What I did on holiday Christmas 2012
Adventures in the Waipori and Waihola wetlands
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