Makarora Whio (Blue duck, Hymenolaimus malacorhynchos) ~ A significant remnant population of Aotearoa New Zealand’s, South Island

The dedicated work of Aspiring Biodiversity Trust (Est: 2017) has enabled a better understanding of the current population status of Whio (Blue duck, Hymenolaimus malacorhynchos) within the Makarora/Makarore and Wilkin/Ōtānenui catchment, South Island of Aotearoa New Zealand. Furthermore, this work has highlighted the importance of the Makarora population in terms of maintaining the genetic diversity of this ancient waterfowl species (the sole member of its genus). This is “no ordinary duck!”

Makarora Whio (Blue duck) SI

New Zealand Endemic with strong spiritual, cultural, historic Māori value. Freshwater environmental indicator species.

IUCN Threat Category: Endangered

NZ Threat Classification: Vulnerable

It is well known from previous studies that the North and South Island whio represent two genetically distinct lineages (managed as separate units). In the South Island there are known differences in the North and the South with central mixed assemblages. However, it is not known where the Makarora Whio fits in terms of its genetic origin in relation with other South Island populations. This work unravels the mystery of the Makarora Whio. Furthermore, it provides important insight into whio dispersal and finally puts the Makarora Whio on the map. Details found here in the latest published edition of the Notornis Journal.

Whio Recovery Site Locations (2009-2019) with Makarora added.

Since this work, the Aspiring Biodiversity Trust are starting to see positive results for whio from their dedicated invasive predator control programme – from ridge to river. Positive evidence includes up to x 5 ducklings and sightings of x 8 birds at a single breeding location. Cumulatively ABT’s work is having additional biodiversity gains by protecting other indigenous species such as the alpine Pīwauwau/ Rock wren and Kea (IUCN endangered) within Mt Aspiring National Park. With the likely impacts of climate change, it is essential that we know about current endemic remnant species populations to prevent local extinction where possible whilst optimising resources.


Glaser et al (2019). Whio/ Blue duck Recovery Plan 2009 – 2019. Threatened Species Recovery Plan 62. Wellington, NZ, Department of Conservation.

Grosser et al (2017). Strong isolation by distance argues for separate population management of endangered blue duck (Hymenolaimus malacorhynchos). Conservation Genetics 18: 327–341.

Hufton & Robertson (2023). A significant remnant population of whio (blue duck,
Hymenolaimus malacorhynchos) bridging the gap between Fiordland and West Coast Recovery Sites, South Island, New Zealand
. Notornis, 2023, Vol. 70: 190-195.

Makarora whio pair with 5 ducklings (Oct 2023), observed during ABT’s routine riparian invasive predator control maintenance by S Gillam, ABT contractor.

The First Makarora Field Course – A Success!

The first  Makarora Field Course was held from the 10 – 16 January 2021. This was the successful result of a partnership between Aspiring Biodiversity Trust and Operation Wallacea (Opwall) with support from LINZ, Birds New Zealand, Makarora Wonderland, local landowners and Wilkin River Jets.

The purpose of the field course was to promote the indigenous biodiversity of the Makarora catchment, create a valuable learning opportunity for students interested in careers based around wildlife management and conservation, contribute to good biological recording, whilst encouraging the future caretakers kaitiakitanga of the natural environment.

Students arrive at Makarora Field Course – yey!

Makarora Field Course Base Camp

Students from Wellington, Auckland and the Coromandel were met at Queenstown Airport, then joined a scenic coach trip over the Crown Range via Wanaka and Lake Hawea to the field course base camp at Makarora. Here the students and teachers were met by the ABT Science team and a representative from Operation Wallacea. The event commenced with a welcomming karikia before entering the learning facility for a welcome presentation and briefing. Students were then  shown to their tents before the first group meal was served at the main Makarora Wonderland Lodge.

Forest vegetation plots

Bird banding and mist netting with NZNBBS certified bird bander

The week was divided into a series of applied learning activities focused on biological (fauna and flora) recording survey methods and monitoring with classroom sessions on data analysis, reporting and the use of the R Stats application via an overseas connection with Opwall lecturer’s in the United Kingdom.

Evenings were filled with lectures on geophysiography, protected species detection dog aided surveys (for whio), ABT’s Ridge to River Threatened Species Programme, a forest by night walk and concluded with a session on career’s in conservation and wildlife management with an inspiring and motivational finish for the future from Aspiring Biodiversity Trust patron – Lydia Bradey, recently awarded a New Zealand Order of Merit.

Braided river session including fluvioglacial processes, aquatic inverts and avifauna.

An awesome week of incredible weather and biodiversity concluded with a splendid Wonderland BBQ and a certificate presentation to students on their completion of the field course, plus the awarding of prises (including a NZ bird guide) for various notable achievements over the duration of the weeks activities. A farwell karikia and celebratory cakes completed a most memorable week for all involved.

Protected species survey dog, Hoki.

Thank you  to all funders and supporters who helped enable the first pilot Makarora Field Course. The next Makarora field course dates start from 7-14 January 2022! Get in touch to find out more about the latest itinerary, we look forward to hearing from you 🙂

Lydia Bradey motivational talk following career’s panel.

Commentary from student, staff and parent post 2021 field course:

I would like to thank the team for providing an amazing experience for my son Aditya. He is very grateful to get this wonderful opportunity of working with the best in their fields at such a young age. The communication, management and service has been great fro this trip. Thanks again. Jyoti

Thanks for running such an awesome course here in such a beautiful place. You and your team have provided invaluable insight into the real world – science and ecology. Hope to be back in the future. Dylon

By seeing the banded dotterel chick and other amazing sights, I felt like I was learning in a real meaningful way. Thanks, Fiver

Rachel, we did it! Congratulations on puttng together such an amazing field course you should be very proud of what you have achieved. It has been a real pleasure working with you! Hopefully we can do it again. Jihan



Whio (blue duck) breeding confirmed in the upper Siberia Valley

Excited to report a memorable encounter with a whio family of three duckling’s, (two-three weeks old) with their magnificient parents. This is a promising sign for this ancient globally endangered taonga within the Makarora catchment.

The family were observed for a while as they continued dabbling amongst the rapids and jumping between rocks in the riverbed. Hopfully, the young whio will fledge within the next 10-12 weeks and establish their own territory nearby their natal grounds.

Third duckling with second adult (24 November 2019), note the distinct bill shape present from a young age.

Whio primarily feed on aquatic invertebrates such as mayfly and caddisfly larvae and also take algae from stones and boulders. Their bill has a unique adaptation to facilitate feeding within the upper river environment. The upper bill has a semi-circular soft flap that helps protect the harder part of the bill from abrasion as the bird pries larvae from rocks in the river. The comb-like structures (lamellae) around the edge of the beak allow the whio to filter out aquatic insects and algae prey.

Proud male (forfront) and female parents

A new invasive mammalian trap-line has been installed to help protect whio, particuarly during the breeding season. This is essential in tandem with the Department of Conservation’s periodic pesticide application during beech mast events to help increase fledgling success and restore whio populations.

Whio duckling 2-3 weeks old in the upper Siberia River. Circular bill flaps visible.

Whio are important indicator or Māori touchstone species of environmental condition, if they are present water quality is high as their food source (freshwater aquatic invertebrates) only exists under good conditions. This family really did appear healthy too!

“A day to remember, my first whio experience. Thank you!”

            ~ ABT Volunteer and whio photographer, Nick Beckwith

Typical whio habitat in the upper Siberia Valley and location of new ABT invasive mammal trap-line.

Thank you for visiting 🙂

'A Biodiversity Challenge' Runner up Best Environmental Film at the 20th NZ Mountain Film Festival 2022     Veiw it Here »