ecolonaught

Chronicles of a 21st century naturalist.


7 Comments

The Milford Sound Track

timeline: 4 days (3 nights)

distance traveled: 53.5 kilometers

elevation change: 950 meters

maximum elevation: 1,154 meters

itinerary: car park at Te Anau Downs -> catamaran ride to Glade Warf -> Clinton Hut -> wetland board walk -> Mintaro Hut -> McKinnon Pass -> Dumpling Hut -> Sand Fly Point -> boat to Milford Sound visitor’s center

the crew: Tom Nelson and Sarah Nelson

milford sound

Fiordland National Park is located in Southland, on the south west coast of the South Island. It is the largest of the national parks at 12,500m^2. It’s name derives from a number of deep fiords that were carved out by glaciers in past ice ages.

Located in Fiordland National Park, the Milford Sound Track has much to offer. From New Zealand’s largest water fall to snow dusted alpine cairns, there is a reason it is the countries most popular track. My father and sister came down for a 22 day visit and this was the final stop on the itinerary (I wanted to make sure they would sleep well on the plane). In the end we agreed this was the most physically demanding thing any of us had done. We where happy to have gone through it together.

milford sound 2

Overview of the trip. Day 1 is shown in red (5 km). Day 2 is shown in yellow (16.5 km). Day 3 is shown in turquoise (14 km). Day 4 is shown in purple (18 km).

The first day consisted of a short boat ride and a short walk. As the boat approached the beginning of the track on Lake Te Anau we were able to get some great views of the rocky hills shrouded in mist. We were happy to see anything as Fiordland is notorious for it’s rainfall – more than 200 days a year with 6,800 mm annually on average. Once we reached the track it was a short walk  through beech forest to the Clinton Hut. On the way we stopped to check out a bog board walk that had some cool plants. The weather was great – almost no rain.

DSCN1332

The view from the boat on Lake Te Anau as we approached the trail head. Fiordland is overcast 2 out of every 3 days on average. This climate is driven by predominantly south westerly winds blowing up from Antarctica. The ocean air is moist, and as it rises over the mountains it loses density subsequently dropping it’s moisture on the land below.

The second day is decent length with a slight incline, all the while following the Clinton River up its course. The track begins in beech forest, and shifts towards more scrub as you gain elevation. As you head deeper into the valley the rock faces rise high around you, providing some much needed existential perspective and many waterfalls. Mintaro Hut is located at the head of the river, and has a porch overlooking the surrounding mountains peaks. Again we got lucky with only light showers.

DSC_1203

Ferns (pteridophytes) are an ancient group of plants thought to have originated during the Devonian Period of the Paleozoic Era 360 million years ago. Their vascular tissue set them apart from the plants that came before them, and reproduction through spores and frond leaf architecture set them apart from plants that came after.

The third day was the most arduous. Although short in distance, this is the day you must hike up and over McKinnon Pass. The track starts with a great deal of switch backs, with the vegetation shifting to subalpine with numerous buttercups and daisies. It started snowing as we approached the top, and the snow covered flowers and grass fields provided some unexpectedly beautiful white scenes as we were buffeted by wind. At the top we stopped for a much needed break and some hot coffee. The decent was not any easier – it was steeper as well as wet and slippery. There is a side track that takes you to see Sutherland Falls, the highest waterfall in New Zealand. Once we made it down the rest of the walk is nice and flat until you reach Dumpling Hut. With some snow and wind on top of the pass and some showers as we descended we had a decent day for tramping.

DSCN1403

A snow dusted cairn near the McKinnon Pass. These ponds occupy amphitheater shaped depressions once occupied by glaciers. The large ice mass sculpted and depressed the hard granite, which now holds the water like a large rock bowl.

The final day is a nice flat hike out to the boat pick up location. The track follows the Arthur River down the valley through more beech forest. The trail cuts through some cool rock passages, has a few bridges, and some real cool boardwalks. Only on the final day did we feel the true power of Fiordland precipitation. With heavy rain starting early in the morning, we were soaked through before tea time. However, the water added greatly to the experience. The valley walls were littered with waterfalls – literally too many to count. I had a hard time seeing them through my glasses, but it was worth it.

DSCN1411

So many waterfalls!

We were happy to get inside and warm up/dry off after the trip. Once in Te Anau we went straight to a cafe, had a big feed, and chugged some beer. After that, spontaneous road trip back to Dunners! Their flight home was the next day. Overall, the trip was a major success – the family bonded over the four days and we all came out super fit. It was also the first time I organized a trip by myself which was a good challenge. We are hoping to do another family expedition in the not too distant future!

DSCN1419

Midwest family getting damp in the NZ bush.

Milford Sound Track is New Zealand’s most popular great walk for a good reason. The scenery, vegetation, and experience are worth the effort and money. It is of moderate difficulty so anyone who has been on a few other tracks should have no problems with this one.

 

 

See you on the trails,

-GTN

Advertisements


7 Comments

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.

takahe

A takahe in captivity. Phtoto by New Zealand Department of Conservation (http://blog.doc.govt.nz/2014/12/01/takahe-finds-love-te-anau/)

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.

campsite

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!

-Greg


Leave a comment

Recent developments

It has been way too long since my last post. My three new priorities for the year were (1) kick butt in my program (2) get more exercise & (3) write more blog posts. I’ve made some good progress on the first two, so now I’m on to the third.

A quick synopsis of my life since the last post:

– returned to the US for Christmas and New Year; enjoyed the company of my amazing friends and family

My sister in a stand of oaks, surrounded by native prairie.

My sister in a stand of oaks, surrounded by Wisconsin native prairie.

– visited my partner in NYC

JP

Tyrannosaurus rex skeleton at the American Museum of Natural History.

– attended a statistics course in Halifax

– returned to NZ, began seriously getting into research mode

– I was a teaching assistant for an undergraduate ecology field course in the Catlins

Me standing at the rocky shore edge of Curio Bay, in the Catlins.

Me standing at the rocky shore edge of Curio Bay, in the Catlins.

– assisted with some field work investigating the effects of land use and native vegetation herbivory

seeds?

Me checking to see if native seeds and seedlings survived mice and rat herbivory.

– assisted with field work investigating the effects of climate change on tussock ecosystems in fiordland

My colleges field research site, Takahe Valley in the fiordlands.

My colleague’s field research site, Takahe Valley in the fiordlands.

That gets you caught up on pretty much everything! More pictures and in depth analysis to come.

-GTN

Welcome to Dunedin!

4 Comments

Wow! It’s crazy to think that I’ve been in New Zealand for almost three weeks. Mostly I’ve been getting focused on my research project, which is well under way. But, I have been able to get out on a few adventures and I thought I should share the highlights so far.

My adviser’s wife is a geologist and archeologist. During my first week she invited me to go along on a fossil hunting trip with her post doc. Needless to say, living out one of my Jurassic Park inspired dreams was amazing. I’m not so familiar with geology, but from what I gathered we were digging in an old swamp/lake. The rock was damp, soft, and black from the high density of organic compounds. I was happy to split as many rocks as I could, because within each was the potential for a secret that lay in wait for millions of years waiting to be unleashed. I found many fossils of flowers and leaves, a few small fish skeletons, and one weevil. The weevil was very well preserved and I got some macroshots after the lab analysis. Though, my favorite part was cracking open a rock and sighting a perfectly preserved leaf – veins, cuticle, color and all – just before it was blown away in the wind, its atoms finally resurrected and free to spur life anew. I’ll be going digging again the soonest chance I get.

Weevile photos_page2_image3

The fossilized exoskeleton of a weavile. Notice the extended mouth part to the left, and appendages below.

Weevile photos_page2_image2

Fossilized exoskeleton of a weevil counter relief. Notice the mottling of the carapace.

View of the tussock grasslands of New Zealand.

View of the tussock grasslands of New Zealand.

On one nice afternoon I took a hike to one of the highest points around Dunedin, called Flagstaff (historically where a flag was raised to signify the arrival of a ship carrying supplies and visitors to the harbor).  The view and the hike were amazing. My legs joined my ears in getting a vivid appreciation of the elevation changes here. In attempts to improve my NZ naturalist skills I was able to check out many native birds and plants. Unfortunately there haven’t been many insects around yet, but I’m hopeful since summer is quickly approaching.

View of the city and harbor from Flagstaff.

View of the city and harbor from Flagstaff.

Other than that I’ve spent a lot of time at my desk reading and working on data sets. Now that I’ve settled into my own place I will be for sure be tramping about town more and taking pictures of my adventures.  The botanic garden is literally right in my backyard…

Be peaceful,

-Greg

This gallery contains 4 photos


Leave a comment

Dawn of a new begining

I have arrived safe and sound in New Zealand! After a long 25 hour transit, including a 13 hour flight across the Pacific, it feels good to set foot on kiwi ground. Everything with the trip went well, and I felt good after arrival and was able to have a very productive first day.

I established my bank account at ANZ, bought a cell phone plan, got my student visa application underway, and familiarized myself around the office. Every one has been incredibly nice.

I’m afraid I can’t write much more at the moment –  it’s a been a long day and I’m ready for a long rest for my next action packed day.


1 Comment

Embarking on a new adventure

This afternoon I am heading to New Zealand for the first time ever. This post coincides nicely, as it is my first blog post ever. With the hopes of more intimately being able to share my experiences with my friends and family I am starting this page to chronicle my current and future expeditions through candid thought and photography. If you are interested in nature, science, traveling, Magic, or me these posts should be of interest to you. I invite you to follow me as I seek to strike a life I won’t regret.

This is merely an introductory post; more about what I’m actually doing, where I am, and what I see will follow shortly.