High hopes in low light

•May 25, 2016 • Leave a Comment

I don’t know about you but I’m pretty confused these days. Spin seems to dominate and logical, empirical decision-making seems to be out of the window. I think it was the same for the clans of the Ikundi Ku that I spent time with during a recent filming trip to Papua New Guinea. Their world is changing fast and their outlook on the options and possibilities hazy at best. Decisions have to be made, they can no longer live as they had. The outside world had crossed into their physical and psychological territory. The young saw opportunity, the elderly saw a balance of the risks and I think, a fear, born of deep pulse of our collective clan histories. A pulse rarely felt by us.

child at camp fire

Reflecting now on what I saw, it seems more and more that it’s the same predicament we’re all facing. Our predicament in the modernised western world is just far less threatening in its immediacy, yet far more expansive in it’s implications for the planet and our future on it. We’re too familiar with overcoming adversity and too complacent of a century of exponential growth in material consumption.

I could rave on at length about the brilliant filming opportunity and the magic of working with only the flickering light of an open fire and a few head torches brought by the small crew I was working with, but I’ll just let the footage do the explaining.

I’ve never been much for filming people but I guess with age comes a broader perspective. Sharing the sense of discovery with the Ikundi Ku as they tried to peer into the future was something that has stayed with me. I was watching the Anthropocene arrive at one of it’s last and first destinations. Sure, humans have been busily making New Guinea home for tens of thousands of years, but within a set of rules written by nature. Their realisation, whether conscious or not, was that somehow what the outside world offers is a way to bend or break those rules. Our modern hubris. Pure spin.

Madagascar and quiet revelation for a Lighting Cameraman

•June 7, 2015 • Leave a Comment

I was trained as a lighting cameraman back in the days of film. That’s right, the first moving images I every captured were onto emulsion film stock. Video did exist (I’m not that old!) but the best images for documentary broadcast were made on super 16mm film, and that’s what I wanted to shoot on. So I bought myself a H16 Bolex, a clockwork camera, and some film.

Bolex H16

Bolex H16 – as old as it looks but perfectly functional.

In an age where even a low end smart phone can shoot higher resolution footage than this trusty old camera you’d be forgiven for thinking that today it must be much easier to become a cinematographer than ever before. And you’d be sort of correct, it certainly is easier now than ever before to capture moving images and to share them, but I contend that the skills learned with expensive film and a camera with a clockwork mechanism that winds down in 20 seconds flat and requires you to wind it up again before shooting can resume teaches the budding cameraperson a great deal about the process of filming. No internal light meter, much less any kind of auto gain or zebras meant that careful consideration of the available light was essential before shooting (Fluffing up was expensive, and I fluffed up a lot!) and very often, such was the poor light sensitivity of film, additional lighting was needed.  This was one of the key skills I learned from veteran lighting cameramen (there were women filming back then, but not many and I never had the pleasure of working with them) and later from legends such as Sean Morris whilst working as the staff cinematographer at Oxford Scientific Films – the skill of lighting. It’s easy to shine a 2000watt HMI light on a subject, but much harder to make it appear like natural light on screen. Playing with shadows and the way light falls of different surfaces, subtle use of gels, flagging multiple lights to create convincing natural light in a deep set built in a studio in Oxford or Bristol but needing to look like a rainforest in Ecuador or monsoon forest in Australia. It’s a craft and I love it.

However, today we have cameras that have 15 stops of dynamic range and sensors so sensitive that dawn and dusk light hold no fear for even the slowest lens. It’s amazing and a gift for cinematographers. I was recently working in Madagascar, and at about 4.30am the local fishermen accumulated on the beach in front of where i was lodging, to carry out their daily ritual of casting nets with the help of small dug-out canoes. On my second morning it suddenly dawned on me – I can film this with natural light! Only 5 years ago, the situation would have been unfilmable without additional lighting. I settled in with camera and support, one zoom lens and a sense of being oh so lucky. Sometimes past limitations can be very inspiring.

Hallowed Isles – trailer 1

•October 15, 2014 • 1 Comment
Bullers Albatross diving near the Chatham Islands.

Bullers Albatross diving near the Chatham Islands.

We live in interesting times. We can still see our inheritance, the rich natural world that spawned us, but as our use and miss-use of this planet grows so does our need to find new ways to live off and with the natural world. The green movement of the past half a century has owned these issues in the eye of the western media at least. But stronger forces underly our behaviours that drive deeper than the any hue of politics or ideology.

Hallowed Isles is a film that attempts to explore those forces.

Together with my good friend and filmmaking partner Luke Padgett, I spent January and some of February this year out on the Chatham Islands filming a series of short films for the Chathams Islands Heritage Restoration Trust. On the back of that project we were able to put together a feature length film. I’ve made plenty of short format films myself but my work on longer format or feature length films has always been restricted to role of cameraman, DOP and the like. Making a whole film yourself of this size was, as I should have realised, quite an undertaking! But the stresses were equalled by the pleasures of crafting our own score, complete control over the script and cinematic look of the whole film. The film is not due for release but for Conservation Week 2014 in New Zealand this year we are allowing a few sneak previews. This is the first trailer:

Velvet Worm – Onychophoran time travellers

•August 24, 2014 • 2 Comments

There are a few certainties in Nature, but one I’m prepared to bet on is that we don’t last, in evolutionary terms, as long as the velvet worm. But they’re no worm either, nor are they insects, they’re not even an arthropod. These tiny beasts have their own phyla, the Onychophora.

Peripatellus sp. from Osborne, NZ. Photo: James Reardon

Peripatellus sp. from Osborne, NZ. Photo: James Reardon

When palaeontologists first saw their ancestral forms preserved in the Cambrian rock of the Burgess Shales they weren’t even sure if they were looking at a whole organism or in what orientation they should describe it. The story is beautifully told by Stephen Jay Gould in his book Wonderful Life, a book published just before I went to University to study zoology and for me, a mind-expanding text. The truth in nature, as in life, is often stranger than fiction. About 530 million years ago the ancestors of modern-day Onychophora silently evolved into existence in what’s known as the Cambrian Explosion. Life had existed on earth for many millennia but never really more organised than algae and protozoa, but DNA is a relentless driver of invention.

A fossil of the animal Hallucigenia. Credit: Photo by Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution.

A fossil of the animal Hallucigenia. Credit: Photo by Chip Clark, Smithsonian Institution.

 

These little velvet worms were there when the first animals crawled or wriggled from the water. They lurked underfoot and in the rotten timbers felled by the huge herds of Saurapod dinosaurs, they drifted into isolation as the Gondwanan supercontinent broke apart. But that was then. In light of  the grand depth of Onychophoran history it is easy to overlook their remarkable nature today. These little chaps are hunters. They stalk the mossy forests dampest corners and hunt within the rotting timbers of the forest floor. They have eyes but use highly sensitive antennae to feel their prey in the darkness. But these are no clumsy predator. When prey is found they rear back, like a snake about to strike, and squirt a glue that ensnares their prey. They wait for the glue to congeal before approaching the now immobile spider, springtail or whatever and biting a hole in it’s cuticle with two sharp  mandibles they inject an enzymatic soup to kill and liquify the internal organs of their prey which they then suck out. There is a lot more to know about these small wonders. If ever there was an animal to inspire the budding naturalist or zoologist, this must be it.

I’m currently working on filming a small sequence of this behaviour for the BBC Natural History Unit. It’s slow progress, they’re keen to keep themselves to the dark side of the log (the peripatus that is, not the BBC…) However I have started to get a few shots of a gorgeous little local species, Ooperipatellus viridimaculatus exploring it’s habitat. Just a few test shots really to get a feel for what sort of light they will tolerate and how they behave under low lighting but a great way to share the tiny majesty of the ancient velvet worm.

 

The Malacostracans gastric mill and other reasons to not dispair.

•July 8, 2014 • 1 Comment
photo: James Reardon

photo: James Reardon

 

The closer you look at nature, the more marvellous and intriguing it becomes. Our species has doubled in my lifetime; there are now more than 7 billion of us, all clutching to, or aspiring to clutch to a smart phone.  Phytoplankton can reach that sort of population figure in a few square meters of well-lit ocean surface. They’re autotrophs, obliged by their biology to absorb soluble carbon dioxide and excrete organic compounds that underpin ‘the life aquatic’ and a great deal more, all via the engine of photosynthesis.  Being more of a zoologist than a botanist, that’s all well and good but where do the animals come into it? Well, feeding on this phytoplankton and the organic matter synthesised by it are the zooplankton. Excepting marine mammals, reptiles and sharks just about every other order of life represented in the oceans will have a few species or life history stages that constitute zooplankton. Some are single cell protozoa and a few are the tiny larvae of future giants but most are copepods, tiny crustaceans. These tiny beasts might seem incredibly vulnerable in the open ocean but it’s all a matter of scale. Most copepods are only 1-2mm (~0.05″) in length and at that size the world behaves quite differently. If you’re that small water is less of a liquid and more of a thick soup.

Copepod, one of the mirriad tiny ocean organisms that make our planet work.

Copepod, one of the mirriad tiny ocean organisms that make our planet work.

Usually with the second set of cephalic appendages (read: legs growing out of head), copepods swim through the marine soup doing all the same things we do (minus the smart phone thing), enjoying their youth, looking for food, finding a mate etc. Because of the very different world they live in their behaviour can appear strange to our eyes. Watching copepods in a small aquarium makes them look more like little rocket ships than tiny crustacea to the anthropocentric eye. They seem to be able to change the trajectory of their travel without need of a turning curve, acceleration and deceleration appear instant. They are also semi transparent, allowing the observer to look at the internal workings of a set of organs pretty much as complex as our own.

Of course larger crustaceans often provide the same opportunity. The New Zealand shore shrimp is much like hundreds of other shrimp species around the globe and uses transparency to aid its camouflage against detection by predators. If you can’t mimic the environment perfectly you might as well let it shine right through you! Shrimps like Palaemon affinus are detritivores, they eat anything organic, usually the dead or the dying that they can find or capture as it floats past. In a dynamic environment like the ocean, food is washing about everywhere and these shrimps manage to make a modest living from the simple act of keeping themselves clean. If transparency is your cloak against predators you’d better stay clean and smart and so these shrimps are permanently attending to their ablutions. And what they collect becomes a tasty treat.

Palaemon affinis, New Zealand shore shrimp, pulping detritus and the primary producers and consumers of the ocean. Photo James Reardon

Palaemon affinis, New Zealand shore shrimp, pulping detritus and the primary producers and consumers of the ocean. Photo James Reardon

Shrimps and other crustaceans don’t have grinding teeth in a mouth as us vertebrates would understand it. Rather they have a section of foregut that is known as the gastric mill. This muscular tube is filled with ossicles or little hard calcified plates that grind against each other and reduce whatever is ingested into a paste ready for digestion. Literally peristalsis with teeth. I wish I had one, then I could enjoy a movie whilst eating without the annoying interuption of the sounds my jaw and teeth make grinding food in my head.

So why bother putting this in a website post? Because sometimes it’s good to re-engage with the spectacular wonder of the microscopic world. No matter what sort of a mess we can make of things, these tiny organisms are going to find a place to survive. Sure, ocean acidification is decimating zooplankton and shrimps will have problems of their own no doubt, but in  general their world continues on as strange and wonderful, even to a zoologist, as life from another universe.

 

 

Chatham Island Snipe

•June 29, 2014 • Leave a Comment

These little birds sum up the word ‘charming’ for me. Whilst filming for a documentary we were commissioned to make earlier this year I had the very good fortune to spend a few days and nights on the remote and precious Mangere Island, a small island off the east coast of Pitt Island, which itself is rather small and to the south of the Chatham Archipelago. These islands, free of the introduced predators that have decimated the fauna and flora of the New Zealand mainland are gems to be cherished. Most folk with the good luck to access these islands are most interested in the black robins and it’s easy to understand why. During the 1970s and 80s black robins were recovered from the brink of extinction, indeed, they were down to one female, known to conservation biologists as ‘Old Blue’ thanks to her colour band. I too was delighted to finally see the descendants of the fabled Old Blue but the unexpected joy for me were the snipe.

The Chatham Island snipe Coenocorypha pusilla, at home in the forest of Mangere Island. Photo: James Reardon

The Chatham Island snipe Coenocorypha pusilla, at home in the forest of Mangere Island. Photo: James Reardon

I think it was their shyness and the delicate way that they picked through the leaf litter in search of invertebrates that captured me. There is always something magical about watching shy and reclusive animals go about their business and I had the good fortune (after a fair bit of effort it should be said) to enjoy such viewing.

This was also the first proper test of the Black Magic Cinema Camera as a field unit for wildlife camerawork and as far as I’m concerned, I think it did a damn good job. The snipe is a tiny element in the finished film on the Chatham Islands but I think it deserves it’s own slot so here is a little sequence re-edited just for the snipe. There are a few other rare and endemic species thrown in just for the real bird nerds out there, enjoy:

The Rainbow Warrior – new life at rest

•May 25, 2014 • 3 Comments

I was a spotty 12 year old when the French Government bombed the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbour as it was on it’s way to the site of French nuclear testing in the Pacific. Nearly thirty years on we might have left behind the threat of mutually assured destruction agreed between NATO and the Warsaw Pact but the world feels decidedly closer to calamity, even from my relatively safe vantage point in the quietest corner of New Zealand.

Rainbow Warrior at rest. View ofd the stern. Photo: James Reardon

Rainbow Warrior at rest. View of the stern. Photo: James Reardon

As a spotty 12 year old I remember going to visit a publicity caravan of Greenpeace in the town of Pontypool in a school lunch hour. I don’t remember if they were there because of the bombing but either way I remember making a small (tiny) donation and getting a little enamel rainbow peace dove badge for my generosity. The badge is long lost but the sense that I had somehow taken a position on an issue that was larger than the world I lived in has stayed with me.  Lives were lost in the French terror attack on the ship and I’d like to think that I’m not alone in being awoken from a complacent belief that authority and governments ‘know best’. Some small return on the ultimate sacrifice. Governments aren’t evil, indeed I make much of my living from being a minion within the civil service but they do act on their own interests as much as those of the electorate. Its a perversion of the democratic process that can only be tempered by the reaction of the voting public. Today it seems, we go where apathy, the media and marketing takes us. That is, until impassioned people with determination make a stand for the values and ethics they hold dear.

Bigeyes and snapper in the hull of the Rainbow Warrior. Photo: James Reardon

Bigeyes and snapper in the hull of the Rainbow Warrior. Photo: James Reardon

Today the ship is much more than a rusting wreck. It harbours some wonderful marine life and makes a superb wreck dive. The area known as the Bay of Islands in northern New Zealand suffers a fair bit of recreational fishing pressure so any voluntary no take area such as this wreck soon fill with fish.

Today shoals of bigeye (Pempheris adspersa) fill the cavernous hull with snapper (Pagrus auratus) seeking refuge. Shoals of blue maomao (Scorpis violacea) and New Zealand demoiselle (Chromis dispilus) cruise the sheltered waters around the wreck. Smooth leatherjackets (Meuschenia scaber) hang in the kelp and crop the hard corals, polyps and tubeworms that encrust the hull, whilst Eastern red scorpion fish or grandfather hapuku (Scorpaena cardinalis) stalk the seafloor beneath.

Smooth leatherjacket lurks in kelp. Photo: James Reardon

Smooth leatherjacket lurks in kelp growing on the Rainbow Warrior. Photo: James Reardon

I don’t think that as a twelve year old a hemisphere away I could imagine that I’d be enjoying the wonderful life I do, having the privilege to dive the wreck of the Rainbow Warrior decades later, make my living as a conservation biologist and filmmaker, have a wonderful little family and a home on the edge of the most dramatic National Park I know of. A life of possibilities stolen from Fernando Pereira, the Greenpeace photographer killed in the bombing of the protest vessel. Squeezing the most out of life isn’t easy, but to do anything else is an irresponsible waste and an affront to those without the privilege.  It won’t be long, however, before this ship will disintegrate into the ocean floor. Already the sheet metal of the hull is rusted and thin, a good storm would tear most of it off. But as it is, it makes a wonderful diving experience and fantastic photographic opportunity. I hope Fernando would have approved.

 

Chatham Island Albatross – New Beginnings

•January 29, 2014 • Leave a Comment

Lots of species are threatened with extinction around the globe, those found only in one small area, usually referred to as ‘point endemics’ are especially vulnerable – one chance event or disaster doesn’t just cause a fluctuation in a single population, it can threaten the existence of an entire species. So it is with the Chatham Albatross (Thalassarche eremita), also known as the Chatham Mollymawk.

Chatham albatross chick (Thalassarche eremita) photo: James Reardon
Chatham albatross chick (Thalassarche eremita) photo: James Reardon

With this concern in mind the Taiko Trust (taiko.org.nz) who have already secured the future of another critically endangered species, the magenta petrel, have set out on a bold venture to establish a second colony of these oceanic wanderers. The logistical challenge, technical demands and sheer nerve required to pull off such an operation in a remote environment like the Chathams deserves recognition. Look them up on facebook and lend some support after you’ve had a look at the work involved:

Edge of the World – Chatham Islands

•January 21, 2014 • Leave a Comment

It a commonly used phrase when out of your own culture and environment, to tell the folks back home that you feel like you’re as far away as it’s possible to get. So it’s with surprise and excitement that I find such a feeling whilst still being only a few hours flight from my home on the shores of lake Te Anau, NZ. I’m on the Chatham Islands,  a mere 800km east of New Zealand. This little archipelago of islands nestled deep in the South Pacific was one of the last places on the planet to be reached in our species radiation. It remains home not only to a fascinating human history to which the contemporary inhabitants are still inextricably linked but also to species found nowhere else and a fragile island ecology requiring our care to persist. The species here rely on isolation from threat for their very existence. Albatross are a perfect example of this. Why do they only nest on remote islands nestled in the roaring forties or furious fifties? Because on land they are hopelessly vulnerable to the predators that are common on all continents and also because without a stiff breeze these birds struggle to get into the air. Stiff breezes are no rare thing down here.

These islands are amongst the most important bird islands in the Southern Hemisphere. Photo: James Reardon

These islands are amongst the most important bird islands in the Southern Hemisphere. Photo: James Reardon

But that’s only part of the story, the tiny islands surrounding the Chathams and Pitt Island are the scene of some remarkable conservation stories, the black robin the most notorious, but several others equally fascinating. Is it impossible to recover a species that has declined to a single female? Pioneering conservationists and the black robin itself say no.

Pitt Islands only current albatross, a Northern Royal patiently awaiting it's mate. Photo: James Reardon

Pitt Islands only current albatross, a Northern Royal patiently awaiting it’s mate. Photo: James Reardon

The community on these islands know the value of their home, both as a rich and diverse playground, as a larder and as a farm. The desire to see wildlife prosper along-side their farming and fishing enterprises is an inspiration. I’m privileged to be here making a film on this community and the way it relates to that environment and it’s history. It’s not without its challenges but the hard won rewards are more than worth it. Here’s a tiny clip to give you a wee taste of the conditions.

Abi Yanga – meeting a dinosaur

•November 24, 2013 • Leave a Comment

I’m finally over the inevitable snowdrift of emails any trip away guarantees and starting to find a few moments to work with the stills and film captured in PNG during October. Being a herpetologist I usually go straight to the frog, snake and lizard images, diving into Lightroom and the literature but this time I went straight for something a little different. My love-affair with herpetology stems in a large part to my childhood obsession with dinosaurs. As any evolutionary biologist will tell you, we still coexist with dinosaurs, but not the lizards that my childhood mind made the logical connection to, but birds. The problem is, birds are generally small flitty things that fly and are delicate. That’s not very dinosaurish really. For the most part, that’s true but there are exceptions and for me the best extant example is the cassowary. Not only do they live in the deepest rainforest, but they are big, gloriously menacing at close quarters and simply exquisite.

Head thrown forward and apparently every air-sac in it's body inflated the dwarf cassowary calls. Photo: James Reardon

Head thrown forward and apparently every air-sac in it’s body inflated the dwarf cassowary calls. Photo: James Reardon

No encounter with wildlife is without some effect on most of us, but having the opportunity to meet animals that are both shy, elusive, and a little bit dangerous, on their own terms is a special privilege indeed.

The dwarf cassowary (Casuarius bennetti) of New Guinea is a near threatened species of large ratite, so the same family as the ostrich of Africa, rhea of South America, emu of Australia and little kiwi of New Zealand. Standing at a little over a meter at the shoulder these are birds that genuinely look you in the eye, and whilst they are a widely hunted species across New Guinea, their powerful legs equipped with a long defensive claw means they’re quite able to defend themselves from potential predators, meaning man.  Just look at them: they’re dinosaur feet.

Dinosaur feet looked just like this, it's as simple as that. Photo: James Reardon

Dinosaur feet looked just like this, it’s as simple as that. Photo: James Reardon

Meeting one is, as I keep saying,  like meeting a small dinosaur and an experience that will stay with me. They’re also critical to forest health performing a function that no other species can achieve. Without cassowary, the forests of New Guinea would not be as they are. I hope you enjoy this little sequence of footage, which will eventually become part of a larger project for the Wildlife Conservation Society and the people of Ikundi in PNG.

Support the (extremely challenging) conservation efforts to secure the future for cassowary and other threatened species in PNG at: http://www.wcs.org/where-we-work/asia/papua-new-guinea.aspx

Progress for Protestors

•November 23, 2013 • Leave a Comment

At last, a reasonable decision by the Russian judiciary. Phil and most of his fellow Greenpeace activists have been granted bail. They will still be restricted in their movements and don’t have their passports but the whole situation has moved to a far more reasonable state. The Arctic 30 still face their hooliganism charges but the profile of their situation and the facts of the matter make clear that they are of no risk or threat to anybody, thank goodness. No doubt Phil will now enjoy a decent skype catch-up with his little family, and a beer with his colleagues. Hooray.

Phil Ball, emerging from prison, now, rightfully on bail. photo: Greenpeace

Phil Ball, emerging from prison, now rightfully on bail. photo: Greenpeace

Thank you if you took the time to contact your local MP to raise the matter, or if you signed the Greenpeace petition.  It makes a difference to make your views known.

 

Papua New Guinea – a post too far

•October 4, 2013 • Leave a Comment

I’m currently working in PNG, assembling the equipment and supplies for a few weeks in a fairly remote area with my Wildife Conservation Society colleagues. I’ve tried uploading a few pictures but the Goroka internet bandwidth is still a bit skinny. So there might be a bit of a quiet few weeks on the site before I’m able to give an update. Hopefully I’ll have a few tales to tell..

PNG - wildife and humanity at it's richest, photo James Reardon

PNG – wildife and humanity at it’s richest, photo James Reardon

This is Why

•September 29, 2013 • Leave a Comment

Basically it’s a game, but a game with significant consequences. International Law, pitched against Russian Federation Law, pitched against the ability of the media to promulgate a sense of responsibility and reaction in the masses in response to the reporting on actions such as those of the Arctic Sunrise, against the overwhelming media noise of shock and outrage at the latest military action, social injustice, sickening crime or lotto win. Species go extinct on a daily basis and the Arctic Ice and glacial retreat tell us significant forces are in motion on planet earth. Whilst governments the world over keep their focus firmly fixed on economic growth and GDP at the exclusion of all other factors influencing current and future well-being for ourselves and those we share the planet with, we spin ever closer to a dark future.  We are now seven billion humans trying to survive and persist on this small planet and change is coming whether we like it or not.  It won’t be an apocalypse, it will be the slow but steady accumulation of social and environmental impacts and economic stressors we are already seeing.

A cuttlefish watching me watching him. Photo James Reardon

A cuttlefish watching me watching him. Photo James Reardon

 

 

Battle for the Arctic

•September 28, 2013 • Leave a Comment

We all sit at our computers reading the latest information on the state of the world and to some degree feeling despair. The only way we’re going change the status quo is through action. It’s my privilege to be a close friend of one Phil Ball, who is most certainly a man of action for the future of our planet. Phil was among the crew of the Arctic Sunrise, a vessel of the organisation Greenpeace that has recently been attempting to draw attention to the expansion of drilling for oil into highly sensitive Arctic waters. It would seem that the evidence for climate change is little hindrance to economic ‘progress’.

Phil and the rest of the Arctic Sunrise crew now find themselves in Murmansk being held on a possible charge of piracy. Such a charge is entirely without justification when considering the peaceful protest protocols of organisations such as Greenpeace, and when it comes to my friend Phil, hardly could there be a man less inclined to violence or theft, both surely the essential foundations of any charge of piracy.

If you have the time and inclination to read this then you have the time to go to http://www.greenpeace.org/freeouractivists and lodge your concerns with the local Russian Foreign Representative.

Phil Ball Greenpeace, held in Murmansk

Phil Ball Greenpeace, held in Murmansk

Phil is a kind and gentle family man and I’d like to see him back with his partner and children as soon as possible. Thanks for your help.

Teeth of the Taniwha

•August 26, 2013 • 2 Comments

The state of biodiversity today means that you can easily loose a species before you really know anything about it. That might have been true of a majestic skink, Niho Taniwha or the chevron skink (Oligosoma homalonotum). This skink was discovered at the turn of the 20th centry but then vanished into the mists of Great Barrier Island, the only place it was known from, for most of the rest of the century. Only in 1991 was it rediscovered by some diligent herpetologists. Not long after it’s range was extended to both Hauturu/Little Barrier and Great Barrier Island but sighting of these skinks were few and very far between. Were they extremely rare or just secretive and elusive in their behaviour? It turns out the truth is probably both. Very few people have observed these skinks in the wild much less got a proper feel for their ecology save their preference for very wet habitats. But one thing seems certain, these threatened skinks are seriously impacted by the introduced predatory mammals: rats and cats. Cats and rats have now been eradicated from their habitat on hugely significant Hauturu and so their future is looking a little rosier. What a simple and rewarding measure to protect the natural treasures of New Zeland.

The priority now is to extend such management to the skinks home on Great Barrier Island. Whilst we have no evidence of these skinks occuring on the mainland it seems very likly they once did. What a future to imagine, when these regal skinks can cruise quietly through the lush vegeation of gardens and reserves back on mainland New Zealand.

Predator Free New Zealand – step 1.

•August 20, 2013 • Leave a Comment

The Fiordland National Park is a vast wilderness covering 1.3 million hectares. It is also the most extensive tract of wilderness in New Zealand. From afar it looks to be the magnificent and stunning landscape that it is, a landscape that draws hundreds of thousands of tourists and visitors to New Zealand every year. Ask any random sample of visitors or trampers to the park why is this place special or why they are here and you’ll get a common answer: It’s remote, untouched and wild. No roads criss-cross it’s valleys, no gondolas ferry the masses to it’s peaks, As a result, getting into Fiordland is a true wilderness experience, a place where you can feel like the human you evolved to be and not just another consumer of the values and trinkets western society and the advertising moguls would like you to be.

Waking up here, in the Devil's Armchair, Llawrenny's, Northern Fiordland is an experience that reminds one of the true scale of life and existence. Photo James Reardon

Waking up here, in the Devil’s Armchair, Llawrennys, Northern Fiordland is an experience that reminds one of the true scale of life and existence. Photo James Reardon

But all is not well in this magnificent wilderness. Pest species brought to New Zealand by European settlers, the mouse, rat, stoat and possum are all resident throughout this wilderness and all are slowly eroding the robustness of our native and threatened species and the assemblies of our forests. Eating seedlings, chicks in nests, adult birds nesting, the forest geckos in the trees, weta in the leaflitter, these pests are slowly but surely devouring the very essence of the Fiordland wilderness.  The beech trees will remain, but the rich web of life that has evolved in this stunning place over millenia will be largely gone in my lifetime. The remarkable fact is that when my great grandfather was my age, pests were first entering these ecosystems and the flora and fauna was largely in-tact except for the species already lost to the impacts of Polynesian settlers and the Pacific rat (kiore) and the dogs they brought with them.

The convention obliges New Zealand's government to take responsibility for the erosion and loss of both species and ecosystem processes

The convention obliges New Zealand’s government to take responsibility for the erosion and loss of both species and ecosystem processes

So what must be done? New Zealand is a signatory to the Convention of Biological Diversity which states that the government takes responsibility for halting the loss of species and ecosystems.  We need to use the most effective, strategic, cost-effective and sustainable means to first recover and then protect our natural heritage. In some places where access is easy and their is a populous and willing volunteer labour source we might make some gains with trapping of predators such as stoats and even possum. On islands we can often eradicate pest species all together and then work to maintain those places as pest free through biosecurity. There is now a startling new initiative called ‘Predator Free New Zealand’ http://predatorfreenz.org/ which suggests it will work towards the eradication of rats, mice, stoats, ferrets, weasels, ferel cats and possum from New Zealand! What a wonderful vision. However, to advance towards that vision surely we need to at least prove we can sustainably manage large areas of our wilderness, and indeed, if we don’t, by the time we have the skills, tools (and vitally) the hundreds of millions of dollars to achieve such a programme of work, there will be next to nothing left to conserve on mainland New Zealand. A conservation FACT is that it is infinitly easier and cheaper to maintain a species or ecosystem through management than it is to rebuild and reconstitute it through planting and translocating founder populations back into an area. We must act now to halt the collapse as the losses and declines are not historic, they are contemporary and on-going. Ever heard of the Chesterfield skink? Not many have but this little west coast skink is probably going to go extinct before we even understand it’s ecology.  It’s time for action and it’s time to wrap our brains around the facts and examples of where extensive pest management is working to protect and conserve large and robust remnants of our wildlife.

Make yourself a nice coffee or crack open a fine ale and settle in to listen to Dr. Graeme Elliott:

 

Custodian of the Highcountry

•August 10, 2013 • 1 Comment

We all care about something. In today’s world what you care about is often assumed to define the parameters of your existence and expanding those parameters is the only option for a better future. Taking responsibility and becoming a custodian for the values and elements of life that seem precious is the ultimate expression of those cares.

Adult kea, Nestor notabilis, Muchison Mountains, Fiordland, photo James Reardon

Adult kea, Nestor notabilis, Muchison Mountains, Fiordland, photo James Reardon

Kea are remarkable. We use the term ‘remarkable’ all too easily but here for once is a bird that definitely deserves that description. Kea are undoubtedly one of our most engaging and endearing birds, if also occasionally a little troublesome. They are exceptionally social and intelligent, and don’t hesitate to first explore and then exploit any new food resource. Rather like us I suppose. Unfortunately the kea’s ability to identify new food sources lead it to discover the fat around the kidneys of sheep.  Whether kea ever made any significant inroads into the profitability of highcountry farming in New Zealand is matter of debate but it did result in these birds being legally persecuted for decades, only receiving legal protection in 1983. By that time an estimated 150,000 birds had been killed for the reward available.  Today kea number probably less than 5,000 birds and what little data we have suggests they are collapsing in numbers. The cause is no longer the price on their heads but the impacts of introduced predators, kea, after all, nest on the ground where the chicks and females are easy prey for rats,  stoats and cats. But fortunately for kea they have strong support in the form of the Kea Conservation Trust. This trust is championing the recovery and conservation management of these remarkable birds.

The folks that work for and with the trust are the custodians of these birds and the habitats they represent. In an attempt to share that passion and give an insight into what drives us to these passions I’ve put a little mini-documentary together kindly featuring my good friend and colleague Paul Van Klink: https://vimeo.com/71959240

 

The kea bait trial team, myself, Paul Van Klink and  Tom Belton, July 2013

The kea bait trial team, myself, Paul Van Klink and Tom Belton, July 2013

Together with Paul and Tom Belton of the Department of Conservation and colleagues in Christchurch led by Michelle Crowell we are currently working on a bait repellent strategy as unfortunately kea suffer some non-target deaths during 1080 toxin operations that we conduct to control stoats and possum at a landscape scale. Following these pest control operations their survival and fledgling success rates are significantly elevated but due to their current small population size and on-going declines from introduced predators we need to work hard to avoid any unnecessary deaths.  We’ve been working on a primary and secondary bait repellent with the aim of achieving learned taste aversion in the kea but of course there is a complication. Whilst it’s easy to include additives that repel kea in baits, those additives also risk repelling the very pests we are aiming to control through poisoning. It’s not a great situation but the responsibility rests with us to ensure these birds survive the Anthropocene and currently it takes toxins to ensure that. Early results are now accumulating and they look pretty mixed. Nobody said conservation biology was easy.

Kea, Nestor notabilis. Monarch of the highcountry  and much in need of help. Photo James Reardon

Kea, Nestor notabilis. Monarch of the highcountry and much in need of help. Photo James Reardon

If you want to learn more or get involved with the conservation of these characters head over to the http://www.keaconservation.co.nz/

You have 1 minute to live

•August 9, 2013 • Leave a Comment

What would you do for that minute? Tough question, and interesting to consider that the shorter the length of time and the length of time you have to consider your options the harder that decision is. The overwhelming data quantitatively informs us that the exponential growth of the human population on our lovely little planet is pushing us to a point where decisions need to be made quickly. If we do manage to make the right decisions (and frankly i doubt we have the collective intelligence) then we’ll look back on individuals like David Suzuki and wonder why we didn’t act sooner.

http://interactive.nfb.ca/#/testtube

The New Zealand long-finned eel  (Anguilla dieffenbachii)  is yet another litmus to these facts. This magnificent species of eel supported Maori culture for hundreds of years and flourished in the waters of New Zealand for millennia. However, over the last century they’ve collapsed in numbers and a quick look at their biology tells us exactly why.

Long-finned eels (Anguilla dieffenbachii)  , are endemic to New Zealand, take a long look, they might be gone soon.

Long-finned eels (Anguilla dieffenbachii) , are endemic to New Zealand, take a long look, they might be gone soon.

These eels live a long time, as long as us. But unlike us, they live a long life in the freshwater systems of New Zealand before females are ready to breed, sometimes as much as 60 years. And finally when the urge takes them they head down stream and then begin a final oceanic journey to the warm waters of the tropical Pacific where they spawn, probably somewhere near Samoa. So every eel caught for food from the freshwater rivers and lakes of New Zealand is an eel that hasn’t bred. Take enough of them and the populations stop replacing themselves.  It’s now a challenge to find an adult eel over large areas of the North Island. Once again, we’ve over-harvested. Why? Well ignorance and naivety used to be our excuse but that doesn’t wash these days. Now it’s because of greed, economic ‘value’ and a bone-headed sense of ‘rights’ some myopic individuals cling to. We should all be able to enjoy the sight of eels in our rivers and the taste of them on our bbqs, but to have those things we need to limit our consumption or better still, limit ourselves.

Meeting some long-finned eels in a sanctuary in the North Island, a rare sight.

Meeting some long-finned eels in a sanctuary in the North Island, a rare sight.

Sinbad Gully, why it’s worth conserving

•July 16, 2013 • 1 Comment

Rare and threatened species are often a challenge to take care of but when they’re only known from a single location (so known as a point endemic), and when that site happens to be high up on a rock wall in an alpine mountain range then the job gets significantly harder.

The Sinbad Gully, lying west of Milford Sound may be naturally protected form invasive pest species because of the sheer alpine terrain that surrounds it. Photo James Reardon

The Sinbad Gully, lying west of Milford Sound may be naturally protected form invasive pest species because of the sheer alpine terrain that surrounds it. Photo James Reardon

Fortunately managing the threatened species and ecosystem processes of the Sinbad Gully, which stretches off to the west from the popular tourist site at Milford Sound is a job that now has support form the local community and business such as Southern Discoveries and the Fiordland Conservation Trust.

Despite this support the skinks are still in serious need of our help. Access to the site is expensive and requires helicopter time if we’re needing to take in supplies. Once in the alpine cirque, the issues that challenge conservation of the skinks are by no means easily solved. Whilst we now have some effective tools for the landscape scale management of rats, stoats and possum in lowland forest systems we are only just beginning to understand the pest dynamics that drive the threats to our unique alpine species and ecology. The biggest challenge being that we are starting to realize that the humble mouse, introduced to New Zealand by Europeans, may be the biggest driver of pest impacts above the bush-line and so far, we have no sustainable methods to control their populations in low altitude easily managed sites much less these high alpine environments.  I’ve tried to summarise some of these issues (and got a bit tongue tied in the process) and illustrate the beauty and grandeur of the habitat.

This is a huge challenge for conservationists in New Zealand, but a vital issue for us to tackle to manage these unique and precious places and species. To learn more or help support us follow these links:

SouthernDiscoveries.co.nz
FiordlandConservationTrust.org.nz
DOC.govt.nz

The time for action is now

•June 11, 2013 • 1 Comment

I’m employed by Government for most of the conservation work I do. Being employed in a large organisation requires quite a bit of adjustment and I can still clearly remember my first few weeks in the organisation back in 2004. What I remember is form filling, reading operating procedures for driving government vehicles and adjusting to the tenor of the tea-room discussions. I was lucky, the job I was employed to do had a clear and quantifiable conservation outcome, two species of critically endangered lizards would either recover or go extinct.

Otago skinks, once on the brink of extinction, are now recovering within intensively managed habitat.

Otago skinks, once on the brink of extinction, are now recovering within intensively managed habitat. Photo James T. Reardon

Nine years later and I now find myself getting sucked deeper and deeper into the strategic and organisational concerns of an organisation with the enormous responsibility of conserving and protecting the natural heritage of this small part of the Earth. Such organisations are increasingly under pressure from governments, governments that are increasingly driven by perceptions of the wealth and success their nation should strive for. These rather esoteric goals are the perfect camouflage for inaction and poor excuses for irreversible loss that the natural world is suffering under our stewardship. I don’t think I’ve seen this point made quiet as well as it has been by my fellow Welshman, Iolo Williams:

Iolo Williams and the State of Nature

If you are a conservationist and you feel like you’re fighting a permanent battle to remain relevant and effective, Iolo’s words should give heart.

The Emperors new DOC uniform

•April 1, 2013 • 1 Comment

Satire, the closer to the truth, the better it gets:

http://www.radionz.co.nz/national/programmes/sunday/audio/2550658/down-the-list-for-31-march-2013

Kakapo ashtray anybody...?

Kakapo ashtray anybody…?

One kokako doesn’t make a summer

•March 17, 2013 • Leave a Comment

In the world of applied conservation even the successes can be failures. Almost a decade ago the New Zealand government committed to eradicating pests (stoats and red deer) of Secretary and Resolution Islands, two huge in-shore islands, nearly 30,000ha of remote and mostly extreme forested terrain.

Secretary Island

The steep forest slopes of Secretary Island, Fiodland National Park. photo: James T. Reardon)

This grand effort to rid these islands of their invasive pest species was not made on a whim (although the political back-story makes interesting telling); conservationists saw the potential of these islands to hold robust and ecologically meaningful populations of species now extinct on the mainland. Those conservationists weren’t just the late 20th century types either. Back in the 19th century Mr. Richard Henry, an Irishman, via Australia, saw both the wonder and beauty of New Zealands strange endemic biota and also the potential roles that the large islands like Resolution might play in cheating their extinction. Henry had witnessed the release of mustelids into NZ at the behest of the pastoral lobby to control rabbits, and within a decade of the event had observed the steady eradication of species such as kakapo and whio (blue duck) as the introduced predators swept across the mainland. Diligently, he set about translocating kiwi and kakapo onto Resolution Island in the belief that the introduced predators sweeping the mainland would be held at bay by the ocean current. Sadly, in the early 1900s stoats arrived on Resolution Island and Henry called it quits. One can only imagine the depression such a realisation would bring after many years of remote hardship apparently all for nothing.

Richard Henry outside his boatshed, Pigeon Island, Dusky Sound, Fiordland, March 1900

Richard Henry outside his boatshed, Pigeon Island, Dusky Sound, Fiordland, March 1900. image: Te Papa

Over 100 years later and the eradications are well under way, but the same cause of Henry’s abandonment, the stoats ability to swim amazing distances in rough cold oceans, still plagues progress. Despite extensive trapping that is serviced 4 times a year, new immigrant stoats still arrive. Sometimes there may be a lull, sometimes a spike, but rarely a year goes by that individuals to dozens of stoats are not being removed from the island.

With such small numbers of stoats left on the islands it’s easy to see why conservationists want to start releasing threatened species as even the most sensitive could possibly recover if predation is kept to a minimum and only a small handful of predators roam the vast islands. So it was that in 2008 and 2009 that kokako, 26 in all were released onto Secretary Island. It was the first wave of species reintroductions and special in itself as North Island kokako, which were to be used for the release were ecological surrogates for the now extinct South Island kokako. Whilst sightings were not common, in early 2011 what we all hoped was a sure sign of success, the first Secretary Island fledged bird was observed. Wattles still a glorious mauve, the bird came to our recorded calls and hopped around us for over half an hour.

kokako juvenile, Secretary Island (photo: James T. Reardon)

The first and only known kokako to be fledged on Secretary in recent times (photo: James T. Reardon)

We were ecstatic. My partner especially as she had fund-raised and managed the complex politics and logistics of getting these birds from their North Island forest homes, safely down to Fiordland. That very afternoon it was resolved: we needed to thoroughly survey the whole island to understand the full extent of successful establishment before supplementing the population with a further translocation to ensure a genetically robust founder population.

Juvenile kokako  (Callaeas cinereus) inspects the conservationists (photo: James T. Reardon)

Juvenile kokako (Callaeas cinereus) inspects the conservationists. photo: James T. Reardon

Fast-forward to March 2013 and the survey is underway, with 8 kokako experts and tough conservationists ready to spend a week with gps and call recorders scouring the islands suitable habitat to take a census of the kokako. The weather, in a very un-Fiordland like manner turned to clear blue skies and virtually no wind for the whole week. The on-going deer and stoat eradication gave the team amazing access to helicopter and boat transport. Perfect except that in a long week of searching absolutely no sign of kokako was recorded. Not a single note heard. As if that was bad enough, South Island robin, released onto the island the same year (2008) were nowhere to be seen either. The team also noticed that the introduced blackbird was significantly less abundant than in previous yrs. A look at the data when back in the office confirms this. The robins are as much of a mystery as the kokako. For 2-3 years they seemed to be doing well, spreading across the island and breeding. Other bird species seem to be on the mend, bell bird and weka numbers have certainly recovered post 2006.

This is bad news. Conservation dollars are very hard to come by, we don’t waste them. To not waste the time, money and effort expended to put kokako on Secretary Island we need to understand why it failed. The habitat seems good, and was proven good enough for a least one pair to raise a chick to fledging. Predator numbers are extremely low but there are in addition to stoats, both falcon and weka on the island. But in their North island strongholds kokako recover in the presence of both falcon and stoats probably at higher abundances than on Secretary. Secretary island is free of rodents and possum, so could it be some strange predator-prey relationship? But then it’s hard to imagine that stoats would kill more than the incubating females and maybe naive fledglings. Weka surely couldn’t eradicate a bird with limited but perfectly functional abilities of flight? What about climate? Well whilst these islands are hundreds of kilometers south of their original home, the climate of these islands is ameliorated by the oceans that surround them. Disease? This is certainly a possibility. During their translocation health screening detected haemogregarine parasites that were previously unknown to science. These hypotheses need data and those data aren’t cheap. But conservation is a science, all be it a very practical science where many of the best practitioners are pragmatists and ‘get it done’ types.

Before we charge into fund-raising to answer these questions there is one other species to check up on. Rock wren, New Zealand’s only true alpine bird and a member of the once numerous (and largely flightless) Xenicus genera that are basal to all modern passerines. This species is vulnerable to nest predation by both rodents and stoats and in an effort to offer them some security a founder population was released onto Secretary Island in 2009-2010. We know they bred initially but what of their fate three yrs on. Time to go and check.

female rock wren, Xenicus gilviventris, New Zealands only true alpine bird and vulnerable to the ravages of both stoats and rodents (including mice) in it's remote alpine home. (photo: James T. Reardon)

Female rock wren, Xenicus gilviventris, New Zealands only true alpine bird and vulnerable to the ravages of both stoats and rodents (including mice) in it’s remote alpine home. photo: James T. Reardon

Albatross and Adams Island

•November 21, 2012 • Leave a Comment

The team have just arrived back in Bluff Harbour but before disembarking Alison Ballance has posted another update from the trip and will no doubt post more once the information gathered has been given more consideration:

Awesome, amazing, and any other amount of A words describe our trip to the southern end of the Auckland islands. After we had completed our morning penguin count on Ewing Island it was a three hour-or-so journey down the east coast of Auckland Island to Carnley Harbour. Then Jo Hiscock and I parted ways with the rest of the team, heading up to the top of Adams Island for a spot of wandering albatross work, while the others remained on yellow-eyed penguin duty, heading out along the north coast of Adams Island to sort out their penguin watching spots for the following morning.

Adams Island is a remarkable place. It’s the largest pristine island in New Zealand – even though sheep were farmed for a while, no other introduced mammals ever arrived there. Kath Walker and Graeme Elliott have been carrying out a long-term study of the Gibson’s wandering albatrosses, which breed only on Adams Island, since 1991, as well as researching another sub-species, the Antipodes wandering albatross, which is found only on the Antipodes Island. Their field season in the subantarctic is January-February, at the beginning of the breeding season when birds are laying eggs and chicks are starting to hatch. Kath and Graeme need to put leg bands on the young albatrosses before they fledge and leave the colony so they can identify them when they return after a few years at sea – but by the the time Kath and Graeme return the following year many of the chicks will have already flown. So, they enlist the help of passing DoC staff such as Jo to band the chicks once they have reached adult size, and since the job takes two people I was keen to volunteer.

The study began because there were concerns that the albatrosses were being caught as by-catch in the longline fishing industry, and it was important to establish the size of the population and the breeding success. In the early 1990s the annual breeding success was 67%, but in the last few years it has dropped to a worrying 40%, and Kath and Graeme report that a concerning number of adults are also failing to return.

The evening we arrived in the study area Jo and I headed out to make the most of the long summer evening, as we had nearly a hundred nests to check. I was clad in head-to-toe yellow PVC (very attractive) as I had been warned that the young albatrosses were highly likely to regurgitate a fishy oily slurry over me (their only means of self-defence), and I wore light leather gloves as protection against their large sharp bills, which they clack fiercely when anyone approaches.

It was an incredible opportunity to get close to one of the largest birds in the world, with a wing span of 3-metres. The chicks were already as big as their parents, and although they had grown most of their adult feathers they were still covered in varying amounts of the lightest powder-puff white down. The banding procedure is quick and simple – my job was to hold the bird, which is so large that I could only just fit my arms around, with one hand holding its bill firmly, and my other arm keeping its long wings tucked in. Jo had two leg bands to put on – the usual metal numbered DoC bird band, and a plastic band with large letters and numbers that Kath and Graeme would be able to read at a distance using binoculars. Jo quickly had both bands on, and then an indignant albatross was released with a volley of bill clapping and grumpy calls. Not every nest had a chick greeting us – many were sad and empty, and a handful still had the bones and feathers of recently dead chicks.


White-capped albatrosses breed on the cliffs at South-west Cape on Auckland Island. Photo: Alison Ballance

As the evening light began to fail we retired for the night to the small bivvy and the following morning Jo and I carried on nest checking and chick banding while the the penguin counting contingent assumed position along the island’s northern shore. We worked in the albatross colony into the afternoon by which time the penguin team were off on their own albatross adventure at South-west Cape, visiting a colony of white-capped albatrosses (a kind of shy albatross) nesting on ledges on the cliffs. These smaller mollymawks are just starting to breed at the moment, so when we made it back to Evohe just on dark, after a cold wet walk back over the island, we were greeted with x-rated reports of goings-on on the cliffs as well as excited reports about adventures trying to find several of the historic sites.

The slightly less good news was that the Gibson’s wandering albatross chick survival so far this year is just 40%, and more chicks will likely die before this breeding season is over. And the yellow-eyed penguin tally for Adams Island was a rather meagre 21 birds, compared to 52 birds in 1989. Hmm, lots to think about until we bring you more news tomorrow.


Adams Island viewed from Carnley Harbour. Photo: Alison Ballance

Sub Antarctic rolecall, waddle forward if you’re in decline

•November 13, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Somewhere between New Zealand and the last unpopulated and (largely) unexploited continent on the planet- Antarctica, lies the Sub Antarctic Islands. Amongst those islands are the Snares and the Auckland Islands. These islands lie right in the middle of the Antarctic Polar Front, where the icy polar waters mix with the warmer waters flowing from the north. This creates weather, you’ve probably heard of the roaring 40s, well the Snares and the Auckland Islands sit in the furious 50s.

Bullers albatross (Bullers mollymawk) Thalassarche bulleri, ahead of the storm

Bullers albatross (Bullers mollymawk) Thalassarche bulleri, ahead of the storm

There’s a very good reason for heading down to these tiny specs of islands, despite the generally horrendous weather it’s the disproportionate wealth of wildlife that they hold that is the alure. Penguins, albatross, seals, sealions not to mention whales and a wealth of endemic mega-herbs and marooned snipe, parakeet, fowl and other little birds all evolving their way to flightless island specialization.  These islands are the last stronghold for many of these species yet, despite their isolation, all is not as it should be. Sealion numbers continue to dwindle and the more we learn about albatross and penguin population trends the worse the picture gets.

The Yellow-eyed Penguin (Megadyptes antipodes) or Hoiho chick

Yellow-eyed Penguin (Megadyptes antipodes) or Hoiho chick moulting into its adult plumage

Bullers albatross (Bullers mollymawk) Thalassarche bulleri, gliding over waves

Bullers albatross (Bullers mollymawk) Thalassarche bulleri, gliding effortlessly using pressure pockets created by wave driven air movements

 Exactly why these species are declining is unclear. Commercial over-fishing for squid and other oceanic resources and climate change are fairly high up on the suspect list. In an effort to at least gather good data on these processes and shed a little public light on the situation, a team from New Zealands Department of Conservation and the Yellow Eyed Penguin Trust are making their way down to the islands for a week of survey work. What makes this trip special is that rather than just send a boatload of crusty conservation biologists, this team also consists of volunteers, keen and enthusiastic individuals who have paid handsomely for the privilege of assisting the conservationist team in their effort. Some folks might spend their holiday savings on a trip to the Gold Coast or some other environment developed precisely to satisfy the consumer, but not these people. They’re keeping a blog of their progress, Alison Ballance in updating it daily so you can follow their progress, I certainly will be following as my better half is on the voyage. You can go to the source:

http://yellow-eyedpenguin.org.nz/2012/11/14/the-yacht-and-her-crew-blog-5/

or read on:

Wahoo – the weather forecast is looking more promising that it has for quite a while, we’ve finally all met one another, and we’re off!

We’re a varied bunch, that’s all I can say. We range from a retired engineer to a mid-20s woman who works for Ravensdown and spends her days talking to farmers. And that’s just the penguin team – the yacht crew is an equally eclectic group of folk (more on them tomorrow). But what unites us all is a shared passion for the subantarctic and its wildlife, especially yellow-eyed penguins. Some of us are subantarctic newbies, while others of us find ourselves returning again and again.

The team of conservation professionals and eager volunteers before the sea-sickness set in.

The team in the quarantine office in Invercargill ready to set sail: (back row from left to right) Marcy, Sharon, Leith, Jo, Rachel, Dave H., Dave A., Megan; (front row from left to right) Alison, Katie, Alistair, Alan

Expedition leader is Jo Hiscock from the Department of Conservation in Invercargill. She’s been the one sweating all the details for the last few months – letting everyone know what they need to bring, deciding just how much food to put in the emergency buckets that go ashore with each party on the off-chance they can’t get back on the yacht, working out the survey methods, and worrying about the weather forecast.

Leith Thompson is a ranger with the Yellow-eyed Penguin Trust in Dunedin. He and Jo are veterans of the 2009 expedition which laid the groundwork for this trip. He’ll be dropped off, along with the Department of Conservation’s Dave Houston, to conduct an intensive nest survey on Enderby Island. That will involve lots of time on hands and knees under the scrub, looking for nests, and in the case of Leith, keeping a constant eye out for sealions (he had some memorable encounters on his previous trip!).

Dave Agnew from Dunedin and Megan Willans from Te Anau make up the remainder of the DoC team – they are both wildlife experts, with lots of experience working on remote islands.

What makes this trip unique is that it is not just made up of wildlife professionals. Working alongside them will be six volunteers, who have each paid to come along on this ‘trip of a lifetime’. Alan Magee is a retired Invercargill engineer, who has spent time in Antarctica, and has a strong interest in history – he’s keen to visit some of the historic sites that relate to shipwrecks and Second World War coast-watching.

Katie Underwood works as a real estate agent in Wellington but fills every spare hour with conservation volunteering – she is an eel feeder, kiwi counter and night guide at the Zealandia sanctuary, and following a stint weeding on Raoul Island she’s looking forward to adding to her growing list of islands.

Formerly from the UK but now living in Australia, Rachel Downey is an Antarctic biologist more used to working on creatures such as sponges. After her time on the ice I’m betting she’ll find the subantarctic weather positively mild!

I’m also betting that Sharon Kast won’t have any problems living on the yacht and coping with the trip down – she’s already got more than 10,000 sea miles under her belt, having sailed from her native USA to New Zealand. New Zealand dotterels are her passion, but she’s already feeling a strong affinity for yellow-eyed penguin, reporting that when she has all her thermal layers on she waddles a bit like one!

Alistair Robinson is a weekend yacht racer in Sydney but he reports that being a keen sailor doesn’t mean he has good sea legs. By day he is a funds manager, and the rest of the time he’s involved in organisations such as the Australian Mitochondrial Disease Foundation. He’s been ‘in training’ at the Orokonui Sanctuary near Dunedin to get his fitness up.

Marcy Taylor was brought up on a farm, and spends most of her day talking to farmers on the phone. It’ll be interesting to see if hoiho supplant kakapo as her favourite bird by the time this trip is over!

The trip down should take us about 48 hours, and for much of that time most of us will be in our bunks keeping to ourselves. But one thing is certain – once we get to the islands and in the confined living conditions of the yacht we’ll very soon be much more closely acquainted with one another!

Pure zoological inspiration in gecko form.

•November 11, 2012 • 3 Comments

As a passionate zoologist from before I even knew the term existed, I’ve always felt that the greatest fulfillment of my desires were to be found in the tropics. And largely that’s true. I’m basically a biodiversity junkie, the more the better and places like Dominica, PNG, Borneo, Peninsula Malaysia, Central and Eastern Africa and South America have only confirmed those feelings. Sights like spotting a displaying Draco cornutus (flying lizard) on the tree in front of me whilst also watching an orang utan leave its overnight nest are hard to beat.

Draco cornutus flying lizard

Draco cornutus, one of Borneos flying lizards, displays with dewlap to a neighbouring male, Sabah.

How often are you so delighted by the diversity in front of you that you don’t know which one to stare at? As a herpetologist, the Draco won out, but not before I grabbed a few grainy snaps of my cousin, the orang utan quietly breathing in the early morning air and moving off in search of fruit.

orang utan at dawn

Pongo pygmaeus, orang utan female taking her breakfast in the steamy forests of the Danum Valley, Sabah.

I’ll certainly take that morning to the grave with me. So how come I find myself based at the bottom end of New Zealand, arguably about the most bio-depauparate area imaginable considering it’s latitude and mass. Well it’s got something to do with the society. In New Zealand there is a chance to make a real and sustainable difference to the future security of biodiversity through good conservation science and practice, and have a hope that those achievements can be sustained. My time in the tropics has taught me that achievements there are both political and unfortunately all too often fleeting. I don’t want to give up too easily and I intend to continue to work with and support conservation in the developing world whilst being based down here in NZ.

But there are treats here too! I’ve got the pleasure and privilege of working to expand the recovery of southern NZ dotterel Charadrius obscurus obscurus, through the development of a sustainable and broad spectrum pest management programme on the Tin Range. I’ll post more details later but in setting up the research necessary to underpin this management I occasionally get to rest my eyes on Tukutuku rakiurae, the harlequin gecko. Unfortunately not too much can be said about these truly magnificent geckos because not only do introduced pest species threaten their security but so does the international illegal trade in exotic pets. But what I can tell you is that they probably have a reproductive cycle that makes kakapo look positively rabbit-like. One thing’s for sure, most of the harlequin geckos I’ve seen are probably older than me. For now I’ll leave you with an image of one of these utterly stunning geckos, and a sense that I don’t have to be in the tropics to be struck speechless by nature. I’ll post more on these amazing geckos and the need for their conservation management in coming weeks.

Harlequin gecko Tukutuku rakiurae

A bit of a teaser, the harliquin gecko (Tukutuku rakiurae) is a zoological wonder to behold, in more ways than one, but stunningly beautiful is certainly it’s most obvious and arresting feature.

Hidden diversity: the old story, we’re loosing it quicker than we can identify it.

•November 5, 2012 • Leave a Comment

It’s been the mantra of many a Conservation NGO as they scoop up selected taxonomists and rush to survey yet another ‘biodiversity hotspot’ in the hope that media attention and a few scientific publications can fend off  urban encroachment, agricultural or mineral development. A quick look at the remaining wilderness areas of the tropics might suggest this approach is failing to stem the losses. 

Population pressure and the economics of development and growth, especially in the current financial climate, rule all. Yet the stories keep rolling in.

The team of keen young conservationists and primatologists I had the pleasure of working with in Sri Lanka in 2008 and 2009 have been paying a lot of attention to the finer points of slender loris morphology and molecular ecology. These little nocturnal predatory primates are thought-provoking beasts. In many ways they’re probably very similar to our very own ancient ancestors.

juvenile Loris tardigradus, Sri lanka

A young red slender loris (Loris tardigradus) quietly cruising amongst the vegetation in search of prey

Amongst the forest fragments where the final populations of loris hang on amidst growing human population pressure for agricultural land, firewood and living space, the hidden depths of loris evolutionary processes are only just being examined. It’s early days for the loris research team but there may be several taxa within what was once thought to be the red slender loris. If the red slender loris was in trouble, then the cryptic taxa that this species may contain are in dire-straits.

red slender loris, loris tardigradus, Sri lanka

red slender loris, (Loris tardigradus) tucked quietly amongst the leaves

So is this a success story in the making or another documented failure of contemporary society to protect our only chance at a rich and sustainable future on this planet? Well like most things in life, it’s neither one nor the other, our knowledge grows but our ability to motivate society to respond is limited at best. For me it’s got to be a small step forward. The more we understand about what we’re losing the quicker we are likely to acknowledge that modern society and our economic behaviour needs to respond. However, from where I’m sitting, the prospect of a response that protects such threatened species and ecosystems now, ahead of the short-term interests of party politics and investors, is depressingly slim.  The most critical thing being that we continue to document and publicise the knowledge we gather and consequences of their loss.

1080, one of our best mainland pest management tools

•September 27, 2011 • 2 Comments

Toxin use to control pest species for biodiversity protection is a fairly hot topic in NZ. It’s possibly more of a hot topic than it should be because as conservationists we’re just not very good at arguing against those motivated by agendas rather than cold, hard data. Graeme, in typically simple and modest terms describes some recent results of bird monitoring pre and post toxin applications:

and yet some groups and individuals will still claim reality is contrary to the results, which goes to show how successful and sustainable conservation rests as much on our ability to shift our position in the public consciousness as it does on the good science needed to underpin it.

Conservation Week 2011 – Meet the Locals meets some very generous kiwis

•September 13, 2011 • Leave a Comment

It hardly seems like a few months, let alone a whole year since the last Conservation Week Special. Amazing to think that in the intervening year not only were another 12 episodes of the show filmed but quite a few conservation challenges were met too.

Sunset at the mouth of Doubtful Sound

Sunset colours they sky at the mouth of Doubtful Sound

Now more than ever conservation needs to be both understood and valued by the public. Whilst New Zealand’s economy is relatively insulated from the unfolding global financial crisis we are unfortunately not immune. The result is a sea-change in the political view of the economy and a shifting economic view of conservation investment, the result: a shrinking baseline. These tough times mean that now more than ever conservation is looking to individuals and businesses for support and so the perspective and values of those generous individuals and companies count.  The ‘Disneyfication’ of nature in the eyes of the general public (http://www.stuff.co.nz/dominion-post/comment/5334136/Few-happy-feet-in-our-forests) means that we risk the fundamental strategy necessary to see competent and far-sighted conservation measures if resource management allows itself to be driven by superficial perceptions and marketing psychology.

Luckily for New Zealand, the majority of those with even a moderate interest in the environment comprehend the need to tackle the real issues – protecting habitat, controlling and eradicating invasive pest species and managing the interests of our precious fauna and flora. So against this stressful backdrop this years’ Conservation Week Special focuses on the contribution made by some very special private individuals to the greatest cause on earth, trying to protect something of what we have now, to pass on to the next generation.

Rock wren, New Zealand's only truely alpine bird

Rock wren, hanging on in our alpine ecosystems

So this years programme focuses on the generosity, vision and commitment of three individuals and their businesses. We start off with John Steffens of the Fiordland Lobster Company  who have supported the ambitious project to return kokako to the forest of Fiordland through reintroducing North Island birds back into the habitat of their now extinct southern cousins. We then see the fabulous contribution the Liz Colins, founder of the leading environmentally and ethically sound designer clothing company Chalkydigits to restoring the fauna to the remote and pest eradicated Chalky Island. Finally we meet with Greg Hay of Peregrine Wines  who’s personal passion, as with our other guests, has lead him to support and become thoroughly involved in the conservation of a number of our most threatened bird species through his relationship with the Fiordland Conservation Trust.

If you think businesses supporting conservation is nothing more than ‘greenwashing’ or a cynical marketing ploy then please take a look at this: CWS2011

Meet the Locals Conservation Week Special episode now available

•September 20, 2010 • 2 Comments

The full half hour programme is now available to view. I hope you enjoy the exciting wildlife and breathtaking scenery. I’m so glad we got the Archey’s frogs into the show because they have a remarkable story to tell, and whizzing about after takahe shows just how exciting being a wildlife biologist can be but as we could have predicted, the kakapo stole the show, and Manu, who we filmed was an absolute star aided by beautiful Anchor Island and a stunning afternoons worth of weather.

There isn’t a YouTube version yet but you can download straight from the TVNZ website through this link: http://tvnz.co.nz/meet-the-locals/meetthelocals-s2010-conservationweek-video-3782678

Thanks also for all the very kind and positive feedback, it’s really great to know that the programme had impact and that the message came across loud and clear: we are only going to have those wildplaces and species that we look after and we need public (and private sector) support to make that happen.

Meet the Locals – Conservation Week 2010

•September 10, 2010 • 2 Comments

The promo is now out for the show and is hopefully hooking a good audience.  Of course it’s totally cringe-worthy to see yourself prancing about on-screen but hopefully the message is delivered sufficiently clearly to the public to make any sense of a loss of personal dignity entirely worth it.

I’m heading to Auckland Zoo this Sunday for the promotion of the show and to get the ball rolling for a week of events that make up Conservation Week 2010. My heart goes tight at the thought of being in front of the public, it’s much easier to be relaxed about your enthusiasm when somewhere remote with only a small film crew. Fortunately I’m extremely busy with other conservation projects so I don’t have too much time to dwell.

You can also see the video promo and more information about conservation week and TVNZ’s activities at: http://tvnz.co.nz/meet-the-locals

Conservation Week ~ filming ‘Meet the Locals’

•August 19, 2010 • 1 Comment

Ever year the Department of Conservation and the broadcaster TVNZ come together to celebrate and promote conservation in New Zealand. This year the task fell to me to help out writing and presenting the message.

The TVNZ Meet the Locals crew

An Auckland TV crew slightly out of their usual environment

With global economics pushing environmental management ever further from the priority list of governments, now more than ever it’s critical that the public be informed of how vital their support of environmental care and investment is. We in the world of conservation also have to make more of an effort to communicate the relevance of the environment to those that live an urban lifestyle and for whom biodiversity and ecosystems are a distant concept at best. So with this in mind I’ve invested my best efforts in helping to craft a programme that will engage those with an interest but also communicates that it’s not our job alone! We conservation biologists and managers can only do the work if the public wants it done.

Filming kakapo health check

Anchor Island Kakapo shoot

So the team and I all have our fingers crossed that we’ve crafted a clear and strong message that viewers will understand and be engaged by. It’s a hard balance, especially when broadcasters, thanks to the ratings wars, will always feel obliged to cater for the lowest common denominator, but I’ve faith that the viewing public is usually smarter than they are given credit for.

The TVNZ crew enjoying island life, DOC ranger style

The TVNZ crew enjoying island life, DOC ranger style

Once finished we’ll link the TVNZ Meet the Locals page to a downloadable version of the programme and I’ll link it to this site.

a presenters eye view

a presenters eye view

Emerald Gems, the green widlife secrets of Whenua Hou

•August 18, 2010 • Leave a Comment

Codfish Island, or Whenua Hou as it’s known in Te Rao, truly is a gem in New Zealand’s environmental crown. The island sits just of the coast of Stewart Island, far enough to be out of range of most swimming pests and as such has been free of the introduced mammals that plague mainland New Zealand for more than 12 years.

flying to Whenua Hou

Approaching Codfish Island

Our reason for heading to the island was not only to continue the care of kakapo, our most threatened and dare I say charismatic species but to also investigate a potentially new species of gecko.  A number of sightings had been made of a bright green gecko on the island, and given the high degree of endemism amongst the lizard species on Stewart Island, there was a good chance that the animals in question might be new to science. A tiny biopsy was collected and measurements taken – we now await news.

Mud Wiggle

A track name speaks a thousand words

DOC scientist, Dr. Hitchmough emerging from the Pakahe

We were also trialing some new reptile detection devices – lizards and especially geckos are extremely hard to observe in the deep south of New Zealand.

Herpetologists attaching cover object to tree

Herpetologists attaching cover object to tree

Night searching became a focus of our survey, and meant we also delighted in seeing may of the other nocturnal forest wildlife of this beautiful island. Not least the main focus of the islands management: kakapo. Whilst quietly working through the forest it was simply magical to come across kakapo quietly going about their nocturnal business of exploring the forest for food. Their quiet and delicate movements are a privilege to observe and allow a real appreciation of how perfectly evolved they are for a life in temperate rainforest.

Kakapo exploring the forest

Silent and delicate, a kakapo explores it's environment

Finally our surveying for geckos paid off and we located a green gecko (Naultinus sp.)! Over 200hrs of searching was required but what a prize! These geckos are nearly invisible until you well and truly ‘have your eye in’.

Naultinus sp. green gecko from Codfish Island

A Naultinus gecko, invisible in it's shrub home

With the job done we had to leave this amazing island and return to the office to write reports – but not before jamming more people and gear into a helicopter than most would think possible!

A fully loaded 500

In windy conditions the only way off the island is by chopper

Rugged Islands

Rugged Islands

Amazing timescapes of Fiordland

•June 17, 2010 • Leave a Comment

These fabulous time-lapse were put together by my good friend Luke Padgett, who worked with our alpine herps team on a number of expeditions in Fiordland.

If you can't see the link below go to: http://vimeo.com/9664385

Fiordland Thaw from Luke Padgett on Vimeo.

It's so hard to capture the grandeur of this environment but this little sequence goes a long way to conveying the sense of wonder we all feel when working in this magnificent landscape.

Sinbad Gully, last retreat of the Kakapo and a lizard gold-mine

•April 11, 2010 • Leave a Comment

hehicopter and stropped fadge heading into Sinbad from Milford Sound

Sinbad Gully in the depths of the Fiordland National Park is a special place. As one of the last retreats of the kakapo on mainland New Zealand the gully is more resilient than most habitats to the impacts of introduced mammals.  An indication of this is the small and restricted community of reptiles living at the head of the valley including an endemic skink known from no other location. We were in for another treat on this trip too, the southern rata was in full bloom, so the sheer forested walls of the gully were peppered with crimson. The main gully is magnificent but nothing can prepare you for our destination, a small hanging valley at the head of Sinbad Gully. Landing there, it took us a few minutes just to absorb the grandeur of our surrounds and gather ourselves to find a camp site and set to our tasks

Our mission was to gather data on the rare and largely unknown skink Oligosoma pikitanga, which is currently only known from a few hundred meters of cliff face in this gully. We had flown in traps and all our camping and climbing gear to allow us the best chance of capturing these animals, which would then be examined and records taken for the data base.  And our luck was in with the weather too. Fiordland can be a very cold, wet and inhospitable place and in such conditions reptiles would remain largely invisible. But our forecast was for temperatures around 30 degrees and little wind or rain so we were eager to get up onto the face. Joe and Dave, who work for the local tour operator Southern Discoveries were keen to get a closer look at the rock they’d have to navigate. 

we were using Gee’s Minnow traps to detect the lizards but the first lizard I saw, to my surprise was a ‘cascade’ gecko, which was moving from one refuge to another in the middle of the day, which is not something seen often. 

Fiordland gecko

Gecko of the Fiordland Alpine zone

But on checking the traps the following day we were rewarded with two O. pikitanga, the endemic skinks of the gully. Their long and muscular limbs equipped with strong claws are essential for traversing the relatively smooth rocks of their habitat and their dark colouration idea to optimise their ability to absorb heat from the sun. 

Oligosoma pikitanga, the Sinbad Gully skink

The important job now is to deduce their conservation management needs. Known from only this single location they are automatically considered critically endangered, but it is quite likely that they are elsewhere in the remote wilderness of Fiordland. The problem is that even after significant effort to locate more populations none have been found. Also ecological observations suggest that microclimate as well as if not instead of predation by introduced mammals may dictate their microbiogeography. So before winter falls here a team of rangers and climbers are going to be placing environmental loggers at the site of the population and in adjacent apparently suitable habitat but where no skinks have been observed. At the same time we will start to investigate the ecology of rodents in this otherwise pristine, delicate and tiny habitat.

The trip also served to broaden the profile of the Fiordland Conservation Trust and Southern Discoveries who are supporting the pest management in this critical habitat. To learn more of the Trusts projects and programmes visit: http://www.fiordlandconservationtrust.org.nz/

Joe and Dave from Southern Discoveries with Sinbad Gully herps

Few places are so magical to spend a few days. The stars at night look so bright and clear you feel you can reach out and touch them.

Camping under the stars in Sinbad Gully

Camping under the stars in Sinbad Gully

Catching a Kakapo, retransmittering Ralph

•April 9, 2010 • 4 Comments

Kakapo are amongst the most threatened birds in the world, numbering presently at 123. I’m privileged through my work to spend a bit of time with these wonderful, flightless giants. This is a short video I’ve made for the children of a very good friend of mine.

I do apologise about the sound, it was shot on my little digital point&shoot, and whilst around Ralph I was also whispering so you’ll need to turn your volume right up to hear it properly. Framing in a few shots leaves something to be desired also..

A good use of your next ten minutes

•March 8, 2010 • 1 Comment

As if you needed it pointing out to you (I hope you don’t) there are sectors of society working against commonsense and scientific knowledge towards there own self interest. A master communicator, Prof. David Suzuki responds…

If you listened then good for you, you’re armed with critical knowledge, use it.

They’re bats Jim, but not as we know them

•March 1, 2010 • Leave a Comment

New Zealand is a land of birds, reptiles and invertebrates due to separating from Gondwanaland 80 million years ago, or thereabouts but that doesn’t mean it’s mammal free. Aside from cetaceans (the whales and dolphins) and pinnipeds (seals and sea lions), microchiropterans (‘small’ bats) found their way to these remote islands. And like the other species to find themselves on Aotearoa these bats have been shapes by the unique forces of natural selection New Zealand has to offer. Two species remain the lesser short-tailed bat (Mystacina tuberculata) and the long-tailed bat (Chalinolobus tuberculata). The long-tailed bat, known as Pekapeka-tou-roa in Māori, is much your conventional small insectivorous bat. They live in colonies in the forest and hunt insects above, amongst and below the canopy.  Their populations are monitored to assist in understanding the impact pest control is having on their numbers, as unfortunately they easily fall prey to the rats and mustelids introduced in New Zealand.

Emptying a harp trap of long-tailed bats

Once captured the bats are sexed, weighed, measured, aged and if a new capture, given a wing band. Sexing is easy, and aging is accomplished by looking at the amount of osteogenesis of the phalangial (finger) joins in the wing by shining a light from behind.

assessing osteogenesis

measuring, weighing and recording bats

Once all the measurements are taken the animals are released and as the study is many years old and the populations are growing under the predator control operation, we can have confidence that the monitoring does not significantly hinder the bats.

Long tailed bat release

Bats are fascinating creatures, and whenever I get the chance to watch them closely I find myself wondering how they perceive me. I see in light wavelengths that my brain interprets as colour and lightness. Together I interpret these images as the view reaching my eyes. But bats see in sound, chirping out high frequency calls and listening in detail to the echos that return. That but is simple enough but how does their brain see those images? Different colours for distance or texture. I’m sure the truth is more amazing than anything I can dream up. The world around us and these magnificent little products of evolution are proof that we really are in the infancy of our comprehension of life.

A long-tailed bat on a tree

So the long tailed bats are fairly regular little guys as bats go, but their larger cousins, the lesser short-tailed bats are very different. These bats have well and truly taken the New Zealand lifestyle to heart. They haven’t lost the power of flight, as many of our birds have, but they have made adjustments to allow them to forage on the ground. These bats roll their wings up extremely tightly and have two rather than one thumb claw which they use to help them forage amongst the leaf-litter on the forest floor for invertebrates. And they’re voracious little chaps. Whereas the long tailed bats can be handled with impunity (and care), the short tailed bats merit a glove.

These bats are also extremely vulnerable to introduced predators and in need of seriously intensive conservation management. As part of this, as with the long tails, study populations are monitored for responses in their survival following pest management.  However,being larger bats means these can be implanted with transponder chips.

checking a bat isn't already transpondered before injection

aging a lesser short tailed bat

lesser short tailed bat being injected with a transponder

But the unique characteristics of short-tailed bats don’t stop at foraging on the ground with ‘roll-up’ wings and two thumb claws. These bats sing. They sing just as song birds or frogs sing to advertise their prowess as individuals with mating with. Whilst many of their echo-locating calls are too high a frequency for us to hear these advertisement calls are easily audible to all but the older or rifle-shot ears. Using tree holes as sounding chambers these bats ca be located from their calls from 10s of meters away. It would seem there is stiff competition for good calling sites too. The bat photographed below went quiet when I shone my torch on him and almost immediately other bats tried to land and enter his calling spot, which immediately elicited a chase and tirade of ‘I’m still here’ calls.

Lesser short-tailed bat singing

Small Beer, my favourite Kakapo

•February 28, 2010 • 2 Comments

I was trying to update things chronologically but I can’t hold out any longer from popping a Kakapo piccie here. This is a young male bird, and currently named Stanley Green in honour of a fine light ale brewed in Invercargill, although that’s likely to change to something a little more PC in the months to come. He was investigating a log at the side of a track I was surveying for geckos from and was a most obliging and quietly inquisitive model for me. I snapped away furiously to get away as quickly as possible as these birds need to be as wild as possible, and with the famous Sirocco being enough trouble as it is, their recovery doesn’t need any more tame ‘pos wandering the island. I don’t like to be anthropomorphic, but he’s a cute dude for sure.

Kakapo, Strigops habroptila, or Stanley Green to his mates

a new skink and old friend

•February 25, 2010 • Leave a Comment

I’ll try and catch up a little with some images from the past few weeks. Firstly the new skinks from the Eyre Mountains. I spotted these lizards first back in 2004, whilst on a fauna survey. At the time they were considered to be within the Oligosoma inconspicuum species but looked suspiciously different. Some recent molecular investigations into the systematics of these animals has exposed a number of new taxa, reopening the interest in the beasties i saw in 2004. So in January I set out to collect a small number of specimens for close examination. It’s critical that we understand and accurately describe species such as these as they offer the only levers we have to justify better stewardship of the environment. It’s a cliche concept in many areas of the world, especially the tropics but holds true here in NZ.

Eyres Mts., Cascade Creek

To even get near this place required some serious off road driving that slowly looses it’s fun factor when being done for work and you know getting stuck means a very very long walk. In the picture below you can just see the truck parked at the base of the scree, I walked the rest as it was steep to say the least.

High up in the Eyre Mts.

After a few days dedicated searching eventually a population was located, but I’d ended up working my way back to the very location that i first found the animals. They were as stunning and gracile as i remembered.

Oligosoma 'eyres'

This might seem like another LBJ (‘little brown job’ in ornithological parlance) but it really is exciting to find new little functional components of the ecosystems that surround us. These skinks weren’t the only finds for the trip. We also observed some feral goats of some stature. These are essentially pest animals as they browse down delicate native vegetation in ecologically sensitive areas, but it makes them no less spectacular to observe. I also found a number of little geckos currently known only as ‘southern minis’ as they are also yet to be formally described. These charming little geckos live in the same rocks and stable scree areas surrounded by vegetation and shrubs as the Eyres skink. 

The southern mini gecko

Majestic but troublesome

Glorious mountains on a glorious day

An update from amongst the kakapo

•February 23, 2010 • Leave a Comment

I’m now on Whenua Hou, Codfish Island, a few kms west of Rakiura Stewart Island, the island to the south of ‘South Ialnd, New Zealand. Whenua Hou is a very special place and I’m feeling hugely privelaged to be here. I’m condusting a two week herp survey with some wonderful co-workers, as the island has been pest free for more than a decade. It’s that pest free status and the quality of the podocarp forest here that allows Kakapo to survvie and thrive. Whilst the birds (still numbering less than 200) are well looked after by dedicated staff, they are able to live a wild and natural existence here without fear of predation by stoats, cats or other predators. It’s not just the kakapo that make this island special however. The absence of predators means that the forest birdlife is booming, the seabird colonies are thriving and our hope is that the reptiles that survived more than a century of predation may also recover. It’s slow going though, as the geckos this far south are probably breeding and growing very slowly, so it might be decades before the results are felt. Last night I had a magical vision here too: I was up in the pakahe shrublands on the tops of the island spotlighting for geckos as the moon was rising. Above swoop titi sooty shearwater, mottled petrels and Coooks petrels, warbling and squauking as only procellariiformes know how. With thin low cloud and a haze the moon looked amazing. I raised my binoculars to have a closer look and it’s yellow cratered image was covered in the swooping silluettes of distant petrels. It was an image that was so striking I’ll take it to the grave. A great day indeed.

seabirds at night

mottled petrel