Monday, 1 June 2015

Exploring the High Country Lakes

Along with Lake Pearson, there are a number of other small lakes not too far away from our camp. We were on another mission; to find yet another fairly rare bird which makes it’s home on the high country lakes of the South Island.

The Australasian Crested Grebe/Kamana is a beautiful diving bird which is rarely seen on land except when they clamber onto their floating nests near the shore. Their legs are located right at the back of their body, this allows them to dive but makes it near impossible to walk. The grebe has a slender neck, a long sharp black bill and very distinctive head gear- a black double crest with bright chestnut & black cheek frills. These it uses in an involved and rather bizarre greeting & mating display. The grebe are also unusual in that they carry their young around on their backs.

Lake Grasmere was just up the road; access was through a farm gate, along a grass track across a paddock to a small DOC reserve on the edge of the lake. 

We saw our first Grebe, a juvenile on the waterfront in Queenstown last year, we now wanted to find an adult bird, to see their unusual plumage and hopefully a little of their courtship display.

Queenstown Juvenile Australasian Crested Grebe
The lake was a mill pond, the mountains behind reflected in the still water.

Any birds we could see were down the far end of the lake milling about. Looking through the binocs and spotting scope they turned out to be Canada Geese, Mallard Ducks and NZ Scaup- probably taking refuge from the duck shooting season on a protected lake.

Grebe tend to hang out by themselves and after a long sweep around the edges and over the lake we finally spotted two grebes swimming and feeding off to the side. There was no way I could pick them up with my camera so we decided to return the next day now that we knew grebes were in residence.

David searching for grebes with the spotting scope
The reserve’s tied-down (it must get windy around here) long-drop with the skull emblem on the door made a great subject with the Craigieburn Range behind.

We went back to the lake the next day but unfortunately the grebes once again stayed out of range. I took a shot just in case this was last we were to see of them- this is zoomed in and cropped to within an inch of its life but at least you can see, it's a grebe.

I was also unable to find any grebes at our end of Lake Pearson but there were smalls flocks of Australian Coot with their oversized feet, and NZ Scaup including this male (bright yellow eye) who I thought was nesting rather late in the season. Most scaup are usually quick to depart if you get near them but this one stuck it out while it’s mate did mad circles just off the edge and the rest of their friends swam away. So it was a surprise to see the next day that there were no eggs in the nest at all (hardly surprising when I thought about it) so I’m not too sure what it was up to- just lazier than the others and couldn’t be bothered moving when I approached.

We stopped in at the tiny Cass settlement not too far from our camp, Cass is little more than a handful of houses and a railway shed. But this is not just any shed, it’s a very important & iconic railway shed in New Zealand’s history (thanks Francis). There is an iconic painting by a famous New Zealand artist, Rita Angus, of this colourful little shed.

Before the line ran through Arthurs Pass to the West Coast, Cass was the railhead. Sadly, despite the paint job, the shed has seen better days; half a dozen swallows vacated the interior as I approached & it looks like dry rot has set in on one side. Unfortunately the sun was in the wrong position, so I couldn’t shoot it from the same POV (point of view) as Rita painted it.

These two quietly watched me as I walked about shooting the shed, I went across to talk to them and give them a pat. The younger horse at the back took exception to my visit and tried to bite me while I was talking to his friend; he got a short shift.

Not too far from Cass we took a side road in search of Lake Sarah, another small perfectly formed lake tucked below a large hill. Again there were a good number of water fowl on the lake and again, mostly over the far side. We settled down to have some lunch looking down over the lake and were rewarded when we spotted three grebes swimming by themselves, front centre of the lake. But once again they were too far out for my lens.

I decided to give my wide angle landscape lens a whirl which allowed me to capture the whole lake in the frame. The following two photos were also taken with the lens. I should use it more often but because we’re always on the move and I never know from one moment to the next what I’ll be shooting I find my zoom lens much more user friendly, if somewhat heavier!

We drove another few kilometres up the road, deciding to turn around once we could see that the scenery was not going to change much and that the road looked to go on forever.

The views were spectacular, big mountains, huge skies & a wide open spaces with the Waimakariri River off in the distance- this is further east from where we’d last seen it.

I took this photo of the sign on the door of a small shed beside the railway and near the lake; it’s was either a fishing hut or belonged to the Canterbury University who had ‘Keep Out’ signs along the road- perhaps they farm the land. Whoever owned the shed, they’d obviously had enough.


  1. Hi - Luv you photos ! I have one that i particualy like that i would like to use in my new kitchen as a splash back image. We live in the bush and have a pair of Wood pigeons that live in a tree but i can never get a decent photo of them but you have a beautiful photo of one sitting on a branch that i would love to use. What is the process to gaining permission to use one of your photos? can you please contact me on so we can discuus further. thx Grant

    1. Thanks very much Grant, glad you've enjoyed the photosand finding my bird albums in Flickr. I'll send you a email under separate cover.

  2. Hi Shellie, glad you called into Cass, did you see Barry there?. the only permanent resident in the settlement ,pity you didnt carry on past Lake Sarah , you missed a lot, Craigieburn Railway Station , Avoca Station, lake Hawdon is worth a visit, and Slovens Creek Vaiduct, maybe on a return visit. (There are quite a few gates to open though

    1. Hi Francis, no we missed Barry, there was a young lady on a ride-on mowing the 'village square' who waved out. I'm sure we'll be back to explore further, we found that as we were getting closer and closer to Christchurch we were keen to get there to get various things sorted. And when we got there we were even keen to move on! :)

  3. Hi Shellie. Love your blogs & photos. I was amused by your tale of finding the crested grebes. In 2008 we spent quite some time trying to sneak up on them while kayaking around the south-eastern shore of Lake Heron. A couple of pretty average photos resulted - they sure are shy. Not sure if you have gotten to the Ashburton Lakes area? Well worth it, but probably too snowy right now. Make sure you also go all the way to end of the road at Erewhon Station if you go that way. Cheers, Melanie from Tauranga.

    1. Hi Melanie, thanks so much for commenting and I'm pleased you're enjoying the blogs and photos. Well, you've answered one query we had- after not being able to get near the grebes, we wondered if we had a kayak we'd be able to sneak up on them. Obviously not! Keep an eye out for up and coming blogs- I've had grebes coming out my ears! :)

      Yes, Ashburton Lakes are on the radar but probably not until the summer- which summer I'm not sure. And Erewhon Station has been marked for awhile, after driving a way up the river on the other side towards Mesopotamia Station I then set my sights on Erewhon.

      Give Tauranga a wave from me, I'm not sure if you're aware but Tauranga was our home before we left on this journey. Great city!


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