Monday, July 20, 2015

Easter on the South Island

So as per usual I've been quite late getting this up, but things have been busy since April--I've been teaching quite a bit around Cambridge and Hamilton and I now have a contract at Cambridge High that will see me teaching Social Studies and PE until at least December.

In addition to brainwashing the next generation into thinking that Canada is the best place there is and ever was, another great thing about being a teacher is the holidays! NZ kids get 2 weeks off around Easter, and thus Lisa and I decided to head south to explore the top end of the South Island. Here are a bunch of pictures with a few notes that hopefully explain what is going on. I have probably forgotten some intriguing tidbits of information due to the passage of time but here goes...

Yours truly taking in some morning air along the 'Desert Highway' on the North Island's central plateau. Tussocks predominate along with chilly winds. The kind of place a Rough-legged Hawk would enjoy.
After a long drive (8ish hours with coffee stops), we made it to NZ's beautiful capital city--Wellington for our noon-time ferry departure. Pictured above are the sheep-nibbled hills along Tory Channel in the Marlborough Sounds. My first sight of the South Island since 2008. While this scenery is undeniably stunning, these hills would have been cloaked in thick virgin rainforest when Captain Cook first sailed into Queen Charlotte Sound in 1770. Joseph Banks, a botanist who accompanied Cook on this first expedition to NZ, described waking to the dawn chorus here thus:
"This morn I was awakd by the singing of the birds ashore from whence we are distant not a quarter of a mile, the numbers of them were certainly very great who seemd to strain their throats with emulation perhaps; their voices were certainly the most melodious wild musick I have ever heard, almost imitating small bells but with the most tuneable silver sound imaginable to which maybe the distance was no small addition."

His description likely refers to the melodious and mournful songs of the Tui, Bellbird, Piopio (NZ Bowerbird), and South Island Kokako. The latter two are now sadly extinct. Ironically (Given the present-day scenery), Cook had this to say while anchored in the same area:

"Last Night the Ewe and Ram I had with so much care and trouble brought to this place, died, we did suppose that they were poisoned by eating of some poisonous plant, thus all my fine hopes of stocking this Country with a breed of Sheep were blasted in a moment."
On our first two nights on the South Island, we were very fortunate to benefit from the supreme hospitality of Lisa's workmate's Robin and Bruce, who have a wonderful house on Waikawa Bay, just around the corner from Picton (Where the Cook Strait Ferry comes into the South Island). As you can see, the native bush is growing back, and significant conservation efforts are underway to return much of the Marlborough Sounds to their former lush beauty (For BC readers, picture a wetter Gulf Islands).
Bruce even took us to his 'secret' Blue Cod-fishing locales. After getting stuck with bait-fish and sharks for most of the day, I eventually came out with the biggest cod, but at 43 cm he was too big to keep. Back to the water to make little codlets! Fortunately there was plenty of legal cod to savour that evening. Yum...

After leaving Picton, we heading west to the lovely town of Nelson (Not unlike the BC version in many respects), then on to Abel Tasman National Park (Named for the first white guy to see NZ, though he didn't do much here other than get a few crew members killed by Maori then he high-tailed it back to Holland, somehow missing Australia completely (Though he did eventually get Tasmania named after him). Abel Tasman (the park) is a lovely spot, famous for multi-day hiking and kayaking. We opted for the casual one night hike-in, as the weather forecast was looking iffy.
Awww, someone knew we were coming!
Just in case the birders were getting frustrated, here's one: NZ Bellbird. Not impressed with my impersonation.
Lisa surveying Marahau Bay
Our camping spot for the evening: Apple Tree Bay. A gorgeous spot with great swimming, even in fall.
Skipping way ahead here. After Abel Tasman, we headed straight over tot he northwestern tip of the South Island. Climbing Takaka Hill then descending into Golden Bay, where hippies and rednecks mingle in a Kootenay-esque sort of way. Cape Farewell is the northern tip of the South Island and this is the gorgeous Wharariki Beach just to the west. We camped here for a few days--a new spot for both of us.
Also enjoying the beach were these baby seals. #JustHavingAGoodTime
Twas a misty morning but we hiked up to Pillar Point before the rain set in. Here we are looking west toward Cape Farewell and Wharariki Beach.
Looking east, you can just make out the beginning of the massive Farewell Spit (Top left); one of the most important shorebird staging and wintering sites in New Zealand and indeed the western Pacific. It also has a gannet colony at the tip which is uniquely barely above sea-level on some shellbanks.
The rain really started pounding down once we got back to the car, so the rest of the day was spent driving around the Golden Bay area and peering out into the storm. In the small town of Collingwood, where everything was shut for the season, we were happy to spy this flock of Royal Spoonbills.
A Great Egret (Kiwis call them "White Herons") approaches the car. Unlike Australia where it is abundant in coastal areas, it's always a treat to come across them in NZ.
During the heaviest of the rain, we retreated to a cafe in the funky village of Takaka, where the walls were covered in anthropomorphised birds delivering puns.
Rain followed us around a bit as we heading south into the interior of the South Island. Here we arrive at Nelson Lakes National Park. It's name includes "lakes" because there are two lakes; Rotoiti and Rotoroa. Everyone has been to Rotoiti because it's along a highway and has a town beside it (St Arnaud), but neither of us had been to Rotoroa as it's a little out of the way. So here it is. Rainy, bug-infested, but definitely beautiful. Okay let's go to the other lake now.
Lake Rotoiti.... They look so similar I almost wonder if I mixed up the photos somehow...
Like other lakes in the world, people come here to feed the ducks. What's a little different, is that you can also feed the eels! (Fun fact: Maori word for eel is TUNA---that's not a joke).
Meet 'Ming' the lone male Mandarin Duck. He showed up at Lake Rotoiti a year ago and never left. No one knows what his backstory is (Likely escaped from a private collection) but he seems to rule the docks here, especially at bread-feeding time).
We camped on the shores of Rotoiti and spent the first evening and the following morning hiking in the montane forests around the lake. Here, Lisa photographs some beech trees covered in a black fungus filled with sap-sucking insects that secret honeydew back out through their anal tubes. Bird's love it. Yummy anal tubes! Unfortunately, introduced wasps have become a major pests in this ecosystem so the Department of Conservation has mounted a major anti-wasp campaign which has reduced wasp numbers by 80% in the last 6 years or so.

Finally reaching the alpine after what seemed like eons of switchbacks.
The view from St Arnaud Ridge, looking down to Lake Rotoiti.
My kinda okay picture of the uncommon black-form of the New Zealand Fantail (This colour phase is only regularly found on the South Island).
Finally some sunshine as we cut across to the east coast. Here we are driving south from the vineyards of Blenheim to the Kaikoura coast (Kaikoura Mountains visible to the south).
Finally back in Kaikoura, one of my favourite places in New Zealand, and truly one of the best whale-watching/sea-birding towns on the planet. Lisa took this great shot, looking north from Point Kean to the Seaward Kaikoura Range. Way up in the alpine is where the endemic Hutton's Shearwater nests! Unfortunately I don't have any photos from the pelagic we did here on my computer and am too lazy to track them down. You've all seen an albatross right? You'll see plenty more on this blog I'm sure ;)
Okay it's getting late so I'll finish off the trip with a couple rare ducks. As we headed back north toward Picton on our second last day on the South Island, Lisa asked me if I'd like to check out the Blenheim Wastewater Treatment Plant. I told her I had never heard more romantic words escape those lovely lips. As luck would have it, we stumbled upon a fairly rare bird for New Zealand. In fact, it's only the 8th accepted record since the 1950s or something like that. It's the brown duck in the far back (centre) with bright white eye. Appropriately, it's a "White-eyed Duck"--and Australian endemic. Here it is sleeping with the smaller/darker/yellow-eyed NZ Scaup, as well as some Pacific Black Duck x Mallard hybrids in the foreground, and a preening Royal Spoonbill in the back.
I had read that a few Plumed Whistling-Ducks had been long-staying at an urban park in Napier (east coast of the North Island), so on our drive back north to Cambridge (We've taken the ferry back at this point), we detoured to Anderson Park. Man this looks like a sketchy tick!
Thankfully, I managed a photo that didn't have an overweight domesticated Muscovy Duck in the background. Feeling better now. Jokes aside, these birds were very wary and occur in city parks in northeastern Australia (where they are native) as well as Southeast Asia. They wander frequently, especially during droughts and show up in New Zealand every couple of years. 


  1. Wow fantastic post! What a gorgeous country! Thanks for sharing! congrats on the teaching contract my friend and looks like you two had a fabulous 2 week vacation!

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