Counting birds at Te Waihora

First written in February 2015.

Forget counting sheep, tallying our feathered friends is a surefire way to get to sleep – not because it’s boring, but rather exhausting.

Recently, I ventured out across the Canterbury Plains to Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere) to participate in a planning day for the Te Waihora Trust’s annual bird count. Despite its proximity to Christchurch, I had never visited this vast, 5000-year-old lagoon, whose Māori name means “spreading waters.” The lake has a fascinating history, both ecologically and culturally. It was formerly the mouth of the Waimakariri river and as our accompanying ranger explained, “The Waimak is like an out-of-control water hose. It’s only due to human intervention that it’s stayed put.” To the local Maori people, Ngai Tahu, the lake has long held significance as a mahinga kai (important site for food and other natural resources). For hundreds of years, they cleverly maintained the lake at an optimal level for the birdlife, an important food source, while eels and fish were abundant. Sadly, post-Pakeha settlement activities such as farming and commercial fishing have degraded the lake and the life it supported.

Satellite image of Banks Peninsula. Te Waihora is the murky green body of water at the bottom left. Image by Jesse Allan/LANDSAT 7 via NASA/Earth Observatory.

Satellite image of Banks Peninsula. Te Waihora is the murky green body of water at the bottom left. Image by Jesse Allan/LANDSAT 7 via NASA/Earth Observatory.

Nonetheless, Te Waihora remains an important bird habitat, with as many as 98,000 birds present at any one time, and more than 150 species recorded. Its natural beauty is of the sweeping, sparse variety. Emerging from the surrounds of farm fields onto the vast Greenpark Sands reveals an extraordinary expanse of brown, red and dull green beneath a bowed grey sky. The ground is cracked and dry – a symptom of the ongoing drought in Canterbury.

Greenpark Sands.

Greenpark Sands.

Just a few days ago, a flock of around 600 banded dotterels were here, but today we can only find a few flocks of about ten, camouflaged in the glasswort and salt grass. The lake is the fifth largest in New Zealand, so there is lots of area for the birds to cover. My binoculars are heavy and difficult to keep steady, and with the birds constantly moving, it requires good concentration to count them. Just imagine counting hundreds, or thousands! We near the lake edge, which appears shimmering grey in the heat haze (even though it’s quite chilly). There are black swans, wrybills and pied stilts spied from binoculars. A tern soars overhead. The avid birders are excited to spot a lone red-necked stint amongst some dotterels, a species that migrates between the Arctic and Australasia. A couple of hours have passed as we have wound across the saltmarsh, stopping intermittently to watch and practice counting. It’s tiring work. I’m just an amateur keen to see beautiful birds and be outdoors, but some “twitchers” take their birds very, very seriously.

Banded dotterel. Image by JJ Harrison (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Banded dotterel. Image by JJ Harrison (CC BY-SA 3.0).

I couldn’t make the actual count itself – but an impressive 48,000 birds were counted. You can visit the Waihora Ellesmere trust on Facebook to see pictures of the count.