Destruction of grebe ecosystem ‘dismaying’

Works are underway at the southern end of Lake Hayes.

In a case of Murphy’s law, just when one attempt at environmental repair was going well, another falls spectacularly apart. John Darby, Wanaka’s local grebe expert, who has given many years of his life to encouraging grebes to breed successfully in Roy’s Bay on Lake Wanaka, is astonished and dismayed that just over the hill in Lake Hayes, a foreign developer is destroying the nesting habitat of native endangered birds.

The southern end of Lake Hayes has been described by the Otago Regional Council as “a regionally important wetland” and one that Landcare rates as “an unusually rare natural wetland.” The developers are currently driving a 68m boardwalk through the unbroken vegetation belt at the southern end to the lake edge. “I am astonished and dismayed at the huge amount of damage that has been done. Apart from the destruction of the ecosystem in this immediate area, the track is going through the nesting habitat of grebe and marsh crake and possibly bittern. The impact is huge, not only by way of habitat, but also the disturbance this will cause when it is used by humans, dogs and predators alike,” said Darby.

Darby started his journey with grebe many years ago. “Before coming to Wanaka I had only ever seen one live grebe in my life, that’s how rare they are. Grebes are a family of birds that go back 40 million years or more.”

Darby found out that the grebe was extinct in the North Island and populations were reducing from north to south. There were some 350-400 birds left in the South Island and it was classified as rare and threatened.

“The Southern Crested Grebe is a very visual and beautiful element of the natural history of Lake Wanaka,” said Darby. “By reputation they are a timid bird, easily disturbed, and difficult to study. Its behaviour is a reflection of the complexity of the ecosystem it lives in.”

“My attention was drawn to a pair of grebes that had tried to nest around the marina area around six years ago. But they kept failing which was sufficient for me to pry into the lives of grebes and try to find out why. In 2013 I found that there was a significant ‘dance’ of grebes on Lake Hayes, I made my way there to find out why there were so many and how they worked; in the sense, I needed to know what was going wrong and why before I could correct or change what was happening on Lake Wanaka.”

Thanks to Darby and his helpers’ efforts on Lake Wanaka, the grebe population has had 154 breeding attempts and 234 chicks have been fledged. But over the hill, the situation has reversed.

Despite John’s lengthy efforts to emphasise the importance of habitat for successful breeding, the developer has managed to sidestep this aspect of the ecology of Lake Hayes, and council have given them consent to install a boardwalk, and with the approval of DoC, to clear a significant block of wetlands. Darby believes there is a significant flaw in the process when the consent states, “The adverse effects of the proposal are considered to be no more than minor and all potentially affected parties have provided written approval. It is therefore considered appropriate to process the application on a non-notified basis”.

“There are two obvious flaws in this sort of ruling,” said Darby. “Adverse effects are a matter of opinion and usually the opinion of a single person, more often the consultant employed to get consent for the developer. In this case the extensive loss of habitat and compromised ecosystem is a lot more than minor.” The environmental report was written by John Edmonds and Associates and acknowledges that “the Lake is a 'habitat for threatened native fish species the Koaro Galaxias brevipinnis and for threatened swamp birds Australasian bittern Botaurus poiciloptilus and great crested grebe Podiceps cristatus australis.” But what it fails to mention is that a boardwalk through a nesting area provides easy access for dogs, stoats and other predators. The impact of visitors and associated disturbance is not recognised and is hardly a minor affect when the bird is endangered.

Darby said, “The second concerns affected persons/parties. In this case these are identified as DoC, Iwi, LINZ, ORC and Fish and Game. I would argue that affected parties should be wider, for instance, the Friends of Lake Hayes founded over ten years ago to protect and advocate for the lake consists of some 120 people. The have funded and promoted research, made submissions to QLDC and DoC on the lake, have a planting programme and also run a year-round predator trap line around the lake. In the case of all the work that has gone ahead and is planned, they were not notified or aware of what was about to happen!”

Ross Sinclair, committee member of the local branch of Forest and Bird said, “Some of our members have been to view the damage and from what we understand it appears that the proposed walkway and viewing platform is likely to cause the grebe population some grief. Forest and Bird was shut out from being able to submit on the proposal as the council did not notify it. ”

Sinclair goes on to say “Forest and Bird is dismayed that habitat of the crested Grebe at Lake Hayes is being destroyed for a private development. Crested grebes are one of almost 4000 of our native species that are threatened with extinction. We expect the Department of Conservation and QLDC to be doing all they can to prevent the continued decline of our native wildlife and this seems to be an example of where people are turning a blind eye.”  

Rebecca Pitts from QLDC stands by their decision; “The Council always reaches its own conclusion on effects, and doesn’t just adopt an applicant’s position without considering whether the conclusion is appropriate. Where necessary, councils can seek peer review of any assessment given. In this instance the environmental assessment provided to council for the alternative boardwalk location was considered fit for purpose.”

“The Council’s view is that the proposal is acceptable, subject to conditions. As such redress is not being considered,” she said.

The developers, a couple from Scotland and Malaysia who live in Singapore, reportedly acquired property in Arrowtown in 2015 after an 18-month process through the Overseas Investment Office. The felling of non-native willow trees and installation of the boardwalk is reportedly to improve their views. They have been contacted by the Wanaka Sun for comment but no reply was received at time of going to print.

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