'Smitten' for rare bitterns released near Christchurch
Two wetland birds from a species whose behaviour remains a mystery have been released at Canterbury's Waimakariri River.
PhD student Emma Williams, who admits she is "smitten by bittern", flew down from Hawkes Bay hoping information she gathered from the newly-released birds would help build knowledge of the notoriously "cryptic" animal.
Her project, being carried out alongside the Department of Conservation (DOC), involved the release of two of the rare birds at Te Rauakaaka wetland, north of Christchurch, on Sunday.
"The trouble with these guys is they are so secretive and very little is known about them, so everything we find is new, which is very exciting," Williams said.
"They've pretty much got every threat that kiwi have – they are ground-dwelling, the females are a lot smaller than the males, and the chicks are very noisy so they get [attacked by predators]."
Williams said the birds were tracked at locations around New Zealand. Their population was predicted to be about 1000.
The transmitters for the two birds released on Sunday were funded by Forest & Bird and Ducks Unlimited, a wetlands and waterfowl conservation group.
"We've got transmitters now on 15 birds – some have been caught naturally, others have been brought in by members of the public."
One of the birds walked into a garage on Travis Country Drive, while the second was spotted by Beach Rd resident Joyce Tunley, who attended Sunday's release.
"We were driving home and I saw it, so I asked my husband to stop the car," Tunley said.
"The way it was walking reminded me of those pukekos in the TV ad."
Tunley thought it looked unusual and unwell, so called Jackie Stevenson, a bird carer who did work for DOC.
"I rang her and said that I had this strange bird, and I said when it stands still it's like a pencil, it puts its beak absolutely vertical.
"She said, 'Oh my god, you've got a bittern, can you get it to me, quickly'."
Stevenson, a retired nurse, was a local hero when it came to rescuing and caring for birds.
She had created a mini-wetland, from raupo, and a water garden, and said the bitterns were "unexpected" but she was excited to care for them.
"They've been easy to look after – they were feeding themselves and they were easy to handle."
DOC ranger Anita Spenser said they would track the birds for 30 months. She hoped they would find mates, eventually adding to the 50-odd bitterns thought to live in Canterbury.
"This is unusual for us because of the threat-ranking of them, they are so endangered," she said.
"If in 30 months we discover she has been breeding, then gosh, that'll be fantastic."