Friday, February 17, 2012

New Zealand: A Forest Returns

If you look at a map of the South Island you will notice a most unusual feature just east of Christchurch: an almost perfectly circular promontory, narrowly joined to the mainland and dissected around its edges by a series of narrow inlets.  This is the Banks Peninsula, named for the eminent 18th-century botanist and fellow-explorer with Captain Cook, Sir Joseph Banks.  

Like so much of the eastern side of the South Island, the peninsula was once covered with forest, long since cut down and replaced with pasture and stands of imported pine and eucalyptus.  

However, follow (as we did on March 14, 2011) the twisting road to its chief town, Akaroa, and then work your way still further eastward along Long Bay Road just north of town, and you will see something remarkable: suddenly the hills are forested again, in a broad, clearly-delineated stand running down towards the Pacific.  

This is the Hinewai Reserve, and the fact that it exists at all is entirely the result of decades of work by one man, the man Eileen and I were going to visit: Hugh Wilson. Hugh himself tells you about it here - a rare venture onto the internet by a man who is not only an eminent botanist, but a self-confessed Luddite who (after travelling in his youth to Sarawak to teach school) now avoids computers, motorized vehicles and other devices, and who produces his regular newsletter on the reserve with pen and paper.

Hugh's note welcomed us as we arrived...

As did the man himself, an old friend of Eileen's. 

Hugh welcomed us into his home, and that evening spent a very generous amount of time going through my plant photographs ad supplying me with the names readers have seen in earlier New Zealand entries on this blog.

This is one of Hugh's houseplants.  It may not look like it to a northerner, but this is an orchid - one of the aptly-named greenhoods (Pterostylis), of which there are many similar species in New Zealand as well as in Australia, New Guinea and New Caledonia (I forgot to ask Hugh which one this was!).

Here is Hugh's house, surrounded by his forest.

The forest at Hinewai, remarkably, is not the result of replanting.  It is natural regeneration, assisted only by protection, some invasive plant removal, and general maintenance (a lot of work!).  As Hugh has written, "we leave the planting entirely to nature. She is very good at it."

One of the most labour-intensive tasks Hugh and his volunteers carry out at Hinewai is the maintenance of its trail system - a feature I naturally took advantage of early the next morning.

After a bit of rain, a beautiful dawn glow suffused the forest as I set off along the nearest trail.

Gorse (Ulex europaeus), an invasive alien usually regarded as a pest to be eradicated, plays an important part in the regeneration of the Hinewai forest.  To quote from the Wikipedia article on the plant in New Zealand:

"Gorse has been found to form a useful nursery for many species for native bush regeneration. When young, gorse bushes are very dense. As they grow older, they become 'leggy', and provide the ideal conditions for native seeds to germinate and grow. The native seedlings grow up through the gorse, cutting out its light and eventually replacing it. This technique is working successfully and within a short time frame at Hinewai Reserve on Banks Peninsula."

Ferns (perhaps Blechnum procerum) stand out in the forest understorey. For a nice selection of Hinewai plants see this photostream.

This is attractive plant - but as I didn't have a chance to show Hugh the picture I don't know what it is!

The shrub layer at Hinewai includes a number of divaricating plants (this one may be Olearia fragrantissima), bushes whose branching systems result in a tangle that some have speculated rendered the plant impenetrable to browsing moas.  As the moas are gone, alas, this leaves the plants - assuming the speculation is correct - as evolutionary "ghosts", adapted to defend themseves against an enemy that will never come.

Young lancewood or horueka trees (Pseudopanax crassifolius) may also be "moa plants" - the leaves of young plants are thin, leathery and tough.  After the trees reach a certain height (presumably out of moa browsing range) their growth form changes completely, into something more like a standard (and more edible) tree.

My first birds were a little party of Silvereyes (Zosterops lateralis), one of the few native songbirds of New Zealand that is not endemic to the islands.  It is, in fact, a recent arrival, having made its way across the Tasman Sea from Australia in the early 19th century.

This, on the other hand, is a localized endemic, found only in the South Island: the Brown Creeper (a confusing name for a North American, as we have our own, very different Brown Creeper), or Pipipi (Mohoua novaeseelandiae).  It is the least striking of the three species in Mohua (the others being the Whitehead (M. albicilla) of the North Island and the rare Yellowhead (M. ochrocephala) of the South), but as these photos, I think, show, it is an engaging little bird nonetheless.  In recognition of that, the Hugh's handwritten Hinewai newsletter is called Pipipi.

The Pipipi seems to be the New Zealand equivalent of a tit; what it and its relatives actually are remains anybody's guess.  Recent studies have only been able to place Mohua somewhere within the broad assemblage of Australasian birds that includes whistlers, quail-thrushes and other things.  Its nearest relatives remain a mystery.
The real dazzler at Hinewai, though, is the Tomtit or Kōmiromiro (Petroica macrocephala), here the orange-and-yellow-breasted South Island race.  As you can see, I found it hard to stop taking pictures of this little fellow as he danced about in front of me in the shrubbery.  "Macrocephala" means "big-headed"; notice how he puffs out his head feathers, appearing even more deserving of his specific name in the process.

The Maori thought highly of the Tomtit, too; you can read Maori legends about this little bird here.

On the way back to Christchurch from Hinewai we made a few oceanside stops: one along a shingle beach with patches of succulent plants (presumably the invasive Hottentot fig (Carpobrotus edulis) from South Africa, or one of its natural hybrids).

Here, White-fronted Terns (Sterna striata) took their ease after a morning's fishing..

As did three Caspian Terns (Sterna caspia), largest of the terns and one of the few New Zealand birds I am as likely to see back home in Canada.

A Red-billed Gull (Chroicocephalus scopulinus) relaxes on the shingle.

I got even closer to the gulls and terns on a stone jetty at the head of one of the Peninsula's many flooded valleys; as ever, few birds are more graceful.  In my next few posts, though, I will move on to seabirds that are far more spectacular...

1 comment:

  1. Thank you so much for posting about Hugh Wilson. He was teaching at Tanjong Lobang School in Sarawak in the 60's