Wild in the City III – Harts Creek
Christchurch New Zealand is blessed with a variety of places where pockets of wildlife, especially our birds, continue to thrive. I’ve decided to feature these places in a series titled ‘Wild in the City’
Harts Creek – small but perfectly formed
I’ve gone big, yet small, for this third article in the series and stretched the rules a tad.
Big yet small? The broad location of this nature’s gem is Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere, New Zealand’s fifth largest lake – some 20,000ha with approximately 75 kilometres of shoreline; but I want to focus on the ‘small but perfectly formed’ Harts Creek, a tiny but special piece of this giant wetland jigsaw of natural and modified land forms.
Te Waihora is a shallow, brackish lake on the Canterbury coast. At its north end it does, indeed, come within the boundaries of Christchurch city. So the lake itself meets my “Wild in the City” criteria. The most important wetland habitat of its type in New Zealand, Te Waihora and its surrounds provide a home and/or feeding ground for a large range of bird, reptile, plant and invertebrate species.
The low–lying lands between the Selwyn Delta and the Halswell River are important for large populations of waders; the Kaituna Lagoon/Birdlings Flat area is important for waterfowl. Some 160 bird species have been reported on the lake and up to 98,000 wetland birds use the lake at any one time; at least 37 species of which breed there. Forty-three species of fish have been recorded from Te Waihora and its tributaries. Species on the Kaitorete Spit, which separates the lake from the sea, include endemic plants, reptiles and insects found nowhere else.
On the western edge of this vast wetland (outside of the boundaries of Christchurch city but close enough to fit my ‘rules’ for this blog) Harts Creek flows through developed farmland and empties into the lake at the Harts Creek Wildlife Management Reserve. This small wildlife refuge and the creek are an excellent example of the cooperation for conservation that can occur between landowners and authorities. The creek runs through private land, but the owners have done more than allow access; they have supported the re-planting of the riparian boundaries with native vegetation, and fenced off the banks from stock. There is a boardwalk to provide secure footing through the swamp that culminates in a bird hide built by the Ellesmere Lions Club, giving views across the secluded lagoon–like bay that comprises much of the reserve.
The entire route, from road–end to hide, is a bird watcher’s paradise, with the observable species changing with the seasons.
I list the species I have observed on the Harts Creek route below but let me mention some highlights.
Unusual as it is for me to focus on introduced species, the Ellesmere population of mute swans is one of the few places in New Zealand to see these birds in a truly wild state (as opposed to semi-domesticated birds in city parks). These graceful and striking swans frequent Harts Creek, their white plumage a stark contrast to the shaded gloom of the closely wooded sections of the waterway.
Another favourite is the ever-cheerful riroriro for which Harts Creek is a population stronghold. Our second smallest native bird, this little warbler has a voice that belies its size; its high–pitched trill a happy herald of spring. The sound is uplifting and penetrating, but finding its tiny owner is a real challenge as these grey denizens of the forest are difficult to see, they flit so quickly among the branches.
Another forest inhabitant is the ubiquitous piwakawaka, as at home in urban gardens as in native forest. Because humans disturb insects into flight this little fan-tailed predator seems to seek out our company. It flies about our heads to snatch up the prey we stir up. Prolific breeders, piwakawaka can suddenly burst into large numbers in the spring and their merry chirping sounds like a thousand kisses being stitched into the air.
In the open areas – above water or paddock – the warou compete with kotare for iridescent beauty. These swift hunters catch insects on the wing and are indeed, as their English name suggests, a welcome sight. Forgot not the kotare however, as still–sitting as the swallow is fast moving, it spies down from branches above the creek and then darts like a rainbow-shafted arrow to seize its prey.
Harts creek has its mysteries too, none more so than two of its more secretive residents, the impressive matuku and the diminutive koitareke. The bittern is rarely seen unless one is prepared to visit just on dusk and sit very still indeed. But in spring and early summer the sonorous booming of the males echoes around the hide even during the day. It shares this habitat with the tiny marsh crake, another twilight zone bird. But sometimes the visitor will hear it in daylight hours, it’s ‘click click click’ calls quite distinctive. Though shy, it is curious and a successful imitation of its call can sometimes tempt it from the lakeside reeds for a quick peek before it darts away again, its cryptic plumage making you wonder if you have really seen it at all.
More regularly seen than the shy bittern are its fellow waders, the splendid kotuku-ngutupapa and the rare kotuku – royal spoonbill and white heron. Both large white waders, these birds ply the shallows of the reserve often close to the hide. The royal spoonbill wade in synchronised groups, sweeping their bills side to side in balletic choreography. They have recently begun breeding on Te Waihora often, ironically, on top of duck–hunter mai-mais. Numbers peak over spring and summer. I once counted more than 200 in a flock at Harts Creek Reserve. The white heron, by contrast, is a solitary stalk-and-strike hunter, more likely to be seen on the lake in the autumn and winter. From spring through summer these birds gather at their only breeding grounds in New Zealand, hundreds of kilometers away on the South Island’s West Coast.
On the lake itself, observable from the hide, are many water birds but, for me, none have the appeal of the puteketeke, the Australasian crested grebe. Near the limit of its natural range in New Zealand, the puteketeke has suffered, like so many native birds, from the introduction of mammalian predators and habitat destruction. They survive mainly in the eastern lakes of the South Island high country but a few migrate to more coastal waters for the winter. Some have stopped returning to the high country and now breed at Ellesmere and nearby Lake Forsythe. At Harts Creek several pairs build their floating nests among the raupo bordering the lagoon; if one stays very still, they adjust to the presence of humans and will come well within observable and photographic reach. With their splendid crests and elaborate mating displays they are a delight to watch; their zebra–plumed youngsters even more so.
There are many other birds to delight the eye and heart along the Harts Creek walk. It’s easy grade and family friendly. Take the kids, persuade them to be quiet by giving them a task to see how many species they can see, and enjoy!
Native birds I have observed at Harts Creek
(Note, these are species I have seen and photographed, there are others. Also, the species range on Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere as a whole is much wider. For example, Harts Creek does not have the extensive mudflats that attract many of the migrant waders elsewhere on the lake).
Black-billed gull – Larus bulleri
Kahu – Australasian harrier – Circus approximans
Kakianau – black swan – Cygnus atrattus
Karoro – southern black-backed gull – Larus dominicanus
Karuhiruhi – pied shag – Phalacrocorax varius
Kawau – black shag – Phalacrocorax carbo
Kawaupaka – little shag – Phalacrocorax melanoleucos
Kereru – New Zealand pigeon – Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae
Koitareke – marsh crake – Porzana pusilla
Korimako – bellbird – Anthornis melanura
Kotare – sacred kingfisher – Todiramphus sanctus
Kotuku – white heron – Ardea modesta
Kotuku-ngutupapa – royal spoonbill – Platalea regia
Kuruwhengi – Australasian shoveler – Anas rhynchotis
Matuku – Australasian bittern – Botaurus poiciloptilus
Papango – New Zealand scaup – Aythya novaeseelandiae
Piwakawaka – fantail – Rhipidura fulginosa
Poaka – pied stilt – Himantopus himantopus
Pukeko – Porphyrio melanotus
Putangitangi – paradise shelduck – Tadorna variegata
Puteketeke – Australasian crested grebe – Podiceps cristatus
Riroriro – grey warbler – Gerygone igata
Spur-winged plover – Vanellus miles
Taranui – Caspian tern – Hydroprogne caspia
Tarapunga – red-billed gull – Larus novaehollandiae
Tauhou – silvereye – Zosterops lateralis
Tete – grey teal – Anas gracilus
Warou – welcome swallow – Hirundo neoxena
White-faced heron – Egretta novaehollandiae
Blackbird – Turdus merula
Canada Goose – Branta canadensis
Dunnock – Prunella modularis
Goldfinch – Carduelis carduelis
Redpoll – Carduelis flammea
Sparrow – Passer domesticus
Thrush – Turdus philomelos
Yellowhammer – Emberiza citrinella
Mallard duck – Anas platyrhynchos
Mute swan – Cygnus olor