Gathan Beaga

As the seas rise, so shall the hills uplift

After the passing of the mower, a tiny clump of grass emerged with ends frayed but still standing proud.


He stopped and knelt. A memory, and an identification. It looked like a small tussock.

Flood recall:

… afternoons of lying on his back sheltered between them and staring at the sky. Sounds of wind soughing through and the occasional skylark.

… their giant cousins, the snowgrasses, that when unburnt were taller than people. Playing hide and seek between them. Getting the four-wheeler at speed bellied on them.

… their dry smell. Cool air. Windburn. Long days in the sun.

He missed them. But here they were, more scattered through the lawn as he looked.

Maybe they’d come to bring him home.


I’m always a bit of a sucker for colourful animals of various kinds. It’s a failing. But not an uncommon human one.

Hacking away at our Bay tree the other day I came across two I hadn’t seen before: both visually quite colourful (as opposed to merely behaviourally colourful, like say a jumping spider).

The first was a tiny false scorpion: even smaller than the 5mm long and usually dark brown ones that I sometimes catch in our bathroom, this one was green with red pedipalps (their nippers). It had fallen onto my shirt and from there I was able to put it onto the deck railing for a shot or two:

false scorpion

Luckily it was so extremely slow moving. At about 3mm long it was at the limits of what I could capture with my current setup.

false scorpion

I suppose the colours would be good camouflage for an arboreal hunter. Apparently they wander about probing with their pedipalps for prey; and when they find it seize it and poison it before ripping it to bits and feeding themselves. Charming.

Not long afterwards I spotted a really quite pretty green spider running around on a branch. It proved hard to catch but I managed to get it into a plastic container and into the fridge overnight in the hope of slowing it down sufficiently for photography. (I have heard this is a common cheat amongst photographers of small beasts.)

The next day I spent five minutes trying to photograph it before it inevitably escaped:

Paradictyna spider

As you can see, this spider too, is very small, its body probably no more than 5mm long. According to Forster & Forster, the main reference book I use when checking out what spider I’ve caught, this would appear to be a spider of the Paradictyna genus, “undoubtably one of our most handsome spiders”1.

Paradictyna spider

Why yes, it is very handsome.

But also very sadly delicate, as I found out when it escaped from my hand and fell onto the sun-warmed barbecue, instantly dying.

I am not to be trusted with animals, it seems.

1 While looking for more information on these spiders I came across David Winter’s post on them, and from there, Ray Forster’s obituary. Forster was a guy so dedicated to his science that when he was stationed in the tropics in WW2 he built a still, not to to get boozed, but to have alcohol for preserving all the specimens he was catching!


This has turned into a bit of a twitchery bird-nerd posting.

I love the sound of bellbirds. They remind me of two places that I don’t get to as often as I’d like these days: the family farm, where three or four bellbirds pass by many times each day on their circuits of the area; and around Lake Hawea, where outside of the Christmas and Easter holiday periods they’re just about the noisiest things in the whole sleepy township.

Bellbird in a beech tree, Central Otago, April 2011

For me bellbird song has come to represent holidays and relaxation. Every time I hear one my mood lightens and I just feel that little bit cheerier.

Each bird has a different call pattern. When staying on the farm I eventually learned to recognise each individual there when they called; and in one case, I captured some audio on my phone:

This is the sound of the male in the photo above; and a very handsome beast he was too (here’s some more pictures of him from April 2011).

So you can imagine how happy I am to hear any in the neighbourhood here in Wellington. They’ve come and gone in the last few years - they are not overly common but as Zealandia’s breeding programme continues, and the Council keeps trapping rats and possums, they are increasing in numbers a bit.

There’s been one around for much of the last month… or so I thought. My happy reveries were interrupted when I noticed that what I thought was a bellbird singing was, once I spotted the singer, actually a gangly juvenile tui, much like this one:

Juvenile Tui at flax, Wellington, December 2008

I was a bit unreasonably annoyed. Now, every time I heard the “bellbird”, I’d feel a little flash of dissonance. Was it a real bellbird? Or a fake? So I named the tui Rūpahu.

Clearly I wasn’t thinking straight. Tui are great imitators, and juveniles in particular will pick some environmental sound, copy it and repeat it every minute or two for all the daylight hours (and more) - sometimes even car alarms and other, odder noises. Which meant that Rūpahu had to have learnt the song from somewhere.

And so it turned out. The other morning I thought I heard two bellbirds. I crept outside to have a look… and there they were. Rūpahu in the cherry tree; a bellbird in the kowhai tree about eight metres away from its copyist. Both making the self-same song, note-complete with the same whirrs and buzzes too, and often at the exact same instant as if in stereo. It was slightly surreal.

I managed to record them, though sadly the phone’s mic is mono so the full effect is lost:

But if you listen carefully you can just about detect that one of the calls is a slightly different pitch. I couldn’t distinguish between them at the time.

Since then I’ve seen the pair of them around a few more times. I suspect that young Rūpahu is a bit confused hanging about the bellbird like that… but I’m happy that it has had such a good singing teacher, and happier still that we have a bellbird around.

Long may they both remain in the neighbourhood.

the admiral

The forecast did not prepare us for this morning. We had expected showers and grey… but what eventuated, at least for some of the day, was far nicer.

The unexpected sunshine, and unexpected lack of wind made for a warm, humid atmosphere. Breakfast on the deck for me then, overlooking the cherry tree in full blossom.

Breakfast on the deck

The only sounds were those of the birds (several tui flouncing about the trees, and high above, a falcon) and the bees (the neighbour’s hive is just over the fence and their bees were out in force, loving the blossom).

Until someone’s chainsaw started up. I’m not sure what it is about some people and their compulsive need to use their chainsaws on a Sunday morning.

Oh well. I didn’t let it destroy the mood. In fact I was so relaxed I forgot I was still in my pyjamas when our nice neighbour delivered our paper.

At the time, I was lurking on the lawn taking more photos. I had spotted a Red Admiral among the blossoms:

Red Admiral on Cherry Blossom

There are a few of them about all through the winter, even on the hilltops I ride.

Red Admiral on Cherry Blossom

You have to be quick to catch them with their wings spread - they’re open only for a couple seconds after the butterfly lands on a new flower. After that, they often close up their wings and show only the wings’ dull grey camouflaged undersides.

Later, the weather held and we had a little family group photoshoot among the blossoms (easier now, while the kids are yet young enough that their reluctance at such things has not hardened into the inevitable refusal).

Soon afterwards though, the clouds closed in, and with them came the rain. Typical spring day!

Previous springtimes:

at El Matador

It’s Awesome August in Wellington. Though we are in the depths of winter, there’s usually quite a bit going on: the Film Festival, for example, and in latter years the rather good Wellington on a Plate festival. We don’t typically overdo either event, choosing only the one or two most interesting looking things from each.

For this year’s food choice, we went for Cooking Over Fire, The Argentine Way, to be held at El Matador, a new “Café, Asador Grill & Bar” as yet unfinished at the time I made the booking (ever the risk-taker!).

Asador is the Argentine national dish, a way of slow-cooking whole animals over an open fire. This is supposed to result in a beautifully tender and juicy meat, with hints of smoke. The idea with the event was to show us how to setup and start barbequing a lamb in the morning, and then come back and eat it in the evening.

This sounded totally outstanding, so I decided to make a day of it and bail from work. That’s how R. and I, having dropped the kids off at school, ended up wandering along Cuba Street at 9am on a Monday morning.

in the clear

This weekend past, due to a slight scheduling mishap, the Film Festival film we were to take the kids to turned out to practically clash with a film I was quite keen to see. So Rebecca took the girls to their film, and I thought I’d ride my bike over to Penthouse in Brooklyn to see mine.

I think it’s quite good to use my bike for such mundane city transportational activities - I feel strongly that I should be using it more on a day to day basis rather than just off-road as a weekend hobby - but I’m generally too chicken (though gaining in confidence a little) to go up against Wellington’s traffic and roads.

A Sunday afternoon though? That’s doable… especially as I could avoid dropping down to the centre of town by riding up alongside the Zealandia fence to where there’s a track down to the top of Brooklyn.

Anyway, getting to the theatre took less time that I thought, and it felt great.

The film was In the Fog, a really quite beautifully shot and formally constructed story about three people, their personalities and the choices they make in the face of a series of terrible situations. It was very Russian, and I liked it a lot.

Back out, and after some lunch I had a little more time to look about. It was such a nice day for August:

Wellington Harbour from Pol Hill, August 2012

There was not a breath of wind, even at the top of Polhill at about 300m above sea level. And also up here was something left behind by the ubiquitous Luna:

L is for Luna, Pol Hill gun emplacements, August 2012

Nice detail work in there.

The one-way downhill back along the Zealandia fence is called the Rollercoaster, and has lots of jumps which I took care to avoid. Luckily there was no-one behind me to be held up by my cautious descent. But going slow had benefits: over the fence I saw a saddleback in full sun on a bare branch.

Did I have my good camera with me? Of course not. But I suspect I’ll be back again before long - there are tracks in them thar hills leading all the way down to the South Coast…

two birds

Back in May I took a day off for my birthday, and amongst other things I went for another look around Zealandia. There was not much new to report: deeper into late autumn there seemed a little less life around. It was cooler, and overcast, and the light made it even harder to snap the locals.

But all the usual suspects were in force, like this robin that came along while I was eating lunch:

A North Island Robin, at Zealandia; May 2012

The more I rucked up the leaves on the path, the more it hung about. Eventually I had to carry on as I wanted to walk up to the wind turbine to have a look from up there (also: I like climbing hills).

Turned out there was not much of a view from inside the fence, so back down I came, returning to photography.

This wasn’t hugely productive either. I had a better time just quietly waiting and observing. Down a dark gully there was a stitchbird, streaking from branch to branch below the path. Sometimes it would alight on a branch illuminated by a shaft of light from a break in the canopy. But I was never quite quick enough - this was the best I could do as it braced to take off:

Stitchbird, at Zealandia; May 2012

Well, that was that. Time to walk out to the café to meet Rebecca and continue the rest of the day.

the summer that was

This awful weather we’re having. Well, it’s winter I suppose… but it makes me want to look back at this summer past.

And I remember now that I posted nothing here over that period. Clearly time to do something about that then. Lots of photos to follow…

happy trails in (roto-)vegas

School holidays… so last week we were up in the Rotorua area, sharing a lovely crib (sorry, “bach”) on the shores of Lake Tarawera with our cycling friends from back on the Rail Trail.

Clouds, Central North Island

This was our view.

Tarawera is pretty impressive, and always catches the light in interesting ways, especially in the evening. The lake was cold and clear, but that did not deter the kids who went for a swim anyway; and there were kayaks for everyone else (except me - I’m not really one for getting on the water, though I do like looking at it).

Maps, Rotorua Mountain Bike ParkWe also had our bikes with us and we’d heard that no trip to Rotorua is complete without a visit to the Mountain Bike Park right beside town. I hadn’t been on single track since my only disastrous visit to the Makara Peak Mountain Bike Park over two years ago - I have been riding instead around the open country 4WD trails west of the city, like the Skyline Trail.

I had collected some maps from the Redwoods Visitor Centre, including a rather cool microfibre cloth map handy for stuffing into a pocket, and so I plotted a roughly 15km route across the various logging roads from the Tikitapu (Blue Lake) side of the park through to the car parking area to get an idea of the lay of the land. Although I had been assured that the trail style in this park was more sweeping and “flowy” than Makara I didn’t want to take any chances.

I wish now that I did take some more chances.

Starting out in a cool frosty morning, we climbed hard to just about the highest point in the park, and I snapped a triumphal pic of a trail sign to email back to a co-worker trapped in the office back in Wellington.

Trail sign, Rotorua Mountain Bike Park

He sent back a dutifully envious email… but of course I hadn’t gone down any trails, I had just ridden past their entrances. Turns out that the joke was on me, as I later discovered that Split Enz was probably within my skill level.

While we were traversing the park on the logging roads, the others were ripping around the trails close to the main carpark, and once we all met up for lunch the others had had enough and it was time to go.

Luckily I did get to have another visit one morning a couple days later and that was when I had one of those little revelations when one finds one is actually a little bit better at something than one thinks.

On this visit, we started out on Tahi, then did the Dipper twice because it was so much fun, sweeping around banked-up turns through the trees. Then we headed further up, where we got a bit lost trying to find a way to the lookout overlooking town and had a couple of good frights on a trail called the Tickler. At the end of that trail we consulted a map board, where a friendly local rider advised us to try Be Rude Not 2: more fast downhill sweeps around bermed tracks. We’d seen people come down it and it did seem like the best option for the last trail of session before meeting the kids at the luge.

This last track was insanely good, even for my level of expertise and general timidity. My co-rider thought he was on the wrong trail, because I had gotten so far ahead of him he couldn’t see me anymore. I waited for him at an intersection, heart pounding, a stupid grin on my face.

“Yeah”, I thought, “I get this now”.

It seemed a little bit of a shame to get saddled up and head to the luge for some processed (and expensive) entertainment but family holidays are all about this sort of small compromise. There will be another chance.

Since I’ve been back home I’ve been scoping out new trips (Dun Mountain sounds great once the kids are a bit more confident) and new gear and jargon (a 29” hardtail with Shimano Alfine internally geared hub is the current fantasy bike) but what I really need to be doing is more riding… and a return to Makara Peak.

Not today though. Wellington wind, Wellington rain: Winter.

flyover country

The best bits of having to go to another city for a day trip are without doubt the flights themselves… if you can get a window seat.

So on the way, you could look to the East through the slightly grubby port, and see:

  • Ruckled low cloud in lines along Ruapehu;

Clouds, Central North Island

  • Fog following the line of the Waikato river from Taupo to Hamilton;

Fog following the Waikato River, Central North Island

  • Frost silvering the plains around Te Aroha;
  • Out in the Bay of Plenty, a fierce orange sun glow surrounding White Island.

Sun on the Bay of Plenty, with White Island

And then, below electronic device switchoff, the marks of surface transportation:

  • Green fields crossed with the desire lines of stock, gate to gate; trough to trough;
  • Giving way to the lifestyle blocks of the rich and famous and their long gravel driveways;
  • And on over the close-packed cubicle houses of new suburbia and their bin-speckled roadways;
  • Leading to thrombotic motorways
  • all converging on
  • The Smoak.

But then you’re down in it, and converging on The Smoak yourselves, the spot-hired vesicle filled with cheesy country music sung in Te Reo. Your grey-haired Pākehā driver checks to make sure you’re ok with the music. Yeah, nah, it’s OK.

You’re still nowhere other than in New Zealand.

And in the afternoon, you do it all over again, backwards.

Dusk over the Central North Island, from (literally) the Bus home