Monday, October 17, 2016

Weeds or Wild Flowers - What do we See?

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

Arum Lilies spreading alongside a pathway

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

Bone seed and pink ragwort colonise
 land cleared by roadworks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

From "In the Garden"


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

Thursday, September 15, 2016

Visiting the Wildlife Capital of New Zealand - Dunedin

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

When it's Raining - Kiwi Book Corner Craft

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

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

You will need:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, September 1, 2016

Invitation to a Book Launch "From Moa to Dinosaurs"

All blog readers and their friends and families are welcome at the launch of my latest book - From Moa to Dinosaurs: explore and discover ancient New Zealand.
When: 6.30pm Tuesday, 20 September 2016
Where: War Memorial Library, 2 Queens Drive, Lower Hutt
Why: to celebrate with us and take part in the Hutt Libraries dinosaur themed month!
What: enjoy some drinks and nibbles, meet me and illustrator Ned Barraud, take a look a the exhibition, buy a signed copy of the book.

Can't come to the launch? Books will also available later in September from all good bookshops and can be pre-ordered online from publisher Potton & Burton.

Thursday, June 23, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not a harlequin but a native ladybird

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

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

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

Bird Identification
NZ Birds Online:
Resources for schools

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

Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Northern Giant Petrel - Beach Rescue and Ocean Release

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

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

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

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

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

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

Useful links
Information about Northern Giant Petrels

Thursday, June 9, 2016

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

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

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

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

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

See more about My Books here