Many bird books have a section on ‘Crakes and Rails’; a phrase that my brain stubbornly and consistently confuses with afternoon tea at a brewery. These types of bird are usually found feeding in marshes and other wet places, so perhaps it is not such a stupid association after all!
New Zealand was once home to at least 19 species of Gruiformes (the scientific order for this group). They ranged from the very small to two species of flightless adzebill standing over 80cm tall. In fact, the diversity of this group across the Pacific was staggering, as rails rapidly evolved into distinctive, flightless forms on virtually every Oceanic island.
Crakes and rails rely on camouflage and vegetation cover four protection from predators. This is a good strategy against the eyes of hawks, but less so against cats, stoats and other mammalian predators that hunt by smell, or against the persistence of human hunters. Consequently, most species were wiped out by the waves of human settlers and the mammalian predators that accompanied them.
Tawharanui Open Sanctuary is home to four very different members of this group. The pukeko has an extraordinary, complex and effective breeding biology and is common across pastures and wetlands. Many of the ‘pooks’ at Tawharanui wear leg-bands as part of a long-term study of their breeding habits by Canadian researchers. Banded rail, with their black-and-white striped chest and olive-brown back, are rarely seen, although there is a healthy population of them at the park. If you are patient, you may spy them at dawn and dusk feeding around the lagoon in their preferred habitat of mangroves and saltmarsh.
It takes more than just patience to see the spotless crake, an apt name for a small, secretive bird that is seldom sighted. If you are lucky, you will recognise them by their striking grey-blue and brown plumage and contrasting red eye.
The most celebrated member of this group is the takahe: large, flightless and oh-so-close to never being seen again prior to their famous re-discovery in 1948. In the past month, two more takahe, Eddy and Ruiha, were released at the Open Sanctuary, bringing the total number at Tawharanui to 14 out of a current world population of just under 300! Despite their global scarcity, the takahe at Tawharanui are frequently seen and can sometimes be found idly posing for photos near the Anchor Bay Information Hut. Hopefully, they will concentrate on the serious business of increasing their population in the coming months.