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Both ends of the Earth: Reflections on a year in New Zealand

Refuge Notebook

Posted: March 9, 2012 - 10:42am
Capturing a shot of a weka on the Queen Charlotte Track, Malborough Sounds, New Zealand.  Tasha Shelby
Tasha Shelby
Capturing a shot of a weka on the Queen Charlotte Track, Malborough Sounds, New Zealand.

Working abroad this past year in New Zealand, I was asked several times if NZ reminded me of Alaska. The quick answer is "yes" (or in Kiwi English, "yeeah"). The real answer is much more complicated. Looking out the office window, I see a slice of sky beyond the massive pile of snow, from which more snow is falling. Most of NZ lies in latitudes that support rosemary bushes in the yard year-round and two crops of potatoes annually, if not citrus crops and fresh avocados in the backyard. Snowfall of this magnitude (and seasonal length) is unheard of.

Four days prior to starting my new job as the ecologist at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, I was plucking fresh basil from the garden and harvesting ripe tomatoes from backyard vines. Immersion in the antipodean summer, in which radio ads blare "what does summertime mean? CHRISTMAS!", brought the opportunity to explore some of NZ's wildest and most remote places. The desire to explore and travel around the country was deep even prior to the devastating earthquake that destroyed much of Christchurch, the city I lived in, only two weeks after I arrived there last February. With few city locations or services intact, getting out of town became a priority on weekends and holiday breaks.

Exploring the habitat around me has always been a priority in my path to being a professional ecologist. In order to understand a system, one must spend time observing it. Daily observations of Kiwi life and the subtle differences between our cultures became as fascinating a project as investigating how NZ invasive plant habitat suitability reflected historical herbaria patterns.

Though both countries speak English, it felt like a whole new language. Food products were similar but the brands were different, with much higher sugar content. Trash went into a skip, things went to custard instead of falling apart, I pushed a trundler rather than a cart around the grocery store, went to a chemist instead of a drug store, put petrol in my car, watched rugby not football, and went tramping rather than hiking. Daily differences eventually faded into normal life by the end of my year there. Things were "good as gold," and I was "happy as Larry." I felt at home considering that NZ and AK share some deep cultural parallels, including a love of the outdoors, a feeling of geographic isolation from the mother country, and an independent spirit.

Observing all the fascinating indigenous bird life in NZ was also cool. The breadth of bird life, including common species like bellbirds, wekas, tuis, paradise shelducks, keas, and fantails, was exciting enough to compensate for the complete lack of native land mammals, an obvious departure from Alaskan ecosystems. I was fortunate to see the brown spotted kiwi or tokoekea (Apteryx australis) on Stewart Island -- four separate sightings in three locations, with birds wandering around my boots, so intent on finding food that my presence was irrelevant.

Another delightful sighting was the rare yellow-eyed penguin or hoiho (Megadyptes antipodes), restricted to just a few shoreline spots on the South Island. I had always regarded birds as marginal compared to a good rare plant find, but adventures in NZ really opened my eyes to the thrilling world of birding.

This is not to say that the plant life wasn't utterly intoxicating. The forest type variety, from the subantarctic beech rainforests (Nothofagus spp.) to the massive tree fern (Cyathea spp.) forests of the wild west coast, to the vast subtropical totara (Podocarpus spp.) and the tall rimu (Dacrydium cupressinum) stands, was impressive. The humbling aspect of immersion in a strongly endemic system in which I knew virtually nothing, coming from a place where I knew much of the flora, made the NZ botanical delights all the more compelling.

A stroll through a 20-acre rainforest remnant in Christchurch, home to one last grove of giant kahikatea (Dacrycarpus dacrydiodes) trees, illustrates how vastly the current pastoral landscape differs from the original jungle described by Captain Cook in the late 1700s. Waves of industrious British settlers cleared nearly all of the thick native vegetation by the late 1800s. Land use outside of National Parks is mainly agricultural or production forestry. Small-scale farms still operate, but shifts in economic priorities are nudging land ownership into larger corporate management. Famous for sheep, NZ also boasts an expanding dairy cow population; most hiking trips involved a close encounter with one animal or another (or their by-products) in trailhead paddocks or easements.

Development brought both deliberate and accidental introductions of non-native species. A proactive and streamlined national approach to undesirable non-native management reflects NZ's commitment to protecting agricultural interests and conserving wildlands, a strategy still evolving in Alaska.

Finding parallels both culturally and ecologically between Alaska and NZ continues my path of learning lessons from the world around me in each new place that I inhabit. On the horizon for ecology is continuing the tradition of scientific exploration of the Refuge's vast resources within the framework of Refuge goals and objectives. Maintaining a strong program of knowing what is out there -- through inventory and monitoring -- is key to forward planning. Exciting prospects include incorporating climate change vulnerability assessments into sustainability planning, analyzing broad-scale vegetation type potential change, and a host of other ecologically tinged projects.

I may even improve my birding skills beyond yelling "bald eagle!" when one flies overhead. "Sweet as!" I might yell instead.

Dr. Elizabeth "Libby" Bella is the new ecologist at Kenai National Wildlife Refuge, replacing Dr. Ed Berg, who recently retired. You can find more information about the Refuge at http://kenai.fws.gov or http://www.facebook.com/kenainationalwildliferefuge.

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