Thursday, June 25, 2015

A Rainbow of Fungi on a Mid-year Walk

This year our fungi hunt was delayed to June. An autumn without rain meant the usual outburst of colour from the ground and trees didn't show until nearly winter.

Now that its wet and cold enough, those magical fungi have appeared. Some are the fairy kind of magic - charming rings and fairy fingers, bright rainbow of pouches and waxgills, the perfect blue toadstool.
purple pouch fungi, wax gill fungi
wax gill fungi, finger jelly fungi
blue-green potato fungi, blue pinkgill fungi
Then there's the other kind of magic -slimy extrusions, jellies, dark mouldery toadstools, puff balls that let out eerie clouds of dust and evil smelling stinkhorns.

stinkhorn, unknown fungi webcap fungi, puff balls
When I look them up in field guides, our finds read like spells or incantations.

Brackets, caps, pouches, balls, fingers, corals, 
baskets, nets, horns, slimes, moulds, inkcaps, helmets, 
earth-stars, bird's nests, woodtufts, potatoes

L-R T-B shaggy inkcap, bird's nest fungi, basket fungi, Bondarzewia
Here are some of the fungi we saw on our winter tramp into the Orongorongo valley.
spindle pouch
 helmet fungi
another type of puff ball
Scarlet pouch (top) and something else!
orange porebracket
a puff ball
a bracket fungi

I added all the finds from the walk on Nature Watch.

I've used a couple of field guides and books to try to learn more about fungi:
A Photographic Guide to Mushrooms and Other Fungi of New Zealand by Geoff Ridley, photos by Don Horne - the most comprehensive and the most useful as it has 136 species, unfortunately the binding makes it hard to flip through in the field, it just won't lie flat.
Some Common Fungi at Mount Holdsworth by Di Batchelor - a nice little overview that explains the different kinds of fungi lifestyles.
Nature Guide to the New Zealand Forest  by John Dawson and Rob Lucas published by Godwit Press - mentions some of the common fungi, but not enough to really help with identification on a nature walk where so many are seen.

Many thanks to my tramping friends who have shared their photos with me. 

Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Finalist in Children's Book Awards - Under the Ocean

Great news - Under the Ocean is a finalist in the New Zealand Children's Book Awards.

Image from Booksellers NZ

The awards are a celebration of publishing and the diverse list shows that children's publishing in New Zealand is in great shape, with a wide variety of topics, authors, illustrators and publishers.

Best news of all is that authors are invited to participate in a tour of schools and libraries in early August. I can't wait to take part, especially as it was our tour of schools in 2013 that gave Ned and I the idea to create a book about New Zealand's sea life.

The award ceremony will be on 13 August. Under the Ocean will also be featured in the Wellington Storylines Festival that will be held later in August, so Ned and I will have a busy month promoting our book with children and parents

For parents, schools, libraries and booksellers - here are some ideas for Tips for Reading Under the Ocean with Children and you can also find some craft ideas and useful links on my Pinterest board - Explore NZ Sea life.

Congratulations to the other finalists and many thanks to the judges.

Monday, May 25, 2015

Seeing Plants with New Eyes - learning the language of plants

Gillian Candler reviews the NMIT Plant Identification course

An informative guided walk at Otari/Wilton's Bush last year spurred me on to join the local Botanical Society. I’m a children’s author so sometimes take a childlike view of things, I get excited by Hen and Chicken’s Ferns
Hen and Chickens Fern
and Puriri moths in Putaputaweta trees, I love the statuesque Wheki-ponga that look like people wearing cloaks and I delight at discovering hanging orchids.  But listening to members of the Botanical Society I often feel like a stranger in a foreign land who can only say ‘hello’ and ‘goodbye’ in that language, a good conversation being out of the question.

In order to master the language a bit better, I decided to enrol in a Plant Identification course run by NMIT (Nelson Marlborough Institute of Technology) for the Department of Conservation. I had already completed some of their Conservation Field Skills courses so was confident the course would be good. The 2-day Plant Identification course is free and is held at different venues all around the country. I opted to do the course in Ohakune/Raetihi and a friend travelled down from Auckland to join me. Of the fourteen participants 9 were from DoC and the rest like me were volunteers in conservation projects.

Our tables were strewn with leaves and cuttings, so even in the ‘classroom’ most activities were hands on and involved us in plenty of discussion. The clever course design catered for beginners as well as those with patchy or developing knowledge. Our text was the helpful and well illustrated “Introduction to Plant Life in New Zealand: Plant Conservation Training Module 1” from NZPCN (New Zealand Plant Conservation Network). 

We made several trips to the Raetihi reserve - an ideal learning venue because of the variety of plants. Among stunning tall rimu and kahikatea, coprosmas and wheki-ponga, weeds abounded. 
Course participants dwarfed by wheki-ponga
 One participant cried out in horror at all the weeds saying all she could think of was how much work there was to do here, “but I know’ she said “I need to use different eyes today - not my weed eyes”. After we’d finished our leaf treasure hunt my friend said she’d never realised there were so many different leaf shapes, ‘the scales have fallen from my eyes” she joked.
Leaf treasure hunt

I too, felt that I was seeing things with new eyes, describing a leaf in detail pushed me to look and look again, each time seeing something new, whether it was how the leaf was attached to the twig, the leaf underside texture or the shape of its tip. Some of the challenge lay in regional diversity. The kohuhu (Pittosporum tenuifolium) here looked different from what I’d seen in Wellington and a ‘mahoe-like’ tree which I felt sure wasn’t mahoe because the leaves didn’t look like mahoe in my garden, turned out be a narrow-leaved or mountain mahoe (Melicytus lanceolata). Both instances a good reminder to keep an open-mind when trying to identify plants - and keep describing the detail.
Melicytus lanceolata - lanceolata describes the shape of the leaves

This course provided me with the language help I’d been looking for (even if it means I might need to cart my textbook around with me for awhile!) and a framework for going about the business of plant identification. The tutor Beth Endres from NMIT had the skills to manage our diverse backgrounds and levels of knowledge, and keep the course flowing. The other participants were all keen, interested and interesting, as they all brought different knowledge and experiences to the table. They helped make this an exceptional experience. This is the best course I’ve done in recent years and I thoroughly recommend it to other amateurs and volunteers wanting to improve their plant knowledge.

Other useful links:

New Zealand Plant Conservation Network

Thursday, May 14, 2015

A Cool Visit to NIWA's Sea Critter Collection

Ned (illustrator of the 'explore and discover' books) and I were excited to be invited to NIWA along with the wonderful people from the Wellington Storylines Family Day committee. There we met with Sadie Mills, a deep ocean specialist who is in charge of the NIWA Invertebrate Collection.

Sadie telling us about the collection
Invertebrates are creatures without backbones, these include - corals, octopus, sea stars, crabs, shrimps, worms. Fish, birds and mammals all have backbones, so you won't see them here, but there are shelves and shelves of lots and lots of weird and wonderful invertebrates.
'What's in this jar?'
None of the animals here are alive, they've all been preserved in alcohol or dried out, so while it's not quite like seeing a live animal in its habitat, it is the closest we might get to some of them since we are not marine scientists.
Ned's fascinated by this many legged critter.
The collection has to be kept cool, so we didn't take off our coats!
This brittle star has hardened into this shape.
I was excited to see some king crabs, they live in the deep ocean so no chance I'd ever see one of these alive. But seeing them here gives a sense of scale, they are huge compared to the crabs we see on the rocky shore.
Two king crabs
There are over 300,000 jars here, and scientists are adding to the collection all the time as new species are discovered. The collection is used by scientists who are studying the creatures and things in the collection are loaned to museums for exhibitions. The size of the collection is overwhelming to visitors like us, but NIWA staff also post on the Critter of the Week blog and on Facebook, which makes it easy to see some of the most interesting things in the collection.

We are looking forward to the public getting a chance to see some of the collection for themselves along with our books Under the Ocean and At the Beach at the Wellington Storylines Family Day later this year.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Tips for Reading With Children - Under the Ocean

To help children, parents and educators get the most out of my books, I've written down ideas for reading each book, activities and further places to get good information. These have been on the publisher's website, but a recent revamp means these pages are temporarily inaccessible. So for now I'm putting these ideas on the blog.

Tips for Reading Non-Fiction With Children

  1. It's okay to read a book just the way it's written cover to cover!
  2. On the second (third or fourth!) read, or the first if the child needs a bit of encouragement to stick with a book, get them to look a bit closer at the pictures and talk about what you're reading.
  3. It's great to get them showing you things, "where is the octopus?" Also ask open questions, ones that don't have right or wrong answers "What would it be like to be swimming through this reef?".
  4. Think aloud as you read, "I wonder what will be hiding in the rocky reefs?"
  5. Show them how to use features like the glossary or index. "I wonder what 'echolocation' means? Let's look it up in the glossary." "Shall we see what other pages have information about penguins? Let's look in the index."
  6. Follow up reading the book to find out more about something that interested them, see ideas below for how you might do this.
Reading Under the Ocean at the Festival of the Elements
Learning More About the Ocean
Ocean life can seem quite hidden and hard to observe, perhaps its the very secretive nature of the ocean that adds to the fascination children have with marine life.
There are some easy ways to get to know more about New Zealand’s ocean.
  • borrow books or DVDs  from your local library
  • find YouTube channels that are dedicated to ocean life, you’ll be amazed what you can see online
  • take binoculars with you when you go to the beach or go out on a boat or ferry
  • visit aquariums and museums
  • find and read Maori legends associated with the sea, such as about, Paikea the whale rider
  • if you have an iPad or iPhone download the free “Moana - My Ocean” marine life App from Auckland Museum to help with identification
  • join a local project such as, Marine Metre Squared, a beach clean up or making penguin nesting boxes
  • in Under the Ocean, we decided not to use the term ‘continental shelf’. The Open Ocean pages 12-15 describes animals that live over the continental shelf, ie the open ocean but still close to New Zealand. The deep ocean picture on pages 16-17 is beyond the continental shelf. For more about the depth of the sea around New Zealand and some interesting pictures and diagrams see
Moana - My Ocean App
Do some hands on activities
Some internet sites - mostly these aren't written for children, so your child might need help using them Kiwi Conservation Club - content here is written for children Te Ara - The Encyclopaedia of New Zealand New Zealand Birds Online marine life database Marine Centre at Otago University, including Marine Metre Squared project Marine NZ information portal New Zealand Sealion Trust The Blue Penguin Trust Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust Riley Elliott Shark Scientist Colossal squid information NZ Whale and Dolphin Trust Friends of Taputeranga Marine Reserve Island Bay Marine Education Centre  NIWA water and atmospheric research New Zealand shellfish

A few ideas for educators
Under the Ocean can be linked to these parts of the curriculum
Te Whariki
Strand 5: Exploration
Goal 4: Children experience an environment where they develop working theories for making sense of the natural, social, physical and material worlds.
The New Zealand Curriculum: Science
Nature of Science
Investigating in Science, Communicating in Science
L1-2 Living World
Students will:
Recognise that living things have certain requirements so they can stay alive
Recognise that living things are suited to their particular habitat
Recognise that there are lots of different living things in the world and that they can be grouped in different ways.
L1-2 Planet Earth and Beyond
Students will:
Explore and describe natural features and resources
Some classroom resources
For assessment and teaching ideas see:
Science Online
Science Learn
Department of Conservation for marine reserve field trip ideas and resources

Sunday, April 12, 2015

Visiting New Zealand's Forest Giants in Waipoua Forest

White skeletons stand out starkly among the green of the Waipoua Forest - they are dead kauri trees. As if the tree-felling, milling, gum collecting and land clearing weren't enough to put this giant tree in danger, sadly they are now succumbing to a silent fungus-like disease called kauri die-back.
White branches indicate kauri die-back

A long overdue visit to the far North, meant that it was close to 20 years since I last visited the forest giants Tane Mahuta and Te Matua Ngahere as well as the Four Sisters. Because kauri only grow in the north of the North Island they seemed exotic to us, rare beings, even then there were only a few giant specimens standing. Still the forest appeared lush and the kauri mighty.

Today the giant Tane Mahuta (52 metres high) and Te Matua Ngahere are still impressive.

Te Matua Ngahere 

More than that, where before I only saw kauri, not knowing many forest plants, now I see so much more in this forest. There is flowering white rata, ferns, epiphytes, orchids and trees of many different species. This is a classic Conifer-Broadleaf forest.
white rata vine with kauri behind

small ferns, grasses and epiphytes abound

And yet the even here, skeletons of white kauri stand out in the forest. They are succumbing to Phytophtora taxon Agathis (PTA) spread through soil movement. Once infected nearly all trees die, and thousands have died in New Zealand. Normally these trees can live for over 2000 years.

Kauri are the only species of the conifer Agathis native to New Zealand. Even in New Zealand its range is restricted to the warmer north, although planted specimens grow in botanical gardens in the south. They grow over 50 metres tall with girths (trunk circumference) of over 16m.

Kauri bark
Everywhere we went on our walks through the forest, we sprayed our feet at the special disinfectant stations, wanting to do all we could to prevent the disease spreading.

We also learned that it was important to stay on the track or boardwalk, to avoid trampling on the sensitive roots and around the trees.

Unfortunately, scientists haven't yet figured out a cure, so it is likely that trees will continue to die. Which makes it even more important that we take measures to protect them. Some areas have even been closed off to the public to try to stop the spread of the disease. It would be sad if the beautiful Waipoua Forest had to be closed to the public, sadder still if this beautiful forest lost the very tree that makes it special.

Read more about what action you can take to prevent the spread here -
 Keep Kauri Standing: Kia Toitu he Kauri.

More information:
Department of Conservation Kauri
Department of Conservation Waipoua Forest

For another story about tree giants, see Pilgrimage to a Tree

Thursday, March 12, 2015

Beautiful Blue Ducks at Blue Lake - but there is trouble in paradise

The poster in the hut on the Travers-Sabine trail asked for sightings of rare birds and animals - weka, blue duck (Maori name whio, pronounced 'fee-o'), kea, kaka, black-eyed gecko, rock wren. Being observant trampers, it was with high hopes we set off to record sightings. The rushing mountain streams seemed a likely place for whio.  After three days and not a whio whistle, we came to Blue Lake or Rotomairewhenua (land of peaceful waters), surely the highlight of any tramp in this area.

Blue Lake - Rotomairewhenua

Its gorgeous clear waters are thought to be the clearest freshwater in the world (see NIWA).

Horizontal visibility in the lake is outstanding - 70-80m

We stayed in the simple Blue Lake Hut along with other trampers. In the early evening, a fellow tramper burst into the hut with the cry "There are blue ducks on the lake!" and we hastily followed her back down the short path to the lake. A pair of whio, unconcerned by our presence were feeding in the shallows.

Blue duck - Whio

They crossed the small lake a few times, moving through the water with some speed when they decided to change banks, keeping together, using their intriguing rubbery edged beaks to nibble up insect larvae from the stones.

Whio pair cruising on the lake

We stayed and watched until hunger drove us back to the hut.  How special, we thought, to see two Blue Ducks at Blue Lake.

Next morning, before we left, I went to fill my water bottle from the clear water of the lake. The two whio were still there, and one curious, perhaps because of the ripples I caused, came close to see what I was up to. I snapped some photos of it cruising around.

Early morning at Blue Lake

Then there was a sudden commotion, a rat had launched itself off a rock at the whio. Whether it was ever on the duck's back I can't be sure, but within seconds the whio was furiously lunging at it making a lot of noise. The other whio swam swiftly over and together they gave chase, right behind the swimming rat snapping at it with their beaks. Finally, the rat reached the rocks and shore and disappeared. And I was standing there powerless to do anything. One of my photos shows the rat on top of the rock, just before it jumped - I hadn't seen it through the view finder.

Rat just visible on top of the centre rock

I was sadder and wiser as we tramped back down the pretty Sabine Valley. Yes, we'd seen paradise - two rare native birds at one of the most beautiful places in New Zealand. But all was not right. The presence of the rat was a reminder that introduced mammals such as rats and stoats make it unlikely that this pair will successfully raise blue ducklings. An adult may be able to shake off a rat or stoat, but a duckling?

You can find out more about blue duck or whio at:

To learn more about New Zealand's introduced mammalian predators and attempts to eradicate them see:

The Blue Lake area hasn't been included in the Battle for the Birds campaign.

The rat incident took place on 1 March 2015. 
Thanks to Philippa Doig for photo of the Blue Duck at lake edge