Trip 12. First glimpse of the Dark Cloud Range

21-26 June 2017. We rather optimistically named this blog Dark Cloud Range after a remote mountain range we planned to traverse – but had seen only on a map. Rather more sensibly, we planned to do some reconnisance before winter set in. We’re pleased to report that after three months on the road, we’ve had our first glimpses of the range.

We volunteered with the Coal Island Trust to help out with predator control on islands in two remote fiords – Preservation and Chalky Inlets – on the far southwest coast of the South Island. A wonderful place to spent the shortest day of 2017!

This map shows our route. The blue line is our route in by boat and bus, and the red line is our return trip via helicopter.

We started on the regular cruise boat across Lake Manapouri, then took a DOC bus across the Wilmot Pass to Doubtful Sound. Here we were introduced to our home for the next 6 days – the rather comfortable DOC vessel Southern Winds. There were eight of us: Lindsay, Aly and Chris (DOC Te Anau); Darren (DOC head office); Mike (volunteer from Opotiki); Kev (volunteer from Wellington); and two volunteers with no fixed abode.

We headed out of the sheltered waters of Doubtful Sound into the Tasman Sea for the roughly three-hour trip down the coast. Fortunately we were well fortified with anti-sea sickness medication.

We reached Chalky Inlet near sunset. The southwestern end of the Dark Cloud Range was visible, topped by Treble Mountain. Our first sighting!

The boat attracted seabirds, particularly mollymawks. These three followed us into Northport in Chalky Inlet.

This broad-billed prion paid us a close visit that evening. These birds have recently started breeding on the Fiordland islands. They were seen in large numbers by Captain Cook in the 1700s, but subsequently disappeared.

The plan for the next four days was to service the trap network on Small Craft Harbour Islands, Coal Island and the adjacent mainland, Great Island and Little Island, plus some smaller specks that stoats might use as stepping stones to gain access to the larger islands. “Servicing” means emptying any kills, testing and rebating stations, minor repairs, checking tracking tunnels, and track clearing and marking. Tracks varied from well-formed to near-imaginary lines of pink tapes through fierce scrub! This map shows the islands. (Also marked is Treble Mountain in the Dark Clould Range.)

Making full use of short days is a challenge. Basically it gets light enough to work in the forest around 9am, and it’s too dark after 4:30. Aly dropped us off each morning in the early light.

Our drop-off point on Small Craft Harbour Islands.

Mike on the shore of Small Craft Harbour Islands. Mike is an ex-helicopter pilot, now a kiwifruit orchardist in Opotiki. His company is sponsoring the predator control network on these islands.

In the afternoon we got a better view of Treble Mountain.

And some steeper peaks of the Dark Clould Range heading away to the northeast (to the left of this photo).

The next day we checked stoat traps on Coal Island.

The island has been predator free for the last 10 years, and the native forest-bird life was fantastic. We saw robins, kaka, morepork, yellow-crowned kakariki, tomtits, kereru, brown creepers, fantails and bellbirds. Lindsay heard mohua. Kiwi and orange-fronted kakariki are also on the island. The robins have spread from their point of re-introduction. This one seemed to think it owned the stoat trap.

Low sun angles are great for highlighting features in the forest, like these kidney ferns.

 

Coal Island has a hut, with all mod cons!

 

We got some great views from our pickup point on the northern tip of Coal Island.

 

The following two days we worked on Great Island. The bird life on Great Island was much less diverse than Coal Island, as predator control has only been in place for less than a year. Initial estimates, based on area and habitat type, put the stoat population at 25. One was caught this trip, bringing the total kill up to 21. The proportion of tracking tunnels showing stoat tracks has dropped from over 90% to under 10%. The trapping appears to be working. The traps are self-resetting A24s, which need much less servicing. This photo shows Sue with an A24 and a tracking tunnel. The A24 is the orange and black device attached to the tree.

Our other task was to convert semi-imaginary lines of pink tape into proper tracks. Here Dave is nailing up track markers.

The island has some interesting rock features. Kev named this one the Balrog.

Heavy rain in the late afternoon took its toll on Kev.

The boat looks attractive… But there is paperwork to be done. Here Lindsay is getting frustrated with Excel.

 

The overall programme seems to be effective and running well on a mixture of DOC, private and NFP funding. They are clearing whole islands of predators, then reintroducing kiwi, kakapo, robins, south island saddlebacks, rock wrens, mohua, etc. This is driven in part by successful species recovery efforts elsewhere. DOC now faces a problem of finding enough predator-free habitat for its expanding kakapo population!

The flight back to Te Anau was stunning, even though the weather was somewhat moody.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We’d like to thank the Coal Island Trust, specifically Joyce Kolk and Ali King, and Linday Wilson of DOC for making this trip possible for us.