Braided River Bird Monitoring – how it works

Braided rivers are a common in Alaska, Canada, New Zealand’s South Island, and the Himalayas, which all contain young, rapidly eroding mountains. They are a unique environment inhabited by equally unique birds.

They simply cannot contain a river in a straight line. In floods especially they carry sediment, and in places where the flow slows down this settles on the bottom, thus raising it. And the water flows off to the side of least resistance. This will happen constantly during floods.

The technique for gathering bird numbers on these sort of rivers is quite simple: a team of four people spread out, in radio contact with each other, walk downstream counting every bird they see in front of them. On the ground or airborne.

And at that point the simplicity vanishes! Very finely tuned river crossing skills are needed, as well as “an eye” for the line that will give the best results. Plus physical stamina.

The tools of the trade are: a radio each, walking pole to aid crossings, binoculars, sun-cream, sun hat, good boots and gaiters [to stop gravels getting in the socks], GPS each, and a pen/paper/clipboard. Plus lunch, warm clothing, a camera etc. Warm dry socks also help at the end of the day.

A view upstream of the Hunter River that feeds Lake Hawea in Otago, New Zealand
Preparation. In this case to get into the very remote Hunter Valley. In the Wanaka area two other rivers, the Matukituki and Makarora are also done, and they don’t require a helicopter drop in. There is 25 years now of history – each river being monitored every third year.

The three year cycle is sometimes hard to maintain. The work has to be done in the spring when the birds are breeding, and this is when there is a high frequency of floods, with high levels due to snow melt.
After a short but steep climb in the helicopter from Makarora town-ship, on popping over the ridge the large and rugged Mckerrow Range come into full panoramic view [actually named after a close friend’s grandfather who did lots of surveying and exploring.
Dropping the over-night gear off by a hut, before flying further up the valley to begin the survey.
On the left [note the silt in the grass!] where we only go to avoid a complex river crossing; and where we do – the gravel on the right.
One species of many that we’re looking for. The ‎nationally vulnerable banded dotterel / tūturiwhatu, is the most common small plover of New Zealand seashores, estuaries and riverbeds.

This one is feigning a broken wing to lead the surveyor/photographer away from a nest.

After breeding, they either remain at the nesting area or move relatively short distances to nearby estuaries.
Typical nesting surface, and one of the team striding it out. Being very careful to not stand on eggs!
On the wing. A black fronted tern. Not in the Hunter though, but the Tasman River near Mt Cook. The blue colouring of the very cold water is caused by rock ground up by glaciers.

There are about six species that are primarily dependent on the braided river habitat: wrybill, banded dotterel, south island pied oyster-catcher, black-fronted tern, black-billed gull, black stilt) as well as the caspian tern and the pied stilt. The villain of the piece though is the black-back gull, as they predate on the eggs of the others.

Teaming up – linking arms for mutual support. Lots of concentration is required so it’s harder to observe what maybe in the air ahead. However the most experienced person leading the crossing, which is nearly done, has in this instance time to look. River crossing is best done by not looking down, which upsets balance, and with great care – there is no Plan B if people get swept away.
When not to cross at all – just too big and not braided into smaller channels.
The job is going well!
What we don’t want to see, but if we do, weeds are recorded as Way Points on a GPS, so that DOC staff can return later to deal to them. The most often encountered on the above mentioned rivers is this area, is often broom.

We don’t encounter many lupins in the above mentioned rivers. This photo is in the nearby Ahuriri. Lupins, which the birds don’t like, offer cover to predators. Foolishly seeds were spread many decades ago by well meaning people wanting to add some colour to the grey landscape. And the seeds can remain for years until uncovered by a flood as they’re coated with a protective oil.
A sad aspect of some surveys is that we know that after a bank-to-bank spring flood hundreds of these young birds are washed away. These are a few surviving gulls after such an event in the Matukituki a few years back.
Knock off time – a classic old-time hut.
Every hut has one
Evening and time for sleep. Tomorrow morning the survey will resume tidying up the riverbed to the right.
Job over and pickup
The long and sometimes bumpy drive home beside Lake Hawea

Obviously the results of such monitoring give a good guide as to the health of the environments concerned.

However the data as regards where breeding colonies are located, can be used for the most efficient locations for a new trapping lines. There is an attrition of traps though – during floods despite them being anchored by a chain to a long steel stake hammered in, they get washed away. Often the best compromise often considered, is for them to be near a bank that exhibits a history of stability, and place them with a shorter distance apart than the 200 mt standard in the bush, so as to create a fence of sorts.

Otago’s Aramoana Ecological Area – The Spit and Pilot’s Houses

A few months ago I was privileged to be appointed to the Otago Conservation Board. Such appointments are made by the Minister of Conservation. The first duty of a member is to work to achieve the statutory interests of the board.

Members are not representatives for any cause or organisation. Board meetings are public, and organisations can ask to be heard at them.

There are 15 Boards in NZ and each one is independent of any other body, and have a statutory obligation to represent the public interest in DOC’s work, and conservation in general within their region by advising DOC and the New Zealand Conservation Authority on planning and strategic direction.

A board can be requested by DOC to advise on issues like biodiversity, the use of public land, and concessions (a business may apply to use such land for their operations).

One of the first ones I became involved with was commenting on some old historic dwelling in the Aramoana Spit near Dunedin. In this case the owners of the houses have applied for a concession for them to stay on Conservation Land. They were built maybe 80 years ago, predating not only DOC, but goodness what other land designation.

Some field trip notes and images

Aramoana Spit, Otago NZ
The view along the spit – north is to the left. The 4 dwellings are at the far end, 3 of under the large trees. Note that 40 years ago the dunes were further to the left – right up to the tide line in fact. This is also the most popular beach for locals swimming.

Aramoana Spit, Otago NZ. Salt Flats
On the other side of the dunes, to the south towards Dunedin, there are very extensive salt mudflats.

Access to Aramoana Spit
The locked access road to the dwellings sidles along the south side of the dunes, with the very extensive salt mud flats on the right. It seems perfectly placed to not interfere with the local wildlife, which at the moment consists of sea lions in the dunes near the houses, and not penguins. Perhaps they’re not compatible?
Aramoana Spit, Otago NZ
There are a few gullies through the dunes that lead to the beach from the access road. Yes, those are dog prints.

Rainbow Tairoa Head from Aramoana Spit, Otago NZ
Great views of Tairoa Heads. The first dwelling on the extreme right – the 3 far more substantial houses are under the trees…

Bach, Aramoana Spit, Otago NZ
I loved the kiwiana style, and btw this is not one of the pilot’s houses. At this point there is an imaginary line between dunes and sea lion habitat to the photographers right, while at the left starts a different vegetation zone comprised of seemingly of a bit less sand.

Pilot's House, Aramoana Spit, Otago NZ
The second pilot’s house really close by, with path to the beach…

Shed and garage, Pilot's House, Aramoana Spit, Otago NZ
More kiwana

View south from Pilot's House, Aramoana Spit, Otago NZ
At this point the environment to the south, towards Dunedin is no longer salt marsh

Roof with lichen, Pilot's House, Aramoana Spit, Otago NZ
This roof faces the sunny north!

Wilding Pine, Pilot's House, Aramoana Spit, Otago NZ
Out on the spit, as opposed to the dunes, we have a few invasive species

Beach Chairs, Pilot's House, Aramoana Spit, Otago NZ
One way to enjoy the view north

Sea lion pup asleep at Aramoana
Sea lion pup asleep in the dunes

At the time of publishing here a submission has been sent to DOC of the Board’s recommendations, but at this point I don’t know what the outcome will be.

Exploring the Catlins – New Zealanders playing as tourists — part 3

This is the last of three series of a roadie trip down what is known as the Catlins, in Coastal Otago

catlins, oyster catchers
Part of large gathering of oyster catchers at Papatowai
catlins, kiwiana caravan
Classic kiwana at the car park to Jacks Blow hole
catlins, sea lion
Sea lions enjoying the sun
catlins, sea lion
catlins, wood pigeon
Kererū
catlins, sea lion
Sea lion feeding at Waipapa
catlins, black oyster catchers
The black oystercatcher is quite conspicuous
waipapa lighthouse in the catlins
Waipapa point and lighthouse
catlins windswept trees at slope point
So typical of the wildness of coastal Southland
fortrose southland
View from Fortrose
waituna wetlands
The awesome Waituna lagoon – one the largest in New Zealand, and refuge to countless biodiversity
flax flowers at waituna lagoon
Flax flowers at Waituna
waituna lagoon
More kiwana at Waituna lagoon

Read Part 1 here >>

Exploring the Catlins – New Zealanders playing as tourists – part 2

Prior to this five day trip down the length of the coastline south of Dunedin known as the Catlins, my knowledge was limited to widely spaced out experiences such as an outdoor first aid course at the largest town Osaka, a school trip to a camp at Pounawea, a marvellous tramping and bushcraft training trip onto and along the Wapati Beach [at the end of which lurks the huge Cathedral caves, and we’d not had time to get to them], and much more recently assisting with road surveying at the southern end of the area in the vicinity of Curio Bay.

Well you may think that all the above words summarise “the Catlins”, but no, in-between is a wealth of interesting areas steeped in a history rich in seafaring endeavours, waterfalls, caves, timber milling and farming. Now days tourism especially in the summer “season” is a big thing though.

This “fill in the gaps”, scoping the flora and fauna trip for me bought up a lot of feelings I found fascinating. Maybe there is little outright poverty in this area that hosts something like a hundred or two rainy days a year, but under the hood of the vibrant summer tourism season, just getting underway there was evidence of a hand-to-mouth existence not easily found where I live in Wanaka.

As the trip unfolded it was great to see few tourism operations that exhibited  a shallowness, and come across museums, cafes etc. and people that were real, what I call, Kiwi’ana.

The Cathedral Caves Walk is across Maori [Kāi Tahu descent] freehold land and is managed by a trust that charges is a small fee for the use of the car park and access to the bush track, beach and caves, during low tide only, in-between late October [spring tides may delay the opening a few weeks] and May..

Cathedral Caves Walk, Catlins, NZ

Cathedral Caves Walk, Catlins, NZ
Cathedral Caves are located in cliffs at the northern end of the Waipati Beach. Two sea-formed passages together measure just on 200 metres, with a height measuring up to 30 metres! Access is by a 1km walking track that descends through podocarp and kamahi coastal forest of the Waipati Beach Scenic Reserve. Upon reaching the beach, it’s a 10 minute walk to the Caves.

Cathedral Caves Walk, Catlins, NZ

The walk to the caves was really enjoyable, but all too soon it was time drive further south…

Stinkhorn, and flies attracted the rotten meat smell emitted from this plallus shaped fungi…
Stinkhorn fungi and flies, Catlins, Otago, NZ

Maybe not good to meet if you’re in bare feet enjoying the beach…
Crab, Catlins, Otago, NZ

I’ve never seen a spoonbill feed before and was rather amazed to observe them swinging their upper body through 180 degree while their beak is in the water – presumably it sort of sifts what passes through, or over the tongue…
Spoonbill feeding, Catlins, Otago, NZ

Red bill gulls resting…
Red bill gulls, Catlins, Otago, NZ

On the Mclean Falls track...
Podocarp Bush, Catlins, Otago, NZ

Mclean Falls…
Mcleans waterfall, Catlins, Otago, NZ

Mclean Falls again…
Mcleans waterfall, Catlins, Otago, NZ

One more article [#3 of 3] to come about this region – the images are prepared and I hope to write up 300 words + in the next week.

Read Part 1 here >>

Exploring the Catlins – New Zealanders playing as tourists – part 1

While composing the first of three posts [too many photos for one] on this southern Otago coast-line what comes to mind is shipwrecks! This, because of spending an hour or two in the museum at Owaka, and if I recall correctly there have been dozens of them [an on-line search will easily bring up the major 20 or so].

Maybe this emphasis on shipwrecks has been a marketing ploy to increase a sense of romantic associations with drama and the sea, but I note “The Catlins” were named after the whaler Captain Edward Cattlin, and that the region supported four whaling stations at one time.
Cattlin apparently purchased some land from chief Hone Tuhawaiki of the Māori Ngāi Tahu in 1840. The sale however was not endorsed by the relevant government agency/inquiry into the validity of claims land purchased by settlers from the Māori prior to 1840.
The main town relatively close to Dunedin is Owaka, which in Māori means “place of canoes”.

Never a truer word spoken – OK well, written on the well trodden path to the famous Nugget Point / Ka Tokata Lighthouse…
Catlins coastline interp board

It’s hard to get just one lone tourist, but if patient…
Nugget Point Lighthouse

Some of the rocks that are the bane of seafarers..
Nugget Point, Catlins

No place to be in the water! A gull, one of three species all endangered in NZ, makes play of the strong southerly pushing up the sea…
Nugget Point rocks and surf with a gull

Dusk and mist settle on the Catlins River estuary…
Catlins Estuary

Podocarp forest wind ravaged…
Catlins Estuary trees flagging

Sunset with sea mist…
Catlins Estuary sunset

Tides out..
Catlins Estuary sand patterns

I’ve never seen tui feeding on what lives on the seashore. It’s also one of the thinnest tui I’ve ever seen. Not sure if there is a lesson in this…
Catlins Estuary tui feeding

Wherever you wander in this area it’s wise to keep your eyes open, and when two lovers are spotted give them a wide birth of 20 meters or more. One of them is probably in pup, and at some point she’ll leave this bohemian setting and head inland into the podocarp forest to hide from the males – yes they can move surprisingly rapidly, and while there I saw one make quick work of scaling a vertical meter high bank…
Catlins Estuary sea lions

Purakaunui Falls – likes millions before us, they have to be seen. Personally they were much smaller than I was expecting…
Catlins waterfall

One more article to come about this region – the images are prepared and I hope to write up 300 words + in the next week.

See Part 2 here >>