Wild city part 1
Wild City (part 1)
Christchurch is blessed with a variety of places within the city boundaries where pockets of wildlife, especially our birds, continue to thrive. I’ve decided to feature these places in a series. This is the first.
One of the real taonga (treasures) of wild Christchurch is, perhaps, unexpected, given that it is in the heart of the city and is a totally human created landscape. Well over one million people a year visit this place, yet it is possible to find unique New Zealand fauna thriving there.
Those who know Christchurch will, by now, have guessed that I am referring to Hagley Park and, within that park, the Christchurch Botanic Gardens.
At 164.637 hectares, Hagley Park is the largest urban open space in Christchurch. It was created in 1855 by the Provincial Government, which decreed that it be “reserved forever as a public park, and shall be open for the recreation and enjoyment of the public.”
Of course, with a provincial Government bent on recreating ‘Mother England’ (Christchurch is famed for being the most English city outside of England) Hagley Park is showcase of introduced trees, mown grass fields dotted with feature trees, sports grounds and a manmade lake where youths (and the young at heart) would sport with their model sailing boats. The banks of the Avon River winding through it have been shaped to please the landscaper’s eye.
In a loop of the Avon River, bordered on three sides by the green expanse of Hagley Park, are the Christchurch Botanic Gardens. Some 1.1 million visitors come to the gardens each year, making them one of the city’s most popular attractions. They are regarded as one of the finest collections of exotic plantings in New Zealand. Such is their age that those early trees planted by the English pioneers (beginning with a single oak) are now venerable giants casting their shade wide across the manicured lawns or leaning imperiously over the river as if they had always been there.
But not all of these gardens are an exotic salute to the gardener’s art. Natives have been encouraged back along the river banks; indeed following the recent earthquakes we have seen new shallow wetland bays created and filled with indigenous plants along the inside of some of the Avon’s bends, where water birds might once again build their nests.
And near the river’s edge of the Botanic Gardens a large section of New Zealand natives has been planted and enhanced over the years and now represents a significant native collection in its own right. On the scale of things it is a comparatively small area, but it is wonderfully varied and enjoys the presence of many mature tall trees with their associated under-storey plantings; a ‘small but perfectly formed’ example of the indigenous vegetation that once covered thousands of hectares in the vast wetland that was Otautahi long before it ever came into the sight of European town planners’ eyes and received it’s religious moniker.
This is a perfect place to wander. It is an isle of peace in spite of it attracting so many people within its boundaries every day and being surrounded by wide avenues humming with traffic.
A summer stroller might be lulled by the gentle ripple of the languid river, the solid thwack of a cricket bat on ball and the clear laugher of children in the playground pool. A spring visitor will pause to admire the daffodils, breathe deep of the smell of the season’s first cut grass and hear the whiz of cyclists freed from scarves, gloves and balaclavas. Autumn revelers will dash through piles of rustling leaves and thrill to the long low light glowing softly through the yellow orange brown red leaves. In winter a crackling frost greets hardly golfers on the wide greens and ice may tinkle under the drooping riverside sedges.
But in any season gardens and park will chime, chirrup, cheep, chirp, coo and quack, for – perhaps because of its wide variety of landscapes, ecosystems and plants – they are a haven for birds; exotic, native and endemic. Fantails flicker as happily among the silver birches and oaks as they do among the kahikatea, ti kouka and manuka. Bellbirds drip their silver notes from deep yellow kowhai or from atop the tallest northern hemisphere pines. Kereru swoop from tall kahikatea to gorge on the spring tips of willows. A rare karearea swoops at speeds up to 200 kph onto feral pigeons.
In many ways this mixed landscape of native and exotic is the new, New Zealand ecosystem. The introduced has been here long enough to become established and the locals have adapted. European starlings feed on the nectar of harakeke and perform exactly the same pollination role as tui or korimako; pukeko tear down the heads of introduced cocksfoot to strip the seeds between their razor-edged bills; kotare are as happy to take goldfish as inanga.
Of course, the birds do not live on thin air. The park and gardens provide an abundance of insects, seeds, fruits, nectar, worms and other invertebrates.
Water plays a special role in both park and gardens. The Avon river winds through both and borders the gardens in a wide loop overhung with harakeke and willow, ti kouka and oak, kowhai and birch. The ubiquitous mallard is a feature here but also three beautiful New Zealand ducks, the wide-billed kuruwhengi, the sensationally-coloured putangitangi and the real life rubber ducky, the papango.
You might also have to say that warou (welcome swallow) could be classified as among the park’s water birds too, for they are never far from it and are often seen skimming at speed just above the surface of ornamental ponds and Avon River alike.
I cannot ignore the introduced passerines. Finches, sparrows and dunnock, blackbirds and thrush, yellowhammer and cirl bunting (to name a few). Their songs add to the aural beauty of this inner city ecosystem.
This is the beauty of Hagley Park and the Christchurch Botanic Gardens; this comingling of native and exotic. It is a delightful paradox. At once tamed and groomed, entirely the creation of human gardeners; and yet it is, truly, also a wild place . . . wild in the city.
Native birds I have observed in Hagley Park and the Christchurch Botanic gardens (there might be others):
Kahu – Australasian Harrier – Circus Approximans
Karearea – New Zealand falcon – Falco novaeseelandiae
Karoro – Black-backed gull – Larus domincanus
Kawau – black shag – Phalacrocorax carbo
Kawaupaka- little shag – Phalacrocorax melanoleucos
Korimako – bellbird – Anthornis melanura
Kotare – Sacred kingfisher – Todiramphus sanctus
Kuruwhengi – New Zealand shoveler – Anas rhynchotis
Kereru – New Zealand pigeon – Hempihaga novaeseelandiae
Papango – New Zealand scaup – Aythya novaeseelandiae
Pipiwharauroa – shining cuckoo – Chrysococcyx lucidus
Piwakawaka – South Island fantail – Rhipidura fulginosa
Putangitangi – Paradise shelduck – Tadorna variegata
Riroriro – Grey warbler – Gerygone igata
Spur-winged plover – Vanellus miles
Tarapunga – Red-billed gull – Larus novaehollandiae
Tauhou – silvereye – Zosterops lateralis
Torea – South Island pied oystercatcher Haematopus finschi
Wharou – welcome swallow – Hirundo neoxena