Sam Gibson says in his experience of people who use the outdoors, hunters are among the most observant.

And it was that attention to their surroundings that sparked a hunter-led project to protect endangered native whio (blue duck) in the Central North Island.

"One of the great things about hunting is you're able to stop and sit down and watch," Sam, a technical adviser with pest trap maker Goodnature, says.

"Hunters are one of the most observational groups that use the forest and they saw these guys [whio] and saw that they needed protecting. Most of use these guys understand that if they don't have protection around them they won't last very long."

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Hunters head into the Oamaru Stream to lay traps for phase two of the Central North Island Sika Foundation whio recovery project. Photos / Supplied
Hunters head into the Oamaru Stream to lay traps for phase two of the Central North Island Sika Foundation whio recovery project. Photos / Supplied

The hunters' group, which is the Central North Island Sika Foundation, recently embarked on the second phase of its project to protect the rare blue duck in the Kaimanawa Forest, extending its trapping network to create 20km of protected rivers where the whio can flourish.

The foundation's Whio Recovery Project is working to protect the vulnerable whio populations in the headwaters of the Mohaka River in the northern Kaimanawas.

The project followed a survey of the Kaipo and Oamaru rivers by the group, which discovered a defenceless population of whio.

Jadon McConnell from trap manufacturers Goodnature giving the hunters group a pre setup briefing.
Jadon McConnell from trap manufacturers Goodnature giving the hunters group a pre setup briefing.

"We found one breeding pair in each stream," says project leader Gary Harwood.

"We decided we had to act and managed to fundraise $20,000 by August 2018 to begin the first phase of the trapping project, which we used to cover 10km of the Kaipo River upstream from where it joins the Mohaka River."

The hunters placed 108 Goodnature A24 self-resetting traps in August last year. The traps use a lure to attract pests and a CO2 gas canister to power a piston which crushes a pest's skull, killing it instantly. It then retracts and resets itself up to 24 times before needing servicing.

In the first 90 days, the traps recorded 378 pest kills, and the team who were out checking the traps even sighted a breeding pair of whio flanked by five chicks about to fledge. This feat has led to the site being recognised by DoC as an Official Whio Recovery Site.

Whio ducklings. Photo / File
Whio ducklings. Photo / File

Now the hunters have raised another another $20,000, to trap the Oamaru Stream, with 73 traps deployed to cover a 10-kilometre distance from the point where the Oamaru River meets the Mohaka River up to the Waitawhero Stream.

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"The first phase of the project was a roaring success, and we can't wait to see how the whio population in the forest bounces back following our efforts," says Gary.

"Now that we have stage 1 and stage 2 in place, we will start fundraising for stage 3 of the project, a further 10km of the Kaipo River upstream from where stage 1 ends. This will give us a total of 30km of protected whio habitat in the area."

Sam Gibson says the rewarding thing about doing pest control in whio habitat is that the birds respond really well to predator control in their territory.

"I'm always blown away. All you have to do is put a single [trap] line up a river and they get chicks away. There's not many species where you can get such a good response."

Sam says it's about giving whio a fighting chance to lay and hatch their eggs and get their chicks to fledge.

"They are pretty amazing. We just need to find that little way of giving them a hand and they can usually look after themselves. What really what sets this project apart is that it's hunters doing their bit."

The Central North Island Sika Foundation's long-term goal is to extend the whio recovery initiative throughout the Kaimanawa Forest Park over time.