Construction, extinction and occasional delectation

SES, 02 September 2021

Our August birdwalk certainly covers some ground…


Bleak weather and melancholic thoughts beset our urban explorers during their late-winter bird watching trip. Dr Allan Simpson describes the journey around the city, to the coast, through our history and into the future.

I was two minutes late for the August Birdwalk, for the first time. But I had already donned leggings, puffer jacket, hat and parka for the walk from my occasional car park downriver.

“You are always late for your own life,” wrote Tesson, a French writer living as a hermit in a log cabin in Siberia. He had just learned of a relationship breakup by text on his satellite phone. My excuse was a detour to photograph the high river level beneath the Edmunds Band Rotunda, in case we didn’t pass it on our walk.

When I arrived Justin was waiting for me, putting on his raincoat. We left in a hurry through the sheltered midriff of our building, heading out into cold slanting rain.

This was the day the Sixth IPPC Assessment Report on global heating came out. It is the first full report in eight years and shows more certainly than ever just how close we are to climate catastrophe. It is no longer “alarmist” but an actual alarm! We will arrive too late to the life of our own biosphere. As Clive James writes of his own demise in his swansong poetry collection, “Like veils of rain, he is the cloud that his tears travel through.”

With the veils sweeping down the river was high. When we stopped at the Town Hall to see the water lapping the walls of the Ferrier Fountain several Scaups were exploring their new paddling range. Reaching for my phone to take another photo I realised I had left it behind. I went back to get it, sending Justin on ahead.

When I got back Justin was returning to report much activity of fowl behind the old court buildings. He suggested we head to Apocalypse Park to check what was happening there. But first I photographed a Kowhai in flower on the riverbank, unfazed by the wintry weather.

At Apocalypse Park we saw that diggers had built a driveway down to the basement and were attacking the perimeter foundation. The stagnant pond and columns with their rusty topknots were all gone. But rust always finds a way. The decorative superstructure of the Non-Art Bridge already shows signs of such rust after recent rains. And it has not even been officially opened yet.

The demolition activity should be enough to deter the Black-billed Gulls from setting up nests this Spring. Should it not the gulls might never leave, forever lost in the catacombs beneath a future cathedral. Another approach to deter the gulls is being tried at a nearby New Regent Street Café, where the proprietor has installed high frequency noise devices on his rooftop. They might prefer the organ music.

The birdwalk finished, it was good to get back to warm and dry clinics for our afternoon mahi.

“I served them with lemon juice, their vision frozen in frightened eyes.”

Later in the week, at our Greymouth Eye Clinic, a patient gave me some of last year’s whitebait, frozen and wrapped in newspaper. Our nurse, Haley, doesn’t eat them. The “eyes freak her out”. No such scruples for me and I didn’t look the gift horse in the mouth.

And so I lit the fire at my bach to heat the house and frying pan – into which I dropped the whitebait with butter and salt. I served them with lemon juice, their vision frozen in frightened eyes. Perhaps, after Earth experiencing five great mass extinctions, these juveniles were resigned to joining us in the big sixth!

Who sees the fear in our eyes? Ecce Homo sapiens!

A day after my west coast meal the whitebait season opened in Canterbury. The Otakaro River used to be a whitebait fishery, as shown in a 1972 photo taken at Dallington. For several years after the earthquakes the river was closed to whitebaiting due to sewage contamination. But some keen souls have resumed recently.

A University of Canterbury study is currently underway to learn more about the population dynamics of whitebait, comparing fished and un-fished rivers. We don’t know enough to make management decisions that ensure the survival of this species in our mahinga kai.

Early data showed that there has been a shift in streamside egg-laying habitat for whitebait due to changes in interface between fresh and salt-water caused by earthquake upheaval and sea level rise. For how long will the bait keep breeding? Our Pakeha reputation would suggest that we are over-fishing.

It’s an uneasy relationship we have with the natural world and it is embarrassing to learn by loss how much we depend upon it for our own survival.