Te Waihora – A sleeping giant

Peter Langlands looking for bittern - Wild Capture image library .

Peter Langlands looking for bittern – Wild Capture image library .

Environmental researcher, ornithologist, ecologist and photographer Peter Langlands identifies strongly with Te Waihora/Lake Ellesmere. He considers it a sleeping giant, a rich, understated environment and “an incredibly valuable resource.”


It’s a place he’s known since childhood and as he talks about his first visit to Greenpark Sands it’s clear he’s passionate about the place.

“It’s such a vast expanse, like the African savannah. It’s 10 kilometres long and three kilometres wide and, at the right time of year, it’s filled with extremely rare migrant birds that gather for the rich feeding the area provides. I saw a lot of Arctic waders there in the eighties; we’ve had some extraordinary sightings of birds there from Siberia, North America and Alaska.


“My early memories of the lake centre around birds and as a young kid I had a keen eye for spotting them. Some were extremely rare and elegant, like the Wilson’s Phalarope, a North American wader that was first sighted in New Zealand at Te Waihora.”


Peter completed a degree in zoology and applied ecology at Canterbury University in 1994 and he has built up a detailed knowledge of Te Waihora and the people around it, along with an integrated awareness of the lake’s birds, fish and landscapes. It’s an area that brings all his working interests together.


Based in Christchurch, he is a professional independent ornithologist (adding five new bird species to the New Zealand checklist), and he is actively involved in conservation advocacy and the protection of important bird habitats throughout Canterbury. He carries out both fish and bird research (capture and tagging), and he has recently completed the national database of bittern records in New Zealand for the Department of Conservation. He has also completed six years of monitoring the breeding success of the endangered and iconic Canterbury bird, the wrybill, which breeds in the region.


Bittern taking off oi oi bed - western side of Te Waihora. Wild Capture image library.

Bittern taking off oi oi bed – western side of Te Waihora. Wild Capture image library.

Peter’s interest in photography has been driven by his scientific monitoring work.

“I don’t see any division between photography and my work with fish and birds, and my love of the Canterbury environment. They’re all completely integrated. Photography is an integral part of my research – I see it as data, another recording tool rather than just an aesthetic.”


One of Peter’s specific areas of interest is the Australasian bittern (Botaurus poiciloptilus), the Matuku, a shy, elegant bird that has fascinated him since childhood.

“Given the birds’ population decline in Australia due to climate change, it now looks as though we may have as many of them here in New Zealand,” he says.


“Te Waihora is pivotal to the bitterns’ survival in Canterbury; it’s an ‘engine room’ for the birds. The lake has some of the best raupō beds around and that’s their preferred habitat. They’re very habitat-specific and highly responsive to the creation of wetlands. Of the 50-75 birds I’ve recorded in Canterbury, up to 40 of them were spotted at Te Waihora.”


Peter says that up to five years ago, he would have been lucky to see matuku once a year but in the last four years, having refined his camera hunting skills, he has made 200 sightings in Canterbury, most of those around Te Waihora.


Given his wide study of matuku nationwide, Peter has built up an extensive bittern knowledge base and he is keen to see their Te Waihora habitats protected and perhaps even extended.


Te Waihora reed beds are a stronghold for Canterbury's remaining bittern. Wild Capture image library.

Te Waihora reed beds are a stronghold for Canterbury’s remaining bittern. Wild Capture image library.

“There’s a wonderful sense of timelessness about Te Waihora. It hasn’t changed much in the last 33 years, it’s essentially the same place. Having said that, with intensive farming now going right to the edge of those beautiful wetlands, parts of it are almost under siege.

“Because of that, I think there is huge potential for the creation of new wetlands, especially in the Lower Halswell and L2 flood plain areas. Engineered wetlands have been very successful in Hawke’s Bay, especially for birds and inaka. We haven’t undertaken that challenge in Canterbury yet but it would be an exciting development in the protection of a number of species,” Peter says.


Regardless of the species – fish or bird – that he is researching and recording, Peter has an unswerving fondness for Te Waihora and its environment. He has explored it extensively by canoe and he when pressed, he highlights Hart’s Creek and Timberyard Point as two of his favourite areas.


“I really identify with the lake. It has an understated beauty and it teems with freshwater life. It’s New Zealand’s fifth largest lake, it has the most recorded bird species of anywhere in the country and I find it remarkable that it has never featured in New Zealand Geographic magazine. I also love the fact that it’s a virtual wilderness on the edge of a city – something ‘forgotten’ almost. I can spend a whole day out there and never see another single person.


“It’s an incredibly valuable resource that really needs looking after.”

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