Beyond the Trio Islands, the full force of the nor’west gale roars down upon us. The thud as each wave smashes into the creaking wooden hull of the Kamahi soon has the children green, and those of us not used to having torrents of white water slamming into the windows more than a little nervous. Between impacts, the windows occasionally clear enough to afford a glimpse of the high grey fortress that is our destination—still distressingly distant. After what seems an age of punishment, the swell drops as we enter a cone of calm water in the lee of Stephens Island.
Captain Cook named this sheersided outpost at the western end of the strait which bears his name after Sir Phillip Stephens, Secretary of the Admiralty from 1763 to 1795, when Cook spied it on his first visit in March 1770. The high island served as a landmark on his return visits to Queen Charlotte Sound and Admiralty Bay, but he prudently gave it a wide berth on account of the strong currents nearby.
A hundred and twenty years later, Stephens Island became a landmark by night as well as day, with the installation of a lighthouse. Most of the forest was cleared at that time, but somehow remnants of the island’s unique wildlife managed to survive. Now that the light is automated and the keepers have left, the island is managed by the Department of Conservation as a wildlife sanctuary, and a worker is stationed permanently there.
It is late 1992, and I am standing unsteadily on the deck of the Kamahi, contemplating my forthcoming year’s residence as that DoC representative.
With me are 12 other passengers. A shearer and his family have come to give the island’s small flock of sheep their annual trim. The wife and children of Dave Rees, the caretaker for the previous two years, are here to help him pack up and to say their goodbyes to the place that has been their second home. Derek Brown, the island’s co-ordinator, is on hand to help Dave break me into island routines, while several scientists have availed themselves of the boat trip to study the island’s most famous residents: the tuatara.
Landing on Stephens Island has never been easy. There is no wharf, and during the lighthouse era people and stores had to be winched ashore in a metal box by derrick. Many are the tales of people being left swinging when the winch failed, taking sudden plunges toward the waves, or being dropped hard on to the boat when the winch operator misjudged the rise and fall of the vessel. One keeper insisted his family use the box, but was so afraid of it himself that he preferred to cling to the side of a net sometimes used for lifting goods. Peter Daniel, a keeper on the island in 1967-68, recalls trying to jockey the principal keeper (in terrible pain from kidney stones) and his wife on to the deck of the supply boat Enterprise in a nasty south-easterly gale. Wind spun the box violently around, and it was only landed on the bucking deck after several attempts, wiping out a stanchion in the process.
Now that the derrick has been demolished, landings are far more weather dependant. An impromptu swim is the main risk. On my trip it takes half an hour of intense concentration for the skipper to land people and gear as. Time and again, he eases the Kamahi to within centimetres of a narrow rocky ledge. One team tosses boxes and packs off the bow, while others catch and pass them up the cliff. While I help hoist a visitor aboard, the boat starts to move away and I, too, take the plunge. There is laughter all round as my hat settles on the water, only to have me resurface directlybeneath it.
I have received my baptism into the order of St Stephens.
As the supply boat heads back to Havelock, we pack all the gear up a zigzag track cut into the cliff. As we climb, rock and lichen give way to silver tussock and blue-green clumps of New Zealand linen, covered in white flowers, and I catch my first glimpses of Stephens’ extraordinary wildlife as green-and-black skinks scuttle off the path. Fifty metres above sea level, a trolley on rails takes our packs and boxes of groceries. Until 1923, a horse-driven whim was used to winch materials up to the high ground where the lighthouse and keepers’ houses are situated. One of the horses charged with this onerous task—Punch—learned to recognise the sound of the supply ship and would high tail it to the far end of the island to avoid being hitched to the capstan.
On a small flat spur we come to the “Palace,” four large water tanks and sheep yards built around what was once a laundry but now serves as a shearing shed. The Palace was built in World War II as barracks for a small garrison manning a naval radar station. These days it finds use as a store for odd bits and pieces that on the mainland would be considered worthless junk. There’s no such thing as too much rusty No. 8 wire out here. When things break, replacement parts can be months away.
Just above the Palace, a path links the winch shed with the lighthouse and the three houses. A tram once hauled supplies along here, but now a small tractor does the heavy work. Although mechanically sound, much of its bodywork has succumbed to salt, and the mudguards are now made of plywood.
While we wait for the ancient winch to haul the loaded trolley up, Dave points out local features. “That patch of bush is Rustons Bush [sharing the name of the motor that drives the winch]. It used to contain quite a bit of wandering Jew, but there’s hardly any left now. It’s best to do only one search for the weed each year, as it’s next to impossible not to collapse prion burrows when walking in the bush. Just around the corner to the south is a key location for the endemic Stephens Island ngaio weevil and for the striped geckos that are found only here and on Maud Island.”
Some gear is dropped at No. 3 House near the Palace. This most rundown of the three keepers’ houses (but enjoying the best view) has been the traditional haunt of scientists visiting the island.
The lighthouse comes into view as we traverse a wide gully that ends in the sea 180 m below. My attention is caught by a high-pitched unwavering shriek that can be heard over the tractor. It turns out to be the wind shredding itself in the cables of the NDB (Non-Directional Beacon) strung 20 metres above the ridge near the lighthouse and No. 1 House, my new home. The cables start to hum with winds of 5 knots, and gain a resonance around 50 knots that feels like a sandfly beating its wings inside your ear. But, like all background noises, it quickly recedes into the subconscious and is only noticeable on the rare occasions when there is no wind or it is unusually loud. (With the advent of satellite navigation systems, the NDB became redundant and was taken down in December 1993.)
Despite the wind racing over the ridge only a few metres away, it is surprisingly calm at the house. Fantails set up an insistent chatter overhead as the tractor is unloaded. Dave fills a small concrete bird bath with water, and the fantails continue their busy chirping while leaping and splashing in the water. Dave explains that, with no streams or pools on the island, the only accessible water for them is here and in stock troughs.
Keeping the bird bath full will soon become one of my most pleasant chores. Users are mostly fantails, silvereyes and blackbirds, and occasionally a grey warbler or a dunnock. One day a rhythmic tapping on the roof attracts my attention to a racing pigeon attempting to drink from a skylight, mistaking its shininess for water. Racing pigeons are regular visitors, staying up to several days to gather their strength for the long crossing ahead. Most head north towards Taranaki, approximately 100 kilometres distant.
After a quick brew, most of us go out to muster the sheep. With dogs prohibited, and the ground steep and hillocky, it takes two attempts to get them all in. Sheep are important to the island’s management. Grazing the land around the houses and main access route reduces the risk of fire. With no surface water, an annual rainfall of just 850 mm and frequent dry gale-force winds, fire is one of the biggest risks the island faces, particularly while much of it is dominated by scrub, fern and tussock grassland as it slowly reverts to coastal forest.
Fire aside, the removal of sheep would see the pasture turn to rank grass, potentially spoiling the main breeding sites for tuatara, which are out in the pasture. There are many thousand tuatara on the island—the largest population in the country.
As night falls, most of us head up to a rocky area called the Frog Bank. Fairy prions are flying all around, and in the many torch beams give the impression of swirling snow. Occasionally, they will follow down the beam of a torch to crash into the owner. Tonight the frogs—one of the country’s rarest native animal species, restricted to just this single patch of boulders—are staying hidden, as it is dry and windy, but after a little rain a few days later we find several, and one of the scientists shows me how to handle and measure them.
All night, there is the cacophony of prions greeting each other around and under the house, punctuated by an occasional thud as incoming and outgoing birds collide with the walls and windows. Others, drawn mothlike by the light, scrabble at the ranchsliders until, in their distress, they regurgitate krill on to the deck. A large tuatara patrols the area, picking up the lumps of krill and occasionally lunging at a bird, though adult prions are generally too alert to fall prey to tuatara.
With dawn comes blissful silence, but then Dave is tapping me on the shoulder, keen to teach me about the several weather reports that are phoned through to the MetService each day. At first frustrating and at times tedious, I eventually find weather readings useful in coping with the isolation. As each report is phoned through, there is opportunity for a little social contact, and the need to file reports punctually prevents one slipping into “island time.”
Even so, an air of languor does creep in. Weekends are no different from other days, and most tasks can be put off till tomorrow. Spreading the work over seven days helps fill the weeks between service trips—and occasional sanity leave. I have a cellphone, and can talk by radio to nine nearby DoC offices and to passing ships.
I am always in contact, but I am still alone.
My predecessor has maintained a thriving vegetable garden, with extra seedlings in the green‑house. But it seems that no matter what is done to protect the garden, sooner or later the wind gets in and shreds leaves or breaks off whole plants. Summer temperatures are low, so only cold tolerant plants grow well, yet in winter frosts are scarce and temperatures mild, so that some crops will grow all year. Bees are scarce, so fruiting vegetables often need to be hand-pollinated.
Despite the drawbacks, having fresh vegetables is a real boon, as fruit and vegetables ordered from the mainland are often wilted by the time they arrive, and if the weather doesn’t fit in with the Havelock work programme it can be up to six weeks between service trips. An apple tree and a stand of tamarillos bear well, and carrots and rhubarb feature strongly on my menu.
Dave’s main job has been the eradication of wandering Jew and mignonette vine. The former smothers seedlings and saplings, while the latter, a vigorous climber, gradually kills canopy trees and drags them to the ground. Pohutukawa is also regarded as a weed on the island. Introduced from northern climes to provide shelter, it has successfully established itself on cliff faces, and has the potential to bring about major changes in the natural forest and scrub communities that occur here, so it, too, must go.
Running a small nursery for reafforestation is to be my chief task. Before the lighthouse was built, the island was covered in low forest, except for very exposed sites and steep cliffs. Settlement brought clearance for grazing, and stock were able to roam through the remaining unfenced forest, opening it up to the effects of wind and salt and resulting in progressive loss of trees. By 1951, when the southern half of the island was fenced off, most of the forest was gone, except for Keepers, Rustons and Frog Bank Bushes. These had been fenced off by the keepers between 1895 and the early 1920s in an attempt to preserve a few fragments of original forest. Even so, few mature trees remain alive from that time, although huge kohekohe logs and rotted stumps show what the forest was once like. On the 150-hectare island, only 10 ha of mature forest now remains, though over much of the island scrub is in the process of reverting to forest.
The prime canopy species are ngaio, taupata and kohuhu, with patches of kohekohe, milk tree, mahoe, kaikomako, pigeon wood, wharangi and mapou. A few nikau and cabbage trees poke their heads above the canopy—they are among the few plants that can withstand the southerly gales and salt burn.
Nikau also form a dense under-storey, in places taking over from the usually dominant kawakawa, poroporo and ongaonga. Patches of sedge, ferns, and the native bamboo tussock occur in the lightly burrowed areas, with mats of creeping ferns such as maidenhair where the ground is too hard to burrow. Common mainland plants such as five finger, broadleaf and titoki are rare.
Over summer, seed and cuttings are collected and propagated on the island, yielding between six and seven thousand seedlings to be planted out the following winter by volunteers.
Walking through the garden shed to look at the propagation system, I’m briefly startled by squeaks and grunts coming from the ceiling. Hundreds of shiny yellow eyes peer from behind the rafters, and a few licorice-green tails hang down. Common geckos are everywhere. If Dave hadn’t worked long and hard at plugging the holes in the house, geckos would be in every cupboard and dark corner. Even so, I still find an occasional unsavoury deposit in an open packet or jar, and at midnight little feet patter on the lino.
Dave and Shona Rees were the first DoC family to live on Stephens Island. They had previously worked on Campbell Island, in the subantarctic, so were untroubled by the isolation of Stephens, but Shona returned to Nelson with their two children when Holly started school. The lack of other children on the island was the main concern.
For Holly and Ben, island life was predictably full of interest and surprises. Ben’s first word was ua-ara (tuatara), and he developed an overwhelming urge to hold one. Alison Cree, a tuatara expert, had described being bitten to the Reeses—and shown the scars—so it was decided to find Ben a small tuatara to satisfy his curiosity. Getting around to it was taking a little too long for Ben’s liking, so he took the matter into his own hands, catching a medium-sized specimen that could have inflicted a serious injury to a two-year-old.
Holly announced the capture while Shona was filling the wringer washing machine. Rushing outside to check he was all right, Shona forgot the running tap until photos had been taken and Ben had been safely separated from the tuatara. Ben was happy, but Shona had a lot of mopping up to do.
During summer the children would swim at the beach, where rocks enclosed a small pool. Inquisitive seal pups from the neighbouring breeding colonies often joined them.
When snorkelling, I was frequently buzzed by seals, sometimes being surrounded by up to 10 of them, and occasionally charged by bulls if I strayed too close to their breeding territories.
Shona passed a bit of time fossicking in the old dumps for unusual bottles. More than a few had a story to tell, such as the French champagne bottles that were embossed with the words “HANCOCKS IMPERIAL ALE.” Apparently, when there was no factory making beer bottles in New Zealand, champagne bottles were substituted. Since 1994, the older dumps have been declared archaeological sites, now that they are over 100 years old.
Lighthouse keepers were the island’s main human inhabitants for close to a century, and many who spent time there still recall the place with fond memories. Peter Daniel, who now works for DoC on Kapiti Island, was fascinated by the island and its wildlife, and taken aback by the indifference of some of his fellow keepers, one of whom never once bothered to climb the 100 metres to the top of the island.
One of the other keepers, seeing the success Daniel was having breeding bantams and laying hens, asked him to check his ducky hen that had been sitting on eggs over incredible lengths of time without ever hatching an egg. The problem proved to be not the hen but the absence of a rooster—a breeding accessory unknown to her ex-seaman owner.
Violet Campbell (nee White) started her school life on Stephens in 1921. “Nine kids and you were entitled to a teacher,” she recalled. “Ours was Miss Bollons, daughter of Captain Bollons, skipper of the Tutanekai, the ship which brought our supplies once every four months. There were no radios, and in case of trouble the men had to signal a passing ship in Morse with a signal lamp or flags.”
For toothache? “Well . . . Dad had a pair of dental forceps, we’d sit on a box, and he’d pull the tooth out. No anaesthetics—or fillings. When a woman was seven months pregnant, she’d have to stay ashore, and the other families on the station would look after the older kids.”
She knows more of Punch, the wily horse. “The keepers put a cowbell on him so that they could track him down easily, but then he learnt to stay absolutely still.”
In the early days, says Campbell, the lighthouse service smacked strongly of the navy. “All the houses had to be white outside and battleship grey inside, and periodically inspectors would visit. They wore white gloves, and if they found dust or dirt anywhere, you were given two hours to pack and get out.”
Two decades later, things had relaxed somewhat. House interiors were lightening up a bit, and so were the inspectors. Newly married Rosaline Hosking lived on the island from 1943 until 1947—a time when the normal contingent of lighthouse keepers and their families was supplemented by 38 naval personnel associated with a secret wartime station. Radio and radar had now come to Stephens, but the essentials of life hadn’t changed much.
“When we arrived in 1943, the stove—a coal range—was really old and clapped out, but there was a new one sitting in the bathroom waiting to be installed. When we left four years later it was still waiting.” Workmen were not keen to come out to the island for fear that they would be stranded by bad weather, and government departments were never renowned for their alacrity.
One February, she relates, drought reduced them to only seven gallons of water between two families, including five children. “There was no water for the cattle, who were all desperate and bellowing, and we were considering shooting them. When we contacted the Marine Department about our plight, their response was a helpful instruction to ‘take utmost care!’ Fortunately, a large thunderstorm saved us.”
One calm evening in 1944, while strolling down to the gate, Hosking noticed a strange craft in the bay below. She mentioned it to her husband, then to the watch at the radar station, who assured her there were no boats in the area. Later, she noticed two figures moving about outside, and was sure that they were not naval staff. Next morning an embarrassed young man enquired where she had seen the craft, and what it was like. It transpired that it had been a Japanese submarine that had slipped through Cook Strait, but been spotted from Cape Campbell. The airforce later destroyed it off the coast of Wairarap a.
Like others before and after her, Hosking found that the wildlife and weather became part of her life on Stephens: the prions under the house sounding like a crowd of people endlessly shouting “Shut the door!”; finding a young tuatara inside a bag of prunes in the pantry; counting 26 tuatara in her small concreted yard. “Of all our postings, it is the one I remain fondest of. On rare nights visibility was so good that we could see the headlights of cars crossing the Paekakariki Hill, but within 30 minutes it could change to a howling storm. I’ve seen sailors crawling up to the radar station to avoid being blown away. My husband used to milk the cow into a kerosene tin. Often he would return with only half a tin of milk because the wind had blown the rest out.”
Although I am in much more regular contact with the outside world than were the lighthouse keepers, I have far less personal contact than they had. Isolation is most intense in midwinter, when the Kamahi arrives, parcels and a wave are exchanged, but there is no time for a chat due to rough seas and awkward tides. Routine and the excitement of mail push melancholy thoughts from my mind, but even so, I am frustrated at not being allowed to invite people off nearby boats ashore for a cuppa and a chat.
The Pre-European history of Takapourewa (Stephens Island) is vague. The island appears never to have been permanently occupied, although it was used for fishing and harvesting seabirds (penguins and sooty shearwaters). Possession changed with the various southward migrations of North Island tribes, and the iwi which currently has manawhenua over the area—Ngati Koata—is one of the more recent to settle in the South Island.
The survey for the lighthouse was conducted in 1892, and in 1894 the government appropriated the island under the Public Works Act. Final purchase was completed in 1895, following a court hearing to determine a fair value for the land. Stephens quickly came to the attention of the scientific world because of the large numbers of tuatara, and collecting pressure was so great that, at the instigation of the lighthouse keepers, the tuatara and its eggs were protected in 1895. Unfortunately, the rest of the island’s flora and fauna was neglected.
Wild cats soon became a major worry, and the keepers were paid a bounty to shoot them, eventually succeeding in eliminating them after many years. At different times the keepers were also paid bounties for harriers and kingfishers, both of which were known to prey on tuatara. The harrier bounty must have been a lucrative sideline, with late summer tallies (when harriers travel widely through the country) reaching incredible figures. In 1917-1918, 1582 were destroyed, and in 1922, 1021. Violet Campbell recalls her father trapping harriers in rabbit traps, then washing and drying the feathers (in the oven) for her mother to use as stuffing for cushions and mattresses.
It wasn’t until 1966 that Stephens became a designated wildlife sanctuary. In 1989, the lighthouse was fully automated and the Department of Conservation appointed the first caretaker.
At the same time a claim to the Waitangi Tribunal was made for the island, culminating in a Deed of Settlement in November 1994. The deed means that the Crown now formally recognises Ngati Koata as tangata whenua, and acknowledges their mana over the island. The Crown is also bound to full consultation with the iwi over all conservation, management and access permits. The Ngati Koata have agreed to the island remaining under Crown title as a nature reserve, because they recognise its importance and see the Department of Conservation as the best organisation to oversee the island’s security and to maintain facilities.
Security is a big issue for the island. While poachers of rare species are a potential threat, a more immediate concern is the accidental introduction of rodents and weeds. Visitors and staff are required to package all incoming goods in rodent-proof containers, and only open the containers in a rodent-proof room (one in each house). Rat poison stations are distributed around the island, and a rodent contingency plan is ready for implementation at the first indication that a rat or mouse has made it ashore.
Just walking around the island can cause severe damage by collapsing burrows and crushing their occupants. In the shallow soils, it may be years before sufficient soil accumulates for a new burrow to be dug.
For these reasons, unauthorised landings are prohibited, and movement about the island is restricted. Large sections of the island are visited only rarely.
The Department of Conservation’s plans for the island include continuing the revegetation programme, transferring some threatened Stephens species to nearby islands such as the Chetwodes and returning birds such as tui, bellbird, wood pigeon, kaka and parakeets when the forest is sufficiently established to support these species.
It is one of those all too scarce brilliant summer days midway through my stay, and I decide to enjoy it. Having worked through the morning pricking seedlings into root-trainers while listening to Kim Hill (an almost constant ear on the radio keeps me better informed out here than at any time before or since), the afternoon is mine.
Wandering up the Frog Bank track, I stalk lizards with a camera. Several large speckled skinks are basking in pools of sunlight in Keepers Bush. Near Rustons Bush, where vines and grass take over, at least three other varieties of skink dart across the track. Slower movements mark the passage of the Marlborough green gecko, almost invisible against the foliage.
Lizards are a major dietary component of harriers and red-billed gulls. Huge flocks of gulls feed on krill in the waters around the island, and have established breeding colonies along the coast, as a small dive-bombing flock remind me on my way to the landing for a swim.
The water is always cold and exceptionally clear compared with the mainland, and I enjoy snorkelling here. After drying off, I try fishing. A group of seal pups find endless fascination in the heavy nylon line, spiralling around it as they follow it to the bottom. Their curiosity extends to climbing the 60-degree rock slabs to sniff the strange creature standing on the shore, before falling back into the water. I land a couple of blue cod before the next weather report summons me back up the hill.
Cod and paua are a welcome change from the mutton in my diet. The sheep culling programme means that hogget—fried, roasted, stewed, casseroled and minced into sausages—is frequently on the menu. I bake bread once a week, and often have vegetarian meals for variety. Yoghurt from powdered milk and a culture sachet is better than the bought stuff. Home brew is mainly kept for social occasions.
Spring and early summer are perhaps the most enjoyable times of year, as the island is teeming with wildlife activity from dusk to dawn, and evenings are long with the lingering twilight that turns all colours to shades of pastel, softening and highlighting the contrasts at the same time.
Picking a calm evening, I leave the house as the reflected glow of the setting sun picks out a cement carrier heading for Westport. Back east the Brothers light winks awake, and 10 minutes later the lighthouse generator clunks into life, setting the Stephens light into its own rhythm, guiding coastal shipping in and out of Cook Strait.
As the seabirds make their way home, tuatara emerge from their burrows to scrape out nests, defend territories or just sit in wait for an incautious beetle, gecko or weta. Hungrier individuals will hunt for prey, and those that are really famished will settle for what their noses can sniff out: a bit of regurgitated fish, a prion egg or a dead bird or lizard.
Stars begin to show, and fast-moving shadows flick across them. The soaring bulk of a sooty shearwater streaks across the sky, and prions weave rapid, erratic courses over the bush and along the cliffs. A morepork calls from a nearby fencepost, and the last twitters from the bush birds fade away. Down on the sea, penguins can be heard keeping in contact as they converge on the favoured landing places. Their chicks are well on the way to fledging, secreted in caves and burrows or under logs from the high tide line to the clifftops.
As the last glimmers of light in the west fade, the stream of birds becomes a torrent and their cries merge to become an all-enveloping sound. Prions scurry through the forest, some searching for their burrows after landing in the wrong spot. Others, having relieved their mate, make their way to the cliffs, pasture, clearings and tall trees that provide their launching sites. A few have blundered into wrong burrows and are now engaged in noisy disputes. Leaves, sticks and soil fly out behind their sharp-toed feet as birds escape from the light of the torch and squeeze into their burrows.
An hour or so after dark, the noise eases. Some birds remain quietly on the surface, and tuatara roam about, occasionally disturbing a prion and eliciting a noisy protest.
Tree weta are common, some out feeding on leaves, most discreetly showing just a leg, head or feeler from the cavities and crevices that seem to permeate every tree in the forest. Darkling beetles, favourite tuatara tucker, crawl on the ground dining on any carrion they find. An occasional large black hunting spider backs away from the light, its multiple eyes reflecting white and red.
Close inspection of the corky bark of the ngaio trees reveals a few Cook Strait click beetles, which lack the ability to fly and to perform the clicking defence move we expect from such beetles. Overhead, common geckos crawl over the branches looking for beetles, moths, spiders, fruit and nectar.
Another night, not calm like the last but with a nor’west gale in full force, brings the birds in early to sit out the night in relative peace under the cover of the trees. As I walk through Keepers Bush, the air is almost calm, but the rush and roar of the wind tearing at the stunted ngaio and taupata on the cliff edge sounds like an express train. Suddenly overhead a sooty shearwater tears into the wind, wings folded to a third of its usual span, only to be hurled up and away, to circle for another go. Somewhere by the cliff edge is its burrow, hidden by the gnarled forest that whips violently in the blast. Many birds crash-land in the waving tree tops, bounce down through the branches, then rush along the ground to the safety of the burrow, greeting their mate with a mournful wail.
Not all the incoming birds survive. Occasionally, one will catch a foot or its neck in a narrow forked branch and perish. As the night progresses, prions come in thicker and thicker to shelter from the storm. They litter the forest floor, some in pairs sitting quietly preening each another, some fighting, others wandering around on the bare ground. Their commotion continues at a subdued level until an hour before dawn, when the volume increases as they prepare to leave. Before the lighthouse has switched off, they will be far out to sea. Only the sooty shearwaters remain, shuffling toward their cliff-edge launching sites.
All this seabird activity is the key to the large numbers of animals on the island. The food chain starts with these birds and the scavengers which clean up guano, dropped krill and dead birds. Scavengers in turn provide the main food source for tuatara and skinks. All the extra nutrient from the sea boosts soil fertility and plant growth, with benefits for vegetarian insects and birds, feeding back again to the lizards, tuatara and insectivorous birds.
The influence of the seabirds goes even further. Their constant burrowing limits the vegetation in some areas to grass and muttonbird groundsel. It also loosens the grip of tree roots, so that many trees are in a constant state of falling. Some have gradually lain down, only to have their branches become the trunks of new trees. On the positive side, burrowing buries surface litter and mixes soil layers to create a deep, peaty soil.
It is winter, and the alarm has just gone off. Time for the first weather report. I lie there for a minute, listening to branches thrashing together and the wind shrieking in the NDB wires. Rain and mist swirl past the window in the brief flash of the lighthouse beam.
Better go. No point wearing long trousers or gumboots, as they’ll only get soaked, and it’s not cold with the northerly storm. Parka done up tight, torch strapped on my head, pencil and a scrap of paper in one hand, open the door, whoosh . . . papers and rain hurtle across the room. A couple of tuatara move sluggishly off the path, and something gleams white by the hedge: a diving petrel, its neck and one wing broken. The good wing waves at the sky in the wind gusts. Out in the paddock I dig my toes into the soggy ground and stand hunched over to avoid the stinging rain while the wind tries to push me back towards the house.
Positioned near the lighthouse, the meteorological instruments are exposed to the wind’s full force. I take the readings, then find a well of relative calm by the generator shed to jot them down. Back inside the house, a candle provides a warm glow that reflects off the ranchsliders as they flex in the wind. The weather is quickly coded and phoned in to MetService. Barometric pressure is still dropping, so it looks like a day to write letters and take cuttings for the nursery.
Much later the rain eases, and I check how repairs to the landing road are holding up. The south paddock gate has blown off, but this time the sheep haven’t yet found the hole.
Taking a shortcut, I follow a stream flowing from the Palace to the landing. It is the first flowing water on the island in eight months, and at the landing it is a torrent. A big short swell is racing past the end of the Razorback, and sudden gusts whip up sheets of water.
Late in the afternoon, the rain stops entirely and the wind drops back to a sedate 30 knots. It should be a good night for frogging: warm, damp and the Frog Bank in the lee.
The rain may have ceased, but the cloud base is still well below the lighthouse as evening approaches. Technology saves me from having to plod out into the mud to start the generator; I just press a button by the door, and fridge, freezer and electric lights surge into life. Everything is damp after a day of 100 per cent humidity, so an electric heater is an added bonus to rest soggy feet on while eating tea in front of the 6 o’clock news.
Then, bundled up against the weather, with two torches and spare batteries, I head up through Keepers Bush along the island’s spine to the Frog Bank. Mist shrouds everything, including the usual glow from the lighthouse. A few prions rocket past.
Stepping over a tuatara-proof fence, I start my search, crawling along shaky boardwalks while scanning the dense cover of vines that now smother what for over 30 years was a bare pile of rocks. The object of my search is Hamilton’s frog,
a small, silent golden frog known only from this 600-squaremetre patch of scree near the island’s summit. Similar frogs on Maud Island in Pelorus Sound are now known to be a distinct species.
In evolutionary terms, Hamilton’s frog is a bit of an oddball. It lacks eardrums, so cannot hear, and without hearing a voice isn’t much use, so it doesn’t croak either. The frogs can breed without water, and have very little webbing between their toes.
Eggs are laid in moist nests, deep in the rocks where temperatures and humidity are almost constant. An adult male stays with the eggs and hatchlings until they are ready to leave the nest. Contrary to popular belief, hatchlings are not fully formed frogs, but intermediate between tadpoles and frogs.
Dead leaves glisten with water. One has a frog shape, and with some careful positioning and a gentle prod it leaps into a specimen jar. There’s another. I note their locations and go to the shack to record their length, weight and position in the vines. A further three frogs makes a good tally for the night.
Back in rustons Bush I check for Stephens Island weevils, large flightless insects which are closely related to two species found on the Three Kings Islands and on islands in Breaksea Sound. Even on this rat-free island they are rare, congregating on just a few selected trees.
Across in Keepers Bush the fog sifts through the trees, and a number of weta hang from twigs and leaves in mid-moult. High humidity and still air are favoured moulting conditions for these insects. While they wait for their new skins to harden, they devour the old ones.
Back at the house, the resident tuatara is patrolling the ranchsliders for moths as the generators hum in the distance. After pressing the stop button, there’s just enough time to climb into bed as the lights dim from yellow to orange.
Then Murphy’s Law strikes: the lights come back on unbidden. So it’s out of bed and down to the generator shed. The cable from solenoid to fuel stop has snapped after months of heat and vibration.
Getting back into bed by torch light feels colder, but at least I know my first job for the morning.