30th January 2024

Bird of the Century – Puteketeke – Australasian Crested Grebe

A Grebe pair on Lake Hayes thanks to Marty Barwood

By now, most of you will be aware that Forest and Bird ran a “bird of the century” competition last year to celebrate their 100-year anniversary.  Thanks to American talk show host John Oliver who promoted the Australasian Crested Grebe, the competition went global and the crested grebe won and got a significant amount of well-deserved attention.

The Australasian Crested Grebe, or pūteketeke, is a charismatic species with subspecies found around the world but still classed as native here in Aotearoa. They are threatened but numbers are slowly on the increase in New Zealand. It has a slender neck, sharp black bill and head with a distinctive black double crest and bright chestnut and black cheek frills. They use their showy crest and frills in their complex and endearing mating displays. Their young are ferried around snug under the feathers of their parents back. From there, they can slip on and off into the water as they learn to feed and dive next to their parents.

Nesting occurs between September and March. The nest is generally a platform made of sticks and waterweeds and floats on the water. Nests are often attached to willow branches or reeds. They occasionally build their platform on the sheltered margins of lakes. The female lays 5-7 eggs that are covered with nest material when not being incubated. Both sexes incubate and they both care for and feed their the young.

We are lucky to have a good population of Grebes in our district.  They are very common around Lake Hayes but found throughout the Whakatipu.  We coordinated the Whakatipu effort of the 10-yearly National Grebe Census over the past weekend – many thanks to the 26 volunteers who contributed more than 60 hours counting the birds.  While all returns have yet to be compiled, the results look promising with an increase over around 13% since the 2014 census, despite the windy, choppy conditions.    This year 176 grebe (149 Adults, 7 juveniles, 20 chicks) were counted including in areas where not grebe were present ten years ago.  New populations have expanded into Glenorchy/ the head of the Lake, Bobs Cove to the Seven Mile Creek, Moke Lake, the upper Kawarau River, Halfway Bay and Kingston.

WWT Trustees Dawn and Warren looking for Grebes in Bob’s Cove

In 2014, 155 grebes were counted (115 Adults, 40 juveniles, and 3 chicks) from just Lake Johnson, Lake Hayes, Beach Bay (Walter Peak), Frankton Arm, and Mt Nicholas Station.  All the Otago lakes combined returned a count of 224 grebe in 2014.  So this year’s Census looks likely to return a substantially higher number when counts from Wanaka, Lake Hawea, Dunstan and Central Otago lakes are returned to the National Grebe Census team.

Local threats to Crested grebes include predation by introduced mammals such as stoats, possums and rats, loss or absence of shore-line nesting habitat, disturbance by power boating and perhaps other recreational activities, as well as rapid fluctuations in water levels.  Grebe do try to build their platforms on the margins of our lakes from time to time so predator control is very important support to this effort as with increasing grebe numbers, they cannot on man-made platforms and willows. 

While the Whakatipu Area populations rely more on natural nesting habitat, our Grebe platform caretaker, Robert Taylor, has put in many hours trying to ensure the nesting platforms we do have remain available for nesting.  Robert happily reports that a pair seem to be nesting on our floating platform in Queenstown Bay.  Fingers crossed his efforts will be rewarded with chicks in the coming weeks.

A pair of grebe with a juvenile at Pigeon Island (photo thanks to Robert Taylor)

A huge thank you to Million Dollar Cruises who hosted our surveyors in the Frankton Arm, and to RealNZ for transporting volunteers.  Many thanks also to Altitude Brewing for their generous donation of $10,000 to aid trapping around the lakes to expand and secure the protection the Whakatipu Wildlife Trust is providing for their breeding habitat. The network of protection benefits Grebes, as well as other wetland species.  If you would like to make a donation to further this effort, please do so via our website: https://whakatipuwildlifetrust.org.nz/friends-of-wwt/

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