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

Monday, February 23, 2015

Top 2 Sea Life Apps - reviewed in time for Sea Week

Sea Week is approaching fast, a good time for schools, parents and public to turn their attention to the treasures of the sea.  Sea Week 2015 runs from 28 February to 8 March and the theme this year is "Look beneath the surface - Papatai o roto - Papatai o raro".

Unlike a trip to the beach or the bush, it's hard to show children what lives under the sea, although there are more and more great programmes to get kids snorkelling and out and about on the ocean. Sometimes books, the internet and Apps are what is needed to give a good picture of what is beneath the surface. Our book "Under the Ocean" aims to do just that for younger readers and we've worked on showing different habitats, reefs, sea floor, deep ocean etc as well as some of the creatures that live there. But there was a limit to how many animals we could show so I've been looking at websites and apps to help parents, teachers and kids find out more about what is beneath the surface of our oceans. Some of the best are listed in our notes for children, parents and educators. You'll find tips and ideas here for activities and reading the book too.

Now for my top two Apps - what's more they are free!

The Whale Watch App covers the marine mammals and birds that visitors to Kaikoura might see. As well as a picture of each species and information about them, the App allows people to post sightings of that particular species to Facebook. The little picture that pops up with the post, gets around the difficulty that most visitors will have of getting a good photograph of the animals.  I also like the two Conservation Challenges - which pose questions and propose action. While this App is designed for tourists, locals (not just those in Kaikoura) will enjoy it too, and it is pitched at a level that will suit families,  parents reading to their children, and primary school children using it themselves.

I've been using Auckland Museum's New Zealand Marine Life App since their superb Moana - My Ocean exhibition in 2013.  I was delighted to have access to the information about such a wide range of sea creatures. There's one thing about the presentation that could be a drawback - the information is written in reversed out text (white text on a black background). This is harder to read than dark text on a light background - the black appears to bleed into the letters narrowing them and adding challenges for young readers. But I've since discovered that the basic format of this App is the same as those used by the Museum of Victoria for a series of Field Guides, so I can see that Auckland Museum may not have had a choice when it comes to the black backgrounds.  When it comes to the information, unless you live in Auckland you'll need to ignore the map. At first I took the map to mean that the animal I was reading about was only found in Auckland, then I realised the App only shows where the animal lives in the Auckland region, so provides no information on habitats outside of the region.  Apart from these two details it's a great resource to have handy when you are off to the beach or the ocean.

Related Posts:
3 Top Nature Websites for Kiwi Kids all three of the websites include some ocean life, one exclusively so.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

Feeding Fairy Prions - a volunteer's week on Mana Island

100 fairy prion chicks from Takapourewa/Stephens Island were welcomed on to Mana Island a week ago, on 22 January.
One of the 100 Fairy Prion chicks

I was one of a team of Friends of Mana Island volunteers whose job was to feed and care for the birds until they were grown up enough to leave their burrows and fly out to sea. We were helping scientist Helen Gummer with this part of the project.

The chicks were delivered by helicopter and the welcoming party and volunteers quickly whisked them from the helicopter into the shade. Working quickly but carefully, we checked their identifying bands, wrote down their details and gave them a burrow number.
Ready for its band check

Each of the 100 chicks was given a health check and a drink and then placed in its carefully made burrow.

The burrows had lids which made it easy for us to lift out the birds, they also had a tunnel that the bird could use to get out when it was ready to fly away. To ensure that only those birds that had grown enough to survive at sea could leave their burrows, a gate was placed across the entrance.

With views of blue sky and sea, a colourful caravan, numbered burrows and a music system that played fairy prion noises at night, the whole set up resembled a Fairy Prion Holiday Park.
Fairy Prion Holiday Park

The birds' burrows were cool, but the clear skies and all day sun made it hot work for the humans. There was a lot to do - water to boil, things to wash, equipment to sterilise and things to carry to and from the site (about half an hour walk from the volunteers' house).

We soon got into our routines. First thing, there was morning roll call to check on the birds and see which ones had flown off in the night.
Morning roll call
Carrying the bird up to the caravan

Then working in two teams we carried the birds up from their burrows one at a time to be fed in the caravan. Each bird was weighed before feeding. They were fed a kind of sardine smoothie, using a syringe.

Ready to be weighed
Feeding sardine smoothie 

Feeding such tiny birds (they weigh around 100-120g) is tricky, and trickier still is giving them just the right amount. The first feed was especially messy as they were getting used to the new way of being fed. Occasionally a bird with a full beak of sardine smoothie would do a head shake and spray sardine around over the handler and the feeder.

Helen was keeping a close eye on every bird (and the volunteers) to make sure the birds were getting enough food and growing strong. She measured wing lengths and checked to see whether they were losing their baby down.

We gave names to some of the birds - Fluffy, Flappy, Cutie - but these were interchangeable as they all started off fluffy, all were cute and the older they got the more they flapped their wings. A few got their own name - Pipe Bird (it seemed to prefer the tunnel to the burrow), Zero (for its burrow number).
Not quite so fluffy now, but still cute

After the birds had been in their burrows for two nights, Helen removed the gates from some of the burrows and next morning we looked with interest to see how many had flown away in the night. Six had gone. On the third night 21 birds flew off. On the fourth night it was 13 birds, and on the sixth another 15 left. So after our week on the island there were only 45 of the 100 birds left to feed. It was time for our group to leave too, and hand over the feeding to a new group.

The humans left by boat

Many organisations and people are involved in this project, this is just one volunteer's view. 

  • Colin Miskelly led the collection team, read his blog on the Te Papa blog to find out how they chose the birds and about the science behind this project. 
  • For other stories about the Fairy Prion project see the Friends of Mana Island Facebook page.
  • And for the younger ones, there are a few facts about fairy prions in my book Under the Ocean.

Thanks to Friends of Mana Island and Helen Gummer for an amazing opportunity and to Mana Island DOC rangers and the other volunteers for being such a great team.

Friday, January 9, 2015

A Rubbish Start to the Year - and the Strange Bowerbird that Likes it

My blog readers can't help but notice that rubbish in the environment is a source of great concern. I've blogged about beach clean-ups, both private and organised, about road-side rubbish, and about rubbish such as plastic bags endangering wildlife. A friend responded by sending me these images from Jakarta.

 There is so much rubbish here, the standard kiwi beach clean-up doesn't apply.

This is the world's problem, not just mine or yours. But we can do something. Here's some ideas from the US environmental group NRDC on Solutions to Plastic Pollution in our Oceans.

And in a strange twist here's a true story about a bird that likes rubbish...
A few weeks ago, I was walking in Australia's beautiful blue mountains. Beautiful scenery, not a piece of rubbish to be seen despite large numbers of tourists.

When I saw an explosion of rubbish on the forest floor.

I was almost ready to leap in and pick it all up, when my Australian companion pointed out this was the Bower of a Satin Bowerbird. 
Satin bowerbird above his bower

The male Bowerbird collects blue objects, the same colour as his eyes, and creates a bower of grasses too. Plastic rubbish - bottle tops, drinking straws and other bits of blue plastic make for a bright bower. Birds that don't have access to rubbish use blue feathers, stones, shells, berries etc.

The bower is the thicket of sticks at the top of this photo.

Their penchant for blue plastic puts them at risk from getting rings from blue plastic bottle lids stuck around their necks, and has led to calls for such rings to be banned.

Some people have taken to You Tube with their observations of Bowerbirds in action. Here's a link to one - Courtship Display of the Satin Bowerbird.

Stumbling across the Satin Bowerbird was one of the highlights of our trip. For once it was good to see rubbish being put to good use.

Thanks to Libby for the photos from Jakarta and Sarah for the showing me the Satin Bowerbird.

Monday, December 22, 2014

The best of the season - a year of nature blogging

As the summer Christmas/New Year break approaches here's a look back on the Best of 2014 blog posts.
Pohutukawa - New Zealand Christmas tree


I'm always trying to improve the information on my blog. Now you can see my observations on Nature Watch, thanks to a cool widget they provided (they are now part of the international

I'm now posting most of my blog posts on the Facebook Nature Bloggers page. You can also follow me on Facebook at Gillian Candler - Author where you can find out more about my books for children.

I hope you are enjoying reading about New Zealand nature and getting tips about things to do out and about with kids (and adults). There's more to come in 2015 including reviews of Nature Apps for children and adults, Seaweek and Wellington walks.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Book Giveaways at Pauatahanui Clean Up

The Guardians of Pauatahanui Inlet (or GOPI for short) run an annual clean up around the inlet.

Always a popular event, there is a barbecue afterwards and of course the satisfaction of knowing you've done the environment a bit of good.  For children this year there was something extra, as my publisher Craig Potton Publishing agreed to donate a copy each of Under the Ocean and At the Beach to be spot prizes for children that helped out to be drawn at the barbecue.

Well over 100 people turned up, each family was assigned a particular part of the harbour.

The worst type of rubbish to deal with was buried, here a plastic bag was full of mud and sand it was difficult to get out. A crab ran out when I gave the bag a tug. I don't think plastic bags are much of a habitat for crabs.
Here's some of the rubbish we collected, not just bags of plastic and bits and pieces but dumped tyres too.

Then came the fun bit, a barbecue and the prize draw. First little Sienna from Aotea, got a copy of At the Beach.

 Then James of Papakowhai won Under the Ocean.

They both loved the books, and I was pleased to be part of the clean up. I look forward to helping out again next year. To find out more about the Guardians of Pauatahanui Inlet here is the website The website includes some rainy day and educational activities for children as well as news and reports about the inlet.