By Tony Orman

“ … is it possible it still exists in some remote, unexplored Fiordland valley?” –Geoffrey Orbell

Rediscovering the dream bird

Nelson-based publishers Potton and Burton continue to produce some top quality books and their latest is no exception. Takahe: Bird of Dreams by zoologist Alison Ballance is a magnificent 300 page volume on New Zealand’s native bird, the takahe. The takahe is a bird that arose from the dead as twice it was virtually classified as extinct before being rediscovered in 1948 in a remote Fiordland valley.  

As an outdoors minded boy, Geoffrey Orbell had long been fascinated by the bird that was thought extinct. His youthful curiosity and boyhood optimism, sowed the question, “is it possible it still exists in some remote, unexplored Fiordland valley?” It became his “bird of dreams.” So his deer hunting gravitated towards the valleys of Fiordland and in particular the Murchison Mountains.

The discovery by “Doc” Orbell and his companions reflected the deep interest hunters can have in wildlife and conservation beside hunting their quarry.

As a keen deerstalker “Doc” Orbell was in the late 1930s, the founder of the New Zealand Deerstalkers Association.  His contribution is testimony to the fact that deerstalkers can be champions of conservation. Indeed the “Save Manapouri” battle in the 1970s featured deerstalkers in the front line.

Takehe Recovery Programme

The publishing of Takahe: Bird of Dreams has been timed to coincide with the 75th anniversary of the Takahe Recovery Programme. Takahe numbers are now estimated to exceed 500. There have been setbacks, some not so good and also sound decisions and consequently mixed fortunes. At times there has been disappointingly slow progress but other times, significant wins.

Takahe were twice classified as extinct but “Doc” Orbell’s discovery of the takahe colony in 1948 rebutted that claim. The bird was then classified as “nationally critical” but that has since been upgraded to “nationally vulnerable.”

Dealing with stoats

There have been competing factors such as predator stoats. By coincidence, a friend of mine who worked for the Wildlife Service with experience of takahe in Fiordland, said the adult birds were well capable of dealing a fatal blow to any stoat. He recalled later working at the Mt Bruce Wildlife Reserve where takahe were kept. A stoat gained access into the takahe enclosure but quickly realised its error when confronted by a takahe. The mustelid became frantic to get out.

Alison Ballance tells of a stoat attempting to prey on a nest in the Fiordland valley. The stoat was delivered a savage fatal blow by the takahe parent.

The book often refers to competition from red deer in grazing but my ex-Wildlife Service friend said that aspect tended to be exaggerated by some of the scientists. 

Many wildlife personalities feature within this wonderful portrayal of a remarkable bird. 

Alison Ballance, already an established author, writes in an easy, relaxed style. The story has been meticulously researched and is competently informative and engaging. 

The excellent photos are often of intriguing historical significance with “Doc” Orbell and wildlife scientists and field officers who I chanced to know, adding to my interest. 

And of course there is the typically professional production by the publishers, Potton and Burton. 

In a few words it is a stunning book: rating: five star plus!

Published by Potton and Burton, RRP $59.99