Southern Eye on the River

SES, 02 May 2020

I did May’s birdwalk on my own under Alert Level Three rules, in solidarity with Rob and his solo golfwalk (no flags and no rake in his sandpit). And I did it on Friday since I am not at work on Tuesdays while the CDHB is outplaced in my room. We still had balmy days like much of April had been, allowing more of those uplifting walks – each one a chance to observe new things in our neighbourhoods. And since clinics are temporarily less frenzied than usual I had a whole hour to explore downstream as far as I could get.

First on the true right I found a plaque to the Barbadoes St bridge – built in the year of my birth; and nearby the cairn to mark Brick Wharf, where the “Early Settlers landed” in 1843, in a whaleboat from Port Levy, with building materials. They left some chimney bricks here but transferred most of their cargo to a large canoe for further carriage upstream. And so this spot became the transfer point for Canterbury Association settlers arriving to establish the city of Christchurch.

Earlier, in the 1750s, a Ngai Tahu Rangatira called Tautahi regularly came here by canoe from Koukourarata on Banks Peninsula, also paddling up the Otakaro River after crossing the bar at its mouth. He camped here ‘where spring waters bubbled’, catching eels and snaring waterfowl in the flax. His people had food-gathering rights here in these ancient wetlands. This place became known as O-Tautahi, which in the 1930s became accepted as the Maori name for Christchurch. On my way back to the Eye Clinic, I would pass again the vacant site where St Lukes Church used to stand, and next to it still is the derelict vicarage, still with a carpark assigned “Ecclesia” (the English borrowed-Greek term for “assembly” – a social luxury prohibited to us at present). But earlier, near to this site, stood Tuatahi Pa. In the 1850s, as Christchurch grew and replaced native ecosystems with English gardens Tautahi Pa lost its traditional standing. In 1868, when the foundations were being dug for the Church and Vicarage they uncovered a complete skeleton (tangata koiwi) thought to belong to Tautahi. Sadly no known records tell us what happened to these “bones of our city”!

Just as the Maori and English settlers boated up the Otakaro River from the sea so long ago, now the twins, Oxford and Cambridge Terraces, stretch long arms from the CBD towards the estuary on either side of the stream caressing it into a gentle curve that encloses the Avon Loop: such an adjacent wonder I had rarely known before Southern Eye moved to the CBD – and now time to walk around it on those two English streets.

So, after a century of house-building and the distinctive community development that became ‘the Avon Loop’ it has suddenly changed – back to the future. The houses were red-zoned after the earthquakes, then demolished and lawn was planted where houses stood. But the tree planting remains, each stand demarcating a previous private section. It is still fenced off to “unauthorised access” but Otakaro Ltd have just completed re-landscaping the wonderful Avon Loop Promenade, on the inside of the curve as a continuation of Oxford Terrace.

So what about the birds!

Well, every 100-200 metres on the river I saw a gaggle of 5-10 Canada Geese. And perhaps unwelcome evidence of this is their smeared droppings all over the promenade. In fact Forest and Bird have just called on Environment Canterbury to apply some control to Canada Geese numbers because of the potential impact they are having on water quality, other birdlife, as well as all the pooping. A bird count in March estimated 1151 birds on Otakaro River between Fitzgerald Bridge (at the downstream end of the Avon Loop) and Pages Rd in New Brighton.

At the upstream end of the Avon Loop, on the Cambridge Tce side, there is a good-sized tributary flowing into the Otakaro, seemingly arising de novo from under Barbadoes St. There is no named stream on Google Maps here. Perhaps it is ‘where the spring waters bubbled’ back then – and still now. It is all closed in by concrete and metal grates. But to give credit to City planners there is a lovely pocket wetland surrounding it – with native trees around a small pond overlooked by several pedestal sculptures, one with Taniwha motif. And here I stood for ten minutes by a small totara.

First I saw a flock of a dozen Goldfinches congregating in the natives and dropping in to the water for a bath from time to time. Goldfinches were introduced from Europe at the very time that builders were digging the foundations for St Lukes Church. Likewise, the bird brought a European influence that was more than just natural history – even the Gospel. The goldfinch was often associated in Italian Renaissance Art with the passion of Christ. The legend has it that it got the red on its head when it tried to remove a thorn from the head of Christ on the Cross and got splashed with a drop of blood, flying away with it as a sign of resurrection.

There were several other introduced birds represented in the pool party: Greenfinches, Blackbirds, Starlings, Hedge Sparrows and a few Silvereyes. Would there be any native in this auspicious spot!

Yes, finally a Piwakawaka – and a black morph to boot. The black morph is rare in the North Island but about 25% of Piwakawakas in the South Island are black as opposed to the pied form.

And so it was time to return to afternoon clinic. Passing again Otakaro Orchard I noted that, even if the café is not growing, the trees still are and I saw them in a slightly different context today – the fruit trees no doubt all being introduced species.


Allan Simpson