For a few years, Rex and Joan Watson were courted by news
media from all over the world.
Their association with Dr Geoffrey Orbell, a man almost a
generation older than them whom they called Doc and regarded
as a mentor and father figure, had made them part of
''It was the worldwide interest that staggered us,'' Mrs
''We were in all the newspapers - in the London Illustrated
News twice, in Time magazine - [and were] written about in
many scientific journals. And for at least two years,
newspapers and magazines printed our own accounts of the day
notornis was found.''
Almost 65 years later she still has three scrapbooks of
clippings and many of the magazine articles. Somewhere along
the line the Time magazine disappeared. She thinks it was
probably taken to school by one of their children for a
science project and not brought home again.
Mr Watson, who turns 90 in April, is not in good health, but
Mrs Watson (87) has vivid memories of how they came to be
high in the Murchison Mountains in 1948 herding two takahe
into a flounder net.
Dr Orbell, an ear, nose, throat and eye specialist, moved to
Invercargill in 1935. He was an energetic man - a boat
builder, hunter, tramper, bird watcher and sea scout leader
as well as a surgeon and family man.
Mr Watson, Ron Weston and Neil McCrostie were schoolboy sea
scouts. As teenagers and young men they continued their
friendship with Dr Orbell and hunted and tramped with him.
Mrs Watson, at that time Joan Telfer, was Mr Watson's
girlfriend and began to accompany them on some of their
Dr Orbell was convinced takahe were not extinct. Ever since
he had seen a photograph of a stuffed specimen in the Otago
Museum as a boy he had been on the lookout for signs of the
birds during his back country expeditions. He also studied
maps and spoke to people who had seen unidentified large
birds or heard unusual deep calls.
In April, 1948, Dr Orbell and Mr Watson were deerstalking
high above Lake Te Anau near a lake which was then known as
the Lake of the Friendless (it has since been renamed Lake
Mrs Watson takes up the story:''As they were walking along
the beach, Rex spotted footprints. Doc measured them and
thought they might be on to something. But when Doc sent the
measurements to Dr [Robert] Falla, the director of the
Dominion Museum in Wellington, he thought they were too big
to be a takahe and were the prints of a white heron.''
There was heavy snow that winter and it wasn't until November
that Dr Orbell, Mr Watson, Mr McCrostie and Miss Telfer were
able to return to the area.
Within minutes of reaching the plateau where Dr Orbell
thought they might find takahe they had netted two birds and
Mr Watson took photographs on his box Brownie camera. One
shows Joan reclining on the beach watching a takahe tethered
to a stick; another shows her smiling broadly and holding a
bird on the ground.
Both Mr and Mrs Watson - they married in 1949 - remember the
excitement and sense of achievement that day.
''Were we impressed with the birds? Oh yes,'' Mr Watson said.
Dr Orbell was very aware the find would interest the media,
Mrs Watson said.
''As soon as he got back to Invercargill he sent off cables
and distributed his movies and Rex's photographs. But I don't
think any of us were prepared for the avalanche of publicity
Two months later, Mr and Mrs Watson were part of an 11-person
group which camped at the lake for a week, recording birds
and eggs and taking more photographs and movies.
Mrs Watson was the only woman. Because she had shorthand
typing skills she became Dr Falla's secretary, recording his
observations and reports.
The Watsons' friendship with Dr Orbell and his wife Sheila
continued until the Orbells died - Dr Orbell in Mosgiel in
2007 aged 98 and his wife in 2010 aged 99.
They say they are proud to have known him.
''He was the most wonderful person,'' Mrs Watson said.
''He knew so much about flora and fauna. He always had time
for others and was always sharing his knowledge. We loved to
follow in his footsteps.''
Dunedin author Bill O'Brien, who is writing a comprehensive
biography of Dr Orbell, has interviewed the Watsons about
their friendship with Dr Orbell and their part in the
While the Watsons were ''pretty laid back'' about the
rediscovery expeditions, their contribution was worth
remembering, he said.
''The reality is they were involved in a monumental thing.''
O'Brien's book is almost completed. He said he hoped it would
be published this year to coincide with the 65th anniversary
of the rediscovery.
Trek result 'too
good to be true'
An extract from an article written by Joan Watson (Telfer)
published in The Mirror women's magazine in June 1949:
On November 19  a party including Dr Orbell, Neil
McCrostie, Rex Watson and myself left Invercargill.
At 3.30am the next day we were on board the Takatumu, moving
up the lake [Te Anau]. We dropped anchor and landed our packs
on the western shores about 5.30am. On this occasion we were
travelling very lightly, carrying lunch, cameras and 50 yards
of fishing net.
The trek was long and tedious, up terraced slopes. Through
dense beech forests, twined with lawyer and obstructed by
windfalls and undergrowth tangled with a mass of roots, ferns
and rotting trees, our progress was slow and checked on
After three and a half hours' climbing we finally emerged on
to a clearing covered with snow-grass and boxwood, and
further on to snow-grass only.
When crossing this flat we noticed that the snow-grass had
been pulled out at intervals in the same manner as swamp hens
pull reeds. These places also showed many droppings
suggestive of a large bird.
A few minutes later Dr Orbell dropped suddenly flat on the
ground and motioned that we should follow suit. The three of
us thought immediately of a deer. But it was not a deer. To
quote the doctor: ''Either a pukeko or it!''Peering excitedly
through the long snow-grass we saw a strange looking bird
strutting about on a small patch of swampy ground. The bright
crayfish [red] beak and dark head were unmistakable.
Dr Orbell crawled slowly and carefully through the long
grass, applied a telephoto lens to his movie camera and
At this stage he signalled that another bird had appeared on
the scene. We took the net out of the pack and proceeded to
drag it into a semi-circular position. When this task was
completed we were ready for the attack, and the doctor
indicated to Rex to stand at the opening of the net and help
drive the birds in.
During all this time the birds were making a very penetrating
gulping noise. Apparently not in the least scared, they
walked into the net of their own accord, and when we
attempted to release them from it they clawed with their
powerful feet, snapped with their strong beaks and screamed
violently. This commotion roused a third bird which we were
unable to catch. He hovered at the edge of the bush ... for
about an hour.
All this seemed to good to be true. Only 9.30am and two
Notornis had been captured.
When we had completed our observations and the birds were
released we returned [home] in what Time magazine so aptly
described as ''a state of ornithological ecstasy''.