New Zealand, Special Edition: Top Five Favorite Encounters

It’s getting chilly here in Bellingham. The purple kale in my garden is crisp with frost every morning, and instead of eagerly greeting the promise of food, my chickens are slow to leave the coop. I’ve been extremely, and delightfully busy with work, school, the seeding of my future research, and settling into this wonderful west coast town. As such, though it’s been hard to be away from them, I have not had a chance to get out into the woods in a long time.

So that I don’t forget how good it can be, I’ve put together a list of some of the neatest things I encountered while I was living in New Zealand, and spending more time in the woods than out.

New Zealand is a biologically special place. It is brimming with ancient and endemic species – fern trees with fiddleheads the size of my fist, the stilt-legged and garishly colored Pukeko bird, bright purple pouch fungi nestled underneath black beech trees. New Zealand has no native land mammals except for bats, and as a result, the bird life has filled all kinds of ecological niches that are rarely filled by a bird. In its biological past, it used to be home to two giant avian creatures – the Moa, and the Haast Eagle – the former was hunted to extinction in the last few hundred years, an
d the latter died off when the Moa was no longer available as prey. Now, New Zealand still contains a lot of delightful variety, but much of it is in danger of extinction from introduced mammalian predators like stoats and possums. I feel very fortunate to have had the chance to encounter many of these organisms in situ.

NUMBER FIVE:

Most of my time in the New Zealand backcountry was spent in alpine area. I love mountains: love the morning alpenglow in the valleys, the cold, thin air, and the unpredictable weather. Number five on my list is one of my favorite of New Zealand’s many tenacious high alpine flora. Not only are they generally delicately beautiful, but the mountain snowberry (Gaultheria depressa var. novae-zelandiae) is both delicious and hydrating. The berries, ranging in hue from white to red, can get as big as a grape, and taste a little bit like cantaloupe.

NUMBER FOUR:

The black tunnelweb spider, Porrhothele antipodiana, was an exciting thing to stumble across while taking a hike on the South Island near Franz Josef Glacier.   I felt fortunate to have the chance to to witness a large, and fairly reclusive New Zealand critter – tunnelweb spiders typically live under rocks or logs, and, as their name implies, they build a web to catch prey – generally insects, but sometimes even snails or mice.  They have mating habits akin to the praying mantis – once the male mates with the female, he will oftentimes be consumed by her, leaving the female life expectancy at around 6 years, and the male at just past maturity.

Another unfortunate fact for the tunnelweb, male and female alike, is that they are a popular prey for the spider-eating wasp family Pompilidae.  Spider-wasps will sting and subsequently paralyze the tunnelwebs, and then drag the helpless arachnid to their lair, where they will lay a single egg in the spider’s body, and seal the entrance.  Once the egg become a larva, the body of the spider will provide sustenance, and then protection as the larva matures into an adult wasp.

My unlucky Franz Josef tunnelweb was captured in such a manner as I was watching.  Unfortunate for him, but one has to admire the strength and determination of the diminutive spider wasp:

NUMBER THREE:

I’d be betraying my primary interests – fungal taxonomy and ecology – if I did not mention New Zealand fungi.  New Zealand is home to some pretty neat mushrooms.  Some are whimisical variations of varieties from Europe or North American, and some are positively unique to New Zealand.  The most notable New Zealand fungi, in my opinion, is the pouch fungi.  The pouch fungi looks a lot like the name implies it would – it’s a little wrinkled ball, gathered at the bottom where the basal mycelium run down into the ground, with a brownish-green to brownish-red spore mass on the inside.  The outside tends to be a bright color – I commonly ran into a  bright purple variety (Thaxterogaster porphyreum), as well as sky-blue and red.  The fun thing about these bright little pouches is that, although they vary in little more than color, they come from a weight range of genera – everything from Cortiniarius, which contains a number of mid-sized gilled mushrooms, to Psilocybe, a genera of delicate, generally brown fungi, many of which can make a person hallucinate.  The explanation? Natural selection: because New Zealand has such a thriving bird population, many mushrooms found it advantageous to look like a bright berry when attempting to disperse their spores.

NUMBER TWO

Because it is New Zealand, birds are going to dominate my top two.    This next one is fairly obvious.  Its name brings to mind a fuzzy fruit, as well as a nationality (possibly in reference to a popular rugby team).  It is a cultural icon, it looks a bit like a muppet, and it is a threatened species, though conservation efforts are stepping up to pull it back from the brink.

Of course, it is the kiwi.  I worked for awhile with the Okarito Kiwi, Apteryx rowi, a species with only around 300 living members.  These endearingly awkward birds can live up to one hundred years, but their numbers are threatened, both through habitat loss, and most substantially, through predation by introduced mammals.  I worked with the local Department of Conservation on two jobs: tagging adult kiwis, and relocating kiwi chicks so that they could come of age in a predator free area.  Once adults, kiwis are fairly formidable, especially the females, which are larger than the males.  They sport a long beak and surprisingly strong legs, which they use as their primary defense.

NUMBER ONE

My most memorable wildlife encounter was not with a particularly flashy or iconic creature.   It was special for two reasons: one because it was a charming and sociable animal, and two because it is rare to the point of being endangered, and likely to become rarer still in the near future.

I was a day and a half into a hike on Arthur’s Pass, two hours west of Christchurch on the South Island.  I had just survived a major earthquake in the city center, which has drastically changed the city, and will be effecting New Zealand as a whole for many years to come.  It was a blessing to be able to clear my head in the mountains that I had come to love.  I took lunch by a stream flowing down from the Crow Glacier, and while I was eating, I was visited by a Rock Wren, Xenicus gilviventris.

The Rock Wren is a small alpine bird and the only surviving species in the genus Xenicus.  Its small wings do not allow for sustained flight; instead it hops from crack to crack on the rocks, finding edibles in the mossy crevices of the mountain.  It is truly tiny, no bigger than a winged mouse, but it is astoundingly graceful and agile, finding footholds where none seem possible on the sheerest of cliffs.  It did not seem the slightest bit perturbed by my presence; I imagine visitors to the area are infrequent at best.  I was able to spend a good two hours enjoying its company by that little brook, until the long shadows on the rocks drove me back to the mountain valley where I had set my tent.

I greatly admire the determination of the New Zealand people in their conservation and restoration efforts; their identity as a whole seems irretrievably intertwined with their wild creatures and places .  From the storm-wrought slopes of the fjords, to the lunar landscapes of their volcanic mountains, it is easy to see the source of their motivation and their pride.

November 26, 2011Permalink Leave a comment