Sunday, December 21, 2008
Heading South in New Zealand
Mostly we watched movies on the 11 hour flight to Auckland. Trans-oceanic flights these days have personal video systems and I tried hard to synch mine with Peggy's so we could watch the same movies together.
Once in Christchurch, we rented a car off-airport, then headed south immediately to scope out our first intended packrafting route: Arthur's Pass to Mt Cook, which was now being shortened to Arthur's Pass to Lake Tekapo.
But before dragging her off to another wet, cold, and windy landscape of icy waters and steep mountain passes, I thought I'd give Peggy a taste of the NZ countryside and pinot noir by driving down to Invercargill and Bluff at the south end of the South Island, then taking an hour long ferry to Stewart Island, New Zealand's biggest wild island.
On the way down, Peggy observed that everywhere the land had been touched -- and mostly by sheep! Only on the coast was there any real wildness, and this just a thin band.
At Nugget Point south of Dunedin we watched a loan, yellow-eyed penguin, rarest in the world apparently, waiting for its mate to come beachside with food from the sea. It was about two, maybe three feet tall, standing forlornly among cantaloupe-shaped rocks, staring into the bay.
Our bins also picked out a handful of sea lions, some fur seals and couple of monster pinnepeds we could not identify. It was great animal watching and I got the wits scared out of me by a sea lion mother I thought was a boulder, as I walked too close to her on the beach. Peggy laughed as I stumbled backwards over rocks and driftwood, bowled over by the roar. Her cub had big eyes and a slim dark body. It waddled out to the surf and swam away after watching us long and hard.
The hour long ferry to Stewart pitched and twisted in confused seas. Peggy feared it would turn over in the waves of the roaring 40s, except that the young captain was totally relaxed and half the other passengers were laughing and enjoying the ride. Like Peggy, however, the other half were green and clutching their bellies.
An hour is just about the amount of time it takes to fully trigger the gag reflex when sea-sick. Luckily we made it Sterwart on time to miss that....
Stewart island is famous for its abundance of kiwi birds. We wanted to go on a Kiwi night-spotting excursion, but the rough seas cancelled it. Peggy was too nauseated to go anyway, so it was all good.
In the morning, we caught a short launch to Ulva Island and spent nearly seven hours watching birds, mostly small and exceedingly tame, forest song birds.
Ulva is unique in that it has no rats, deer, weasels, pigs, cats, foxes, or other exotic predators that have wiped out native birds elsewhere in NZ. Given that safety, New Zealand conservation biologists have reintroduced a number of rare and endangered birds, like the saddleback, Stewart Island robin, and yellow head. On top of all that managed ecology, the sanctuary is open to the public.
It's a marvelous rainforest of southern hemisphere podocarps, trees that I hesitate to call conifers as they have neither cones nor needles, but are nevertheless distantly related to pines, spruce, and redwoods.
The ground is rich with herbaceous plants, those tender greens that elsewhere in NZ the introduced pussums and deer devour. Filmy ferns were abundant, like they are in Borneo's rain-forests. Indeed, the aspect of the place was distinctly South Pacific tropical (Hawaii comes to mind), but cool and wet like the Olympic Peninsula, with penguins swimming out by the beaches, big colorful pigeons in the trees and parrots. And it was noisy. North American and South American temperate rain-forests are surprisingly quiet. Not so here. We spent the next several hours learning who makes what calls among the natural community of 15-20 forest birds.
Being early December, the birds were all in nesting, territorial mode, and so noisily sounding their territories.
The tui, an aggressive flyer with harsh wing beats is a black, robin-sized body with two odd white wattles. It made a cacaphony of sounds, exceeded only in weirdness and diversity of sounds by the smaller, yellowish-green bellbird. The bellbird meowed, rattled, honked, and beeped. It was wonderful.
Three other birds approached us closely. The big, flightless rails called wekas, pecked at our feet and shoe-laces. They stirred up the forest floor with their strong feet and sturdy bills. We saw the most of these bold chicken-like birds out on the beaches where they inspected the flotsam. The beaches had sea birds and oystercatchers, too.
When we stirred up the forest floor with our own feet, the so-called Stewart Island robins, whose bodies are about the size of big chickadees but on long legs, would fly down to the newly uncovered earth, tilt their head, then grab insects and spiders in their short beaks.
The grey fantail also flew near. With its wings hanging slightly,it would swing its body as well as its fanned-out tail in the shrubbery nearby us. It seemed almost acrobatic, this little song bird.
Often there'd be no bird action at all, and then five species or more would be all around us. I've seen this not just in birds, but in mammals and other animals as well: when you're in the animals, you're in them -- with lots of action. Then, in between these hot-spots -- nothing.
We saw a pair of the big, greenish and rufous Kaka parrots loudly gnawing at branch wood, like big aerial rodents, and two fast flying green parakeet species, who'd hang around long enough - sometimes - for us to make out whether their foreheads were red or yellow.
Anyway, it was a neat place to watch and listen to birds, probably the neatest place for bird watching I'd ever been. There were many birds, exotic for us, and noisy and colorful, too. They were relatively tame, and even better, they interacted with us.
I wondered if this isn't the model of future conservation areas: walk-in zoos, where native species are actively reintroduced while non-natives weeded out. Unlike the zoos of the 20th century that showed us exotic species from around the world, what we'll likely prefer to see, given the common distaste for cages, are wild species in a chaotic garden. And the ones that would fit best in our local climates will be the native animals that used to fill the woods and meadows, now gone.
Australia and New Zealand, given that they already have natural islands with which to work and the necessity of using them to protect their species, seem to be leading the way. Meanwhile, Yellowstone is still a controversial experiment in a single-species reintroduction, the wolf. One problem with non-island parks is that their borders are absorbing boundaries: wolves leaving Yellowstone are likely killed, while on true islands, the animals reaching the edges rarely choose to try and leave. They can't.