Christchurch is the largest city on the South Island of New Zealand, and it’s there that I took my flight to India in the end of last year. I came back early in January, and spent some time in the region before heading to Arthur’s Pass. I spent a day on the Banks Peninsula (more about that in a future article), then hit the shore of Lake Ellesmere.
This lake, the 5th largest of New Zealand, is in fact a brackish lagoon, sometimes linked to the Pacific Ocean when the channel is open, sometimes not. It’s an important site for wildlife, despite high pollution levels from agriculture runoff.
I explored a bit the south-western end of the lake, but couldn’t find a favourable spot for photography. I had time before sunset (remember, January equals summer and long, warm days :p), so I tried my luck at the Selwyn River estuary. At the end of an unpleasant gravel road, there was a small settlement and a car park. From the car park, a path led to the edge of the lake. A careless dog owner gave me a fright, but, apart from that, there were not many visitors in that area.
The path was lined by dense hedges of New Zealand flax and other bushes that attracted countless songbirds, mainly Silvereyes (Zosterops lateralis) and introduced species.
In a sense, it was sad to see so many birds that should not belong in New Zealand. On the other hand… without them and Australian magpies (Gimnorhina tibicen), the countryside devoted to agriculture (and that’s a lot of land in modern New Zealand!) would feel very empty. I have the feeling those imported birds now occupy an ecosystem that didn’t exist before the arrival of humans, hence the absence of native species there.
The state of nature in New Zealand is what it is, no matter how sad, so I might as well enjoy the European golfinches (Carduelis carduelis), Eurasian greenfiches (Chloris chloris) and Yellowhammers (Emberiza citrinella) thrown at me.
I walked the path times and again, stalking those cute critters from bush to bush as the sun went down. After a while, I decided to try my luck on the lakeshore, where a vast area of dry bare ground bordered the water. There was no cloud in sight, and plenty of birds.
As I crawled without even getting too dirty, my first treat came in the guise of a group of Royal spoonbills (Platalea regia) probing the shallow waters for fish and other underwater inhabitants to eat. They came quite close, maybe 10 meters, walking past without paying attention to me. The setting sun lit them beautifully, and the blue sky coloured the water accordingly. It was a perfect setting.
When they moved on, so did I. I crept closer to the Pied stilts (Himantopus leucocephalus), which had younglings with them! You can recognize them by the mottled back and the pale legs.
The stilts proved a bit more skittish than the spoonbills, but with patience, I managed to be within good range. They were feeding on really shallow water, where I could capture beautiful reflections. Light was absolutely perfect, and watching such elegant birds doing their thing was incredibly enjoyable. What a stunning evening!
Two days later, I met Kathy Reid in Waikuku Beach, for a sunrise session in the mud of the Ashley Estuary. That spot is known for its wintering Bar-tailed godwits (Limosa lapponica), but also a regular Black stilt (Himantopus novaezelandiae). Again, we were treated with superb weather and gorgeous birds. Thank you Kathy for that great morning!
About two months later, I was back in Christchurch for a weekend. I visited Lake Ellesmere again, hoping to find some arctic migrants that were still missing from my list, like the Red-necked stint (Calidris ruficollis) or the Pectoral sandpiper (Calidirs melanotos). I checked out Embankment Road and Jarvis Road, but came back disappointed: even though I had found some stints, they had only given me distant views, and there had not been anything else overly exciting. Still, I had some cool shots of Pied stilts and non-breeding Double-banded plovers (Charadrius bicinctus) on a cloudy day, an atmosphere very different from the one I had on my previous visit.
The day after, I met Jonathan Harrod for a kingfisher photoshoot on the outskirts of the city. We set two sticks up into the mud of the estuary, then sat in his two-seated hide and waited… two minutes, before the first Sacred kingfisher (Todiramphus sanctus) arrived. Ensued a crazy two hours, with the tide rising to our ankles before retreating. Once we were invisible inside the tent, the birds completely ignored us and happily used the perches. From there, they would dive to the ground, snatch a crab and fly back to the branch, where they would dismantle their prey by hitting it against the perch, before swallowing it whole.
It was very interesting to see the plumage differences between individuals, some being quite dull, others bright and colourful. Thank you Jonathan for your company and enthusiasm, it was a joy to shoot with you!
In the afternoon, I headed back to Dunedin, but it was only a month before I drove past Christchurch again, on my way north. Following a tip from Mike Asbee, I stopped at the Wairapa River Mouth to look for Black-fronted dotterels (Elseyornis melanops), an uncommon wader smaller and daintier than the Double-banded plover. I found them!
I even found a chick, which seemed very late in the season. I found many other species along the river, including tens of Welcome swallows (Hirundo neoxena) hunting low, Double-banded plovers, Caspian terns (Hydroprogne caspia) and Masked lapwings (Vanellus miles). The latter are often quite shy, but I was lying low behind a mound when this bird walked within sight. In hindsight, I really regret not including more of the reflection, for it looked more interesting than the background above the bird…
And… that’s it for Christchurch! I moved further north to explore new places afterwards, so stay tuned!
Tomorrow, almost exactly a year after I arrived, I am leaving New Zealand. I am heading back to Europe, but I’m taking the scenic route: first, I’ll spend about a week in Vanuatu, and then I’ll be in north-eastern Australia for three weeks. I’ll be back in Helsinki on September 20 🙂
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