wetland part 2 – a primal awakening

A primal awakening

Silence crowds in on me.

It is the still silence of nature, which is a paradox, for it is neither silent nor still, but yet, I am softly embraced.

The silence of light dancing, dappling through foliage stirred by a playful breeze. The silence of slow water quietly sloshing about my legs; of birdsong coming to me through thick forest, hushed by hanging moss and the echo-less textures of creeping mud. The silent sounds of settling, moving, adjusting and sinking as the rising tide inexorably crawls into spaces where the land is only a temporary occupant and the true masters are the river and the sea.

weed willows entangle

As my feet stir through the flooded lands a rank perfume rises that is so primeval my ancient soul is wakened; my body feels naked, clothing an illusion. I am become primitive, stalking through the wet forest in an ancient, misted land, the survival of my family dependant as much on the viability and fecundity of my environment as it is on the swiftness of my hand and the sharpness of my spear.

A jaunty piwakawaka flickers into my consciousness and my raised spear is a camera again, its click-whirr-click pushing back the drifting mists of imagination, restoring me to reality and sunshine. The sun is winning its battle with the morning mists and the wetland is waking.

A jaunty piwakawaka


The piwakawaka zig-zags away kiss-calling to its mate “food here food here’, for the unseasonably warm weather has stirred insects from their winter slumber. A male riroriro, too, senses spring and heralds the promise of it in song. The warbler’s pure high notes dripple down like ice in bright sun into the stillness of the understory and the shifting tidal waters.

I stand silent, the river, pushed back by the incoming tide, swirling in around me. Inanga dart between my legs. I want to warn them that kotare is standing sentinel in the clearing, but too late! Like a sharp shard broken off a rainbow the kingfisher slices the water and returns, silver flickering in its bill, to its sniper’s perch.



A kotare at its sniper’s post

I am entangled by weed willows, but they have served a purpose, protecting and maintaining the wetland until the great grandchildren of this ancient wetland can return. And return they have; kowhai, mahoe, houhere, ti kouka, pate, makomako and other children of Tane are pushing through the bare tangle of winter willow to green the canopy and reclaim their regency of this shape-shifting land.

The slow water backwash is up to my knees now and the willows thin, giving ground to raupo; ranks of still-standing golden dead from last summer’s rush of green. Like so many furred sausages on long kebabs, the raupo seed heads line up into the wind and scatter floating fairies across the marshes. I look for matuku in vain but I am rewarded with a fleeting glimpse of the shyest denizen of these wet places, the dainty koitareke, which has dressed for its outing in black-streaked cinnamon to match the raupo blades within which it lives its secret life.

Tauhou chitter in sociable flocks through the canopy taking the last of the season’s berries and stirring up the newly woken insects. Piwakawaka follow them, grateful for the ring-eyes’ busy-ness and gleaning insects in their wake.

High, so high overhead, a kahu sails effortlessly on the rising air, lazering the ground with its bold yellow eyes. I point my lens but it sheers away, a timid and cautious creature in spite of its size and fiersome armoury. From the shingle islands of the main river plovers and gulls rise up angrily to further harrass the raptor and scold it on its way.

The wetland has found the river now. Harakeke rattles dead flower stalks in the breeze, hedging the muddy banks with such ordered uniformity as to gladden the eye of a disciplinarian gardener, prisoning the mud against the river and holding the banks fast against the vandalous tide. A lone kotuku and several white-faced heron stride the mud, their slow-motion ballet disguising the deadly intent of their sharp-eyed intensity.

a lone kotuku          

A deadly ballet

There is a marriage here. One partner is the slow Kaiapoi confined at its extremity to a deep single channel, dark and mysterious and bounded by marsh. But just as it seems about to couple with the sea a more brash interloper seizes the union, the bright-running, shingle-bedded Waimakariri. Birthed in the mountains this river has woven silver plaits across the Canterbury plains and was the creator and sustainer of a vast coastal wetland, of which where I wander is but a tiny remnant. For man has tamed and imprisoned the Waimakariri, holding it within stop banks to a single channel in its final reaches, starving the great wetlands of its spreading, meandering gifts of water and new soil.


But, even so, the river is wide here and still offers shingle islands within its braids as a last gift to the birds before it surrenders to the sea. In spring they will gather here, gulls and dotterels, plovers and terns, perhaps even the scarce little ngutuparore, to make nests from scrapes of stone, and play Russian routlette with the spring floods in order to raise a family and feed in the rich estuarine waters.

Straight and true, a karuhiruhi flies fast across the low water, pointing me home.  I will be back when the kowhai blooms and lures kereru and korimako from the forest; and when the great travellers return from lands half a globe away – the irridescent pipiwharauroa to rob the riroriro of its children, and the tireless kuaka which will bloom fat and red in the mudded shallows.

the kuaka will bloom fat and red


Native species in this blog in order of mention:

Piwakawaka – New Zealand fantail – Rhipidura fulginosa

Riroriro – grey warbler – Gerygone igata

Kotare – sacred kingfisher – Todiramphus sanctus

Kowhai – sophora microphylla

Mahoe – Whiteywood – Melicytus ramiflorus

Houhere – lacebark/ribbonwood – Hoheria species

Ti kouka – cabbage tree – Cordyline australis

Pate – Schefflera digitata

Makomako – Aristotelia serrata

Raupo – Typha orientalis

Matuku – Australasian bittern – Botaurus poiciloptilus

koitareke – marsh crake – Porzana pusilla

Kahu – Australasian harrier – Circus approximansTauhou – silvereye – Zosterops lateralis

Harakeke – New Zealand flax – Phormium tenax

Kotuku – white heron – Egretta alba modesta

White-faced heron – Ardea novaehollandiae

Ngutuparore – wrybill – Anarhynchus frontalis

Karuhiruhi – pied shag – Phalacrocorax varius

Kereru – NZ pigeon – Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae

Korimako – bellbird – Anthornis melanura

Pipiwharauroa – shining cuckoo – Chrysococcyx lucidus

Kuaka – bar-tailed godwit – Limosa lapponica





2 thoughts on “wetland part 2 – a primal awakening

  1. Very good Steve. Nearly missed this one so thanks for the prompting. I have a Riroriro in my garden tree most mornings at dawn and always delight to hear its’ call. Combined with the Songtrush and Blackbird they make my day. If only we had the Piopio and Huia to add their voices to the chorus but alas. I remember reading an account by Joseph Banks of sitting off the coast by one quarter mile, on the first ship, and describing the morning chorus. He said it was stunning.

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