Edgar Stead (1881-1949) was a Canterbury naturalist famous (among other things) for exhuming the enormous Okarito blue whale skeleton now in Canterbury Museum, breeding the Ilam strain of rhododendrons and azaleas, and being an astute observer of New Zealand birds. His magnificent homestead ‘Ilam’ is now the Canterbury University staff club, and was the main set for Peter Jackson’s film ‘Heavenly Creatures’ (as the Hulme family lived there after the property was sold to University of Canterbury).
As part of a project to publish the wildlife diaries of Edgar Stead, I have visited some of the islands that Stead camped on or set foot on during the period 1929-1947. Stead was one of the first naturalists to land on rugged, wind-swept Solander Island in the western approaches to Foveaux Strait. He was ashore briefly “in a howling gale” on 12 June 1933, travelling on the naval vessel Matai.
The most notable discovery that Stead made on Hautere/Solander Island was the identity of the albatross species that breeds there. “I got onto Solanders. It was an awful rough trip – Capt Burgess said he hadn’t seen such a sea for years. The Mollymawk there is Buller’s albatross – most unexpected” (Edgar Stead letter to Robert Wilson, June 1933). Hautere/Solander Island is a major breeding ground for Buller’s mollymawk, with at least 6000 pairs breeding there. This winter-breeding albatross species was the focus of the Te Papa research visit in May 2016.
Two of Stead’s letters provide information on other wildlife species seen:
“On the Solanders I had only an hour & twenty minutes. I saw no robins or wrens, but was occupied most of the time in photographing young Buller’s Albatross on a cliff face in a howling gale. I saw Bell-bird, Yellow-fronted Parrakeet, pipit and weka.” (letter to Malcolm Fraser, 3 October 1933).
“Solanders would be a very rough place to stay for any length of time. We did not get up on it much and saw only Pipit, Mockie [bellbird], Tomtit, Weka and Y.H. Parakeet. (letter to Robert Wilson, June 1933).
The two most significant sightings that Stead made were of pipit and yellow-crowned parakeet. The Te Papa team saw two pipits in May 2016, the first record of this species there since Stead’s visit. Dominion Museum Director Robert Falla also recorded yellow-crowned parakeets when he landed on Solander Island in December 1947 and July 1948, but recent observations have been of red-crowned parakeets, suggesting that this species colonised and displaced its smaller relative between 1948 and 1972.
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