Readers’ wildlife photos

Reader Emma Crawford from Whanganui in New Zealand sent some photos of a very rare bird; her notes are indented. I saw this bird, but briefly, at the Tiritiri wildlife reserve on my last visit to NZ.

Tom and I spend the southern hemisphere’s summer in New Zealand, my home country, and the northern hemisphere’s summer in England, Tom’s home country. We are both freelance ecologists, so we follow the summer because it is also the season when we get most work. Just before Tom and I set off on our journey back to the UK for the northern hemisphere’s summer this year, we decided to visit Zealandia Eco-Sanctuary in Wellington, New Zealand.
Zealandia is the world’s first fully-fenced, urban ecosanctuary, covering 225 hectares. They have reintroduced 18 species of native wildlife back into the area, 6 of which were previously absent from mainland New Zealand for over 100 years. The rarest species to be introduced to the sanctuary is the critically endangered South Island takahē, the feature of our email.
The South Island takahē, also known as simply ‘takahē’ (Porphyrio hochstetteri), was introduced as an analogue species for the extinct North Island takahē , also known as ‘mōho’ (Porphyrio mantelli). Like our extant takahē, the mōho was flightless, but perhaps even larger in size. The one other extant Porphyrio species native to New Zealand is the pūkeko (Porphyrio melanotus), which can fly and is widespread throughout the country. These three species all belong to the family, Rallidae, a group of small to medium-sized ground living birds. Our takahē can claim the distinction of being the largest living species of rail in the world.
It is thought that the flying ancestors (a pūkeko-like bird) of these species were blown over in storms from Australia on three separate occasions.  The takahē and mōho possibly arrived during the Miocene-Pliocene 5 to 20 million years ago. Since then, they diverged considerably from their original form, becoming totally flightless due to lack of ground-based predators.  The pūkeko, however, arrived more recently during the Holocene a thousand years ago or less, and hasn’t changed much. In fact, it is not distinguishable from Australian forms. You can see the difference between the takahē and pūkeko in the following two photos.
Adult takahē can weigh over 3 kg, stand 50cm tall, and are about the size of a large chicken. Their weight is something that really surprises you if you are used to handling flighted birds. I remember this from the post-mortem lab when one came in for examination. They may be the size of a large hen, but they certainly weigh a lot more than one! As for the pūkeko, they are more comparable to a chicken, being up to 50cm tall, and reaching about 1kg in weight.
The takahē’s story is quite amazing. Between 1849 and 1898, only four individuals were ever sighted. Then, with no more birds having being seen, by the early 1900’s takahē were considered to be extinct. That was until 1948, when they were rediscovered in the tussock grasslands of the remote Murchison Mountains, Fiordland. What a find! They had managed to hold out in this remote location, but only just. Their survival was still being threatened from heavy grazing by introduced deer competing for their tussock grass habitat, and nest and chick predation by stoats.
Since then, the Department of Conservation has done some great work consisting of an intensive captive breeding programme, translocations, stoat control and deer culling taking the takahē population from a low of 118 birds in 1981 to the current population of just over 300. In the annual census completed in September, 2016, the Department of Conservation estimated that there were a minimum of 106 birds remaining in the Murchison Mountains. The rest were found in predator-free locations across New Zealand, including Zealandia, which are home to 200 more takahē – bringing the total population to 306.
Zealandia Eco-sanctuary is home to a “retired” breeding pair of takahē named ‘Puffin’ and ‘T2’. They used to live on Mana Island, but hadn’t produced chicks for some years so were removed from the breeding population to create room for younger birds. Not many people have the opportunity to go to the remote Murchison Mountains, or even some of the predator-free offshore islands where takahē are located, so having this pair so accessible to the public is wonderful for takahē advocacy. It certainly promotes awareness of their plight and their recovery programme.
If you would like to see Puffin and T2, check out the wetlands area at the top of the lower lake, about 20 minutes wander from Zealandia’s entrance. They are quite unafraid of people. Tom realised he might have brought the wrong camera lens for this particular occasion as the birds kept on coming too close! In fact, even the humble camera-phone sufficed…

I asked Emma about Whanganui (it’s on the North Island), as I didn’t know anything about it, and she sent an explanation and more photos:
It’s not often on the tourist-trail, but it it’s a nice place to visit (if I do say so myself!). If you haven’t already, I highly recommend canoeing down the Whanganui River as well (I’ve attached a few pics – not the best quality, but you will be able to get the gist). The forest is lovely –  we even saw long-tailed bats flitting about when we stayed the night at one of the DOC huts on the way. That would be another blog post in itself, haha!
If you would like to read more of our wildlife adventures:
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References and Further Reading
Department of Conservation Website – Takahe –
(Retrieved 24 April, 2017)
Department of Conservation Website – Takahe Population Crosses 300 Milestone –
(Retrieved 9 May, 2017)
IUCN Webisite – Porphyrio mantelli (Moho) –
(Retrieved 8 May, 2017)
New Zealand Birds Online Website – Pukeko –
(Retrieved 8 May, 2017)
New Zealand Birds Online Website – Takahe –
(Retrieved 24 April, 2017)
New Zealand Geographic – Pukeko the Indomitable Swamphen –
(Retrieved 8 May, 2017)
Official Takahē Recovery Website –
(Retrieved 24 April, 2017)
TerraNature Website – Takahe –
(Retrieved 8 May, 2017)
Zealandia Eco-sanctuary Website
(Retrieved 8 May, 2017)


  1. Randy schenck
    Posted June 14, 2017 at 7:55 am | Permalink

    Great stories and pictures. Very interesting.

  2. MKray
    Posted June 14, 2017 at 8:00 am | Permalink

    1948! Takahe! I was in a class in school in Auckland at that time when our teacher Mr Dow told us that the (then called) notornis, which had been thought extinct, had been found!

    • Posted June 14, 2017 at 12:08 pm | Permalink

      Wow, MKray! I don’t think I’d ever forget that moment either. I’m excited just thinking about it 😀

    • Heather Hastie
      Posted June 14, 2017 at 2:46 pm | Permalink

      A retired teacher from Auckland called Mr Dow lived next to us in Gisborne throughout my childhood! I never knew him very well, but hus wife was lovely.

      • MKray
        Posted June 14, 2017 at 4:04 pm | Permalink

        He was Ronald James Dow, and he was starting out as a teacher (I think) when I was in Standard 1 in 1947. I would guess born around 1920 depending on whether his career was delayed by the war. Does that fit?

        • MKray
          Posted June 14, 2017 at 4:09 pm | Permalink

          Correction: for 1947 read 1948, the polio epidemic year when we all had correspondence lessons for a few weeks,

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted June 14, 2017 at 4:54 pm | Permalink

          I’ll have to check with my mother. I’m seeing her later this morning. I’ll get back to you.

        • Heather Hastie
          Posted June 14, 2017 at 9:10 pm | Permalink

          Hi. The Auckland teacher next door was around the right age, but his name was Peter Dow. Maybe a brother? His wife Mary was the daughter of former Auckland mayor Sir John Alum and her sister was headmistress of New Plymouth Girl’s College. Their son John was a lead engineer at the Pike Mine.

  3. Monika
    Posted June 14, 2017 at 8:19 am | Permalink

    That is one cool looking bird! The beak looks fearsome, their food must be quite coarse.

    • Posted June 14, 2017 at 12:15 pm | Permalink

      Monika, I reckon! 😀 Their beak is pretty solid as it eats grass, tussocks, and shoots (along with any insects opportunistically). Some tough fodder!

  4. philfinn7
    Posted June 14, 2017 at 8:27 am | Permalink

    The Australian version of the pukeko we call a Purple Swamphen (Porphyrio Porphyrio).

  5. darrelle
    Posted June 14, 2017 at 8:31 am | Permalink

    I want to go kayaking there.

  6. Karen Bartelt
    Posted June 14, 2017 at 9:54 am | Permalink

    The beak is just amazing.

  7. Posted June 14, 2017 at 11:15 am | Permalink

    Wonderful pictures and commentary. It must be fascinating being a freelance ecologist. Following the summers between earthly hemispheres…

    • Diane G.
      Posted June 15, 2017 at 2:44 am | Permalink

      I know, right?! I was so impressed and maybe more than a tad jealous. 😀

      Emma, what a wonderful life you two have carved out for yourselves.

  8. Glenda
    Posted June 14, 2017 at 11:25 am | Permalink

    Good photos and notes. Thank you for sharing.

  9. Posted June 14, 2017 at 11:33 am | Permalink

    What wonderful colours!

  10. Diana MacPherson
    Posted June 14, 2017 at 11:50 am | Permalink

    There are so many birds that I want to grab in the body because of they look round & plush. Birds hate that.

  11. Posted June 14, 2017 at 12:06 pm | Permalink

    Thank you very much for sharing our takahē encounter, Jerry!

    And thank you, all, for your comments 🙂

  12. Heather Hastie
    Posted June 14, 2017 at 2:54 pm | Permalink

    Fantastic pics and commentary . Most enjoyable!

    I currently live in Taumarunui and have a lot of family in Whanganui. Many friends and family, including my mother, siblings, and their kids, have done the trip kayaking the Whanganui river from Taumarunui to Whanganui. It’s an experience of a lifetime according to all!

    Jerry – the Whanganui river starts from Mt Ruapehu. It’s the river we were overlooking when we were at the Lavender Farm, and driving beside to get there.

    • Diana MacPherson
      Posted June 14, 2017 at 3:27 pm | Permalink

      I was thinking that river would be perfect for my kayak. I went to lots of places in NZ & whined that I wished I had my kayak.

      • Heather Hastie
        Posted June 14, 2017 at 3:53 pm | Permalink

        There are plenty to hire or borrow – not many tourists bring their own!

        • Diana MacPherson
          Posted June 14, 2017 at 4:56 pm | Permalink

          I like mine because it fits me really well (it’s 14ft instead of the usual 17ft for a sea kayak) and it tracks really well. Mind you, I haven’t been out in it for ages so I might be too unfit for it now b

  13. Diane G.
    Posted June 15, 2017 at 2:52 am | Permalink

    Fascinating! How wonderful that this bird was rediscovered and is being brought back from the brink.

    I love rails, but I’d never had recognized the takahē as one! While the pūkeko immediately calls to mind the northern hemisphere’s gallinules and moorhens, of course. Nor does it appear as if the former is as water-associated as “our” rails. Thanks for the speculation as to why the bill has changed so much, and of course the lack-of-predators loss-of-flight. Great post!

  14. Ken
    Posted June 15, 2017 at 3:35 am | Permalink

    Love Zealandia! One of the great things about it is how local native bird populations *outside* the park are starting to rejuvenate. The best example is the kaka, a large forest parrot, which can now be seen all around Wellington. I live just a few miles from Zealandia and see them squawking about every day!

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