were all adapted to their own ecological role and often existed side by side.

There were the Stout Legged Wren and the Long Billed Wren, who existed sometime in the past and are known by the fossils. Then theres the Stephens Island Wren whose final population was famously exterminated by a lighthouse keepers cat, for a slightly more elaborate story check out this:

No4 into the eternal grave of extinction was the Bush Wren, which I would like to briefly elaborate on.

In 1963/64 an ecological cataclysm, in the form of rattus rattus, invaded Big South Cape Island (now known as Taukihepa) and neighbouring islands. Muttonbirders reported a rat plague and wildlife officers were sent quickly to investigate, despite their findings and recomendations to act, scientific and political inertia led to delay and the extinction of three unique species; the greater short tailed bat, the Stewart Island Snipe and the Bush Wren.

The greater short tailed bat, people don't really know that much about, and much the same can be said for the Stewart Island Snipe, although its aerial displays are thought to be the basis of the Maori legend of the Hakawai.

Interesting following rat eradication snipe have been reintroduced to nearby Putauhinu island. However these are Snares Island Snipe, which have not been observed following this aerial display. The Hakawai has been silenced.

But to get onto the bush wren. The wildlife serice team managed to relocate six individuals to nearby Kaimohu island where they were unable to re-establish. The last was seen in 1972. The team which included well known conservationist Don Merton had successfully saved the South Island Saddleback at the same time and used this experience most famously in the subsequent miraculous campaign to save the Black Robin.

But couldn't do anything to help the bush wren. So now theres two NZ wrens left the rifleman and the rockwren, so we better keep an eye on them!

Introduction to the Rock Wren and its conservation issues (9 April 2008)

The New Zealand wrens family...only two left.

As a New Zealander mad keen on the outdoors I have always been aware of the rock wren or "Piwauwau"(or Tuke..ed). They tend to pop up in the most beautiful places; the Darrans in Fiordland, high above the Matukituki in Aspiring, Mueller Hut in Mt Cook. I remember being surprised on a circumnavigation of Kahurangi in 1999 to see the study site mentioned further on, on the Mt Arthur Tabelands.

However, it was not until a short time spent working for DOC helping manage the subantarctic and offshore islands that I became aware of the potential threats facing this amazing little bird; lack of information, apathy/transferrance of risk, and predator invasion of tussocklands and alpine areas.

Now firstly I'm no ecologist, strictly an enthusiast, and I don't claim any scientific credibility whatsoever. My goal for this website is to bring some information together from the best sources I can find, chuck around a few whacky ideas and hopefully be informative and amusing at the same time. The information may not always be coherent or structured but it will be on this site all together for everyone to see. I plan to use the information to publish appropriate articles to a wider audience via the mainstream media.

LACK OF INFORMATION: The first thing you become aware of when you are working for DOC is the quality of information decisions, or more importantly strategies, are based on. Population numbers and trends for even many bird species are virtually non-existent, the blue duck springs to mind, but so to does the rock wren (I haven't found any yet apart from the small study in Kahurangi although further research may throw some up). DOC is simply not resourced enough to do this work.

There is also a lack of information for advocacy, looking on the internet I found a brief introduction to the rock wren: which quotes the eminent, but pre World War 2 naturalist, Herbert Guthrie Smith writing "the rock wren may be considered as relatively safe". Chronologically that was followed by a reference to a Notornis article of 1954 describing the species as "common".

However I remember from my time in DOC that they were trialling a rock wren transfer to Anchor Island (something you do when you recognise a species is in danger). This was confirmed by a 17th Feb 2005 news article on "having a population of rock wrens on predator-free islands is an extra safety measure for the species, just in case something major happens to populations on the mainland". But then checking out Te Ara, our online encyclopedia I find that "a 2005 attempt to establish a population on predator free Anchor Island in Fiordland was unsuccessful".... Mental note contact DOC Te Anau and find out what prompted this attempt and why was it unsuccessful.

Two more leads to follow up were, - NZ National Parks and Conservation Foundation: "S.O.S" fundraising campaign, launched early 2007, focused on six species including rock wren.
- November 2003, Forest and Bird magazine article on fast disappearing rock wren.

APATHY/TRANSFERRANCE OF RISK: As a nation we have delegated our moral task of protecting threatened species to DOC. We largely pass them the burden and forget about it, this is especially true for species, such as the rock wren, that exist only on public land. At an individual level the typical reaction in DOC is to do as much as they can. For political reasons what they can't do tends not to get noticed or publicised. DOC's advocacy role in promoting the needs of these species or indeed eco-systems is also compromised by politics, prioirities and mainstream media policies.

In a Global Economic Forum Report I was perusing recently "Travel & Tourism: Competitiveness Report 2008” (thanks to for the link). New Zealand ranked 130th in the world for its care of threatened species. Now this is probably due to the sheer number of threatened species on our books and our inability to improve their status in the face of continuing predation. But it is also a reminder of the great responsibility we have as a nation to focus on this work.

PREDATOR INVASION OF TUSSOCKLANDS AND ALPINE AREAS: Through the Tenure Review process huge areas of tussocklands are being returned into public ownership, including significant parts of the mountain marathon course for this year. I love these areas but walking through them you sometimes wonder, what is the point of protected areas if by the day they are becoming more and more devoid of biodiversity. If the interest at a macro scale of light interplay on broad ridges and snowy mountains isn't matched by bird song or invertebrate activity at a micro level.

I still have a "Biological Conservation" article I found while working for DOC "Introduced house mice: a significant predator of threatened and endemic birds on Gough Island, South Atlantic Ocean”. It gave me the heebie jeebies. We lay people tend to think of predator/prey relationships as stable but this is far from the case. In the article above scientists observed the adaptation of mice to direct predators of seabirds and their eggs. For me that was relevant at the time as mice are still present on some of our most precious nature reserves, such as Antipodes Island, and it remains relevant now as a more dynamic way of seeing conservation.

There’s some more serious science done on alpine invasion, this report:

Focuses on the potential of a good flowering season for tussock allowing predators like stoats to go to higher altitudes because of the increased presence of mice etc, which could obviously impact the food supply and life expectancy of the rock wren. While predator trapping work done on the Mt Arthur Tablelands has coincided with a recovering population of rock wren see (I now know the accuracy of this last statement is questionable...ed).

A Measurable Goal.

I'm happy now, I have a purpose and a measurable goal to help the Tuke. In 2009 I am going to run a campaign to attempt to have the Tuke elected as New Zealand's Bird of the Year.

The bird of the year has been run since 2005 by Forest and Bird and I checked in yesterday with Helen Bain, their communications manager in Wellington, to check on Tuke's voting history. Helen wished me luck, and told me I would need it.

"In 2008 (the Tuke) got 10 votes and in 2007 it got four. (I don’t have the figures before that.)"

So there is definite potential for progress!

I came to this goal the long way round, and it is only an intermediate step, because being more widely known in itself will not improve the endangered status of the Tuke. I originally was thinking about a predator trapping program in Arthurs Pass, specifically the Otira Basin, but there are complications with that, which need to be worked through, principally the effects of mice, which may be exacerbated, if stoats are trapped for - but that project is lurking in the background to be thought about and discussed more.

But its important to have a measurable goal and this is it for the meantime. Any strategies or ideas welcome that may ensure Tuke's election, but I have a few up my sleeve.

Sunday, January 4, 2009

Ornothological Society Press Release 24/07/08


Thursday 24 July, 2008

Endemic alpine bird declining

A recent study shows the rock wren or tuke is declining in numbers and in range.
Sue Michelsen-Heath (University of Otago) and Peter Gaze (Department of Conservation) have studied all known records of the diminutive and unique alpine bird and published their findings in the journal Notornis.

Over 2100 records were gathered from between 1912 and 2005 from a wide range of sources including
DOC, the Ornithological Society of NZ (OSNZ) and tramping and alpine clubs, prominent naturalists and many nature enthusiasts.

A map of all rock wren sightings shows a 24% reduction in the area they have been found in since 1984. Gaze said “It could be that local populations are so low they are not being spotted. The birds are also hard to detect because of their small size and their camouflage. This makes it difficult to quantify changes in population size.”

Michelsen-Heath said “Changes in the popularity of different types of outdoor recreation over the pastcouple of decades has contributed to a reduction in rock wren reportings. But predation by mice and stoats is the main factor.”

Fewer reports of rock wren sightings could be due to fewer people doing once popular exploratory tramps.More people are kayaking and white-water rafting. Furthermore, DOC now uses contractors to maintain back-country tracks so many staff are not regularly out in these remote areas.

Gaze said “It could be that they are no longer present in some areas, or that people aren’t looking as hard, or perhaps people are not reporting sightings or visiting some of these areas anymore.”

Michelsen-Heath said that consistent anecdotal accounts of decline, evidence of predation by stoats and mice, unsuccessful searches in previous strongholds, and the recent post settlement extinction of five other New Zealand wren species are a real concern and do not bode well for the bird’s future.

The study’s authors also hold fears for the effect climate change on the species. Rats may start colonising alpine areas as these areas become warmer, and prey on rock wren. It is unknown how climate change could affect the diversity and abundance of insects that the bird feeds on.

Michelsen-Heath said “We’d love to see regular reports of birds coming in from trampers, climbers, hunters and outdoor adventure guides, as well as from DOC staff and bird watchers, showing the birds are still alive and well in these areas.”

“The more records we receive, the more confident we will be that we’ve got the real picture” said Gaze.

The public should report sightings of rock wren including a GPS or map reference to their local DOC office, or enter their recording directly into eBird – OSNZ’s online database (

Gaze said “The results confirmed what we had expected. People were saying they weren’t seeing them as often, or weren’t seeing them where they had in the past. So we tried to look at anecdotal evidence scientifically. The results give us justification to be concerned.”


• Results show that rock wren may have disappeared from: Douglas Range in Kahurangi National
Park, Kaikoura Mountains, Paparoa National Park and Lewis Pass.

• Numbers appear to be declining in: Mt Aspiring National Park, Henderson Range in Kahurangi
National Park, Murchison Mountains.

• The remoteness, high altitude and vastness of the Southern Alps make it extremely difficult to
control predators such as stoats and mice. Currently there is no way to control these pests on a large scale within rock wren habitat.

• With the help of a large donation, DOC has translocated some rock wren onto two predator-free
islands in Fiordland.

• How to identify rock wren: Smaller than a silvereye, but with similar colouring. Males are olivegreen,females are more slatey-brown below, have a very short tail, long legs, rounded wings and destinctive cream ‘eyebrows’. They can be identified by their high-pitched, simple three-note call.

• Where rock are found: Alpine basins of the Southern Alps, among rock falls, scree slopes and
subalpine scrub.

• Rock wren behaviour: It bobs up and down among rocks and subalpine scrub feeding on small
insects. It runs and hops and only flies short distances. It nests in holes.

• The only ‘true’ alpine bird in NZ, breeding and living in the alpine zones all year round.

• The rock wren or tuke (Maori name) is endemic to NZ meaning it is a native species and found only in NZ.

• Rock wren are classed as 'nationally vulnerable’, one of three criteria for threatened species in NZ. This status is due to the relatively small total population and the expected continued decline in abundance. Rock wren’s global status is ‘globally threatened.

• The rock wren belongs to a distinct family [actually ‘Infra Order’] of birds that is known only from NZ. A hundred years ago there were five species in this family but now the rifleman and rock wren are the only survivors. The rock wren and rifleman’s ancestors separated from all other bird families about 90 million years ago.

• Notornis is a scientific journal published quarterly by the Ornithological Society of New Zealand

Rock wren sightings sought as figures fall

The following article appeared in the ODT on Tuesday 30th December, thanks to them for permission to reproduce the article that can also be found here

Rock wren numbers appear to be declining and trampers, climbers and hunters are all being called upon to report any sightings they might make of the diminutive threatened native bird.

The rock wren, or tuke, is classed as nationally vulnerable, and the results of a study have shown numbers appeared to be declining in Mount Aspiring National Park, in the Murchison Mountains and in the Henderson Range in the Kahurangi National Park.

University of Otago teaching fellow Sue Michelsen-Heath, of the zoology department, studied more than 2000 sightings of the rock wren recorded between 1912 and 2005.

The results of analysing the sightings showed areas the tiny alpine bird inhabited had declined by 24% since 1984.

Predation by mice and stoats was a major factor in population decline, she said.

Anecdotal evidence of population declines, evidence of predation, unsuccessful searches in previous strongholds and the extinction of five other New Zealand wren species in the past 100 years did not bode well for the bird's future.

Department of Conservation technical support officer Peter Gaze said climate change could also affect the rock wren, as rats could start to colonise alpine areas as they became warmer.

The wren is the only true New Zealand alpine bird which breeds and lives in the alpine zones all year round.

It was difficult to quantify changes in population size as the bird was hard to detect because it was small and well camouflaged.

The rock wren is smaller than a silvereye, but has similar colouring. Males are olive-green while females are more slatey brown.

The birds have a very short tail, long legs and distinctive cream-coloured eyebrows.

They are found in alpine basins of the Southern Alps among rock falls, scree slopes and subalpine scrub. They can be identified by their high-pitched, simple three-note call.

Sightings, with a GPS or map reference, can be reported to Doc or entered on to the Ornithological Society of New Zealand's website

The findings of the study were published in the society's scientific journal Notornis.