Friday, 13 January 2017

Speaking for Science - Book Reviews

- not your usual summer reading, these worthwhile reads clear confusion around some controversial topics.

Shaun Hendy in his compelling Silencing Science (BWB texts) argues that “New Zealanders can’t be complacent. I believe that there are rifts between our scientists, our politicians and the public that put members of our society at risk.” His readable short text (128pp) takes examples from across New Zealand public life - from earthquakes, through folic acid in bread, to food safety scares - and looks at issues such as commercial interests that can silence scientists and the media’s role in communicating science whether it’s during a disaster or in public debate. Having read Silencing Science earlier this year, I was pleased to see two new science books for the general public on potentially controversial topics had hit the bookshops. And I was interested to see whether they might be bridging some of the rifts Shaun Hendy referred to in communicating science to the public.

Protecting Paradise: 1080 and the fight to save New Zealand’s wildlife by Dave Hansford

Protecting Paradise is a warts and all look at the use of the poison 1080 to kill introduced predators of New Zealand’s wildlife. The author, Dave Hansford, tackles this controversial topic, describing the history of 1080 use, problems with its use, the results of science studies, why people oppose it and why people are for it. Yet the book also ends up pleading the case for 1080, because that is where the studying the science has led the author (as it also led the Parliamentary Commissioner for the Environment, Jan Wright, in her 2011 report).

It seems there is a lot to say about 1080 - this book runs to 318 pages - but it’s not a dry academic tome. Hansford’s journalism background ensures the book is very readable and it’s worth reading the book in its entirety. The book leaves no stone unturned when it comes to examining claims for and against 1080 and as a reader I was grateful for the author’s persistence in covering so many aspects. Readers who want to pursue some of the topics raised by Shaun Hendy in Silencing Science, will find chapter 12 “The Truth is Out There” which tackles anti-science sentiment and chapter 15 “Tipping the Balance” on journalism and science of particular interest. The author also explores some interesting territory about rural New Zealand, hunting and hunters, TB, the nature of science and conspiracy theorists.

If there was one thing that surprised me and that was the belief that Hansford uncovered amongst some 1080 opponents that native and introduced species in New Zealand have somehow reached a balance, and that intervention was not required. As there are climate-change deniers, so it seems there are also deniers of the true state of our native wildlife populations. These deniers ignore recent and impending extinctions, whether complete or localised. In tackling this myth, Hansford addresses the alarming picture of what is happening to our wildlife population biology. This book is indeed about the “the fight to save New Zealand’s wildlife” and I found myself wanting to read more on this topic.

As you would expect from a scientific title there are extensive endnotes that describe the sources, but these are so extensive I would have liked a “Further Reading” list which perhaps could narrow it down to publications that a general reader might like to pursue. 

This book does an excellent job of communicating the science of this controversial topic, there is also a supporting website and free summary videos which cover the salient points

No Place to Hide: Climate Change a short introduction for New Zealanders by Jim Flynn

According to the back blurb, No Place to Hide was born from the author’s realisation that he had no educated opinion on global warming and from the research he did to remedy that. This is an appealing premise for the reader, we expect and look forward to, being taken along on Jim Flynn’s own journey of discovery. It relies of course on our trust in Professor Flynn. He’s a well known academic and author but not a climate scientist, the ideal background for the task of explanation.

And it doesn’t disappoint, Part A  does an excellent job of sharing what the author has learned about the history of our climate. Maps and graphs illuminate statistics and I appreciated all the bold subheadings that helped guide me through the climate history. Publishers should never underestimate the role of book layout in guiding the reader through the topic and making things clear. Clear headings make it easier to find your place, glance back to get an overview of what you’ve read, and see what’s coming next. At times the author makes use of his learning journey to draw our attention to something that must have puzzled or confused him until he sorted it out. For example, in chapter 3 the emphasis on the difference between ‘sea ice’ and ‘land ice’ was a helpful clarification. And the direct approach using ‘I’ statements helps us differentiate between when he’s reporting on the research and when he’s uttering an opinion. Professor Flynn also tackles various arguments put forward by climate change deniers but sensibly doesn’t waste too much time on this, he let’s the facts speak for themselves.

I like the way the author has tackled Climate Change as his personal problem and tried to shed light on it, though perhaps I found it a step too far that he was pushing a solution by chapter 8. And this is of course the rub, we trust him well enough to research and write ‘a short introduction’ but do we trust the solution he proposes given he isn’t a climate scientist? Still I’m grateful that he’s gone as far as describing solutions that have been put forward, and I look forward to climate scientists debating these in public.

The author is clearly at home with statistics and mathematics, but unfortunately some readers won’t be. As the book progresses there is a danger that a ‘maths-avoiding’ reader will find their eyes glazing over as they encounter sentence after sentence full of figures, particularly when they get to Part B. In many places there are useful tables and graphs to explain the data. But there is no easy fix to this, the reader will have to take their time, as the author did, to come to grips with the information, or skip judiciously.

All of these titles would be useful additions to senior school libraries and will be of interest to  teachers of senior science and geography to use in their teaching programmes. 

For the general public who like to keep informed, put these books on your must read list for 2017. If you have time to only read one make it Silencing Science, once you’ve read that you’ll be compelled to read on!

Silencing Science is published by Bridget Williams Books.
Protecting Paradise and No Place to Hide are both published by Potton and Burton.

Tuesday, 10 January 2017

Nature Highlights (New Zealand) - my best of 2016

2016 Nature Highlights
My best nature experiences of 2016 included several weeks worth of volunteer citizen science projects: monitoring lizards and helping with a fairy prion translocation, checking pest traps, doing bird counts, and a spot of weeding.

When I wasn't volunteering, I encountered some special wildlife while tramping in the North and the South Islands, while visiting nature sanctuaries and in my own backyard.

Somehow I also found time to write some children's books about nature and take part in literary festivals.

Not all moments get captured nicely in a photograph. Here are some nature highlights that I recorded in my diary:

First time for me - seeing a fern bird at Lake Rotokare, seeing gold stripe geckos by torchlight in the flax bushes on Mana Island, seeing a Giant Petrel up close while helping with its rescue at the beach.

Strangest sights - in our garden, a juvenile tui trying to sit in an old fantail nest (the nest was a tad on the small side!), at the beach, red-billed gulls trying to perch with their webbed feet in coprosma trees to eat the berries.

Picture above: clockwise from top left: skink monitoring, fairy prion feeding, flax weevil on Mana Island. blue duck (whio) on Blue Lake, Nelson Lakes, oystercatcher (torea) at home, takahe at Orokonui Sanctuary, NZ sea lions near Dunedin, North Island robin in Whanganui National Park (toutowai)

Sunday, 4 December 2016

Top 5 Nature Gifts for Kids this Holiday Season

A southern hemisphere Christmas coincides with the start of the summer school holidays, so it's the ideal opportunity to give gifts that encourage children out into nature.

Here are my top 5 nature gift tips for kiwi kids.

1. Something to read and something to do. Pair a nature book with an exploration aid - binoculars, magnifying glass, waterproof notebook or bird whistle.
Team 'At the Beach' with a waterproof notebook
2. Create a nature explorer kit. Repurpose a box, container  or bag for a simple kit. Add magnifying glass, a jar or see through plastic container (for observing finds before putting them back), tape measure or ruler, notebook. For older children who might be venturing further afield, consider a tramping kit such as: compass, local topographical map, whistle and torch. Or a beach kit such as: snorkel and mask, flippers, marine guide.

'At the Beach' and 'Under the Bush' come with ID cards
ideal to make up part of the nature explorer kit
3. Give a day's outing to a sanctuary, wildlife park, aquarium or reserve. Or for older children give an opportunity to learn a new outdoor skill, such as kayaking, rafting or a high ropes course.
Tiritiri Matangi is accessible by ferry from Auckland,
a gift voucher for the trip makes a great present
4. Sign them up to a nature club or activity. Some are free to join, others have a fee but go on giving all year round with magazines and local activities. Kiwi Conservation Club, Young Birders NZ, Kiwi Guardians, Kiwi Rangers. Orienteering or geocaching might also interest older children.
Young Birders New Zealand - free to join
and get the Fledglings magazine
5. A piece of equipment to help them enjoy the outdoors.  For the little ones who don't have phones (with cameras), point and shoot digital cameras can be picked up second hand relatively cheaply. Someone you know might even have one sitting unused in a drawer somewhere. Older children can be enticed outdoors with Go-Pro cameras or underwater cameras. If you (or the children you are getting gifts for) are going camping, tramping or to a bach - life jackets, sleeping bags, torches, jackets, and so on, make good gifts.

Rafting and camping along the Clarence River
life jackets were provided, waterproof cameras came in handy!

And, once they have their gifts, spend some time with kids in nature, that's the biggest and best gift you can give.

Saturday, 5 November 2016

Competition Time - Tell me what do you want to read about?

It's competition time! Enter to win a copy of my latest book "From Moa to Dinosaurs" or a perennial favourite "Under the Ocean".

To enter the competition, simply tell me what New Zealand nature topic you, your children or your grandchildren would like to read about in a future book. 

You can enter by doing one of the following, depending on your social media preference:

  • commenting on this blogpost, 
  • commenting on my Facebook page "Gillian Candler, Author" 
  • commenting on Instagram @discovernaturenz.
  • sending a message on my Facebook page "Gillian Candler, Author"
  • sending a message on Pinterest "Gillian Candler"

While you are there please like my Facebook page or follow my Instagram feed or Pinterest boards.

I'll put all your names into a hat (the old-fashioned way) and draw two lucky winners.

To be eligible for a prize you need to have a New Zealand postal address.

Competition closes on 16 November 2016.

Many thanks to my publisher Potton & Burton for supporting this competition.

POSTSCRIPT and the winners were Mary Scott and Nicola Bowman, both of whom entered via Facebook, thanks everyone for entering and telling me what you'd like to read about in print.

Monday, 17 October 2016

Weeds or Wild Flowers - What do we See?

One person's weed is another person's garden flower. I've seen the delight in the eye of visitors from Europe when they saw what they took to be garden flowers such as white Arum lilies (Zantedeschia) or blue Agapanthus flowering by our roadsides.

Arum Lilies spreading alongside a pathway

It's not just visitors who see them as delightful wild flowers or as garden plants, lots of locals do too. But how we see them doesn't alter the fact that these and many other imported plants grow, and spread, like wild fire in New Zealand's climate. They encroach on dunes, on bush remnants, on stream banks pushing out native plants and reducing our,  and therefore the world's, biodiversity.

Bone seed and pink ragwort colonise
 land cleared by roadworks

This time of year, bone seed (Chrysanthemoides monilifera) and pink ragwort (Senecio glastifolius) are among the bright roadside weeds. A slash of acid yellow bone seed flowers mars the subtle and varied greens of the native bush, as it invades a bush reserve, changing forever what the bush looks like in the spring. The pink ragwort pops up like an irritating opportunist where ever there is a clearing.

I've been inspired to write about weeds thanks to a prize I won a few weeks ago during Conservation Week. I won a spot prize,  "The Weed Control Handbook" by entering a challenge to post local weeds on Nature Watch's 'Dirty Dozen' project.

Sadly it was too easy to find some of the Dirty Dozen close by. Climbing asparagus (Asparagus scandens), wandering Willy, wild ginger (Hedychium) are all flourishing by the roadside.
My prize, thanks DOC!

"The Weed Control Handbook" by Weedbusters New Zealand makes instructive but saddening read - so many invasive plants, escaped from well meaning gardeners.

It's a challenge, but necessary, to shift our points of view. As a country we've done it with gorse, which was brought in as a hedge plant that then ran rampant over farmland. Perhaps it's easier to see a scratchy, spiky plant as a weed, especially when it affects the economics of farming. But we'll not be successful with weed eradication unless more people can make the shift to seeing the good in our native plants, and the bad in the invasive, introduced plants. A nice feature in "The Weed Control Handbook" is the "Replace it" section where an alternative plant is suggested (mostly native) instead of the 'weed' plant. This information is also available in local form as 'Plant Me Instead booklets'. It's a helpful way to introduce native plants to gardeners.

So how do we go about shifting people's perspectives?  A recent Australian article, on The Conversation, People are blind to plants and that's bad news for conservation suggests the need for us to develop emotional bonds with plants, which is where understanding what natives are edible or thought to have healing properties helps, as we will develop emotional bonds with helpful plants. I think too that the adoption of iconic images which become part of our identity should help - kowhai, nihau, silver fern, pohutukawa - but only if we know the actual plants, how many wearers of the silver fern have seen and identified one in the bush?  Unfortunately some iconic images also include invasive weeds, such as the colourful images of lupins invading braided rivers in the South Island.

Alongside emotional bonds then is the need for knowledge. Knowledge of what a silver fern actually looks like and where it grows; knowledge of the damage lupins do. Learning about plants can be a little like learning a foreign language.  (I've blogged about this in learning the language of plants.)

"In the Bush"
But it needn't be, if we start learning about them when we're young. In the children's book "In the Bush: explore and discover New Zealand's native forests" Ned, the illustrator, and I show plants and animals together in the ecosystem. I hope children will see that native animals (which tend to be the focus of conservation interest) rely on our native plants for habitat and that those plants are as worthy of conservation as the animals.

From "In the Garden"


The Importance of Trees
Nature Walks at Otari Wilton's Bush
Visiting New Zealand's Forest Giants
Pilgrimage to a Tree
Puriri Moths and Caterpillar: a secret to discover in trees

Thursday, 15 September 2016

Visiting the Wildlife Capital of New Zealand - Dunedin

Dunedin lays claim to the title 'Wildlife Capital of New Zealand'. And while I'd like to think Wellington could compete for this title, I have to concede Dunedin has the edge on us. First, there's a concentration of rare native animals across a range of habitats, all within easy reach of the city.  And secondly, the ratio of people to wild animals is much lower here than in Auckland or Wellington. The landscape of hills and harbour dominate the tiny city. This gives Dunedin a sense of being all about the wildlife.

I started my early spring visit to the wildlife capital with a walk along remote Allan's Beach on the Otago Peninsula. At first it could have been any south facing beach in New Zealand on a spring day - a few human footprints in the wide expanse of sand, shrill oyster catchers, rocky headlands at either end. Then as we walked along, the large mounds in the sand came into focus, several pairs of New Zealand sea lions - mothers and pups were dotted along the beach slumbering in the spring sunshine.
New Zealand sea lion - whakahao

Most beach walking requires a turnaround and return journey, our turning point came when we met the estuary of Hooper's Inlet. Black swans bobbed on the silvery ripples, the sky had that soft southern glow.
Hooper's Inlet

Day two saw the sun come out and the bird song on the peninsula proved that the trapping programmes are successfully removing predators from the landscape.

On the third day,  I headed to Weller's Rock Wharf to take a trip on the Monarch Wildlife Cruise out to Taiaroa Head. Some photographers manage the pitching deck but not me, and especially not when it came to capturing the awesome albatross - toroa.
Taiaroa Head

The Otago Shag colony from a distance
Our captain gave an informative commentary about the wildlife we were seeing.
Otago Shags claiming their nests for the summer ahead

I was interested to hear that the Otago Shags - kawau nesting on these chimney pot style nests are now known to be a separate species from the Stewart Island Shag. And I was amused to have the DOC ranger pointed out as if he was one of the wildlife features of the Albatross colony (and indeed some worry that they are endangered species!).
New Zealand fur seal - kekeno

Curious young seals were exploring the rocks around the heads.
Volcanic rock, Royal Albatross, Spotted Shags - kawau make for a dramatic scene 

A Southern Royal Albatross skimmed the waves, then glided over the boat, then we saw a Buller's Mollymawk, as well as some of the famous Northern Royals coming in to land on the heads. The stormy weather arrived and we returned to the safety of the harbour.

Sadly the wet and stormy weather continued. So on Day 4 my visit to Orokonui Ecosanctuary was in wet conditions. I'm used to thinking of Dunedin's wildlife being concentrated on the Otago Peninsula so it came as some surprise to be travelling to the Port Chalmers side of the harbour and driving up a windy road into the clouds. Being a cloud forest sanctuary there is something to be said for a rainy day visit, being perhaps the perfect conditions. The Orokonui Ecosanctuary is a fenced sanctuary, similar to Zealandia. On our visit we saw Takahe,  Bellbird - Korimako, Tui, Robin - Toutouwai, Brown creeper - Pipipi.

The Takahe were out and about, their feathers ruffling in the wind.

Under the canopy, the Korimako (Bellbirds) were the most numerous I have ever seen.Listen to them at this feeder, while the video doesn't capture the quantity of birds, it certainly captures their song.

This sound that would have greeted the first people to arrive on these islands before the rats took hold.

My final day of exploration was done indoors. I visited the superb Otago Museum, it's 'old style' wildlife exhibits being some of the most informative I've seen in New Zealand.  I'm a big fan of detailed diorama's (as you can probably tell from the cross-section diagrams in my books), to me they convey the complexity of ecosystems in the way that flashy new style displays sometimes miss. Don't get me wrong the museum has up-to-date features too, I enjoyed a visit to the new planetarium, although I'd advise not to go straight after lunch if darkness might make you want to have a nap!

A few days in Dunedin and I felt like I was only scratching the surface of the possibilities. The little penguins and yellow-eyed penguins I'll have to visit another time. Also a visit to the local wetlands to see fern birds and bitterns would be on my list for a future visit. Of course there are some events one just can't plan for and would be down to good luck and timing, if I'd arrived a few days earlier I might have seen (but not touched) the Southern Right Whale that came to the harbour, or perhaps a leopard seal, the list goes on. There's always next time.

Further information about Dunedin Wildlife 
Royal Albatross Centre
Monarch Wildlife Cruises
Orokonui Ecosanctuary
Otago Peninsula wildlife
Otago Peninsula Biodiversity Group
Otago Museum

General information about New Zealand Wildlife
NZ Birds Online
Department of Conservation Marine Mammals

Tuesday, 6 September 2016

When it's Raining - Kiwi Book Corner Craft

While it's great to be outdoors with kids, on some rainy, wintery days it's good to be inside. Sometimes, too, it's fun to follow up outdoor observations with indoor activities. Here's a fun idea that I tried out recently at the Storylines Family Days in Dunedin and Christchurch.

Kiwi Book Corners
These cute origami kiwi hold the place in your book.
Kiwi book corners

You will need:

  • square origami paper  15cm x15cm 
  • light card for beaks and feet
  • glue pen or sticky tape
  • pens for eyes and whiskers
Fold your origami paper in half to make a triangle.
Make a triangle

Now take the opposite corners of the base of the triangle and fold them up to meet at the top.
Fold up opposite corners

Open the two flaps out again and fold under the top part of the large triangle.
Open out and fold under top of large triangle

Now fold the side flaps up again and tuck the ends under. You've made the book corner.
Tuck under flaps to make the book corner

Now add details to your book corner. Cut out a beak and feet from card and glue or tape in place. Draw on eyes and whiskers. 

This activity worked well for little fingers
Tips: always crease the folds firmly. 

There are lots of other designs for book corners online, including on You Tube videos. 

Storylines crafty kids - these girls made hats for their kiwi book corners

Complement your kiwi book corner with a kaka mask, and talk about the different beaks birds have. See my Pinterest board for more beak information and activities.

Kiwi facts
Kiwi have special whiskers that help them feel in the dark. 
Kiwi have nostrils in the ends of their beaks to help them smell worms in the dark.
A kiwi book corner holds the place in "Whose Beak is This?"