It might seem strange, given my preference for photographing birds native to New Zealand, that since my return to Christchurch one of my favourite photography spots has become Victoria Park, a highly modified environment on the northwestern slopes of Banks Peninsula where the steep volcanic hills join the edges of the Canterbury Plains.
This is a large park comprising a number of different environments, all of which have been created or heavily modified by humans. In places it has patches of second growth native bush, especially in the steep valleys, which is slowly maturing and tall canopy trees are starting to peak above the smaller trees and shrubs, aided by supplementary native planting.
In other parts of the park, early European settlers have planted acres of introduced trees typical of northern hemisphere woodland. Interestingly, native trees, shrubs and ferns are coming up through these mature oaks, elms, sycamores, hawthorns, ashes, willows, poplars and conifers (to name a few), creating a post colonial landscape unique to New Zealand.
In other areas large numbers of eucalypt from Australia have been planted, the resinous gum leaves inhibiting the undergrowth; this is an open, light and accessible forest with only a few hardy shrubs that seem able to cope with the natural plant inhibitors in the fallen gum leaves.
The once heavily forested tops are now bare tussock; the original bush – tall with rimu, matai and totara – long milled and cleared for farming, except for a few, very precious, bush islands. And, finally, there are areas of groomed lawn with the occasional shade tree where children frolic, finches glean seeds and blackbird and thrush probe for worms.
I can always count on this park to present interesting native and introduced plants, an ever-changing parade of birds, a good walk along its often-steep trails, and spectacular views. In a relatively short time one can wander from a dense native bush gully, lush and green; through open meadows dotted with introduced specimen trees; then though thick European woodland tangled with blackberry and scented with flowering currant; up through crackling dry eucalypt forest and, finally, onto the open tops with sweeping tussocklands and bare volcanic crags.
Perhaps because of this variety of ecosystems there is a great variety of birds, native and introduced. Recent planting of native species has assisted the re-establishment of native bird life, notably the kereru (NZ pigeon – Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae), riroriro (grey warbler – Gerygone igata), Piwakawaka (fantail – Rhipidura fulginosa), korimako (bellbird – Anthornis melanuris), and tauhou (silvereye – Zosterops lateralis). The open tops host the native kahu (harrier hawk – Circus approximans); putangitangi (paradise shelduck – Tadorna variegata) and torea (South Island Pied Oystercatcher – Haematopus ostralegus finschi) nest in the open fields; kotare (sacred kingfisher Todiramphus sanctus) use the clay banks and tree hollows for nest sites and haunt nearby ponds and streams ,or hawk cicadas from among the trees. The park is also abundantly populated with common European introductions such as sparrow, chaffinch, goldfinch and greenfinch, blackbird and thrush, yellowhammer and cirl bunting, redpoll and skylark and california quail.
Tree planting is a traditional activity in Victoria Park, with many groups and individuals participating in planting events. Some non-local natives have been planted in eastern bush such as kauri and the rare Pittosporum dallii. On the warmer western slopes exotic specimens such as proteas, banksias, grevilleas and leucodendrons can be found. Also noteworthy, the existence of silver tussock so close to a city centre is said to be unique in the Southern Hemisphere and possibly the world.
In one of my spring wanderings the understorey of the exotic/native mix forest was rich with the spicy scent of flowering currant. The scent is from the new leaves, not the flowers. In autumn the tauhou gorge themselves on the berries.
Spring is also when the glorious native flowering tree kowhai (Sophora microphylla) bursts into flower and the korimako and tauhou descend on them in good numbers to feast on the nectar. Interestingly sparrows do too, but they cheat, biting into the rear of the flower to access the nectaries directly because, unlike the native birds, they do not have a special tongue to collect the nectar ‘legitimally’. The other herald of spring are the native clematis, first the puawananga and then the strongly perfumed clematis foetida. This is an unfortunate name as the smell of this small greenish yellow clematis is pleasant, reminiscent of nutmeg and daphne. If you get a lot of it at once, it can be a bit overpowering, but hardly foetid!
In high summer the grasses burn brown and the inflammable scent of eucalyptus oil drifts threateningly through the valleys – an incense prayer to the fire gods for a lightening strike or perhaps a wind to drop a crackling wire from the hilltop radio towers – for eucalypts were born to burn and send their seeds into the ashes of the fire.
Autumn produces an abundance of fruit, nuts and berries from the mixture of trees, and the native birds will just as happily take wild cherry plum as the fruit of the native karamu. By this time, too, piwakawaka are in abundance. These little birds are super breeders, producing around five clutches from spring to the end of summer. They need to, the winter takes a heavy toll on these flickering denizens of the forest edge and cheerful companions of the walking human.
The hills of Banks Peninsula are high enough above the Canterbury Plains to attract snow in winter.
The park, then, is a popular playground, especially for parents with tobogganing youngsters. The fantails are seriously depleted at this time of year and can sometimes be seen huddled together in roost trees sharing their meagre warmth. The hardy tauhou has a better solution, it migrates to the suburban gardens where exotic berry plants and fruits (and friendly bird tables) sustain them through the cold.
But none of the seasons last and, at the time of writing, spring is well underway yet again. The tauhou have left our garden and returned to the hills and forests. Kowhai has burst forth in its short-lived blaze of glory and will soon fall to carpet the forest floor with a fading yellow; suddenly fierce oystercatchers will launch themselves at the unwary wanderer who has come too close to their shallow nest in the short grass fields; and the silver tussock will shine as bright as a summer sky.