Sunday, April 24, 2011

Return to Red Rock

I took a solo kayaking trip on Lake Red Rock today, the first time I have been here since before freeze-up last November (and since my recent return from a trip to New Zealand).  Disregarding traffic on the Mile-Long Bridge, I was the only person on the 20,000-acre lake (unsurprisingly as today was Easter Sunday).  Roughly equating to a population density of one person per 30 square miles, it qualifies today as a "frontier" environment (based on the historically applied but admittedly flawed definition of six or fewer people per square mile).  Frontier or not, the mix of solitude and scenery made for a wonderful first paddle of the year.

Serviceberries on the bluffs were bursting with blossums.  Spring wildflowers covered the forest floor, looking from a distance like snow dropped by a late-season flurry.  I went ashore, first wading ankle-deep in water and then ankle-deep in spring beauties, Dutchman's-breeches, and rue anemones.

Dutchman's-breeches and rue anemone (above);
spring beauty (right)

Circling back to my waiting kayak, I also found a member of an ancient flora: a fossilized scale-tree (Lepidodendron) weathering out of Pennsylvanian bedrock, slowly breaking out of its 300-million-year old prison of lithified mud.

Paddling further along the bluffline, I encountered a long section of soft shale and crumbly sediments capped with fragile loess, the whole slope severely undermined and collapsing from the erosive action of destabilizing rises and falls of the lake level in recent years.  Trees that had only recently been part of a blufftop forest were now strewn on the bare slopes and floating like shipwrecks in the water beneath them.

Detached from blufftop cutbanks, numerous chunks of soil had slumped downslope, some carrying cargoes of wildflowers.

Although devastating to the existing bluffs and their blufftop vegetation, and diminishing the capacity of the lake to serve its intended function of water storage, I nonetheless marvel at the sheer power demonstrated by the mass wasting, a geological process unleashed by impoundment of the river, acting out its own plan for reshaping the landscape in ways unintended by its human designers. 

Taking an opportunity to learn from the misfortune of the big trees, I paddled to the shore and examined their uppermost branches, now hanging conveniently above the waterline at deck level.  Lichens on tree branches and insect galls on twigs and leaves on tall trees are typically out of reach of human observers; naturalists who are curious about such things must either climb up into the tree tops or opportunistically wait until treetops come down to now.  With only a few seconds of searching, I found two galls.

Oak Petiole Gall Wasp

Round Bullet Gall Wasp

Both galls are caused by tiny wasps, one that lays its eggs on woody twigs of white oak trees (Round Bullet Gall Wasp), the other that lays its eggs in the leafstalk (petiole) of oak leaves (Oak Petiole Gall Wasp).  (My thanks to naturalist Charley Eiseman for identifying these.)

Out of time for additional exploring, I paddled back to the ramp, finding that a friend had left a gift on the windshield of my car.  Two others showed up as I was securing my boat to the car rack and welcomed me back from New Zealand.  In more ways than one, I am glad I have returned to Red Rock.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

New Zealand Nature, Sea to Summit

Our whirlwind tour of New Zealand let me encounter a broad range of natural habitats extending from seashores to mountain summits.  Beaches, coastal forests, mountain forests, alpine grasslands, and valley grasslands presented opportunities for me to learn new species of plants (80% of the New Zealand flora is endemic) and animals and to experience the physical environments in which they live by beachcombing, hiking, backpacking, and camping.  Even driving through a vast extent of country let me observe broad patterns of geology and vegetation through the windshield, augmented by glimpses of roadside plants and animals and brief forays into natural areas adjoining rest stops. In the following synopsis, I have organized my observations by five major communities and have provided weblinks (clickable from the headings) to slideshows of landscapes, vascular plants, mosses, lichens, birds, mammals, and insects: 

Seashore - We visited the seashore in several places during our loop around South Island, including Marlborough Sounds and Abel Tasman National Park on the east coast (South Pacific Ocean) and at Ross, Knight's Point Lookout, and Milford Sound on the west coast (Tasman Sea).  We frequently saw seals, shells, shags, sea-stars, and seaweeds.  On our very first walking day, I enjoyed finding familiar-looking Sunburst and Sinewed lichens adorning trees and fenceposts on a bluff above the ocean along the Kaikoura Peninsula Walkway.  Our visit to Bushy Beach Scenic Reserve on our last night in New Zealand was one of the most interesting because we saw yellow-eyed penguins coming ashore to roost at dusk - my first encounter with a penguin outside of a zoo. 
Coastal forest - A band of forest comprised of large conifers mixed with smaller hardwood trees occurs around the perimeter of South Island at low elevations.  The largest trees belong to a family of conifers (Podocarpaceae, the "podocarps") that is almost entirely restricted to the Southern Hemisphere.  Their conifer cousins are familiar to us in the Northern Hemisphere as pines, firs, and spruces (Pinaceae); in fact, early British settlers called the podocarps "pines", a botanically incorrect but widely adopted common name that has persisted to the present day.  One of the largest and most common podocarp trees in the coastal forest is Rimu (Dacrydium cupressinum), which typically rises far above the canopy of surrounding broadleaf trees.  Common broadleaf trees beneath the conifers include rata, kanuka, and low-elevation beeches.  Tree ferns are also a conspicuous part of the broadleaf community.  I encountered coastal forest early during my botanical learning curve in New Zealand and was overwhelmed by the species diversity, especially by the number of ferns and epiphytes

During our stay at the Hopewell Lodge in Marlborough, I also saw several characteristic animals of the coastal forest, including weka (a rather tame, chicken-like bird that boldly walked onto the porch of the hostel), weta (a wingless cricket that resides in caves and heavily forested habitats), and the troublesome possum (a large squirrel-like mammal introduced as a fur-bearer which has wreaked havoc on native trees).  I especially enjoyed a noctural outing along a primitive forest track to a moist ravine where thousands of glow-worms on a roadside claybank collectively emitted a constellation of tiny, eerily green lights.   

Possum (night flash photo)
Glow-worm nook with "fishing lines"
secreted by larva for capture of tiny insects

Mountain forest - This was the community in which I spent the most time (our 5-day tramp along the Routeburn and Greenstone tracks was mainly through mountain forest) and was best prepared to appreciate its natural history (from several days of study of my newly acquired Nature Guide to the New Zealand Forest).  As a botanist, it was an exceptional treat for me to encounter the famous beech trees of the Southern Hemisphere (the evergreen Nothofagus, sister to our deciduous beeches (Fagus) in the Northern Hemisphere) and to wander beneath their large, dominant crowns amongst a lush, diverse flora.  At high elevations in the mountains, mosses and lichens become astoundingly abundant, covering the forest floor, smothering logs and rock outcrops, cloaking tree trunks, and festooning high branches.  All visitors, botanists and lay people alike, are quickly enchanted by these "goblin forests".

Although the entire flora was fascinating, I was especially thrilled to meet my first filmy fern, a special family of rarely seen ferns that thrive in the very wet habitats of rain forests and waterfall spray zones.  The large size reached by lichens also amazed me; many of them (like Pseudocyphellaria "specklebellies") resembled lettuce leaves pinned incongruously onto tree trunks.  Among animals, I found zigzag tracks in the strap-like leaves of wild flax that insect detective Charley Eiseman identified as the work of a moth larva.  The most common bird that I encountered in the mountain forests was the New Zealand Robin (resembling a large junco in appearance), a very tame and intently curious bird that would materialize onto the hiking trail next to my feet whenever I paused for a rest.  Being insectivorous, they would unabashedly investigate the leaf litter disturbed by my boots in search of newly exposed insects, even perching on my toes for a better vantage point!

Specklebelly lichen on tree trunk

Filmy ferns on forest floor

Alpine grassland - We spent one glorious, long day in this habitat when we tramped from Routeburn Falls to Lake MacKenzie in the Southern Alps.  We left beech forest behind as soon as we started from the hut that morning; for the next 10 kilometers, we hiked above treeline through a rolling, grassy landscape providing spectacular vistas of rugged mountain peaks, glaciers, and deep, wooded valleys.  The dominant grass was snow tussock (Chionochloa pallens), forming dense, tawny stands.  Interspersed with the tall grasses were many flowery forbs.  I recognized gentians and buttercups resembling species I had seen in North American alpine zones, but others were completely new to me, including tall yucca-like "Spaniard" (Aciphylla colensoi), long, bunched leaves of grass-tree (Dracocephalum longifolius), and green-fingered sprouts of hebe (Hebe ochracea).  The most unique plant I found was a large wind-resistant cushion plant with the odd name of "Vegetable Sheep" (Raoulia); I discovered a single, pillow-sized patch of it during a side-trip when I struggled from Harris Saddle up to the summit of Conical Hill (my highest NZ point at 1350 meters), which afforded even more spectacular views of the alpine landscape. 

Vegetable Sheep, alpine  cushion plant


Valley grassland -  We returned from the summit to the sea by descending through mountain valleys.  Peg and I tramped for two days down the length of the Greenstone Valley, a route that passed through extensive grasslands on the valley floor.  Near its headwaters, the valley was often wet, boggy and dominated by sedges, but dry grassland prevailed in its lower end, strongly dominated by copper tussock grass (Chionochloa rubra). Mosses and lichens were abundant on rock outcrops and on talus slopes beneath old avalanches, particularly foam lichen (Stereocaulon coricatum).  A distinctive "lace lichen" (Cladia retipora) inhabited the grassland itself wherever grasses were shorter from thin soils or grazing pressure.  After returning home, I learned that the red, rock-covering lichen that I saw nearly everywhere in open sunlight was not a lichen at all, but rather a red-pigmented green alga named Trentepohlia. 

Copper tussock grass
Foam lichen

Lace lichen

Trentepohlia on streambank rocks

The sea came back into view as we completed our journey around the island, also concluding my sea to summit survey of this beautiful place.

Tuesday, April 5, 2011

New Zealand Landscapes

Gazing at the Pacific Ocean shoreline from bluff near Kaikoura

I just returned from a 3-week trip in New Zealand with my wife Peg and another couple (our friends Jerry & Marie Swenson from Arkansas) where we drove, sight-saw, car-camped, day-hiked, and backpacked our way around South Island.  There is far more to describe than can be covered in a single blog posting, so today I will highlight the landscapes we enjoyed and will delve into flora and fauna in future postings. 

We flew into the Christchurch airport on March 11, picked up our rental car there, and immediately drove northeast away from the city.  Our original plan had been to spend two days sightseeing in the city, but it was still reeling from the earthquake of February 22.  The immediate crisis had passed but the city was still dealing with damaged infrastructure, including loss of potable tap water.  Over the next three weeks, we drove around the island in a large loop along the coast and crossing the mountains.  We stopped at Abel Tasman National Park, where we took a scenic boat cruise that included an on-shore hike in the forested bluffs above the seashore.



Heading westward and southward, we briefly visited Lake Rotaroa in the north and Franz Josef Glacier, Lake Paringa, and the Haast Valley along the west coast.

Lake Rotaroa,
Nelson Lake National Park

Lake Paringa

Vista near Haast

Franz Joseph Glacier


Reaching the southwest corner of South Island, we left the car and backpacked ("tramped") along the Routeburn Track.  We hiked through spectacular mountain scenery, staying at modern group huts each night.  The trail led us through rich beech forests of the Route Burn Valley to above treeline, across the alpine Harris Saddle with stunning views of the Hollyford Valley, and back down into more beech forest in the Lake MacKenzie and Lake Howden valleys.  After three days on the Routeburn Track, Peg and I looped back along the Greenstone Trail while Jerry and Marie continued over the divide onto the Milford Track.

Mountain scenery above Lake MacKenzie viewed from the Routeburn Track
Greenstone Valley

Rocky trail along the Greenstone Track

The Greenstone Track passed through more beech forest plus boggy bottomlands, talus slopes, outwash benches, and grassland past numerous hanging valleys, each with a beautiful waterfall. The swinging bridge over Steele Creek proved to be the bounciest one we encountered.


Emerging from the backcountry, Peg and I drove the car 400 kilometers around the mountain range to reunite with Jerry and Marie at Milford Sound, a fjord where the Tasman Sea extends inland along a deep glacial valley.  Here we took a scenic tour on a small excursion boat that skirted astoundingly high bluffs and ventured into exhilarating waterfalls.

Milford Sound, looking inland from deck of tour boat


Our loop of South Island concluded with a drive up the east coast northward to Christchurch.  One of the final places we stopped to admire was the Moeraki Boulders, a football-field-sized area of seashore where large, spherical boulders have weathered out of sandstone bedrock, becoming smoothly polished by centuries of wave action.  I recognized them as "septarian concretions" similar in geologic origin to the smaller, log-shaped and turtle-shaped ones occurring along the cliffy shoreline of Red Rock Lake back in Iowa, where I would soon be returning.

One of the Moeraki Boulders

At an earlier stop at a chasm near Milford Sound, I was pleased to encounter an interpretive sign bearing a quote from one of my favorite natural history writers, Henry David Thoreau.  Although far removed from his inspirational landscape in Massachusetts, his quote was nonetheless perceptive even here in New Zealand:

"The finest workers in stone are not copper or steel tools, but the gentle touches of air and water working at their leisure with a liberal allowance of time."