Wednesday, January 18, 2012

17 January 2012: Royal albatross, the world’s steepest street, and…railway car bunks!

Our day started with some glorious weather in Dunedin and ended with equally splendid weather, but in an unexpected place.  First: Dunedin and the Royal Albatross colony.

Besides having a strong Scottish background and some quirky design features (do a Google search for ‘Dunedin Octagon’ for an example), Dunedin is also known as the site of the only mainland (as oppose to offshore-island) location hosting a Royal Albatross (Diomedea sanfordi) colony.  This morning, we visited the Royal Albatross Centre at Taiaroa Head, and spoke with Department of Conservation site manager Lyndon Perriman.  Mr. Perriman told us about the life history of the Royal Albatross, including their incredible 8 month incubation period and 5-month fledgling-feeding stint.  Breeding every-other year, Royal Albatross populations can suffer great swings if breeding success is relatively high or low in a particular year.  This year, long dry spells (8mm this December whereas the long-term average is 120mm for the month!) have created slightly unfriendly conditions for the nesting albatross: 10 of the 21 pairs on the head have failed to this date.  The individual we could see from an observation building was incubating a soon-to-hatch egg (or, at least that what she thinks! Mr. Perriman told us that his organization incubates all albatross eggs on the site and substitutes replica eggs for the real ones in order to keep the nesting parent’s attention!).  This female, an immigrant from a sub-antarctic island south of New Zealand, is 18 years old and is paired with a male who had hatched from the very same nest location 14 years ago!  Our students again rose to the challenge of another visit with a conservation-related individual and asked great, insightful questions.  I’ve really been impressed with the level of attention to detail all of our students have devoted to our academic activities on this trip.  Way to go!  Mr. Perriman did a fantastic job chatting with our students today and we greatly appreciate his time away from tending to the Royal Albatross colony!

Following our trip to the Albatross colony, we visited the Guinness Book of World Record’s ‘Steepest road’ on record.  Baldwin Street, located to the north of Dunedin’s city center, boasts quite the gradient up its ¼-mile length!  The steps on the sidewalk aided the climb up the street, but it was one tough walk nevertheless!

Baldwin Street would be our final hurrah in Dunedin.  We traveled 5 hours north along Highway 1 to Christchurch, the unfortunate site of a number of destructive earthquake on 22 February 2010 (190!) and then a significant tremor (and aftershocks) in December 2011, just prior to our arriving in New Zealand this interim.  As we drove into the city, we noticed homes and businesses that had been destroyed or damaged by the earthquakes.  City Centre had been largely destroyed by the earthquakes and was closed to any visitors.  We arrived at our destination, the Old Country House hostel, a hostel voted the best in the country 8 times in the last 11 years, only to find out that due to a communication error, our reservation was never made!  Thanks to Gerti, the manager at the OCH, we found accommodations for the evening at a town 45 minutes north of Christchurch.  Our crew somewhat reluctantly (having just spent five exciting hours in the van already) climbed back into the van and we headed a bit further north on Highway 1 to find the Waipara Sleepers hostel.  Nestled among the sprawling vineyards of the Waipara region in the Canterbury Plains, the Sleepers consist of campgrounds, cabins, and you guessed it, sleepers, that is, sleeper railway cars from a by-gone day.  The former New Zealand railway cars had been permanently affixed and transformed into bunkhouses for folks traveling on a slim budget (folks just like us!).  Our students made their way into the sleepers and made the best of what was easily the hostel with the greatest amount of character!

A lone Royal Albatross female seen incubating her 'egg' on the slope of Taiaroa Head outside of Dunedin.  Other individuals would be seen on the hillside, but the majority of other nests were located further downslope, outside of our view from the observatory.

Royal Albatross have a 9 foot wingspan (red silhouette).  The sparrow (white silhouette) is just larger than the Balmville Bee, the mascot of the Balmville School (Newburgh, NY), who is positioned atop the hand on the left of the image.

Our group looking down the slope of the world's steepest road, Baldwin Street, in Dunedin.

Bryan Pujol (Business) and Brittany Farron (Biology/ Chemistry) outside one of the sleeper cars at the Waipara Sleeper  hostel.  We've had quite the diversity of sleeper quarters on this trip!

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