Bird count identifies Te Waihora bird population trends

In February 2013, over 55,000 wetland birds from around 40 different species were recorded at Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere.

The count, which organisers hope will become an annual event, was a collaborative venture between volunteers and staff of the Ornithological Society of NZ (OSNZ), Waihora Ellesmere Trust (WET), Department of Conservation (DOC), Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu, Environment Canterbury, Christchurch City Council, Lincoln University and the Selwyn District Council.

Initiated by experienced birdwatcher and WET Trustee Ken Hughey, Professor of Environmental Management at Lincoln University, the day attracted 40 people, who were divided into eight teams to record birdlife in specific areas of the lake.

“Gathering this sort of information allows us to see what the long trends are for bird species at Te Waihora and then to relate these to management actions,” said Professor Hughey.


Preliminary analysis shows a decline in some species of wading birds since the last survey but significant increases in others. (The full results are available here). Several rare visiting species and a number of endangered native species were also recorded on the day.

Professor Hughey says the aim was to assist OSNZ, which undertakes regular wader surveys, to include all wetland birds in the count. “This will contribute to an integrated monitoring programme for the diverse range of wildlife that inhabits Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere,” he said. “Protocols discussed and agreed upon by OSNZ, Ngāi Tahu, Fish and Game NZ, DOC, WET, Christchurch City Council, Selwyn District Council and Environment Canterbury show a commitment to improving the cultural and ecological habitats as laid out in the Whakaora Te Waihora Plan.”

Te Waihora is a nationally significant area for wetland biodiversity and the lake shore margins support what is now the most extensive area of contiguous wetland habitat in the lowlands of the eastern South Island. Those wetland habitats – close to 4,000 hectares – provide a home for numerous bird species including waterfowl, wading and migratory species.

Much wetland and tributary habitat has been lost over past decades and in recent years WET has worked collaboratively on riparian (streambank) restoration projects with landowners and others including Environment Canterbury, Selwyn District Council, Ngāi Tahu, DOC, Fish & Game NZ, the Ministry for Primary Industries, the Ministry for the Environment, community organisations, streamcare groups, businesses, schools, research organisations and volunteers. From 2008 to 2011, over 50,000 native plants were planted at over 20 different lake or tributary sites.



As part of Whakaora Te Waihora, there is a commitment to restoring and rejunvenating the lake’s entire mauri and ecosystem health. This includes a wide variety of work projects aimed at establishing robust habitats on lake margins, tributary streams and rivers.

These are long-term outcomes but a number of planting programmes are already underway in the Kaituna, Halswell/Huritini and Waikekewai Catchments. Some, like the work in the lower Kaituna area, are building on earlier planting programmes initiated by DOC and the landowner and built on by the Te Waihora Management Board to enhance habitat for the Australasian crested grebe.

The Kaituna Lagoon area and its marshland vegetation is an important refuge for wildlife and is especially valuable for pied stilts and swamp birds such as bittern, marsh crake, and crested grebe, which have been nesting on the lower reaches of the Kaituna River.

Increased planting of native species in the Halswell/Huritini and Waikekewai Catchments should also improve bird habitat in those areas, especially for swamp birds, waders and waterfowl. Marsh crake have been recorded in the Halswell/Hurutini area and bittern have a breeding habitat in raupō near the Halswell/Huritini River.

Now that extensive weed control work and planting are well underway in all these areas, instream, riparian and wetland habitats should all begin to show signs of improvement. This will lead to both improved lake health and, for Ngāi Tahu, to improved mahinga kai access.

Adrienne Lomax, WET’s General Manager, says the planting initiatives currently underway and being planned as part of the Whakaora Te Waihora restoration programme, will build on what has been learned over recent years by WET, the Te Waihora Management Board and others. “This will make an important contribution to achieving the community’s vision for Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere,” she said.


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