Sinbad Gully, last retreat of the Kakapo and a lizard gold-mine
Sinbad Gully in the depths of the Fiordland National Park is a special place. As one of the last retreats of the kakapo on mainland New Zealand the gully is more resilient than most habitats to the impacts of introduced mammals. An indication of this is the small and restricted community of reptiles living at the head of the valley including an endemic skink known from no other location. We were in for another treat on this trip too, the southern rata was in full bloom, so the sheer forested walls of the gully were peppered with crimson. The main gully is magnificent but nothing can prepare you for our destination, a small hanging valley at the head of Sinbad Gully. Landing there, it took us a few minutes just to absorb the grandeur of our surrounds and gather ourselves to find a camp site and set to our tasks
Our mission was to gather data on the rare and largely unknown skink Oligosoma pikitanga, which is currently only known from a few hundred meters of cliff face in this gully. We had flown in traps and all our camping and climbing gear to allow us the best chance of capturing these animals, which would then be examined and records taken for the data base. And our luck was in with the weather too. Fiordland can be a very cold, wet and inhospitable place and in such conditions reptiles would remain largely invisible. But our forecast was for temperatures around 30 degrees and little wind or rain so we were eager to get up onto the face. Joe and Dave, who work for the local tour operator Southern Discoveries were keen to get a closer look at the rock they’d have to navigate.
we were using Gee’s Minnow traps to detect the lizards but the first lizard I saw, to my surprise was a ‘cascade’ gecko, which was moving from one refuge to another in the middle of the day, which is not something seen often.
But on checking the traps the following day we were rewarded with two O. pikitanga, the endemic skinks of the gully. Their long and muscular limbs equipped with strong claws are essential for traversing the relatively smooth rocks of their habitat and their dark colouration idea to optimise their ability to absorb heat from the sun.
The important job now is to deduce their conservation management needs. Known from only this single location they are automatically considered critically endangered, but it is quite likely that they are elsewhere in the remote wilderness of Fiordland. The problem is that even after significant effort to locate more populations none have been found. Also ecological observations suggest that microclimate as well as if not instead of predation by introduced mammals may dictate their microbiogeography. So before winter falls here a team of rangers and climbers are going to be placing environmental loggers at the site of the population and in adjacent apparently suitable habitat but where no skinks have been observed. At the same time we will start to investigate the ecology of rodents in this otherwise pristine, delicate and tiny habitat.
The trip also served to broaden the profile of the Fiordland Conservation Trust and Southern Discoveries who are supporting the pest management in this critical habitat. To learn more of the Trusts projects and programmes visit: http://www.fiordlandconservationtrust.org.nz/
Few places are so magical to spend a few days. The stars at night look so bright and clear you feel you can reach out and touch them.