A major target during our February trip to New Zealand was the critically endangered Kaki or Black Stilt. Black Stilts are endemic to New Zealand only breeding in the Mackenzie basin of South Canterbury and North Otago. The entire population numbers around 100 birds which makes this species the rarest wading bird in the world. Formerly widespread throughout the country and still occurring on the North Island during the late 19th century their range contracted in the 20th century to Canterbury and Otago. Population declines have been sudden and not often easily explained by habitat loss, for example some big losses occurred in the 1950’s which coincided with Rabbit control. However local habitat loss has certainly been a factor, as has predation from introduced mammalian predators which have wreaked havoc throughout the native bird population.
Black Stilts have been intensively managed since 1981 within the Kaki recovery programme. The New Zealand Department of Conservation has a captive breeding programme near Twizel, clutches of eggs are taken from captive and wild birds, artificially incubated and then raised in captivity. This prevents predation when they are at their most vulnerable and has staved off extinction whilst increasing the population.
We were privileged to sit in the abraided river system below Mount Cook and watch forty-three of these beautiful birds at extremely close range. A very special and sobering time with almost half of the world population of this stunning species.