The very first feathered signs of spring arriving have landed in my old home city. Along with the daffodils, the godwits have landed in Christchurch (New Zealand) – arriving from the Alaskan Arctic Tundra where they raise their young.
Christchurch (and a few other places in New Zealand) is where they escape the Alaskan winter and have a summer holiday while feeding up large, building up their weight and strength before heading north again to reproduce.
So, in a few months, this annual, epic journey by some 80-thousand Eastern Bar-tailed godwits will migrate back to their breeding grounds.
Their journey – of 11,500 kilometres – usually takes about six days! Its nonstop when they head south while heading north they have a few stopovers in Asia
Christchurch locals farewell them from our shores and when they return the bells peal out to welcome them back to their summer feeding grounds here on the Ihutai/Avon-Heathcote estuary such a short distance the centre of our city.
Zealandia is a sanctuary with a difference: it has a vision for 500 years – its goal, to restore this Wellington valley to its pre- human state. It’s twenty years into the plan!
Only minutes from the centre of New Zealand’s capital, and parliament buildings, it’s a great place to spend a few hours, a day or, take an evening guided walk to check out New Zealand wildlife flora and fauna. I spent a couple of hours there 2 days ago and here just a few of the many photos I took. (search in this blog for other Zealandia posts I’ve written)
Arthur’s Pass has always been special for me. As a child our family would have day trips to the area for tobogganing. We also would do an annual steam train trip, and then at high school, (Linwood High, Christchurch) had a holiday house where we would have week-long trips for skiing. (unsuccessful lessons in my case )
And now I travel there again. It takes less than three hours to travel from plains to mountains; ocean to snow-fed rivers; city to village; from the current time to the ancient forests of Gondwanaland. (The Jurassic period super-continent from which New Zealand separated some 85 million years ago.)
Unlike the pre-European Māori who walked, or the settlers in Cobb and Co. coaches, I travelled by the TranzAlpine train to Arthur’s Pass. (Leaves Christchurch daily for Greymouth on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island.)
Sharing the carriage were tourists from many parts of the world. It seems some were ready to test their stamina and muscles in the Arthur’s Pass National Park, while a family group was day-tripping, with five hours to explore the village, and me? I was just looking for some rest and recreation including revisiting the popular walks near the village – The Devil’s Punchbowl and the Bridal Veil Falls.
The Devil’s Punchbowl waterfall with its impressive 131-metre drop is an easy one-hour return journey through stands of majestic white-limbed mountain beech trees. As you approach the waterfall, clouds of spray rise like mist, just as one might imagine the devil’s steaming cauldron does.
The other easy, yet even more beautiful walk, takes you to the Bridal Veil Falls. Although the falls are viewed from a distance, the walk itself is wonderful. Colours abound; crisp greys to soft emerald, or lime greens nestle alongside bright reds and orange. Numerous native ferns, lichens, trees, and shrubs seem to invite one to stop, admire, and record their beauty, while the piwakawaka (fantail) that go with me are an absolute joy.
All through the village, population 55, and surrounding areas, are the sounds of birds. Bellbirds with their dulcet tones are so different to the cheeky, intelligent kea with its loud calls as it glides loftily above all, displaying its orange under-wing plumage to us. The occasional gull calls from overhead too, reminding me what a narrow land New Zealand is.
Walking beside beech trees it is easy to believe that the forests of Gondwanaland looked just like these South Island beech forests. Fossils of beech found in Antarctica and descendants that survive in Chile, Australia and Papua New Guinea support this theory.
Brothers Arthur and Edward Dobson rediscovered the pass in 1864. Māori had used it as an east-west route to collect or trade Pounamu, the greenstone from which the south island is named, Te Wai Pounamu. The brothers named it Bealey Flat and finding the route made it easier to travel from coast to coast.
Some sixty years later travel became even easier with the railway and Otira tunnel, signalling the end of the coach era. Tunnellers huts, from early 1900’s, remain in the village linking past to the present. Originally unlined, austere dwellings, they were sold on the tunnel’s completion in 1923.
Some of the pioneering characters of Arthur’s Pass who bought these cottages includes the family of Guy and Grace Butler. One of New Zealand’s foremost landscape artists, Grace has works hanging in many places including the Robert McDougall Art Gallery in Christchurch. Along with Guy who, according to his granddaughter Jennifer Barrer “gave up his legal practice to carry his wife’s easel,” Grace ran what was the first hostel in the village. Now called the Outdoor Education Centre, its front lawn was the site of the first skiing in the area!
Arthur’s Pass National Park, created 1901, has 114,357 hectares within its boundaries and both tourists and locals appreciate its variety of tramps and some 28 public huts. If you plan to stay in some of the remote huts, tickets, or an annual hut pass, must be purchased from the Department of Conservation before your trip.
NOTE: on any walk in New Zealand mountains or bush: fill out an Intentions Card. Leave it at the local DOC office; don’t travel alone, take extra food and everything you need to make sure you’re safe . . . our NZ weather has dramatic changes extremely quickly. This is because we are a little country in the middle of a huge ocean and most travellers are not used to such conditions and this results in deaths . . . don’t let the next one be you!
Other activities in Arthur’s Pass include skiing at Temple Basin, while the village itself is a good base for exploring Cave Stream Scenic Reserve with its 362-metre cave and interesting limestone outcrops.
Accommodation ranges from backpacker hostels to motels, holiday homes, or bed and breakfast. Food covers the same budget to moderate price range. (See your local visitors’ information centre for details)
If you want ski-fields and terrific tramps (the kiwi word for hiking!) or just a place to chill with your holiday reading, Arthur’s Pass needs to be added to your holiday destination list – make sure you post a letter form here!
Did you know New Zealand’s national bird cannot fly?
Endemic to these South Pacific Islands the kiwi is unique among birds; no tail, the mere trace of wings and nostrils near the tip of its long flexible beak. Add nocturnal behaviour, whiskers, poor eyesight and hairlike feathers – it is not surprising that visitors to these south pacific islands are amused to find New Zealanders calling themselves Kiwi. (especially Americans and others who call our kiwifruit – ‘kiwi’ – the correct name is kiwifruit!)
Ratite’s, the family to which the kiwi belongs, evolved on Gondwanaland. This southern super continent ( Jurassic period, 150 million years ago) split into what eventually became South America, Africa, Antarctica, Madagascar, India, Australia and New Zealand. New Zealand finally separated 85 million years and the flightless birds developed.
As well as the kiwi New Zealand has other flightless birds, all of which are in danger of extinction.
Apart from two bats, New Zealand had no terrestrial mammals until Māori arrived some one-thousand years ago, bringing the kiore,(a Pacific rat). Pakeha (European settlers) arrive some eight hundred years later and brought rabbits, possums, deer, stoat and many other animals.
Before that, with no predators, it seems the birds had no need to fly and so lost the ability.
Introduced animals have devastated these birds and their habitat since their introduction.
Despite being raised to virtual icon status in its home country, the kiwi is a strange bird. Both male and female will fiercely defend their territory against other kiwi. They live in burrows and rotate the use of them to make sure of a wide territorial presence. Kiwi feed mainly on earthworms and a variety of invertebrates such as slugs snails spiders and insects and occasionally have been seen wading in streams for larger prey such as frogs and freshwater crayfish. (koura)
Size varies according to the species, ranging from the little spotted kiwi weighing in at a mere 1150 grams to the great spotted kiwi which is twice that size. Females are usually the larger of the pair by as much as a kilo.
Mating for life the female lays a huge egg, about 20% of her body weight, then promptly leaves it for the male to incubate over the next eighty days. After three weeks this baby bird, a miniature of its parents, leaves the safety of the burrow to fend for itself. The small chick is extremely vulnerable to introduced animals and during its’ first year their mortality rate is high despite strong legs and razor-sharp claws for defence.
Kiwi have shown amazing resilience in the face of habitat destruction by logging, pasture development and trees destroyed by possum as well as predation by stoats, dogs and other introduced animals. We human kiwi are hopeful that we can save the mainland populations of their namesake. We want our bush will continue to hear the hedgehog-like snuffling as they search for food and the hoarse guttural sounds of the female as she calls to her mate.
Some fact about NZ birds
100 endemic (New Zealand only) birds
83 native birds we share with other counties
139 migrants who have found their way here, and
43 introduced birds – such as swans, starlings, sparrows, geese as examples
See more in Birds of New Zealand (Colins Traveller’s Guide) by Julian Fitter and Don Merton ( Haper Colins) ISBN 978 1 86950 851 7
I’m reposting this with new photos after my summer holiday trip to Kaikoura earlier this month.
Here are the new photos of the Hutton’s nesting grounds on the peninsula — read more to learn about how these birds were translocated and why.
The earthquakes of November 2016 wiped out huge numbers of the birds’ mountain colonies and I was pleased to see that this new peninsula one is thriving – including now grandchild chicks ie chicks of new colony-raised birds, being hatched successfully.
But, let’s go back to 2005 and see how it all happened…
We took photos of seals, climbed over styles, and walked around the headland of the Kaikoura Peninsula. At the top we came across an eerie scene. In the early morning light we could see people ‘doing something’ and stopped to try to work it out.
As we stood there, one of them came down. We’re told it was the Department of Conservation (DoC) and volunteers feeding baby birds sardine smoothies in their artificial nests.
The Hutton’s Shearwater chicks had been translocated from their mountain colonies to this newly formed colony as security. Their two mountain colonies are at risk from wild pigs rooting through the area, predators killing young chicks, or an earthquake destroying their habitat. I later learn more.
In the meantime my American friends are impressed that someone emerged from the mist to explain what was happening: some of the women decided they needed to move to New Zealand if the local DoC staff were so handsome and friendly!
These 2005 photos are by Linda Werk. The Sierra Club members were hiking in New Zealand for a couple of weeks.
Since that surreal encounter I have learnt more about this amazing little seabird that lives in burrows in the mountains. This is the only seabird that nests in snowy mountains – in fact this bird only nests here so is absolutely, ‘Kaikoura’ s own bird.’ The species is classified as ‘nationally endangered’ because of its rapid rate of decline. (For more info see this DoC site)
In April 2014 I was in Kaikoura for the weekend for Kaikoura Seabirds, Shearwaters, Science and Seaweek.As well as a photography workshop with Peter Langlands, lectures and presentations, I also returned to the translocated site to “Farewell the Hutton’s” as they left for their winter holiday – mostly off the coast of Western Australia.
The ceremony required another early morning walk to the top of the peninsula where Brett Cowan (Takahanga Marae and DoC Kaikoura) led us through a moving event which concluded with us releasing feathers that had been gathered from the nests. He was wearing a new cloak made for DoC by a local PlayCentre woman.
A predator fence and eradication project has been successful and a trust was been set up to help these birds survive. Nicky McArthur, who owns Shearwater Lodge and the land in the Valley of the Gods, where the second mountain colony is, is the driving force behind the trust and this event. See more and help save these endangered birds here.
We also saw a short film about Geoff Harrow. The Hutton’s shearwater/tītī were first described in 1912 but it was not until 1965 that their Seaward Kaikoura mountain breeding grounds were re-discovered by Harrow, an amateur Christchurch ornithologist and mountaineer. It was lovely to meet such a charming man, who at 88 is still full of life.
I learn more: the adult birds’ travel about 20 kilometres to the Pacific Ocean, to eat fish and krill to feed to their young. On their downhill flight they travel at up to 154 km/h, reaching the ocean in as little as seven minutes. The return trip, 1200 metres uphill and with a full tummy, takes around 38 minutes.
When the young fledge, in March and April, they then migrate to the fish-rich waters off the Australian coast. Young birds stay there for three or four years then return to Kaikoura to breed at five or six years old.
From late-March, some Hutton’s shearwater chicks flying from the mountain colonies for the first time crash onto the land around Kaikoura. It’s thought that these young birds become disoriented by fog and town lighting.As these birds cannot take off from land, they need help from the local community.
NOTE: The first record they have of a translocated bird returning to the peninsula colony was in December 2008. More birds returned in summer 2009-10 and in November 2010 the first egg was laid by one of the translocated chicks. The years since have increased the success rate.
NOTE2: More blogs soon about Kaikoura. (e.g. Albatross Encounter, Kaikoura gains a green eco-award etc.)
Dunedin, New Zealand: setting the scene for a series of blogs about attractions in the area including ‘the peninsula’, the ‘ finest example of eco-tourism.’
Otago Peninsula was a volcano some 10 or 13 million years ago – give or take a week or two.
65 thousand years ago it became an island when sea levels rose and, more recently, now a peninsula, Captain Cook and the hardy self-sufficient pioneers fought battles along the notorious 2000 kilometres coastline which is now scattered with shipwrecks.
With an annual rainfall of 700/800 millimetres and mists that roll in from the sea it now has 5% of the area covered in bush: mainly broadleaf trees and kanaka.
Neville Peat a local nature writer based in Broad Bay says the area is a ‘kind of supermarket for marine life, souped up by currents and adjacent deep-water canyons. The accolades continue.
Botanist and environmentalist David Bellamy said the peninsula is ‘the finest example of ecotourism in the world’ while Mark Carwardine, zoologist and outspoken conservationist, writer, TV and radio presenter, wildlife photographer, columnist, best-selling author, a wildlife tour operator calls New Zealand a “wildlife hotspot”.
He says it’s one of the best places in the world to see great wildlife and recently he was on a whirlwind tour, searching for our equivalent to Africa’s ‘big five’, the New Zealand ‘small five’ endangered species: hector’s dolphin; kea, kiwi, tuatara, yellow-eyed penguin .. all found on or around this amazing outcrop of land.
This area is not just a day trip from Dunedin but a place to base yourself – a destination in its own right.