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

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.