Over twenty club members travelled to Black Birch off the Awatere Valley Road, a bit over a kilometre past the Medway Road turnoff. The day started off cloudy and a dense cloud layer enveloped the upper contours of the mountain range when we arrived but as we begin to climb, and pass large piles of slash, we suddenly came around a bend and were past the forestry, and a DOC sign announced we were in the Ferny Gair Conservation Area. As we rounded a sharp bend enveloped in mist, the clouds parted, and Taupae-o-Uenuku loomed out of a bright sea of white to the south, the Awatere Valley and its vineyards hidden far below.

As we ascended past 1200 metres, the vegetation became lower and more sparse, with progressively more exposed scree, and brownish orange soil, and we reached a kind of high plateau, studded with rocky tors. To the north, scree slopes drop away to a steep sided valley and rise up again as the rugged Blairich Range. Apart from the tors, there is no shelter from sun or wind of any kind in this landscape, and we were grateful that the temperature was mild and there was little wind. This location afforded some good opportunities for both landscape and natural history photography.

In spite of the harsh environment, in early summer, the mountain was teeming with a multitude of life and vibrant colours. Black mountain ringlet butterflies fluttered everywhere, teasing photographers but hardly ever sitting still long enough to be photographed. Some photographers seem to have decided that if they wanted to capture any fauna, photographing each other would be easier than chasing butterflies, potentially over the side of a mountain. Small red beetle like insects feasted on nectar from small alpine flowers, and the flowers themselves came in an abundance of sizes, shapes and colours, as though we were in the middle of a large botanical garden, except in this case everything was natural. We found native variations of several well known plants such as buttercups, forget-me-nots and violets, along with more exotic things like vegetable sheep, so named supposedly because from a distance, they have a similar appearance to a woolly sheep.

We stopped again at the summit of Altimarloch, at 1693 metres in the shelter of a large green generator shed, beneath some tall microwave communications antenna. The 350 metre or so difference in altitude was marked by a noticeable difference in ecology. Put in persepctive, 350 metres is more than three quarters of the height of the highest point on the Wither Hills, so it is reasonably significant. There were more good opportunities for landscape and natural history, however conditions were changing extremely rapidly with ever changing mist. The mist actually provided an advantage, as it provided more even lighting for natural history images, and in the periods it cleared, it provided interesting lighting on the landscape that would have been impossible with a clear blue sky only a week away from the longest day.

After lunch, and plenty of time photographing the landscape and natural history, we slowly made our way back down the mountain, making several stops to look for plants that we missed on the ascent, including Leptinella, or black scree daisy, which took a bit of exploration to find.

Some history from Chris and Ross Beech  (Leaders of the Field Trip 15/12/2018)

Chris first visited here with Correspondence School Awatere families in the early 1960’s, when Frank Bateson lived on the mountain at the Black Birch Astronomical Observatory. Mr Bateson made variable star observations here before shifting to establish the Mount John facility at Tekapo. Later Wellington’s Carter Observatory had a facility on the mountain, and the US Naval Observatory had a substantial presence from 1984 to 1996. Japanese and Auckland Universities had a gamma ray programme in the mid 1990’s.

All buildings have now been removed and the sites reinstated. Telecommunications aerials and building are present at the top of the range.

Thank you to the members who participated in this trip – their enthusiasm made this a very enjoyable day.