Be it ever so humble there's no place like home, sweet Ghetto...

The Legendary Wollongong

For my last gasp of Australian holiday birding I went on yet another pelagic excursion, the legendary Wollongong fourth Saturday. Shortly after dawn I boarded the Sandra K, a reeking tub that has been taking the world's most notorious birders out looking for pelagic species in the rugged seas off the south coast of Australia every fourth Saturday of the month, for so many years that one wonders if she could possibly still be seaworthy. A diverse group of international hardcore birdos--a Yorkshire PhD student, a french teacher from New Caledonia, a couple of grim midwesterners, myself--joined a motley crew of salty local birdmen who make the trip each month and can identify distant shearwaters whipping past on the wing with only the quickest glance at the flight silouette.

The Wollongong is nothing like birding off Kaikoura, where albatross begin wheeling around the stern of the boat virtually before one has even left the harbor. In this part of south-eastern Australia the continental shelf is a good few hours of rocking and rolling beyond the harbormouth. One of the things the Wollongong pelagics are most renowned for is seasickness, and it was after only a few minutes out that the deck began to lurch back and forth in the alarming swells. I managed to keep breakfast down, but there were some queasy moments.

The Sandra K. at the wharf. Everyone from Phoebe Snetsinger to Sean Dooley has headed out for a gut-churning sea voyage on board this modest vessel.

Puttering through the harbor, a boat full of birdos, all eagerly scanning the waves for the first bird of the day.

"The sun's coming up, like a big bald head."

The former drummer for ZZ Top, now retired to a relaxing life as the resident chum-master on board the Sandra K.

Mmmmmm. Delicious. Nothing like the sight of a tub full of ground raw chicken to help ease that queasy feeling bubbling up from the small intestine. Is that spoonful for me?

Soon a mass of Wedge-tailed shearwaters began to gather, gobbling chicken offal and trailing behind the boat.

The big boys, three Wandering albatross, join the party as we near the continental shelf.

Netting shearwaters for banding; something like capturing butterflies, except bigger, and with feathers.

It's a bit like fishing.

Got one!

Bird banding.

Scraggly shearwater, banded. Tag and release.

Next, a special interactive feature:

Stare at the first image for a few seconds. Now quickly stare at the next one. Now stare back at the first one. And switch again. Now back again. How do you feel? Continue this for seven hours and report back. Your comments on the experience welcome.


The Unwary Cassowary

This whole birding racket, I've often explained, as if in defense of my hobby, leads one to the most spectacular natural places of the globe. It is as if the rare, endangered and spectacular species all over the world possess an unerring eye for our most glorious and unspoiled corners. But it is of course precisely because our own species has done so very much spoiling that such places are remote and inaccessible, and the birds in them so threatened. Until global warming really kicks in with all its turbo-charged, microwaving power, habitat destruction will continue to be the primary cause of extinction for those waning species we are supposed to be sharing the planet with.

When particular birds are really threatened, at risk of being completely extinguished, it is invariably because mankind has done away with all of the suitable habitat in the name of the still apparently admirable goal of "development." Seated in the waiting room of extinction, birds like the Southern cassowary have nearly nothing left of their formerly splendid environment to inhabit, and in such cases birding brings the birder right to the depressing front lines of the ongoing war between mankind and the rest of the natural world.

Which is how I came to be sitting in a cushioned rattan garden chair on the airy veranda of the Licuala Lodge in Mission Beach, Queensland, a "lifestyle-oriented" beachfront community a couple of hours south of Cairns. A comfortable and tastefully appointed B+B with an immaculately manicured garden in the tropical style, the Licuala Lodge lies on a residential cul de sac shaped on the model of any of innumerable luxury Floridian housing developments: a tract of land with a "drive" or a "close" or a "court" paved right through its middle, like the backbone of a fish, and many landscaped driveways off to either side, completing the skeleton. I put my binoculars nearby on the glass-topped coffee table and put my feet up on the porch railing and drank jasmine tea; it's not so bad here at the front, at least for us humans.

The B+B is hosted by an expat british couple, Sue and Mick, who have two semi-permanent residents, Cassie and Charlie, two Southern cassowaries who stride noiselessly out of the adjacent jungle for daily visits. There is a symbiotic interrelationship of species here, as between an anemonefish and its anemone: the regular appearance of the cassowaries ensures the regular appearance of paying, birder guests, and in return the cassowaries profit in the form of banana handouts.

Now, don't go getting all self-righteous on me and trying to denigrate my exciting sighting of wild cassowaries. There is no difference between Cassie and Charlie and the birds that come to your backyard feeder for sesame seeds except that cassowaries are six feet tall and flightless. I know you imagined me trudging through the dim and sodden rainforest dawn, up to my ankles in muck and pulling off the leeches as fast as they could fall out of the trees and down the back of my neck, but that wasn't how it was. When I pulled into the driveway, binoculars around my neck, Mick came out to greet me. (If you remember from the last paragraph, he's one of the people, not one of the cassowaries).

"What are my chances of seeing a cassowary, do you suppose?" I asked, after discussing rooms and rates and so on.
"There might be one about just now," said Mick, "there was one here half an hour ago."
Oh Drat, I thought.

Not to seem anxious, but once I had put my bag in my room and had a first cup of tea, I asked again:
"Mick, is there anywhere I should go for the rest of the afternoon, you know, to sort of increase my chances?"
"Honestly, if you really want to see cassowaries, I would stay right here. You'll see them, I can pretty much assure you. Don't worry."

Cassowaries are enormous, and potentially dangerous. Only Ostriches and Emus are bigger, but cassowaries are tougher. They have a vicious horn-like spur of bone on top of their head and gigantic, muscled thighs, like a duck leg as trained by Arnold Schwarzenegger. They have been known to head-butt and then kick people to death, generally in response to some perceived threat to their young.

Git out mah way, fo' I stomp yo' ass.

In Papua New Guinea there are still stable populations of cassowary, but in Australia, in tropical north Queensland, there may be as few as five hundred left. This is largely because there is nowhere left for them to live; only 3 to 5% of their original habitat remains, and this is fragmented into many small bits, divided from one another by sterile oceans of sugar cane plantation. Although there are still some wonderful tracts of jungle in Queensland, if I were to log into your bank account and remove all but 3% of your funds, I'm sure you would feel that, essentially, you had been wiped out. A bird this size, which can gobble an entire banana the way you might swallow an aspirin, requires a lot of territory in which to forage for fallen fruits.

Cassowary in the driveway. There must be a banana around here somewhere....

Restless, I went for a walk in the garden, staying on the edge adjacent to the jungle, peering into the forest and hoping for a glimpse of a cassowary. Then I heard Mick, calling for me rather urgently. I quickly ran back towards the house, past the swimming pool. Mick was on the second floor porch, pointing down and over the edge of the house. Charlie, I think it was, was patrolling in front of the garage doors, looking this way and that, but mostly up at the porch, expecting a banana to materialize at any moment. He stayed a good fifteen or twenty minutes before sidling off into the forest, but came again an hour later. In the evening Cassie came; she is larger, older and more powerful than Charlie and will not tolerate his presence outside of the breeding season. According to Sue, Cassie will chase Charlie off if she arrives at the house and finds him there; such is the law of the jungle, for there might not be enough bananas to go around. I photographed the birds a volonté.

It took a good twenty minutes of following Charlie around before I managed to get a photograph of him in front of anything that remotely looked like jungle. He was either in front of the garage, or the latticework doors to the downstairs common area of the B+B, or in front of the car. At last as he was slinking back into the forest I got this remotely "wild" shot.

In the morning, at dawn, I knew Cassie was arriving by the crunch of her massive feet on the gravel of the driveway. It sounded just like a person, but walking more calmly and deliberately. In the jungle of course, they manage to move almost silently. When necessary they can run in short bursts at speeds of up to 50km an hour. In their natural state, cassowaries are said to by shy and wary. But cassowaries in Australia are much reduced in personality and behavior, by circumstances. I almost felt like a cheat, seeing my first cassowary this way. After all, birds seen in a zoo do not count for a "life list." How tame are Cassie and Charlie? How legitimate is it to "tick" them? Shouldn't I have shlepped it into the forest, hoping that against the odds I would stumble upon a bird who refused, on principal, to head to suburbia for easy handouts? I tortured myself with these thoughts as I left Mission Beach, driving back towards Cairns along "Cassowary Drive." The access road to the community cuts through a chunk of the pristine jungle that backs up onto the Licuala Lodge. All along its length are warning signs: "Do not feed the cassowaries," or "SLOW DOWN, Cassowary Territory!" An enormous, billboard-sized yellow and black warning sign shows a graphic of a cassowary being hit by a car, and the legend: "Cassowaries have been killed by speeding!" According to Sean Dooley there are an average of four cassowary fatalities a year caused by humans hitting them with cars. In a population of five hundred or so, in a bird with a three to five year breeding cycle, this is significant, but obviously if we allow driving at all, and therefore consider it societally acceptable that a certain number of humans are going to be killed each year in automobile accidents, we aren't going to outlaw cars to prevent cassowary deaths. I tapped the brakes, and slowed just in time to see, there, on the grassy margins of the highway, a third, unnamed cassowary. Was this one wilder, less accustomed to civilization and its ways? I wanted to pull over, but there was nowhere to park, and traffic behind me, so I had to zip on by.

This poor cassowary does not think that Mick and Sue's parked Ford SUV is a banana, instead it is investigating its own reflection in the glossy paint job. If there were only five hundred of you humans left you would carefully and sadly stare into the mirror, too, just in case some surprise chance at friendship had somehow eluded you.


Reading: The Big Twitch by Sean Dooley

Twitching, you need to understand, is not a symptom of some dread disease, or a nervous mannerism. To twitch is to list, to tick, to cross off, as in a species of bird, once seen. Twitchers are those birdwatchers at what we might call the hardcore end of the birding spectrum, those maniacal and fanatical amateur ornithologists driven by a desperate impulse not entirely distinct from collecting passport stamps or records or turquoise enamel cookware. Ever in seek of the new, these are not people who sit about watching their favorite garden birds visit the backyard feeder. No. Twitchers flit around their state, nation, continent or globe in search of novelty, rarity, and most importantly, another X on the checklist. They have "life lists" which catalog the entirety of their successful sightings in the absurd world of competitive birding. I would never participate in anything so crass, not to mention demeaning to the birds themselves. But that's easy for me to say, because my list is longer than yours.

In Australia, at least, my list is most definitely not longer than Sean Dooley's. A lifelong birder and freelance comedy writer caught "between jobs," Dooley, in 2002, squandered his inheritance attempting to break the Australian "big year" record. He sought, in other words, to see in one calendar year more species of birds within the political boundaries of what we call Oz than anyone before him. In fact he hoped to far exceed the long-establish record of 638; he was aiming for a full 700. If you think this is an obscure goal allow me to assure you that in the United States it is not uncommon to encounter birders who keep county lists, not only in their home state, but in the neighboring ones. What's more, they keep cumulative lists for a particular month in a particular county. And monthly state lists. And lower 48-states lists. And lists of their lists. I don't have any of these. What do you think I am? Some kind of bird geek? I do admit to having a "Five-Borough" list and a "Red Hook" list, but purely for my own amusement. And if you had seen Red-throated loon in the industrial wastelands of the Erie basin, swimming just in front of the Sunset Park Home Depot, you would start a Red Hook list too, I know you would. Not to mention I had Wilson's warbler in my back yard on Coffey St. and needed somewhere appropriate to write that down for posterity's sake. But this isn't about me, it's about Dooley.

I don't want to offend anybody, since over the years I've been given as gifts everything from academic works on feather structure in accipiters to sappy reminiscences of lives spent "birding around the old Vermont homestead," but I could care less about books about the habits of birds, how to feed baby birds, what birds some other person saw, what makes birding "fun", why birds can fly and so on. I don't want to stay home and read about other mooks who love birds, I want to go out in the woods and see new ones. Unless it is a field guide, which will help me identify birds in Madagascar, and therefore allow me to add them to my list, I don't care. So a book like The Big Twitch is normally not something you will find me enjoying.

But in fact, I loved it. As far as I can tell from the birders I've met here and there around the globe in my travels so far, Sean Dooley is the only other "birdo" out there besides me who understands why the rest of the world thinks we are insane. And thinks birding is funny but still birds. "To bird" having become in our world a verb. Most hardcore birders you meet out in the field say things like "I was going to fly home to be at my wife's side as she delivered our first child, but I hadn't managed to see Scarlet Macaw in time to get back, so I stuck around the malarial swamps of Guatemala for a few more days. But we're planning on having more children." Should you give the merest hint that you find this suggestive of misplaced priorities, such people invariably go all huffy on you, retreating between the covers of their field guide and refusing to talk about which trail it was exactly that they saw Atherton's scrubwren on that morning. But not Dooley. He thinks it is all hilarious and embarrassing, but inescapable, because he has got the disease. In The Big Twitch, he drives thousands of kilometers through the outback madly ticking off species and eating nothing but stale meat pies, only to arrive, exhausted and road weary, at some god-forsaken internet cafe where he logs on and discovers that some mega-rarity has been sighted thousands of kilometers back across the county, whereupon without stopping for so much as a coffee he rushes to the airport and flies off to fail to see it. Then he laughs about it and starts over. Meanwhile his total is steadily rising, along with the suspense.

I don't want to spoil the ending of this ornithological cliffhanger, but Dooley gets his 700. His 700th bird for the year was a tiny, brightly colored sparrow-like bird known as a Blue-faced parrot finch. Notoriously difficult to pin down, nomadic and wily, parrot finches feed in long grass in clearings in rainforests. One would imagine that they would be doing well, given how much rainforest is being cleared around the world, but parrot-finches are declining. They are very particular and like only tiny clearings in very good, pristine forests. When I was in the Philippines, working on a film about Imelda Marcos, I remember reading about a filipino parrot finch with habits even less-well-known than those of the Blue-faced. It hadn't been reliably seen in years, and even to go to the district where it might conceivably occur meant risking kidnapping at the hands of Maoist separatist guerillas. I didn't try to see it. Dooley saw his Blue-faced on Mt. Lewis in northern Queensland, which has comparatively few guerillas, and as I am in the neighborhood I thought I would stop by and visit the site, being that it is now obviously of immense historical significance. I also hoped to see Tooth-billed and Golden bowerbirds, Mountain thornbill, Gray-headed robin, Bower's shrike-thrush, the aforementioned Atherton's scrubwren, Chowchilla, and Fernwren, these being the crucial species to "get" here, as they all live only in a small area of mountainous coastal rainforest in this enormous state. They are known collectively as the "wet tropical endemics."

The entrance to the Mt. Lewis refuge. If only we had tropical rainforest like this in my Brooklyn!

The bird is known to hang out at one particular clearing in the forest, near the summit of Mt. Lewis, a couple of hours north of Cairns, which was the answer we were looking for in the quiz in the previous blog entry. Dooley claims to have been particularly excited to see the parrot-finch not only because it was to be number 700, but because he had failed to find the unreliable little beast on previous occasions. It was, therefore, a "life bird" as well as a "year bird." With one week left in the year, he wrote:

"Over fifteen years I'd made the pilgrimage to Mount Lewis on five separate occasions. Each one had seen me return with an empty space on the checklist. Others had been seeing them recently at the famous clearing but there had only been one or two and they had been very difficult to get onto.
"I rose before dawn on the morning of Christmas Eve, determined that this time it would be different.... Bleary eyed I drove up the mountain and parked the car at the concrete causeway where a party of Red-browed finches were feeding. The parrot-finches will supposedly forage with the Red-broweds, but not this time.... I tremulously walked the rest of the way to the clearing. Again there were more Red-broweds, again no Blue-faced."

My God, Dooley, put me out of my misery, I can't stand the tension.

"After a couple of minutes I thought I saw something a bit bigger fly down to the base of the grass. I could see one stalk of grass waving about far more wildly than the ones the red-browed finches were perched on. This had to be it. Slowly the bird on the grass stem moved up towards the waving seed-head. Like a fisherman who can tell by the strength of the tug on the line that he's got something good, I knew this was the business. Suddenly the bird popped into view. Plump, bright green body, blue face, red rump: a Blue-faced parrot finch, bird number 700."

Trying to have this experience for myself (this is about me, not about Dooley), I drove after dawn up the slick clay road, through spectacular tropical Australian rainforest, watching the odometer tick off the tenths. The critical clearing is 11.6 kilometers up the mountain from the main road, as any fool who can Google should know. Probably 90% of the birders on the world circuit who have the parrot-finch on their list have seen it in this exact spot. Not me. I saw it well before there, at about the 8 kilometer mark, when an explosion of small birds burst out of a minuscule patch of roadside grasses. Does that make mine better than yours? Directly in front of me, before I had so much as gotten out of the car, a blue-faced parrot finch perched on the branch of a bush overhanging the road. Even through the rental car windscreen I could appreciate the brilliant grassy green body, crimson, pointed, parrot-like tail and the cobalt blue, almost Yves Klein head. The parrot finch is quite a little number. I jammed the car into park, turned it off, and eased the door open gently, while rooting around on the seat next to me for the binoculars, never taking my eyes off the bird. I slipped out and got a bead on it through the bins. Slowly I approached, flushing more birds, which whirred up into the bushes and peered around. Suddenly I was surrounded by parrot-finches, a pestilential plague of them. It made me wish I had brought a squash racquet, to swat my way through. There were four in all.

The legendary Blue-faced parrot finch, Dooley's-number-700, was literally my first bird of the day. When I arrived at the actual, reknowned clearing, I saw two more. At my leisure, relaxing, not rushed. They hung about, as if they enjoyed me watching them. They were virtually nibbling at my shoelaces. (What I'm doing right now, according to Dooley's useful and farcical "glossowary" of ozzie twitching terms, is gripping you off: "Not as grubby as it sounds, but still an unpleasant experience. When one birder teases another after having seen a bird the other one hasn't.") My day started on that high note and just kept getting better. I know, I know, you desperately want to know about the Chowchilla. Yes, I saw it (2684). And Atherton's scrubwren. And all the others. And King parrot. And Bridled honeyeater. Etc. You didn't. I did. You shoulda been there.

Sorry, I got a little carried away there.

One of the best moments of the day was watching two Red-browed finches mating. Out of nowhere a pair flew in and landed just inches apart on a horizontal exposed twig at the edge of the world-famous clearing. In his conical bill, the male was clutching the tip of a blade of grass, which he extended into the air in an arching bouquet. He then hopped a series of vertical hops, waving the seed-head indeed. Each hop brought him closer to the female, who was at the very least receptive enough to have joined him on the branch to begin with. I'm fairly certain she knew what was up. With a final wave of the seeds and a last hop he leapt aboard the passive female. Flustering and ruffling, humping and wriggling, he discarded his blade of grass in mid-coitus, which is to say about two seconds into the proceedings, as if to demonstrate that he no longer needed his prop. I suspect that in the Red-browed finch world, the bit of grass symbolizes the man's willingness to set up house, to nest and to nurture alongside his mate. Somewhere in there I'm sure lurks a life lesson waiting to be learned, I'm just not sure what it is. But I'm going to try out the building materials courtship trick next time I'm in Sunset Park at the Home Depot. Look for me holding a 4X8 piece of sheetrock over my head and hopping up and down.

A New and Shortlived Series

The Maryville Thing, from: Vehicles of the Outback

Mt. Carbine School District, from: Vehicles of the Outback

"I should have taken the LDW," from: Vehicles of the Outback


Where in the world am I?

Yesterday I did something I've never done before. Leaving New Zealand I bought an airline ticket right at the airport ticket sales counter. Within about ten minutes of having considered a possible destination I was ticketed and ready to travel. I travel impulsively, but this was impulsive at a dangerous new level. As a result almost nobody in the world knows where I am, except for a rental car clerk and some airline staff. It's rather liberating.

I know, after my last multiple choice test, which I admit now was a complete chain-yank, you may not want to participate in any more quizzes or brain-teasers, but here are some clues that should enable those with too much free time to determine my current whereabouts. We are not interested in something as vague as the continent or hemisphere here, people. I'm in a city. Which one? Post your thoughts in the comments....

Aplonis metallica, immature, 1587


You have to identify these yourself

Care for a dip in the pool?

Yellow Honeyeater, 2613

All pictures taken by me, today


Sell your waterfront property now dept.

One of the most compelling segments in Al Gore's An Inconvenient Truth was the terrifying presentation of a series of before-and-after photographs of glaciers around the globe, all melting faster than a stick of butter at the bottom of a dutch oven. I remember one of the examples being a glacier in New Zealand, although I can't remember which one. It could well have been the Fox Glacier, which has been naturally receding for the last several hundreds of years, but is now retreating up its valley at an alarming rate. It is already a good half an hour's walk from the car park to the foot of the glacier, and shortly the hordes of tourists who drive up to see it will have to pack picnics and plan on making a full day's outing out of the visit.

Driving in from the main road one soon reaches a sign, posted at the edge of a nice patch of mature rain forest, reading "in 1750 the glacier reached here." It is a full ten more minutes of driving up the dirt access road before reaching the car park, which lies in the shadow of a mighty black basalt bluff several hundred feet high. A sign indicates that as recently as the 1600s, the glacier, now far up the valley, covered not only the car park but reached to the very top of the looming cliff. A display of bleached photographs charts the accelerated recession of the glacier almost since the invention of photography, a period almost exactly contemporaneous with our species' earth-baking, fossil-fuel-burning activities.

Fox is entirely unlike the glaciers I saw recently in Antarctica, which were taught and polished, with pristine crevasses tinted an unrelenting dry blue, massive ice-cliffs suggesting dominance and eternity. Instead Fox glacier is wet and sooty, dripping, calving, hot and bothered. A foaming, gushing cascade of fully-formed river emerges like a mighty sweat from the bottom of the ice. The glacier itself looks like an enormous pile of the slushy rubble left over from snow-plowing operations and running with rivulets of water in the first breath of spring.

As the planet warms, a raging torrent of milky meltwater gushes out from the foot of the glacier

A couple of posts ago, while describing a descent of Mt. Fyffe, near Kaikoura, I disparaged the most excellent New Zealand Dept. of Conservation, which administers hundreds of fabulous wildlife areas and spectacular campsites, by suggesting that their casually advertised riverside walk back to the carpark there might well have benefitted from "some industrial hazard warning signs of the yellow and black variety, featuring an icon of a man hip deep in raging rapids, waving his arms for balance...." I don't know whether to be pleased that it turns out they actually have these or even more upset, since none of them were posted there. In fact, judging by the abundance of signage at the glacier, it seems probable that the D.O.C. blew its entire budget on the warning signs in use at Fox and didn't have enough left over to put up any notices anywhere else.

Warning: crumbling glacier may cause tsunami

Warning: do not boogie down underneath the glacial overhang, as the funky disco vibrations emanating from your groovy self may cause enormous chunks of ice to break off and crush you

Warning: don't think that you are safe just because you are not disco-dancing in front of the glacier. Just plain old rocks may fall from the surrounding cliffs onto your head at any time

On the rocks with salt, please: delicious many-thousands-of-years-old ice plucked from the raging glacial outflow. I contracted a wicked ice-cream headache from chewing on the stuff

Although this looks much like the shoulder of the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway a couple of days after a heavy New York City snowfall, it is actually the front edge of the rapidly melting Fox Glacier


Putting the "Twit" back in Twitcher

A few nights ago my friend Kara and I went Kiwi spotting. The national bird, nickname, trademark, and essential identifier of all things New Zealand, kiwis, of which there are actually three, or five, or possibly more species, depending on which authority one turns to, are quite rare and difficult to see in the wild. They are nocturnal and flightless, and their numbers have been decimated by all manner of introduced predators, from dogs to stoats and rats.

At 9pm dusk was just approaching here in the far southern hemisphere summer as the two of us, along with fourteen other avid kiwi fanatics, clambered aboard guide Philip Smith's boat, Wildfire, at the main wharf in Halfmoon Bay. Halfmoon Bay is the urban megalopolis at the throbbing heart of Stewart Island, population 370, well to the south of the southern tip of New Zealand's South Island. The cruise, Smith explained, involved a thirty-five minute boat ride to a sheltered inlet, followed by a nighttime hike across 500 meters of forested island spit to Ocean Beach where, he assured us, his operation had so far this season maintained a 100% success rate in the matter of the spotting of wild kiwis. I took this generous and enthusiastic proclamation as an ironclad guarantee that on tonight's excursion absolutely no kiwis would found. (I remembered reading in Smith's brochure we regret that we are unable to offer a refund in the event that the kiwis are uncooperative, or words to that effect). As the deckhand cast off the ropes, it began to rain.

In the wake of the Wildfire

My mood brightened as we motored out into Paterson Inlet and encountered various parties of little blue penguin bobbing in the sea en route. I had before had fleeting glimpses of this smallest of all the world's penguins, but they are so quick to dive and spend such a very long time underwater that I felt entirely unsatisfied with my previous sightings. Now, with night falling, their hard day of nonstop fishing was perhaps done, for many of them seemed content to loll about on the surface as we passed.

At a distant, rickety jetty, Smith extinguished the motor and briefed us in preparation for our kiwi-spotting adventure. We were to walk silently and slowly, in single file, but bunched together as closely as possible, spotlighting in the undergrowth beside the track as we hiked up and over the spit to the beach. Flashlights were distributed, cautions were issued.

It was by now dark, and a light rain was falling. From the jetty a mossy, treacherous limestone stairway led up the face of a cliff and into the bush. We set off, shuffling closely together like penguins. Fifteen flashlights pierced the gloom beneath the low coastal canopy of gnarled and windblown podocarps. We continued on, kiwiless. With nobody speaking and only the eery illumination of the jiggling flashlights lighting the way, the procession took on the character of a satanic pseudo-Rosicrucian cannibal death cult, as in a bad film. "Where's the Kool-Aid?" I whispered to Kara. We appeared to be on the way to a secret location where we would all participate in some bizarre nocturnal ritual, except that instead of wearing floor-length red velvet hooded monk's robes and carrying black candles we were all dressed in Gore-Tex and fanny packs and sporting Petzl headlamps.

We arrived at the beach, obviously not having seen a kiwi "along the track," as Philip had suggested we might. Just as we emerged from beneath the sheltering foliage it began to rain in earnest. P. Smith had us all gather round in a sodden huddle. Pointing his flashlight into a pile of beach-washed kelp at his feet, he gave it a kick. A mass of sandhoppers, revolting albino insect-crustaceans, leapt about in the beam of light, trying to get out of harm's way. "That's what the kiwis eat," said Smith, in a confiding tone.

Snapping off our torches, we fanned out behind him, advancing slowly, like paratroopers in hostile territory, as he panned the beach and the high-tide line of rotting seaweed with his portable spotlight. On we marched down that beach, a phalanx of eco-tourists, soaked and sandy and vaguely itchy from an imaginary onslaught of sandhoppers. In the gloom ahead I sensed the cliffs marking the end of the beach and knew without a shadow of a doubt that we would soon arrive there without having seen so much as one of the jurassic hair-like feathers of the Stewart Island brown kiwi. Philip paused and pointed his flashlight down at the sand. "These are the tracks of the kiwi," he said. We all stared intently at these proofs of the existence of actual kiwis. They seemed to me indistinguishable from those of a healthy chicken. "But these ones are from last night," he finished.

As silently as possible we continued down the beach. Below the high tide line stretched a second line of washed-up seaweed, black bulbous pods tightly filled with air dotted along the sand. One hapless kiwi-spotter stepped on some and there came a series of loud, explosive pops, as if a child were playing with bubble-wrap. Quickly Smith gathered the group together one more time, like a teacher who hadn't seen just who threw the spitball. "We all need to try and avoid treading on this row of seaweed here," he whispered politely, as if no one had yet stepped on it. "The popping might spook the kiwi; they have very sensitive hearing." The rest of us scowled at the culprit, who had doubtless ruined Smith's perfect track record, and our evening.

What a kiwi looks like; unfortunately this is the kiwi on Philip Smith's promotional postcard

Fifty yards further on Smith paused again, and clicked off his lamp. We pulled up short, standing in the darkness, the only light a vague and blurry glow from the spume atop the crashing waves. "There's one just up here," he said. None of us had seen a thing as he had waved his lamp back and forth across the sand. What had he seen that suggested a kiwi? He turned on the lamp again, and pointed it up towards the dunes, illuminating the line of slick and slimy kelp. And there it was, looking like nothing so much as an extraordinarily hairy coconut husk on a pair of Mr. Potato-head legs, rooting about in the putrid, rotting seaweed with its long and flexible beak. Through my binoculars the luckiest of the sandhoppers flashed white as they sprang to safety past the lamplight. The kiwi thrust deep and fast into the sand, a round, brown, hirsute sewing machine, gobbling critters. It then waddled to a creek, which there entered the sea, and proceeded to drink, pointing its great beak skyward to get each mouthful of water down into its belly. Tremendous. We all tried our best to staunch our oohs, and aahs. "It's a male," said Smith, whispering. "The female can be up to 20% bigger." At last, apparently oblivious to the presence of our large group of salivating eco-geeks, the kiwi wandered up over the dunes and lost itself in the scrub.

Kiwi postcard detail (thankfully no flash photography allowed, so no image of the "actual" bird we saw...)

On the hike back through the forest we found another, a smaller, juvenile female that Smith said was probably that year's offspring. Kiwis are the only birds to emerge from the egg fully fledged, and live their first four or five days on the egg-sac, which they absorb. Then, already quite large, they immediately go out and feed, just as the adults do. This one appeared to be rooting for worms and insects amongst the leaf litter. Soon it meandered off the path, deeper into the bush, and we made our way back towards the bay waters. Tired and soggy but sated with kiwi, we reboarded Wildfire for the trip home.

2605, for those who are following along.

A Seal's Life

I'm hoping I've accumulated enough positive karma in this life that when I come back I'll have the good fortune to be reincarnated as a New Zealand fur seal. These creatures, which abound on the rocky southern coasts, apparently do little other than eat raw fish and lie on the beach, yawning. They look like loaves of pumpernickel bread dough set aside to rise and are so blissfully fat that they can roll around on a shingle beach without suffering the least discomfort. I'm partial to sushi and the oceanfront lifestyle, so I think I'll do just fine.


The Spine of the Iguana

December 30th...

This morning when I woke up and went out for a coffee I realized I already feel overwhelmed by all the humanity, despite being on a sparsely populated island of a mere four million. After only one day in Kaikoura I was tired of seeing cute young ozzie couples on vacation drinking lattes or queuing up to go whale-watching, kayaking with the seals, learning to dance salsa with giant octopus, or any of the other abundant and varied ecotourism options available here. On my map of the South Island, a promising-looking dead-end road wound up into the foothills of the Seeward Kaikoura Range behind us, to the base of Mt. Fyffe, where, I read, there was a "locked gate." Beyond the locked gate a track meandered across the flat piece of paper to the summit, which dominates Kaikoura's view, for those who take the time to turn away from the sea.

"Mt." Fyffe

"Mt." is apparently some sort of abbreviation for mountain, I soon discovered. Once I had found the car park at the end of the road and slung on my backpack, the track, although marked "passable for 4-wheel drive," had a remarkably uphill sort of feeling to it. In fact walking on it I was reminded of climbing a volcano, the Volcan Santa Maria, many years ago in Guatemala, when I was young and in my prime. Because volcanoes are essentially ever-growing piles of rock whose shapes have recently been defined by gravity they resemble the pile of sand at the bottom of an hourglass. Therefore trails up them tend to go straight up: no fussing about with zig-zags, or a bit of up, then a bit of down, then rather more up, and so on. I don't think Mt. Fyffe is a volcano, but the track up it went up. Up. No down at all to speak of, no resty flat bits, just up. The mountain is shaped like an iguana, or the dorsal fin of a fish, and the trail followed its spine up from the tip of the tail, steeply up towards the arch of the back. Two one side of this sharp ridge the forest plunged down into a sort of wooded canyon, the habitat of Hobbits. On the other it plunged towards the sea. The views back down towards the coast were spectacular; I could see all the little whale-watching vessels motoring out to the continental shelf, and the entire shape of the Kaikoura peninsula spread out before me. Onward and upward I trudged.

Kaikoura from on high

(Birdwatching interlude; feel free to skip ahead to the next paragraph if necessary). The most common feathered species to be found in the scrubby windswept growth beside the track was the Brown creeper, an active little creamy-bellied, rufous-capped sort of fellow entirely new to me. I found also the bold and even friendly New Zealand robin, a chunky dusty-gray flycatcher with a white belly, rather larger than but quite identical in shape to the british robin, known to those who named it from back home in their english gardens. I slogged onward and upward, gratified by my new sightings. (End of birdwatching interlude).

I am not the sort of person who needs to reach the top. After an ascent of just under a vertical kilometer in some three hours, I had reached, however, the New Zealand Department of Conservation hut at an altitude of 1100 meters, where I paused, and thought about food. Immediately following my arrival an Israeli couple who had spent the night there emerged and, facing one another, began to do a sort of mirrored yoga and calisthenics regime, apparently to prepare themselves for the descent.
"How's it going?" I asked.
"Oh, very, very good," said the woman, smiling like the Mona Lisa, apparently blissed out on the mountain air and the stretching tendons.
As I began gorging myself on a luncheon of canned smoked tunafish on rosemary crackers, the couple hoisted on their backpacks and headed back down the trail.

A sign a few minutes earlier along the track had offered three options: more going up, two hours worth, to the summit; descent, the way I had come, also advertised to take two hours; and an alternate route back, via a side trail plunging down the knife-edged rib-cage of the iguana to the river-valley below. How long the DOC thought this would take was unclear, as someone had carefully and completely blacked out the suggested time, revising the estimate to read, in magic marker scrawl, "3 hours." I tried to remember how long the sign at the car park had suggested it would take me to reach this point, in order to attempt some sort of calibration, but I hadn't paid attention. Nor did I have any idea whether the revised estimate for the side trail was meant to suggest that the DOC was either grotesquely optimistic or instead unwilling to put down a number that might insult even the slowest, feeblest, fattest huffer and puffer ever to set foot here. But I certainly wasn't going to continue to go up, and why return the way I had come? I tidied up my tuna crumbs and plunged down off the side of the mountain's spine.

Plunging descent into the valley behind

Let me point out that from here on my use of the word "trail" demonstrates what a very generous person I am. The toe-jamming series of plummeting switchbacks leading abruptly down through the alpine grasses at the tree-line were well-marked by posts, but the way itself was a faint line, often little more than an almost historical or even mythical impression, as of the long distant passage of a lone mountain goat. It went down the sides of boulders, over the edges of hummocks and brushed past shrubs. It was very, very steep. Looking down, between the toes of my boots, I spied the colored backpacks of the Israeli couple, who had paused and were looking about themselves with concern somewhere near a marker post visible along the ridge far below me. I saw that they were advancing at a snail's pace; I had taken my time eating my lunch and had not expected to see them again. Soon, largely because of my inability to control my forward momentum as I all but rolled down the mountainside, I passed them. The woman looked rather worried, and no longer blissed out at all.

Entering the forest did nothing to relieve the savage verticality of the trail, but suddenly I was in the midst of trees I feel quite sure were of the genus Podocarpus. Unique evergreens, they have tiny leaves and bark that sheds constantly in enormous strips, shaggy and rough, as if the tree is in a permanent state of moult. Suited to extremes, Podocarpus species grow in the high Andes in Ecuador and Peru as stunted, tortured shrubs near the tree-line there, generally some 4000 meters, then grow in stature as one ascends the southern latitudes and the Andes in the direction of Patagonia and Antarctica. They are, in fact, one of the few species whose fossilized leaves we might expect to find on the Antarctic continent, were it to prove true that it was much warmer there some fifteen million years ago. As always, I loved it inside the forest.

Mommy, what's a Podocarpus?

At last, with bruised toes, I emerged into the natural clearing of the riverbed, which had been visible from far above as a wavy, ice-blue ribbon carving its way through swathes of green. There were no more trail markers to be found, but I knew that my car was parked somewhere downstream. I followed the river's gray shingle floor, jumping from boulder to boulder.

Perhaps the river was running extraordinarily full at this time of year. If not, the New Zealand DOC should post prominently at the head of the trail some industrial hazard warning signs of the yellow and black variety, featuring an icon of a man hip deep in raging rapids, waving his arms for balance as he watches his possessions swept downstream. The first time I needed to ford the river I removed my new gore-tex boots, my two pairs of socks, and my trousers, placed all of these on top of my head, and gingerly made my barefoot way across in boxer shorts, as the torrent did everything in its power to knock me over. Already the second ford was so daunting in its power that I decided to keep the boots on to avoid further bruising my feet and to lessen the chance of going swimming with my camera, binoculars, gps, wallet, backpack, passport, funds in various currencies and all the rest of the things I had thought it unwise to leave in the trunk of the parked rental.

Raging torrent, many fords

The glory of gore-tex, of course, is that it is waterproof, yet breathable. Unfortunately it is just as waterproof from the inside as from the outside, so in the long stretches of walking over loose rock between the fourteen or so times that I was forced to wade through the water to avoid one or another black, basaltic canyon wall, my feet were permanently awash in a gradually warming slosh of glacial runoff. Just as my feet perked up again after recovering from the chill I would invariably reach a spot where I was required to resoak them in order to continue. At last, around the bottom of the iguana's spine, the ocean came back into view, and an orange plastic arrow pointed towards the car park. I revved the engine and drove back to Kaikoura for a late meal of fish and chips. I hope the Israelis made it before nightfall.