Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

Photo: Eric Weiss

It’s not often you witness outright thuggery in nature. Predators hunt prey—they have to, because otherwise they starve. Predation is never pretty, but it is what it is. 

Sitting at my desk, procrastinating … er … writing this morning, I saw brutality, pure and simple. 

A pair of magpies was chasing a starling. They caught it and brought it to the ground. Standing over it, they pecked at its eyes. At first, I thought they were trying to kill and eat it. But after a few minutes, they got bored. The starling managed to fly off. The magpies followed, caught it and brought it back, only to repeat the eye pecking routine. Three times while I watched, they allowed the starling to escape, then brought it back to peck at it. Always at the eyes.

Eventually, they bored of the sport. They wandered away from the hapless starling to forage in the lawn nearby. After a few minutes, starling and magpies flew off in opposite directions.

I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Australian magpies have a reputation as aggressive, intelligent birds that like to play. They brazenly steal food from the chickens, fighting right back when a chicken lunges at them. And I’ve watched as gangs of juvenile magpies have tormented my cat, swooping low over him as a team, trying to get a peck in while he swats at them. And I’ve been on the receiving end of magpie parents defending their nests with noisy dives at my head.

In general, magpies eat invertebrates—they were originally introduced to New Zealand to help control crop pests. Research on their effects on native birds indicates they only rarely kill other birds, and their aggressive pursuit of larger predators like harriers may even provide some protection to smaller birds.

Still, I can’t help thinking magpies are the bullies of the playground. They’re fine as long as you’re not their target. Fascinating for me as an armchair naturalist, but I’m thankful I’m not a small songbird.

Christmas on the Heaphy Track

Our pre-Christmas tramp this year took us to Kahurangi National Park to walk the Heaphy Track. The trip was simultaneously spectacular and miserable.

The Heaphy Track follows the path of a proposed road, and as such is gently graded—it’s a technically easy walk. So easy it’s almost boring. But it passes through some spectacular landscapes teeming with remarkable flora and fauna.

Day 1 began for us at 5.30 am when we awoke in the Collingwood Campground to our tent being blown flat by the wind and rain. We quickly decamped and retreated to a shelter to wait for the rain to let up before starting our hike.

Unfortunately, the rain outlasted our patience, so we started out under a heavy fall that had us soaked within minutes. The steady climb was largely unremarkable. The rain eventually cleared and we reached Perry Saddle Hut under a sunny sky.

Day 2 was more eventful, with two endangered species sightings by 7 am. The first was a takahe browsing the grasses just outside the hut as we finished breakfast. This critically endangered bird, the world’s largest rail, was presumed extinct for 50 years. Its population now numbers just 445.

Minutes down the track, with rain setting in again, we nearly stepped on our second endangered species of the day—a Powelliphanta snail—a fist-sized carnivorous snail. Without the rain, we never would have seen these nocturnal, moisture-loving animals. We counted ourselves lucky.

Under increasing rainfall, we made our soggy way across Gouland Downs and then the weird and wonderful Mackay Downs. We explored caves and admired huge glacial erratics tossed like giant bowling balls over the landscape. Weka (another endemic rail) with chicks in tow scurried around our legs every time we stopped for a break, waiting for us to let down our guard so they could make off with a snack.

We reached Mackay Hut drenched, but the worst of the rain was yet to come. Half an hour later, the sky opened up and the wind rose. The torrent sheeted down, spilling off the hut roof like someone was tossing buckets of water over the edge. It didn’t let up until nearly 4 am the following day.

Again we set out in the rain, this time into a landscape scoured and still gushing water. But again the rain held delights—another giant snail, sundews lining the track, enormous 700-year-old southern rata trees, waterfalls in all directions, sprays of flowering bamboo orchids dripping from tree trunks, a mistletoe with scarlet flowers … That evening—Christmas eve—drying out in Heaphy Hut, we composed a New Zealand tramping ballad as a family:

T’was the night before Christmas, and all ‘round the hut
I sure wasn’t stirring; I was sitting on my butt.
A cup of tea nestled warm in my hand.
I ate lots of scroggin, expanding my waistband.
Out on the porch, the weka did play,
Hauling our shoes and our stockings away.

When up on the roof there arose such a clatter
I limped from my bench to see what was the matter.
The sun on the roof of the dunny nearby
Made me shade my eyes as I peered up to the sky.
And what to my wondering eyes did appear
But a trio of cheeky, mischievous kea.
With can opener beaks and curious minds
The birds tore apart everything they could find.
When done on the roof they moved on to our packs
Eating their fill of our Christmas Day snacks.

With our stockings all gone and no snacks to eat,
We still had a Christmas that couldn’t be beat.

Christmas morning dawned and the last ragged storm clouds blew away, leaving brilliant blue skies and blooming rata trees for our last leg along the coast under dense stands of nikau palms.

We ended with a quick dip in the Kohaihai River (very quick—it was ice water) and the long drive home. A most enjoyable Christmas!

Hanging Out with the Locals

Sunday’s family hike took us to Avalanche Peak in Arthur’s Pass National Park. Several years ago we’d been to the peak on our way to Crow Hut, but we’d never done the day hike loop from Arthur’s Pass Village to the peak and back. So in the interest of leaving no track unwalked, we did the loop.

Last time we were there, we reached the peak to find it packed with people. So many people jostled to stand at the top, I was worried about being shoved off. Stretched down the mountain, a line of hikers ascended to join us. We didn’t stay long, but quickly dropped off the peak, sidling up the ridge toward our destination, which was similarly crowded (there were 16 people staying at the 10-bunk Crow Hut that night).

Looking down on the Waimakariri River

Sunday’s experience was entirely different, in spite of it being a similar beautiful summer day. With no foreign tourists in the country, the only hikers were Kiwis. 

The long slog to the top was rewarded with a prime seat on the jagged peak (it’s the most uncomfortable mountaintop I’ve ever sat on—rocks like razors). We shared the summit with just two other hikers and three kea.

The weather was perfect—light winds, cool air, warm sun—and we took our time over lunch, chatting with our fellow hikers and fending off the the kea, who angled for our sandwiches, considered ripping open our backpacks and took a swipe at my daughter’s apple.

It was the most intimate kea encounter I’ve had (excepting the time one bit me on the butt). 

Wade, the cheeky kea

For those of you unfamiliar with kea, they are endemic to New Zealand and are the world’s only alpine parrot. They are an endangered species (estimated population of 4000 adults). A large factor in their endangered status is their lack of fear of humans and their incredible curiosity. Combined with a huge beak like a can opener, it means they get into all sorts of things they shouldn’t They have a deadly fondness for the lead heads of roofing nails, they like to tear apart automobiles and camping gear, and they irritate farmers by killing sheep (yes, a sheep-eating parrot—scary eh? Don’t mess with that beak!). 

Two of the birds hanging out with us were banded, and we were able to identify them on the kea database. ‘Wade’ was the most in-your-face bird of the trio—of all the photos I took, only a few didn’t include Wade. And, of course, I took lots of photos, in spite of the fact I have dozens of photos from previous kea encounters. I swear, it’s part of their strategy—one poses for the camera while the others rifle through your bags looking for treats. 

Eventually we said goodbye to our fellow hikers and our feathered companions and descended to a quiet Arthur’s Pass Village—so different from the frenetic activity of summer with overseas tourists. I feel for the tourism industry, suffering this year with a lack of business. But I love the opportunity to enjoy our backyard without teeming masses of people.

I look forward to the day we can invite our overseas visitors back—international tourism is not only an important part of the economy, but also a strong impetus for protecting the stunning and unique natural landscapes, flora and fauna we have here in New Zealand. It’s good to see Aotearoa through the eyes of tourists now and again, to remember just how special our natural heritage is.

But until then, I’ll enjoy hanging out with the locals.

Mount Somers Adventure

The Two Thumb Range with Aoraki peeking up from behind.

The family’s weekend hike took us to the summit of Mount Somers last week. 

We’ve hiked the Mount Somers Track more times than we can remember. Our first visit to the old coal mine along Woolshed Creek was with both children on our backs. Since then we’ve hiked the whole Mount Somers Track both directions and explored all its side tracks and variations. 

Except the summit track. By the time the kids were old enough to do it, we were all bored of Mount Somers. So it was good to tick the summit track off our list.

The summit track isn’t as popular as the other tracks on the mountain. We learned why when we hiked it. At 1688 metres, Mount Somers isn’t the tallest peak, though its volcanic origin is unusual on the South Island. Striking geometric rhyolite columns form cliffs that make finding a good route up or down a challenge and provide homes for an array of unique native wildlife.

The track rises steeply through beech forest from the Sharplin Falls carpark. The climb is unrelenting, taking you over 1200 metres in elevation into the alpine zone to the summit. We reached the summit in 3 1/2 hours, but it’s rated at 5 hours, and I wish we’d taken our time on the punishing ascent. On a hot early summer day, we’d all drunk most of our water by the time we reached the top. Luckily we were able to refill with snow. 

The view from the broad peak was stunning, with the Canterbury Plains spread out on one side, and the Two Thumbs Range jutting into the sky on the other. Aoraki / Mount Cook was visible, looming up behind the Two Thumbs Range.

To make a loop, we took an unofficial route down from the summit following widely spaced cairns to the Mount Somers track’s high point between Pinnacles Hut and Woolshed Creek Hut. It was steep, and involved a fair bit of scree sliding, but it was doable. And once you found the route, there was no getting lost, as you could see the track below.

On the track, we turned toward the Sharplin Falls carpark. An hour’s walking brought us to Pinnacles Hut where we had a welcome rest and chatted to the hut warden.

The track down from Pinnacles Hut follows and crosses numerous streams, and we enjoyed the cool water of the streams and waterfalls on the way. Aside from the relatively short climb over Duke Knob, it’s a gentler way down than the summit track.

All up, it was 8 1/2 hours of pretty steep up and down. Not for the faint of heart, but worth the effort for the views from the top.

Weeding Magpies

Photo: Eric Weiss

We’re still getting to know the local wildlife at the new house. The marauding sparrows are pretty much the same—devouring young lettuce and chicken feed in large flocks. The black-backed gull’s evening flights to their nightly roos on the gravel banks of the Waimakariri River are also familiar—though at the old house, the birds were headed to the sea.

The magpies are also familiar, but I’ve noticed some intriguing behaviour here that was absent at the old house.

The magpies here are weeding my garden.

Well okay, not really. Not on purpose. But they’re doing a nice job of it, regardless.

Our yard and garden here are cursed with wire weed. This aggressive plant’s long tough branches sprawl up to a metre or more from a strong central tap root. They tangle in the lawnmower and garden tools, and can trip the unwary. Their only saving grace is that, at least in our lousy soil, their foliage is small and sparse—they may tangle all through my crops, but at least they don’t smother other plants entirely.

And apparently, they make superior magpie nesting material. For weeks, the local magpies have been avidly stripping wire weed from the garden and hauling it to the tops of the pine trees across the road. They started with the easily obtained dead plants that I’d pulled out and left lying about. But now they’re ripping up live plants and taking them away by the beakful.

All the more reason to love these feisty feathered thugs.

The Lap of Luxury

Late last week, our exile in the shed ended and we took possession of our new house. Heat, insulation, indoor plumbing … the luxuries we’re now enjoying are amazing. 

In fact, looking back over our 28-year marriage, I can confidently say we’ve never had it so good.

Our first joint living adventures were in staff housing at nature centres in Ohio and Michigan. Cold and drafty, those conditions were decidedly rustic (though they came with some excellent wildlife spotting, including sandhill cranes out the bathroom window).

During our Peace Corps service, our one room mud home in Panama had a leaky roof and harboured rats, snakes, lizards, and the most astonishing array of arthropods I’ve ever co-habitated with. It wasn’t so much a house as it was a full ecosystem.

Married student housing at Penn State University had less diverse wildlife—German cockroaches filled all the ecological niches there—and involved periodic flooding from the upstairs neighbour’s bathtub.

The 1960s duplex we moved to next had a bad mould problem, but at least we had fewer six-legged housemates.

In Minnesota, our 150-year-old house needed a new roof, piles and insulation. It was never particularly warm in winter, even after the extra insulation we added.

The 125-year-old cottage we recently moved out of was shocking when we moved in, with a leaking roof and rotting weatherboards. The only insulation was a century of accumulated bird nests in the attic. We fixed it up, but it was always drafty.

In hindsight, the shed we were living in for the past three months wasn’t so different from our previous homes.

I’m thankful, and a bit overwhelmed, to be living in a modern, warm, dry house for the first time in my adult life. Even if I live here for the rest of my life, it will never be as old as many other houses I’ve lived in. I intend to enjoy it.

Seeing is Believing

The Canterbury tree wētā (Hemideina femorata) is endemic to the lowland forests of Canterbury. Like other tree wētā, it is a sizeable insect and an opportunist when it comes to food, eating mostly leaves, but taking advantage of the protein in other insects it encounters.

Here in rural Canterbury, it’s rare to find tree wētā. Old timers talk about how you used to see wētā every time you trimmed the hedge, but in 15 years of trimming, I have seen no wētā. I’ve even put wētā houses (like bird houses, but designed to appeal to wētā) in the hedge, but have never found anything but spiders in them. 

Though I’ve never seen a study of their population changes, anecdotal evidence indicates Canterbury tree wētā numbers have dwindled with the intensification of agriculture and the increased use of chemical pesticides.

I have been fortunate to raise quite a few wētā in captivity, and in doing so, I’ve become familiar with the insects’ strong smell. This smell has been their downfall when faced with introduced mammalian predators—strong enough for even a human’s nose to perceive, it acts as a beacon to hungry rats, and stoats.

But it’s not just in my insect tanks I’ve smelled tree wētā. With some regularity in the early morning I can smell them in the hedge when I pass on my way to feed the chooks.

We humans have a poor sense of smell, as mammals go. We rely much more heavily on our sense of sight for identifying things. So for years now, I’ve doubted my nose, because I’ve never seen a wētā on the property or anywhere nearby.

But not long ago, on an evening walk with my husband, we found an adult tree wētā dead on the road.

Yes! I knew my nose couldn’t be deceiving me, though I was never confident enough to declare their presence based on smell alone. Now I am. I may not have seen them in my hedge, but if there are wētā being hit on the road a hundred metres from my house, I am willing to believe my wētā-scented hedge harbours them too.

A Day Off

Cathedral of red beech

Sunday dawned warm and sunny, and I prepared myself for another day of hard work in the garden, in spite of my aching back. It would be a crunch to finish what I needed to stay on track—my garden to-do lists get longer each week, and I don’t dare fall behind at this time of year.

Meanwhile, my husband was fretting about the lectures he still needed to prepare for this week. But he’s much better at relaxation than I am. Before I had a chance to gather my tools, he suggested a hike instead of a day of work.

So we ignored our pesky to-do lists and enjoyed a day at Hinewai. 

Hinewai Reserve is privately owned, and encompasses 1250 hectares of the outer Banks Peninsula. It includes a glorious mix of vegetation types.

The track forms an avenue within a dense kānuka stand.

Probably the most impressive are the 50 hectares of old growth forest. The red beech create a green cathedral, shading out much of the undergrowth. The effect is in stark contrast to the dense kānuka stands that blanket other parts of the reserve.

At this time of year, the gorse is in full bloom. Management at Hinewai allows this invasive weed to grow, because it provides an effective nursery for native trees. Eventually, the native plants will overtop the gorse and shade it out, but in areas recently disturbed by fire, the gorse is thick. On Sunday, the tops of the hills looked like they’d been capped with bright yellow snow, for all the gorse.

Gorse in full bloom in a recently burned area.

With 330 species of native vascular plants, and 60 species of fern (including six species of tree fern), Hinewai is probably the most diverse site on the Banks Peninsula. We never fail to see interesting things when we visit. This visit was no exception. A bright purple fungus creeping along a rotting branch was probably the most unusual find on Sunday, but we were treated to tree fuchsia in bloom, kererū swooping overhead, and pīwakawaka and tomtits flitting around among leafy lacebarks, kahikatea, tōtara, and kōwhai. I enjoyed seeing my favourite filmy ferns, with their translucent fronds. Large quantities of ongaonga (tree nettle) supported the red admiral butterflies that were enjoying the warm day along with us, flitting through the dappled light in the forest.

View down to Otanerito/Long Bay

And, of course, as with most spots on the Banks Peninsula, the views from the clearings at Hinewai were spectacular. 

My weekend to-do list forgotten, I had a lovely day enjoying the outdoors. Next weekend’s list is necessarily longer now, but it was good to take a day off. I must remember to do that more often.

 

Music of the Night

Photo: Marcelo Zurita (CC BY-SA 4.0)

One of the pleasures of the short days of autumn is doing morning chores in the dark.

I know that sounds weird. I don’t particularly enjoy tripping over the tools someone forgot on the lawn the day before, nor am I overly fond of the cold wind slicing through my jacket.

It’s the sights and sounds of early morning that I enjoy.

Yesterday morning was particularly spectacular. The sky overhead was clear and star-studded—shimmering glitter strewn across the blackest velvet.

But the stars to the south were blotted out, and lightning flashed and forked far out at sea. The storm itself was silent from my distance, but the surf roared with a storm’s fury.

By the time the sun rose, birdsong, barking dogs and the drone of tractors drowned out the sound of the waves. Sunshine masked the flash of lightning as the storm stalked along the coast. The day dawned serene and mundane.

Other wonders have been revealed to me on my morning chores over the years.

A bioluminescent worm in the chook paddock.

Shooting stars streaking from zenith to horizon.

A bioluminescent sea creature frozen in snow and deposited in the garden.

The aurora australis pulsing green in the southern sky.

Rats tiptoeing along the top wire of a fence (I know, rats, ick. But it was an amazing feat of balance).

Little owls cackling in the treetops and swooping silently overhead.

The graceful undulation of a fence during an earthquake.

The comforting warmth of a goat’s flank on a frosty morning.

The gentle caress of a nor’west gale before it turns violent.

The rhythmic heartbeat of the sea at rest.

The clarity of thought on a crisp dark morning, before the stress of the day intrudes.

A Bird in the Bush

bellbird

photo: Sid Mosell (CCBY2.0)

Last Thursday was frenetic—I had a challenging work day and then ran errands in heavy afternoon traffic. By the time I arrived at my husband’s work to pick him up, I was tired, and my brain restlessly analysed the day’s events.

The day was warm, and I sat in the car with the windows down waiting for my husband. Time to catch up on my e-mail …

Twee-dle … A lone bellbird called lazily from a nearby tree, cutting through the sounds of the city and the clamour inside my head.

Twee-dle

I pocketed my phone and closed my eyes as the sound transported me to the bush where I lay in a tent listening to the forest wake up. The clamour in my head stilled. Somehow my email no longer seemed important. The conundrums of the day lost their urgency. My shoulders relaxed and I took a deep breath.

Twee-dle

There was time to savour. No need to worry.

Twee-dle

Trouble could wait. I needed a few minutes in the bush.

Twee-dle

All I needed to do was listen.