Friday, November 25, 2011

A window into the hidden world of New Zealand's white herons

By Karl Bremer

Deep in a secluded lagoon near the hamlet of Whataroa on New Zealand’s South Island West Coast, a spectacular avian display takes place between October and March when the country’s entire population of majestic white herons returns to nest at the Waitangiroto River colony. Dozens of these magnificent birds—called Kotuku by the native Maori—take up residence in kowhai, mahoe and kamahi trees and in the crowns of fern trees alongside a colony of even rarer royal spoonbills that also migrate to this remote backwater north of Okarito Lagoon to breed.

The regal white herons mingle as one with the equally noble royal spoonbills in this secret, otherworldly lagoon.  Gliding across the bronze-colored water, these iridescent creatures are like poetry in motion. The two spindly, white birds are distinguished in flight by their markedly different bills and the crook of their neck; the sharp-billed herons fly with their necks kinked, while spoonbills extend their broad beaks and long necks in flight. Together here during the breeding season, they present birders with a marvelous opportunity if you schedule your visit right. For much of the rest of the year, the herons and spoonbills are not even at the lagoon.

We arrived in late November—prime time to witness them resplendent in their breeding plumage cavort with one another while others sit on the nest with their fledgling young.

The trip back into the hidden sanctuary is part of the thrill of the white heron experience. White Heron Sanctuary Tours in Whataroa is the exclusive operator allowed into the sensitive area by the Department of Conservation and works closely with the Department to protect the heron and spoonbill population.
The jet boat skimmed across gravel bars in less than 6 inches of water.
After a short van ride across the open glacial plain with the Southern Alps visible in the distance, we arrived at a launch and boarded a jet boat. Apprehension about the propriety of roaring up and down the river to view a rare bird nesting area gave way to awe as our tour guide/pilot deftly guided the craft down the winding Waitangitaona River at speeds of 50-60 kph, shooting between deadheads and flying over gravel bars in 6 inches of crystal-clear water. And, as we would soon find out, the jet boat doesn’t get anywhere near the sanctuary.

The well-muffled roar of the boat’s jet propulsion scarcely got a nod out of the cows grazing contentedly along the river as we flew by. An occasional Putangitangi, the paradise shelduck, took flight and kept pace to escort us down the river. After about 20 minutes, we disembarked and boarded our third means of transport—an open-air jitney pulled by an ATV—that took us over to a different river.

Yet another boat ride awaited us there—this time on a double-decker pontoon that chugged quietly back up the murky, stained waters of the Waitangiroto River, which drains the middle of the floodplain. As we cruised along, we began to see increasing numbers of spoonbills and white herons skimming low across the water or perched on the shore fishing.

Our guide eased the pontoon up to the dock and we set out on the last leg—a short hike on a boardwalk through the swampy forest to the viewing stand. Along the walkway, box traps are set for stoats, a weasel-like varmint that preys on the eggs of white herons and other birds, including the endangered kiwi.

Visitors become hushed as they approach the two-level viewing stand across the lagoon from the nesting area. Once inside the wooden shanty, it’s like looking through a window into another world. The verdant forest spread out before you, thick and tangled below with taller kahikatea trees towering above, is punctuated with brilliant white herons and royal spoonbills. Dozens are sitting on nests while others perch like sentries or soar back and forth feeding their newly hatched young.
Fantastic plumes spray light off their backs and wings as they sit elegantly on their nests and preen. When they lift off, their sleek bodies float with ethereal grace on their immense wings, announced by an occasional guttural croak.

The viewing stand is equipped with multiple pairs of high-quality binoculars, allowing everyone ample opportunity to zoom in close on the birds’ family life for as long as they wanted. It appears to be unobtrusive to the birds’ activities, although during nesting when the birds are more protective, it’s sometimes necessary to partially shutter the large openings in the stand to keep from spooking them.

When the herons start arriving at the colony in August or September, they begin the magical transformation into their breeding stage. Their yellow beaks turn black, the facial skin turns blueish-green and long, spiked plumes develop on their backs and wings. These plumes long have been highly prized by humans. Maori thought them to be sacred and used them to adorn their chiefs and other tribal elders. Their desirability for women’s hats in the 1800s nearly decimated New Zealand’s population of the birds when their breeding ground was discovered in 1865. By 1941 only four nests remained, and the area was established as a reserve. It since has received increasing levels of protection.

Once they arrive at the lagoon, the males build a platform upon which they perform a dazzling mating ritual to compete for a mate. When birds are paired off, the female builds another nesting platform of fern fronds and sticks anywhere from 8 to 40 feet in the air.

Between 40 and 50 pairs of white herons typically breed at the site each year. Of the three to five eggs laid, only one or two usually are fledged. Their survival largely depends on weather conditions during nesting season, when storms can blow nests down, or flooding occurs in the nearby Okarito Lagoon, which can make stalking their diet of whitebait, eels and crayfish difficult.

The birds disperse throughout New Zealand in the winter after breeding, but the Waitangiroto River colony remains New Zealand’s only heronry. Their numbers reportedly have stabilized at between 100-120. How the colony was established in the first place is still somewhat of a mystery. Egretta alba modesta is found throughout India, China, Japan and Australia as well. Some theorize that perhaps hundreds of years ago, winds carried a flock from Australia across the Tasman Sea, and they established this colony on the West Coast just a few miles from the sea.

A royal spoonbill soars beneath the white herons.
Even more rare than the white heron in New Zealand is the royal spoonbill, or Kotuku Ngutu Papa (board-billed kotuku), that has been coming to the same lagoon to breed since 1949. Because the royal spoonbills nest in the much taller kahikatea trees, they’re more exposed and vulnerable to storms. As a result, fewer chicks are fledged. Their population, while stable, is far less than the white heron’s in New Zealand.

The royal spoonbill is slightly shorter and heavier than the white heron. It sweeps its black, shovel-like bill from side to side as it wades the swamps and estuaries to feed on shellfish, frogs and other aquatic life.

Similar to the white herons, plumes extend off the back of the royal spoonbill’s head during breeding. They disperse across both the South and North islands after the nesting season, usually to estuaries along the coast.

The lagoon is also home to a kawaupaka, or little shag, rookery. The little shag is common throughout New Zealand and nests near the white herons and royal spoonbills. Slightly smaller than either of its neighbors, the little shag’s plumage ranges from all black to black and white, with black feet, a yellow face and stubby yellow bill.

After about 45 minutes, we left the viewing stand in silence and with a sense of reverence at what we had just seen. The serene pontoon ride back down the Waitangiroto gave us a chance to ruminate on the experience as we passed an intermittent heron or spoonbill wading along the riverbank.

As the jet boat flew upstream and across the shoals of the Waitangitaona, it felt like we were being transported forward in time from a visit to an ancient world, where these wondrous monarchs ruled the sky.

To the Maori, Kotuku is a sacred symbol of all things rare and beautiful. It even shows up in a Maori funeral chant that concludes: “Ko to kotuku to tapui, e Tama – e” (“Kotuku is now thy sole companion, O my son!”). Visit the White Heron Sanctuary at Whataroa and see for yourself why.


Whataroa is on the South Island’s West Coast on State Highway 6, 103 km south of Hokitika and 32 km north of Franz Josef Glacier. White Heron Sanctuary Tours is on the west side of the road in the middle of the village.

White Heron tours run from late October to March. A rainforest nature tour by jetboat in the Waitangi Roto Nature Reserve is run during the rest of the year. Cost for both tours is $110 for adults and $45 for children 12 and under. Tours are run daily at approximately 9 a.m, 11 a.m., 1 p.m. and 3 p.m. Studio, motel and cabin units also are available at the Sanctuary Tours Motel next door.

Phone:  0800-523-456

A visit to the tiny Kotuku Gallery in Whataroa is time well-spent before or after the 2.5-hour white heron tour. It features a splendid collection of bone, jade, wood and antler art pieces by a local Maori carver and his family. And there’s nothing like buying direct from the artist.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

'Madness of Michele Bachmann' book signing December 10 at Common Good Books in St. Paul

The authors of "The Madness of Michele Bachmann" -- myself, Ken Avidor and Eva Young -- will sign copies of our book at Common Good Books, 165 Western Ave. N., St. Paul, on December 10 at 2 p.m. Come out and meet the authors behind the bylines and get your holiday shopping done at the same time!

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Veterans Day for Veterans

By Karl Bremer
It’s Veterans Day again.


Federal government workers will get the day off, whether they served or not. Likewise, most state employees will get a holiday, regardless of their veterans status. Bankers too. In fact, 21 percent of private employers plan to observe the holiday in 2011, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

But if you’re a veteran, unless you’re working for one of the employers listed above, chances are, it’s just another day on the job. If you want to attend one of the many events recognizing veterans today, you’ll probably have to take a day of vacation.

Which brings me to my modest proposal.

If we are to set aside one day a year to honor veterans and call it Veterans Day, why are we giving the day off to nonveterans? For most, it’s an extra day to put away the mower and get the snowblower out, a free day in the tree stand waiting for a deer, a bonus day on the golf course, an opportunity for a three-day road trip somewhere, or just an extra day to sleep in. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

But if veterans are going to lend our name to a holiday, why not make Veterans Day truly a day for veterans and give those who served in uniform the day off while others work? It’s simply a matter of truth-in-advertising. Otherwise, we may as well call it Government Workers & Bankers Day. See how well that goes over.

Minnesota wouldn’t be the first state to move in this direction. Since 2010, all employers in the state of Iowa are required to give veterans the day off on November 11. However, they have the option of making that a paid or unpaid holiday for the veteran, which in the latter instance, isn’t really a holiday at all.

Governor Dayton yesterday announced two new veterans initiatives—one to expand a job retraining program to all veterans and another to provide funding for military honor guards at veterans’ funerals. Ripple in Stillwater is calling on him to add a third:

Require that all public and private employers in the state of Minnesota give veterans a paid holiday on November 11, and rescind it as an “official” state holiday for all others.

Memorials, editorials, rememberances, flags and salutes are all fine. But if you really want to show your appreciation for those who served, give them a real holiday to go along with it.

(For the record, I was drafted in 1972 and served two years and a day in the U.S. Army, Military Police.)

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

A River of Misinformation

By Karl Bremer

When I exposed the Coalition for the St. Croix River Crossing’s big lie about the Obama Administration and Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood supporting their Boondoggle Bridge, the Coalition’s director defended its claim in a blog posting of his own.

“Despite what some people want us to believe, recent comments by U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood indicate that the Obama Administration really does want the St. Croix River Crossing to be built,” huffed Coalition Executive Director Michael Wilhelmi. “Honestly.”

“The only way one could think that his comments in support of the St. Croix River Crossing actually mean that the Obama Administration doesn’t support the St. Croix River Crossing,” Wilhelmi charged, “is when you ignore basic facts, as was recently done by a local blogger.” He linked to my column.

Today, the Star-Tribune newspaper in Minneapolis confirmed what I had reported last week: the Obama Administration has not thrown its support behind the Boondoggle bridge, and neither has Secretary LaHood, as the Coalition has falsely claimed. Mary McComber, the Coalition member who told Ripple in Stillwater that neither the Administration nor LaHood had expressed a preference for any particular bridge, also reaffirmed to the Star-Tribune what she told me.

According to the Star-Tribune: 

McComber, who was at the White House last month for a meeting with local officials, said Tuesday that [White House Chief of Staff] Daley did not specifically back the project and that the coalition's statement went too far. "Something has gotten mixed up somewhere along the lines," she said.

When one of Wilhelmi’s own Coalition members says they aren’t being truthful, that should tell you something.

The Star-Tribune went on to note:

Even though LaHood has said he supports building a bridge, he declined to back the specific legislation in Congress, saying that's something he never does.

The White House declined to comment for the Star-Tribune’s story.

Wilhelmi boasted in his missive that “We make sure that the details and facts that we use in support of the project are verified by a state or federal regulatory agency. Bridge opponents cannot say the same.”

Maybe when Wilhelmi sees his deceptions exposed by a big-city newspaper instead of just a “local blogger,” he’ll think better of continuing to make false claims about support for his Boondoggle Bridge that doesn’t exist. Then again, maybe he’ll just blithely accuse the Star-Tribune of “ignoring the facts” too, and continue to spew his river of misinformation.

A Kinky Night with Ray Davies

By Karl Bremer

Kinks co-founder and former frontman Ray Davies turned in a splendid performance at St. Paul's Fitzgerald Theatre last night. Backed by L.A. indie rockers The 88, Ray blew through a wide range of mostly Kinks material-- from transcendent classics Waterloo Sunset and Celluloid Heroes to timeless treasures like 20th Century Man, which still resonates even in the 21st Century:
This is the twentieth century
But too much aggravation
This is the edge of insanity
I'm a twentieth century man
but I don't wanna be here.
Ray last played in Minnesota in 2006 at First Avenue in Minneapolis. For more photos of last night's show, go here. For a great interview on Minnesota Public Radio, go here.

All photos copyright by Karl Bremer.

Sunday, November 6, 2011

Boondoggle Bridge Coalition muddies the St. Croix waters with more misinformation

By Karl Bremer
Michael Wilhelmi

Michael Wilhelmi, executive director of the Boondoggle Bridge-supporting Coalition for the St. Croix River Crossing, took umbrage at my recent post regarding the misinformation campaign of his Coalition. In a rather huffy response on the Coalition’s blog, Wilhelmi responded with more misinformation, and accused me of ignoring the facts. Let’s have a look.

Curiously, Wilhelmi begins by disclaiming ownership of the $700 million Boondoggle Bridge.

“First, the St. Croix River Crossing proposal is not ‘the coalition’s’ bridge,” Wilhelmi insists. That’s funny, because they’re the only ones lobbying for it, so if it’s not “their” project, whose is it?

Wilhelmi continues down this twisted path: “The Federal Highway Administration, which is led by Secretary LaHood, participated in the bridge design process and approved the bridge project with a Record of Decision. The administration even defended the project in a three-year court battle with the Sierra Club.” Therefore, Wilhelmi reasons, “the U.S. Department of Transportation supports this project.”

There are a few things wrong with that assumption.

First, the FHWA issued its Record of Decision on the bridge in 1995 during the Clinton Administration two presidents ago. The National Park Service (NPS) subsequently ruled against the bridge that administration’s FHWA signed off on, and the courts upheld the NPS’s decision.

It was the FHWA under the Bush Administration that issued a second Record of Decision in 2006 and defended the project in the Sierra Club litigation. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the current FHWA—which is led by FHWA Administrator Victor Mendez and not Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, as Wilhelmi states—supports the Coalition’s bridge.

Remember, it was under the Bush Administration in 2005 that the NPS gave the project a green light. That decision was reversed by the Obama Administration’s NPS after the courts sided with the Sierra Club in 2010 and ordered the NPS to reconsider its earlier approval.

Nor does it mean that Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood necessarily supports the Coalition’s version of the bridge, as Wilhelmi claims. Even Coalition member Mary McComber admitted to Ripple in Stillwater that LaHood’s recent comments didn’t indicate support for any specific version of a bridge—only that it be done “within the law.” If Wilhelmi has any solid evidence of LaHood’s support for the Coalition’s bridge—a letter, perhaps?—he needs to offer more proof than his own wishful thinking and hearsay.

Wilhelmi continues with his fantasies.

“There is no way to build any new bridge without an exemption from the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act. The National Park Service has concluded that the Act does not allow them to grant a permit for any new construction in any Wild and Scenic River that would have a ‘direct, adverse’ impact on the river’s ‘scenic values’,” he states.

That’s not what the NPS concluded at all. It concluded that “the St. Croix River Crossing Project (emphasis added) would have a direct and adverse impact to the river and that those impacts cannot be mitigated.” It said nothing about bridge designs other than the Coalition’s monstrosity it had before it.

Wilhelmi’s contention that “there is no way to build any bridge without an exemption to the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act” is equally phony. In fact, two bridges have been built across the St. Croix River since it fell under protection of the Act and neither required an exemption by Congress: the replacement bridge at Osceola, WI, in 1980, WI, and the lift bridge at Prescott, WI, in 1990. It’s just that there’s no way to build his bridge without an exemption to the Act.

Wilhelmi claims that "the law specifically allows Congress to provide an exemption for worthy projects. Therefore, exempting the St. Croix River Crossing from the provision in the WSRA is 'within the law.'  However, the Wild and Scenic Rivers Act has never granted an exemption for a bridge. The Coalition once promoted that myth as well until Ripple in Stillwater debunked it too. The only two exemptions that have been granted under the Act in its entire history have been for fisheries habitat improvement projects.

Wilhelmi concludes by playing the victim card and accuses opponents of the Coalition’s Boondoggle Bridge of trying to “attack and smear” them. Maybe he’s just upset that he’s got a gaping $80,000 hole in his Coalition’s budget thanks to the diligence of those opponents.

Following after the Coalition for the St. Croix Crossing’s press releases is getting to be a bit like the guy with the broom and shovel trailing the elephants in the circus parade. It’s a distasteful job, but someone’s got to clean up the mess they leave behind.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Obama Administration supports Boondoggle Bridge? Not really

This is the $700 million monstrosity proposed to be built just 6 miles north of the eight-lane I-94 bridge at Lakeland-Hudson.

By Karl Bremer

The way the lobbyists for the bridge across the St. Croix River are portraying recent comments from Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, you’d think President Obama has given his personal stamp of approval to the $700 million Bachmann-Klobuchar-Dayton Boondoggle Bridge.

Not so fast.

“St. Croix River Crossing is a priority for President Obama,” trumpets the headline on a press release from the Coalition for the St. Croix Bridge Crossing, a lobbying group for the Boondoggle Bridge. The press release continues:

“Oak Park Heights City Councilmember Mary McComber spoke with LaHood and White House Chief of Staff Bill Daley about the St. Croix River Crossing during a briefing for city and municipal leaders held at the White House on Thursday, October 27. McComber was invited in her capacity as incoming chair of the Regional Development Committee of the National League of Cities.

“In response to a question from McComber during his presentation to the group, LaHood said that President Obama and his administration are well aware of the St. Croix River Crossing and are committed to getting it done. 

“Secretary LaHood said, ‘I know about your project. I know what the problem is. I am committed to getting it done. The President is committed to getting it done,’” McComber stated.”

So is that project that he’s committed to getting done the Coalition’s $700 million, 65-mph, four-lane freeway version of the bridge? Not necessarily.

Ripple in Stillwater contacted McComber and asked her to clarify her statement—specifically, whether LaHood was referring to the Coalition’s bridge proposal.

“What Ray LaHood said was that the Obama Administration is committed to getting this project solved, but totally legally—and he kept referring back to this—within the law,” McComber said.

LaHood did not say he or Obama supported an exemption from the Wild & Scenic Rivers Act to get the bridge built, and did not express support for any specific bridge proposal, McComber said. There was some discussion about the need to streamline federal approval processes for infrastructure projects when multiple agencies are involved, said McComber, but there was no talk about including an exemption from the Act in a  “streamlining” of the process to get the St. Croix bridge problem resolved.

The Administration’s support was “more just to get it off people’s plate,” McComber noted.

The Obama Administration on November 1 released a list of 14 infrastructure projects that it said “will be expedited through permitting and environmental review processes” in order to move them “as quickly as possible from the drawing board to completion” and create jobs.

There are two bridge projects on that list, but the St. Croix bridge is not one of them.

Once again, the Boondoggle Bridge Coalition appears to be playing loose with the facts, and their strategy worked with some in the media..

Stillwater loses battle over $80,000
TIF donation to bridge lobbyists

Meanwhile, in other Boondoggle Bridge news, the City of Stillwater decided to cut their losses and return to Washington County the $80,000 in tax-increment finance (TIF) funds the state auditor ruled they had illegally donated to the Coalition. The city stands to lose half of those funds because of their misappropriation of them to the bridge lobbying group, which Stillwater Mayor Ken Harycki co-chairs.

The state auditor's ruling was in response to complaints filed by myself and Stillwater historian Don Empson.
Stillwater City Attorney Dave Magnuson
refuses to admit he was wrong.

Not content with having his dubious legal opinions repeatedly called into question by the Office of State Auditor in its reports on the matter, Stillwater City Attorney Dave Magnuson accused the auditor’s office of playing politics with its decision. He was joined by City Council member Jim Roush, who the Star-Tribune reported opined in an Oct. 31 council meeting on the matter: I think their office is out of control and has exceeded their authority.”

Said council member Micky Cook, according to the St. Paul Pioneer Press: “I think we just need to suck it up, unless we want to get slapped around some more.”

Roush told the Star-Tribune’s Kevin Giles after the meeting that the auditor’s ruling was “politically motivated” but Roush declined to elaborate.

State Auditor Rebecca Otto responded that Roush’s comments were “a little bit like blaming the dentist for a cavity in your mouth.”