Thursday, May 5, 2016

The Escarpment Walkway - a new challenge on Te Araroa

Local walkers are out in their hundreds walking the new escarpment track between Paekakariki and Pukerua Bay, which is great news for Paekakariki cafes and the shops in Pukerua Bay. The new track allows Te Araroa walkers (people walking the length of New Zealand) to avoid a long pavement walk alongside busy traffic on Centennial Highway. Instead they climb many, many steps up to about 220m and walk above the traffic and railway line. The views from the track on a good day, are stunning, with the South Island off to the distance and Kapiti Island much closer. Bits of Te Araroa are popular day walks and this will surely become one that many (but not all - see below under vertigo!) Wellington walkers will enjoy.

From Paekakariki the track climbs up to the lookout with Kapiti Island behind in the distance
Looking back to Kapiti
at the lookout there are views beyond Pukerua Bay to the South Island,
View south from the lookout
and as you move closer, of the cosy village of Pukerua Bay.
Pukerua Bay

I walked the first half of the track from Paekakariki a year or so ago, but as the second half was not yet open we had to return the way we'd come. Then on April 9 this year the second half opened, allowing people to walk right through. So much publicity went into the opening event that over 1000 people turned up to walk the track on opening day.
The scar of the new track in the hillside and road below
It's a feat of engineering, with narrow tracks and carefully placed steps, a few swing bridges and some great look out points. Along the way there is much evidence of the success of the Ngā Ururoa group who are working hard at tree planting, tree care and pest control. The vision is that one day the escarpment will be returned to a delightful coastal forest. For now the walker can enjoy some outstanding remnants, lovely kohekohe and other bush form pockets in the gullies, the song of tui, grey warblers and fantails can be heard. At the Paekakariki end it is worth doing the additional Kohekohe loop track through a remnant forest.

But all this natural beauty doesn't remove the fact that for now much of the walk is through grass, with gorse and other weeds needing control, especially in the newer part of the track. It requires some imagination to see this as a 'stairway to heaven' as the media have dubbed this. Te Araroa news use the term 'devil's staircase' which seems more apt!

There are lots of warnings to read on the Te Araroa site too. The do's and don'ts of where to park, what to take, who should not walk this section etc

A signpost near Pukerua Bay - 9 kms still to go
Some media articles incorrectly state there are 500 steps - what bit of the walk were they doing?! It is much more like 1500 steps to be traversed.

Do you suffer from vertigo or just feel uncomfortable with heights? Then this walk is probably NOT for you. I'm in the 'uncomfortable with heights' (or rather 'with vertical drops') category and it took considerable mental concentration for me to complete the whole of the new walkway between Paekakariki and Pukerua Bay. I wasn't alone, several people along the track where surprised to find this aspect of the walk harder than they'd expected, one - a builder - told me he thought he'd be fine as he was used to working on scaffolds.

Here are a few tricks if you embark on this walk thinking you'll be okay and then find yourself feeling challenged by the drop off down to the railway tracks and road below. These worked for me:
  • Keep your eyes on the track but at the furthermost side from the drop. 
  • If possible follow someone else (who isn't struggling with this problem), keep you eyes focussed on their heels.
  • Stop occasionally in places where you can sit well back from the drop and look out to the horizon.
  • Approach this as a mindfulness exercise, focus on the detail that can you see on the bank next to you.
  • Count the steps!
Ironically the two swing bridges are among the best bits - because they have sides - who cares if they swing a bit.
Looking into a gully from a swing bridge
If you don't have problems with heights this is a great new walk - it takes about 3-4 hours to complete one way, depending on how many stops you have along the way, enjoying the views and the patches of bush. 

It's easily accessible from either Pukerua Bay or Paekakariki railway stations - take the train one way and walk the other way

Some useful links:
Te Araroa advice for walkers -
About Ngā Ururoa conservation project -

Monday, April 18, 2016

The Pitfalls of Monitoring Skinks- our elusive native lizards

Picture this, early morning in summer and a couple of people crouched by the coastal path, wearing knee pads, peering into holes in the ground. No wonder the local dog walkers were suspicious! However they soon got to know who we were and what we were up to. The holes in the ground are pitfall traps of lizards, and we are a group of volunteers working with a lizard scientist (herpetologist) to monitor skinks in our local reserve.

Skink in a pitfall trap (other items removed)

I got involved with lizards by chance.  I started out monitoring pest traps at Pukerua Bay Scientific Reserve. Pests we trap and remove include stoats, rats, weasels and hedgehogs. All are a danger to the 5 species of lizards living here, including the only known mainland population of the rare Whitaker's skink. Then came the opportunity to monitor the number of skinks in the reserve during summer. Now I'm a lizard fan.

Ideal lizard habitat

If you see as skink on the coastal path, it's gone before you can blink. As they are hard to catch, scientists use pitfall traps. Lizards are lured in by the smell of a piece of fruit - the skinks aren't able to get out again but the geckos with their sticky feet can leave any time they want. The pitfall traps have food and water in them and are checked regularly. We give any geckos a helping hand out of the traps. There is some skill to removing the geckos deftly, too hesitant and they'll get their head around to bite your finger, but grab them in the wrong place and they might lose their tail - not a good outcome. Then the skink species are lifted out one at a time, identified and released.

A brown skink

Identification is the next tricky bit, it's not as if the pattern on their back provides the answers. We have to look at their eyes - common or grass skinks have yellow irises if you can get close enough to see, but red irises don't help distinguish between brown skinks and copper skinks; their underbellies - copper skinks are coppery underneath but brown skinks can also have orange or yellow underbellies too; the pattern around their mouth - copper skinks have a distinct 'teethy pattern'; and so on.  We needed a lot of help from our herpetologist to learn the key things to look for. All the while we had to be very careful how we hold the skinks, they are so tiny after all.

A skink enjoys the warmth of a volunteer's hand

We're lucky that common species: common or grass skinks, brown skinks, copper skinks as well as common geckos are hanging on here. Another project, not far away, decided to monitor the lizard population only to discover that there are virtually none present. The habitat is being restored and the predators removed bit by bit, but obviously there's still more work to be done.

You can't keep native lizards as pets. They are protected under law - it's illegal to hunt, kill, sell, dispose of, or have in your possession any protected species unless you have a permit. But no one has told that to rats, stoats, cats, hedgehogs and mice! 

This is a Friends of Mana Island project, working in partnership with the Department of Conservation. Many thanks to all the other volunteers and to Don Newman our herpetologist for his patience and advice.

Useful links:
Friends of Mana Island
Department of Conservation information about lizards:
How to make your garden lizard friendly:

Skink identification chart with photos and descriptions Skinks of the Wellington Region Identification.
Gecko identification chart with photos and descriptions Geckos of the Wellington Region

Other blogposts about lizards
Geckos and Skinks - what's the difference?
Geckos in the Garden

My books
I've written about geckos and skinks in In the Garden and In the Bush.

Monday, April 4, 2016

Return to Blue Lake - More Blue Ducks

Last month I returned to Blue Lake. I'd visited the lake a year ago and blogged about it in Trouble In Paradise after witnessing an attempted attack on an endangered blue duck or whio by a rat. I'd told my tramping companions about the blue ducks we'd sighted last time, so we had high expectations of seeing some beautiful whio again - and we were hoping not to have a repeat of the rat incident!

Mountains and clouds reflected in Blue Lake
The notice board in Blue Lake Hut was pinned with scraps of paper listing sightings. One person had seen 4 whio, others a pair. A hut companion, a frequent visitor to the region told us he'd seen whio ducklings last year. So with great interest we walked the few minutes to the lake in the early evening - a good time to see them according to the list on the notice board. There was nothing to be seen but more stunning colours and reflections of the mountains around this extraordinary lake.

Blue waters of Blue Lake

Early next morning I went down to the lake and found a fellow tramper - in pyjamas - snapping away with her camera. The whio had arrived. She said they flew in just before seven. I ran back to the hut to wake my companions and spread the news. Soon about ten people were gathered by the lake side. Oblivious to the bystanders, the ducks continued to feed in the shallows.

We got a good view of their feeding technique. Beak down and bottom up, they dipped down again and again after the insects and larvae among the stones. Here's a video of them feeding taken by Brian Queree.


Judging by the calls later that evening (they returned again around dusk) our whio were a male and female. The male makes the classic 'whee-oo' whistle, while the female makes a growling sound.
You can listen to their sounds at NZ Birds Online.

It is interesting to see how well they blend in with their surroundings. Somehow they are the both the colour of the water and the colour of the stones.
Creating ripples - photo Brian Queree

In the shallows - photo Brian Queree
While they look quite grey, I found a lovely painting of them by local artist Jan Thomson which reflects the blue of Blue Lake, see here on Whio Forever's Facebook Page.

And here is Fraser Williamson's impression of feeding whio from our book "Whose Beak is This?"
From 'Whose Beak is This?'
I like the way he's picked up on those beady yellow eyes.

Whio have amazing beaks, in the photos above you can see they have soft edges which help them feel food under water.

How to get to Blue Lake
You can tramp/hike to Blue Lake from several direction within Nelson Lakes National Park. We caught the water taxi across Lake Rotoroa to Sabine Hut. From there we tramped up to to West Sabine Hut (5-7 hours) and after a night at the busy West Sabine Hut, we headed up to Blue Lake (3-4 hours) and were there in time for lunch. To have a chance of seeing whio, you would need to stay at least one night. This is an easy to moderate tramp, depending on the weather. Super-fit and experienced trampers could do it one day - but might miss out on some of the enjoyment that comes with the slower pace. (Tramping or hiking involves carrying your own food, clothes, sleeping bag and other gear, see the link below on tramping in Nelson Lakes National Park for more information.)

On this trip we saw South Island robins, brown creepers, fantails, tomtits, little shags, bellbirds, on a previous trip we saw kea and riflemen, and we know others have seen rock wrens. The forest is mostly beech - red, silver, mountain, with some podocarps such as miro and matai, and a few broadleaf trees and shrubs particularly around the river and river flats. We also got stung by the pesky wasps that have invaded the park.
Stay at West Sabine Hut on the way to Blue Lake 

Other related links:
About tramping in Nelson Lakes National Park, important things to know

About Blue Lake Hut

About Blue Duck/Whio

For more of Jan Thomson's paintings of Blue Lake see here:

Thanks to Brian Queree for letting me use his photos and video, to Philippa for her blue duck enthusiasm and to my other tramping companions for coming along on the trip.

Thursday, March 10, 2016

Geckos and Skinks - what's the difference?

Rare native birds get a good deal of press in New Zealand, but some of our other endangered natives get less attention, particularly the ones that are good at hiding! Often the most you'll see of a skink is a flash of brown as it streaks across a stony path into the grass. And for geckos which are nocturnal the most you might see is a discarded frail white skin.
A flash of brown and it's gone - skinks move fast
Because you don't get to see them close up, you'd be forgiven for thinking they're all the same species. In fact there are more than 99 species of geckos and skinks in New Zealand! They are pretty special, New Zealand is the only place in the world that many of these species are found. 

Geckos and Skinks - what's the difference?

Geckos have:
  • soft, slightly baggy skin
  • a distinct neck between head and arms
  • sticky toes

Skinks have:
  • shiny, scaly skin
  • no narrow neck between head and arms
  • pointy toes (this one has lost a toe, too)

Here are links to identification charts with photos and descriptions. Skinks of the Wellington Region Identification and Geckos of the Wellington Region Identification.

See if you can use them to identify the gecko and skink above.
If you found that hard, maybe try the one below!
Gecko in Zealandia

You can't keep native lizards as pets. They are protected under law - it's illegal to hunt, kill, sell, dispose of, or have in your possession any protected species. But no one has told that to rats, stoats, cats, hedgehogs and mice!

But you can make your garden lizard friendly. Here are some tips 

Useful links:
Department of Conservation information about lizards:

Other blogposts I've written about lizards

In my books
Geckos and skinks are in In the Garden, and the green gecko is in In the Bush.

ID answers: 
Common gecko (check toes and colour)
Brown Skink (markings around face)
Green gecko (colour!)

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Sea Week Resources - an update

It's good to see that Auckland Museum have updated their Marine Life App since I reviewed it last year in Top 2 Sea Life AppsThey've fixed the background issue so the text is legible and while the maps still show the Auckland region only, a note below explains where else in New Zealand the animal or plant might be found. Older children will find enough information here and younger children will enjoy using the photographs to ID the birds, fishes, plants, invertebrates, mammals and reptiles that they find on or near the ocean. 

My publishers Potton & Burton have also updated their website, improving the pages of information for children, parents and educators that accompany each of my books. Here you can find tips for reading, activity ideas for learning about the ocean, further reading, website links and lots more. Here's the link for Under the Ocean Ideas for children, parents and teachers.
Web pages for 'Under the Ocean'

And the link for At the Beach Ideas for children, parents and teachers.

Tuesday, February 16, 2016

Encounters with Toutouwai, the New Zealand Robin

Just how rare are Toutouwai - New Zealand Robins? Until last week I'd only ever seen South Island robins in the wild.  In remote and beautiful places like the Kahurangi National Park and the Waitutu forest, these robins hop trustingly up to trampers, they'd sit on my boot or scratch around on the path that I'd just walked along. But to see a North Island robin (yes they are a little different) I thought I'd have to take a trip to a sanctuary like Mana Island or Zealandia.

So I was blown away to discover these delightful birds living in the wilderness in Whanganui National Park.

They are easily recognised as they are stand quite upright on long legs, the only other bird that they might be confused with is the smaller tomtit - miromiro - which doesn't stand upright, has shorter legs and white flashes under its wings.

Toutouwai is a great name for them, the first syllables seem to capture their song, and this name makes it easier for me to remember their calls. Here's a bird calling.

Males are territorial, so trampers walking a track, will move from the territory of one toutouwai into the territory of another. Some of the birds we encountered were shy and no amount of ground scratching to stir up insects would lure them down. But we struck lucky one lunch time with a youngish bird that had a sense of adventure. It seemed to like the red tramping pack, landing on it again and again, it tried out my boot but was not impressed. The best was the signpost that was beside the track, which it thought a great vantage point for checking us out and seeing what insects we might have stirred up.

Toutouwai in danger
According to New Zealand Birds Online the habitat of the North Island Robin is limited to mature forests in the central North Island, except of course sanctuaries where there are few predators. Apart from loss of forests, the main issue is predators such as possums, rats, stoats and feral cats. When I read that the female is particularly at risk of becoming a meal to one of these predators, because she sits on the eggs in the nest, it made me wonder whether we were just seeing male robins. The Department of Conservation website says that there ends up being many more males than females as a result of predation. The fact that we saw a juvenile is perhaps some encouragement that the birds are breeding here. A lot of work was going on to reduce predators in the area.

South Island, North Island, Stewart Island robins, what's the difference?
To look at the North Island robin has a much less distinct white patch on its front, in some cases it's almost all grey. South Island and North Island robins are different species, that surprised me as they look so similar. South Island and Stewart Island robins are sub-species so more closely related.

South Island Robin on the Heaphy Track
Are they true robins?
My tramping companion wanted to know whether New Zealand's robins are closely related to European robins. The answer is that they are not, instead they are part of a group of Australasian birds so they have closer relatives in Australia, such as the scarlet robin and the rose robin. Perhaps it was the colouring of these birds and the shape of the bird that inspired European settlers to call them robins.

Writing about robins
When I was writing In the Bush: explore and discover New Zealand's native forests, I made the decision to put the robin in the sanctuary picture and have it on the 'rare forest birds' page, despite them appearing to be 'common' in some South Island forests. That's because most children won't see them on a local bush walk, to see these birds, they'll probably need to go to sanctuary.

Places you might see Toutouwai - North Island Robin:
Tiritiri Matangi, Bushy Park, Lake Rotokare, Boundary Stream Reserve, Kapiti Island, Mana Island, Moehau Coromandel, Zealandia (not a complete list I'm sure, let me know if there are more places to add) and of course Whanganui National Park.

More information:

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Sardine Smoothies Again! Feeding seabirds on Mana Island

Last year I blogged about my volunteer week on Mana Island helping with the Fairy Prion translocation. You'd think the long days, hot sun, and the smell of sardines might have put me off - but when the call came out for volunteers for the second year of this project I couldn't resist the opportunity to put my name forward. I convinced myself that it was a chance to use the skills I'd learned the year before, that the work really hadn't been that hard, the smell of sardines not too bad, and that the sun couldn't surely be as hot again - not in a Wellington January.

Holding one of the new arrivals
Before I knew it I was on Mana Island with other volunteers and the welcoming party of sponsors and Friends of Mana Island members awaiting the arrival of the helicopter and its precious load of chicks.
The helicopter arrives from Takapourewa - Stephen's Island
- volunteers as well as day visitors await the birds

The chicks are carried in 'pet boxes', sealed for the transfer,
but later used as carry boxes for the chicks

You can read about the day to day work in my 2015 blog here.
There are so many questions people have asked me since I wrote that, from the quirky "don't their parents miss them?' to more serious topics, here are the answers to some of these questions.

What do you feed them and how do you feed them?
We feed them a sardine smoothie mix which has various things added to it for their health. Their parents would normally feed them a diet of krill, but the scientists working on this project have found sardines work well.

We "crop feed" them. This means we fill a syringe with smoothie and gently insert a soft tube down their oesophagus into their crop. (See the interactive All About Bird Anatomy to find out more about bird's digestive systems.)
Crop feeding a fairy prion
Do they smell? Did you smell?
Yes, but not as bad as I expected. There are no adults in the artificial burrows so the seabird smell isn't strong in the colony. And you get used to the sardine smell, it's only visitors stepping into our feeding caravan who comment on it!
A volunteer doing dishes - hygiene is a priority

How old are the chicks when they arrive?
The chicks are over a month old, possibly even 6 weeks old. The aim was to have them fledge within two weeks of their arrival, so they are selected based on wing length and weight  by the team on Takapourewa - Stephen's Island. When they arrive some are still quite fluffy but they lose their down quickly.
This chick is losing its down, leaving just a fluffy hair-do

Don't their parents on Takapourewa - Stephen's Island miss them?
We assume that because the chicks are so close to fledging that when the parent birds return to the burrow and find it empty, they will think their chick has successfully fledged.

Do the birds peck you?
Fairy prions are very little, they weigh about 120g as adults, so even if they peck it doesn't really hurt. You can see in the photo above that their beaks aren't much longer than a finger width. We had one bird this year, that I named 'pecky' as it was pretty feisty and was always trying to grab our fingers in its beak and would chomp down on the tube if you weren't careful.

How do you tell the birds apart?
They all have numbered bands around one of their legs. The burrows are also numbered. Each chick is allocated to a burrow and is only taken out for its daily feed or to have its wings measured. We had to be very careful with our record keeping.
Checking band numbers in the shade
by the feeding caravan
Measuring wing length at the numbered burrows

Are fairy prions endangered?
No, according to NZ Birds Online there could be 4 million pairs of them on New Zealand offshore islands. NZ Birds Online.

So why bother to translocate them? Aren't translocations just for rare species?
Seabirds do an amazing job in creating an ecosystem. They dig and burrow, they use vegetation for nest material, they poo, they drop feathers, they die. These actions change the land and bring nutrients from the sea to the land. This improves the ecosystem for plants, for insects, for lizards and for other birds. Bringing more of them back to Mana will help restore the ecosystem to what it was before humans arrived.
An artificial burrow showing an accumulation of nest material, feathers
and guano - a gecko dashing away in the foreground

The artificial burrow area looks a bit bare but returning adult birds will work
wonders on the ecosystem

New Zealand is sometimes called the seabird capital of the world because so many different species live here. When humans arrived they brought pests such as rats and they the modified the land for farming. This has made it harder for seabirds to survive on the main islands or islands like Mana that have been farmed in the past.

Fairy prions will return to where they fledged (left their burrows and flew out to sea for the first time) when they are adults. So a good number of these chicks are expected to return as adults.

Information about seabirds for children in
Under the Ocean: explore and discover New Zealand's sealife

What do you mean by 'translocate', why don't you just say 'transfer' or 'move'?
Oops was I guilty of talking jargon?  With some relief I found the answer on the Department of Conservation website. "Translocation" refers to the whole process which may involve several "transfers" (this was the second of two transfers). The term also covers planning and monitoring.


Footnote: 100 birds arrive on 17 January and were cared for by 7 volunteers led by scientist Helen Gummer. The first fledged on the night of the 19th and by 24 January when I left the island, there were 62 birds left.  Volunteer groups stay a week at a time, overlapping the previous group by a few days.

Acknowledgements: This amazing project needed many people and organisations to work together for a successful translocation. A volunteer is but a small spoke in the wheel. I am grateful for the opportunity to be part of this and want to acknowledge the many others who have played much more important roles than mine. The sponsors OMV; Friends of Mana Island; scientists Helen Gummer and Graeme Taylor, Colin Miskelly; Jeff Hall, the resident DOC ranger; Ngāti Toa; Ngāti Koata; the Department of Conservation; and the other volunteers.

Related Links:
My volunteer experience in 2015:

Blogs by scientist Colin Miskelly on the 2015 collection of fairy prions and transfer:

Friends of Mana Island:

Fairy Prions:


Bird anatomy: