21 September 2010

Coast-to-coast, biodiversity style

This past weekend, staff and students of Lincoln University's Ecol202 course, Biological Diversity, ventured west for their annual three day field trip of field biology and weather. This year held a bit more weather than usual, on account of a large storm slamming into the western side of New Zealand. It was reportedly one of the largest storms on the planet at the time, about the size of Australia.

Still, West Coast weather is never predictable so off we went. Things worked out surprisingly well. Rather than the usual New Zealand weather of "four seasons in one day", we instead got "four seasons in one hour". Each hour. We got a snowed on, rained on, blown about, and, surprisingly often, shined on.

A nice place for a lecture
David Pontin discusses kelp ecology at Truman's Track. Photo by mollivan_jon

beech
Beech-licking good. Sampling Ultracoelostoma honeydew in Lord's Bush. Photo by mollivan_jon

Highlights of our trip this year were seeing a New Zealand falcon (at Kelly's Creek in Arthur's Pass), plenty of weka around Moana, glow-worms in Punakaiki Cavern, a northern rata mid-way through strangling a large matai tree along Truman's Track, Lord's Bush (one of the last forests of the Canterbury Plains), and, as always, the Westland petrels flying in from the ocean to their colony at dusk.

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Some ill-timed horizontal rain squalls curtailed our annual fish'n'chips evening on the beach. We usually have dinner on a beach just south of Punakaiki watching Westland petrels (Procellaria westlandica) approach land. The rain dampened our chips forcing us to retreat to our bus. The huge stormy seas also prevented us from seeing to the horizon over the breaking waves where the Westland petrels would have been gathering. Gathering they were, though.

After dinner in the bus, we headed down to the roadside beside Nikau Scenic Reserve and watched the dark petrels slip through the sky to their colony in the forested hillside behind us. Student Tim Gale and I counted 89 birds arriving in 25 minutes between 6:47 pm (when the first bird arrived) and 7:07 (when we had not seen another bird for several minutes). That is down from the 150 birds we counted on last year's trip but is still an impressive turn-out for such a weather-filled evening.

It is quite something to see Westland petrels as they represent a glimpse into what much of coastal mainland New Zealand would have been like before people and their mammals arrived. The species is also remarkable in that it only nests in this area of the West Coast of the South Island and yet the birds regularly range at sea as far as the Chatham Islands to the east and are thought to go as far east as South America.

For the first time, we also did plant plots along our coast-to-coast transect where we recorded the diversity of shrubs and trees and measured features of the leaves of each species. Our trip spans over a 1,000 m of elevation and 5,000 mm (yes, five metres!) of annual rainfall so we hope to see some strong signals in the leaf morphology of the vegetation along the way. If it works out, we will tell you all about it on this blog.

You can see photos of our trip on our Ecology@Lincoln Flickr group.

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