Sunday, November 29, 2015

Signs of Spring and Summer - and the first cicada

The white star-shaped flowers of the clematis vine hung across the green trees across the valley, were the very first signs of spring.  
Native clematis
Then there was the first call of the shining cuckoo. Through October and November flowers have been appearing on vines
Native jasmine

and trees, 

on epiphytes
Spring orchid

on the ground 

and on bushes. 
Native gloxinia

Nesting birds are discovered, fantail's nest high above the garden path, a silver eye's smooth bowl of a nest hangs outside the kitchen window. The tramping group treks further afield despite the likelihood of wind and rain in the spring months. 

This is the cabbage tree's year, laden with flowers, its strong scent fills the gardens and parks.

Cabbage tree or Ti Kouka

In two days, summer officially begins, but today I heard the first cicada. 

So for me summer has already begun.

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Geckos in the Spotlight: volunteering on Mana Island

A trip to Mana Island, which is free from mammal predators and pests, is enough to show how incredible the lizard life of ancient New Zealand would have been. Mana is not only free from rats, cats, hedgehogs and stoats; there are also no mice here.
Mana Island is a DOC scientific reserve
On a sunny day, skinks dart across the path, slip in and out of bird burrows, sun themselves on rocks. Geckos meanwhile are hiding somewhere warm and dark waiting for the night. Special 'lizard lounges' provide a warm spot which allows visitors to see large gecko families hanging out together.

Mana Island is therefore ideal for projects that aim to save remnant or rare lizard populations. A translocation of Ngahere or bush geckos from a mainland quarry is a recent project. (Read more about the transfer of the geckos here.) I was part of a team of Friends of Mana Island volunteers which went over to monitor the Ngahere geckos and see how they are getting on in their new habitat.

We found a good number hiding in special gecko hides. Scientist Trent Bell from Eco Gecko was happy with the numbers found. Each was measured and weighed as well as photographed for identification purposes. It seems the pattern on each gecko is unique, which means they can be identified from close-up photographs.
Ngahere gecko
Also hiding were many weta and native leaf-veined slugs. I had never seen a leaf-veined slug before! According to Te Ara: the encyclopedia of New Zealand there are about 30 different species of leaf-veined slugs, I don't know which species we found.
Weta disappearing out of sight & lower right a leaf-veined slug

Leaf-veined slug
We went out later at night when the geckos are active to see how many we could find. This involved using spotlights and paying close attention. This is a common gecko caught in the spotlight.
Raukawa or common gecko

Hands on with geckos
This is the second project I've worked on involving lizards. They are fun to work with because they are small and reasonably easy to handle. Although the first time I worked with them I was too hesitant handling them and got bitten quite a bit. Geckos look so soft and delicate you wouldn't realise they have such sharp needle-like teeth! I soon learned to be a bit more decisive! At the same time of course, you have to be gentle as these are protected species.
Looking soft and innocent, geckos have sharp teeth
Some Gecko facts:
  • Geckos and skinks are types of lizards.
  • Along with tuatara, they are the only native reptiles that we have in New Zealand.
  • Geckos have baggy looking skin and a distinct neck, but skinks are smooth and shiny and have no obvious neck.
  • Reptiles are ectotherms which means they need an external heat source such as sunlight to warm them up. 
  • The green gecko is active during the day, whereas the various brown geckos are active at night.
Transfer or translocate? Which word to use?
A friend asked me why I was using the word 'translocation' to describe the Fairy Prion Project I volunteered on. 'Was it scientific jargon?' she asked. Why not say 'transfer' or even more simply 'move'?
I found the answer on the Department of Conservation website. 'Translocation' refers to the whole process which can involve several 'transfers'. The term also covers planning and monitoring. So the gecko monitoring work I did on Mana was part of the translocation process, although the geckos had already been transferred there.

More information on Mana and Geckos:
Friends of Mana Island
Eco Gecko Consultants (includes image gallery of geckos)
Department of Conservation
News Release about the lizard transfer

Another blog post about volunteering on Mana Island
Feeding Fairy Prions

Information for young children
"In the Garden: explore and discover the New Zealand backyard" includes information on geckos and skinks and the difference between them.
"In the Bush: explore and discover New Zealand's native forests" has information about geckos and tuatara.

Friday, October 16, 2015

Weekly Walking Groups Growing in Numbers

What's driving the growth of walking groups? Intrigued by the increasing numbers in my group, I interviewed a cross-section of walking and tramping group members for an article in the most recent Wilderness magazine (October 2015) .  I hope the article inspires people to find a walking group that fits their style and join in.

The Wellington Regional Tramping Group - Forest and Bird has provided me with fantastic experiences over the last 6 years, taking me to parts of the region I hadn't explored before. Many of my blogs are about things I've seen or learned on various walks and tramps around the region and also further afield, but few have been about the walking group itself. It's time to remedy that with a quick photo essay to supplement the article in Wilderness.

Our tramping group takes us to spectacular views - from city walks... the Tararuas, here we are on Table Top above Field Hut on a glorious day.
The sun doesn't always shine - we're wet through and ready to feel sorry for ourselves, when Philippa says "don't you just love it when the bush is silhouetted like that against a grey sky". 
There's always time for morning tea. The leader has usually planned the trip down to the fine detail of where morning tea and lunch can best be enjoyed.
Sometimes there's an accident, we're waiting for a helicopter here to lift out an injured person, but considering how many tramps we do and how many trampers we have, there are relatively few serious incidents. 
And there is always that wonderful discovery to be found on each tramp, whether its a tree or a new friend. And if you weren't in a group you couldn't measure a rata tree circumference in trampers!

To read more about tramping in Wellington, see my other blog posts:

Sunday, September 13, 2015

Just in time for the Great Kereru Count - New Book Launched

My favourite place  - the New Zealand bush -  is the topic of my latest book. It's a book for children, informed by many walks in the bush with botanists, bird lovers, and those steeped in bush lore.

Many of the plants and animals featured are those I've discovered as I walk by myself, with other trampers or with children. From the delightful hen and chicken ferns to the mysterious, membrane-covered puriri caterpillar holes found in certain tree trunks. I hope the book will encourage children to get up close and touch tree trunks and ferns, as well as to know what to avoid - bush lawyer and onga onga!
Opening scene of In the Bush

The book wouldn't be complete without some of the rare and endangered species that can only be seen in bush sanctuaries. Like the other scenes in the book, our sanctuary is one we've made up to suit the animals we wanted to show. I'm not sure there is any mainland sanctuary that has all of tieke, hihi, kokako, tuatara, robins and kaka. 

It was a pleasure to work with illustrator Ned Barraud again and see the images unfold. He's captured the look and feel of the bush, from the magic night-time scene to the mossy filtered sunlight peculiar to beech forests.

Publishers Potton and Burton have added a pull out laminated card in the back of the book, dedicated to native birds, this will be handy when you are off to the bush with children to take part in the Great Kereru Count (19-27 September). Perhaps they'll spot other birds too.  
In the Bush has a laminated card in the back

Need other ideas of things to do with kids in the outdoors or a rainy day at home? There are ideas to accompany the book for parents and educators that will be soon be available at www.pottonandburton/store/in-the-bush

This year we've not planned a book launch, more a virtual launch. In the Bush will be in all good bookshops from 21st September. If you want to buy a hardcover version of the book order it online at www.pottonandburton/store/in-the-bush

Watch this blog or Facebook for book events closer to Christmas.

Book launch last year at the Children's Bookshop.

Monday, August 31, 2015

The Importance of Trees

On the Kapakapanui track some joker has put up a Give Way sign where the track diverges, yet I've never met another party here to give way to.
 I like to think of it as a reminder that we need trees and had better give way to them!
Give way to ... Trees
It's easy to agree in the abstract on the importance of forests to us - their role in producing oxygen, in preventing erosion, in cleaning the air, in supporting a diverse ecosystem. But perhaps harder to follow through when other human interests clash with maintaining or reviving our forests.

Te Matua Ngahere - Father of the Forest
Te Matua Ngahere is one of the giant kauri in the Waipoua forest, despite the tree's size the kauri forest is a delicate ecosystem, under threat from Kauri die-back disease, and home to unique plants, such as this climbing white rata.

Metrosideros albiflora

Do we give trees an identity so we can share our wonder at their size? 
Te Matua Ngahere is in the Waipoua forest along with Tane Mahuta, the Four Sisters and other named kauri. But even when trees aren't named, we're drawn in by our wonder of their age, their size, their beauty. 

Trampers circle an unnamed giant rata

An unnamed giant rata in Wellington's Karapoti forest is thought to be the largest Northern Rata in the world, rather obviously we call it "the giant rata".  Giant forest trees might each have an identity but the collection of trees, the forest, has its own identity too.
The forest has its own identity. 
Sometimes it's the kind of forest - Goblin Forest - or a forest in a specific place - Waitutu Forest. The names conjure up images or meanings, goblin forest in some minds is now a place to expect hobbits and elves, Waitutu Forest is known for its ancient trees.
Goblin forest Kapakapanui

Waitutu Forest

I've read that the Japanese have a word 'komorebi' which means 'sunlight filtered through leaves'. 
Sunlight filters through a young rimu and ferns
View into the canopy from the beech forest floor
So apart from naming trees and forests, we name the effects of trees. I'm pleased to learn a name for the dappled light effect, and would like to find one for the sensation of trees dripping on one after the rain has gone.
And then there are trees in the urban environment. 
There are lots of good reason to cultivate trees in the city. Catherine Kirby's Pausing to Appreciate the Trees blog on the Epiphyte Network summarises neatly the data - environmental through to economic, including data on trees in the urban environment. 

Recently I've been delighted by reports of a project in Melbourne giving trees email addresses to allow the public to report issues which had some interesting unintended consequences, when the public started sending emails to the trees. 

I'll give the last word about urban trees to a 12 year old.  In an old news cutting, talking about a tree planted in our garden at his birth, my son said:
"It's really nice to have a tree that honours me, and it is such a good feeling to breathe in the air it lets out. At night I love listening to all the insects that live in it."
The Dominion 2002

Related blogs: 

Epiphyte Network

Visiting New Zealand's Forest Giants in Waipoua Forest

Pilgrimage to a Tree - the largest known Northern Rata

Saturday, August 8, 2015

Behind the Scenes - Nature at Te Papa

Usually I'm out and about exploring nature - outside. But recently Wellington's 150th Capital Anniversary provided a special opportunity to explore nature indoors. An open day at the museum - Te Papa Tongarewa - was a unique chance to see some of the treasures stored there.

The day started with a guided behind-the-scenes tour of the Botany collection. Te Papa's curators had carefully selected some treasures to show us, from plants collected by Solander on Cook's 1st voyage 1768-1771
Solander's collection orchid and tree fern

to the now extinct Cook's scurvy plant
Cook's scurvy plant

and items from a historic lichen collection preserved in handmade books and boxes to hold the rocks that the lichens were growing on.
Lichen collection

We soon got the message that the collection isn't just about preserving 'old stuff', we were shown how the ferns in the collection enabled a curator to make and exciting find a new tangle fern, and how the curators also are out and about looking at live plants and making discoveries such as how fungus gnats may be pollinating spider orchids who are disguising themselves as fungus - wow nature can be really weird.

Next stop was the Te Papa storehouse in Tory Street for more weird and wonderful stuff.

Here the queue snaked through the fish preservation area (no photos allowed due the flammable nature of the preservation material) to the subterranean vaults with skeletons, fossils, shells, and lots more.
Giant land snail shells
There were staff on hand to tell us a few things about the finds, but we had to keep moving with the press of people behind wanting to get a look too.
A collection of sea stars
Tiny snipe and their huge eggs
These tiny snipe were a revelation, I had no idea how little snipe were, since they are extinct here on the main islands.
A stuffed kakapo
But this mossy kakapo had to be my favourite and while its interesting to see a well preserved kakapo to get an idea of colour and size, its nothing like seeing the real thing - I hope you'll be going to see the live Kakapo, Sirocco at Zealandia.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Hail and Snow - what's the difference? and some Rainy Day activities

Cold weather is sweeping across New Zealand in waves this winter. Children who have never seen or touched snow before have had the chance to build snow people and have snow fights. And discover that while it might be fun in its snow form, it soon melts and turns into wet slush.

I had to walk up into the hills to the snow. But down where I live near sea level we've had hail which lay on the ground long enough, it almost looked like snow.

What, I wondered, is the difference between hail and snow?

My search led me to many complicated explanations. I understand why scientists want to give as much detail as possible and explain a phenomenon as accurately as possible, but, for young children, a simple explanation is what's required.

Here's a simple explanation:

HAIL is frozen rain drops
SNOW is made up of ice crystals 

And here's a slightly more complicated version:
Hail is formed in rain clouds that get very cold, so the rain drops turn to ice.
Snow is formed when water vapour (think of how you can see your breath on a cold morning) in clouds freezes so quickly that it goes straight from vapour to ice crystals without turning into water first. (Usually water vapour cools and turns into water and then cools more to turn into ice.) This is how ice crystals form. The temperature below the cloud (and on the ground) needs to be cold enough that the snow doesn't melt before it reaches the ground.

My search took me to lots of sites to find ones that were clear and easy to follow.
A good site aimed at children is Severe Weather 101.
I also like this student's attempt at explaining it on You Tube by Izzy M. Why does it rain, hail, sleet and snow?
Here is a more technical answer on You Tube: MetOffice UK

On the way I learned that there are many different names for precipitation - wet stuff that comes from clouds.
rain, sleet, snow, 
drizzle, powder snow, 
firn, blizzard, shower,
soft hail, 
snow pellets, 

There are sayings too, which try to describe the kind of rain or snow like:
raining cats and dogs,
teeming down
biting rain

A couple of my own descriptions are:
horizontal rain (rain in strong wind coming in at an angle)
tramping rain (heavy rain that would make noise on a hut roof)

Some rainy/snowy day activities
Next time it rains, hails or snows, invent your own names and phrases to describe the kind of precipitation. Create a precipitation picture dictionary.
Make paper snowflake patterns and stick them on the window. Snow flakes always have 6 points.
Create your own video explanation for rain or snow.
Play in the snow.
Cut a hailstone in half and look at it through a magnifying glass.