I’m being charged by a diminutive knight across a field of grey stone, suppressing a chuckle because her gallant defiance is undermined by her comical appearance with long black lance bent sideways at the tip. Charge completed I am presented with displays of broken wings and ruffled tail feathers, but I ignore her and continue scanning the grey stones until I spot 2 stones that are oddly symmetrical of equal size.
She’s either brave or stupid putting herself between me and her nest, even when I’m just a couple of meters away.
Stepping up to her nest I marvel at how I could have trouble seeing them but having logged co-ordinates on a GPS and stepped away I struggle to find them again. Moving further away still, when I look, this female ngutu-parore (lips bent to the side) has settled back on her nest, flattened on the stones with her eyes slit, if not for her outlandish beak and black breast band she would be invisible. Had my line of travel taken me 5m to the side she would have sat tight and I would have walked on by, none the wiser.
Wry-bill (ngutu-pare or ngutu-parore) are the only bird in the world with a bill bent sideways, this allows them to exploit a food resource unavailable to any other bird: invertebrates on the underside of stones.
Their plucky defense of their nest and young may have been the best strategy in a world free of mammals but since the arrival of pakeha (Europeans) with all their associated predators that are active at night and have a keen sense of smell they’ve been dwindling. They’re down to an estimated 5 000 individuals and their breeding range is effectively down from all the eastern South Island’s braided rivers to three main rivers with just a few breeding pairs on each of the other traditional breeding rivers, except Marlborough’s Wairau River where they are no longer found.
Here on the Rangitata, recent studies suggest floods cause up to 80% of all nests to fail and predators get another 10-20%. In the late winter of 2015 a major trapping program was started, to cut down the number of exotic predators (feral cats, rats, stoats, ferrets and hedgehogs). My job is to find a portion of the nests and follow them through to when the chicks are independent. For me it’s a privilege to be involved and as far as places to work go, it’s absolutely awesome.
A little over 2hrs drive from Christchurch it’s easy to see why Peter Jackson built Edoras here.
Too bad, the set had to be removed, I understand the structures were built properly, although the stone and flagstones are fake. Edoras was built on Mt Sunday, a roche moutonnée, dwarfed by the surrounding mountains.
Even so there is a steady flow of Lord of the Rings tourist traffic, through the Ashburton Lakes to Mt Sunday to stand where Eowyn stood and slay imaginary orcs. Here’s an excerpt from one blogger’s account
“We put the GPS coordinates in and drove. And drove. And drove…..we must have been traveling no faster than 10-20 km/hr since the road was pretty awful……Not too long of a walk, but pleasant enough, we made it to the top of Mount Sunday. I put on my best Eowyn impression and Andrew pretended to be king and we reveled in our visit to the lands of Rohan, Middle Earth”
For the full post go here Concerning Kiwi, There and back again, an American’s tale
Lord of the Rings is not the first time this valley has gained attention for fiction. In 1860 Samuel Butler established the Mesopotamia Run and while he only stayed for three and a half years it became the setting for his utopian novel ‘Erewhon‘ (Nowhere -backwards). When Butler arrived, the land was mostly forested but he quickly sorted that: “I have seen no grander sight than the fire upon a country which has never before been burnt…The flames roar, and the grass crackles, and every now and then a glorious lurid flare marks the ignition of an Irishman.” Just past Mt Sunday the road ends at Erewhon Station and the magnificently named ‘Jumped Up Downs’.
Coming back to wrybill, their nests appear simple but are perhaps more complex than the other birds around (black-fronted tern, banded dotterel, South Island pied oystercatcher, pied stilt). First the male scrapes a hole in the shingle, then he fills this with stones the size of dried peas and not just any stones, he selects stones with a high silica content throwing them over his back toward the nest.
Our first job is to walk the riverbed to find nests that can be followed right through to when the chicks fly away. It’s not so easy, the river is huge (nearly 3km across) and birds on nests are hard to spot. Unguarded eggs almost impossible.
We had some help from….
Having found our nests, we then set out to get colour leg bands on at least one adult from each nest, so that we can follow the pair when their chicks hatch after a month of incubating. Each banded bird gets a numbered metal band and a unique colour combination such as left leg – red over blue , right leg – yellow over white (RB/YW). Band combo’s and metal band numbers are recorded in a national database where sightings can be sent and the banding office sends back details such as where and when the bird was banded. http://www.doc.govt.nz/our-work/bird-banding/reporting-a-bird-band/
The chicks move out of the nest within a few days of hatching, and again we have to catch them for banding when they are big enough for a metal band to stay on, by this time they are quite lively.
Wry bill use their bent bill to reach under the rounded river stones along the waters edge for nymphs and insects in a place where other birds, such as their cousins, banded-dotterels, can’t reach. But that doesn’t hold them back from running down moths or fattening up on the stone free mudflats of the far-north harbours in the winter months.
For more on the life history of ngutu parore go to this page of NZ Birds on Line:http://nzbirdsonline.org.nz/species/wrybill