An Introduction to Life in Alpine Fiordland
October - November 2017
Experiencing the Fiordland story of survival from the intimate details to the grand landscapes
I have recently lost myself in the practice of exploring lake basins, rocky cliffs, and mountain tops in search of a fleeting endangered bird that makes this rugged landscape home. The rock wren/tuke. This reclusive native is perfectly suited to its alpine environment. Like a miniature mountaineer it hops and flies up nearly vertical rock faces bringing food, feathers, tussock, or lichen to and from the nest no matter what the weather throws at it.
To monitor the rock wren's nesting success, I’ve followed it into the alpine zone and created my own nest at Lake Roe.
My first trip into my new home, deep in the heart of Fiordland’s wild country, was beyond special. Wedged in the very outermost edge of the helicopter passenger seat I felt like I could almost reach out and touch the passing cliffs and forest. Clouds open, clouds close, a view here, a glimpse there: did I just see an idyllic valley of reflective pools or the most jagged peaks I've ever seen? Or, was it my imagination? Was that in fact a seven-tiered waterfall dropping from a snowy glacier to a deep and perfect pool hidden in silver beech forest? It can't be. I didn't know mountains even rose that sharply. That cliff can't actually be that steep, this river can't possibly snake its way through such a magical rock-strewn valley, and that waterfall absolutely cannot tumble from that lake in the sky all the way into this fiord below. Or can it? This blend of fantastical reality could only be possible in Fiordland and the opportunity to work in this landscape is one-of-a-kind.
Tumbling water over sheer rock on a clear blue day. As mist rises from the falling water it is caught in the sun and flickers like flame, waving back and forth like steam rising from a kettle, or dancing like the light of an aurora. A single large rock falls from somewhere up above and the valley seems to hold its breath. After a moment nothing else disturbs the peaceful air and it's back to the light sound of water cascading through space. I watch with anticipation a clump of tussock grass clinging to the rock face and single celmisia just starting to unfurl its summer white flower. "OH!" Rustling from within the clump grabs my attention. Ah, nothing yet. Just a false alarm.
Ten minutes later, "zeep zeep" heard to my left. As quick as lightning the bird I was looking for hops out of the tussock clump. The incoming bird on my left meets the other and they chatter together in the boulders. Time's up: the incoming bird (a male with a light blue band on his leg) flies onto a ledge outside the clump and two seconds later disappears inside.
A change-over between incubating parent rock wren - just what I was hoping to see.
In studying the intricate details of this alpine world I've become more acquainted with what I love about spending time enveloped in these mountains that capture my attention. I am learning what the creatures who call this place home have known for years uncounted: that life in alpine Fiordland is dictated by the weather. Sunny warm days encourage the pure white wildflowers to open toward the sky and water shimmers clear and aquamarine across the landscape. It's natural to relax in these moments and feel that life is simple, even easy. However, as soon as the clouds gather and grey rain falls like a veil across the hills and cliffs it is just as easy to forget the restful sunshine of only hours before.
We peer through sleety rain trying to catch a glimpse of a tiny rock wren entering or exiting its nest hole in search of food or more insulation for warmth. How do they do it?! These 10 cm long birds weigh only 15 - 20 grams and yet inhabit a mountain landscape that is huge on any scale. My coworker and I shiver back down to our own form of shelter as the snow begins to fall. Spring or summer there's no guarantee of warmth in the high mountains. How will the rock wren and their nests fare in such a cold snap? Only time will tell but as alpine Fiordland can be a place of continual challenge it is also a place of discovery and unexpected strength that all living things cultivate for survival.