Geoffrey Orbell, MBE, doctor, takahe discoverer. Died aged 98.
The takahe (Notornis mantelli) had fascinated Geoffrey Orbell since his schooldays. He read widely about the large, flightless bird, last seen in 1898 and considered extinct. Circumstantial evidence and possible sightings convinced him that if it still existed, it might be found in the Murchison Mountains west of Lake Te Anau.
In April 1948, Orbell and friends Rex Watson and Neil McCrostie went into the area. Orbell heard bird calls he did not recognise, and found tracks that convinced him the takahe existed. He measured the length of the tracks by scratching marks on his pipe, and they retreated as night closed in.
The same group, plus Watson's fiance Joan Telfer, returned to the valley in November that year. This time they found their prize.
"It's either a damned big swampy [swamp hen, or pukeko], or it's it," whispered Orbell to his companions, when they spotted the first bird. They found another, but a third ran away.
"When I stood up," he said, "the birds were no more perturbed than hens."
The group gently netted the birds, and then Orbell recorded their existence on film.
Miss Telfer described them as glorious, with "crayfish red beak, legs and feet, navy blue head, neck and breast, turquoise over the back and with olive green tail feathers".
The birds were released, and the group returned to make their find known. The news was a sensation in New Zealand and overseas, but the birds' existence was precarious. Their numbers were thought to be in the tens, and it has taken until recently to increase this to almost 300.
Orbell made his final trip to the area, where the lake is now officially Lake Orbell, in 1998, to mark the 50th anniversary of his discovery.
Geoffrey Buckland Orbell was born near Oamaru in 1908, and educated at Waitaki Boys High School and Christ's College before graduating with medical degrees from Otago University. He studied at Moorfields Eye Hospital in London, and practised as an ear, eye, nose and throat specialist in Invercargill for 46 years.
After retiring, he moved to Blenheim, where he built his own house and furniture. He continued to build boats, a lifetime hobby, and by the mid-1990s his tally was almost 100.
Dr Orbell is survived by his wife Sheila, now 96, a son and two daughters.