Penzy Dinsdale's nine-day tramp into the Murchison Mountains to catch, tag and record keas.
The weather was poor, but we were just lucky enough to be able to fly in, and we even managed to get dropped off at the hut. It wouldn't have been fun carrying all our food and kit from the bushline to the hut, as people have done in the past. It was, however just a little too miserable to be catching kea. So we made some noise to let them know we had arrived and then drank multiple cups of tea before settling in for the night as a passing snow shower beat against the tin wall of the hut.
"The Challenger" or Miller Biv.
Up early, although setting a theme for the trip not quite as early as we should have been, we laid out the kea mats. The weather was still a bit miserable at times, but at least we got some views. And not long after, we caught out first birds, a juvenile and a less common and highly valued female. There seems to be significantly fewer female kea in the population, and it's not clear why. So catching one with her newly fledged chicks right off the bat, set expectations unrealistically high for the rest of the trip. It was amazing!
We caught five birds total the first day, it snowed slightly, and we headed up the hill where we picked up what appeared to be a nesting signal for one of the birds across Lake Te Anau in the Stuart Mountains.
Fledgling Kea and Dad, with snow falling.
The sun is shining in the morning, and we can hear the kea, but we've lost the 'novelty factor', so they aren't coming into the basin. Thus it's time for us to head elsewhere and try to attract some new birds. So after a leisurely lunch, we packed up the camping gear and headed back up and over Miller Peak to a campsite on the far side for the night. We are joined by one of the families of keas we've already seen and banded the fledglings of, and while the fledglings are again keen to hang out, no one is keen to get caught. It's still a beautiful place to camp the night, though.
Lydia checking for kea radio signals on Miller Peak.
After not catching anything at our ridge camp, we decide it's time to head elsewhere in the Murchisons for a few days. We pack up our stuff and, after lunch, head down into the Snag burn and then up to a lake at 1130m, at the head of the valley. It takes a bit longer than expected, even when finding a shortcut track. So we stumble out onto the edge of the lake just at dusk. To our surprise, we can hear people! Not exactly the wildlife you expect to be encountering in the remote Murchison mountains. It turns out catch team Michael, Jamie and Sarah are also in this basin as they make a large circuit through their territory. It's nice catching up with them and receiving the news that the radio transmitter has been fixed, so we should be able to chat with them nightly from now on. We hear kiwi calling in the night but arrived too late to catch anything.
Lydia and Veronika looking out over Snag Burn - our campsite spot in the background.
I wake up and leap out of my tent in one not very smooth bound. Lydia got up when she should have, and she has caught a kea and needs someone to hold it. It was our only visitor in the morning, though, and then we settled into a day of lounging around in the sun. Or so we thought, but we surprisingly had a lunchtime visitor, not traditional kea catching time by any means. The day was long and hot, and the sandflies unrelenting. The others had rolled out of camp fairly early to get on with some DoC work they were doing during the days. So after lunch, I wandered up the hill to their campsite to get a view. Then had a most refreshing wash in the lake before trying to get comfortable switching between a very hot tent or a cloud of persistent sandflies. We eyed up several routes on Mt Max but never actually set off to climb any of them. The evening passed with only the metallic call of a kea over a speaker and no sign of the birds themselves.
'What's that glow,' Lydia asked me at one point, indicating the sky behind Mt Max, 'is that an Aurora?'
'Surely not,' I took a quick snap with the camera but couldn't convince myself. I was wrong, though and missed a particularly good Aurora hunting session in a stunning area. Lessons learnt for next time.
Once again woken by Lydia needing a hand as she has caught a bird. I could get used to this sort of morning wake-up call; it's a very privileged start to the morning. After sorting the bird, we sit and enjoy a cup of tea before too many sandflies wake up, and then we pack up camp while being eaten alive. We're moving on to another area, dropping through the head of the Ettrick Burn, before climbing up to a new basin for a night. This is part of a slow loop back to our base at Miller Biv while checking an old kea nest on the way. We haven't picked up any nesting signals in our travels, so we aren't expecting to find anything in it. After breakfast, we head off. Although we have heard kiwi calling in the night, we haven't seen any Takahe yet, something startles in the scrub ahead of us on the slope, but we can't catch a good enough sighting to confirm what it is. Lunch is spent in just about the most beautiful bush I've ever seen, and our evening at camp has a constant distant chorus of rock wren, although we don't manage to spy any. And right on dark, we have a visitor, although we just can't catch him. Maybe tomorrow morning?
Lydia and Veronika tagging the lunchtime kea visitor.
Our friend came to visit in the night; as evidenced by several small beak-tip-sized holes in the tent and gear, he's no longer around in the morning. So we set off, up over a small pass and back down into the Snag Burn. The kea nest is predictably empty. We stop at Snag Burn Hut for lunch; it's very well stocked, which is good. We had actually planned on being back at the 'challenger' for lunch. After lunch, Lydia strides off ahead to get a few things done and not miss the evening catch session. Veronika and I take it a little more leisurely and are rewarded by the most spectacular swimming hole! Unfortunately, I didn't get any photos, though. Thus refreshed, we charge up the hill, stopping to have a quick but not successful hunt for another nest. On the way down a few days ago, we had spotted a kea with a transmitter on in that location, and it would have been good to find her nest. We arrive at the hut not too long after Lydia returns from higher up on the range and recapture an adult male initially named by my friend Max some years prior. He tries to bite me, but having suffered a severe kea bite at the lakeside camp a few days ago, I'm having none of it! (I still have the scar from that one.)
The weather is starting to turn on us, so we are going to have to think about getting out of the mountains before our two weeks are up.
A family of Kea.
The problem with Miller Biv, also known as the 'Challenger', is that it sits in an area on many tarns; a tarn has actually formed beneath it. Making it somewhat of a damp place to be, I endeavoured to drain it. This was actually a project initially started by a friend of mine several years prior, so step one was to dig out his old channel. The problem with that, though, was that the tarn in front of the hut was only marginally lower, and it was then a long way to dig a channel to drain over the lip of the hill. With this task completed, I still wasn't happy with the state of the puddle under the hut. I realised that the tarn behind the hut was also a problem as it was continuous through the swampy ground to the under-hut tarn. Upon closer inspection, this was the main problem, and it appeared that a previous attempt had also been made to drain this tarn and, by extension, the puddle under the hut. So I dug out this channel also, with much great success. Under the hut dry, at least until the next rain (so tomorrow), I went back to other activities. Although I had run out of green wool for the knitting project I'd bought with me. So maybe it was just as well we were flying out the next day.
Heading into the bush before going back up the basin in the distance.
We flew out of the mountains. Successful kea catching trip over. I'm hooked and can't wait to go along on the next one!
Written by Penzy Dinsdale: Penzy ❄️ (@penzyd) • Instagram photos and videos
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