A Day In Threatened Paradise – I Am A Lucky Man

June 28, 2019
Iain MacLeod

I have been having one of those magical New Zealand days that reminds me why I was so lucky to be born in this country.

It is mid winter, yet temperatures continue to be mild; it’s dry and for the most part sunny but certainly not tropical. It can be a fantastic time of year with days of blue skies, little wind and bookended by chilly nights snuggling up in front of a fire with a glass of good New Zealand red wine. The days are perfect for getting outside, working in the garden and taking long walks in our patch of rainforest or along local beaches.

My wife and I try and spend Friday working from our beach house in Northland. The beach house sits high on a hill overlooking Bream Bay and the coast, lined with fine whitish sand which sweeps in a wide arc to the north of us.

I was chatting to a client on my cell phone this morning when I looked out and saw the unmistakable fine mist of an exhaling whale. I nearly dropped the phone.

Orca are regular visitors to this part of New Zealand and while massive schools of pygmy pilot whales and bottlenose dolphins regularly hunt and pass through the bay, large whales are a rarity but are increasingly being seen. There is a resident population of around 200 Brydes whales in the Hauraki Gulf that lies between us and Auckland to our south, and many years ago through my telescope I saw a pod far out to sea from our deck.

The two whales this morning however were very large and no more than 300 m offshore. I was clearly looking at a mother and her calf.

For a while they were rolling onto their sides exposing their massive dorsal fins. I wonder if in fact they were not Brydes but Humpbacks or possibly Southern Right whales, once incredibly common around New Zealand and clearly making a comeback.

Then, this afternoon, when I was talking to my colleagues in Melbourne and Auckland on a Skype call I heard the unmistakable song of a bellbird outside and then saw it sipping from a banksia flower, a tree planted many years ago to provide winter food for nectar loving native species. Bellbirds are quite a small bird, olive green with a flash of yellow on their wings but possess an outsized call that is incredibly melodic and beautiful to listen to. This forest bird is very common in some parts of New Zealand where predator control takes place but they are rare at Langs beach where we are. Like the whales however they are making something of a comeback.

With more and more people stepping up trapping programmes and controlling the numbers of rats and mustelids on their properties, thus creating safer environment for our native birds to breed and raise chicks, I am increasingly seeing species like Bellbird that we have never seen in the 23 years we have owned this property.

I have to say, it lifts my spirit.

Having recently returned from another three weeks in Asia cooped up in concrete and glass buildings and being surrounded by so many people so far removed from nature, I find it hard to not feel a certain level of despondency when I think of leaving this corner of the world behind. I certainly feel claustrophobic in those cities. I actually question the future of humanity when most of the population lives in cities and have no connection to the natural world. They consume relentlessly without understanding the damage they do to the environment that sustains us and every other living creature on the planet.

That disconnection from nature, a connection that by and large as New Zealanders we take for granted, might explain the oceans of plastic I encounter when I go scuba-diving in Asia and the mountains of rubbish that line the roads in countries like Malaysia. I’ve almost stopped looking out of airplane windows flying over Malaysia and Indonesia as I bear sad witness to the intense destruction of the rainforests.

Over this weekend however my ritual of clearing and re-baiting our traplines of possums, rats, mice, the odd feral cat and occasional stoat or weasel will continue.

I absolutely love the time that I spend in the rainforest and I tell myself that over time as we continue to eliminate the introduced predators one at a time, we will be creating a home for native species like the Bellbirds. After 18 months of trapping we are now approaching 500 dead possums, mustelids and rodents but it seems as fast as we kill them, the faster the traps we set fill up.

It is not an exaggeration to call it a war and one which never seems to end. A war I’m happy to fight even though I’d prefer not to be killing what in other situations are extremely cute animals.

When the reward is the song of Bellbirds, the promise of our embattled Kiwis (birds) being seen in their ancestral forests once again and our seas have enough food in them to sustain migrating and resident whales passing through in peace, it is all so very worthwhile.

I am indeed a lucky man.

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