News from Zealandia
Photo © Bernard Smith
Zealandia offers a rare chance to see threatened pied shag chicks, up close.
Never before seen so close at Zealandia, two threatened pied shag pairs have nested near the public path and are raising chicks a mere three metres from entranced visitors. Previous nests have been across the lake or hidden by bush.
Pied shags (kāruhiruhi) are classed as Nationally Vulnerable – the same threatened species classification as North Island kōkako, kākā and falcon (kārearea). The species is in decline in parts of New Zealand but making a return to Wellington.
“I think it’s very exciting,” said Zealandia Conservation Manager Raewyn Empson. “There weren’t any pied shags in the valley before our fence went up. We had sightings of a single pied shag over 2005-06, two were seen in June 2008 and that shot up to nine in the same year. It was 2010 before we saw the first successful nest – when you consider our population of 80 or 90 now, with 20 nests, you can see how quickly they’ve made themselves at home”.
It’s unusual for the birds to nest in such a low and open location. Possibly a sign that the population at Zealandia is nearing a stable maximum for the available habitat. “They have tended to nest in a big macrocarpa that hangs over the lower lake but we’ve seen them in tutu and, this year, even in tree ferns,” said Empson. “This new location on exposed tree fall, very near the surface of the water and so close to visitors, is remarkable and a wonderful opportunity for everyone to see them”.
Empson believes it likely pied shag colonies at Makara river mouth, which grew rapidly from 1996 to 2003, had outgrown the habitat and led to the newer population establishing at the sanctuary, just 10 minutes from downtown Wellington.
“They found their own way here and brought others with them,” said Empson, who monitors the sanctuary’s shags monthly with help from devoted volunteers. From half an hour before sunrise as the shags fly out to feed in the harbour they and their nests are counted. “One of our newer volunteers is Chris Gee. He also skippers our electric boat on weekends and keeps an eye on what all four species of shag are up to on the lake,” said Empson. “The only shag species here but not nesting yet is the little black shag”.
The nests can be seen now and, if successful, the chicks will fledge around late November, continuing to be fed by their parents for a further 2-3 months. Visitors can see the nests from the pontoon walkway, 10 minutes walk from Zealandia’s Visitor and Education Centre entrance, or from a trip on the electric boat (depending on weather/availability) at weekends and school holidays.