Southland and Stewart Island

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In September 2011 I went on a trip to Southland and Stewart Island to collect Tui blood samples for my study of Tui population genetics. First was a trip to Te Anau where I was blown away by the snow-capped mountains and the natural beauty everywhere. After managing to catch 30 tui relatively easily thanks to some locals who feed Tui, we had some time to explore!

Milford Sound, of course, was totally amazing. I had never before been there in the winter, and the contrast in the scenery between the seasons was fascinating. Driving along a road that was completely covered in snow, when I had last been there in summer when the grass was dry, the mountains bare, and the sky blue. We also did a very short part of the Kepler track. This was a great opportunity to see some amazing red beech forest. It was great to see South Island robins there, and to hear of the contributions towards conservation and the bird-counts that kids of the local schools have been doing in the area.

We then visited Invercargill and Bluff, not exactly the epitome of natural areas, but there are a lot of good people doing some amazing work here; in Otatara, and particularly in Bluff, where the locals have banded together to form a conservation trust and have managed to bring Bluff Hill back to life, that had been ravaged by pests. I was so impressed by their dedication. If it weren’t for people like them, there would not be much wildlife left on the mainland of New Zealand. All over the country community groups are doing amazing work, and are particularly essential in times where funding is being cut from conservation. Hopefully Bluff Hill will soon have South Island kaka visiting from nearby Stewart Island, as happened in Tawharanui Regional Park from Little Barrier Island once predators were eradicated.

It was then time to go to Stewart Island where we caught 30 more Tui. We met some lovely people in Oban and I loved the feel of the township. Small and very friendly but with wildlife such as kiwi and kaka penetrating the town in every direction. South Island brown kiwi, or Tokoeka, could be seen on the playing field, and kaka would land on your deck in search of a cheeky meal. Some of the most beautiful bush walks were ones which were just walkways between two streets in town! We also visited the amazing Ulva Island and saw mohua, South Island saddleback, spider orchids, brown creepers, red and yellow-crowned kakariki among the Tui. Surprisingly Tui were actually not that common on the island and could only be found in the tree fushia surrounding the old post office.

With a bit of time to spare we decided to do the Rakiura great walk, where we really got a feel for the remoteness and splendor of Stewart Island. The forests were exquisite and had a very primeval feel. Everything is covered in moss. You could really imagine kakapo sniffing around in the undergrowth of crown ferns. We then hiked to Mason Bay, a beautiful secluded west coast beach looking out to Codfish Island. Here the kiwi come out during the day and are very plentiful. There are also fernbirds a plenty in the extensive wetlands that back onto the sand dunes. The remains of a pilot whale mass stranding awaited us on the beach. We counted 10 corpses in total. We also saw South Island New Zealand dotterels on the beach – much bigger than the North Island dotterels.

My overiding memory of this trip, apart from the wildlife, is of the friendliness of the people I met. I owe a lifetime of gratitude to all the people of Southland who helped me find Tui feeders, put me up, let me onto their properties to catch Tui, ferried me around when I had no wheels, and went out of their way to be kind to me. Hospitality like nowhere else! In particular I would like to thank Helen Bell, John and Isobel Donaldson, May Evans, and last and by no means least Iris and Peter Tait, and Estelle Leaske and Chris Andrews. You guys were amazingly kind, and made my trip so successful, I cannot begin to thank you. I feel I made some great friends down there and I can’t wait to come back.

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