Wild Wellington-encounters with capital creatures
At the shallow end of Willis Street a pod of painted dolphins cavorts among the citizens. “There’s more to life than shopping,” they might be saying.
A 500-pound nautilus and all manner of outsize kai moans drift weightlessly above the sandwiches of office workers relaxing in Lambton Quay. Gangs of cold-eyed, red-billed gulls loiter here with intent, ready to take advantage of any sandwich-bearer momentarily disorientated by the conjunction of illusion and reality.
Meanwhile hoiho, kakapo, takahe and kiwi stand huddled together on the west side of Tinakori Road, endlessly waiting for a gap in the traffic.
There’s something poignant about the trompe-Poeil wildlife that decorates the Forest and Bird building. These animals would hardly be more out of place on the moon, and yet 200 years ago, most of them lived in this place we now call Wellington.
Despite the steady advance of brick and asphalt, there is still a wild side to the Capital. Take the Wellington tree weta, for example—an inexplicable omission from the municipal tableaux. All right, so the idea of a herd of gigantic technicolour weta yomping along Courtenay Place might not win universal approval, but the insects do have an enthusiastic following in this town.
Travis Tischler, a schoolboy naturalist living on Mount Victoria, eschewed the usual boring white mice in favour of keeping tree weta. But his animals weren’t just pets; they became participants in a study of weta feeding preferences which was a prize-winner for Travis at the Wellington Science Fair. Significantly, Travis found that his charges would eat a variety of non-native plant material, and that they preferred apple to just about anything else. Such catholic culinary tastes prove that weta possess the kind of adaptability necessary for survival in the urban environment—which is why they are still here.
Unfortunately, Travis never quite solved the problem of weta containment, and escapees kept turning up in his older sister’s bedroom, their grotesque lollopings causing considerable offence. Reluctantly. Travis agreed to donate the collection to the nation, and now they reside at the Weta House in Wellington Zoo.
Ron Ordish, curator of insects at the Wellington Museum, may have the perfect solution for the would-be weta watcher. He has a dozen or so weta boxes hanging in strategic positions around his garden in leafy Vogeltown. They look a bit like those old wooden swing-lid pencil cases we used to have at school, and wild tree weta apparently find them highly desirable residences.
We choose one to photograph. It hangs from a low branch, and I crouch beneath it, ready for a shot of the creatures emerging when Ron opens it up. As soon as he touches the lid, a large male weta appears at the opening and instantly launches itself in my direction. A surprisingly weighty item, it plops on to my shirt before springing away on to the lawn. I roll clear as more of his family jump from the exit hole.
Ron begins rounding them up, poking them back in the box one by one, but the weta, chuntering furiously, keep escaping. Juggling one of the females, he makes an ill-timed lunge at the impressively equipped alpha male on the lawn . . . and shouts in pain as it sinks its great jaws into the ball of a finger.
“This isn’t working for me, Ron. Can we try something else?” I suggest. Ron, blood dripping from his wound, is unresponsive, but then, with an air of resolution, disappears into the house. Moments later he emerges clutching a hammer and a packet of panel pins. I begin to wonder what he has in mind, and whether I’ll be able to square it with the ethics committee of the Society of Wildlife Photographers. But he has also brought out a small bunch of grapes.
“They love grapes,” he tells me, nailing a grape to a branch. Sure enough, as he carries the kicking and biting male to within range of the crucified fruit, a remarkable mood change seems to occur, and soon grape juice is dripping from the mandibles which had so recently been embedded in Ron’s flesh.
The weta population in Ron’s garden has been the focus of his research into the way these insects communicate with one another using sound. Over tea and biscuits, he plays me some of the recordings of weta calls he has collected over the years.
Wellingtonians are probably most familiar with the territorial calls. In the leafier suburbs you can listen to a chorus of these calls on just about any summer evening from about mid-October on—particularly if there is a light rain.
As readers of New Zealand Geographic will know, weta territorial calls are made by the insect rubbing its legs against its abdomen (see issue 21). Each stroke produces a rough scraping sound—a sort of ziqq noise. Each weta puts together a short burst of these ziqqs in a different way, varying the interval between them to create a song with a unique pattern of sounds. Any listening female weta will glean vital information about the size and age of the caller, and about the kind of territory he has to offer her. A highly desirable hole, for instance, will have different resonating properties from one which is cramped, damp and badly located.
For the male weta, hanging on to a good hole once you have found it seems to be what life is all about, and the other most frequently heard weta call is what Ron terms the eviction call: a staccato burst of ziqqs. This call is produced when a male weta is forced to defend his hole against an intruder. It is most often heard at about three o’clock in the morning, when the alpha male weta. on returning home after spending the night out feeding, finds that his hole has been entered—and, as like as not, his females interfered with—by some young upstart. Young contenders are often found near the entrances of desirable holes, just waiting for an opportunity to slip in on the sly.
Ron tells me that a good way to start a weta collection is to try and home in on the eviction call before the evictee has been ejected from the disputed hole. This might be worth bearing in mind next time you find yourself groping about in the shrubbery at three o’clock in the morning, really desperate for company.
The lookout at the top of Orangi Kaupapa Road provides one of the best harbour views in Harbour View City, and local botanist Geoff Park and I compare the prospect with a watercolour Charles Decimus Barraud painted in 1858, reprinted in Shepherd and Cook’s book The Botanic Gardens, Wellington. In it, cattle graze the grassy slopes overlooking the harbour, where you can just make out a single sail on the water—the Tory, perhaps? There’s not a building in sight, but already the bush appears to have been cleared right down to the water’s edge—except for a wooded gully running through the centre of the picture.
A hundred and fifty years later, this gully—The Glen, as it is has become known—is still with us: the last remnant of the coastal forest that once covered the city area, preserved almost intact within the Botanical Gardens. We pass a group of ancient mamaku surrounding a forest pool. Some of them are more than ten metres tall, which makes them old enough to have been growing here before the Tory sailed into Port Nicholson with the first Euro-pean settlers in 1839.
The Glen’s wildwood is still renewing itself. In the grey-green shade of the forest floor there are native orchids, and the seedlings of tawa, nikau and miro are pushing their way up through the leaf litter. Even so, there have been changes here. Rats, possums and hedgehogs have arrived, for example, while many of the native animals have disappeared.
David Bellamy described a visit he made to The Glen about 20 years ago. He was sitting on an old stump, absorbing the primeval tang of the place, when the stump collapsed under his weight. A number of dark velvet-skinned caterpillar-like creatures emerged from the debris:
Peripatus—a creature which has been around for 550 million years, making it one of the oldest residents of the wildwoods. These living fossils ensnare spiders and other small invertebrates in a web of sticky mucus which shoots from a pair of openings near the mouth. Once the victim is immobilised, peripatus punctures the body wall with its jaws so that digestive juices can be pumped in, rapidly turning the insides to soup.
But the spiders in the Botanical Gardens need no longer fear this sort of treatment, and David Bellamy may well have seen the last peripatus here. Geoff and I find no trace of them.
Geoff has an intriguing explanation for the disappearance of peripatus from The Glen and from other former sites around Wellington. They seemed to be doing all right until the mid-1960s or early ’70s, when a number of people discovered that good money could be made from exporting them. According to Geoff, some zoology undergraduates were driving around Wellington in flash American cars acquired with the proceeds of their peripatus dealings.
As a keen young naturalist living in England at the time, I well remember contemplating the purchase of New Zealand peripatus which were advertised for sale in the livestock columns of the British weekly Exchange and Mart. Foolishly, I opted for a pair of unquenchably hostile Korean ground squirrels, but at least I haven’t got the disappearance of The Glen’s peripatus population on my conscience.
I am happy to say that I eventually did find some peripatus still living in Wellington, although I was looking for something else at the time. I was in Khandallah Domain (one of several large fragments of Wellington’s ancient wildwood surviving in the suburbs) searching for a spectacular carnivore. The tiger of Wellington’s Little India is not a big cat but a snail called Rhytida, studied by biologist Murray Efford.
Murray had shown me a remarkable videotape of Rhytida in action. I had previously seen footage of its better known cousin, the giant carnivore Powelliphanta, slowly consuming an earthworm, and although this has a certain undeniable fascination, the dramatic potential is undermined by the slowness of the action. But in Murray’s video, Rhytida was something else. It actually seemed to pounce on its victim, a fast-moving springtail, behaving much more like a tiger than a humble mollusc.
Deep in the forest, well away from any footpath to avoid potentially embarrassing encounters, I find there is something strangely satisfying about turning over logs and burrowing deep into the leaf litter. Peter Gabriel’s song “Digging in the Dirt” keeps going round and round in my head; the song has an accompanying video featuring European garden snails (which are strictly vegetarian), zooming about all over the supine singer’s face. As I probe the entrails of a fallen forest giant, some spongy timber falls away exposing . . . not Rhytida but a colony of peripatus, including some of the fattest specimens I’ve ever seen.
My next find is a bit of a surprise, too: Powelliphanta, no less, and quite a big one at that. I didn’t think there were supposed to be any here. Later Murray says he suspects that some molluscophile has brought some back from North-West Nelson and released them here. I find several more, including some empty shells with holes in them. Possums? Rats?
I’ve been ferreting about for more than two hours, and I’m beginning to give up on Rhytida when I find an empty shell hidden away amongst the silky black hair at the base of a fallen mamaku frond. There are also four aspirin-sized eggs which I place in a sandwich box on a bed of leaf mould. For the next half an hour I examine fallen fern fronds, but without further success. (I’m still waiting for the eggs to hatch.)
There’s a Knob of reclaimed land about the size of a rugby field between the Cook Strait ferry carpark and a concrete pipe which unceremoniously voids the Tinakori stream into Wellington harbour. It’s the sort of place that urban ecologist Bob Brockie would naturally suggest as a rendezvous. Great blocks of discarded masonry project from the undergrowth. Wattle, elder and half a dozen other opportunist plants from around the globe are doing what they can to soften the jagged landscape, and there’s a brackish pool concealed amongst bullrushes where half a dozen semi-transparent prawns manoeuvre around a torn pink rubber glove. A small flock of silver-eyes jink through the bushes, and baby rabbits seem to be bounding away from us at every turn. We stop to watch a yellow admiral unfurl its proboscis and probe the tranquillising nectaries of a valerian plant.
In this small patch of post-modern wilderness there is an experimental feeling about the curiously blended community of cosmopolitan and native plant and animal species. You could almost say that the New Zealand landscape is re-inventing itself here.
Similar experiments are taking place on patches of waste ground, embankments, and roadside verges all over Wellington. The steep banks opposite Greta Point on Evans Bay Parade and the seaward-facing cliffs between Moa Point and Breaker Bay in particular are a botanical cornucopia. A rich blend of plants from Africa, Australia, Europe, the Mediterranean and New Zealand contribute to a spectacular flowering in the spring and early summer. Elsewhere in the city, one or two plant species often seem to predominate. Across the motorway for example, swathes of valerian be-crimson embankments, and in the distance a galaxy of purple and white daisies glister from the ungardens of Wadestown. The white ones are marguerites, garden escapees which have been around forever, but the purple ones are holly-leaved daisies, newcomers from South Africa which only started to make inroads into marguerite territory during the 1960s.
On any piece of newly deconstructed turf, globetrotting plants often seem to get the upper hand in the early stages of the colonisation, but as the plant community matures there are signs that the natives can reassert themselves. Take what’s happening to the hundreds of hectares of gorse—an unwelcome part of this city’s pastoral heritage. For decades it covered many of the hillsides and gullies in and around Wellington, but now it’s steadily being replaced by mahoe, karaka and ngaio.
According to Bob Brockie, the Mahoe Revolution along the Hutt Valley was held up by New Zealand Rail. He says that the old steam engines which ran along the Hutt Valley railway sparked many a scrub fire—very bad for the natives, but not for the gorse, which germinates best in its own ashes. Once the line was electrified in the 1940s, however, there were fewer fires and the gorse canopy was able to reach maturity. Tall gorse provides an ideal microclimate for the growth of native seedlings, which quickly germinate in its nitrogen-rich leaf litter. Native seed is air‑and it would be wonderful to imagine that in a couple of hundred years from now, forest like this might be maturing all over Wellington.
As we drive back into town. I notice Bob keeps a notebook in his glovebox for recording roadkill, with columns for date, species and exact location of the remains. Two of the more intriguing records include a little blue penguin embossed on to the Hutt Valley Motorway and a party of eels whose migration plans were scotched on State Highway One, just north of Tokoroa.
Bob’s casualty figures reveal that there are accident blackspots for possums and hedgehogs, just as there are for human beings, although they are in different places.
A hedgehog walkway (sensibly enough for a creature short-changed in the leg department) tends to follow the line of least resistance—the bottom of a gully or a valley for instance—and flattened ‘hogs are most often found where the gully or valley funnels out across a road. Possum casualties, on the other hand, are often highest near bridges which the animals are using to cross a river.
Back in the city, we find a park in Molesworth Street and spend a few minutes watching the sparrows on the lawns of the old parliament building. These birds, which have been sharing our shelters since we were all living in caves, are so familiar that they’ve grown almost invisible to most of us . . . but not to Bob. For him, the soap-opera of the sparrows taking place here is far more exciting than the possibility of catching a glimpse of an overweight politician tottering back to the Beehive with a lukewarm pasty.
He takes an old bus ticket from his pocket and throws it on the grass near a noisy group of mostly male sparrows. One of them seizes it and starts dancing around and around, the ticket trailing from his beak. He’s using it as a prop to entice a female. Bob describes coming here on some mornings during the spring and finding that the Norfolk pine which the sparrows seem to favour as a communal nest site looks like a Christmas tree, with dozens of bits of cellophane and silver paper hanging in the branches. The male sparrow works hard at attracting a mate, and uses these decorations to advertise the site where he intends to build a nest. Long before spring—while it’s still far too early in the year for any hen to have warmed up to the idea—he will have spent many weeks endlessly repeating the mating call—chizzuck . . . chizzuck . . . chizzuck—puffing out his chest to display his black badge to maximum effect. (Hens go for the biggest badge, apparently.)
That evening, on a tip-off from Bob, I visit a location in Rongotai, preparing to witness one of Wellington’s wildlife spectaculars.
The area between Marton and Wellington is, according to Bob’s road casualty statistics, the world epicentre of hedgehog population density, and there is a back garden in Kekerenga Street where you are likely to see more wild hedgehogs gathered together at one time than anywhere else in the universe.
A flimsy parka several sizes too small is inadequate protection against the icy sou’wester as I lie stretched out on the lawn in Maxine Harris’s back yard. About an hour after sunset, the first hedgehog trundles out of the gloom towards the food scraps Maxine has scattered all around me. If I keep very still he doesn’t seem at all concerned, even when I fire my flashgun.
What I’m really hoping for is an opportunity to include more hedgehogs in a single photograph than have ever been seen before, but our first customer soon bumbles unhelpfully off before any others arrive.
Nothing else happens for ages, and even Maxine is beginning to seem concerned. “Perhaps the wind’s putting them off,” I suggest. “Well, it has been a bad year for them,” says Maxine. Bad year? I should think every year is a bad year for hedgehogs, considering the thousands which are squashed on the roads, but then I remember Bob saying that road kills have little or no effect on the hedgehog population. Incredible, really . . .
But then there’s a flurry of activity. In ones and twos the rush begins, until there are seven hedgehogs in front of me, and Maxine has been back to the house for more bread and bacon bits. We’re on a roll now, I think, detecting another small dark shape about to summon the courage to move out of the shadows. “Here comes number eight,” I whisper. “Oh, it’s not a hedgehog … it’s a—”
“Rat,” says Maxine. The numbers dwindle away again after that.
Later, Maxine shows me some of her photograph albums—devoted entirely to hedgehogs. In one picture at least 18 pairs of eyes shine back at me in the flashlight. Some sort of record, I’d imagine.
I am standing at the end of Petone wharf watching a gannet plunge into the harbour. Climbing to the top of its thermal rollercoaster, it hovers briefly while it gets a bead on the shoal a hundred feet below, then falls like a spear amongst the glittering horde. Using a different technique, a small flock of shearwaters flutter close to the water surface. If they were closer, I might also be able to watch them flying underwater in pursuit of the shoal—more like guided missiles than the dive-bombing gannet.
Once in a while an Antarctic skua will blow into the harbour, fresh from pecking the eyes out of baby seals or murdering penguin chicks out in the Antarctic Ocean. These thickset birds in their dirty brown plumage make for dramatic birdwatching as they go about their nefarious business. Aggravated robbery in mid-air is a speciality, the victims usually smaller birds like the slightly built white-fronted terns, which are easily bullied into dropping their catch.
There aren’t as many skua visiting the harbour now as formerly, and sightings of another spectacular blue-water species. the magnificent wandering albatross, have also declined in recent years.
At one time Wellington ornithologists thought that the sporadic appearances of these birds might be linked to the prevailing wind direction. After collecting a lot of data, a pattern of sorts did emerge: there were more skua and wandering albatross in the harbour on Thursdays, regardless of the wind direction.
Thursday. it turned out, was the day when the Ngauranga freezing works discharged most of its offal. Now the works has closed, and today’s much stricter controls governing water quality mean there are far fewer juicy bits from any source floating about in Wellington harbour.
The little MAF launch Matiu is steaming towards the wharf. I shoulder my pack, ready to board for Somes Island.
When Kupe discovered Te Whanganui a Tara (the great harbour of Tara) in the 10th century, he named the larger of its two islands Matiu and the smaller one Makaro after two of his relatives. One likes to imagine that the size and/or shape of the islands bore some relation to the physical qualities of these individuals. More boringly, the New Zealand Company re-dubbed the big one Somes after the deputy governor of the colony, and the little one Ward after . . . somebody called Ward.
Somes was used as a quarantine station for the first time in 1872 when the immigrant ship England entered the harbour flying the yellow smallpox flag. Thereafter, if cholera or smallpox or any other disease reared its ugly head en voyage for Wellington, the entire ship’s company was billeted on Somes until the symptoms disappeared.
Hundreds of perfectly healthy New Zealanders were also banged up on Somes during both the world wars, when the island became an internment camp for people whose ancestry supposedly made them a security risk. In the second world war these included about 300 Belgians, Finns and Tongans. I imagine that the Texel sheep, Zimbabwe goats and assorted Chilean llamas and alpacas that are quarantined here nowadays lead far more contented lives than some of the previous human occupants.
As we approach the northern point of Somes, we skirt Mokopuna, a tiny satellite island which in 1904 became home to an unfortunate Chinese greengrocer, Kim Lee, who was suspected of having leprosy. He lived in a little shack on this barren lump of rock, his food and water sent across by flying fox, but he survived for less than three months. Mokopuna is now also prosaically known as Leper Island.
Somes is still a kind of Noah’s ark for some of Wellington’s original wildlife, particularly seabirds. The species continue to pair off here long after other breeding grounds have been swallowed up by harbourside developments.
Two to three hundred pairs of little blue penguins come ashore to breed on Somes every year, as compared to only 14 pairs at Eastbourne last year, where dogs, traffic and small boys with a penchant for smoking them out of their burrows are among the hazards the birds have to overcome.
There’s a minibus waiting at the wharf to take us the 500 metres or so up the hill to where the pens and outbuildings of the Maximum Quarantine Station occupy the central part of the island. Three or four comfortable-looking ministry bungalows stand on quarter-acre sections over-looking the sea on Somes’s steeply sloping north-west flank.
The driver of the minibus drops me at the end of the row, the home of the supervising livestock officer Rod Sutherland and his wife Ruth, who had kindly offered to put me up for the night.
Keen joggers, the Sutherlands run the clifftop path that encircles the island twice a day, each circuit taking them about eight minutes. From December to early February they wear knitting needles stuck in their running caps with a strand of wool flying out behind. They claim it’s an effective deterrent against the strafing attacks of black-backed gulls nesting along the track. In the late afternoon, as I walk the same route with no such protection, I am constantly buzzed.
By now, the sun is dipping well down towards Mt Kaukau on the mainland, but a number of quite large skinks are still out soaking up the last of its rays, reluctant to leave their sundecks in the open spaces between the low coastal shrubbery even when I bend close to attempt identification.
Somes’s value as a sanctuary received a tremendous boost in 1988 when ship rats were eradicated from the island. Now the common, the green-spotted and the copper skink, together with the common grey gecko, no longer wake up to the nightmare of missing body parts. (In cold weather, many reptiles become torpid as a way of conserving energy. Rats, exploiting their warm-blooded advantage, often nibble away at reptilian extremities with out even disturbing their owners.)
The tuatara, a Somes resident until as late as 1870, may well have suffered this fate, but it was probably the rats’ decimation of the is island’s native insect population which finally made the tuatara’s existence untenable. Now that the rats have gone, the reptile population of Somes is recovering, and there is even a move afoot to reintroduce tuatara.
The primeval forest which must once have covered Somes disappeared long before the Europeans arrived. Early sketches and photographs show only flax, cabbage trees and a few shrubs, but for more than a decade volunteers from the Lower Hutt Branch of the Royal Forest and Bird Society have been coming to replant the island. At first they planted whatever they could get hold of, but now the nursery they have established on the island contains only native species from Somes itself, or from other parts of Wellington Harbour. The revegetation of the southern, western and inland slopes of the island is well in hand, and the soil is now enriched with the ashes of several volunteers scattered here because they fell in love with the place and ultimately couldn’t bear to leave it.
I’m up early next morning to catch the low tide, which should make it easier to get across to the spotted shag colony on the stack known as Shag Rock. Getting down to the little pebble beach at the northern end of Lighthouse Bay is an undignified scramble during which I am cursed on all sides by gulls whose nests I only narrowly avoid putting my boot into.
From the bottom of the cliff I can see that even at low tide Shag Rock isn’t too accessible. A deep channel separates it from the beach, and I conclude that serious wading is in order. A pair of variable oystercatchers watch with ill-concealed disgust as I strip everything off and, carrying only a camera, plunge in up to my chest. I wonder how long I’ve got before Rod and Ruth will be jogging by along the clifftop path.
Shellfish lacerate my feet as I begin my nude ascent of Shag Rock. Shimmying up the smooth outer face, there is an oppressive odour of regurgitated sea-food. At the top of the ridge I peer over the seaward edge. A dozen or so nests are visible from here, the closest only metres away. An adult and chick sit bolt upright on a rough and crustily bespattered platform of dried seaweed interwoven with a strip of blue plastic ribbon. Spotted shags—their soft brown plumage most delicately spangled, and the emerald-green eyes offset by a patch of turquoise skin—are a very attractive seabird at close range, in spite of the powerful smell. Altogether. there are about 200 of them on different rock stacks around the island. Somes is the only place in Wellington Harbour where they still breed. The adult flashes its emeralds at me and, sensing a growing tension between us, I retreat.
As I pick my way gingerly around the base of another outcrop, past putrid grottos containing pen‑guin chicks, a baby starling launches itself from somewhere higher up, whirring down over my shoulder into the sea, flopping about dispiritedly until I am able to wade in and fish it out. In the wintertime the roosting gulls on Somes are joined by hundreds of city starlings. You can see little parties of 10 or 20 birds heading out over the water in the late afternoon. On reaching the island, the starlings form up into fantastic ballooning flocks containing hundreds or even thousands of birds which settle into the shrubbery for the night.
The terrain becomes increasingly difficult, and I am forced to abandon my circumnavigation of the coastline. I return to Cable Bay for my clothes, then scramble up the cliff to the road.
I am working my way southwards along the eastern coastline when an oystercatcher’s piping alarm call draws my attention to the odd behaviour of three figures on a shingle spit up ahead of me. One of them is wedging a stick into the shingle to prop up one side of what looks like a milk crate. The prop has a string attached, which runs to his companions crouched behind nearby rocks.
The oystercatchers have quietened down a little. I can see them now—a pair, presumably. In a series of short, darting flights and little runs they sally back and forth across the rocks and shingle at the water’s edge. There’s a lot of agitated head-bobbing as they edge closer and closer to the object. Finally, one of them, in a last decisive spurt, rushes the milk crate, ducking under and settling itself down on what I now understand must be the nest. There’s a subdued thud as the string-puller springs the trap, and then all three watchers move swiftly forward to examine their catch.
When I reach them. Dr Alan Baker, a New Zealand scientist working for the Royal Ontario Museum, is holding the bird while one of his assistants withdraws a few millilitres of blood from its leg using a syringe. Baker explains that he is using the nesting season to take blood samples from as many of the 200 variable oystercatchers on the island as he can. The genetic fingerprints from these samples are part of a study to help determine relationships between the variable oystercatcher and the barely distinguishable South Island pied oystercatcher.
Somes Island appears to be aflutter with professional ornithologists on this particular day. On my way back up to the quarantine station, I run into one of the Department of Conservation’s bird men, Rod Cossee. Dressed in full jungle camouflage as if for a guerrilla war, he is taking a break from banding black-backed gull chicks.
About 300 of the Somes chicks get banded every year, to keep track of the movements and distribution of the population. It’s been increasing steadily over the last couple of decades, but nobody seems very pleased. The Civil Aviation Authority considers black-backs to be a serious hazard to low-flying aircraft, while the fact that their main feeding grounds happen to be the city’s rubbish dumps is of concern to health officials. The big birds even lack friends in the conservation movement, as they are major predators of the chicks and eggs of other species, including many waders. Recently, for example, they have been implicated in the disappearance of the breeding colony of white-fronted terns from Scorching Bay.
Rod Cossee estimates that there are about 2000 breeding pairs of black-backed gulls on Somes at the moment. I arrange to join him for the rest of the afternoon. Before setting off, he jams on a floppy hat—heavily be-shitten, I note.
We are putting leg rings on the gull chicks—or rather, Rod is, while I guard his back. Ringing the chicks is a procedure which the parents bitterly resent. As we crouch over the nest, Rob with chick in hand, deftly wielding the ornithological pliers, the birds swoop down at us from a great height. There’s a rush of air as an attacking gull makes a low pass, the tip of its powerful bill only centimetres away from driving a furrow through my scalp. It lets out a bloodcurdling scream of hatred just as it draws level with my ear, and I have the feeling that it could probably rip the thing right off. Then a shadow passes overhead as the bird circles back, and suddenly the air is full of flying excrement. Hair-washing will definitely be on the agenda tonight.
Did you Know that Wellington is the only capital in the mid where you can observe penguins in the wild?” The pamphlet which makes this enquiry is entitled “Penguin Spotting in Wellington” and appears on selected backpackers’ notice boards around the city. It’s hard to believe that, in a manner of speaking, Wellington really is the penguin capital of the world, especially as very few of the residents (let alone the city’s visitors) have ever seen a penguin—apart from the blue fluorescent ones which appear on road signs all along Breaker Bay.
Many of the residents of Breaker Bay itself however, like their counterparts over in Eastbourne, are more fortunate. They quite often see penguins, and some of them even have them nesting under their houses. This can be a bit of a mixed blessing, depending on how you feel about being woken up in the small hours by a lot of chesty braying and honking, as the penguins brooding under the floorboards have a shift change.
Then, later in the year, after the eggs have hatched, there’s the malodorous stench when they’re feeding their chicks.
Nevertheless, the residents of Breaker Bay want to keep their penguins, and they themselves, rather than DOC or the City Council, have paid for and erected the bilingual penguin road signs.
If anyone in Breaker Bay comes across a sick or injured penguin, they usually bring it along to Ray Mercer to look after. Dogs are the main problem, he says, particularly strays. When I call on him, Ray shows me the latest victim—in a bread bag which he takes from the freezer—his best efforts to nurse it back to health having been unsuccessful on this occasion.
Soon Ray will climb the steep bank at the back of the house, and in a shallow grave facing the sea the torn little body will join the growing band of penguins for whom life in the suburbs was too brutal.
An hour or so after dark, I join David, Michael and Elizabeth Bell on the beach at Churchill Park in Seatoun.
Out of the gloom, a slim dark shape coasts in on a wave, and a penguin is pitched out into the retreating foam. It stands awkwardly, dazzled by the convergent beams of our headlamps.
The young Bells are a swift and skilful team. David scoops up the bird, restraining it while his older brother delicately attaches a metallic strip to its wing and Elizabeth makes a note of its new identity. Then it waddles off up the beach and disappears amongst the cobbles of the municipal breakwater. We hear a muffled honking as it greets its mate in the nest chamber below.
Another eight or nine penguins come ashore over the next hour-anda-half. Most already have the wing bands which indicate previous encounters with the Bell team. The Bells are out at least once a week during the breeding season, and have been doing this for the last two seasons in the hope that eventually they will have enough information to draw some conclusions about the suburban penguin population—how many there are, and how many new chicks are raised annually.
We set off in the direction of Moa Point, where the Bells have been keeping an eye on a particular penguin chick which they think may be on the point of leaving its burrow.
Typically, penguin burrows are hard to reach, and this one is no exception. The nest chamber is at the end of a long and particularly narrow passage, and David has brought a pole with a loop of soft rope at the end to help with extracting the chick.
A little while later, Ruediger Mack and three Swedish ecotourists he is conducting join in a little spontaneous round of applause for David, who, scratched, dirty and grinning broadly, emerges from the mouth of the burrow clutching a chick.
A small triumph in the quest to keep Wellington wild.