Photo essay: Remote field work collecting forget-me-nots in the South Island

Photo essay: Remote field work collecting forget-me-nots in the South Island

Botany Researcher Heidi Meudt and Collection Manager Antony Kusabs made new collections of forget-me-nots and other plants at some stunning but remote South Island sites in Feb 2020. Take a behind-the-scenes look at what it takes to do remote field work, and enjoy some of the rewards of their hard work!

Planning and logistics

Remote field trips take considerable planning, flexibility, team work, and a dash of luck. We rely on previous collections and past experience to guide us. For example, determining which sites to visit to find specific plants, how long to spend at a site, what permission and permits are needed, how to get there (and back) safely, when to go, and what local botanists could come along to assist.

Next, we move on to coordinating the logistics of permits, itinerary, accommodation, food and gear, helicopters (and weight limits), and different teams of people in several different remote areas. Finally, after months of planning, the start date arrives. The plan is about to become reality!

Five people in hiking gear standing next to tents with mountain ranges and blue sky behind them
Our Eyre Mountains team of botanists taking a moment for a group photo before we head out to work for the day: Antony Kusabs, Santiago Martín-Bravo, Heidi Meudt, David Lyttle, and Mike Thorsen, Feb 2020. Photo by Santiago Martín-Bravo

The first site: the Eyre Mountains

To begin, our team of five first flew in to a remote corner of the Eyre Mountains, where we established a base campsite. The weather forecast looked great (what a relief!) and we were excited to have the next two full days to botanise.

The moon rising over a mountain range with three tents in the foreground pitched on rocky ground
Amazing remote campsite #1. Does life get any better than this? The moon over our tranquil and stunning backcountry campsite in the Eyre Mountains, 9 Feb 2020. Photo by Heidi Meudt. Te Papa

The daily routine

Even though the helicopter definitely saved us time, we still worked long days. Thus, to make the most of this special place, our days typically started at 6:30 am. After breakfast, planning and packing, we started our plant search by 8:30 am.

Four people in hiking gear with backpacks and hats on on the side of a rocky mountain
Lunchtime break! Time to regroup, discuss what we’ve collected so far, and revise our plans for the rest of the afternoon in the Takitimu Mountains, 10 Feb 2020. Left to right: Ant, David, Mike and Santi. Photo by Heidi Meudt. Te Papa

In the field, we head for habitats and areas to survey that are likely to have forget-me-nots based on previous collections and our own experience. And when we do find something, we get pretty excited, and get to work.

A man sitting on a rock wearing camping gear, a high-vis vest and a hard hat, peering through a hand-held lens looking at a plant
This is usually the first thing botanists do when they find an interesting plant: get out their hand lens, which is usually hanging around their neck, and try to see its minute features to identify it. Mike Thorsen in the Eyre Mountains, 11 Feb 2020. Photo by Heidi Meudt. Te Papa

We head back to camp around 6 or 7 pm after a full day of tramping, searching and collecting. While some of us prepare dinner on the camp stoves, the others start processing the collections. This involves pressing plant specimens, writing up our notes, and labelling and carefully storing all samples.

A man looking at maps and charts with a light on his head inside a tent with cooking gear in the foreground
After a long day of plant collecting, Ant presses plants after dark with his headlamp in his tent in the Eyre Mountains. The tight space serves as sleeping quarters, storage, dining room, and specimen prep room during our stay! 11 Feb 2020. Photo by Heidi Meudt. Te Papa
Four people crouched low in front of a helicopter in the mountains
Playing it safe by staying low near the helicopter during our pick up in the Eyre Mountains, Feb 2020. Photo by Santiago Martín-Bravo

A change of plan… And we are off to Fiordland

After three nights in the Eyre Mountains, we regrouped at a backpackers in Te Anau. Although it would take some effort, we knew we needed to change our plans to make the most of a window of good weather. As a result, the next morning we flew to our first site in Fiordland.

Four people on top of a mountain surrounded by camping gear and low clouds in the background
Collecting in the clouds. A surreal morning waiting for the helicopter to reappear, pick us up, and take us to the next field site in Fiordland National Park. And some of us are still botanising while we wait! 14 Feb 2020. Photo by Heidi Meudt. Te Papa
A small hut and tents on the side of a mountain with cliffs in the background
Amazing remote campsite #2. It was a privilege to be able to camp at this remote Fiordland location, Robin Saddle Hut. Feb 2020. Photo by Santiago Martín-Bravo
A woman wearing a cap and a green jacket inside a camping hut holding a container with two avocados and two tomatoes
Morning gourmet lunch prep. Getting the food right is a big deal on a field trip. Here, Heidi is holding a box of tomatoes and avocados – luxury items when out in the bush – during the morning lunch prep. They’ll be protected in the box and then put into our wraps. And after lunch, we can use the box to collect small specimens. Robin Saddle Hut, Fiordland National Park, Feb 2020. Photo by David Lyttle

Making collections in Fiordland

In Fiordland, the weather (mostly) held while we visited three different sites and camped at two of them.

Four people wearing hiking gear resting on the side of a hill on a misty day
Trying to look on the bright side… Not only was it a cloudy and wet day, we also did not find any forget-me-nots at this locality in Fiordland National Park, Feb 2020. Although disappointing, we still made several collections of other interesting plants. Photo by David Lyttle

Our time in the field was very busy, moving between sites and searching for plants. In addition, we collected, identified and pressed new specimens for my research and Te Papa’s herbarium.

Two people sitting on the grass with someone in the background. There is a person in the background bending over.
Who needs a table? Ant lines up his plant specimens on his leg after a day of collecting to start pressing them, as Mike looks on and Brian continues to botanise! 14 Feb 2020, Fiordland National Park. Photo by Heidi Meudt. Te Papa

 

Four people with photographic equipment on the grass in the highlands
Yes, we know, we are plant nerds. There is something about this photo which captures the “busyness” of field work, with everyone together and yet each doing something different: David looking for the next plant to photograph, Ant taking photos, Brian about to take notes in his field book, and Mike getting out his hand lens to look at another tiny plant. 15 Feb 2020, Fiordland National Park. Photo by Heidi Meudt. Te Papa
Tow people wearing woolen hats high up in the mountains surrounded by clouds
Two tired but happy botanists. Heidi and Ant making collections of a forget-me-not that does not yet have an official name, near Mt Luxmore, Fiordland National Park. 15 Feb 2020. Photo by Mike Thorsen
Two people on rocky ground with a first aid kit and shoes
First Aid 101. We always carry a first aid kit with us, and sometimes we have to put it and our first aid training into action! Even if it’s only for a blister, a common occurrence after walking many kilometres searching for plants. 15 Feb 2020. Photo by Heidi Meudt. Te Papa

A spontaneous and special site

There are not as many collections of forget-me-nots from Fiordland, probably due to its remoteness.  We had to choose one site by making a quick group decision in the helicopter after a short fly-over… Did we make the right call?

A combination of luck and collective experience paid off in this instance. For example, we found two species of forget-me-nots that day, including one that is Data Deficient, and heard and saw signs of takahē to boot!

A man in a high-vis vest on the side of a mountain by rocks and a cave
Steep survey. Heidi and Brian carefully survey the forget-me-not population at this very steep site in Fiordland National Park, 14 Feb 2020. Photo by David Lyttle

 

A long shot of a river surrounded by mountains and rocks. There are bird footprints in the sand in the foreground
Takahē and botanists agree! What a stunning site for collecting forget-me-nots! Although we didn’t see any takahē, we heard them here, and saw their footprints. Can you see the footprints in the photo too? Feb 2020. Photo by Antony Kusabs. Te Papa

Camping in the Takitimu Mountains

Back in Te Anau again, we were grateful for the luxury of showers and beds after three nights in the Fiordland backcountry. Moreover, a storm passed through, giving us a full day to prepare for the next remote location: the Takitimu Mountains.

A man wearing a white hard hat on the sound of a mountain pressing a plant in between two pages of a graphic novel
How to press a plant in the field. Te Papa Collection Manager Antony Kusabs using a makeshift field press (an old book) that can be easily carried in a backpack to press a forget-me-not specimen in the Takitimu Mountains, 17 Feb 2020. Photo by Heidi Meudt. Te Papa

This time, four of us flew to a high point in the range, and then worked our way down to our planned campsite, searching for and collecting plants as we tramped.

People sitting in the middle of a campsite surrounded by four tents on the side of a grassy mountain
Beautiful backcountry botany campsite in the Takitimu Mountains, 17 Feb 2020. Photo by Santiago Martín-Bravo
Three people in hiking gear and hardhats climbing up the side of a grassy mountain with a small waterfall behind them
Ant, Santi and John starting the daily trek to search for forget-me-nots and other plants. What will we find and collect today? Takitimu Mts, 18 Feb 2020. Photo by Heidi Meudt. Te Papa

Remote success

Check out Collections Online to see the 120 scientific specimens we collected, including many forget-me-nots.

Thanks especially to the Department of Conservation for permits, and to botanists Antony, Santiago, David, Mike, Brian, John and Cara-Lisa. Each of them contributed their time, skills and energy to make this remote field work so successful.

Leave a comment