Gulls of New Zealand

Gulls are fascinating creatures, yet they are often disliked by people: “they are noisy”, “they poo everywhere”, “they are aggressive”… These people forget that we are the invaders, and that gulls, like all wildlife, are just trying to adapt to the changes we bring to the natural world. At that, they have proved expert, thriving on our waste. Ask a larophile (a fan of gulls; from Laridae, the latin name of the gull family) the best place for gull-watching, and the answer will most likely be the local landfill! A geo-tracking study showed that gulls nesting in Belgium were doing regular trip to a certain place in France… that proved to be a chips factory! Oh, and haven’t you seen this picture of a gull that fell into a tikka masala vat in the UK, turning completely orange in its quest for food scraps? In Helsinki, it’s a lot of fun to watch gulls diving on people’s ice creams at the market square (Kauppatori). They make the scoops fall to the ground, for they know humans won’t pick them up from there. Then the feast begins. Unfortunately, in a natural world unbalanced by human activity, gulls can also be a nuisance for more sensitive species, eating eggs and chicks.

Herring gull (Larus argentatus) on the ferry to Texel (NL)

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The Silent World

“It seemed to be like small bells most exquisitely tuned”

These were the word of Captain Cook when he arrived in New Zealand in the end of the 18th century. He referred to the sound of New Zealand bellbirds (Anthornis melanura), a common bird at the time. More generally, New Zealand forests were thought to be much alive with the chatter of birds before human, and especially European, colonization… but this has changed.

Before human settlement, about 85% of the country was covered by forest. Now, native trees cover only about 30% of the land (Click here for a cool, albeit depressing, animation). Large trees were cut down by the wood industry, while the rest was burnt down to create agricultural land, essentially pastures. Of course, wildlife didn’t take it well.

In addition, the introduction of exogenous mammals had a dramatic impact: rats, stoats, possums eat birds and eggs; possums and deer eat vegetation. For millenia, the only land mammals in New Zealand had been bats, so native wildlife had evolved accordingly and didn’t know how to respond to the invasion. Defenceless, species started to decline and disappear.

New Zealand bellbird (Anthornis melanura)

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Westland

You’d think that most storms hitting New Zealand come from the vast Pacific Ocean, but down here, the ocean is quite pacific indeed, and bad weather essentially comes from the Tasman Sea, which separates the country from Australia.

Furthermore, because the South Island sits on a fault born of the encounter of the Indo-Australian and the Pacific tectonic plates, it is quite mountainous: the Southern Alps dominate it from north to south, from Marlborough to Fjordland. This natural barrier, which culminates at 3724 meters at Mount Cook, blocks the clouds and pushes them to release their water. Thus, Westland, the region on the west coast of the South Island, is a rather humid place. In the mountains near Hokitika, 20 kilometers from the coast, fall 14 meters of rain a year. Maybe they should rename it Wetland.

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Keacophony

You saw that one coming, didn’t you? In November, I presented you the Kaka (Nestor meridionalis), a smart parrot that I had encountered in Zealandia. I called the article “Kakacophony”, and told you I already knew the title of the article I would devote to its close relative, the Kea (Nestor notabilis). It took me a bit of traveling to put together a nice portfolio, but here we are: behold the Kea, a species endemic to the Southern Alps of New Zealand, and the only alpine parrot in the world.

Kea (Nestor notabilis)

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Accross the Southern Alps

After coming back from India, I spent a few days around Christchurch, then aimed for the mountains. I didn’t know anything about Arthur’s Pass, except that it linked East and West Coast of the South Island, that a passenger train line ran through it between Christchurch and Greymouth… and that a few attractive birds lingered around 😉

The road ascended gradually. I stopped at Castle Hill, a remarkable limestone formation carved by erosion, and found joy in following winding tracks among these giants of stone.

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Giants of the sea

Punta Arenas, August 2011

I’m with my brother Noam on the seafront, and we’re looking for something exciting. The water just in front of us is the mythical Strait of Magellan, not a bad start but what we’re really after is birds. Our dad stayed behind. Yesterday, our mom and Kevin, my other brother, were stopped at the border in Santiago Airport. In Chile, a minor doesn’t have the right to leave the country with only one parent if he entered it with both. Dad has to visit the police station and a solicitor to sign the paper that would release mom and Kevin, but we cannot help. We brave the icy wind and walk.

In the distance, we see gulls flying along the shore, against the wind. After a minute, we conclude that they are actually not doing any progress, the wind is too strong. Then a large dark shape glides past without any apparent effort. It’s a giant petrel, probably a Northern giant petrel (Macronectes halli), and it’s the first time we see something so close to an albatross.

My brothers are sailors (I escaped that fate thanks to mononucleosis). Kevin, in particular, is obsessed with the Southern Ocean. He wants to participate in the Vendée Globe, the greatest of all races, a non-stop circumnavigation of the Earth without assistance. Albatrosses are well-known by those sailors, as they meet on their respective voyages far south. That’s probably why, combined with my love for birds, these giants hold a special place in our hearts.

Fast-forward 7 years.

Kaikoura, November 2018

The small settlement of Kaikoura is reknown for its marine wildlife tours, and for a reason: its rich waters attract whales, dolphins and seabirds close to shore. Why? We’ll need to dive to explain it. A continuation of the Kermadec Trench, the Hikurangi Trench is located where the thick oceanic Hikurangi Plateau subducts beneath continental crust of the Indo-Australian Plate, and it ends near Kaikoura. There, the seabed rises steeply, and winds and tides bring squids and other deep-water creatures close to the surface. A feast for predators such as Sperm whales (Physeter macrocephalus), the largest toothed whale, or Antipodean albatrosses (Diomedea antipodensis).

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Curio Bay

With Nugget Point, Curio Bay is the other location in the Catlins that impressed me much. It didn’t look like much, at first: fields and cows, a beach, rocks… a costly small museum that promised wonders (spoiler alert: it’s nice but not worth the money since you’ll learn everything on the signs outside), a small regenerating forest devoid of birds (OK, there were a few Dunnocks (Prunella modularis) and Song thrushes (Turdus philomelos) in there, all songbirds imported from Europe by the early settlers), a petrified forest… I was actually pretty excited about the latter, because it’s a story about dinosaurs and I like dinosaurs, but when I got to the shore, I didn’t find it very exciting.

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No Sleep at Nugget Point

It was in November, last year. I was on the way south, to embark on the Spirit of Enderby in Bluff, for an expedition to the subantarctic islands. I had just spent a day in Dunedin to discuss volunteering possibilities with the Department of Conservation (DOC) there. I veered off State Highway One and started my trip through the Catlins.

The first stop in this famous region, when coming from Dunedin, is Nugget Point, a peninsula that ends in a pointy cape, with stacks of rocks jutting out of the water.

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Colours of India

India is a completely different world in itself. If I had to choose one adjective to describe it, it would probably be “overwhelming”. Too many people, too much traffic. Just too much. But also an incredible diversity of cultures and biotopes, rich history and of course stunning wildlife, as you’ve seen in my last two articles, Unholy river and Bharatpur.

After my family had joined me at the hotel in Delhi, our driver took us to the Qutab Complex. From the car, we witnessed the fury of the city: cars, bikes, tuktuks, pedestrians following absolutely no rules (“the only rule is that there is no rule”, as reader Stuart put it), mens showering on the sidewalk inches from exhaust pipes, Black kites (Milvus migrans) and Rose-ringed parakeet (Psittacula krameri) flying overhead, cutting the thick smog with their stretched wings and strident calls.

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Bharatpur

Bharatpur. A birder’s myth. Vast expanses of water, home to thousands of birds fleeing winter, and some more thousand staying there all year round.

Even before thinking of this trip to India, I talked with a friend about this place, one of the last winter refuges for Siberian cranes (Leucogeranus leucogeranus). Alas, victim of hunting and habitat destruction, these majestic white birds haven’t been seen in India since 2002. Sad as it is, I knew there would still be birds there.

Keoladeo Ghana National Park is the official name of the place nowadays. It’s an artificial wetland next to the city of Bharatpur, built in the 18th century and formerly used as a hunting ground by the local Maharaja. It protects the surrounding land from flooding, and provides the necessary water for life to thrive. The area was protected as a bird sanctuary in 1976, and as a national park in 1982.

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