Sunday, March 14, 2010

Stand and deliver...

…..Your sandflies or your life”

And so declared the defiant robin, for he would not let us pass.
Not until we had stirred and scuffed up goodness from the leaf litter.

Recently I had the chance to wander down Cobb Valley, in the northwest corner of the South Island of New Zealand. I had been there many times before, and have fond memories of chasing summer raves, driving fully packed station wagons and pleasant bushwalks, and not so fond memories of postgraduate fieldwork. But this time was to show a favourite corner of NZ to my partner, Steve, and refresh our hazy memories of the NW Nelson flora.

Being bailed up by beady eyed, inquisitive South Island Robins is one of the many charming aspects of Cobb Valley, and was almost a pleasure lost due to the onslaught of introduced mammals. South Island Robins (Petroica australis) are very naive, trusting birds who will readily land at your feet to gather disturbed insects. They are restricted to forested strongholds in parts of the South Island (The North Island harbours another species, P. longipes), and both species have benefitted in the long term from feral pest control.

And what amazed Steve and I was the abundance of birds in the Cobb Valley. Much more than I remember from a decade ago, although I wasn’t paying as much attention to birds at the time – botanical fieldwork does that to you. What was different now was the conspicuous presence of rat and stoat trap lines, as evidently a bunch of dedicated volunteers have adopted the Cobb and Flora valleys to manage, and they have embarked on most ambitious control program which covers 5000 hectares of rugged forest and montane grasslands.

Here is one such stoat trap which has a very dead stoat within. These traps are baited with an egg, and the mechanism itself is sort of like a very large rat-trap-jawtrap which is instantaneous in action and quite capable of breaking wrists, hands and taking off fingers. And you thought that setting a rat trap required inordinate amounts of caution and anxiety.....

Hats off to them, I say, as our statistically scant observations are clear indicators that there has been some excellent recovery of native birds. And there is survey data to boot. With real numbers, so it will be great to see what this monitoring will show in the long run.

And so back to our leisurely walk around the Mt Arthur Tablelands and Cobb Valley. It was brimming with birds, ah tells ya! Riflemen (Acanthisitta chloris), one of three relictual taxa from the basal lineage of all Passeriformes, all whispered, scolded and flitted among the mountain beech in abundance.

And there were all the other LBJs – including peeping, sociable silveryes (Zosterops lateralis), confusing brown creepers (Mohoua novaeseelandiae), bellbirds (Anthornis melanura), tui (Prosthemadera novaseelandiae), tomtits (Petroica macrocephala)and tone-deaf grey warblers (Gerygone igata). There weren’t as many of the ever-popular grey fantails (Rhipidura fuliginosa) as we wanted, but a trio squeaked at us en route to Myttons Hut. Kaka (Nestor meridionalis) and kea (Nestor notabilis) were often seen soaring over the valleys. Nights were always booming with Ruru (Ninox novaseelandiae), which is always nice. And a pair of NZ falcons (Falco novaseelandiae), a species so vulnerable to stoat and rat predation as they are ground nesters, have taken up residence in Cobb Valley.

And - of course, none of these do I have an adequate image of - especially since ornithophotography aint our strength, Steve has the zoom camera and I have a macro digital jobbie.

But we did get good viewing of that famous, demented kleptomaniac, the Weka (Gallirallus australis), of which there are many in the area, and all of whom are very vocal in the wee hours of the night and have an insatiable desire to steal shiny things.

So I had to stand guard as our campsite was circled by strutting, curious weka, all with that glint in their glassy, beady eyes which suggested that their brains were ticking over the same, repetitive refrain ... "Shiny things.. yes, shiny things.. gottah have them shiny things. Dunno what I'm to do with shiny things.. don't have opposable thumbs so whatamItodowiththisspoon.. oh.. look.. shiny thing"

The Cobb Valley – Flora valley is located in Kahurangi National Park, and hosts many fantastic walking trails which extend from Flora hut and Cobb valley reservoir out to the wild west coast at Karamea.

The region has long been subject to historical mining and associated small-scale pastoralism, and so many old huts, tailraces, diggings and clearings persist. But the experience is pretty much one of some very nice and scenic country, with great geology. Numerous huts offer various levels of comfort, and tenting is always an option to get away from maddening crowds and enthusiastic trampers. You can read more about it on the DoC website.

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