New Zealand: Pelorus Bridge and thereabouts

March 28, 2017 • 10:00 am

I’m staying near Pelorus Bridge (not a village but a small bridge over the Pelorus River), famous for being not only the first bridge from which somebody bungee jumped, but also for featuring in one scene in a Hobbit movie, to wit:

Part of the pretty Marlborough Sounds at the very top of the South Island, the Pelorus River was filmed as Forest River for the second of The Hobbit trilogy, The Desolation of Smaug. You know the bit where they escape the Wood-elves in barrels and float down the river to Lake-town? Well the drop was done at Pelorus Bridge. The Pelorus Bridge Camping Ground, which is an excellent place to stay, was closed for filming. The river is awesome to swim in – that area of New Zealand is especially nice and warm – and, no doubt, kayaking down it is set to become a lot more popular.

Here’s the bridge:

Filming right below the bridge:

Here’s where I am: the north tip of the South Island. Tomorrow I head for Picton to take the ferry to the North Island, landing at Wellington:

But my host Don MacKay, a retired teacher, biologist, gentleman farmer, Scottish descendant (who plays bagpipes), and great guide, cook, and host (along with his lovely wife Karen, see below) took me to the bridge because it contains a wonderful, dense stand of virgin forest, through which we roamed for several hours, also checking the possum/stoat/rat traps that are there to try to keep the birds from going extinct. (The South Island robin, one of my favorite birds in New Zealand, doesn’t exist in this stand.) Wikipedia again, explaining why we were there (second paragraph):

Pelorus Bridge is a tiny locality in Marlborough, New Zealand where the Rai River meets Pelorus River. State Highway 6 crosses the Pelorus River at Pelorus Bridge Scenic Reserve, which was used as one of the film locations for The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug.

The scenic reserve contains one of the last stands of original river flat forest in the area. The forest contains a mixture of beech and broadleaf species, as well as mature podocarps such as rimu, kahikatea and totara towering over the canopy. Several easy walking tracks connect the camping ground, picnic site, river, and the carparks. A circular walk leads over a pedestrian suspension bridge over the Rai River.

The first thing we saw was a stuffed long-tailed bat (Chalinolobus tuberculata) in the local cafe (Don monitors this species in the area). It is one of only two endemic mammals in New Zealand, the other being a species of short-tailed bats (Mystacina tuberculata). (It was Darwin who pointed out that on remote islands having endemic mammals, they are invariably flying mammals, showing that the endemics evolved after colonization.)

Here’s the long-tailed bat, which can fly 60 kph:

The lesser short-tailed bat is unique among all bats because it’s semi-terrestrial! It has very thick fur and spends 30% of its foraging time hunting in the air, 40% feeding from plants, and 30% crawling around the ground looking for food, for which it has a unique adaptation:

To assist with this unusual style of hunting, short-tailed bats are able to fold their wings inside a protective sheath formed from their membranes, and the wings have only a very limited propatagium, making them more flexible and mobile. Movement along the ground is also assisted by strong hind limbs and a robust pelvic girdle, and by the additional talons on their claws.

Look at this bat crawling around like a rodent!!! You can’t see its wings!:

One of the first trees we came across, kahikatea (Dacrycarpus dacrydioides), had beautiful patterned bark:

I cropped the trunk to make it look like an abstract painting:

It is of course very wet there, and the tree trunks are often festooned with lichens and ferns that fall off when the bark flakes off:

I don’t know if this is a fern or a liverwort, but I’m sure some of you botanists can tell us:

This is what the virgin forest looks like—mostly beeches, podocarps, and ferns with assorted other species of endemic trees. This patch of forest has no invasive plants, though of course there are invasive animals, including weasels and stoats, Australian brush-tailed possums, and two species of rats.

The forest is filled with black beech (Fuscospora solandri), an endemic that has a black trunk—but the color comes not from the bark, which is whitish, but from a black mold that covers the trunk. And that mold is there because the bark is infested with scale insects that, in two of their instars (life stages) secrete a honeydew from their rear ends after feeding on the tree’s phloem. Here you can see the mold coming off of the tree and covering the ground around it, showing that it’s not the bark color!

Wasps are now invading the forest eating the honeydew, which was previously a valuable source of nutrients for insects and birds, including the kākā parrot (Nestor meridionalis), sister species to the kea. In my photo below, you can see the long butt appendage of the scale insect exuding a drop of nectar.

The New Zealand Conservation folk are trying to get rid of the invasive wasps using baits that have a proteinaceous poison that the wasps carry back to their nests, feed to the grubs, and then is re-secreted to the wasps, killing them. It seems to be effective. If the wasps monopolize the honeydew, they will severely reduce the population of native insects and birds:

Don checking a possum trap.  He runs a trapline once a month. We didn’t do the whole thing, but did get two brown rats. I won’t show you the gory picture of a smushed rat. This trap kills the possum by putting a noose around its head, cutting off blood flow to its brain and quickly rendering it unconscious and then dead:

Berries in the forest are small, as are flowers. With no mammals in pre-human New Zealand to distribute seeds, the fruits have evolved to be attractive to and dispersed by birds. Likewise, the flowers are small, pollinated by birds and Lepidoptera (curiously, mostly moths, many of which fly by day).

Schefflera digitata, the seven-finger or (Maori) Patatē:

Coprosma robusta (?), the shining karamu:

The famous New Zealand silver fern (Cyathea dealbata), a tree fern whose leaves are green on the top side and silvery on the bottom. It was used by the Maori to mark their trails at night, as the silver bottom shines brightly in the moonlight. Don demonstrates the difference between top and bottom:

The silver fern is a national symbol here, appearing on the uniform of many national sports teams, including the famous All Blacks (rugby). It was also proposed to be part of the New Zealand National Flag, which now sports a Union Jack. They had a referendum two years ago to replace the current flag with a silver-fern flag (below), but the public rejected the design shown below, and the current flag (click on link) stays:

Two out-of-focus birds (my bad):

The pukeko, or Australasian swamphen (Porphyrio melanotus):

The New Zealand fantail (Rhipidura fuliginosa). Don attracted them by shaking ferns; the dropping leaflets looked like moths, attracting this insectivore, which followed us along the trail:

Below you can see a typical growth form of several forest trees, in which the lower branches have small leaves and branches that stick out horizontally, reverting to large leaves and normal twigs higher up. It’s thought this is a remnant of grazing by moas (now all extinct), to prevent them from overgrazing and killing the trees when they were young. The leaves supposedly get large and hence more sun-exposed when they’re beyond the reach of the moa’s beak.

Given that there were about a dozen species of moa of different sizes (ranging up to 3.6 m [12 feet] in height and weighing up to 23o kg [510 pounds]), this hypothesis would be difficult to test. Sadly, the moas were hunted to extinction by the Maori long before Europeans came to New Zealand.

This “moa tree” is Plagianthus betulinus, or ribbonwood.

Below are Don and Karen MacKay, my fantastic  hosts, along with Sug (cat) and Geordie (d*g). Geordie (actually a lovely dog) is a miniature collie; Sug was a stray kitten who’s now 13 and lost her ears to cancer. Don and Karen were both teachers at the local school, but now Don does various biology projects (we went one night looking, fruitlessly, for long-tailed bats), helps with the local school, and tends the plants on the property; while Karen tends the sheep and chickens and produces a variety of products for natural therapy and organic skin care called Five Elements (her website is here).

Sug! The first picture is on her hind legs with tongue sticking out. Note that Sug is “Gus” backwards, and is also an earless white cat. Things are reversed in the Antipodes:

I get my cat fix:

The MacKay holding; there are 3.5 acres, twenty sheep, and eight chickens.

Karen and a ewe:

Don playing bagpipes. He’s very good, having played since he was a wee bairn. These are his grandfather’s pipes, over a hundred years old. They’re made from silver, ebony, and ivory:

We had a fantastic homemade feast last night: a huge pie made from wild pig, apples, peppers, and many other things, roasted yams, ears of corn, and broccoli—all washed down with a local Pinot Noir. Dessert was a homemade apple cake with ice cream (ice cream in NZ is of very high quality) and whipped cream.


Tonight we’re going out to dinner tonight for a feast of local green mussels.

Effusive thanks to Don and Karen for their over-the-top hospitality and to Don for his natural history wisdom.

29 thoughts on “New Zealand: Pelorus Bridge and thereabouts

  1. Last time I was in NZ, my brother a biologist said you could easily find peripatus (this was near Dunedin). He found one in 5 minutes… maybe someone can find one for you?

  2. Lancewood (Maori horoeka; pseudopanax crassifolius) is another of the NZ trees with different growth habit as it ages – long thin toothed leaves growing directly from the trunk when young (up to 15 years old or so), then gradually becoming more “tree-like” with branches and smaller, less-toothed leaves once it gets tall enough. Very widespread.

  3. Looks like the famous Kauri tree that grow for 2000 years isn’t part of the Pelorus Bridge Scenic Reserve. I’m not sure if they are found all over NZ, but we saw them in the North Island.

    1. Kauri are in the upper north – above 38 degrees latitude so basically Northland (the best stands including Tane Mahuta), Auckland and the Coromandel.

  4. NZ has such great flora – I remember the tree ferns from a trip to the north island a good while back. You’ve found much more!

    I’d be greatly looking forward to the green-lipped mussels, too.

  5. The moa-grazing hypothesis for the peculiar juvenile foliage of many NZ trees [and permanent foliage of other, unrelated low shrubs] can’t be tested directly.

    But feeding studies have been done using living large ratites [probably ostrich, can’t remember for sure]. The living ratites strip foliage – with similar bill edges, the moas probably fed in a similar fashion.
    Presented with mature foliage, the [ostriches] were able to maintain body weight with 7-8 hours of feeding a day.

    When only the juvenile branches were available, the [ostriches] lost weight — in fact they would have needed 30 or 40 hours of feeding a day to maintain weight 🙂

    1. The study I had in mind: Bond et al (2004) Oikios 104:500. Used ostriches.

      Also noted that similar “anachronistic” anti-ratite-browsing adaptations occur elsewhere, especially Madagascar.

      Noted that these structures frustrate “clamp and pull” browsing of leaves, but are useless against mammalian browsers that shear entire shoots.

  6. Marvelous travelog. You may have found a new genre — atheist gastronome on the road. Pitch it to NatGeo. 🙂 The mirror Gus doppelgänger is uncanny.

  7. That ‘preferred’ flag design was not bad, actually. It was selected as the best contender after a competition and referendum.
    (Much to my relief; I could have lived with it, it was infinitely more acceptable than some original proposal for just a black and white flag (ugh! looked like ISIS) which was just copied from the All Blacks logo. Seriously?)

    But as it was, John Key basically said “You are going to have a new flag” and I think the rejection was as much inspired by “Fuck you John Key” as it was based on the merits of the design or reactionary traditionalism.

    So we still have the old Union Jack – based one which gets confused with Australia.


      1. Agreed. There’s not too much black in it (black should be used sparingly) and it’s counterbalanced nicely by the light blue and dash of colour from the red stars.

        As I said, I was very relieved when it was chosen as the contender. I think if John Key (our Prime Minister) had kept his mouth shut it might have won.


        1. Agreed. Another reason was that Key made the flag (or as John Oliver mimicked him and us, the fleg) his pet project and wanted it as his legacy, when other issues, such as constitutional reform, are more pressing. The $NZ 26 million bill and the peculiar selection process also stuck in our throats.

    1. The black and white Koru design that made the short list was submitted by Andrew Fyfe, the son of my best friend at school in Glasgow, Ron Fyfe, who had the good sense to emigrate to NZ many years ago. I’m inclined to agree with you about the use of black. I rather liked the red white and blue design.

      1. Aside from anything else, about that time was when ISIS had first reared its ugly head, waving black-and-white flags. And much better to be mistaken for Australians (as the current flag is) than to be mistaken for ISIS.

        (I don’t know if that played any part in the referendum result).


  8. Great pictures. If there is a rainy side of the Island, you must be there. The four species of beach trees in NZ are covered well on the net. That is a very large bat. There is a large one in Okinawa as well but will have to look it up. Very well fed I must say.

    1. New Zealand does indeed have a ‘rainy side’ – the west coast, generally speaking. Or the west side of mountains.

      You can see it quite well in Google Maps Satellite View. The dark green is bush – all to the north-west of the main divide. Beyond the Wairau Valley and Blenheim the hills are as dry as a bone.


  9. The cruise from Picton up the Sounds and across Cook Strait to Wellington is a fascinating trip. If you’re on the Kaitaki and the top Deck 10 is too windy, the best views are probably from the ‘greenhouse’ ‘Lookout Lounge’ at the back end of Deck 8.

    What is noteworthy is how much the weather – and climate – can change between Blenheim and Wellington, just 30 miles apart across Cook Strait. The Strait somehow generates its own weather (and Wellington gets most of it).


  10. FWIW, vampires are very nimble on all fours, and could easily be referred to as ‘terrestrial’ — or might become so in a land with no terrestrial predators.

  11. Stunningly idyllic, Ms Karen / Mr Don, right down to last night’s smashing suppertime and, today, sweet Ms Sug on her Tongue – out Tuesday !


    ps ‘Tis still Tuesday here … … as I first read thus !

  12. I love those Forest pictures,very primeval ,I wouldn’t be surprised to see a pack of Raptors pass through. Well I would , but you get my meaning.

Leave a Reply