One of the joys of returning home after years away is that you see your old stomping ground through fresh eyes. Absence sharpens your appreciation for familiar surroundings. Upon return you see them for what they really are; treasures that have added to the quality of your life in more ways than you had realised. Nearly a decade after leaving Canterbury I have returned, post earthquakes, and see Christchurch city and the surrounding province through more appreciative eyes. The city has changed, irrevocably. But the wild places remain. I’ve been back just over a year and have spent almost every weekend exploring wild places, either to renew an old acquaintance or, I’m ashamed to say, to discover some of these treasures for the first time; places I had overlooked when I lived here last.
One of the special places I had not discovered that first time around was the Ashley River / Rakahuri estuary. Now it is my most regular bird watching spot as I record the seasonal comings and goings of the birds that live or visit there. There is a boyish joy in spending hours getting filthy from lying prone in mudflats, or belly crawling through coastal reeds to get close to, but not disturbing, flocks of feeding godwits, nesting dotterels or courting terns. In conservation circles, Ashley-Rakahuri has long been recognised as a significant natural wildlife resource. The river and estuary are included in a list of wetland sites that meet the criteria for classification as being of international importance by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Below the State Highway One bridge, the Ashley-Rakahuri River is tidal, and in combination with the mouth of Saltwater Creek, forms a largely unmodified estuary containing more than 150 ha of mudflats and shallow water, which is excellent feeding habitat for shore birds. It is a common stopover site for migrating birds whether they are those that migrate within New Zealand or to and from often very distant overseas locations. The estuary is also a handy feeding area for birds that nest in the riverbed.
Sadly, while these outstanding ecological values are recognised in conservation-friendly circles, they are not appreciated by everyone. In addition to the usual introduced weeds and predators, one of the biggest threats to the native plants and animals that make the estuary home is human beings; in particular their indiscriminate use of all-terrain vehicles in the fragile tidal environment. These vehicles compact or breakup delicate sedimentary structures, crush crustaceans and other animals living in the mud, facilitate the introduction of weeds, disturb nesting birds to the point they can abandon their nests, and physically run over nesting birds and their eggs. In spite of large signs prohibiting vehicles from the tidal zones at all times, and the braided river channels during nesting season, every time I visit Ashley the exposed mudflats and sand banks are marked afresh by the tyre tracks of these vehicles.
But people are also helping to protect the river and estuary and the birds that live there. Chief among them are the members of the Ashley-Rakahuri Rivercare Group. A community group formed in 1999 to assist with management of the lower reaches of the Ashley River, the group’s main aims are to protect birds and their habitat in the riverbed and estuary, to monitor breeding success, and to promote these activities to the wider public. Rivercare folk work closely with the Department of Conservation, Environment Canterbury and the Waimakariri District Council to protect and enhance river and estuarine environments. Awareness campaigns, regular trapping and bird monitoring began in earnest in 2004. Since that time, annual surveys of numbers and breeding success indicate that bird populations on the managed portion of the river are at least holding their own (you can learn more about and donate to the Ashley Rivercare group here.) One of my favourite birds at Ashley is regarded as the area’s iconic species, the ngutupare or wrybill (Anarhynchus frontalis). It is the only bird in the world with a side-ways turning bill and is endemic to New Zealand. A small plover, the ngutupare only breeds on the braided riverbeds of Canterbury (apart from just a few pairs in inland Otago). The Ashley-Rakahuri is one of its northern-most breeding sites. The Rivercare Group’s website reports that numbers of this rare and important species have been relatively stable on the river during the last few decades, with 5-8 pairs normally nesting annually. But many more wrybill than that visit the estuary on the way to and from their nesting sites. I have seen flocks comprising 50 to 100 birds busily gleaning the mudflats, filtering bill-fulls of mud to sieve out the minute crustaceans they feed on.
Two other important and threatened species native species that breed on the Ashley-Rakahuri River are the tarapiroe (black-fronted tern – Sterna albostriata) and the black-billed gull (Larus bulleri). Over the last 20-30 years, numbers have declined substantially (particularly of gulls), mainly due to weed invasions, predation by introduced animals and human disturbance. Again, while humans can be the saviour of these threatened birds – the black-billed gull is one of the rarest gulls in the world – they can also be their biggest threat. In December 2012 more than 50 black-billed gull chicks were stoned to death by human attackers despite signs asking people not to disturb the endangered birds while they are nesting.
While the protection efforts at the Ashley focus on the wrybill, black-billed gull and black-fronted tern, many other bird species benefit. The river and estuary are home to such other key native species as the tuturiwhatu (banded dotterel – Charadrius bicinctus), the poaka (pied stilt – Himantopus himantopus) and the torea (pied oystercatcher – Haematopus ostralegus). A very very rare kaki (black stilt – Himantopus novaezelandiae) has bred occasionally on the river in recent years (mated with a pied stilt).
Other native birds I regularly see include pied, little, spotted and black shags; royal spoonbill; white and white-faced heron; grey teal and New Zealand
shoveler, paradise, and scaup ducks; Australian coot; harrier; pied and variable oystercatcher; kingfisher; white fronted and Caspian terns; red-billed and black-backed gulls; grey warbler, silvereye, fantail. Migratory visitors I have seen include eastern bar-tailed godwit, whimbrel and knots. The estuary is also home to large number of introduced game birds such as black swan, mallard and Canada geese; and introduced field birds such as skylark, chaffinch, yellowhammer, redpoll, sparrow and goldfinch. This list is by no means exhaustive; many other species are recorded as residents, regular or occasional visitors.
The Ashley is a treasure. But it is a treasure under threat. The Rivercare group and other conservations are doing their bit, but we all have a role. Just as drinking and driving has become a social no-no, we should be similarly outraged when ignorant (or uncaring) idiots drive their vehicles onto the estuary or through the braided river channels; when folk let their dogs run free among the sand and shingle banks and mudflats at nesting times.
The Kiwi culture of not wanting to say anything, of “minding our own business”, of tolerance rather than action, does our special places and animals no good at all. Reporting offenders, educating yourself and your friends, joining active groups like Rivercare or Forest and Bird . . . these are the ways you can make a difference, and help ensure the beautiful, unique and precious places like the Ashley and its wildlife not just survive, but thrive.
This is a question that has been asked for centuries.
It is far more than an interesting philosophical query.
In the United States ‘African American’ and ‘nigger’ provoke quite different reactions. So much so that in the re-make of the Dambuster’s movie by New Zealand director Peter Jackson, there has been huge debate as to whether the squadron leader’s dog should be called Nigger. Historically accurate, but many thought it was not appropriate to use the name in entertainment media today.
Interestingly there is a parallel in the world of nature (albeit without the serious consequences surrounding the use of racist epithets).
In New Zealand cormorants are called shags – it is thought to be a colloquial reference to the shaggy crest many cormorant species have when they are in breeding plumage. While not exclusive to New Zealand – the term is used in several countries – ‘shag’ is dominant here and imbedded in our culture. There are dozens of place names such as Shag Rock, Shag River, Shag Point, and so on. ‘Shag’ is so near exclusively used that if you ask any New Zealander if there are cormorants in their country, I predict that most would answer ‘no’.
In the same vein, if you asked many New Zealanders what they thought about cormorants, they’d probably say something like: “Marvelous birds, isn’t it wonderful how Asians have trained them to catch fish!” But if you asked them what they thought of shags (especially if you asked people keen on trout and salmon fishing), they’d probably say “bloody vermin.”
Indeed, this country has a history of persecuting these birds. Kawau (Black shags – Phalacrocorax carbo) had a bounty on their heads offered by acclimatisation societies (today’s Fish and Game New Zealand) for the presumed impact of shags on the trout fishery (ironic given that trout are an introduced species that have had a devastating impact on populations of native fishes). Between 1890 and 1940 many colonies were exterminated.
It wasn’t until the mid 1980s that kawau finally received partial protection as a native species, but only after several scientific studies proved that shags have little impact on the sports fishery, taking mostly native eels, small native fish and perch (the latter themselves an introduced fish species that have become a pest). I always find it ironic that humans will persecute an animal for preying on a species that they (the humans) themselves want to catch and eat, which is the point that Oliver (quoted above) was making as far back as the 1930s, long before the bounty on shags was lifted.
Occasional destruction of shag colonies and/or shooting of individual birds still occurs, albeit illegally, and, as I have suggested, there is still an anti attitude toward many shag species particularly by those who still believe, wrongly, that they impact on sport fishery species.
Maori in New Zealand had a different attitude. The birds were admired for their straight, unswerving flight and there are many whakatauki (proverbs) referring to this. An example is:
said to be the last words of Maniapoto to his people, instructing them to take the flight of the shag when entering battle.
Shags were not an important food supply for Maori but were occasionally eaten. Shaggeries in trees or on cliffs were visited to take the young before they could fly. These shaggeries were known by special names and were often given as evidence of occupation in the Maori Land Court.
Worldwide there are 33 species of shag in freshwater and marine habitats. Of these, 12 species breed in New Zealand including eight that are endemic.
In spite of growing up in a fiercely keen trout fishing family whose early attitudes to shags reflected the mores of the time – pests and a threat to the trout fishery – I’ve always rather liked these striking birds (but then, I was always the least keen angler as well). As a youngster I delighted in their habit of sitting spread-winged on a handy rock or branch, feathers translucently spread to the light to dry after a period of diving for food; I’d laugh with excitement when one popped up onto the surface with a fish in its bill, dexterously juggling the fish to be able to swallow it head first so that the spines on the dorsal fin were folded down and would not catch in their throats. Perversely perhaps, I even liked their smelly colonies and would look for the telltale stains of their guano on the trees and cliffs as a clue to a good place to photograph and observe them.
Once, when I was about 12, I was snorkeling at one of our favourite fishing lakes trying to find snagged lures to retrieve and sell for pocket money to fishermen to re-use. I was joined by a shoal of perch attracted by the invertebrates I was stirring up from the mud with my flippers.
Suddenly there was a flash of light and the perch whirled away in all directions, except for one unlucky straggler that was caught fast in the bill of a kawaupaka (little shag – Phalacrocorax melanoleucos). The bird and I surfaced together and from the vantage point of only a few feet away I was treated with a shag’s-eye view of the kawaupaka’s dexterous juggling as it tossed, then swallowed the fish whole . . . absolute magic!
These photos then, are a tribute to the industrious, resilient, straight and true shag. May they always grace our waters and brighten our skies.
Since I can remember, korimako (bellbirds) have been a part of my life.
Our family home in the small town of Geraldine in South Canterbury was nestled at the foot of a hill covered in native forest.
This wood, a small remnant of the once vast native forest that covered the rolling downs behind Geraldine, is officially known as Talbot Forest but, like many such places in New Zealand, is more often simply referred to as ‘the bush’.
Though small, ‘the bush’ is biologically important. It contains an abundant biodiversity – plants, native birds, a population of rare native bat – out of proportion to its size; effectively acting as an ark – a small natural boat afloat in a sea of land long stripped of its trees and turned over to highly modified pasture.
And in this ark there was in my childhood – and still is – a remarkable population of the glorious-voiced korimako; though, then, I only knew them as bellbird.
Indeed, the very first non fiction book on birds that I ever read – a battered and much-thumbed copy of R.A Falla’s book of New Zealand Birds borrowed from the local library – delighted me by singling out Talbot Forest as one of the best sites for bellbird in New Zealand. It is always a wonder to a young person to find that their small country town is famous . . . for anything!
I, of course, did not need Falla’s book to tell me that bellbird were abundant.
My mother was particularly fond of fuchsia and her garden was full of this pretty shrub in many forms. The bellbirds shared her love, but for a different reason. They would descend upon our garden to hang upside down and feast on the nectar of the pendulous fuchsia flowers; their foreheads becoming thick with colour as the fuchsia took advantage of these sweet-billed invaders to spread their pollen from bloom to bloom. In winter we’d put out jars of diluted golden syrup and the bellbirds and waxeyes would come down – the latter in their many dozens – to feast on this free source of nectar to see them through the season’s fast.
At times, being so fixated on bloom or jar, the bellbirds would tolerate me standing right beside them, within an arm’s reach – oh if only I had a good camera then!
From an early age I had learned to imitate the territorial calls of the Talbot Forest korimako, especially the males. A short low note, a longer high note, followed by two short notes mid-tone between the first lower and the second higher, then a little ‘chonk’ or ‘titch’ sound and, last, a throaty bell sound in the lower register. So accurate did I become that I could whistle and the resident males would come down screeching with aggression, all fluffed up and agitated to try to drive me away from their territory; and females would come to check out this apparent new boy in town.
Just a half hour’s drive further inland from Geraldine, at the much larger Peel Forest, my whistle was completely ignored. The bellbird there simply did not interpret my calls as being of their kind. Theirs was a more melodic and fluid suite of notes I found hard to imitate.
Though sweet voiced, korimako are bullies. At home they would fly at the waxeye gathered near our nectar jars and drive the little birds away. They would do this even if they were full. They’d perch all stuffed and feathers on the twig we’d set at the edge of the jar for a landing spot and guard the syrup water, lest another bird get so much as a sip!
At Zealandia, the wildlife sanctuary in Wellington, nectar feeders are used to encourage the honeyeaters to stay within the safety of the sanctuary fence. But they have had to create feeders screened with a mesh just the right size to keep tui out while allowing the korimako and hihi in for a feed, otherwise the smaller honeyeaters would not get so much as a look in.
But, tui or korimako, one can forgive their aggressive natures when they start to sing.
A long running debate in New Zealand is which bird is the better songster. My view is that they are complementary and each has their special talents.
The korimako is a piccolo and is undoubtedly the more melodic, it’s notes sweeter and generally higher, with tripping-down descending rills and pure, single, bell chimes of incredible purity.
At first hearing the tui is similar, but the tui is no piccolo, it is an organ. Its song is full of a raspy vibrating resonance and, whereas the korimako’s song pierces the forest, the tui’s seems to swell through the trees in an enveloping wave. Tui, also, are seriously good mimics and will fill out their repertoire with imitations of other birds and even, if they live near people, the sounds of telephones, cell phones and doorbells. Futher, they embellish their melodies with grunts, rasps and wheezes that would never normally be heard from the throat of a bellbird – though once I witnessed a male bellbird at a feeder giving a perfect imitation of a tui, throaty croak and all, presumably to discourage rivals from the food source he coveted for himself by making them think a dominant tui was in residence.
But, if I were forced to choose, then it is the dawn chorus of korimako that would secure my award for first prize. The bird authorities note this is particularly strong when bellbird are gathered in large numbers and few other songsters are around to compete with them. Such was often the situation at Talbot Forest. My Geraldine mornings, especially in spring, rang with a chorus of bells more fine than any group of campanologists could ever hope to create with the finest and most diverse range of crystal and silver bells. The first Europeans to sail within sound’s reach of the New Zealand dawn chorus wrote passionately of the dawn chorus – we know now that what they heard was probably comprised of a mass of bellbirds.
The beautiful voice of the korimako was, of course, remarked upon by Maori and the bird has entered their oral traditions. Indeed, the Maori language has some 26 names for the bellbird. Ka rite ki te kopara e ko nei I te ata — like the bellbird singing in the morning — is a simile used by Maori orators.
And it is the bellbird that features in one of Maoridom’s most compelling whakatauki (proverbs), which speaks of the bellbird feasting on the flowers of harakeke (New Zealand flax), a plant that, for Maori, is strongly symbolic of whanau (family). When Maori harvest harakeke they only take the leaves from the outside of the plant as cutting from the heart of it would kill it. Thus:
Hutia te rito o te harakeke When you slice open the heart of the flax plant
Mai wai te komako e ko? Where will the komako sing?
E patai atu ahau ki a koe, Let me ask you,
He aha te mea nui o te Ao? What is the most important thing in this world?
He tangata, he tangata, he tangata. It is people, it is people, it is people.
A desert fascinates me, but I would not choose to live there. I could never live so far from water.
Not for mere physical needs – though clean water is so essential to us we are much composed of it – but because, for me, the ready availability of natural, clean, flowing water is as intrinsic to who, what, and how I am as is the DNA that comprises the building blocks of my own body; or the emotions, thoughts and feelings that emanate from my brain or, if you like, my soul.
Clean, unpolluted natural water is life. It is inspiration, comport and peace. It is refreshment and recreation. It is fierce, dangerous and challenging. It is vital. Whether it be the languid beauty of a lake on a still warm morning, the rush of a sea wave to its own destruction upon the rocks, or the merry rill of a small bush stream, water completes me, restores and heals me and is at the very core of nature.
I searched, recently, for the tag “water” among all my photos stored on Flickr. Just mine, no-one else’s. But still the search returned thousands of hits, so much is it ingrained into the landscapes I travel through, the birds and plants I photograph.
These photos are a small selection of those thousands of images. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did when I took them.
~ Henry David Thoreau
“Take a look at your natural river. What are you? Stop playing games with yourself. Where’s your river going? Are you riding with it? Or are you rowing against it? Don’t you see that there is no effort if you’re riding with your river?” Frederick (Carl) Frieseke
Whatever the reason, once I take the time to look down I am often captured by wonder and find myself exchanging the bird lens for a close-up lens to capture this miniature world with its lichen sculptures, fungal apartment blocks, bustling insect highways, and rich, mushroomy/earthy smells that tell stories of age, decay and the promise of new life.
It’s a world many of us who enjoy the outdoors, myself included, sometimes pass over in too much of a hurry with other objectives in mind – the grand landscape, the perfect bird photo, the mountain hut in the distance with it’s promise of shelter and a hot cuppa.
Yet, the grand trees, the flittering birds, the climbing vines with their brilliant flowers and shining berries, are only possible because of that super recycler that is the forest floor.
Once, when I was still with the Department of Conservation on the West Coast, I helped escort a party of school kids through some un-milled forest. Huge rimu in their last years – heavy with epiphytes, wrapped to strangling point by northern rata, hollow and rotting away with age yet still supporting a living crown – made an impressive statement of the highest achievement of the forest ecosystem. It was a time when selective helicopter milling of mature forest trees was all the rage – and in hot debate! And so, echoes of their parents, several of the youngsters declared the decaying giants a wasted resource.
“Should have been allowed to chop it down while it was still solid. Now it’s just rotting away, no use to anyone.”
How do you explain to 12-year-olds from a culture proud of its history of extraction – be that timber, coal or gold – that the forest, for all its vastness and apparent richness, is actually a fragile and relatively nutrient poor ecosystem? That by robbing the forest of the old trees you remove that part of the cycle where the dying giants give back to the soil the very nutrients that sustained their growth and supported their crowning maturity; that, eventually, if you kept removing mature trees, you’d disrupt the nutrient cycle and deprive the forest soils of their fertility so that the forest itself would no longer be sustainable – to say nothing of the array of plants, bats and birds, and insects that make such old trees their home.
I have commented before on how easy it is to convince folk of the need for conservation when the plant or animal endangered is spectacular and/or cute. But who weeps for the small, the ugly, the seemingly insignificant? Who cares if a moss dies or a fungus fails? If a millipede no longer slithers, or a leaf-shaped slug slides out of existence? We should care, because research shows very clearly that if the forest floor dies, the forest dies.
Take fungi for example. Most trees cannot absorb sufficient nutriment from the soil without the symbiotic relationship they have with fungi. The network of fungi filaments wrapped around the feeding roots of forest trees form an interactive nutrition exchange system on a grand scale.
The forest floor teems with a wide variety of plants and animals and other organisms. Indeed, from a biodiversity point of view the forest floor is richer in the number and variety of living organisms it supports than the forest itself. There are creepy crawlies like the giant snails, millipedes and slaters, worms and slugs; myriad tiny creepers, mosses, lichens, ferns and liverworts; and a vast microscopic world of fungi, algae and bacteria. All killing or being killed, growing, dying, competing and cooperating, and endlessly breaking things down and recycling. It’s a jungle down there!
The forest floor is the foundation of a nutrient cycle as old as time, transferring nutrients from the soil to the plants to the animals, and back to the soil. The forest floor’s role in this cycle has been described as a bridge between the aboveground living vegetation and the soil. Disrupt it, and the whole system breaks down.
Rather than being an endless creator of new life, the forest, of which the forest floor is an essential component, is, rather, an endless recycler of life. The energy it takes to grow a forest giant must eventually return to the forest floor, or other forest giants cannot grow in their turn.
So, take the time to look, to smell, to enjoy. Lie back on a bed of moss, pick up a magnifying glass to examine the mysteries of lichen, wonder at the faery worlds of fruiting fungi. . . and tread a little lighter!
So it seems almost paradoxical, certainly ironic, that one of the most effective tools I have for getting close to birds without disturbing them . . . is my car.
My versatile little hatchback – that I confess to treating as if it were a four-wheel drive – is a product of an industry that at many levels acts against the interests of nature: whether that be the mining and smelting of the metals for its frame and body; the polluting chemicals that make up its plastics, paints and fiberglass moldings; the coal-fired electricity that is used in its welding; or the climate change contributed to by the emissions of its spent fuel.
But, parked at the edge of a pond, river, coastline or wetland field, it becomes something else; it becomes a hide that opens a door to nature so that others might appreciate, and help protect, it.
While we, as a species, have a history of exploiting nature, rather than adapting to it, nature’s creatures have, perforce, had to adapt to us. We are intrusive and noisy neighbours but birds, especially, have learned that passing cars along the edges of their territories offer little threat. We, in our vehicles, become so much background noise and movement that can be safely ignored – unless you are a harrier or magpie scavenging on road-kill, in which case you take your life in your hands (or should that be talons?) Christchurch and greater Canterbury, there are many kilometres of road that run alongside forests, waterways, fields and wetlands, estuaries and the sea.
These photos, then, are a salute to the birds that have learned to live alongside us, some even thriving on the environments we create. All have been photographed from the luxurious vantage point of the front seat of my car, with little more discomfort than a bit of cramp from an awkward lean out of the window to get that perfect shot.
“Oh! I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-
Sunward I’ve climbed, and joined the tumbling mirth
Of sun-split clouds – and done a hundred things
You have not dreamed of – wheeled and soared and swung
High in the sunlit silence. Hov’ring there
I’ve chased the shouting wind along, and flung
My eager craft through footless halls of air.
Pilot Officer Gillespie Magee
Insects beat them to that honour, as did the gliding reptiles of the dinosaur era. But. surely, there is no animal that has so perfected flight and raised it to such an art form as the bird.
Whether it be the mighty condor soaring above the Andes on effortless spirals, the ocean-wandering albatross gliding on the air pushed up by waves, or the humming-bird all-a-blur at the mouths of flowers, flight has fascinated ground dwelling humans since we first stood on two legs and looked to the sky.
There seems not to be a race, religion or culture that does not refer, somewhere to the soaring splendor of birds and flight. Many of our most potent mythical beings are imagined with having this ability.
Birds, especially flying birds, feature strongly in prehistoric art and in our legends, including those of Maori here in New Zealand. I have visited the rock drawings that feature the now extinct Haast Eagle, which, if it were still alive today, would be the world’s biggest raptor.
When I am photographing birds my biggest thrill and greatest satisfaction is to get that perfect flight photo.
This photo blog features some of my own photos of birds in flight as a tribute to the sheer beauty of it.
The gannet above and the albatrosses
left and right
were photographed off the coast of
Fiordland following our cruise ship.
And, of course, the gulls:
Enough of the sea birds, let’s head slightly inland!
Not to be confused with these guys – Kotuku – white heron – Egretta alba modesta
Kotuku can be quite bold birds once they get used to people. There was one bird at
Wellington that wintered in the Hutt River mouth mudflats right on the Petone foreshore.
You could walk upright to within 5 metres of it and, if you crawled, almost touch it!
But another kotuku I observed yesterday in the isolated high country fled as soon as I came within 50 metres.
Similarly, white-faced heron are mostly quite timid but can become used to people, which can make for easier photos.
Estuaries are one of my favourite places to go birding as they occur at the junction of land and sea and so have species from both environments as well as their own estuarine specialists.
In Canterbury I have discovered the joys of Ashley Estuary which is rich in a large variety of bird life.
Similarly Lake Ellesmere, though not an estuary, being right on the edge of the sea presents many opportunities to observe birds and also has large numbers of migrant waders visiting for spring and summer.
And, finally, my favourite, the glorious speedster – Karearea, New
In one of my short stories I create a modern Maori myth where, through the magical powers of an ancient tohunga,** a present-day young Maori gay man comes to terms with his sexuality and confronts his homophobic father.
The ancient part of the story is set in a limestone valley where a band of Waitaha* is on a hunting excursion. The tohunga chooses to draw on the wall of the limestone overhang where the hunting party is camped, thus mystically connecting with the young man, who has journeyed to the same spot centuries later.
The story evokes the time-worn atmosphere of the karst landscape, where limestone outcrops have been carved by the action of water across centuries into fantastical shapes, shafts, pits and caves that stir the imagination and hint of portals into an other-world of mystery, magic and wonder.
The story is a product of my imagination but its setting is real. This blog describes a journey taken in the last few days along paths trod by those first peoples of New Zealand some 500 to 700 years ago.
One of the great road journeys in New Zealand is the route from Christchurch in Canterbury to the West Coast via Arthur’s Pass. After a swift journey across the plains the traveler drives over the first barrier range at Porter’s Pass into the high mountain basins and river valleys of the eastern South Island high country, and then a steep zigzag over the trans-alpine pass to the luxuriant rainforests of the west.
In my view one of the most glorious landscapes of this journey is the Waimakariri Basin, which opens like a slowly revealed surprise as you cross Porter’s Pass and enter a rolling open space enclosed by the Craigieburn and Torlesse ranges and the eastern ramparts of the Main Divide.
In winter this is the playground of snow skiers. The alpine basins of Porters, Craigieburn and Broken River ski fields are buried in deep powder snow and the bare tops support icy crusts that shine like beacons under a winter moon.
In spring the snow retreats to reveal a transient hint of green: tussock grasslands sprout afresh and red-tipped dracophyllum lends a Kodachrome contrast; alpine daisies follow the light like sunflowers and ranunculus burst through the tussock and shake their blousy blooms at the sky.
Summer follows quickly; the dehydrating nor-wester transforms the landscape of alpine grasslands and low shrubs into a kaleidoscope of golds, browns and rusty reds, rising to the greys and jasper purples of the bare tops, where even lichen finally relinquishes its grip to leave the shattered greywacke clean and shining under the relentless sun.
At the heart of this great basin of rolling grasslands and rushing rivers is a landscape surprise. Rising up from the lower slopes – where introduced grasses are pasture for sheep and cattle and remnants of the original native cover cling precariously to a few gullies too steep to graze – are the limestone ramparts of Kura Tawhiti (Castle Hill) and, a little further down the road, the limestone tors and bluffs of Cave Stream Scenic Reserve.
These are magnificent attractions on a popular tourist road.
The Dalai Lama described Castle Hill as a “Spiritual Centre of the Universe” and it is certainly a place of deep spiritual and cultural significance for Waitaha and Ngai Tahu, as well as being a mecca for rock climbers. The popular Cave Stream is equally justified as an attraction. Here people, if they follow the rules and use some common sense, can have a safe but thrilling venture into the underworld and appreciate the shaping power of water in the karst landscape; along with a not unfounded sense of some risk, given that this cave has claimed lives when it’s mood has changed or its dangers overlooked.
The formations are the water worn remnants of vast layers of sediment laid down and compressed into limestone during the Oligocene period some 30 million years ago when most of New Zealand was under the sea. When tectonic action lifted this rock above the ocean the soluble limestone began to wear away, giving us the spectacular sculpted tors, overhangs, caves, guts and sinkholes we see today.
Between these landscape icons is an easy tar-sealed road that can be safely negotiated in minutes at 100kph, the passengers’ eyes drawn across seemingly uninterrupted pastures to the high tops of the surrounding ranges.
But this view is a deception. Linking Castle Hill to Cave Stream is a network of streams and valleys invisible from the road, where hidden caves, deep gullies, and extraordinary limestone outcrops more than rival the tourist map attractions. Few of the Castle Hill road travelers know it, fewer still visit, but the earliest humans to arrive in these islands once walked the pathways through these valleys.
For Waitaha and Ngai Tahu, the limestone ledges along these banks were places of shelter on journeys to and from the West Coast to collect pounamu (greenstone or New Zealand jade). The hardest substance known to Maori, pounamu was carved into weapons, tools, jewelry and pieces of art. On these journeys early Maori drew in charcoal on the walls of the limestone overhangs where they sheltered; some of these drawings are still visible. In such an overhang, centuries later, an intact woven harakeke backpack was discovered, the only such ever found, to bear witness to the sheer human effort to bear this dense, heavy stone across the alps and out to the East Coast where, what was not required locally, was traded with other hapu and iwi from throughout the country.
Our journey was not so strenuous, but the sense of stepping back in time was strong as we dropped off the tussock plateau sloping away from Castle Hill Village and into the narrow confines of Thomas Stream. Limestone bluffs loomed over us and, while willow has replaced kowhai in the stream beds, the still, cool depths seemed centuries back in time from the headlong rush of traffic only ten minutes’ walk behind us on the tourist highway.
The Thomas led us under ledges where karearea nest, past a secret cave, down to the Porter River. Here the water seemed milky until we realised it was the creamy limestone the clear stream was flowing over that gave the illusion of colour.
The junction of the Thomas and Porter was marked with a huge and spectacular bluff of contorted limestone that looked as if the rock had exploded out of the ground to solidify in mid air, before being softened and rounded by the ensuing ages.
We crawled along the high, dry and wide ledges carved into this massive face when the river bed was much higher than it is now, and wondered if Waitaha had camped here, high above risk of flood and out of the rain or fierce sun.
The Porter tumbled out of this rocky enclave into an open valley where it ran clear and shallow past remnants of the totara, hebe and broadleaf forests that were once the dominant plants in this region. Here the limestone, long abandoned by the smoothing actions of the river, was pale grey and shattered, piled into fragile slats like heaps of broken roof tiles, slowly surrendering to the impact of winter frost and summer heat, piece by flaking piece.
To our true left, across wide flats dotted with matagouri and coprosma, the Broken River hove into view. Our travel now upstream choosing our way along the narrowing Broken River Valley due west into the confines of the Broken’s limestone gorge.
Into this landscape of rocky greys and golden, summer-burned grasses, we came upon a startling glaring white intrusion! On the true right of the Broken River a large outcrop of coarse, frail limestone that seemed less dense and compacted than most of the surrounding rock, was actively eroding into a badlands formation. Our guide said that ten years ago it wasn’t even there, so this was nature in action at, by geological standards, a lightning pace! The limestone had had no time to weather into grey and few plants had gained a foothold. The soaring razor-edged ridges seemed as a freshly calved iceberg, and gave the same impression that any second another section would fall away to tumble into the valley.
Beyond the badlands the river rapidly narrowed and soon the Broken River was living up to its name, coursing through a labyrinth of limestone formations; a foaming waterfall, a deep pool, suddenly wide, then so narrow the entire river could be leaped across by the brave or foolhardy. In the water as often as out of it, we wove through this ancient maze to emerge above the gorge where a long deep pool begged to be swum in and the mouth of the Cave Stream cave drew us like a fairground ride – slightly scary but compelling.
The cave itself is not part of this story, for as I have noted, it is part of the known and popular attractions of the Waimakariri Basin. And, indeed, on such a hot and blue-skied Sunday there were crowds of adventure seekers heading for the mouth of the cave and the hour-long 594m scramble upstream in the wet and the dark.
But we privileged few had just spent nearly four hours linking two tourism icons – only a few minutes apart by road – journeying through ways still largely unknown, where the connection with those earliest of journeyers seemed closer and far more real.
**In Maori tohunga means expert practitioner. It can be applied to an expert carver or artist, a highly skilled orator, a keeper of ancestral knowledge, someone skilled at interpreting the spiritual world or using magic (the tohunga in my story), or a person expert in healing and medicine.
*Waitaha, very early Maori who occupied the South Island before the now dominant iwi, Ngai Tahu.
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
In New Zealand one of the great endurance races is the ‘Coast to Coast’ where triathletes run, cycle and kayak from the West side of the South Island, to the east, starting and finishing on a beach. This is my
It’s only a little over 250 kilometres – not such a great distance as journeys go – yet there is no doubt that one of New Zealand’s great road trips is the drive from Christchurch on the east Coast of the South Island, to Hokitika on the West Coast.
It is a journey that encompasses more than five major climactic zones and traverses scenery as diverse as flat alluvial plain, labyrinthine karst, high altitude river valleys, mountainscapes, temperate rainforest and ocean-pounded surf beach.
In three-and-a-half hours (not counting photo stops!) it goes from the man-sculpted architecture of one of our largest cities, through extensive pastoral lands shaped by generations of agricultural practice, and into the truly wild, where people can only ever be temporary visitors. It takes us from the genteel civility of punting on the Avon to a wild west town with a history as dynamic and dangerous and just plain muddy as any cowboy town depicted in a Hollywood western.
In this blog I document that Coast to Coast journey in a series of images that illustrate why so many visitors to New Zealand are simply amazed by the fact that a few miles down the road, around a bend, over a hill or through a valley a whole new world can unfold.
Kaitorete Spit is a wild windy place, steeped in ancient Maori history and home to numerous birds. The steep shingled beach is pounded by surf and the journey from here faces its first challenge, skirting the vast swampy landscape of Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere).
From here the drive begins in earnest, a winding wander, skirting the boundary between the volcanic hills of Banks Peninsula and the wind-swept alluvial plains until Christchurch city hoves into site.
After Halswell you enter the city proper. This was once a vast swamp trapped between the rise of the Banks Peninsula Hills to the east and the long slope of the plains down from the mountains. The heritage of this flat topography is still evident in the meandering course that Otautahi (the river Avon) follows through the city.
You simply can’t drive through Christchurch without driving alongside, or even through, a park. Even in winter they have a manufactured beauty that, yet, gives a sense of the peace, and solitude, of the wild, where old houses blend into the landscape as if they’ve grown there.
If Hagley Park is the landscaped heart of the city, Travis Wetland must be up there as its wild heart. While invaded by introduced plants it is, nevertheless, still a great oasis of the once dominant wetland ecosystem. A wander through here produces some great bird shots and a sense of ancientness within the surrounds of the city.
Out of the city now and heading west, the pace picks up. Long, straight roads carve westward and, ever so gently, upward as well. This is pastoral country, manicured by the plough. But always in the distance the mountains forming a white-walled backdrop to the stretched-out plains.
Beyond the above shot near Springfield the road suddenly changes, around a bend, over a bridge, another bend and you’re in the foothills, climbing, the plains behind you. Within minutes you hit the Porter’s Pass zig-zag and crest the pass into the alpine basin and river valleys that stretch from the western edge of Porters to the easter foot of the Main Divide. From Porters the landscape is instantly bigger, more dramatic and as varied as there are bends in the road.
The dramatic landscape changes around every bend – Here the Porter’s Pass hills are bathed in an early morning glow.
Just past Porters the unique Castle Hill landscape appears. This is karst (limestone) landscape where ancient stones born in the sediments of the ocean have been carved by millennia of wind, rain, sun and frost into a labyrinth of shapes sublime to grotesque woven through with gullies and caves.
Another vista opens up just beyond the Bealey pub. A sweeping bend, a winding drop around a bluff and the upper Waimakariri opens up to the traveller’s eye. Now the final barrier mountains are no longer distant peaks, but looming giants with permanent snow and ice fields that look impassable and you wonder where the road must go to pass among these leaning guardians.
Across the long narrow bridge that frames the above view another swift change. We dive into eastern beech forest and follow the winding river through to Arthurs Pass township nested at the very foot of the dividing mountains . . . kea country! Watch out, they’ll steal your lunch!
A quick drive from the town takes you to the top of the pass and opens up the Otira valley flowing westward.
You very quickly enter West Coast temperate rain forest, driving past tea-coloured streams with thick forest crowding to the edges, where you’d almost not be surprised if some Jurassic beast emerged from the fern-dominated foliage.
Beyond the national Park in the mighty Taramakau Valley your pass once again through a pastoral coastal plain, much, much narrower and wilder looking than its eastern counterpart. The mountains hang close here and a step up from the valley floors the forest still clings wild and wet.
The road winds to historic Kumara and hits an infamous piece of straight – a local speed camera trap, before cutting left at Kumara junction and down to the long wild surf beach that leads to Hokitika.
Here the shore is strewn with driftwood, and black streams make the sea in a foaming rush.
Here our journey ends, beside the wooden buildings of Hokitika oozing with gold mining history and the days of boom and bust.
But the sun beyond us, dipping west out there toward Australia. We will look for it again on the foaming shores of Kaitorete.