Penguins on parade

8 November 2019

The timing of our visit to New Zealand has been planned to maximise our chances of seeing the Fiordland Crested Penguin. Today’s the day when we find out if we’ve got it right.

Gerry drives us and a couple of other guests from the Lodge and drops us off by the side of the road. He tells us to lurk in the bushes while he secrets the van at another location some distance away. On his return we are ushered into the undergrowth, leaving no evidence that we were ever there at all.

This cloak and dagger stuff is worthy of a television crime drama, but Gerry has his reasons. The Fiordland Crested is endemic to New Zealand, meaning that it’s found nowhere else in the world. It’s one of the world’s rarest penguins, and to protect it from mammalian predators the Department of Conserevation has laid baited rat traps all over the area.

But this penguin is also desperately vulnerable to disturbance by people and, especially, their dogs. The colony that Gerry’s taking us to visit isn’t well known and is very difficult to find. He’s determined to keep it this way.

The path takes us deep into the forest, past palm ferns and a variety of native trees. It’s twisty, steep and slippery, and not at all pleasant to walk. But that, of course, is exactly the point.

To cover our tracks we ford the same river a number of times, and at one point a false trail is laid so that anyone following us won’t find the correct river crossing. The Lodge has loaned us all gumboots (wellingtons to any Brits reading this), and this is a good thing in view of the trek we’ve embarked upon.

However the river’s running fast and high due to all the rain we’ve had recently, and at the second crossing Mrs P fills one of her gumboots. She’s not at all a happy bunny, but the prospect of penguins stiffens her resolve and she squelches on stoically.

Eventually we arrive at the beach, and Gerry leads us to the appropriate spot. To our right the sea, waves slapping into the beach and shoreline rocks; to our left, a steep hillside, green and thickly forested. The penguins nest in the forest, and trudge up and down the hillside every day to feed their youngsters. This is what we’re hoping to witness.

Within seconds we spot our first penguin. He’s out at sea, but paddling calmly towards the shoreline.

Soon he’s out on dry land, looking this way and that to check that he’s safe. We can tell immediately that he’s a good looking lad. He stands at around 60cm, a stout bird with dark head and upperparts, and white underparts. A broad yellow crest, which is the source of his name, runs above his vivid red eye.

Having established that the coast is clear, both literally and metaphorically, he moves up the beach a little and begins to preen. He needs to ensure he’s in tiptop condition before he starts the yomping to the nest site.

Once everything is in order he sets off. And as he walks up the beach we spot his unusual posture. Whereas most penguins that I’ve seen (albeit courtesy of Sir David Attenborough) hold themselves upright when they move, he walks in a stooped position like an old man with a walking stick.

But his posture doesn’t hold him up, and soon he’s reached the spot where the beach ends and the hillside begins. Now he’s been joined by another penguin, and the two of them begin to scramble up the slope. They’ve walked this path many times before, as have the colony’s other adult birds. The lower slope is bare of all vegetation, worn away by the trudging of countless webbed feet, and the soil is crumbling away.

At last our hero is within metres of the forest edge. He turns and surveys the beach one more time, before heading off amongst the trees. He may still have several hundred metres to travel, but we will never see him again.

By Gerry’s reckoning we see 19 penguins on parade over a period of about 90 minutes, some climbing uphill to their nests, and others returning down to the sea to catch more fish for their ravenous chicks. It’s been an honour and a privilege to watch them go about their business at Gerry’s secret location. Here’s hoping the secret remains a secret, and that the action continues for generations to come.

Rainforest magic

7 November 2019

We’re staying a couple of nights at the Lake Moeraki Wilderness Lodge, situated in the temperate rainforest that grows along the south-west coast of South Island. Here’s how the Lodge’s website describes the facility:

Few places on earth can match the stunning natural setting of Wilderness Lodge Lake Moeraki, surrounded by lakes, rivers, rainforest and seacoast in the heart of Te Wahipounamu, the southwest New Zealand World Heritage Area.  This is a paradise for nature lovers, active travelers and wilderness seekers.

Source: Wilderness Lodge website, retrieved 16 November 2019

Sounds like a lot of hype, doesn’t it? But to be fair, this is a very special place, not just for its location but also because the guy who runs it – Dr Gerry McSweeney – understands and is passionate about the natural world. Prior to starting the Wilderness Lodges Gerry was the conservation director of Forest & Bird, New Zealand’s largest environmental group.

The ethos of the Lodge is summed up in this quote, also from the website:

The … Wilderness Lodge at Lake Moeraki was set up to demonstrate that nature tourism could be an alternative to rainforest logging. By fostering eco-tourism & encouraging people to visit the West Coast it was possible to support communities traditionally reliant upon destructive logging.

Source: Wilderness Lodge website, retrieved 16 November 2019

It sounds like our sort of place, and as if to illustrate this, within an hour of our arrival we’re off on a guided walk to view the giant eels that live in the river that carves its ways through the rainforest.

To access the trail through the rainforest we have to cross the river. There’s no bridge, only a makeshift collection of planks and boxes. But never mind, Gerry’s happy to lend a hand and we soon make it to the other side where we can admire the vast array of native New Zealand vegetation.

And what a lot there is to admire including ferns of all shapes and sizes, and mixed in amongst them some much larger trees. Because this place has never been commercially logged some of the trees have reached maturity, and Gerry tells us the oldest are many hundreds of years old. They tower above us majestically, and as we study them in more detail we can see that their trunks and branches play host to countless mosses and epiphytes. Life is everywhere, in a thousand subtle shades of green.

We push on until we reach a spot on the riverbank where we can all gather and watch the action. Being nocturnal our quarry prefers to stay hidden under rocks or logs during the day, but the smell of blood will lure it out.

Gerry’s assistant tosses some chopped meaty treats into the water, close to the bank, and within seconds the giant, or longfin, eels appear. They can grow up to two metres long and may be 80 years old, so these specimens aren’t in the premier league. But they still look pretty impressive, particularly when one of them is briefly lifted out of the water to give us a better view.

When the Maori arrived in New Zealand several hundred years ago they found a land that was devoid of land mammals. The sea and the rivers were therefore vital sources of protein and the giant eel was a much valued food item.

Today they are hunted for export to Japan, where they are highly prized and therefore very expensive. Unregulated hunting for this lucrative market threatens the survival of the species, particularly as it is only the largest eels that breed and fishermen can make a bigger, easier profit by landing the largest specimens. However, Gerry tells us that stricter controls have recently been introduced, and these may stabilise the numbers.

Having seen the monstrous eels we return to the Lodge for dinner, but after sunset we are out and about again. Gerry drives us to a spot a few hundred yards away, then turns off the car engine and lights. As we stroll along the road and our eyes adjust to the total darkness we can see tiny lights all around us. We’ve found glow-worms.

In fact the glow-worm is not a worm at all, but instead the larva of a species of gnat. The larva hangs from a silken thread, and its phosphorescent light lures in tiny insects upon which it will prey. Sadly the conditions make it impossible to take photos of this phenomenon, but just imagine walking down a road in total darkness and seeing hundreds of pure white Christmas tree lights twinkling in the bushes that line the highway. It is a magical, if somewhat surreal experience, and definitely one to remember.

But the fun’s not over yet. Gerry shines his torch into the little drainage ditch that flows along one side of the road, scrabbles around for a couple of seconds and pulls out a freshwater crayfish or yabbie.

New Zealand’s native rainforest is teeming with life, much of it totally unexpected and delightful. And the best is still to come, as tomorrow Gerry’s promised to show us a rare species of penguin that breeds in these parts. I’ll tell the story of our Fiordland Penguin encounter in my next post.