23 October, 1998

October 23, 1998

Howdy! I hope all goes well with you.

What a great two days I have just had exploring parts of New Zealand within a few hours drive of Christchurch in my rental car!! Because of the bad weather down in Antarctica there was a long list of people here in Christchurch waiting to get the go-ahead to depart. It looks like I will be leaving tomorrow or Sunday.

On the 21st I had hoped to drive down to Dunedin where I could see penguins and nesting albatrosses, but this is a 5 hour drive and to explore it well would require spending the night; we aren't allowed to spend the night away from Christchurch just in case there is a sudden change in plans and we need to leave quickly for Antarctica.

So instead I drove through the extremely GODgeous, spectacular, snow-covered Southern Alps. In parcticular I drove towards Mt. Cook, hoping to get a flight up to a glacier and to take pictures from the air. The drive was wonderful, through beautiful green pastures covered with sheep, on steep winding mountain roads with great views all around. Part of the area was very dry; the news has been talking about a drought on this (the east) side of the Alps and heavy rains and flooding on the west side of the Alps. Even though it was beautiful, one of the things that struck me was the absence of forest. Apparently the early English settlers cleared 70-80% of the original forest. Quite an ecological impact! I couldn't admire the beauty without thinking about how wonderful it must have been to walk through woods here filled with parrots and kiwis and bellbirds.

Well eventually I got to the Mt Cook area. I visited the long turquoise colored Lake Tekapo in a long U-shaped valley that must have been carved by glaciers thousands of years ago. The incredibly rich water-color is due to the ground-up rock in the glacial meltwater from the glaciers that are still here in the mountains. The scenery was fabulous; in some places the snow-covered peaks gleamed brightly in the sun against a rich blue sky; in others, backed by an ominous gray sky, they were cuddled by wisps of clouds.

Since Mt Cook was in the clouds and the wind was extremely strong, the planes were grounded, so I drove up the Tekapo Lake road to Lake Alexandrina, a haven for birds. This lake is dark blue since it is spring fed, not glacier-fed. There were lots of new birds for me: Spur-winged Plovers and White-backed Magpies (like small black and white crows) seemed to be the most common big birds that could easily be seen when driving. An abundance of European birds flitted up from the roadsides wherever I went: redpolls, goldfinches, greenfinches, chaffinches, and yellowhammers. The European skylark could frequently be heard with its musical tinkling note fluttering above my head as it climbed higher and higher into the sky until it was just a dot high overhead. I also saw several kinds of ducks, black swans, terns and gulls. It was quite a day.

The next day I left the hotel before sunrise and drove up the coast to the town of Kaikoura. The dramatic cliffs along the deep blue ocean were awe-inspiring. One of the most striking views was of the snow-capped Alps as a backdrop behind the lower foothills covered with beuatiful yellow bushes in full bloom.(The beauty of this scene however was tainted by the knowledge that these gorse bushes are again introduced from Europe and have wiped out many native species in some parts of New Zealand where it is a major pest.) I finally found some native forest and stopped to do some birding there, seeing a few more of the indigenous species of New Zealand like New Zealand pigeons, silver-eyes, grey gerygones, bellbirds, stitchbirds, and tomtits. The highlights of the day were the walk along the rocky coast among the nesting colony of Red-billed Gulls near the haul-out spot for New Zealand fur seals, and the 4-seater airplane flight out over the ocean to find some sperm whales. The gulls were very dapper-looking with their white eyes surrounded by a striking red eye-ring, their blood-red bill and legs, and their handsome white and grey plumage. I had a great time watching them as they gathered nest material, fought over nest-sites, postured and screamed at each other, and tried to stand on their nest-rocks in the wind which was so strong it nearly blew me over a couple times. The fur seals were also quite excellent. However, watching them was not quite as exciting. Basically they just lay on the rocks in the sun, looking like big, fat, furry, brown maggots. Occasionally one would open an eye, or roll over to give his belly some sun, or curl a lip, or even yawn. Standing downwind of the fur seal was interesting--they have a very bizarre smell!

The only native land mammal species here are two kinds of bats (I saw one of them); but the road is littered with roadkills--rabbits (which have been major pests because of their population explosion), hedgehogs, and brush-tailed oppossums, all of which have been introduced. I also passed several deer farms.

The flight to find sperm whales was great. In just 30 minutes we found three adolescent males at the surface (in different locations). While the pilot circled overhead the whales were spouting and lolling about on the surface for about five minutes each before they went down to the depths in search of food. they eat fish and squids and are the largest of the toothed whales. These ones were only about 16 meters long, not very big as far as whales go. One of them had a couple dolphins playing around near his head. That was pretty neat!.

My visit to the Maori school (I misspelled Maori in my last journal entry) was wonderful!! The kids were great. They were enthusiastic, interested, nice, and full of interesting questions. They were 13-15 year olds but the whole school for this age group had only about 15 or 20 kids. They all speak and understand English well, but they are taught in their native Maori language which is a beautiful-sounding language. Before I left they sang me a song in Maori. They will be communicating with me in Antarctica by e-mail. Well I gotta go. I am hoping to drive up to Arthur's Pass in the

Alps today to see some scenery, some mountain forest, and the KEA, a type of parrot. The road was closed because of a washed-out bridge when I wanted to go a couple days ago but it is supposedly ok today. Seeya!


All the best.

Fred Atwood



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