Rediscovering the takahē

By Geoffrey Orbell In From Our Archive

Print Share

A takahē in scrubland/Photo James Cook

LISTENER, December 10, 1948 #494, p6

My interest in the notornis (takahē) began some 30 years ago. I was looking through some old photographs belonging to my mother – a keen amateur photographer – when I came upon a print of a bird in a glass case. My mother explained that it was a picture of the notornis specimen in the Otago Museum, that only four of the species had been found and that it was now supposed to be extinct. That word “supposed” stimulated my boyish sense of adventure, and I read all that I could find about the notornis.

As I grew older the call of the outdoors became stronger and stronger. Deer stalking and pig hunting expeditions were frequent. They led me to Beaumont in the Blue Mountains in Otago, where I met Norman Murrell, the State Forest Warden. Mr. Murrell was born and brought up at Lake Manapouri on the fringe of the notornis area, and he heard stories of calls heard in the bush and of blurred tracks on sandy beaches. Once again I turned to Buller and Oliver’s books.

In 1929 while on an expedition after wapiti up the north arm of Lake Te Anau I kept a sharp look-out for all bird tracks, but only found those of weka or kiwi. On this trip I made the acquaintance of Charles Evans, then ranger to the Southland Acclimatisation Society. He told a tale of tracks he had seen on a beach in Dusky Sound; of a whole boat’s crew dashing here and there on the beach trying to catch a bird the size of a goose, a bird with blue-green feathers and with the speed of a racehorse. And he told of tracks in the snow-grass and droppings too big for any bird he knew.

From hearsay, and from stories told round campfires while stags roared challenges across high valleys, I picked up little bits of information. Then in 1935 I came to live and practise in Southland – and Te Anau was a near hunting ground. Ward Beer, another acclimatisation society ranger, told me of a large blue bird seen on the shores of Lake Ada which he thought might be a pukeko; and from a patient who once lived at Martin’s Bay came the story of a large blue bird seen on the beach there.

BASE AT LAKE TE ANAU

In 1945 I built a summer house at Lake Te Anau and later on, in partnership with Dr. D.R. Jennings, a 39-foot launch (I wanted to call it “Notornis” or “Takahe” because, as I stated then, I hoped to find the birds some day, but the vote of the families was against the idea, and the launch was christened “Takitumu” after the Maori canoe.) Maps have always interested me and the map of Fiordland was now of particular interest. On wet days and long evenings I would study it on the wall of the house at Te Anau.

Notornis? the question was always there, but rarely spoken of, and then only jokingly or as a bait thrown to catch some story. One man who knew Fiordland very well volunteered the information that in one certain area which he would not name, he always carried a hard-nosed bullet in his rifle – the bullet might be worth four or five hundred pounds, he said. But that was just another link in the chain. Studying the map and thinking of the birds, certain facts became clear in my mind. The stories were similar in one respect: all the birds were seen or caught on the beaches below the bush line. And as far as could be ascertained from Buller and from many other reports, all these birds were seen or taken in wintertime, and in years of very heavy snowfall.

UNKNOWN COUNTRY

By plotting all references to the bird on the map it became apparent that there was a vast area of Fiordland surrounded by reported instances of notornis being found or seen – and that piece of country was the least exlored of the whole Fiordland National Park. I heard stories of a large lake seen from the air, and Maori history suggested its existence and also its whereabouts. Deer might be there and as president of the New Zealand Deerstalkers’ Association I had an interest in them too, but the fact remained for the most part that notornis were seen or captured only at low levels in hard winters.

A nesting takahē/Listener archive

We first went into that country on April 11 of this year (1948), the party consisting of Rex Watson, Neil McCrostie and myself. It was very tough going and took over four hours’ climbing to get to the top. Finally we topped a ridge and suddenly found ourselves on the edge of a terrific precipice. Far below us a large lake glistened in the sun, and a valley filled with snowgrass extended three miles beyond it. Through the glasses I sighted a young stag almost directly below us, but the cliffs were so high that he could only just be seen with the naked eye.

We scrambled round great overhanging bluffs and rocks and eventually managed to find a route by which we literally slid and scrambled down to the valley floor, where the billy was boiled and we separated to stalk roaring stags. I shot a poor fourteen-pointer and sat down to wait for the others.

THE CALL OF THE TAKAHE

I was then almost halfway up the valley above the lake and dozing in the snowgrass, when I heard a bird call which I did not recognise – two very long, deep notes repeated twice. I was very tired and I sat and wondered about them. When Rex and Neil returned both accused me of whistling to them over a .303 cartridge case. It was then mid-afternoon and I was in no frame of mind to investigate noises and run the risk of being benighted in the bush. Rather than attempt the awful climb out of the valley we decided to push on and try and get out by way of the gorge below the lake. And on a beach at the bottom end of the lake we found fresh bird tracks large enough for us to be quite certain that they were the tracks I had dreamed about. The sun was already sinking behind the mountains, and we had to hurry to get down through 2,000 feet of bush before dark, so I measured the tracks as carefully as possible by scratching marks on the stem of my pipe – which is practically always in my mouth and therefore less likely to be lost.

On our arrival in Invercargill the measurements were quickly put on paper and sent to Professor B.J. Marples, at Otago University. At the same time I compared a duplicate set with all the published evidence available. They matched Buller’s measurements fairly closely and the Rev. C.J. Tocker, who is a keen ornithologist, agreed that they could only be those of a nortonis.

Professor Marples, however, was of the opinion that the tracks were too big for a notornis and were probably those of a white heron. Dr. R.A. Falla, of the Dominion Museum, was the next to see the diagram, but he could not reconcile it with any known bird tracks.

When all this news came back, my two friends, Rex and Neil, were very despondent because they were all keyed up for a discovery. The news, however, did not worry me, for I realised that, to a man experienced in reading nature signs, a line of fresh tracks on a beach was of far more value than a diagram on a piece of paper could be to the authorities. I had in addition the added knowledge that the Otago Museum specimen was a young female and suspected that I had seen the tracks of an adult male; and so it was proved.

THE SUCCESSFUL EXPEDITION

On November 20, 1948, we once more made the arduous climb back to the valley and on this occasion we were accompanied by Miss J.L. Telfer. This time the only equipment carried comprised cameras and 50 yards of fishing net, which I figured was the best means of attaining our object. Not 20 yards from the the beach where we had seen the tracks I saw the first notornis and my first reaction was to think what a small bird it was. Thereafter our plan of action moved steadily to its successful conclusion.

First I took a full reel of colour movie film through the telephoto lens. Then the arrival of the second bird on the scene caused me to take another half reel from a distance of 20 yards. When I stood up the birds were no more perturbed than farmyard hens and only moved a few feet into the snowgrass where the net was quietly circled round them. They walked into it of their own accord. Handling them as gently as possible, we took them to the beach, where they were securely tethered by one leg, photographed, and then released as quickly as possible to the nest which all the signs indicated was near by. The nest, I decided, must be left for another year rather than keep the hen too long from the eggs, or run the risk of driving her away from the nest completely. A third bird was chased half-heartedly towards the bush, where in full view he fed and squawked for nearly an hour.

Once having seen notornis sign, nobody with any tracking ability could ever mistake it for anything else and at a later date I hope to be able to untangle the skein of stories about notornis, and show why it has not been seen for 50 years. It has not been because it was not there – it has just been because no one knew just where to look.

To view footage of a 1950 takahē expedition, click here.

Follow the Listener on Twitter or Facebook.

Post a Comment

You must be to post a comment.

Switch to our mobile site