Finally free. It’s Thursday afternoon, December 20, and I’m leaving Wanaka after being stuck there for ten days. The reason? My car broke down while climbing a mountain pass, in the middle of the night… the transmission needed to be changed, and it took some time in this busy pre-Christmas period.
Luckily, I found a nice place to stay in Wanaka (Wanaka Bakpaka hostel), and I enjoyed relaxed days there. The internet connection was good as well (not something you should take for granted in New Zealand’s hostels…), so I spent some time updating my website (check it out here: samuelbloch.weebly.com).
All this is behind me now, though. After the trauma of my car’s breakdown, I’m terrified of going up the mountains again, but to reach the Mackenzie Basin, there’s no choice, I have to go over Lindis Pass. I go very slowly in the last steep slopes, but we manage and glide down on the other side. Phew!
I have a few days here before going to Christchurch to catch a flight, and I have one big target in mind: the Black stilt (Himantopus novaezelandiae), the rarest wader on earth, which calls home the rivers and lakes of the Basin. It’s quite stunning, truly, like any stilt but pitch-black. I can’t wait.
I can’t find anything of interest near Omarama, so I continue north, past Twizel, to spend the night near Lake Poaka. I thought I would find a wild place, but it was pure delusion. Like most of New Zealand, people have altered the land for their own use; here, the prevalent activity seems to be hydroelectric power, with dams and canals everywhere. This is probably not the ugliest possible infrastucture (the dams are rather low) though, and I enjoy the sight of this dry steppe around, millions of miles away from the green pastures I came to hate. The name “Mackenzie Basin” comes from James Mackenzie, a sheep thief who brought his stolen flocks to this then uninhabited land. Times have changed.
Lake Poaka is a pretty place, many New Zealand scaups (Aythya novaeseelandiaea) swim with chicks, but the wetlands to the west yield no Black stilt… plenty of Pied stilts (Himantopus leucocephalus) though, and Black-fronted terns (Chlidonias albostriatus) that attack me! There must have been a nest nearby, but I was walking on the track! Oh well… priority to the birds.
After so many lazy days, I find energy to wake up at sunrise, and witness phenomenal colours in the sky.
I loved this moment when the mountain tops turned deep pink, so pretty! Pied stilts fly around, but still no Black stilt… wait, isn’t that call a bit different? Yes, there’s one Black stilt incoming! Lifer!
Oh I’m happy, but I want more. The bird stayed too far away, I couldn’t make any picture. Also, I saw it come in with a Pied stilt, like a reminder of one threat these birds face: hybridization. Because there are so few Black stilts left, if one cannot find a mate, it may well pair up with a Pied stilt, producing hybrid offsprings that dilute the genetic heritage of its “Black” parent. There were only 23 Black stilts left in the wild in 1981, and still only 106 in 2017 (Department of Conservation); the intense management of the species has apparently reduced the threat of hybridization, fortunately… not that they are safe now, as habitat loss, human disturbance and introduced predators are still very real. I mean, barely a hundred birds in the wild… that’s a tiny population.
I continued on to Mount Cook Village, a small resort at the entrance of the National Park of the same name. Aoraki Mount Cook, the highest summit of New Zealand (3724m), remained in the clouds (as he’s known to do), but I got terrific views of the ice-covered slopes of Mount Sefton. I was far, but the telelens brought me closer.
I walked among gigantic moraines on the way to Kea Point, and searched for icebergs on the Tasman Lake. The dwindling Tasman Glacier was a rather depressing sight, and the info sign there didn’t help. Did you know it retreats between 400 and 800 meters every year? Terrifying. Glaciers always have this dispiriting effect on me – I’m drawn to them, but end up feeling terrible. Poor planet.
Now, I drive back to the end of Lake Pukaki, to a place called Glentanner. There, next to the airfield, the Tasman River flows into the lake, and Black stilts are known to enjoy the place. After a short walk, I can indeed confirm that, but I only got distant views. I’m not too optimistic for pictures, but I saw a Wrybill (Anarhynchus frontalis) and Double-banded plovers (Charadrius bicinctus) that didn’t seem shy, so they should be willing subjects… hopefully.
I get back to my car, and what do I see? A young Black stilt wading in the closest river arm! I’m not equipped to wade in water, so I’ll have to see if the bird goes to a more favourable spot. As I’m having lunch, a pair of fishermen flush the stilt away, and it lands in a place I quite like. I put my dirty clothes on, I grab my camera, and off I go. It’s starting to rain a bit, but should I care? The river banks are already wet, so I lie down in the mud and wait. Flying or walking, this young bird (note the white splashes on the chest and belly) gets in very close, so close it doesn’t fit in the frame anymore. Is there even one meter between me and this tremendously rare creature?
I shoot, but I also enjoy the moment. I’m elated.
Then three other stilts appear from nowhere and land nearby, two adults among them. Do they remind my new friends that one shouldn’t trust humans? They all fly away within a minute.
As if the day weren’t perfect already, that’s when I notice that Wrybills and Double-banded plovers are running around me, on dry land, accepting my presence like only shorebirds can do. They too come very close.
The Wrybill is the only bird to have an asymetrical bill, as it’s curved to the right. I had seen them in Miranda, where thousands of them spend the winter, but they were not nearly as close.
I am treated with a front view of that bird, so I can show you this stunning bill. A side view doesn’t work as well! 😀
Exhilarating! I spend the rest of my day reading The Hobbit inside my car, waiting for some nice sunset light, but it’s rain that comes instead, and I’m ready to close the day early. As I’m preparing to go to bed, the clouds open and reveal an impressive mountain scenery on the other side of the valley.
Saturday, December 22. This is really the last day I can spend in the area before heading to Christchurch. I leave Lake Pukaki for Lake Tekapo, and spend more time searching for Black stilts.
I find one in a puddle behind a dam; the closed bay has mostly dried off, save for a very shallow pond where Grey teals (Anas gracilis) and Mallards (Anas platyrhynchos) dabble, while Double-banded plovers forage on dry land. A cloudy spell allows me to shoot in the middle of the day.
In the beginning of the evening, the sun is back, and I shoot the pretty lupins (a pest, alas) for my mom. I don’t spend much time with the flowers, for the stilts are calling!
I’m still pretty early, but the sun reveals the iridesence on the birds’s back, tones of green and blue that evolve with light. Two different birds show up, one at a time, but none is particularly shy, and they walk right in front of my lens. I feel spoilt =D
Now, the spot wasn’t ideal, for my background was the dam made of grey stones and it wasn’t very far away. I would have preferred a green background, I think it would have complemented the stilts nicely… I had it on this image below, but the bird is slightly looking away. Once again, direction of light and background pulled in two different directions.
It’s too late to find a better place, and at least there’s no one here to disturb me.
The sun disappears between the mountains too early, and now I’m cold. I walk back to the car, eat a bit and go to sleep. Tomorrow I’m driving to Christchurch, where I’ll catch a plane to India. There, I will meet my family and travel for two weeks. However, that’s the story for another day 😉
All things considered, the Mackenzie Basin delivered quite nicely. Black stilts!
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