A Norwegian tramper captured this image of a whio [blue duck] in the Tararuas in April. PHOTO/SUPPLIED

What could be the first photograph of a whio [blue duck] in the Tararua Range since the 1920s has been captured by a visiting Norwegian tramper.

And the presence of the solo male indicates the whio population in the lower North Island is on the rise.

In the past two years, there have been six sightings of a lone male whio reported throughout the Tararuas from Smith Creek to the Upper Ruamahanga.

In March last year, Masterton teacher Joe Nawalaniec was “gobsmacked” when he came across a whio but no photographs were taken.

But the Norwegian tramper had his camera ready when he saw the bird in April.

Before these sightings, the last reported Tararua sighting was in the 1920s.

Whio are found nowhere else in the world and are rarer than some species of kiwi.

“The presence of this whio, in an area that hasn’t had a population for several decades, is an exciting turn of events,” said Andrew Glaser, DOC Whakatane senior biodiversity ranger and leader of the Whio
Recovery Group.

“There are less than 3000 birds in the whole of New Zealand, and less than 200 pairs in the lower North Island.”

He believes the bird is from a population in the Ruahine Range.

“That he’s moved out into this area suggests there’s a growth population, which is an indication that conservation efforts are making a difference,” Glaser said.

“The sightings in the past two years have also been all around this area in the Tararuas from Smith Creek tributary to the Upper Ruamahanga.

“So he’s moving around a lot … this behaviour indicates that our single male is looking for a mate.”

From April to July, whio start looking for a mate, find their match, and settle down.

Once whio paired up they tended to remain in the area and were very territorial.

But this male is unlikely to find a mate in the Tararua Range this breeding season. Males are more widely distributed than females, who don’t move around very much.

There are also more males than females in the dwindling population.

However, the future could be brighter for this whio lonely heart.

The Whio Recovery Group has identified the Tararua Range as a site where it would like to see whio re-established.

This view is supported by Mireille Hicks, captive breeding ranger at Pukaha National Wildlife Centre who looks after whio bred for release in the central North Island.

“The sighting of whio in the Tararua Range is an indication that the quality of the environment is good,” she says.

“Their preferred area is often higher up, as they are torrent ducks, so they like fast-flowing water.

“This might be a good starting point to consider releasing whio into the Tararua Range in the future.

“They used to be there and it would be fantastic if we could come full circle and release them so close to their breeding zone here at Pukaha.

“It is hopeful for the whio in this region and is also indicative of the success of predator control measures in the surrounding areas.”