The road to Milford Sound, part II

After the Divide, the road turns left, gets narrow and goes down in a steep ramp that ends at the bottom of the Hollyford Valley. Long ago, glaciers carved this place from the rock, leaving behind vertical walls that form a corridor for the intrepid visitor to follow.

To the right starts the Hollyford Track, a dirt road that follows the Lower Hollyford River for a while. Right at the start, a path leads up through the forest to Lake Marian. In April, I wanted to climb to Key Summit, but the walk, which starts at the Divide, was impossible because a bridge was damaged. So I chose Lake Marian, a 3-hour hike as well.

I started early, and it was freaking cold. I kept a swift pace on my ascent, so quickly, I was boiling. I didn’t slow down, and arrived to the lake faster than expected. The sun was lighting the east-facing slopes while frost still covered vegetation on the banks. The reflection was superb, but as the air warmed, a slight breeze broke it. I waited for the sun to reach me, then started to make my way down to the car.

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The road to Milford Sound, part I

Fjordland National Park, in the south-west corner of New Zealand, is one of the wildest places in the country. In the valleys, lush native forests dwell below indomitable cliffs from which waterfalls cascade on rainy days, and at the top, snow covers alpine heaths and rocky peaks until late in the season.

Most of it is unaccessible to the average traveler. However, one road will take you from Te Anau to the sea, passing along majestic sceneries that will stay stuck in your mind for a while: the road to Milford Sound. Landscapes are stunning but wildlife is exciting as well: most of the region has escaped logging, and with great efforts made to control mammals, many birds are now thriving there.

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Volunteering for penguins at Sandfly Bay

As some of you know, I spent the months of February and March in Dunedin, in southern New Zealand. It was summer, this lovely city was sunny and rather warm… but that’s not what pushed me to stay there.

You see, in November, on my way south to Invercargill and the Subantarctic Islands, I had stopped in Dunedin to talk with Karen, the ranger responsible for the volunteering program at Sandfly Bay. She had told me about the Yellow-eyed penguins (Megadyptes antipodes) that nest in the dunes there, and about the visitors that need to be kept at bay for the birds to thrive… they needed people to set up signs and talk to visitors, to educate them to the threats those cute birds face in the world today.

Up to 65cm tall, endemic to New Zealand (southern South Island, Auckland Islands and Campbell Island), the fourth largest penguin in the world is also one of the most threatened, and it’s classified as Endangered by the IUCN. Its population has dwindled by 50-80% in the past 21 years, has become extremely fragmented in the process, and has shown dramatic fluctuations from year to year.

Yellow-eyed penguin (Megadyptes antipodes), seen here in the Subantarctic Islands

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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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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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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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