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On the Search for Rock Wren in the Lord River Valley

Seeking endangered alpine birds and exploring a new landscape in New Zealand's Southern Alps

By: Crystal Brindle + Save to a List

I could have done some preparation for this trip. I should have. But, all the same I didn’t. For reasons of being pulled in other directions, for having a little too much on my plate and honoring my tendency to say yes to everything I found myself short on time and mental energy to devote toward this upcoming week in the mountains. I barely managed to pack my bag and jump in the car when the time came to leave for the West Coast. As the hills of Southland turned into the hills of Otago I struggled to go over my mental pack list to ensure I had everything that I needed. Close enough it seemed, and besides, it was too late now to turn back.

“Hurry up and wait” is always the mantra for helicopter travel. I pace back and forth in the cold shadow of early morning in far too many layers than should be worn all the way down here. I even jump around and receive the curious attention of a charcoal grey fantail. I wonder, “how cold will it be up there” and “do I have enough warm gear?” After realizing I have forgotten to pack my beanie things are not looking especially good. But, as with before, there is nothing I can do now to change my preparation. The helicopter finally comes into view and it’s time to hop aboard and launch into an uncertain journey to an unknown place.

I soon forget my fretful musings as I am drawn nearer to icefields draped over the staunchly rugged Southern Alps. I don’t think I’ve ever beheld such texture. Perfect white smoothness gives way to deep blue-grey cracks and jumbled piles of ice and rock. The sense of immensity is heightened as my eyes take in the changing scene at lightning speed. The expanse of ice lies like icing on a cake – swirly luminescent and creamy until it breaks with remarkable sharpness at the edge of a precipice, falling away into chasms, cliffs, and chalky waterfalls roaring with meltwater. It is the places where ice meets abyss that capture me the most. From my seat in the sky I nearly press myself against the glass trying to glimpse every detail of this meeting – the way the glacier expands as it tumbles over the edge, the pumping and hurtling waterfall that rushes between the sheerest of dark cliffs to somewhere below.

More and more and still more of this ice-carved landscape unfolds as we draw nearer to our destination. Wave upon wave of mountains extend to the horizon in all directions  as our flight path tucks us into the heart of branching river valleys flowing from the Southern Alps to the sea.

Suddenly we come in low toward the head of a particular valley and I scramble to photograph our arrival. I don’t take note of much detail through the camera lens, just a range of commanding snowy mountains to my left and tussock slopes to my right. Next, we’re on the ground and I step back to see that range of mountains in closer relief as it adds a picturesque backdrop to the helicopter as it lifts off. The overwhelming noise of the chopper dies away, swept at once back toward civilization from where it came. We are left, ears ringing at the arrival of sudden stillness, in this brand-new valley to unpack, sort our gear, and get to work. The sound of the river is the first thing I notice and as we settle in it permeates into the background of this new world.

Tents set up and food hastily packed, our team of three charges off in separate directions. I clamber through sharp shrubbery with only a vague sense of where I’m heading. After a few glances at the map in my hand compared with the screen of my GPS, I make a rough plan as I go. Easier said than done. I know rock wren like to live in places that are often difficult for humans to access. The same head-high thick scrub, car-sized boulders and hidden holes that make travel through a place like this so difficult for me make it ideal for rock wren. If I want to find them I have to spend my time here – sometimes crawling, often falling through the intricate landscape of the low alpine.

Hours later I stand at the edge of dark cliffs that drop to the cataract of Swift Water below surveying the sweeping glacial landscape in front of me. Piles and piles of grey moraine rubble rise pushed to either side of a perfectly scoured valley that drops suddenly into a narrow canyon that looks as though it were formed in a waterfall’s attempt to burrow into the earth. This landscape is epic in every sense of the word. My adventurous soul is sparked by every contour and turn in the slopes I traverse as curiosity forces me on just a little further to see what lies around the bend.

After the best part of a day spent exploring in this manner I have still yet to see a rock wren. I drop a few hundred meters in elevation on a boulder-strewn piece of land that lies between the canyon on my right and a smaller tributary on my left. I cross the small stream and weave through boulders and scrub slowly working my way back in the direction I had come far above. I stop to play rock wren calls on a tiny speaker and listen for any response. Nothing.

I continue on in this way until I reach the toe of the most prominent boulderfield these slopes have to offer. I realize I’ve hit the boulderfield lower than I planned to and as a result have to climb up through increasingly difficult scrub to where I can begin my zig zag search. I see our camp temptingly nearby and briefly entertain thoughts of moving towards it instead of away from it. Alas, I have to keep moving up. Daylight diminishes quickly at this time of year and there is still a boulderfield to search.

Whoosh! My foot falls straight through the scrub I stepped on to be stopped at leg depth only by my hips being caught above, too wide for the narrow perfectly foot-shaped hole. “WHOA!” I am shocked to attention by this slip-up and notice how my leg kicks freely below, still plenty of space left beneath me that I cannot see. I struggle to crawl out of my predicament and take three more cautious steps before falling through another gap where boulder meets vegetation. This fall kicks more wind out of me and as I get to my feet again I feel unsettled in the gathering dark. It is too dim to see where I’m going well yet a few hundred meters of what now feels like a minefield lie between me and the security of camp.

There’s nothing to do but push on, attempting a balance between haste and careful attention to movement. I fall through an obscured hole once more and can’t help but think how close any of these falls have come to causing injury. One slight difference and I could have twisted an ankle or worse. I decide to basically throw myself at the scrub where I can, rolling and swimming through dense walls of dracophyllum and olearia instead of risking big steps into the unknown. There is no light from our camp but I finally see the dark shapes of tents just below me and the scrubby wall I stand on. I crash through what remains between myself and my tent and step with relief onto solid ground. “MADE IT” is all I can think.

It is a wonderful rediscovery to unzip one’s tent and find the impressive landscape of yesterday awash with new color and texture. I take it all in over muesli and packing for the day. There seems to be a never-ending need for organizing and adjusting when living out of a tent. I find myself packing and unpacking and repackaging no matter how many times I’ve faced the same questions. “What should I pack for lunch?” “Where are all of my spare batteries?” “GPS? Check.” “Speaker? Check.” “Gloves? Che… wait, where’s the other one?” Of course, I’ve gotten more efficient with this dance over the years but I find it still takes a little while to settle into the routine of each place. It’s the same for the work I’m doing here. I’m looking for something I know how to find but in a totally new place. This landscape operates under its own set of rules, some I’m familiar with and some I’m not.

Later in the day after climbing far above camp, cloud settles in as a thick fog coming in waves to obscure my vision to only 10-20 meters at times. In this moist fog I climb up and over slick car-sized boulders seeking rock wren. I have to analyze every move before making it and often end up in surprising positions dragging myself across the wet stone to reach the next gap. I stop every 15 minutes or so to listen but hear absolutely nothing save the occasional kea overhead. I’ve found myself in a landscape of monotony and relish the breaks when the cloud lifts and I can see more of the terrain around me. In the windless quiet I sometimes hear a small clattering of hooves on rock. I stop to look and find a shaggy-haired tahr peering at me from behind a boulder. “It’s just you and me out here it seems,” I say aloud to the tahr.

At day’s end I’ve only found one rock wren pair and now descend quickly through the dry stream bed of Fury Torrent in an attempt to reach camp before dark. The unpleasantries of spending my day in a slick boulderfield are capped off by a soaking slog through drenched tussock, flax, and stabbing aciphylla. I remind myself that soon enough I’ll be back in camp and even chuckle at how absolutely unglamorous this is. Most of the time pushing through scrub is just painful and annoying but sometimes when it is spectacularly bad I can’t help but laugh.

The joy of peeling off my wet clothes at the end of the day is real. It is the little comforts that make the most difference when life is simplified. I get into making the best camp veggie satay I can and once we sit down to enjoy it I notice the clouds clearing and moonlight streaming through. Sounds filter in: a whio’s high-pitched loon-like whistle, the river below, and the crack of icefall from hanging glaciers above. The cloud is entirely whisked away by the time I crawl into the warmth of my tent and all is still. I tuck my wet gear away as best I can, knowing that in the night it will probably freeze. Warm fuzzy thoughts and pleasant dryness envelop me as I drift into a long sleep.

Too soon after, I find myself pushing through semi-frozen stiff scrub that threatens to rise above my head if I step wrong. I can only barely feel my toes in their prison of freezing wet boots and my hands complain with a lack of dexterity as I continually force them to cling to wet and cold rock. The wet clothes I put on are now washed anew and dripping by the time I reach the edge of the icy blue river. I am so uncomfortable I can hardly think of anything else but then a loud whio’s call cuts through the pain to get my attention. A male and female sing loudly together in the river just a few meters from where I stand. They are beautiful and mirror the grey-blue of their surroundings.

I look downstream and notice the perfect morning sunlight hitting the uppermost snowy heights of the mountains. I am struck by a strange dual feeling of misery and elation. I laugh with joy as I start to shiver and pull my camera out despite myself to capture what I can of this beautiful moment.

I know I must move in order to warm up so promptly pack the camera away and splash through the cold river to the other side. I try to climb as quickly as I can to generate warmth but in the shade of the big mountains on this side of the valley I remain cold despite all of my heavy layers. I look over my shoulder and see the most sparkling and gorgeous scene imaginable. So, with hands shaking and toes seemingly frozen I stop again to quickly snap a photo. I take it all in but in overdrive. The lush celmisia gardens clustered around rocks and yellow tussock, the rich blue sky of morning, the glacier in the sun, the sharp peaks all register in my brain but at a speed that allows the urgency of my physical state to be noticed simultaneously. It’s a strange combination that I haven’t quite experienced before. Nevertheless, it is true and immediate in this moment.

I begin angling sideways and up toward a cirque that will hopefully contain rock wren, and as I now notice, has the best chance of receiving sun. I feel instantly at home on this side of the valley, in a way, as I travel above the scrub line and beneath the highest mountains. Movement in the place I travel now is more about gaining elevation footstep after footstep instead of the slow scrubby battle of the days before. I absolutely love climbing up uninhibited in a mountain environment. Now, I enjoy this freedom as I move through tussock sparkling with moisture and talus fields of dark rock.

As I round a corner I stop to play rock wren calls on my little speaker. To my surprise after the lack of success of the last two days, I hear a small answering call, then another one. I can tell there are two birds but only see one. There! The second one appears and both hop near me on the rocks. I feel excited and satisfied, though still shockingly cold, and observe each bird closely for a few minutes. It feels extra special to see them after so few encounters thus far. They’re just as I know them to be: curious, quick moving, sleek, and beautiful.

I leave them to climb higher into the cirque to search more and am delighted to feel sun on my skin for the first time that day. I instantly feel as though my face and limbs are actually thawing. As the sensation of warmth and comfort seeps in, I throw off my soaking gear and feel rekindled both in body and mind.

My search efforts send me into every nook and cranny of the cirque and back in the direction I came from but on a higher path that takes me right beneath every bluff I can find. At one point I discover a single female bird in a rather precarious spot for me to reach. She flits from rock to rock and doesn’t seem to understand my hesitation. I often wish for the ease of movement in mountain terrain that rock wren possess. Finally, after turning into the steep moraine wall and down-climbing one careful kick-step at a time, I reach the spot where I saw the bird. By now she has moved on somewhere out of sight and earshot, just what you’d expect when a slow human tries to keep pace with a bird.

I find another new pair tucked into a different and equally magnificent glacial cirque dotted with large grey-green celmisia rosettes long since past flowering but still beautiful at the season’s end. Clouds that float above tall peaks in front of me begin to hold color and light as the sun descends toward the horizon. I meet one more bird, a single male, and then turn back for camp.

Down, down, down through a rocky stream bed to the Lord River below. I splash across and push through scrub once more to reach camp. Elation and satisfaction stick with me and I finally feel settled into this camp life and routine of challenge and discovery.

“How high can I go?” “How high should I go?” Today’s high traverse takes me again across unknown ground to sidle beneath new bluffs and rocky outcrops to finally reach the edge of Sunbeam Glacier. Sunbeam, though covered with grey moraine debris and split from its source up high, extends further toward the valley floor than any remaining glacier. As such, I can’t wait to see it up close. The impressive gaping scar in the land that once held the full breadth of the glacier is cut so steeply that I end up climbing up and around further than I’d planned to avoid an ever-expanding system of bluffs below. The area I can travel through becomes narrower and narrower between the steep summits of the mountains above and the cliffs that fall away to Sunbeam below.

A strong desire to see the full extent of the glacier and an interest in examining better and better rock wren habitat that unfolds around every corner leads me to follow the steps of a tahr high into the upper cirque of the glacier.

“Ah, finally!” I crest another small rise and see Sunbeam Glacier sweep out before me. The sound of great space rushes into my ears mixed with tumbling water somewhere far below. And then, another sound, at once so different from the magnitude of mountain scale but akin to this environment all the same, the instantly recognizable cheep of rock wren. I look just below me and sure enough spot two small birds bouncing in the boulders.

Satisfied with this discovery, I sit back into the slope as best I can using my heels to dig in and brace against the pull of gravity that threatens to drag my pack, if my arm isn’t looped through the strap, and me into the void below and contemplate where to go next. Like so many decisions over the last few days I must look hard at the risk and reassess my initial inkling. Finally, I make the hard choice to turn around and go down along the ridge of Sunbeam’s true right moraine wall, instead of crossing up high, until I can find a place to descend and cross the outflow creek. This will take me a few hundred meters lower than I want to be and might mean that I lose time to search the high bluffs I was aiming for, but, it is without a doubt the safer choice.

I lose elevation quickly and soon stroll happily along the crest of the ridge between empty space and scoured moraine wall to my left and lush celmisia-strewn gardens to my right. I find the juxtaposition intensely compelling and study it in detail as I move. I am experiencing a living, breathing, and tumultuous landscape with every step. I can see landscape-scale sculpting forces at work in an immediate sense only possible in places of active glacial movement. I am completely in awe of this place and respect every lesson it teaches. I learn another as I turn to look back at the upper reaches of the glacier where I had stopped not long ago. Right in the middle of what I had perceived as a flat terrace I could walk across to reach the other side of the glacier valley is the sharp cut of a waterfall when flowing and icy cavern when frozen as it is today. The now incredibly obvious gap between rock was completely obscured from view when I was in a fold around the corner up high. That certainly answers the question of which route was the better choice.

I reach the cold, clear water that flows from the glacier far above and cross to move upstream beside the dazzling blue waters of the Lord River as far as time will allow. A small double waterfall drops into a pool of ice blue over smooth light grey slabs as the river flows between moraine on the true right and larger boulders interspersed with scrub on the true left. I reach a high point that lets me absorb a 360-degree view of this landscape that has played home to me for the better part of a working week. What used to be unfamiliar land forms now register memories and with them feelings and a sense of place. As is the continual condition of those in the mountains, I yearn to continue up-valley and discover more, yet, I turn and head for camp knowing the helicopter waits for no one and the gear won’t pack itself.

Just when I think it’s all over and casually munch an apple in-flight from our valley back to the coast I am suddenly awed by fast-approaching sheets of ice. We’re taking a slightly different flight path out and I toss my apple into my camera case as I struggle to capture the expansive ice-scape beneath me.

Each day previous we’ve experienced some level of afternoon cloud or fog but not today. This evening shines clear and a visual feast is on display in every direction.

The glaciers give way to a deluge into sharp-cut canyons below and the jagged peaks march on until they become the rainforest clad monuments of the West Coast teeming with life and abundance. This sharp contrast between raw and rugged and richly alive is made all the more obvious by the speed at which we travel. I feel that I am at once glimpsing the interplay of different ecosystems in one whole picture. The clouds shed the snow that feeds the glacier that melts into the torrent that forms the cleft through which the river begins its journey to the Tasman Sea. Iconic tree ferns and stately rimus stand out in the tangle of forest life lit with the setting sun as we drop in close to the Whataroa River.

On the ground once more, gear unloaded, the chopper zips off back toward the mountains and glints in the low-angle sun. The drowning roar of the blades dies away and allows the natural sounds of the place to be heard once more. I once again recognize the light-hearted cheep of a fantail and the dull but undeniable rumbling flow of the river.

We want to acknowledge and thank the past, present, and future generations of all Native Nations and Indigenous Peoples whose ancestral lands we travel, explore, and play on. Always practice Leave No Trace ethics on your adventures and follow local regulations. Please explore responsibly!

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