Thursday, June 23, 2016

Garden Bird Survey and Volunteer Week - Citizen Science at its best

Days, Weeks or Months that highlight different causes or ideas pander to our short attention spans, but if we only volunteer in volunteer week, not much would get done around the country! I'd like to think Volunteer Week gets people started, selecting a cause to volunteer with. There are so many deserving causes, there really is something for everyone, whether it is helping make breakfasts in schools , delivery library books to the housebound, patrolling a dangerous beach as a lifeguard or building rat traps.
Rat traps for gardens and parks in Paekakariki 

When I first started volunteering on conservation projects I thought I'd be mostly planting trees or weeding. Weeds are the number one issue for most community based conservation projects, so there is always weeding to do! As I got more involved I found that there were opportunities to volunteer in other ways too.
Volunteers building rat traps

While there is always the need for people to do hard physical work - removing pest weeds, climbing steep hills to monitor pest traps, digging holes for trees, building traps - there is also a need for people to get involved in the science side of conservation.  This is where Citizen Science comes in.

The Garden Bird Survey is one very well known example of ordinary people (citizens) giving up an hour of their leisure time to count birds in their gardens.

Get the whole family involved and kids start to realise that they can identify common birds. If they need help there is a guide here.

And plenty of New Zealand garden birds are depicted in 'In the Garden' and "In the Bush' too.

As kids (and adults) observation and identification skills improve, so does their confidence, and the sense of wonder about the natural world just gets bigger. Proving that the more you look, the more you see. If your family gets a taste for observation. there are many projects like this on a whole range of different topics.

Here are some true but crazy sounding examples of Citizen Science projects:
If you like to walk along the beach you can learn and help out with a 'large brown seaweed' citizen science project.

If you live in Auckland, you can look out for 'ladybirds', as a project to identify dangerous invading ladybirds has recently got underway. See Beware the Harlequin.

Not a harlequin but a native ladybird

And for rainy days, you could count penguins on Penguin Watch.

Two of the projects mentioned above use Nature Watch to record observations, Nature Watch is great for families and communities, you can set up your own projects in here too. You can read my blog about using Nature Watch here:

More information
Volunteer Week runs from 19-25 June 2016.
The Garden Bird Survey runs from 25 June to 3 July 2016.

Bird Identification
NZ Birds Online:
Resources for schools

Follow my Pinterest Board to see other Citizen Science projects that catch my eye

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Northern Giant Petrel - Beach Rescue and Ocean Release

Some days you just don't know what you'll find at the beach.

One stormy Sunday afternoon, we were walking along and saw a couple of kids in the waves. 'Crazy kids' I thought since it is winter and, although the waves looked exciting, the kids looked cold. Then we realised that they were trying to rescue a large black bird that was being bashed about by the waves. From a distance I knew straightaway that it wasn't a seagull or shag but something much bigger. We rushed to help. Meanwhile an adult with the children managed to grab the bird with a towel and bring it ashore. It was amazingly compliant. A quick handover saw my walking companion wrap the bird in his jacket - the bird managed to get a nip at his arm with its giant beak. We took it to a nearby house and the residents, who had a suitable cage for the bird, called the Department of Conservation.

The bird went to Wellington Zoo to be restored to health, and that's when we found out it was a Northern Giant Petrel. Turns out they are nicknamed 'vulture of the sea' and they can be aggressive. So I guess my walking companion was lucky to only get one nip on the arm.

This was the one walk where I was out without my phone or camera - a blogger should never be walking without a camera!

Luckily the The Nest at Wellington Zoo was able to nurse it back to health. They took some great photos of the bird and its release last weekend.  See the photos and read the full story here:

What to do in a Conservation emergency
If you find sick or injured wildlife, phone the Department of Conservation hotline 0800 DOC HOT, 0800 362468. (This includes whale or dolphin strandings, but be aware that seals often pull up on shore to rest and are probably not sick or injured.)

Useful links
Information about Northern Giant Petrels

Thursday, June 9, 2016

"Whose Beak is This?" Finalist for Elsie Locke Award

I've always been a huge fan of Elsie Locke, so it's such an honour to be named a finalist for the Elsie Locke Award for non-fiction in the NZ Children's Book Awards for 2016. (The NZ Children's Book Awards and the Lianza Book Awards were combined this year, the non-fiction section is now the Elsie Locke Award.)

"Whose Beaks is This?" is a guessing game in a book and a fun way to learn about bird adaptations. Fraser Williamson's funky and colourful illustrations hit the spot with kids.

Fraser has also designed a Kaka mask for children to colour and make up which we gave away at the launch of the book. So in honour of the awards finalists being named here's a copy of the mask for everyone to enjoy.  Print the picture below out A3 and the mask will fit a child's face.

My first book for children "At the Beach: explore and discover the New Zealand seashore" won the Elsie Locke Award in 2013, and both "At the Beach" and "Under the Ocean: explore and discover New Zealand's sea life" were both finalists in the NZ Children's Book Awards.

See more about My Books here

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!)