Island life, saviour of the wrybill

I’ve never been so pleased to see the braids of a river than when I finally escaped the jaws of the Waimakariri Gorge in my kayak, as part of the Coast to Coast race. A braided river brings not just relief from roaring bluff corners, and the threat of capsizing my kayak, but a peaceful place that unusual birds decide to call home.

Rakaia River, NZ (Geoff Leeming, 2006, CC BY-NC 2.0, via flickr)

One such creature is the Wrybill or Ngutu parore. It’s the only bird in the world with a laterally curved beak (bending to the side)! Sadly, this little bird faces many threats. In 2008 some optimism was found in the research of Duncan, Hughey, Cochrane and Bind (River Modelling to better manage mammalian predator access to islands in braided rivers). The paper explained how particular characteristics of braided rivers could be used to support successful breeding of braided river birds, including our wee friend, the Wrybill.

Braided rivers are made up of multiple threads of flowing water, with islands found between the threads. The researchers knew that these islands provided a safe place for endangered breeding birds, with the water flowing around them providing a partial barrier to a major threat –

(57Andrew, 2007, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, via flickr)

introduced mammalian predators, such as hedgehogs, rats, mice, stoats, weasels, ferrets and cats.

It was already known that water extraction, narrowing and stop-banking of rivers impacted the flow of water in the braids, but little was known about the optimal flow of water or the required characteristics of the islands to support breeding birds. Models were used to determine the number and area of islands needed for successful breeding. The researchers found that certain levels of water flow preserve islands large enough for nesting (larger than 2 hectares) and protect the area from mammalian predators or weed invasion. This information was used to recommend abstraction rates on braided rivers during peak breeding season. They did conclude that using photos in the research would increase understanding of how islands change in different flows.

One of the authors, Ken Hughey, was from Lincoln University and his PhD, back in 1985, looked at factors impacting the breeding of braided river birds in Canterbury. He studied five different birds: Wrybill, Banded dotterel, Black-fronted tern, Pied stilt, and the South Island pied oystercatcher. Among other things, Ken found that higher levels of predation on birds occur where there were lower flows of water and lower numbers of channels or threads in the river. He recommended that minimum flow levels should be higher during the breeding season to protect the nesting birds. The 2008 study builds on this understanding and provides information not just about the flow of water needed, but also the size of the islands required to protect the nesting birds.

This study has been used in subsequent research in New Zealand around maintaining river flows in braided rivers. This is unsurprising given braided rivers are rare around the world and Canterbury is known as New Zealand’s braided river hotspot. The themes within the research were around maintaining river flow levels, predator and weed control, maintaining river islands, and water abstraction. Advances since this work seems to be focussed on weed control and the impacts of hydropower to braided river systems.

It appears that the messages about the importance of minimum flows and island size in braided rivers for breeding birds are getting through. The Regional Council in Canterbury (ECAN) refers to the importance of flows in preserving the ecology of the river for breeding river birds in the Canterbury Water Management Strategy and the Canterbury Land and Water Regional plan. The knowledge that came from the research by Duncan, Hughey, Cochrane and Bind, and subsequent research, has clearly shown how local communities think about braided rivers and informed how they care for them. This is demonstrated by the Ashley Rakahuri River Care Group in 2022, when they made a submission to the ECAN to raise concerns about gravel extraction on the Ashley Rakahuri River and how this will impact the islands needed by birds to breed safely.

This approach also appears to complement work by the Predator Free 2050 campaign regarding pest control within braided river environments. I was intrigued as to how the authors felt the research was received and asked one of them, Ken Hughey, about the impact. He said it ultimately led to high flows being recommended and resourcing for predator control on the islands. Sounds like a great result!

New Zealand Map (mhx, 2010, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, via Flickr)

Undertaking research consumes your life while you are doing it. It is fascinating to see the journey from conception to the completed work and then how it informs environmental work moving forward.

The Wrybill is still classed as vulnerable and there is work to be done, but this research has added valuable insight into flow regimes for braided rivers. It has highlighted the importance not just preserving islands for breeding birds, but ensuring they are above a certain size. It has prompted further research, and informed councils and charitable groups on how to best support endangered braided river birds, like our wee friend the Wrybill. I’m sure there shall be some grateful kayakers out there too! I shall sign off this blog with an image of the Wrybill making the most of his unique laterally curved beak.

This article was prepared by Master of Environmental Policy and Management student Katherine Manning as part of the ECOL608 Research Methods in Ecology course.

Wrybill/Ngutuparore (Shellie, 2016, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0, via Flickr)

Here is a full citation for the article:

Duncan, M.J., Hughey, K.F.D., Cochrane, C.H., Bind, J. (2008) River modelling to better manage mammalian predator access to islands in braided rivers. Exeter, UK: British Hydrological Society 10th National Hydrology Symposium: Sustainable Hydrology for the 21st Century, 15-17 Sep 2008. 487-492

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