Weekend trip to the Catlins
The Department of Conservation (DOC) in New Zealand is roughly equivalent to the US Fish and Wildlife Service. Government run, they do everything from protecting species, restoring habitat, research, development, monitoring, reporting, and public engagement. The regions of NZ have DOC offices.
NZ Forest and Bird is one of the largest independent conservation organizations in NZ. They do similar things as DOC but are supported by membership and donations. They have branches throughout NZ that focus on restoration and invasive species management projects. Typically, DOC and Forest and Bird work together on conservation projects, and I find that they usually come hand in hand.
This past weekend, our local DOC office in Dunedin hosted a Conservation trip to the Catilins- an area in the southeastern corner of NZ. This coastal area is sparsely populated with dense temperate rainforests and many endangered or threatened species. While we were coming with DOC, we met with Forest and Bird volunteers that organized similar trips. I am going to talk about the trip here and post more later about the areas I visited.
We left Dunedin around 5pm on Friday July 13. We met at the DOC office downtown and had a short briefing about what the weekend will entail. There were 14 volunteers going, including undergraduate students, postgraduate students (me and one other), and conservation minded individuals. Catherine and Bruce from DOC lead the trip. They are amazing- Catherine organizes volunteer trips and Bruce has been working at DOC for 30 years with focus on Yellow-eyed penguins!
We traveled in a 12 person van and a 5 person 4 wheel drive. Our first stop was Balclutha, the largest town in South Otago about 1 hour and 15 minutes south of Dunedin. We stopped for dinner. I had fish and chips, which was really good, but there was no sauce or malt vinegar, so it left something to be desired. We traveled another hour to the Tautuku Forest Cabins. Located in the Lenz Reserve, a conservation reserve owned by Forest and Bird. There was the main lodge, which sleeps 10 in two four-bunk rooms, and has a kitchen and living room. There was also the Coutts’ cabin, where I slept, which was smaller and slept four in two two-bed rooms. Finally, two other people slept in the two person A frame cottage. There were bathrooms and showers outside the main lodge. It was a very lovely place to stay and had everything we needed for the weekend. That night we had tea and biscuits, played a few card games, got to know each other, and then went to bed. I was pretty comfortable except my nose, the only thing sticking out of my sleeping bag, was chilly all night.
The next morning, we had breakfast of toast and oatmeal in the main lodge and then made our sandwiches for lunch. Catherine and Bruce did a great job with the catering. Actually, I discovered this pickle spread that was like relish, but I used it as a spread in my sandwich instead. We loaded into the vans a little after 9 am. We drove another 45 min to Te Rere Reserve. Well, we turned onto the road (going east) off the main road (going south). It took another 30 minutes more driving along the cliffs and pastures of sheep to get to the entrance to the farm land and another 15 minutes walk/trudge to get to the reserve entrance. New Zealand is actually just mud, surrounded by more mud, some plants, and mud.
There was about 40-50 volunteers ready to start planting! The leaders from Forest and Birds and the head of the reserve Brian gave us a brief history of the reserve and told us the plan for the day. Our main goal was to re-vegetate a small portion of the reserve with native plantings. We walked through an area that had been planted last year- actually, the reserve holds one mass planting every year, planting upwards of 500 native plants in new areas. When we got to our area, we were given a quick demonstration of how to plant. First you dig, then you fertilize, put the plant in and pack it down do it does not fly away, put on a weed covering at the base, stick in four bamboo stakes, place a plastic liner around them to protect the roots from rodents, and then place plastic netting on top to protect the leaves. I paired with Janine, a woman from the UK who works for the NZ History Museum as a digital (tv and movie) production manager. She was amazing, and I loved working with her. In total, we planted around 20 plants. It was tiring work, but you know the saying: many hands make light work. In this case, it was very true. We planted for about 2 hours. We used all of the supplies (and had to barter towards the end (“2 sticks for a plastic covering?!”). Our picnic lunch was accompanied by a talk about Yellow-eyed penguins in NZ and on the reserve by Bruce. After lunch we split into groups, Bruce and Catherine leading ours. We hiked to the cliff overlooking the reserve. We had to wrestle with flax and other plants along the way, and up and down some slippery hills. But the views were worth it.
We got a quick glimpse of the penguin landing area, but the penguins were still out foraging in the ocean, so we did not get to see any. I did see some poop though! Walking through the reserve was incredible, primarily because you can clearly see the benefits of replanting. Areas that used to be grazing land is now proper forest. You can see the weed covering poking through at the bottom of these huge trees. It gives a person hope.
We left the reserve around 4:30 pm and made it back to the lodge around 5:30 pm. On the way back, we stopped by an estuary that had a wooden path leading over the marshy area. It was sunset and truly beautiful. A highlight of the trip. When we got back, I changed out of the my muddy clothes. We all helped prepare dinner, cutting, chopping, peeling, you name it. Catherine and Bruce “cooked”. There was a vegetarian curry with rice, meat sauce and pasta, garlic bread, and naan. We even had apple crisp with custard for dessert. It was really good. After dinner, a local farmer stopped by to talk about bats. He discovered his passion for bats around two years ago (he is in his 70s or 80s). He talked about the monitoring that goes on. It was so cool to hear how passionate he is about these little mammals, even though you can barely see them. He took us with his bat monitoring handheld device for a little hike at dark around the Lenz Reserve, The device monitors the bats ecolocation at certain sound frequencies. It is pretty cool. We did not get to see or hear any, probably because it is too cold for them right now. We did get to see some glow worms however!
I played a round of a card game and then went off to sleep. I was much warmer this night, but I was also much sleepier which might have contributed. We had the same routine the next morning, but we cleaned the lodges for about a half hour as well. This time, we headed back up north slightly to the Otanomomo Scientific Reserve in Balclutha. This reserve is made up of a small pond and swamp with a unique podocarp forest. There are 17 different types of podocarp tree species (some species are called rimu, kahikatea, miro, mataī and tōtara). They used to make up large areas of NZ, but are now mostly remnant among farmland. We met Roy and Jim of Forest and Bird who introduced us to the reserve. It actually started behind a house, so we trudged through mud (surprise) through their backyard to this incredible forest. At first look it seems very lush and biodiverse. However, similar to most places in NZ, non-native, introduced species of plants have overtaken the native ones. This has happened with animals as well. Our goal was to remove lauryl, blackberry, elderberry, and Chilean flame creeper from a small area and plant native trees and shrubs in their place. We pulled, cut, sawed, clipped, hacked, and dragged these pest plants into huge piles. We definitely had no problem getting into it- we attacked this forest. However, the plants we put in will hopefully grow big and strong and reclaim this forest. It was really neat to see the change in the soil too. Just a few feet away from a dry area of typical soil was more clay-like mud, and then a proper swamp. After lunch (so good), we hiked through the bush and learned about the pest management and trapping that Roy and Jim were doing here. More to come about that, as there is too much to say! Dotted along the path were different types of small mammal traps that are checked monthly and reset. It was a bit gruesome, but important and vital work to protect local species, especially birds.
It was a really nice, flat walk in a dense forest. My favorite part was the fantail birds. They are so inquisitive and fly really close to you, say hi, and fly away. Some of them just hand out on a tree and watch. They are beautiful and such a cool little bird. We weeded some Chilean flame-creeper in an area to save the trees being taken over by this vine. It is EVERYWHERE. We saw a small monument in the middle of the forest to the very first shop owner of Balclutha, too.
After trudging through some more mud, we packed up and headed home, about an hours drive. It was such a great weekend, full of unexpected pleasures. Some things I did not mention:
- bought a new pair of hiking boots shipped through Amazon. To my surprise, they got here the day before the trip! Let’s just say they are no longer new. And now caked in mud.
- bough a new pair of rain pants too, through the internet. They ripped on the first day, are now in the trash, and $20 wasted. Boo.
- Little things can make a huge difference in the long run
- While there are no deadly creatures in NZ, the landscape can be pretty deadly (clumsy people like me beware)
- Everything in NZ is relatively new. From settlement by Europeans starting in the late 1800s to conservation as we know it today (starting in force around 1990)
- I need to buy a sleeping bag of my own and clearly a new pair of rain pants
I will be writing more about the reserves we went to- keep posted!
Leave it to a true penguinologist to get excited about seeing poop!!!