First written in May 2015.
Mehemea ka tuohu ahau me maunga teitei.
If I should bow my head, let it be to a high mountain.
Mt Tamahunga is the tallest peak in the Matakana region – despite rising only 437m above sea level, it looms large and aloof above the surrounding landscape, a mysterious green hulk set back from the main road. I have a strong, sentimental connection to this region of New Zealand, having spent every summer here. I feel a deep reverence for the synergistic combination of ocean, rolling coastline and lush green bush; the tui, kereru and piwakawaka as well as the sea creatures and ocean-faring birds. If my soul has a home, this is where it lives.
This region is steeped with Māori history, and Tamahunga is no exception. The trail is named “Te Hikoi o Te Kiri” (“the walk of Te Kiri”) after a formidable Ngātiwai chief. In 1864, Te Kiri rescued around 180 Waikato prisoners held on nearby Kawau Island, and led them to the safety of his pā near the Tamahunga peak.
The walk up Tamahunga from Omaha Valley is short distance-wise but also steep, strenuous and often boggy. Through a couple of paddocks you emerge into bush teeming with ferns, vines, creepers, nikau palms, ponga and towering trees; a cool melting pot of greens and browns, flashes of silver and filtered light, with textures ranging from smooth and waxy to crinkled and rough. It is an earthy feast for the senses. If you walk up earlier in the morning or later in the evening, you may be greeted by tui, pīwakawaka (fantails) and miromiro (tomtits). The trail up is snaked with knobbled roots and embedded with moss-embroidered rocks.
The summit offers a grassy clearing and old wooden helicopter pad, but little in the way of sweeping views due to the thick bush (although I’m told if you continue beyond the summit to the north, there’s some stunning vistas – next time hey!). There’s a glimpse, if you’re sufficiently tall, down to the thin white strip of Omaha, a beach of classic beauty with sapphire waters and tussocked dunes that has unfortunately been victim of a subdivision development. It’s now host to the overt materialism of NZ’s extremely wealthy (including the PM, John Key). Beyond Omaha, the Tāwharanui Peninsula is visible, with its stretch of golden sand and patchworks of farmland and forest. Further still, the bush-clad hump of Kawau Island rises out of the of the ocean.
The track continues on to Pakiri Beach, or you can veer down to the Matakana Valley or simply return the way you came. The Tamahunga Trail is part of Te Araroa (“the long pathway”) which stretches 3000km from Cape Reinga to Bluff.
First written March 2015.
I like to think of myself as a nature lovin’ character. I believe that a connection to wilderness is essential to human wellbeing and count Chris McCandless as one of my personal heroes. I was enthralled by Robyn Davidson’s stubborn slog across the outback in Tracks and I wished that Wild had more sweeping mountain scenery and less Reese Witherspoon getting it on with randoms in alleyways. I follow the adventures of Not A Chance and Carrot Quinn, badass ladies who have thru-hiked more than 24,000km of the Pacific Crest Trail between them. I daydream of trekking through the rich, sweaty depths of the Amazon and scaling the cloud-shrouded dome of Mt Kinabalu in Borneo.
It was with these wild aspirations in mind that I signed up for a volunteer tramping trip: five days in the NZ back country monitoring and catching kea. Despite my enthusiastically earthy self-image, I have only really undertaken day hikes, with just one overnight backpacking stint in the last five years. This lack of experience didn’t deter me, and I spent weeks preparing, acquiring a pack and practising pitching my tent. But soon after embarking, reality cut me down like a tree being logged and my expectations were splintered. The uphill struggle straight up a mountainside burned me out and wore me down. Suffering from heatstroke and with a nerve in my shoulder pinching, I decided to walk out and go home the next day. Since this disappointing experience, I have been wracked with doubt. I had built up these lofty expectations based on the exploits of others, without pausing to consider the extent of my own abilities and what I actually wanted out of the experience.
There’s no doubt connection to the natural world is important to me – and indeed in the age of “nature deficit disorder” it should be a connection we all strive to strengthen. But I got addicted to the idea of nature – a flattened, two-dimensional version splashed across smartphone screens. I wanted to participate in this colourful world of sharp blue, green and brown pixels. But real nature isn’t just a pretty picture – it’s the afternoon sun beating down on the back of your neck, the cool river water tugging at your ankles with a deceptive strength and the wind charging down a mountain pass to rattle and pummel your tent. It’s invigorating, but not always comfortable. Combined with the pressure to maintain a certain pace with others of mountain-goat-ability, my wilderness sojourn was a shock to the system. But there were magical bits too: a low cloud slinking at the far end of the valley, the dark, weedy waters of a shooting cold tarn and of course the piercing cry of kea as they wheeled overhead. Maybe right now I can’t walk for weeks on end, but I can still delight in nature. It’s not about trudging so fast to your destination that the scenery, flora and fauna meld into a barely-remembered blur, nor is it obsessing over getting a spectacular scenery snap to show off to your friends. It’s stopping to admire a particularly perfect fern, or press your hand into a bed of soft moss. It’s sitting on a cool, smooth rock and smelling the earth after rain. It’s about a complete sensory experience.
I think each person has their own unique relationship with nature. For some it will mean detaching from modern madness for days or weeks, but for others it may mean a Sunday picnic by a lake. Both are valid, both can be restorative. But the essence of our enjoyment is not static – like nature itself, it is dynamic and complex, ever-changing and evolving. I can aim to live more authentically with my environmental values, and less vicariously through Instagram. While my planned 5 day break in nature may have come to an abrupt end, my connection to nature in all its beauty, paradox and power can only grow. We should all venture out to visit Mother Earth in person more often, on our own terms.
First written in November 2015.
“Only spread a fern-frond over a man’s head and worldly cares are cast out, and freedom and beauty and peace come in.”
– John Muir
One of my favourite things about walking in the bush is the thick carpet of ferns that often adorns the forest floor. Lush and green with a mesmerising symmetry – they add a certain aesthetic, a richness and depth to the layers of forest. As a celebration of this humble beauty, here are some recent fernlicious snaps.
I’ve been trying to learn more about New Zealand’s fabulous native flora – how to identify species, what they’re used for by Māori traditionally and in modern times, and what role they play in our forest ecosystem. There’s a lot to learn – NZ has about 200 fern species, and around 40% of them are found nowhere else in the world! This is unusual for a temperate country, as our ferny friends are typically found in tropical areas. New Zealand’s fern species range from towering mamaku, up to 20m high, down to delicate fronds only 20mm long.
Ferns are not just pretty either – they’re tasty too! Young fern fronds of two species, hen & chicken fern (Asplenium bulbiferum) and the common shield fern (Polystichum richardii), are eaten by Māori as a vegetable. The edible undeveloped fronds are referred to as pikopiko, and can be served as a relish (kinaki) for potato. Visit the Māori Plant Use database to learn more.
The silver fern, or ponga, is a national symbol of New Zealand – while the fronds of this tree fern are green on top, their underside is a beautiful silvery grey.
Sometimes, it’s the little wonders that set your heart alight.
First written in October 2015.
Have you voted yet? Every year, Forest & Bird runs the New Zealand Bird of the Year comp. The aim is to raise awareness of the amazing avian species we have here in NZ, and to promote their conservation.
So who will you vote for? Here are some fully rad options for you:
KEA (Nestor notabilis)
This “clown of the mountains” is the world’s only alpine parrot. Fave pastimes include eating cars, locking hikers in back country huts and being general cheeky bastards. These guys are very intelligent – they can solve logic puzzles and have been recorded using tools. Kea were once hunted for bounty due to their badass destructive antics, but they now have full protection. Sadly, they’ve become endangered. Visit the Kea Conservation Trust for more info, or like them on Facebook.
KĀKĀPŌ (Strigops habroptilus)
A chubby, flightless and nocturnal parrot, there are only 125 kākāpō in existence. You may have heard of kākāpō thanks to Sirocco, who notoriously shagged Mark Carwardine on “Stephen Fry’s Last Chance to See” (see below). Male kākāpō BOOM to attract mates, and they are the heaviest and longest-living parrots. In 2013, they were (quite unfairly, I must say) voted the second ugliest animal. How could you call this adorable face ugly?! Visit Kākāpō Recovery on their website or Facebook to learn more. You can also read more about kākāpō here.
KĀKĀ (Nestor meridionalis)
Forest-dwelling relative of the kea, these fellas are also well-known for their cheekiness. Most kākā are grey-green, but some have a gorgeous red colour variation. Kākā are basically the closest thing to dinosaurs, retaining some ancient parrot characteristics since they split off from their cousins around 100 million years ago. The kākā is at risk due to habitat loss and predation from introduced pests, but has recently been welcomed into the leafy subrubs of Wellington. Zealandia Ecosanctuary is backing this bird: YES WE KĀKĀ CAN!
BAR-TAILED GODWIT (Limosa lapponica baueri, kūaka)
This insane mofo completes the longest non-stop flight of any bird, migrating between the Arctic tundra and temperate regions in Asia/Australia/New Zealand. It’s been recorded as flying more than 11,000km over 9 days, the longest trip without stopping to feed of ANY animal. Like woah, THAT’S CRAZY DUDES. When they’re not flying ridic long distances, they can be found chilling in mudflats and marshes, munching on insects, crustaceans and aquatic plants. Tasty.
CHATHAM ISLAND BLACK ROBIN (Petroica traversi)
This lil black sphere is super resilient, battling back from the brink of extinction, fo’ real. There are now around 250 black robins, but back in 1980, there were only five left. ONLY FIVE. This included a *single* fertile female, named Old Blue. Using cross-fostering techniques, Don Merton and his Wildlife Service team were able to save these cuties. As all individuals are descended from Old Blue, there is unfortunately little genetic variation between them. Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to have caused any inbreeding issues, suggesting that the species has suffered similar population bottlenecks in the past. Ain’t nature crazy cool?
FIORDLAND CRESTED PENGUIN (Eudyptes pachyrhynchus, tawaki)
These dapper chaps have excellent eyebrows. Just look at those spiky yellow plumes! You won’t find these rare penguins in the Antarctic – they live in colonies in coastal temperate rainforest. Tawaki mate for life, and like other penguins, they don’t have teeth. Instead, they have nightmare-inducing fleshy spines that allow them to swallow their food whole.
KĀREAREA (Falco novaeseelandiae, New Zealand Falcon)
Don’t get on this dude’s bad side – despite their small stature, these birds of prey are fiercely territorial and will attack people. Unlike their larger swamp harrier relatives, kārearea won’t be found scavenging carrion. Instead, they prefer to display amazing aerial acrobatic prowess and snatch their prey out of the air, or grab them off the ground with their sharp talons. These falcons are speed demons, reaching speeds of up to 200 km/h. And they’re not just fast – they’re gutsy too, killing prey UP TO SIX TIMES LARGER than itself. WOAH. If you’re a fan of a classic Marlborough sav, vote kārearea! They have been introduced to the Marlborough wine region to deal with grape-devouring pests. Check out Wingspan Birds of Prey Trust.
KERERŪ (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae, New Zealand Pigeon, Wood Pigeon, kūkupa, kūkū)
With a white singlet stretched over their rotund middle and whooshing wings in flight, it’s hard to miss these tubsters in the bush. These guys are trendsetters, living the raw vegan lifestyle way before it was cool on Instagram – they mainly eat fruit, with a few flowerbuds thrown in. Kererū are super important to many native plant species, including kawaka and tara, dispersing their seeds via poop. If the kererū disappeared, our beautiful lush NZ forests would never be the same again. The kererū was an important food source for Māori, however it is now illegal to hunt them. Other threats to these forest fatties include predation by rats, stoats, cats and possums. Go to Kererū Discovery and Project Kererū to learn more.
KŌKAKO (Callaeas wilsoni)
These intriguing North Island forest-dwellers have grey plumage, a black eyemask and striking blue wattles. They once had a South Island cousin adorned with orangey wattles, who is sadly now presumed extinct. Like many NZ birds, this fella has a hard time flying and instead prefers to hop around, scramble up trees and glide – more like a flying squirrel than a bird! This behaviour evolved in the absence of mammalian predators, so the introduction of nasties like stoats has had a devastating effect on our kōkako friends. They have a clear, bell-like call which can be heard ringing across the forest for kilometres in a “bush choir.” Visit Hunua Kōkako Recovery Project to see more of these woodland warblers.
TAKAHĒ (Porphyrio hochstetteri)
The largest member of the rail family, this stocky big-beaked bird was once presumed to be extinct. Incredibly, a small population was rediscovered in 1948, deep in the rugged mountains of Fiordland National Park. The takahē once inhabited swamps, however conversion of swampland to farmland left them searching for a new home. They found it higher up on the tussocked mountainsides, where they dine on alpine grasses. The takahē is flightless, and is at risk due to predation by stoats and competition for food sources with deer. There are currently around 260 takahē, with several populations residing on predator-free island sanctuaries.
WRYBILL (Anarhynchus frontalis, ngutuparore)
This plump lil plover is endemic to New Zealand. The wrybill is the only bird species to have a sideways-bent beak. Why, you may ask? To reach under and around riverstones to catch some delish insect tucker, of course. WOAH EVOLUTION YOU CRAZY. The wrybill breeds in the braided rivers of the South Island, and spends January to July each year holidaying in the estuaries of the North Island.
Of course, there are many other fabulous birds you can vote for; this is just a small selection of the feathered phenoms we have here in lil ol’ Aotearoa. VOTE HERE then let me know who you voted for & why in the comments!
First written in March 2015.
New Zealand is well-known for our array of birds-that-are-more-like-mammals (thanks, evolution!). We have long been recognised for our namesake bird, the kiwi, but the roly-poly kākāpō is rising through the ranks of “world famous in NZ” stars. I’d contend the kākāpo is the fourth most popular folk-bird in NZ, seeing as they’re pretty much the avian version of the Flight of the Conchords: awkward but endearing and oh-so-funny. If you haven’t heard of these delightful but eccentric parrots, I can guarantee your life will be all the richer once you get to know them!
The kākāpo is a rotund parrot with an owlish face and exquisite green mottled feathers. This soft, dappled green is excellent for blending into the lush NZ bush, which is handy for kākāpo who seem opt for “freeze” rather than “fight or flight” when taken by surprise. Kākāpo take the title for “world’s heaviest parrot” so it is no wonder they also take the honour for “world’s only flightless parrot.” These adaptations served them well in pre-human NZ, as they were able to effectively avoid predation by the giant but now extinct Haast’s Eagle that ruled the daylight skies. They may not be able to soar majestically, but kākāpo are great at “controlled falls” out of trees, with the grace and elegance of a flying brick. Despite their limited flight abilities, kākāpo are fantastic climbers and one has even been known to evade capture by Department of Conservation rangers by scaling a rimu tree tens of metres tall. Cheeky as!
Kākāpo are largely solitary birds, leaving their home range only to breed. Like many of their other characteristics, the kākāpo’s courtship is rather unusual. Kākāpo are considered “lek” breeders, which means that the males compete with each other to attract the attention of females. The male kākāpo’s “stall” in this “marketplace of seduction” consists of a shallow bowl dug into the ground, cleared of any forest debris, with a couple of tracks leading to it. This “track and bowl”, typically located high up on a hilltop, is the stage for a remarkable performance. Forget milkshakes ‘cause they don’t bring the kākāpo to the yard – these birds are are all about that bass. The male will puff himself up into a fat feathery ball and commence “booming.”
His boom is amplified by the bowl and reverberates across the valleys, attracting females from far and wide. Sometimes he will alternate his bassy booms with a “ching” call that allows females to hone in on his location. Gotta get dat boom-boom-ching!
What happens next? This video featuring Spokesbird for Conservation Sirocco Kākāpo may give you an idea…
The female will then typically lay one to four eggs, that will hatch after 30 days. You can see a kākāpo hatchling in this video (they aren’t the most attractive baby birds, hey).
This bizarre breeding display only occurs once every couple of years – only when there’s sufficient rimu fruit around. Ordinarily for kākāpo, this slow pace would be all good, as they can live for 90 years, and maybe even 120 years. However, human settlement, habitat destruction and introduced pests such as stoats and cats have led to a significant decline in kākāpo numbers. Fossil records indicate that the kākāpo were once widespread throughout NZ and were our third most common bird, but today, they are considered critically endangered.
Conservation efforts began as early as the 1890s, with conservationist Richard Henry transporting 200 kākāpo in his dinghy from Fiordland to Resolution Island in an attempt to save them. Sadly, stoats soon swum to Resolution Island and wiped out Richard Henry’s endeavours within just six years. Today, only 126 kākāpo remain, and each is individually named – a stark reminder of the species’ precarious situation. These survivors live on offshore, predator-free islands, with about half calling Whenua Hou (Codfish Island) home.
The good folk at the Kākāpo Recovery programme intensely manage the kākāpo population and have overseen an increase in their population from just 86 individuals in 2005. Each bird is fitted with a radio transmitter and supplementary food is provided to encourage successful breeding. The kākāpo are trained to use their food hoppers with “Hansel & Gretel” style trails of kumara. Some hoppers are even fitted with devices able to identify specific kākāpo via their radio transmitter – this prevents naughty kākāpo from raiding their neighbours’ tucker!
One particularly mischievous kākāpo is Sirocco, who I have already mentioned is the Spokesbird for Conservation and star of “Last Chance to See” with Stephen Fry. Sirocco had a rocky start to life, suffering from a respiratory illness at three weeks old. In order to improve his chances of survival, Sirocco was handraised and returned to the wild once he was healthy, after a few months in human care. However this stint in the company of humans had a lasting effect, as it soon became clear Sirocco believed he was Homo sapiens and not Strigops habroptilus. Sirocco was so enamoured with his human saviours that he built his “track and bowl” on the path between the ranger hut and toilet on Codfish Island, and attempted to mate with any unsuspecting volunteer or ranger who ventured out for a midnight pee. Due to his imprinting on humans, Sirocco was deemed unsuitable for breeding but he had a natural affinity for the limelight. He spends most of his time living peacefully in the wild, but does “go on tour” like any rockstar, visiting various locations around NZ.
Kākāpo are intelligent, curious and have distinct personalities – they are an extraordinary species, precious taonga (treasure), that we cannot afford to lose. With charismatic advocates like Sirocco, a well-funded breeding programme and the procurement of predator-free habitat, there is hope for our fascinating feathered friends.
This post was inspired by a recent talk given at Forest & Bird.
You can visit Sirocco Kākāpo on Facebook here.
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.
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.
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.
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.