Plan of lagoons and channels dug by Maori at the mouth of the Wairau River, drawn by J.L. D'Arcey Irvine. Alexander Turnbull Library, MapColl 832.2gmtb [pre-1840] Acc. 120

Plan of lagoons and channels dug by Maori at the mouth of the Wairau River, published by W. L. Skinner in 1912. Alexander Turnbull Library, MapColl 832.2gmtb [pre-1840] Acc. 120

In 1963, a major engineering feat was completed on the Wairau River, in the Marlborough district: the Wairau diversion.  The diversion created two Wairau Rivers, one following its original course, which meanders south-east into a network of lagoons, before reaching Cloudy Bay at Wairau Bar. The “new Wairau River” was a channel that connected the river through a cut eastwards to the sea. (more…)

A fairy prion resting on our kitchen bench

There are probably not many who can claim to have had a fairy in the kitchen, but we can. We came home after work today to find an unexpected visitor: a small grey bird with webbed feet huddled in the backyard. Our border collie had been considerately keeping it company. We brought the little chap inside out of the weather into a towel-lined box, an arrangement he seemed perfectly happy with.

After an hour trawling the internet we identified it as a fairy prion (Pachyptila turtur), found throughout ocean and coastal areas in the Southern Hemisphere (an excellent website for identifying unknown birds is We are some kilometres from the sea, but it has been quite stormy and it must have been blown in from the sea on strong winds.

Joe Cockram

Fairy prion in flight. Photo by Joe Cockram

It is a very placid creature, and seems quite contended tucking its head in its wing and sleeping, even amidst the ruckus of clamouring toddlers, TV and other noise of a busy household. It shows no fear of either humans or border collies, probably because it wouldn’t generally encounter either of them in its natural oceanic island habitat. This clearly illustrates how vulnerable New Zealand’s birds and animals (such as seals) would have been when humans and mammalian predators first arrived on these shores.

Apparently its diet consists mainly of planktonic crustaceans and other tiny sea animals, which it feeds on at night from the water’s surface. This poses a slight challenge as we don’t have much in the way of planktonic crustaceans in our pantry. Never mind – we intend to release the little fellow back out on the beach tonight and hope he finds his way back home, now that the weather has settled.

Epilogue: our visitor was taken down to the beach, just south of the Waikanae estuary that evening. For the trip there, he sat quite happily on an old towel in the passenger’s seat of our people-mover, and perched on my husband’s arm as they made their way over the dunes to the beach. Once this little fellow felt the sea breeze in his feathers, he stretched out his wings, and off he flew, at what my husband described at “lightening” speed. Safe travels, little guy!

Christchurch, 1860, showing Avon River in the middle ground and Worcester Bridge in the background. Alexander Turnbull Library, ref. 1/2-022720-F

Christchurch, 1860, showing Avon River and Worcester Bridgein the middle ground. Alexander Turnbull Library, ref. 1/2-022720-F

I have been trawling historic newspapers in Papers Past in my efforts to research early European attitudes to New Zealand’s rivers. In the course (unintended pun) of doing so, I stumbled upon a report on the drainage of the city, submitted to the Christchurch City Council in 1864 by the City Surveyor. It is illuminating given the city’s struggle with flooding following the Canterbury earthquakes. (more…)

Waterfall of Waterfall Road, Kapiti.

Waterfall of Waterfall Road, Kapiti.

Longtime envirohistory NZ followers might remember how my husband and I stumbled upon the international phenomenon of geocaching entirely by accident (see Hidden treasure at Otaki Gorge). Geocaching involves searching for caches that have been hidden by members of the worldwide geocaching community, using GPS coordinates and other clues. (more…)

Avon River, Christchurch

A “pleasant” river, complete with punts: Avon River through Christchurch

Reading Andrew McRae’s paper “Fluvial Nation: rivers, mobility and poetry in Early Modern England”, I was struck by its opening statement.

In 1665, the speaker of the House of Commons, addressing the King and Parliament reflected that: “Cosmosgraphers do agree that this Island is incomparably furnished with pleasant Rivers, like Veins in the Natural Body, which conveys the Blood into all the Parts, whereby the whole is nourished, and made useful.” (more…)

Two men using a plank to cross a river in the Collingwood area. Date unknown. Not to be reproduced without permission from Alexander Turnbull Library, ref: G-979-10×8

The Manawatu River was a defining feature of the Manawatu Region, which was the subject of my recently published book, Ravaged Beauty. This has led me to research the environmental history of our rivers more broadly. (more…)

Brunner Mine on Grey River

View of the coalmining town of Brunner, by the Grey River, showing the bridge and the mine. Coal ready for transport by rail can be seen just below the photographer. Not to be reproduced without permission from Alexander Turnbull Library, PA1-o-498-36.

Some may argue that too often rivers are treated like drains even today, but a century and a half ago, rivers were drains under this country’s law.

Under the Public Works Act 1876,  “drain” was defined to include both artificial channels and “every natural watercourse, stream, and river not navigable” (s. 165). Under the Mines Act, certain rivers could be proclaimed “sludge channels”, as was the case with the Waihou and Ohinemuri Rivers in Waikato. (more…)

Next Page »


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 390 other followers