Chronicles of a 21st century naturalist.


Gillespie Pass Curcuit

timeline: 3 days (2 nights)

distance traveled: 46 kilometers

elevation change: 1,329 meters

maximum elevation: 1,629 meters

itinerary: Blue Pools -> Young River Mouth -> Young Hut -> Gillespie Pass -> Siberia Hut -> Wilkin River confluence -> jet boat to Makarora

the crew: Sonny Falco and Johannes Mosig


I went on my fourth New Zealand tramp January 13th-15th in Mount Aspiring National Park. The track is called the Gillespie Pass Circuit which included some beautiful, but challenging, terrain.

mount aspiring national park

Mount Aspiring National Park is in the South central part of the South Island of  New Zealand, in the West Coast Region. The park was the 10th created, established in 1964. It also contains the Matukitui Valley, Routburn, and Rees-Dart tracks.


The track begins North of Makarora, heads south along the Makarora River, follows the Young River up into the Young Valley, ascends the ridge and passes through Gillepie pass, descends into the Siberia Valley following the Siberia River, and then heads into the Wilkens Valley. From there you can either hike back into town or catch a boat ride back.

Gillespie Pass Track

The route of the Gillespie Pass Circuit. Day 1 is in red. Day 2 is in purple. Day 3 is in blue. Due to weather contraints we were unable to visit Lake Crucible, and took a jet boat back to town a day early.


Day 1 (red): We started at the Blue Pools scenic area, just North of Makarora , where the track is adjacent to sheep/cow farms and has mostly open grasslands with lots of invasive species. Once you get close to the Young Valley entrance the vegetation shifts to silver beech [Nothofagus menziesii] forest. Elevation is slowly gained as you travel to Young Hut. Sun was out all day.


The legendary Blue Pools. The blue color is created by “glacial flour” in the water. These minute rock particles are created by the grinding action of glaciers against rock, and reflect light while they are suspended in the water.


Day 2 (purple): The day begins heading further up the Young Valley. Elevation is more quickly gained here and the vegetation quickly shifts to subalpine with Hebes, small tussocks, daisies, and buttercups abounding. The track takes a steep incline as it heads up the East face of Mount Awful and up to Gillespie Pass. The top is truly alpine with mat plants and lichen throughout. From the Pass there is a great view of the surrounding mountainscape. The descent has a much lower grade and passes through another subalpine zone with more Chinochloa, Dracophyllum, and Aciphylla. The final leg of the long day is walking though an open grass meadow along Siberia River to Siberia Hut. Mostly sunny with some clouds during the early afternoon.


The view from the pass wasn’t too bad.


Day 3 (blue): An easy day from Siberia Hut to the jet boat pick up area begins with more open meadow. Soon though, you are back in the silver beech forest until you reach the Siberia-Makoroa River confluence. We got picked up by a jet boat from there back into town. RAIN.


A wild weevile [Curculionidae] was spotted. The beetles mouth is located at the end of the snout, which it uses to bore into the seeds, wood, stems, roots, or leaves of plants that it eats.

All in all, the track has awesome mountain views, cool vegetation, and a good cardio workout to offer and I highly recommend it. However, the track can be treacherous especially under poor weather conditions and thus earns the “Experienced Trampers Only” categorization from the Department of Conservation for a reason. Choose a few days with nice weather for this one.



German on the ridge line.


Norwegian in the natural habitat.

See you on the trails,





Takahe Valley

My most recent field expedition was to Takahe Valley; a place with an interesting conservation narrative, beautiful scenery, and a fantastic place to do research.

I went to Takahe Valley March 7th – March 10th with along with two Landcare colleagues and another PhD student. Our purpose was to assist with end of the summer field data collection.

The  crew grabbing lunch.

The crew grabbing lunch.

Those of you well versed in your New Zealand native birds will recognize the name takahe (Porphyrio hochstetteri). The species was thought extinct when the last 4 known individuals were captured and killed in 1898. However, Geoffrey Orbell rediscovered a remnant population of the birds in a place isolated from human activities near Lake Te Anu (Takahe Valley) in 1948. Concerted conservation efforts since rediscovery have resulted in relatively successful recovery. The Fiordland National Park was created to ensure them a safe home, and deer control is carried out within the park to reduce competition for food. The wild population estimate as of 2013 is 263.


A takahe in captivity. Phtoto by New Zealand Department of Conservation (

I wasn’t able to see any of these beautiful birds (locally “blue chickens”), but I was able to see signs of their presence including well traveled tracks, digestive remains, freshly munched tussock grass, and tracks. Hopefully next time I will be able to sneak a peak!

I was able to see some other charismatic birds though including a Kea (Nestor notabilis), NZ rock wren (Xenicus gilviventris), rifleman (Acanthisitta chloris), and tomtit (Petroica macrocephala).

A Kea investigating our campsite, as well as me, to see if it can get an easy feed.

A Kea investigating our campsite, as well as me, to see if it can get an free feed.

The Fiordland foothills are composed of gneiss (metamorphosed from mostly granite and diorite). Apparently this is some of the oldest rock in NZ, originating from the Ordovocian period. The valleys and basins were etched through glacial erosion during the last ice age. Alpine areas have exposed rock or scree substrate, while basins soil is composed of podzolised gley and organic soils. The vegetation in our valley ranged from sub-alpine herbs up on the exposed rock and scree at the valley ridges to wetland species down in the basin. Beech forests and tussock grasses can be seen covering and deferentially partitioning large swaths of the valley.

The basin has a river flowing through it. This area is dominated by wetland vegetation.

The basin has a river flowing through it. This area is dominated by wetland vegetation.

Tussock grass vegetation dominates portions of the basin, as well as some portions of the lower and upper walls, of the valley. Forest dominates most of the midsection.

Tussock grass vegetation dominates portions of the basin, as well as some portions of the lower and upper walls, of the valley. Forest dominates most of the midsection.


We camped partially up the valley, at the head wall. This area has some tussocks but also some sub-alpine herbs due to the higher elevation and some wetland plants from the the head water flow.

valley ridge

The head wall ridge. This area has exposed rock and screes, mostly dominated by sub-alpine plants with some small tussocks.

The main purpose of our trip was research. There are transects of tussock grasses here that have been measured for over a decade, investigation the masting events of the tussocks (Chionochloa sp.). Masting is the phenomena of some plants to usually not produce many flowers/seeds most years, but every few years they will all create massive amounts of flowers/seeds. In North America most oak trees (Quercus sp.) display some level of masting.

A feather’s fate; only to drift on the low breeze; never to fly again

Another component of the research is to investigate the interacting influences of anticipated climate change, increasing soil N, and increasing soil C on tussock growth as well as reproduction. Climate change is simulated by putting translucent plastic around the bases of the tussock (creating a mini green house gas effect). Soil N is increased by adding fertilizer. Soil C is increased by sprinkling sugar on the plots. We had to count the number of tillers (stems) on every experimental plant (counts ranged from ~30 to ~800). The cages are to protect the tussocks from takahe, as this is their favorite food.

These are the experimental plots on the red tussock (C. rubra).

These are the experimental plots on the red tussock (C. rubra).

We also collected invertebrate data for each plot to see if the treatments (temperature * N * C) had an influence on invertebrate diversity or community composition.

Me emptying invertebrates from pitfall traps. These traps passively capture insects by trapping them in a cup filled with death liquid.

It was a fantastic trip filled with good company, good weather and goo food. I eagerly await my next expedition into Takahe Valley!