I think every conference I attend from now on will be a bit of a let-down compared to the BirdsNZ conference this year. After a weekend of great talks, we were treated to field-trips on Monday (the joys of a long weekend!). Nat and I were with the group that visited Pomona Island, a pest-free island on Lake Manapouri.
We’d left Te Anau in the frosty pink pre-dawn light, and as we set out across the lake the sun rose enough to lance through the low clouds. Golden light set the steaming lake ablaze, the surrounding hills stark black against the light.
In 1959, there was a proposal to raise Lake Manapouri some 30m – connecting it to Lake Te Anau to provide enough hydroelectric power to run an aluminium smelter. The resulting decade-long campaign is touted as New Zealand’s first environmental movement – and it worked. While Lake Manapouri does produce hydropower, the lake levels are kept close to natural fluctuations. Looking around at the islands that dot the lake, I’m profoundly glad. Many of them would be submerged entirely, and Pomona Island – New Zealand’s largest inland island – would be much, much smaller.
We placed bets on what bird we’d see first on the island – and it was as we’d predicted, the ubiquitous fantail. But waiting to greet us on the sandy shore were prints from another island resident – the Haast Tokoeka. A small breeding population has been established on this island refuge to help bolster the numbers of this endangered kiwi.
The dense, lush beech forest on Pomona Island is overwhelming. Moss carpets the forest floor, knee-deep in places. We wound our way along trap-lines, followed by an entourage of fantails and South Island Robins. The forest was quiet and cold, the remnants of a hard frost still lingering in the air. My ears were aching with the cold – but also straining to hear a tell-tale sound that I’d only ever heard in recordings before.
And this little bird was what I was aiming for. I remember exactly the moment in my childhood when I came across an illustration of a Mōhua – Yellowhead – in a bird book. I was sitting in the kitchen, flicking through the pages, when I found a page with two birds that I thought were very interesting. One was the Whitehead – for obvious reasons! The other was the Mōhua. Since then, I’ve longed to see one, but never had the chance. And very suddenly, there was a cacophony of sound and a whole flock of these bright birds were shaking the canopy above us, hopping from branch to branch feeding.
With the flock being so high in the canopy, I didn’t walk away from that encounter with any stunning photographs. But I did have the biggest grin on my face, and I’m fairly sure it stayed there for the rest of the day. There’s something about seeing a bird for the first time that I find extremely special – it’s an experience you can only have once.
We were entertained on our morning tea break by a very confiding little Tomtit, who posed and flitted around our group. The South Island Tomtits have a much yellower breast than their North Island counterparts, so it was nice to get some good photo opportunities with one!
This isn’t a great photo of a robin, but that tiny mushroom. It’s killing me. It’s so perfect!
Here’s a better photo – check out that lichen! I had an utterly amazing time on Pomona Island, and I only wish we could have spent longer wandering through the forests. Other bird highlights included a few falcons, a flock of vocal Rifleman (which have the glorious Māori name of Tītitipounamu – a big name for New Zealand’s smallest bird!), and the biggest flock of Kererū that I’ve ever seen, flying over the summit of the island while we had lunch and waited for the boat to take us back to shore.
Big thanks to our guides for the morning, John Whitehead (no relation!) and David Fortune. John is the head of the island trust, managing the endless job of pest-control measures on the island, and has visited it over 200 times over the past 10 years. Thank you for sharing this beautiful place with us!