Frances Schmechel

francesFrances Schmechel is a big fan of birds and for much of her career, she’s been able to integrate some element of that interest into her work. Now, as senior biodiversity advisor for Environment Canterbury and part of the Immediate Steps Programme (which is part of the Canterbury Water Management Strategy), (one of) her focus areas is Te Waihora, a lake environment well-known for its prolific birdlife. She also manages another flagship programme for the Regional Committee in the upper Rangitata and Rakaia catchments.

It’s a great follow-on from her PhD studies in conservation biology, where her topic was the Chatham Islands oystercatcher; and from her work with black stilts in the McKenzie Country for the Department of Conservation. She has also previously monitored braided river birdlife for Environment Canterbury and assisted with the Waihora Ellesmere Trust annual bird count on Te Waihora.

The fact that her Whakaora Te Waihora work focus is currently weed control is beside the point. It still affords her the time to spend time in this rich, diverse habitat.

“Te Waihora is an amazing place and the bird life is very special. When I was helping with the Waihora Ellesmere Trust annual bird count, I saw over a hundred spoonbills – that was quite a sight. I’m a bird fan but it’s really more from an ecological point of view . I like the interaction of birds with their habitat,” she says.

Frances grew up in Colorado, USA and completed her undergraduate studies in biology in the United States. She came to New Zealand in 1992 to study at Lincoln University on a Rotary Scholarship, aiming for a post-graduate diploma in resource management.

“I knew someone in the US who had been to Lincoln and she had loved it. I’d also heard about New Zealand’s black robin and as an English-speaking country it seemed like a good option.”

Initial MA studies turned into a PhD on conservation ecology [my thesis was on the ecology and conservation of Chatham Island oystercatchers].

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Frances followed this up with contract work for the Department of Conservation, working with black stilts. The work included feeding and monitoring juvenile stilts after release and searching for nests. She was then the coordinator of the Banks Peninsular Trust for four years, before moving to Environment Canterbury seven years ago. For the first four years of her employment there she worked in the environmental monitoring section, mapping wilding trees, monitoring braided river bird life and doing coastal vegetation mapping work.

So how did she get into weeds?

“I liked the challenge of weeds. They are one of the biggest threats to our biodiversity and I’ve spent a lot of time working on weed control on the braided rivers – specifically the Rangitata and the Rakaia.”

Now, as part of the Immediate Steps Programme, Frances leads the Whakaora Te Waihora workstream dedicated to the control of grey and crack willow and other significant weed pests around the lake, including reed canary grass, beggar’s tick, yellow flag iris and purple loosestrife.

“Our highest priority at the moment is stopping the willow invasion, especially into environmentally sensitive areas of native vegetation. Willows are mainly on the west side of the lake and have more than doubled in extent since 1983. Grey willow, due to its wind-borne seeds, is an especially aggressive spreader and it’s considered to be one of the top ten most damaging weeds across New Zealand.”

Frances is passionate about her work and is keen to see restoration work in the Te Waihora environment progress steadily.

“When you consider how special Te Waihora is, especially in regards to the coastal wetlands and the number of bird species it sustains, it doesn’t have a lot of protection. It’s very vulnerable to disturbance and it needs careful management.

“I love the scenery out there and I’d say very few people have had the pleasure of exploring the salt marshes and the mudflats around the lake. They’re a rich habitat for wader birds and when the water goes out and the short, stubby foliage like the native musk flowers (Mimulus repens) , it’s like a sea of purple – or yellow when the Bachelor’s Button (Cotula coronopifolia) flowers. It’s a bit like alpine vegetation – very small and very beautiful and not many people ever see it. It’s like being in a wilderness, in the middle of another world. It’s a surreal place and you can feel magically transported.”