Whatever the reason, once I take the time to look down I am often captured by wonder and find myself exchanging the bird lens for a close-up lens to capture this miniature world with its lichen sculptures, fungal apartment blocks, bustling insect highways, and rich, mushroomy/earthy smells that tell stories of age, decay and the promise of new life.
It’s a world many of us who enjoy the outdoors, myself included, sometimes pass over in too much of a hurry with other objectives in mind – the grand landscape, the perfect bird photo, the mountain hut in the distance with it’s promise of shelter and a hot cuppa.
Yet, the grand trees, the flittering birds, the climbing vines with their brilliant flowers and shining berries, are only possible because of that super recycler that is the forest floor.
Once, when I was still with the Department of Conservation on the West Coast, I helped escort a party of school kids through some un-milled forest. Huge rimu in their last years – heavy with epiphytes, wrapped to strangling point by northern rata, hollow and rotting away with age yet still supporting a living crown – made an impressive statement of the highest achievement of the forest ecosystem. It was a time when selective helicopter milling of mature forest trees was all the rage – and in hot debate! And so, echoes of their parents, several of the youngsters declared the decaying giants a wasted resource.
“Should have been allowed to chop it down while it was still solid. Now it’s just rotting away, no use to anyone.”
How do you explain to 12-year-olds from a culture proud of its history of extraction – be that timber, coal or gold – that the forest, for all its vastness and apparent richness, is actually a fragile and relatively nutrient poor ecosystem? That by robbing the forest of the old trees you remove that part of the cycle where the dying giants give back to the soil the very nutrients that sustained their growth and supported their crowning maturity; that, eventually, if you kept removing mature trees, you’d disrupt the nutrient cycle and deprive the forest soils of their fertility so that the forest itself would no longer be sustainable – to say nothing of the array of plants, bats and birds, and insects that make such old trees their home.
I have commented before on how easy it is to convince folk of the need for conservation when the plant or animal endangered is spectacular and/or cute. But who weeps for the small, the ugly, the seemingly insignificant? Who cares if a moss dies or a fungus fails? If a millipede no longer slithers, or a leaf-shaped slug slides out of existence? We should care, because research shows very clearly that if the forest floor dies, the forest dies.
Take fungi for example. Most trees cannot absorb sufficient nutriment from the soil without the symbiotic relationship they have with fungi. The network of fungi filaments wrapped around the feeding roots of forest trees form an interactive nutrition exchange system on a grand scale.
The forest floor teems with a wide variety of plants and animals and other organisms. Indeed, from a biodiversity point of view the forest floor is richer in the number and variety of living organisms it supports than the forest itself. There are creepy crawlies like the giant snails, millipedes and slaters, worms and slugs; myriad tiny creepers, mosses, lichens, ferns and liverworts; and a vast microscopic world of fungi, algae and bacteria. All killing or being killed, growing, dying, competing and cooperating, and endlessly breaking things down and recycling. It’s a jungle down there!
The forest floor is the foundation of a nutrient cycle as old as time, transferring nutrients from the soil to the plants to the animals, and back to the soil. The forest floor’s role in this cycle has been described as a bridge between the aboveground living vegetation and the soil. Disrupt it, and the whole system breaks down.
Rather than being an endless creator of new life, the forest, of which the forest floor is an essential component, is, rather, an endless recycler of life. The energy it takes to grow a forest giant must eventually return to the forest floor, or other forest giants cannot grow in their turn.
So, take the time to look, to smell, to enjoy. Lie back on a bed of moss, pick up a magnifying glass to examine the mysteries of lichen, wonder at the faery worlds of fruiting fungi. . . and tread a little lighter!
So it seems almost paradoxical, certainly ironic, that one of the most effective tools I have for getting close to birds without disturbing them . . . is my car.
My versatile little hatchback – that I confess to treating as if it were a four-wheel drive – is a product of an industry that at many levels acts against the interests of nature: whether that be the mining and smelting of the metals for its frame and body; the polluting chemicals that make up its plastics, paints and fiberglass moldings; the coal-fired electricity that is used in its welding; or the climate change contributed to by the emissions of its spent fuel.
But, parked at the edge of a pond, river, coastline or wetland field, it becomes something else; it becomes a hide that opens a door to nature so that others might appreciate, and help protect, it.
While we, as a species, have a history of exploiting nature, rather than adapting to it, nature’s creatures have, perforce, had to adapt to us. We are intrusive and noisy neighbours but birds, especially, have learned that passing cars along the edges of their territories offer little threat. We, in our vehicles, become so much background noise and movement that can be safely ignored – unless you are a harrier or magpie scavenging on road-kill, in which case you take your life in your hands (or should that be talons?) Christchurch and greater Canterbury, there are many kilometres of road that run alongside forests, waterways, fields and wetlands, estuaries and the sea.
These photos, then, are a salute to the birds that have learned to live alongside us, some even thriving on the environments we create. All have been photographed from the luxurious vantage point of the front seat of my car, with little more discomfort than a bit of cramp from an awkward lean out of the window to get that perfect shot.
“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Pilot Officer Gillespie Magee
Insects beat them to that honour, as did the gliding reptiles of the dinosaur era. But. surely, there is no animal that has so perfected flight and raised it to such an art form as the bird.
Whether it be the mighty condor soaring above the Andes on effortless spirals, the ocean-wandering albatross gliding on the air pushed up by waves, or the humming-bird all-a-blur at the mouths of flowers, flight has fascinated ground dwelling humans since we first stood on two legs and looked to the sky.
There seems not to be a race, religion or culture that does not refer, somewhere to the soaring splendor of birds and flight. Many of our most potent mythical beings are imagined with having this ability.
Birds, especially flying birds, feature strongly in prehistoric art and in our legends, including those of Maori here in New Zealand. I have visited the rock drawings that feature the now extinct Haast Eagle, which, if it were still alive today, would be the world’s biggest raptor.
When I am photographing birds my biggest thrill and greatest satisfaction is to get that perfect flight photo.
This photo blog features some of my own photos of birds in flight as a tribute to the sheer beauty of it.
The gannet above and the albatrosses
left and right
were photographed off the coast of
Fiordland following our cruise ship.
And, of course, the gulls:
Enough of the sea birds, let’s head slightly inland!
Not to be confused with these guys – Kotuku – white heron - Egretta alba modesta
Kotuku can be quite bold birds once they get used to people. There was one bird at
Wellington that wintered in the Hutt River mouth mudflats right on the Petone foreshore.
You could walk upright to within 5 metres of it and, if you crawled, almost touch it!
But another kotuku I observed yesterday in the isolated high country fled as soon as I came within 50 metres.
Similarly, white-faced heron are mostly quite timid but can become used to people, which can make for easier photos.
Estuaries are one of my favourite places to go birding as they occur at the junction of land and sea and so have species from both environments as well as their own estuarine specialists.
In Canterbury I have discovered the joys of Ashley Estuary which is rich in a large variety of bird life.
Similarly Lake Ellesmere, though not an estuary, being right on the edge of the sea presents many opportunities to observe birds and also has large numbers of migrant waders visiting for spring and summer.
And, finally, my favourite, the glorious speedster – Karearea, New
In one of my short stories I create a modern Maori myth where, through the magical powers of an ancient tohunga,** a present-day young Maori gay man comes to terms with his sexuality and confronts his homophobic father.
The ancient part of the story is set in a limestone valley where a band of Waitaha* is on a hunting excursion. The tohunga chooses to draw on the wall of the limestone overhang where the hunting party is camped, thus mystically connecting with the young man, who has journeyed to the same spot centuries later.
The story evokes the time-worn atmosphere of the karst landscape, where limestone outcrops have been carved by the action of water across centuries into fantastical shapes, shafts, pits and caves that stir the imagination and hint of portals into an other-world of mystery, magic and wonder.
The story is a product of my imagination but its setting is real. This blog describes a journey taken in the last few days along paths trod by those first peoples of New Zealand some 500 to 700 years ago.
One of the great road journeys in New Zealand is the route from Christchurch in Canterbury to the West Coast via Arthur’s Pass. After a swift journey across the plains the traveler drives over the first barrier range at Porter’s Pass into the high mountain basins and river valleys of the eastern South Island high country, and then a steep zigzag over the trans-alpine pass to the luxuriant rainforests of the west.
In my view one of the most glorious landscapes of this journey is the Waimakariri Basin, which opens like a slowly revealed surprise as you cross Porter’s Pass and enter a rolling open space enclosed by the Craigieburn and Torlesse ranges and the eastern ramparts of the Main Divide.
In winter this is the playground of snow skiers. The alpine basins of Porters, Craigieburn and Broken River ski fields are buried in deep powder snow and the bare tops support icy crusts that shine like beacons under a winter moon.
In spring the snow retreats to reveal a transient hint of green: tussock grasslands sprout afresh and red-tipped dracophyllum lends a Kodachrome contrast; alpine daisies follow the light like sunflowers and ranunculus burst through the tussock and shake their blousy blooms at the sky.
Summer follows quickly; the dehydrating nor-wester transforms the landscape of alpine grasslands and low shrubs into a kaleidoscope of golds, browns and rusty reds, rising to the greys and jasper purples of the bare tops, where even lichen finally relinquishes its grip to leave the shattered greywacke clean and shining under the relentless sun.
At the heart of this great basin of rolling grasslands and rushing rivers is a landscape surprise. Rising up from the lower slopes – where introduced grasses are pasture for sheep and cattle and remnants of the original native cover cling precariously to a few gullies too steep to graze – are the limestone ramparts of Kura Tawhiti (Castle Hill) and, a little further down the road, the limestone tors and bluffs of Cave Stream Scenic Reserve.
These are magnificent attractions on a popular tourist road.
The Dalai Lama described Castle Hill as a “Spiritual Centre of the Universe” and it is certainly a place of deep spiritual and cultural significance for Waitaha and Ngai Tahu, as well as being a mecca for rock climbers. The popular Cave Stream is equally justified as an attraction. Here people, if they follow the rules and use some common sense, can have a safe but thrilling venture into the underworld and appreciate the shaping power of water in the karst landscape; along with a not unfounded sense of some risk, given that this cave has claimed lives when it’s mood has changed or its dangers overlooked.
The formations are the water worn remnants of vast layers of sediment laid down and compressed into limestone during the Oligocene period some 30 million years ago when most of New Zealand was under the sea. When tectonic action lifted this rock above the ocean the soluble limestone began to wear away, giving us the spectacular sculpted tors, overhangs, caves, guts and sinkholes we see today.
Between these landscape icons is an easy tar-sealed road that can be safely negotiated in minutes at 100kph, the passengers’ eyes drawn across seemingly uninterrupted pastures to the high tops of the surrounding ranges.
But this view is a deception. Linking Castle Hill to Cave Stream is a network of streams and valleys invisible from the road, where hidden caves, deep gullies, and extraordinary limestone outcrops more than rival the tourist map attractions. Few of the Castle Hill road travelers know it, fewer still visit, but the earliest humans to arrive in these islands once walked the pathways through these valleys.
For Waitaha and Ngai Tahu, the limestone ledges along these banks were places of shelter on journeys to and from the West Coast to collect pounamu (greenstone or New Zealand jade). The hardest substance known to Maori, pounamu was carved into weapons, tools, jewelry and pieces of art. On these journeys early Maori drew in charcoal on the walls of the limestone overhangs where they sheltered; some of these drawings are still visible. In such an overhang, centuries later, an intact woven harakeke backpack was discovered, the only such ever found, to bear witness to the sheer human effort to bear this dense, heavy stone across the alps and out to the East Coast where, what was not required locally, was traded with other hapu and iwi from throughout the country.
Our journey was not so strenuous, but the sense of stepping back in time was strong as we dropped off the tussock plateau sloping away from Castle Hill Village and into the narrow confines of Thomas Stream. Limestone bluffs loomed over us and, while willow has replaced kowhai in the stream beds, the still, cool depths seemed centuries back in time from the headlong rush of traffic only ten minutes’ walk behind us on the tourist highway.
The Thomas led us under ledges where karearea nest, past a secret cave, down to the Porter River. Here the water seemed milky until we realised it was the creamy limestone the clear stream was flowing over that gave the illusion of colour.
The junction of the Thomas and Porter was marked with a huge and spectacular bluff of contorted limestone that looked as if the rock had exploded out of the ground to solidify in mid air, before being softened and rounded by the ensuing ages.
We crawled along the high, dry and wide ledges carved into this massive face when the river bed was much higher than it is now, and wondered if Waitaha had camped here, high above risk of flood and out of the rain or fierce sun.
The Porter tumbled out of this rocky enclave into an open valley where it ran clear and shallow past remnants of the totara, hebe and broadleaf forests that were once the dominant plants in this region. Here the limestone, long abandoned by the smoothing actions of the river, was pale grey and shattered, piled into fragile slats like heaps of broken roof tiles, slowly surrendering to the impact of winter frost and summer heat, piece by flaking piece.
To our true left, across wide flats dotted with matagouri and coprosma, the Broken River hove into view. Our travel now upstream choosing our way along the narrowing Broken River Valley due west into the confines of the Broken’s limestone gorge.
Into this landscape of rocky greys and golden, summer-burned grasses, we came upon a startling glaring white intrusion! On the true right of the Broken River a large outcrop of coarse, frail limestone that seemed less dense and compacted than most of the surrounding rock, was actively eroding into a badlands formation. Our guide said that ten years ago it wasn’t even there, so this was nature in action at, by geological standards, a lightning pace! The limestone had had no time to weather into grey and few plants had gained a foothold. The soaring razor-edged ridges seemed as a freshly calved iceberg, and gave the same impression that any second another section would fall away to tumble into the valley.
Beyond the badlands the river rapidly narrowed and soon the Broken River was living up to its name, coursing through a labyrinth of limestone formations; a foaming waterfall, a deep pool, suddenly wide, then so narrow the entire river could be leaped across by the brave or foolhardy. In the water as often as out of it, we wove through this ancient maze to emerge above the gorge where a long deep pool begged to be swum in and the mouth of the Cave Stream cave drew us like a fairground ride - slightly scary but compelling.
The cave itself is not part of this story, for as I have noted, it is part of the known and popular attractions of the Waimakariri Basin. And, indeed, on such a hot and blue-skied Sunday there were crowds of adventure seekers heading for the mouth of the cave and the hour-long 594m scramble upstream in the wet and the dark.
But we privileged few had just spent nearly four hours linking two tourism icons – only a few minutes apart by road – journeying through ways still largely unknown, where the connection with those earliest of journeyers seemed closer and far more real.
**In Maori tohunga means expert practitioner. It can be applied to an expert carver or artist, a highly skilled orator, a keeper of ancestral knowledge, someone skilled at interpreting the spiritual world or using magic (the tohunga in my story), or a person expert in healing and medicine.
*Waitaha, very early Maori who occupied the South Island before the now dominant iwi, Ngai Tahu.
When I was a youngster, going back to school after the main summer break came with the obligatory essay assignment: ‘what I did on my holidays’.
While it was a task dreaded by many of my classmates, it was something I always enjoyed. Partly, I guess, because I was good at English and have always loved writing; and partly because I usually had great adventures to tell, thanks to my parents who took us on wonderful holidays. These were sometimes road trips to places elsewhere in the South Island, but most of the time they were to our fishing bach at Lake Clearwater, only an hour or so away from home. There I was provided with hundreds of hectares of high country lakes, wetlands, rivers, hills and mountains to explore and build adventures in – both in reality and in my imagination.
I am sure my passion for wetlands can be attributed, to a large extent, to the great fun and interest I derived from those boyhood explorations of the swampy, smelly, shifting, sinking, creaking and croaking, reptile, insect and bird-full wetlands surrounding the lake our bach was perched beside.
So, in the tradition of those school essays, here is my summer 2012/13 report on ‘what I did in my holidays’, which comprised largely of splashing, crawling, scraping and scratching my way through the large, densely vegetated wetlands around the shores of Lakes Waipori and Waihola on the Taieri Plain just south of Dunedin in the South Island of New Zealand.
The names Waihola and Waipori, the Department of Conservation (DOC) website says, are probably derived from the early Maori occupants, the Waitaha people. ‘Wai’ means water and ‘hola’ is the Waitaha form of ‘hora’, meaning ‘flat’, ‘spread out’ or ‘widespread’. Waipori may be a misrecording of ‘Waipouri’, the name used in many older manuscripts to refer to the dark, tannin-stained water draining the heavily wooded Waipori catchment.
I’m fortunate that my partner Steve’s sister lives at Berwick, a small settlement on the inland shores of this 2000-hectare wetland and we were headed there for a family Christmas. If you saw the schoolhouse scene in the X Men Origins Wolverine movie you’ve seen Berwick, the schoolhouse exists in reality and is next door. Better still, their house nestles on the edge of the large Berwick Forest, primarily an exotic plantation forest, but with significant sections of native forest also. Two major ecosystems and my holiday accommodation was on the border of both. Birding heaven!
In the simple house between forest and wetland I was cradled to sleep with the last descending trill of a signing-off riroriro, sleepy kereru cooing goodnight and then the haunting call of the ruru clocking in for the night shift. I woke to an impressive dawn chorus of korimako, tui, magpie and numerous small birds both introduced and native.
Most mornings the small singers were chirruping and trilling away on the top wire of the fence across from the gate – redpoll, yellowhammer, goldfinch – while warou (welcome swallows) lined the power lines and swooped over the paddocks, hawking insects rising to the morning heat. Magpies quardle oodle ardle wardle doodled* from the high gums behind the house.
While breakfasting, the warming day drew the first korimako and tui to the rich red harakeke (New Zealand flax) flowers and kahu began their first lazy spirals into the sky riding the first of the day’s thermals to a prey-spotting height. Eastern rosella would swoop in too, perching on the dead** willows, like some bizarre tropical fruits clinging to the bare branches.
A few minutes down the road took me to the jewel in this great stretch of lakes, swamps, and scrublands – the Sinclair Wetlands.
The Sinclair Wetlands are part of the Waipori/Waihola ecosystem. In 1960 Horrie Sinclair purchased a run-down farm between the two lakes and restored it to its original wetland condition.
This wetland now consists of ponds, water channels, swamplands and a couple of scrub-covered islands where a planting programme is speeding the recovery of native bush. More than 60 species of bird live in or regularly visit this wetland including rare species like the matuku along with the shy koitareke and the secretive matata. Indeed, the Waipori/Waihola wetlands generally are an eastern stronghold of this strikingly marked bird that has suffered from the burning, draining and conversion to pasture or industrial lands of some 90% of our nations original wetlands.
Sinclair Wetlands are now privately owned by Te Rūnanga o Ngāi Tahu and protected by a Queen Elizabeth II National Trust Open Space Covenant. The public is free to wander (for a gold coin donation) and local schools frequently visit to help plant trees and other native species. Willows and other introduced weed species are being poisoned out and, slowly, the wetland is reverting to something like it must have appeared to the early Maori. Whakaraupuka / Ram Island, one of the dryland islands in the midst of this marsh, was in ancient times the location of a Maori settlement, Tukiauau Pa, and the whole area was an important mahinga kai (food gathering) resource. Of course total regeneration will take many years as swamp giants like kahikatea return to their magnificent heights.
It’s not just birds and trees. Over the whole Waipori/Waihola area 12 species of freshwater fish have been recorded, including such rare species as the giant kokopu. The area supports regionally significant whitebait and commercial eel fisheries as well as recreational fishing for introduced brown trout and perch.
This complex is an integral link in a chain of wetlands along the east coast of the South Island between Wairau lagoons, near Blenheim, and the Awarua/Waituna wetlands in Southland.
The area is also popular for recreation – particularly boating, water-skiing, fishing and hunting especially for introduced game birds such as Canada geese, black swan and mallard duck. This hunting seems incongruous in a nationally significant reserve but it plays an important role in helping control the populations of these introduced waterfowl that have become serious pests where populations have exploded. These birds can also out-compete native species for food and nesting resources.
It was a classic Kiwi Christmas summer’s day as I headed to Sinclair for the first of my visits for the holiday. Only 10am and already baking hot! The air was spicy with the hot dust from the shingle road and the honey smell of a multitude of flowering trees, shrubs and grasses. Native red admiral and tussock butterflies were flickering over the grasses; insects buzzed and rattled from every corner; sunbathing skinks slid away from my approach and waterfowl drifted in somnolent circles on the ponds. Sharp-eyed kahu circled but were wary; a pointed long lens to them must have looked too much like a hunter, who sometimes see these magnificent raptors as vermin, and they’d wheel away most times before a decent shot was possible. For such large and fiercely weaponed birds they are cautious and fearful.
And then, a chorus of angry cries. A kahu had swooped low over a shallow bay of feeding poaka and, with half grown chicks to defend, the adults rose in a frenzy of noisy defiance, swooping the harrier repeatedly until it was driven away.
Soon, too soon for me as I should have been up earlier, the heat haze made getting clear shots of the more distant birds impossible and careful stalking was required, but then, isn’t it always? The rewards of patience, however, were great.
On this day the water birds were scarce and way out in the middle of the lake, but the bush birds on the dry islands were making up for it. Iridescent tui flashed from flower to flower on the harakeke, bullying away any korimako already feeding there; diminutive and permanently hyperactive tauhou raided through the flowering trees and shrubs gleaning the insects attracted to the blossoms and sipping nectar; fernbird called secretly from hidden bowers deep in the tangle of swamp scrub. Swallows, too swift to follow, launched from trees on the edge of the dry to skim the water surface, dipping to pick insects off the water; their youngsters – the swallow equivalent of teenagers – though fully capable of feeding themselves, still cheekily demanding a free feed from mum and dad.
My highlight of the day were the riroriro. These tiny warblers were numerous, with lots of freshly fledged youngsters around. Their sweet voices filled the air as they flitted among the kanuka – itself clothed in white like fresh powder snow clinging to branches. Insects in incredible variety were drawn in by the kanuka and the warblers were like cheetahs stalking herds of antelope, dashing in for lightning strikes.
Later, the warm evenings were enjoyed in the garden with a cool glass of sauvignon blanc while the tui stole one last sip of nectar from the harakeke and a dunnock probed the cracks in the wooden fence for spiders.
The obligatory last minute Christmas shopping preceded a long half-day’s tramping through the Berwick forest the following day. A fierce kek kek kek told me karearea (falcons) were hunting in the area, confirmed shortly afterward by coming across the carcass of an introduced rock pigeon (the ubiquitous ‘flying rats’ of our cities), which was little more than scattered feathers and bone, the fleshy remnants still fresh. Ngiru-ngiru (South Island Tomtit) flitted through the brighter spots of the under storey, equally at home among the pines as among the patches of native forest. Their sound-alikes, riroriro, were in equal abundance, while out in the milled areas where grasses and scrub and foxgloves were reclaiming the land between the stumps, yellowhammer, goldfinch, redpoll, and skylark were in abundance among the dry summer grasses and seasonal field flowers.
I am particularly fond of the male skylark’s display. He rises high in the sky and then, trilling mightily, begins a slow hovering descent back to the grass, his song only ceasing as he drops the last second into cover.
A four-hour walk was rewarded with a plunge in a forest pond, which I shared with skimming swallows, and a flock of tete (grey teal) with several broods of half-grown youngsters. The swallows, a little wary when approached from land, were completely oblivious to me swimming under their perches, which gave me an idea – later, I was able to kayak right up to their drying and resting tree overhanging the water and take photos at almost touching distance.
No birding on Christmas Day but, with the family gathered around the trestle tables under the giant umbrella tree, or sprawled in stuffed-to-the-limit exhaustion in deckchairs, the birds continued around us, oblivious of our excess, careless of the achingly hot day, singing and fledging and feeding in the trees, garden flowers and shrubs around us.
Boxing Day and I realised my holiday was coming to an end without any sightings or photos of matata (South Island fernbird). I had heard plenty and seen the odd distant blur disappearing into the wetland shrubbery. I made up my mind this was the day and set out for an extensive tour through the Waipori/Waihola wetlands determined to capture my first photos of these unique and, to the general public, little known birds.
And birds I saw aplenty, many already listed above, but also kawau, white-faced heron, kawau paka, papango and numerous swan, duck and Canada geese. Fernbirds were heard too, but were not obliging – living up to their reputation for shy caution and highly effective camouflage.
But then, almost back home and the long summer evening well underway, at a little patch of wetland on the southwest wide of Waihola, a Department of Conservation sign seemed hopeful. It said this particular area was not only a wildlife management zone but also a prime spot for bird observations. The foliage, undermined with marsh, was tall, prickly, and dominated by razor-edged cuttygrass; thick, tangled coprosma and other divaricating bushes towered above these shorter species like lonely sentinels. Perfect fernbird habitat.
Like an inexperienced fishermen unable to see trout in the water at first until the eye becomes ‘educated’, I could hear the quiet calls of the matata all around me, but not see them. The one curious male overcame his shyness and flew toward me and perched a few feet away. He checked me out and, deciding I was harmless, began his song from the top of a thorny shrub. It was enough! My eyes were tuned in and, all of a sudden, I could see them everywhere! Skulking through the bushes, peeking out at me from bowers of grass, and the boys daring the higher scrub to sing their territorial songs.
I returned to the car muddied, scratched, pricked and bleeding and rapturously happy. My first fernbirds were in the camera, and what photos they were!
Happy New Year everyone! (notes below)
* From the poem by NZ Poet Denis Glover The Magpies. The first verse of which reads:
When Tom and Elizabeth took the farm
The bracken made their bed
and Quardle oodle ardle wardle doodle
The magpies said.
** The willows, an introduced weed, are poisoned to restore native habitat, hence a wetland dotted with groves of dead trees.
Bird species in this blog in order of mention:
Riroriro – grey warbler – Gerygone igata
Kereru – New Zealand pigeon – Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae
Ruru – morepork owl – Ninox novaeseelandiae
Korimako – Bellbird – Anthornis melanura
Tui – Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae
Magpie – Australian magpie – Gymnorhina tibicen
Redpoll – Carduelis flammea
Yellowhammer – Emberiza citrinella
Goldfinch – Carduelis carduelis
Warau – welcome swallow – Hirundo tahitica
Kahu – Australasian harrier – Circus approximans
Eastern rosella – Platycercus eximius
Matuku – Australasian bittern – Botaurus poiciloptilus
Koitareke – Marsh crake – Porzana pusila
Matata – South Island fernbird – Bowdleria punctata
Canada geese – Branta canadensis
Black swan – Cygnus atratus
Mallard duck – Anas platyrhynchos
Poaka – pied stilt – Himantopus himantopus
Tauhou – silvereye – Zosterops lateralis
Dunnock – Prunella modularis
Karearea – New Zealand falcon – Falco novaeseelandiae
Rock pigeon – Columba livia
Ngiru-ngiru – South Island tomtit – Petroica macrocephala
Skylark – Aluda arvensis
Tete – grey teal – Anas gracilis
Kawau – black shag – Phalacrocorax carbo
Kawaupaka – little shag – Phalacrocorax melanoleucos
White faced heron – Adea novaehollandiae
Papango – New Zealand scaup – Athya novaeseelandiae
In New Zealand one of the great endurance races is the ‘Coast to Coast’ where triathletes run, cycle and kayak from the West side of the South Island, to the east, starting and finishing on a beach. This is my
It’s only a little over 250 kilometres – not such a great distance as journeys go – yet there is no doubt that one of New Zealand’s great road trips is the drive from Christchurch on the east Coast of the South Island, to Hokitika on the West Coast.
It is a journey that encompasses more than five major climactic zones and traverses scenery as diverse as flat alluvial plain, labyrinthine karst, high altitude river valleys, mountainscapes, temperate rainforest and ocean-pounded surf beach.
In three-and-a-half hours (not counting photo stops!) it goes from the man-sculpted architecture of one of our largest cities, through extensive pastoral lands shaped by generations of agricultural practice, and into the truly wild, where people can only ever be temporary visitors. It takes us from the genteel civility of punting on the Avon to a wild west town with a history as dynamic and dangerous and just plain muddy as any cowboy town depicted in a Hollywood western.
In this blog I document that Coast to Coast journey in a series of images that illustrate why so many visitors to New Zealand are simply amazed by the fact that a few miles down the road, around a bend, over a hill or through a valley a whole new world can unfold.
Kaitorete Spit is a wild windy place, steeped in ancient Maori history and home to numerous birds. The steep shingled beach is pounded by surf and the journey from here faces its first challenge, skirting the vast swampy landscape of Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere).
From here the drive begins in earnest, a winding wander, skirting the boundary between the volcanic hills of Banks Peninsula and the wind-swept alluvial plains until Christchurch city hoves into site.
After Halswell you enter the city proper. This was once a vast swamp trapped between the rise of the Banks Peninsula Hills to the east and the long slope of the plains down from the mountains. The heritage of this flat topography is still evident in the meandering course that Otautahi (the river Avon) follows through the city.
You simply can’t drive through Christchurch without driving alongside, or even through, a park. Even in winter they have a manufactured beauty that, yet, gives a sense of the peace, and solitude, of the wild, where old houses blend into the landscape as if they’ve grown there.
If Hagley Park is the landscaped heart of the city, Travis Wetland must be up there as its wild heart. While invaded by introduced plants it is, nevertheless, still a great oasis of the once dominant wetland ecosystem. A wander through here produces some great bird shots and a sense of ancientness within the surrounds of the city.
Out of the city now and heading west, the pace picks up. Long, straight roads carve westward and, ever so gently, upward as well. This is pastoral country, manicured by the plough. But always in the distance the mountains forming a white-walled backdrop to the stretched-out plains.
Beyond the above shot near Springfield the road suddenly changes, around a bend, over a bridge, another bend and you’re in the foothills, climbing, the plains behind you. Within minutes you hit the Porter’s Pass zig-zag and crest the pass into the alpine basin and river valleys that stretch from the western edge of Porters to the easter foot of the Main Divide. From Porters the landscape is instantly bigger, more dramatic and as varied as there are bends in the road.
The dramatic landscape changes around every bend – Here the Porter’s Pass hills are bathed in an early morning glow.
Just past Porters the unique Castle Hill landscape appears. This is karst (limestone) landscape where ancient stones born in the sediments of the ocean have been carved by millennia of wind, rain, sun and frost into a labyrinth of shapes sublime to grotesque woven through with gullies and caves.
Another vista opens up just beyond the Bealey pub. A sweeping bend, a winding drop around a bluff and the upper Waimakariri opens up to the traveller’s eye. Now the final barrier mountains are no longer distant peaks, but looming giants with permanent snow and ice fields that look impassable and you wonder where the road must go to pass among these leaning guardians.
Across the long narrow bridge that frames the above view another swift change. We dive into eastern beech forest and follow the winding river through to Arthurs Pass township nested at the very foot of the dividing mountains . . . kea country! Watch out, they’ll steal your lunch!
A quick drive from the town takes you to the top of the pass and opens up the Otira valley flowing westward.
You very quickly enter West Coast temperate rain forest, driving past tea-coloured streams with thick forest crowding to the edges, where you’d almost not be surprised if some Jurassic beast emerged from the fern-dominated foliage.
Beyond the national Park in the mighty Taramakau Valley your pass once again through a pastoral coastal plain, much, much narrower and wilder looking than its eastern counterpart. The mountains hang close here and a step up from the valley floors the forest still clings wild and wet.
The road winds to historic Kumara and hits an infamous piece of straight – a local speed camera trap, before cutting left at Kumara junction and down to the long wild surf beach that leads to Hokitika.
Here the shore is strewn with driftwood, and black streams make the sea in a foaming rush.
Here our journey ends, beside the wooden buildings of Hokitika oozing with gold mining history and the days of boom and bust.
But the sun beyond us, dipping west out there toward Australia. We will look for it again on the foaming shores of Kaitorete.
How careless we are, we humans, about our pleasures and their consequences.
When I was a lad a mate and I were fishing in the Orari River gorge near Geraldine, my home town. We were taking turns at dropping a ‘black gnat’ into the last swirl of a rapid so it drifted to where trout patrolled the junction of the shallow rill and the deep, black pool it emptied into.
It was my turn to test my skill against the cautious trout, when a duck drifted down the rapids and across my line.
Too quick to stop him, my mate picked up a rock and threw it at the bird, as 12-year-old boys are wont to do. Like so many throws that are instinctive and without thought, it was devastatingly accurate, catching the duck on the head and killing it instantly.
‘So what?’ You might ask. ‘It was just a duck and, after all, you were trying to kill a trout! What’s the difference?’
The difference is that the trout I was trying to catch are an introduced and plentiful game species. The duck was an endemic whio (blue duck – Hymenolaimus malacorhynchos) a beautiful torrent duck that, even then, I knew was rare and threatened (and it has become more so since, you no longer see them in the river gorges behind Geraldine as I did in my youth).
Of course, you can hardly condemn a boy for picking up a stone, it is an instinct that seems deeply ingrained in our psyche; and he neither had the maturity nor the knowledge to appreciate what he was doing.
But adults! Well, that’s another story.
Not so far away, as the blue duck flies, from the small Orari is a much more impressive river, the mighty Rangitata. This is one of the great rivers that emanates in the eastern flanks of the South Island’s Southern Alps and bisects the Canterbury Plains in a myriad of shingle-banked braids.
Braided rivers, coursing through alluvial shingle beds are, on a global scale, a comparatively rare and specialised environment. The rivers that are still building the Canterbury Plains of New Zealand are an internationally recognised natural feature with their own ecosystem of plants, insects and birds.
A number of unique bird species choose to raise young and/or feed in these braided channels, making nests in the bare stone. They include: the very rare kaki (black stilt Himantopus novaezelandiae) the status of which is listed as nationally critical (the most endangered ranking);
the taranui (Caspian tern Sterna caspia); and the wrybill (Anarhynchus frontalis) the only bird in the world that has a bill that curves sideways (always to the right).
The taranui and the wrybill are both classified as nationally vulnerable, the third most serious ranking.
These rare birds share their stony home with another small wader, the abundant tuturiwhatu (banded dotterel Charadrius bicinctus). Apart from the taranui, all of these species are endemic; meaning that they are found nowhere other than New Zealand.
But braided alluvial shingle river systems are under serious threat directly and indirectly, because of the actions of humans, partly, I suggest, because there is not a great deal of understanding or appreciation of shingle riverbeds as a critically important ecological resource.
We see, and welcome, a great many campaigns for protection of wetlands, the establishment of marine reserves, and the preservation of forests and mountain landscapes, but public awareness of the value of braided rivers seems poor.
We seem to take riverbeds for granted or, worse, see no real value in them. I suggest that for many people, braided shingle riverbeds are just stone and weeds, a seemingly barren playground on which to hoon around in off-road vehicles; or simply the land they must traverse to get to the water to swim, fish or jet boat.
This carelessness as to the value of braided river systems means that their threats are many.
Introduced weeds, especially lupin, gorse and broom, invade the bare shingle banks depleting the amount of nesting space available to the river nesting specialists, which require open, clean shingle to nest on. The additional vegetative cover also means that introduced predators such as feral cats and stoats can sneak up to nests more easily.
Water extraction for irrigation is another issue. Braided river systems require regular freshes of water to maintain the bare shingle islands. Low water flows allow weeds to establish and also reduce the habitat of the water-living invertebrates that the wading birds feed upon.
Ironically, more frequent heavy and unseasonal flooding is also a threat, a consequence of loss of native vegetation in the high country catchments that feed these rivers, so that rain enters the river systems quickly instead of being held by tussock and forest and released from the catchment slowly.
Of course a huge risk is the introduced predators already mentioned, especially feral cats and stoats, but also possums, hedgehogs, dogs and rats. Our indigenous birds have evolved without the presence of mammalian predators, so while their stay-still-and-rely-on-camouflage defences work well against natural aerial predators like kahu (Australasian Harrier – Circus approximans), karoro (black-backed gull – Larus dominicanus) and karearea (New Zealand falcon – Falco novaeseelandiae) they do not work any where near as well against ground predators with a sense of smell!
And now I return to the opening theme of this article, the carelessness of humans and the threat that our self-absorption presents to the survival of native species.
For, in addition to being the source of the weeds, irrigation and mammalian predators that impact on our bird numbers, our own activities directly impact on the survival of our river, beach and sand-bank nesting species. Our love affair with motorized cross-country transport – the four-wheel drive, beach buggy, quad bike, trail bike etc – is a real threat to ground nesting species, whose nests are impossible to see from a moving vehicle. Numerous nesting birds and/or their eggs or chicks simply get run over.
The trouble is, precious few authorities make any large-scale or concerted attempts to regulate against, restrict or confine, the activities of our off-roaders. And even where such regulations do exist there are few if any resources to actually police it. In most cases there is simply an occasional sign warning of the presence of nesting birds and prohibiting or limiting access; signs which, in my experience, are often ignored by adults who, unlike my youthful companion all those years ago, should know better
I have personally witnessed deliberate flouting of vehicle restrictions on braided rivers, beaches and estuaries; restrictions set up to protect wrybill, terns and other vulnerable species. And it’s not the young hoons in powerful vehicles of popular infamy who are the main problem. It’s almost always mature adults; frequently salmon fishermen, surf fishers or whitebaiters, whose priorities seem not to include consideration of native birds when a run is on and they need to get vehicles close to the fishing spot as quickly as possible.
I have witnessed drivers deliberately target marked dotterel nests (ironically put there by volunteers to try to warn drivers away from the eggs) because they resent the limitations imposed on their ‘freedom’ because of the birds’ presence. I have heard people loudly boast of encouraging their dogs to sniff out the nests and eat the eggs. Their reasoning is that if the birds can be got rid of, the limitations on their recreational activities will be lifted.
And I have personally been threatened with violence when I have remonstrated with drivers taking their vehicles into protected bird areas.
For the seeker of recreational fish species – or merely the thrill of high speed off-roading – it seems nothing should be allowed to limit their pleasures!
Let me acknowledge that not all baiters and fishers, nor even all recreational off-roaders, behave this way, but the numbers that do – whether through ignorance or the deliberate flouting I have described – is significant, yet records show very few are caught let along prosecuted or otherwise penalised. The sad fact is that most off-roaders who knowingly flout the law on vehicle access in bird seasons, do so knowing their chances of getting caught are almost zero!
Recently, at Kaitorete Spit on the seaward edge of Lake Ellesmere, I photographed dotterel eggs where tyre tracks passed within five centimeters of the nest; a nest, incidentally, only 30 metres inside a prohibited vehicle area marked by a large sign.
Less than a week later, hoping to get photographs of hatched chicks, I went back, and found instead crushed eggs and the sad remnants of an adult bird that must have stayed, camouflaged and frozen to the nest, as the quad bike bore down!
Organisations like the Department of Conservation (DOC), Forest and Bird and local conservation volunteers do their best and their efforts should be celebrated. But the truth is that the resources for conservation, in so-called ‘clean green New Zealand” are woefully inadequate. DOC is seriously under-funded and territorial local authorities, for the most part, seem unaware even of the need, or are facing demands from government and ratepayers to “stick to their knitting” of roads, water and sewerage systems. Money spent on conservation issues can be resented and seen as not the province of local authorities but something ‘government should do’ despite the fact that, plainly, government frequently will not, or cannot because of a lack of funding.
New Zealand’s braided rivers are unique, as are the species that depend on these fragile ecosystems for survival. Greater awareness, more education and better resources are needed, or our unenviable list of extinctions will continue, to the detriment of us all!
All photos in this blog are my own unless otherwise stated.
I don’t have any decent photos of whio (blue duck) yet, but check out these beautiful photos by my photographer friend Tim Rumble. http://www.flickr.com/photos/timrumble/sets/72157625733932216/with/5739587468/
More on blue ducks here: http://www.doc.govt.nz/conservation/native-animals/birds/wetland-birds/blue-duck-whio/
More on wrybill here: http://www.nzbirds.com/birds/wrybill.html
More on black stilt here: http://www.doc.govt.nz/conservation/native-animals/birds/wetland-birds/black-stilt-kaki/
More on Caspian tern here: http://nzbirds.com/birds/caspiantern.html
More on the banded dotterel here: http://nzbirds.com/birds/bandeddotterel.html