The critically endangered birds are a taonga species and one of the rarest wading birds in the world. They are being intensively managed as the Department of Conservation (DOC) works to recover the species.
DOC Kakī Project Lead Liz Brown says 18 chicks hatched in the Twizel brooding facility from Christmas Eve to Boxing Day – 6 on Christmas Eve, 6 on Christmas Day and another 6 on Boxing Day.
“It’s an abnormally high number of chicks to have hatch over Christmas – for example, over the past 10 years, between 0 and 4 chicks have hatched on Christmas Day, with the average being one.
“We think it’s because the breeding season and nestmaking started a little late this year. We’re not sure exactly why the season started slowly, but we think it could be down to climate conditions.
“In previous years, most of the eggs would have already hatched by now.”
The eggs were collected from both wild and captive kakī pairs before being artificially incubated at DOC’s kakī facility in Twizel as part of the kakī recovery programme.
Liz Brown says the chicks were the perfect Christmas gift for the hard-working team at the brooding facility, which is staffed 365 days of the year.
They will be hand-reared at the facility before being released into the Mackenzie when they are about 9 months old.
Liz Brown says Christmas is a particularly busy time because the young chicks require a lot of work.
“The chicks are raised in groups of four to seven. Each morning they are weighed, and their brooder is cleaned. They are extremely messy!
“They are also fed three times a day and allowed outside into a small aviary if the weather is warm enough. Staff monitor the chicks for signs they are unwell, as young chicks are susceptible to bacterial infections requiring treatment with antibiotics.
“When the chicks are 30 days old, we will fit them with a unique combination of coloured bands and move them into a large flight aviary.”
This season has seen a slightly lower number of eggs collected from the wild overall when compared to last year, which is also thought to relate to the climate conditions, and because last year was a particularly good year.
There are currently 29 eggs and 117 chicks in the brooding facility. For comparison, 150 young kakī were reared and released last season.
Kakī are vulnerable to mammalian predators, so an extensive trapping network is a key part of the efforts to ensure the species survival.
The population declined to as low as 23 birds in 1981 but has since improved to about 170 wild adult birds, largely found in the Mackenzie Basin.
Since 2018, Te Manahuna Aoraki has installed more than 2000 traps in the Tasman, Cass, Godley and Macauley river valleys.
The extra traps added to DOC and Project River Recovery’s (Meridian Energy and Genesis Energy) existing network in the Tasman River increasing the trapping network from 26,000 ha, to more than 60,000 ha. These trapping networks are on both public land, and private land.
Kakī, a taonga species for Ngāi Tahu, are largely found in braided riverbeds, side streams, swamps and tarns in Te Manahuna/Mackenzie Basin. Most riverbed birds migrate to coastal areas in winter, but kakī usually remain in the Mackenzie Basin despite parts of their habitat freezing over.
Kakī have been intensively managed since 1981 when their population declined to a low of just 23 birds.
DOC works with a range of partners to support kakī, including The Isaac Conservation and Wildlife Trust, which raises birds in its Christchurch aviary. The kakī programme has received funding support from partners such as Re:wild, and Meridian Energy and Genesis Energy who both fund Project River Recovery.
DOC’s captive breeding centre near Twizel plays an important role in the Kakī Recovery Programme.
In September this year, 150 young kakī were released into the Godley and Tasman riverbeds in three releases in August. The birds were raised at DOC’s brooding facility and at The Isaac Conservation and Wildlife Trust in Christchurch.
There are currently about 170 adult kakī in the wild. Juveniles released this year are not included in population counts until they reach breeding age in 2022.