Into the wild blue yonder

A juvenile black stilt pops its head out of a wooden box and darts into the wetlands.

The bird is oblivious to the significance of this moment - the species is critically endangered, and many people are hoping it will survive and breed.

It was among 46 released this week by the Department of Conservation at Mailbox Inlet, near Tekapo.

Some will remain in the inlet, while others will go further into the rivers.

To increase the birds' chances of reaching breeding age of two years, DOC staff will provide food daily for the first six weeks. The wetland is also surrounded by an electric fence as a deterrent to predators such as stoats and cats.

The kaki, or black stilt, was once common throughout New Zealand, but is now one of the world's rarest wading birds and is restricted to the braided rivers and wetlands of the Mackenzie Basin in South Canterbury.

DOC's programme manager biodiversity assets, Dean Nelson, said the kaki population declined as pest numbers increased.

In 1981, there were 23 adult kaki and the species was facing extinction.

This led to a programme which involved taking the birds' eggs until they were ready to hatch, then placing them back into nests.

"In the early days it was done in a garage . . . now we have quite a well-established captive breeding centre."

Nelson said that every year eggs laid by one of five captive breeding pairs or taken from nests in the wild were hatched in a breeding centre in Twizel. The chicks were released at two months.

"In some years we might get only 30 per cent survival through to breeding age. Some years it can be a lot higher than that," Nelson said.

By 2000, wild adult kaki numbers had increased to 31, and now there are about 60.

The Press