Thursday, November 7, 2013

Taking Terns on a Gannet Tour

Black Reef
I've been to Hawke's Bay several times, but I'd never made it out to the Gannet colony at Cape Kidnappers. The 8km from the road end seemed to be a long way to walk, and taking a commercial tour by tractor trailer or minbus didn't seem that attractive.

So when we headed up to Art Deco Napier for a weekend, we loaded the Tern folding bikes into the car with the intention of checking out the rightly famous Hawke's Bay Trails, now part of the Nga Haerenga network, and didn't think about visiting the gannets.

However NZ is a small place, and at the Napier farmer's market Marg ran into two people she knew. one of whom was a keen cyclist, and yes, had ridden her bike out to Cape Kidnappers: "just make sure you go after the tractor leaves, and follow the trail it makes in the sand".

Te Mata Peak
A quick Google showed the tractor leaving at 9:30 am, so next morning we filled in time by heading up Te Mata peak for a quick fossil fueled dawn survey of the Bay. Marg generously let me ride the descent, then we parked at the Black Bridge on the Tukituki river and rode out to the coast on the cycle trail leading to Clifton. When the road finished, we clambered over the stones down to the sandy beach, and started following the tractor tracks. The theory was good, but it was tricky picking the best spots to ride on the sand. Sometimes the tractor tracks were good, other times it paid to keep to the solid wave whetted sand on the outgoing tide mark. But we made progress underneath the towering cliffs, and the outcropping of Black Reef steadily got closer.

We shared the route with numerous joggers and walkers - a local sports group was doing its annual Cape Kidnappers caper, and of course there were the quad bikes and four wheel drives, dutifully observing the 20km/hr speed limit; i.e. roaring past at at least the speed limit so they didn't inconvenience walkers by getting stuck in the sand. We biked past a rough observation post with a notice "topless bathing permitted", and a cliff occupied by a small colony of querulous terns (actual birds, as opposed to the folding bike brand). A mobile party worked its way down the beach in two utes, one with teenagers lolling back in sofas we'd earlier seen by the roadside with "free to good home" signs on them.

At Black Reef, we met the first of our gannets. Despite DOC notices about how sensitive gannets are to human intrusion, they seemed happily engaged in nest building and spouse selection, oblivious to the gawking tourists and passing quad bikes. After a bit of a wade, we locked the Terns to a conveniently placed track sign and followed the cabbage tree lined track angling up the hill to the colony. We could look down on the neat square of gannets occupying the main colony on the offshore rock promontory, but the real action was in the overflow colony on the headland itself. Gannets were furiously defending their territories and consolidating their nests, as partners swooped in with new contributions of construction material, generally long lengths of specially chosen seaweed. Occasionally an individual, guilty of  some unmentionable ungannetlike behaviour, was robustly ejected from the nesting area.

At the shelter down the track, the DOC ranger had chalked up the tide dependent return time, which was closely approaching, so we headed down the hill back to the Terns, and chased the tractor back to Clifton, stopping for a swim. Strange as it seemed to Wellingtonians, in Hawke's Bay you can go swimming in the sea before December.

Back at the Haumoana shop two neighbors in the queue negotiated the fate of the sheep in one of their back paddocks. We bought Rush Munro icecreams, made in nearby Hastings, and crossed the road to the beach.

We were moderately surprised that the Terns handled the beach trip so well - despite the occasional frustration of small 20" wheels sinking into soft sand, we biked about 90% of the distance. Mountain bikes with nice fat tyres would of course have been better. So if you're biking the Hawke's Bay trails, check the tides and extend the Landscapes Ride along the beach to visit Cape Kidnappers - 6000 gannets can't be wrong!