Archive for the 'The natural world' Category

Birds, birds, birds

White tern chick (pic: Department of Conservation, photo by Don Merton (10030637))

White tern chick (pic: Department of Conservation, photo by Don Merton (10030637))

A-well-a, everybody’s heard about the bird
Bird, bird, bird, b-bird’s the word …
*

Whether you like Big Bird or little birds, early birds who get the worm, or birds who flock together, there is bound to be something in Te Ara to interest you. (Well, maybe not Big Bird, we only have one mention of Sesame Street). Most of our bird entries were published in 2005–7, however, so we’ve recently been starting to update them.

Some changes in the bird world since we did these entries include the discovery of the New Zealand storm petrel breeding on Te Hauturu-o-Toi/Little Barrier Island and the removal of Canada geese from the game birds schedule of the Wildlife Act. It has also recently been discovered that kiwi are most closely related to the extinct elephant bird from Madagascar, and that the closest living relative of moa is the small South American tinamou, which can fly!

One of the great things about working on Te Ara is the wide range of subjects that I get to research. However, the jump from painters, potters and poets to penguins, pūkeko and prions has meant a bit of a stretch in the old brain department. Luckily, we’ve had Colin Miskelly (seen here with a fluttering shearwater chick), ornithologist, curator at Te Papa and editor of New Zealand Birds Online, to review these entries and patiently answer our questions about nominate subspecies and the genetic distance between moa and kiwi.

As well as updates to the text, our designers have been hard at work re-sizing all the images and video, and moving layered maps like this albatross one from Flash into HTML. This might not look immediately different on your PC screen, but it does mean that it is now usable on my phone (and hopefully yours!).

Another new function is that some of our tables are now sortable, like this one listing the birds that migrate to New Zealand – you can sort it alphabetically by common name or species name.

The bill of a whio or blue duck (pic: Nature's Pic Images, photograph by Rob Suisted)

The bill of a whio or blue duck (pic: Nature's Pic Images, photograph by Rob Suisted)

We’ve also added some new photographs, such as this fascinating one of the underside of a whio’s bill (above), supplied by Rob Suisted of Nature’s Pics, and this amazing one of a long-tailed cuckoo being fed by its much smaller whitehead parent. You can read about how photographer Adam Clarke got this image on the Te Papa blog.

So this is just a taster of some of the work we’ve been doing recently. We’ll have more images and some lovely new video still to come, as well as some interactive graphs, so do keep looking!

* A bit more trivia – the quote at the top comes from the Trashmen’s 1963 hit song ‘Surfin’ bird. When I was writing this blog, I kept singing the Bluebird chips song from their early-1990s advert, which turned out to be an adaptation of ‘Surfin’ bird’. The Trashmen apparently created their song from two songs by 1960s American doo-wop band the Rivingtons, ‘Papa-oom-mow-mow’ and ‘The bird’s the word’. Blog writing occasionally takes you down some strange paths.

I do like to be beside the seaside

Kelp, glorious kelp, fringing the Kaikōura Peninsula (pic: Caren Wilton)

Kelp, glorious kelp, fringing the Kaikōura Peninsula (pic: Caren Wilton)

We took a few days off in late summer, once all the schoolkids had gone back, and headed for Kaikōura. As the town’s name suggests – ‘kai’ means eat and ‘kōura’ crayfish – the consumption of seafood was to play a major part in our trip. We ate crayfish at a beachfront barbecue stand where small handfuls of German and Japanese tourists sat at a row of scruffy picnic tables, and (twice) at the venerable old Pier Hotel on the way out to the peninsula.

The views from Kaikōura seem to me among the world’s most beautiful, with a steep backdrop of towering mountains and a luminous sea below. And the town is thick with whaling history and Māori history and culture; Fyffe House is famously built on foundations of whale vertebrae, but when I asked our Air B’n’B host, Susan, about those chunks of whiteness in her back garden – could they be? – it turned out that their big villa was also sitting on pieces of whalebone.

So, whales. We didn’t go whale watching. We didn’t swim with dolphins, not wanting to bother the poor beleaguered creatures, victims of their own friendly dispositions and smiley appearances. We certainly didn’t swim with seals – those things are vicious! But we tromped around the end of the peninsula at low tide, when the big rock shelf is exposed, and I became mesmerised by the gorgeous stands of kelp – huge and glowing yellow – swaying gently with the waves. It had not occurred to me that seaweed could be beautiful. I was surprised, but glad, to see that the sign informing people of fishing regulations included a limit on the amount of kelp you could take per day – ‘5 litre wet volume in a 5 litre bucket’.

I remembered Kaikōura around 1990, when the Whale Watch operation was new and the town was sleepy and rather down-at-heel. It had an appealing dinginess about it, and my then partner and I stayed in the ratty old Adelphi Hotel. The Adelphi has now been irritatingly jazzed up with bright paint and corrugated iron, turned into a cheapie backpackers’, and much of what was the main shopping street (haberdashers and bookshops, no doubt, sensible shops for locals) is now a strip of bars and pizza joints, although Susan laughed at me when I compared it to Khao San Road in Bangkok.

Still, there’s seldom anything beautiful in the kinds of developments aimed at tourists, although the tourists themselves were pleasant enough – gentle Japanese couples photographing seagulls on the beach and their dinners in restaurants, chattering French families in campervans, young women sunbathing in tiny bikinis. The people-watching was good even if we didn’t want to spring the $145 for a whale-watching trip. It was expensive enough having a few crayfish dinners.

Confessions of a Bird of the Year campaign manager

Percy Bagnall's colour lithograph of two black-backed gulls with typically smug expressions

Percy Bagnall's colour lithograph of two black-backed gulls with unpleasantly smug expressions (click for image credit)

Last November I posted about that great New Zealand institution (yes, I reckon I can call it that now) the annual Bird of the Year poll.

For the following 12 months I harboured a secret longing to become a Bird of the Year campaign manager for one particular candidate – the brown skua. Like most New Zealanders I love an underdog, and anyway brown skuas are cool. Did you know they often live in family units with a female head of nest-hold who takes two or more mates?

As November 2014 approached, I emailed the Bird of the Year folks and begged to be a campaign manager. I was sure I was early enough to stake my claim to the brown skua, but NO! Who’d got in first? Green Party co-leader Metiria Turei – whose winning 2013 campaign for the mōhua propelled that bird to superstardom!

Okay – next choice. It was suggested to me that a similarly reviled underdog was the black-backed gull. You know – the one that would eat your leftover fish and chips plus a passing duckling all in one gulp?

I was sold!

I decided to plan a negative campaign. I mean, really, why would you vote for these pests? Black-backed gulls are ‘super-abundant’. They’re the only native birds – apart from the self-introduced spur-winged plover – that are NOT protected under the Wildlife Act, and for good reason. Aided and abetted by humans, black-backed gull populations have exploded over the last century or so.

I decided my campaign would encourage people not to vote for the black-backed gull, but instead for some of the rarer native birds that it displaces or attacks. To that end, I invented a gull character – Captain Cack the Black-back – from whom all campaigning would ostensibly come.

Next I invited one of my favourite local illustrators – Gavin Mouldey – to join in as co-manager, which he happily did. (He lives in Wellington’s Island Bay and beach life is a major theme in his work.)

Captain Cack’s initial campaign blurb was deemed ‘too controversial’ to go onto the main Seabird of the Year site – although you can see parts of it regurgitated (because that’s what birds do) on the campaign blog and more will be added soon.

Cack also, appropriately, has a Twitter account – which I have to be careful not to post from over-zealously! Today in Cack’s Twitter feed was a lovely announcement about buff weka chicks hatching, along with a photo of the adorable little things.

In my head I heard Cack say, ‘Yum!’ and before I knew it, that was what I/Cack had tweeted in reply.

It was several minutes before I realised that no matter how much in the spirit of humour my tweet was, it could seriously offend the people who posted the chick photo. So I deleted it.

(Actually I was travelling on the Wairarapa train at the time, and just as I thought to delete the tweet, the train went into the second-longest tunnel in New Zealand, and I had to wait many excruciating minutes until I had cellphone coverage again – all the while desperately hoping no one would be offended in the meantime.)

So that was day two of the campaign. There are three weeks in all for us campaign managers to get our messages across and for YOU to vote - you have until 24 November.

But whatever you do – don’t back the black-backs!

The Monterey connection

Sign on the sand dunes at Asimolar, Monterey Peninsula, California

Sign on the sand dunes at Asimolar, Monterey Peninsula, California

Last month I attended a conference at Asimolar on the Monterey Peninsula, south of San Francisco in the United States. It is a place that holds a special interest for New Zealanders as it is the home of two of our most widespread introduced trees: Monterey pine (Pinus radiata, commonly known as radiata pine) and Monterey cypress (Cupressus macrocarpa, commonly known as macrocarpa). Amazingly, both are regarded as endangered species in their home territory.

We visited California at the height of summer, with daytime temperatures in the high 30s (Celsius) in most places. But in a narrow strip close to the coast, from San Francisco south to Monterey, the temperatures are much cooler, often with daytime fog and mist. Summer rainfall is low, but the trees gain enough moisture from fog condensing on the branches and dripping on to the ground. The soils are infertile – mainly sand dunes or solid granite – and the trees look as if they are struggling to survive. The small natural population of Monterey pine and Monterey cypress are a relic of forests that were widespread in the ice ages, but retreated to the cool, foggy Monterey Peninsula as temperatures warmed during the last 10,000 years.

Monterey cypress (macrocarpa) trees covered in lichen in the damp, foggy conditions on Monterey Peninsula

Monterey cypress (macrocarpa) trees covered in lichen in the damp, foggy conditions on Monterey Peninsula

Radiata pine is the basis of the forestry industry in New Zealand – indeed, it is the only plant species apart from kauri to have its own entry in Te Ara. It grows much more vigorously in temperate climates than in its home area, and is the most widely planted pine in the world, with large plantations in Australia, Spain, Kenya and several countries in South America. It was first introduced into New Zealand in the 1850s, and the oldest known tree was planted at Peel Forest in 1859.

One of the few naturally occurring areas of Monterey pine (radiata pine) on sand dunes at Asimolar, Monterey Peninsula

One of the few naturally occurring areas of Monterey pine (radiata pine) on sand dunes at Asimolar, Monterey Peninsula

As New Zealand’s land was developed for farming, there was an urgent search for quick-growing trees that could be used for shelter belts, firewood and timber. The Colonial Botanic Garden (now Wellington Botanic Garden) was established by James Hector in 1868 to evaluate the most suitable trees to introduce into New Zealand, and to provide seeds and plants. Within a decade it had become clear that radiata pine and macrocarpa grew exceptionally well under New Zealand conditions, and many of the older trees in gardens and farms around New Zealand were originally raised and distributed from the Botanic Garden in Wellington.

Plantations of radiata pine were not developed until the 20th century, when it was realised that good-quality timber could be produced if the trees were systematically pruned. Macrocarpa is used in New Zealand mainly for shelter belts and firewood.

Monterey cypress (macrocarpa) trees struggling for existence in cracks in granite in one of the few remaining natural populations at Point Lobos Reserve, Monterey Peninsula. Insert shows a notice warning people not to damage the trees

Monterey cypress (macrocarpa) trees struggling for existence in cracks in granite in one of the few remaining natural populations at Point Lobos Reserve, Monterey Peninsula. Insert shows a notice warning people not to damage the trees

Freshwater invertebrates of Campbell Island revealed

In this guest post aquatic scientist Shelley McMurtrie writes about the results of an expedition to a subantarctic island.

It’s a proud day when a scientist has a discovery named after her (thanks Adrian Pinder!) In the field of invertebrates the chance of finding a new species is certainly greater than, say, working in the field of mammals, but even so, it is a rare privilege and one thing on my bucket list that I didn’t think I would ever tick off.

In my case, my surname (McMurtrie) is being shared with a tiny worm (Macquaridrilus mcmurtrieae) that lives only in the streams and tarns of the remote subantarctic island known as Campbell Island/Motu Ihupuku.

You can meet my namesake – and 35 other individuals – in the first interactive key (and associated information sheets) to the freshwater invertebrates of Campbell Island to ever be published.

Campbell Island is well known for its beautiful display of colourful megaherbs but it is also home to a vast freshwater network that has been poorly studied in the past. Photo © Shelley McMurtrie

Campbell Island is well known for its beautiful display of colourful megaherbs but it is also home to a vast freshwater network that has been poorly studied in the past. Photo © Shelley McMurtrie

Campbell Island/Motu Ihupuku is a special place, with lots of plants and animals unique to the island. It lies 700 kilometres south of New Zealand’s mainland, the most southerly of the five New Zealand subantarctic groups. It was once farmed, but it has been free of introduced animals (such as sheep and rats) since 2001 and has UNESCO World Heritage status for its outstanding natural values. Campbell Island is world famous for its unique and colourful megaherbs, one of the largest colonies of royal albatross, and because it was the focus of the world’s largest (and successful) island rat eradication programme.

I was privileged to visit in 2010, as part of the Campbell Island Bicentennial Expedition – a multi-disciplinary research expedition marking 200 years since the island’s discovery by Europeans. I led a small team of freshwater ecologists whose mission was to unravel the mysteries of the freshwater environs, nutrient subsides (finding out how much the marine environment subsidises the food web of land-based habitats such as streams), and past climatic and environmental changes.

The streams on the island were very different from each other and even varied along their length. In its headwaters Camp Stream is almost an underground stream, carved deep into the peat layers and covered over with vegetation. Photo © Shelley McMurtrie

The streams on the island were very different from each other and even varied along their length. In its headwaters Camp Stream is almost an underground stream, carved deep into the peat layers and covered over with vegetation. Photo © Shelley McMurtrie

It was the most comprehensive aquatic sampling programme to ever take place on the island. We collected aquatic invertebrates, periphyton (algae), microbes (single-cell organisms), samples to test water and sediment quality, and samples to test for stable isotopes (carbon and nitrogen signatures that tell us whether the energy flow in food webs is sourced from marine or terrestrial sources) from 25 streams and 9 tarns. We also sampled 34 tarns for water and sediment quality. The 235 invertebrate samples collected as part of this research programme were used to develop the invertebrate keys.

We discovered that Campbell Island’s streams and tarns are home to a moderately diverse range of freshwater invertebrate species, with the 36 taxa being a big increase from the 16 taxa previously documented from streams on the island. Many of these are  are unique to the island, which is not surprising, considering its isolation and the harsh environment. But what is equally interesting is that the island also plays host to some of the same species that are found on mainland New Zealand – such as the common caddis fly, Oxyethira albiceps.

In its mid to lower reaches Camp Stream is wide and cobble-lined, and runs through a Dracophyllyum ‘dwarf forest’. Photo © Shelley McMurtrie

In its mid to lower reaches Camp Stream is wide and cobble-lined, and runs through a Dracophyllyum ‘dwarf forest’. Photo © Shelley McMurtrie

We also discovered there is a very high diversity of aquatic oligochaetes (worms). We have only had 2% of the oligochaetes identified and already there are 17 different taxa, so there is a great potential for more new species or new records for the island. They do not form part of the identification key yet, as we will need more funding to go through the almost 9,000 oligochaetes we found in the samples before we can properly describe them and unravel the mysteries of this little known group on the island.

All new knowledge of our world, even in far-flung places such as the subantarctics, helps build the bigger picture of life on earth. Understanding threatened ecosystems and the species they contain enables better conservation strategies to be implemented. Campbell Island is worthy of the best level of protection we can provide. And not just because my namesake calls it home.

Sampling the many streams of the island was of great interest to the numerous sea lions on the island. Photo © Shelley McMurtrie

Sampling the many streams of the island was of great interest to the numerous sea lions on the island. Photo © Shelley McMurtrie

We are grateful for the many people that contributed to making this key come together, including 50º South Trust who made the original expedition possible, and the TFBIS (Terrestrial and Freshwater Biodiversity Information System) Fund.

The key can be accessed at http://ciinvertkey.com/.

Alex James (left) and Shelley McMurtrie (right) of EOS Ecology having lunch tucked in out of the strong winds. Sampling the streams relied on good old-fashioned foot power, and packing in all the sampling gear. Photo © Shelley McMurtrie

Alex James (left) and Shelley McMurtrie (right) of EOS Ecology having lunch tucked in out of the strong winds. Sampling the streams relied on good old-fashioned foot power, and packing in all the sampling gear. Photo © Shelley McMurtrie

Shelley McMurtrie, principal scientist at EOS Ecology, Christchurch, specialises in studying New Zealand’s freshwater systems. She was the coordinator for the Campbell Island Bicentennial Expedition and leader of the freshwater research team, which was supported by the 50º South Trust.

The key was published online by EOS Ecology thanks to funding from TFBIS and EOS Ecology.