Conservation Dogs Pt I

Take my survey on perceptions of conservation in New Zealand here: bit.ly/conservationNZ

Here's selection of photos from my recent trip to Mana Island:

 

Ahu (front) and Woods.

Ahu (front) and Woods.

Woods the stoat detection dog.

Woods the stoat detection dog.

Found a dead weta!

Found a dead weta!

Colony of fake gannets to attract these seabirds back to the island.

Colony of fake gannets to attract these seabirds back to the island.

Odin, Leona and Bail

Odin, Leona and Bail

Finding a dead rat in a skillz demonstration

Finding a dead rat in a skillz demonstration

Gut Feeling

A sci-fi short story first written in December 2015.

Lucy opened the fridge and pulled out the dark brown bottle, shaking it gently to hear the capsules inside rattle. She unscrewed the lid, tipped up the bottle and emptied a couple onto her palm. Rod-like capsules, pale brown in colour. They looked ordinary, benign – like any other run-of-the-mill probiotics you could buy. But Lucy knew these weren’t ordinary. Each capsule contained billions of bacteria, a strain she had developed. Lucy felt a stirring of butterflies in her stomach; this feat of genetic engineering was tremendous.

It was only a few decades ago that scientists had begun to realise the profound impact of microbes on humans. The first clues came with the observed correlation of mental illnesses and obesity with gut microbiota. Then scientists found “the second brain” – 100 million neurons lining the human gut, forming the enteric nervous system, connected to our brain via the vagus nerve. But this wasn’t a one-way connection. Biochemical signals from the gut and its bacterial inhabitants were affecting the brain.

Research into the human microbiome boomed. From influencing our physical and mental health, to our behavior and personality, our bacteria seemed to be an omnipresent, insidious force that had crept into every facet of our being. With symbiotic microbial cells outnumbering human cells ten to one, scientists began to ask questions about how “human” we actually were. The answer: no longer was a human a single organism. We were walking, talking ecosystems, each of us home to a population of single-celled species as unique as our fingerprint.

Lucy was captivated by this idea. She had grown up during an exciting period of scientific advancement, and wasn’t constrained by outdated concepts of humans as autonomous individuals. In Lucy’s mind, the ability to alter your microbiome offered limitless possibilities. Why perform complex neurosurgery when you could produce the same effect via the gut? The concept was straightforward enough in theory: with detailed knowledge of the biochemical pathways in the brain, you could genetically engineer bacteria to produce a specific cocktail of neurotransmitters. By administering these bacteria with an oral probiotic, you could influence the biochemistry of the brain. She dreamt of boosting memory and enhancing intelligence.

But she no longer had to imagine. With this simple pill Lucy held in her hand, it would be a reality. Lucy had tested her treatment in mice with promising results. Her latest experiment involved tracking the neurotransmitters in real-time as they travelled from the gut to the brain. She used protein biomarkers which fluoresced green, blue and red when they bound to the tiny but powerful neurotransmitters. Lucy felt a warm glow of pride radiate from her abdomen the first time she saw the colourful fluorescence illuminate. Her very first human trials were just around the corner. If successful, the consequences for mankind would be spectacular – it would usher in a new era of creativity and progress in science.

Lucy snapped out of her daydream. She returned the probiotics to the fridge and entered a glass-enclosed corner of the lab. A warm yeasty smell permeated the air – bacterial broth freshly mixed. She spent long hours in the lab and she liked it best at night when the lab was quiet, so she could think. She felt less pressure without the suspicious eyes of her labmates examining her every move. Sometimes she noticed them reading her lab book, or examining her experimental set-up closely. It made her uncomfortable, so she tried to avoid the busy times of day. Lucy felt an affinity for her bacteria and she raised them with great care. She watched the tall conical flasks swirling in the incubator. The shaking platform inside the glass case whirred and the brown liquid inside the flasks sloshed to and fro.

Behind Lucy, the glass door slid slowly open. A gentle whooshing as a draught entered alerted Lucy and she froze. Who else would be working this late?

“Hello, Lucy.”

It was Martin, the lab leader. Lucy turned slowly to face him. Martin was short and stocky, with horn-rimmed glasses and a cardigan slung over his shoulders. She didn’t particularly like Martin, who had an air of superiority and an egotism that didn’t sit well with her. He spent most of the day in his office talking loudly and guffawing with the other “old boys” who still occupied the upper echelons in chemistry. Progress for women in Lucy’s field had come more slowly than others. Nonetheless, Lucy tolerated Martin because his lab was well-stocked and he gave her a great deal of freedom in her research.

“Hello, Martin.”

Lucy noticed the bottle of acid in Martin’s hand and she felt her stomach butterflies flicker – an unpleasant, foreboding flickering.

“I’ve been following your progress Lucy, and I have to say, I’m very impressed. You’ve got further than I expected with this project.”

“Thank you.”

“You’re quite welcome. But I have some bad news Lucy. I’m afraid I can’t allow you to continue with this avenue of inquiry any further.”

Lucy frowned, taken aback. “But why? I’m so close. I don’t understand.”

“You see Lucy, you’ve gotten a little too far for my liking. Your intentions for this technology don’t really, ah, gel with my vision.”

Lucy stared, speechless. Her intentions had been nothing but noble.

Martin continued, “I like the premise. An oral probiotic to alter the mind. So simple and elegant. Brilliant, even. “

Martin flung the open bottle of acid at Lucy’s face and she recoiled in excruciating pain as it burned her face and chest. She collapsed, writhing on the floor. Martin turned to the conical flasks whirling madly in the incubator. His lips contorted into a smirk.

A few mornings later, Martin sat in his office and opened the local newspaper. In the corner of page five was a brief article.

“Scientist injured in lab accident.

Dr Lucy Johnston, scientist with Labrax Pharmaceuticals, was in an accident last week while working late at the Labrax Laboratory. A chemical spill, involving highly corrosive hydrochloric acid, occurred at about 11pm. Dr Johnston’s colleague, Professor Martin Bourke, was in a nearby office at the time and was able to call for medical assistance. ‘This is a terrible accident and all of us here at Labrax wish Dr Johnston a speedy recovery. The company will be doing everything possible to assist Dr Johnston, including taking care of her medical expenses,’ said Professor Bourke. Dr Johnston is said to be in a stable but serious condition at a private hospital. The Health and Safety department of Labrax Pharmaceuticals is investigating the incident.”

Lucy awoke in a daze. Her face was covered in bandages, save for a slit for her eyes. From her restricted view, she could see a hospital room – all white, sterile with glaring fluorescent light. She tried to move her arms and legs but they were restrained. Her mind felt fuzzy, black and white static.

Crisp footsteps signaled the approach of someone, but she couldn’t see. A hand gently moved the bandages near her mouth, and pressed a rod-like capsule between her lips. She swallowed.

Martin entered the room and addressed the white-coat-clad person tending to Lucy, “How’s our subject coming along?”

“Excellent. She really had done a fantastic job – just a few tweaks to genes here and there and we’re fairly certain we’ve got a product capable of altering thoughts. The trials this week will confirm we have established control.”

Martin felt an anticipatory fluttering in his stomach. Why settle for advertisements and pop culture to influence psychology, when you could so easily get right at the brain itself? He imagined controlling vast populations using mere suggestion. The consequences for the elite of mankind would be spectacular. It would usher in a new era of power and wealth. Soon, he’d no longer have to imagine.

Reflections on my first solo travel experience

First written in October 2015.

I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to write any pieces on my trip to Canada. At the time, it was a very personal experience. I wanted to inhabit each moment fully, without worrying too much about writing for an audience or posting on social media. But here I am, having had a good think on a bloody fantastic trip.

I didn’t expect my first big solo trip to have any great, transformative effect on me. A friend told me, “You may find out how good you are at being alone, but don’t expect to change or learn more about your ~deep inner being~.” So I didn’t want to overthink things. I simply wanted to have fun, just be somewhere different for a while. While I may not have had any profound revelatory experiences, I reckon I still figured out a thing or two.

Solo travel is rewarding – but not in the way everyone told me it would be.

For most of my trip, I was travelling independently. Quite a few people told me before leaving, “Don’t worry! You’ll meet SO many cool people.” This seems to be the predominant travel narrative for those in their early-mid 20s. You know, the classic “big OE” stereotype of parties, contiki tours and drinking in hostel bars. If that’s your jam, then that’s totally cool – but I’m a pretty introverted kinda gal, I suck at small talk and excessive alcohol doesn’t agree with my IBS (lol). I also had pretty set ideas about the kind of experiences I wanted in Canada – heaps of walking and outdoorsy stuff basically. I wasn’t about to pay to go half way around the world and end up following the crowd to the bar because that’s what you’re “supposed to do.” Not every has the same expectations and I often felt (and sometimes still feel) a bit like the odd one out.

Even though I’m pretty quiet, I was still kinda nervous about being by myself – I’d become used to the company of a few certain people and almost felt dependent on them to be happy. Couple this with the fact that I’m not really outgoing, and the whole solo travel thing seemed like it could be a really shit idea.

But in the end I loved having the time and space to think and read and write and walk and just be. It had been a long time since I’d felt so comfortable in my own skin. It was totally freeing to do things 100% on my own schedule. I didn’t need anyone else’s company to be content and that’s pretty fucking empowering.

I did also meet some super cool people who expanded my little cosmos – people of all ages from diverse places and backgrounds. I met a badass Quebecois nature guide who has four dogs, white-water rafts, has lived in an offgrid cabin in the Yukon and spends part of her year in Churchill, Manitoba (a.k.a polar bear central). I had awesome conversations with a maths teacher from Alaska who was into foraging and growing his own produce. I went hiking in the Yukon with a wonderful former museum archaeologist who pointed out beaver lodges and fungi. Totally rad people I could connect to on my own terms; no pressure to act like someone I’m not. But for the most part these were fleeting connections. I didn’t make any immediate BFFs, and that’s ok.

Fleeting friendships – there’s no “right” way to travel solo. Jasper National Park, Canada.

Fleeting friendships – there’s no “right” way to travel solo. Jasper National Park, Canada.

Balance is important.

I was most excited to get OUTSIDE. To walk amongst tall pines, beachcomb, explore mossy temperate rainforest and feel glacier-fed lakes and rivers. There’s certainly plenty of these vibes in Canada: from the classic Rocky Mountains, to the vast expanses of the Yukon and the rugged coastline of Haida Gwaii.

But I also found great things in big cities – cute green spaces, fantastic museums and art galleries, characterful coffee shops, delicious ice cream and sushi and smoothies.

Having balance between the urban and the wild turned out to be pretty key to having a fab time. Alternating between the two kept my trip fresh and varied and exciting. I never felt like, “Oh greeaatt, another effing city.” It’s exhilarating to escape civilisation for a while, but other times it just feels right to enjoy a cup of coffee and laugh at wanky modern art.

It was also important to strike a balance between getting out there and doing shit, and just slothing around for a day. Travel can be tiring, so sometimes it’s nice to just soak up the vibes of a place, or chat to friends and family back home.

Wilderness in Banff National Park.

Wilderness in Banff National Park.

Urban in Toronto.

Urban in Toronto.

Attitude is everything.

Expect things to fuck up sometimes – but try not to let it stress you out. Adopting a chilled out, roll-with-it attitude is easier said than done (especially if you have a scumbag anxiety-driven brain like me). But it’ll make all those shitty but necessary things, like airport security lines and long bus rides, so much easier.

Getting into the travel groove also means having an open mind. For example, I believe there is no such thing as a 100% boring place. Sure, you won’t like some places that much (I wasn’t a fan of Calgary). But there’s always something cool to see or something tasty to eat, or even someone cool to hang with. Your experience of a place is largely what you make of it.

So ya know what? That means getting out there and making the most of it. It struck me that I did so much simple stuff that made me happy while travelling, that I didn’t do in my ordinary life at home. Of course you get to treat yourself to some wicked adventures while you’re on holiday – but I’m talking super simple. Like walking in the sunshine and learning about cool stuff that matters, just for fun. So many times I make excuses to sit on my arse at home, squandering the sunshine on Facebook. But no more! I’m all about utilising that enthusiastic traveller’s attitude everyday, seeing more, doing more and FEELING more in my own backyard.

Finally, there’s that social media crap. On Instagram and Facebook, we’re bombarded with glamorous images of travel bloggers and photographers doing their thang (or pretending to do their thang through staged shots). It’s easy to get sucked in and spend ridic amounts of time tryina get that perf #liveauthentic ‘gram, at the expense of simply enjoying the experience. I know I’ve been guilty of this at times, but increasingly that sorta attitude gets on my nerves. I’m not against sharing wicked snaps on insta. It’s all about moderation. What’s more, as Young Adventuress explains fucking perfectly, we’ve sacrificed good yarns for aesthetic but ultimately shallow pictures. Travel should be about exploration, experiences and stories – and sometimes it can be rewarding to keep them just for yourself. Just ’cause it’s not on social media, doesn’t mean it’s not a meaningful moment or awesome experience. In fact, I found that intentionally NOT sharing some adventures on social media helped me appreciate them more for their substance and feeling, not reducing them to mere photo ops.

I guess the whole attitude shbang can be summed up with a kinda “mindfulness” principle. You observe things and absorb experiences with a non-judging mindset, accepting each moment as it happens with your full attention and an open heart.

It’s all about the attitude – don’t let nothin kill yo vibe (not even a broken wrist).

It’s all about the attitude – don’t let nothin kill yo vibe (not even a broken wrist).

Tamahunga: Treasure of the north

First written in May 2015.

Mehemea ka tuohu ahau me maunga teitei.
If I should bow my head, let it be to a high mountain.

Mt Tamahunga is the tallest peak in the Matakana region – despite rising only 437m above sea level, it looms large and aloof above the surrounding landscape, a mysterious green hulk set back from the main road. I have a strong, sentimental connection to this region of New Zealand, having spent every summer here. I feel a deep reverence for the synergistic combination of ocean, rolling coastline and lush green bush; the tui, kereru and piwakawaka as well as the sea creatures and ocean-faring birds. If my soul has a home, this is where it lives.

This region is steeped with Māori history, and Tamahunga is no exception. The trail is named “Te Hikoi o Te Kiri” (“the walk of Te Kiri”) after a formidable Ngātiwai chief. In 1864, Te Kiri rescued around 180 Waikato prisoners held on nearby Kawau Island, and led them to the safety of his pā near the Tamahunga peak.

The walk up Tamahunga from Omaha Valley is short distance-wise but also steep, strenuous and often boggy. Through a couple of paddocks you emerge into bush teeming with ferns, vines, creepers, nikau palms, ponga and towering trees; a cool melting pot of greens and browns, flashes of silver and filtered light, with textures ranging from smooth and waxy to crinkled and rough. It is an earthy feast for the senses. If you walk up earlier in the morning or later in the evening, you may be greeted by tui, pīwakawaka (fantails) and miromiro (tomtits). The trail up is snaked with knobbled roots and embedded with moss-embroidered rocks.

The summit offers a grassy clearing and old wooden helicopter pad, but little in the way of sweeping views due to the thick bush (although I’m told if you continue beyond the summit to the north, there’s some stunning vistas – next time hey!). There’s a glimpse, if you’re sufficiently tall, down to the thin white strip of Omaha, a beach of classic beauty with sapphire waters and tussocked dunes that has unfortunately been victim of a subdivision development. It’s now host to the overt materialism of NZ’s extremely wealthy (including the PM, John Key). Beyond Omaha, the Tāwharanui Peninsula is visible, with its stretch of golden sand and patchworks of farmland and forest. Further still, the bush-clad hump of Kawau Island rises out of the of the ocean.

The track continues on to Pakiri Beach, or you can veer down to the Matakana Valley or simply return the way you came. The Tamahunga Trail is part of Te Araroa (“the long pathway”) which stretches 3000km from Cape Reinga to Bluff.

Finding nature in Sydney

First written in April 2015.

I’m not a big city person. The only two cities I’ve lived in have both had only a few hundred thousand people, and neither really has a city centre (Christchurch’s CBD was destroyed four years ago in an earthquake, and Canberra, the “bush capital,” is just weird). I find the crush of people on trains intimidating, the busy streets loud and overwhelming, plus towering concrete-and-glass is not really my aesthetic. Sydney is your typical “big city” – in fact it’s generic-ness is cited as one of the reasons The Matrix was filmed there – so you might guess it’d be the kind of place I’d loathe. I may not want to live in sprawling suburbia with mind-numbing commutes, nor do I have the means to live within the throbbing urban heart of this Aussie metropolis. But I’ve visited Sydney twice, and I will certainly be visiting again. Here’s a few reasons why.

Sydney: sorta okay for a big city.

Sydney: sorta okay for a big city.

Sydney has some cool nature vibes despite its urban-industrial atmosphere.

Simply walking through one of Sydney’s many green spaces, you’re bound to catch sight of cheeky rainbow lorikeets or raucous sulphur-crested cockatoos, or hear the flapping of flying foxes (fruit bats) at night. The Botanic Gardens are an excellent location to soak up some sunshine amongst some lush greenery, a living wall and a tropical glasshouse pyramid. We got around using ferries fairly often, which offered refreshing salty sea air and blue-on-blue sea-sky combos.

Feelin' lush in the rainforest pyramid.

Feelin' lush in the rainforest pyramid.

Sydney has a bloody awesome zoo.

Although there is a kinda commercial vibe to Taronga Zoo, it is on the better side when it comes to animal welfare and addressing wider conservation issues, like participating in the Corroboree Frog captive breeding and release programme.

Taronga has all the usual suspects: cheeky chimps and other mischievous apes, kangaroos (and a kangabro or two) and the big-ticket classics like elephants, tigers and giraffes. There’s a spectacular seal show that emphasises the importance of purchasing sustainable seafood (whether their message makes a tangible difference, I don’t know) and an awe-inspiring free-flight bird show. I’m a bit of a bird nerd (if you hadn’t already guessed, lol) and although I’d much prefer to see birds in their natural habitat, I got a real thrill giving a donation straight to the beak of Jasper the galah during my first visit, and to a Carnaby’s black cockatoo more recently.

Zoo classic: mama and baby elephant at Taronga Zoo.

Zoo classic: mama and baby elephant at Taronga Zoo.

Aside from these big attractions, I reckon it’s the lesser-known characters who make Taronga so fantastic. There’s gigantic stick insects, nocturnal Spinifex hopping mice, tiny bright black and yellow Corroboree frogs and impressive Andean condors. I loved making eye contact with a Tawny Frogmouth, spotting an Eclectus parrot in the rainforest aviary and getting up close and personal with a tree frog’s underbelly. We admired cassowaries, which are probably the closest thing to dinosaurs I’ve ever seen, and had great fun creating Goat simulator-esque scenarios involving the Barbary sheep and Himalayan tahr.

CRAZY GIANT STICK INSECT WOOAAHH

CRAZY GIANT STICK INSECT WOOAAHH

Beautiful female Eclectus parrot.

Beautiful female Eclectus parrot.

Sticky tree frog.

Sticky tree frog.

If you want to round out the full Sydney animal encounter, there is the Sea Life aquarium in the overtly touristy Darling Harbour. Next door to Madame Tussaud’s, the aquarium has a bit of a rip-off-the-sightseer feel, but is nonetheless home to a huge array of sealife: from big barramundi to tiny tropical fishies adorned with bright colours and crazy patterns. There were a tonne of little kids running amok but they didn’t detract too much from the fluttering, graceful stingrays and their mesmerising underwater flight. It was awesome to see sawfish and various sharks cruising overhead, and there’s a stonefish on display – one of the most venomous fishes in the world. Check out the video below from Smarter Everyday on its insane hypodermic spines.

The museums are treasure troves for the science-minded.

The Australian Museum is seriously great. With a mineral collection that would make Hank from Breaking Bad cry, to discovering the giant wombats and “demon ducks of doom” from Australia’s megafauna history, it’s easy to spend hours lost in the scientific and anthropological wonders housed in his beautiful historic building.

“THEY’RE MINERALS MARIE! JESUS!”

“THEY’RE MINERALS MARIE! JESUS!”

Diprotodon: giant wombat.

Diprotodon: giant wombat.

There’s also the Powerhouse Museum, formerly the Museum of Applied Art and Science. If you’re the kind of person who is in to technology or industrial design, then you’ll find it interesting. Personally, I found it a bit of a weird mix, with a fabulous jewellery exhibition but then also some machinery exhibits that really didn’t enthuse me. I was bemused to discover the laptop I’m typing on now featured in a computer design exhibit. You know your computer needs an upgrade when it’s in a museum…

A chilled out surf beach is only a ferry ride away.

Manly Beach: a long stretch of golden sand lined with Norfolk Pines, bustling with morning joggers and surfers. With a coffee in hand, this was the perfect place to sit and people watch, basking in the calm atmosphere after the “inner city pressure” of Sydney’s centre. A short stroll along Marine Parade is Shelly Beach: a cosy, sheltered bay dotted with sunbathers. Only one or two people were in the water despite the sunshine, perhaps due to the ominous sign warning of shark sightings. We walked through scraggly bush on the headland, which offered expansive views down Manly and out to the open ocean. The walk back was halted for a brief swim in a clear rock pool, and was followed up by some delicious Mexican at Chica Bonita.

Cities do have two things going for them: good coffee and food I can eat!

I am a sucker for a sweet café. There’s nothing better than food someone else prepared, especially when it’s tasty food accompanied by a quality caffeinated beverage. One excellent highlight was the serendipitous discovery of Greenheart Espresso, just a block or two back from Darling Harbour. Darling Harbour itself is populated by soulless steak-or-fishnchips restaurants touting themselves as “funky”, so why bother with the just-off-the-cruise-ship crap when Greenheart Espresso is so close by! This little espresso bar was a breath of fresh air, with a cabinet full of delicious sandwiches, fresh salads piled high on the counter and a selection of smoothies with super new-age ingredients like almond milk and cacao.

Another great find was The Fine Food Store in The Rocks, with an extensive menu of crazy delicious breakfast and proper iced coffee (with espresso ice cubes – none of that cream and ice cream shit).

Into the wild: On my own terms

First written March 2015.

I like to think of myself as a nature lovin’ character. I believe that a connection to wilderness is essential to human wellbeing and count Chris McCandless as one of my personal heroes. I was enthralled by Robyn Davidson’s stubborn slog across the outback in Tracks and I wished that Wild had more sweeping mountain scenery and less Reese Witherspoon getting it on with randoms in alleyways. I follow the adventures of Not A Chance and Carrot Quinn, badass ladies who have thru-hiked more than 24,000km of the Pacific Crest Trail between them. I daydream of trekking through the rich, sweaty depths of the Amazon and scaling the cloud-shrouded dome of Mt Kinabalu in Borneo.

It was with these wild aspirations in mind that I signed up for a volunteer tramping trip: five days in the NZ back country monitoring and catching kea. Despite my enthusiastically earthy self-image, I have only really undertaken day hikes, with just one overnight backpacking stint in the last five years. This lack of experience didn’t deter me, and I spent weeks preparing, acquiring a pack and practising pitching my tent. But soon after embarking, reality cut me down like a tree being logged and my expectations were splintered. The uphill struggle straight up a mountainside burned me out and wore me down. Suffering from heatstroke and with a nerve in my shoulder pinching, I decided to walk out and go home the next day. Since this disappointing experience, I have been wracked with doubt. I had built up these lofty expectations based on the exploits of others, without pausing to consider the extent of my own abilities and what I actually wanted out of the experience.

Halfway up the mountainside - Hawdon Valley, near Arthur's Pass.

Halfway up the mountainside - Hawdon Valley, near Arthur's Pass.

The struggle was real. Photo by Tobi.

The struggle was real. Photo by Tobi.

There’s no doubt connection to the natural world is important to me – and indeed in the age of “nature deficit disorder” it should be a connection we all strive to strengthen. But I got addicted to the idea of nature – a flattened, two-dimensional version splashed across smartphone screens. I wanted to participate in this colourful world of sharp blue, green and brown pixels. But real nature isn’t just a pretty picture – it’s the afternoon sun beating down on the back of your neck, the cool river water tugging at your ankles with a deceptive strength and the wind charging down a mountain pass to rattle and pummel your tent. It’s invigorating, but not always comfortable. Combined with the pressure to maintain a certain pace with others of mountain-goat-ability, my wilderness sojourn was a shock to the system. But there were magical bits too: a low cloud slinking at the far end of the valley, the dark, weedy waters of a shooting cold tarn and of course the piercing cry of kea as they wheeled overhead. Maybe right now I can’t walk for weeks on end, but I can still delight in nature. It’s not about trudging so fast to your destination that the scenery, flora and fauna meld into a barely-remembered blur, nor is it obsessing over getting a spectacular scenery snap to show off to your friends. It’s stopping to admire a particularly perfect fern, or press your hand into a bed of soft moss. It’s sitting on a cool, smooth rock and smelling the earth after rain. It’s about a complete sensory experience.

River crossing.

River crossing.

Mountains, braided rivers and sneaky clouds.

Mountains, braided rivers and sneaky clouds.

Tarn near Walker Pass.

Tarn near Walker Pass.

I think each person has their own unique relationship with nature. For some it will mean detaching from modern madness for days or weeks, but for others it may mean a Sunday picnic by a lake. Both are valid, both can be restorative. But the essence of our enjoyment is not static – like nature itself, it is dynamic and complex, ever-changing and evolving. I can aim to live more authentically with my environmental values, and less vicariously through Instagram. While my planned 5 day break in nature may have come to an abrupt end, my connection to nature in all its beauty, paradox and power can only grow. We should all venture out to visit Mother Earth in person more often, on our own terms.

Holding a kea - the uphill slog was worth it just for this. Photo by Peter.

Holding a kea - the uphill slog was worth it just for this. Photo by Peter.

Pteridophilia: A visual diary

First written in November 2015.

“Only spread a fern-frond over a man’s head and worldly cares are cast out, and freedom and beauty and peace come in.”

– John Muir

Image by WWF Australia.

Image by WWF Australia.

One of my favourite things about walking in the bush is the thick carpet of ferns that often adorns the forest floor. Lush and green with a mesmerising symmetry – they add a certain aesthetic, a richness and depth to the layers of forest. As a celebration of this humble beauty, here are some recent fernlicious snaps.

50 shades of green

50 shades of green

Koru unfurling

Koru unfurling

New growth & light

New growth & light

I’ve been trying to learn more about New Zealand’s fabulous native flora – how to identify species, what they’re used for by Māori traditionally and in modern times, and what role they play in our forest ecosystem. There’s a lot to learn – NZ has about 200 fern species, and around 40% of them are found nowhere else in the world! This is unusual for a temperate country, as our ferny friends are typically found in tropical areas. New Zealand’s fern species range from towering mamaku, up to 20m high, down to delicate fronds only 20mm long.

Ferns are not just pretty either – they’re tasty too! Young fern fronds of two species, hen & chicken fern (Asplenium bulbiferum) and the common shield fern (Polystichum richardii), are eaten by Māori as a vegetable. The edible undeveloped fronds are referred to as pikopiko, and can be served as a relish (kinaki) for potato. Visit the Māori Plant Use database to learn more.

The silver fern, or ponga, is a national symbol of New Zealand – while the fronds of this tree fern are green on top, their underside is a beautiful silvery grey.

Sometimes, it’s the little wonders that set your heart alight.

Bird of the Year: Who will you vote for?

First written in October 2015. 

Have you voted yet? Every year, Forest & Bird runs the New Zealand Bird of the Year comp. The aim is to raise awareness of the amazing avian species we have here in NZ, and to promote their conservation.

So who will you vote for? Here are some fully rad options for you:

KEA  (Nestor notabilis)

This “clown of the mountains” is the world’s only alpine parrot. Fave pastimes include eating cars, locking hikers in back country huts and being general cheeky bastards. These guys are very intelligent – they can solve logic puzzles and have been recorded using tools. Kea were once hunted for bounty due to their badass destructive antics, but they now have full protection. Sadly, they’ve become endangered. Visit the Kea Conservation Trust for more info, or like them on Facebook.

Image by Daniel Pietzsch (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Image by Daniel Pietzsch (CC BY-NC 2.0).

KĀKĀPŌ  (Strigops habroptilus)

A chubby, flightless and nocturnal parrot, there are only 125 kākāpō in existence. You may have heard of kākāpō thanks to Sirocco, who notoriously shagged Mark Carwardine on “Stephen Fry’s Last Chance to See” (see below). Male kākāpō BOOM to attract mates, and they are the heaviest and longest-living parrots. In 2013, they were (quite unfairly, I must say) voted the second ugliest animal. How could you call this adorable face ugly?! Visit Kākāpō Recovery on their website or Facebook to learn more. You can also read more about kākāpō here.

Image by Chris Birmingham/Department of Conservation (CC BY 2.0).

Image by Chris Birmingham/Department of Conservation (CC BY 2.0).

KĀKĀ (Nestor meridionalis)

Forest-dwelling relative of the kea, these fellas are also well-known for their cheekiness. Most kākā are grey-green, but some have a gorgeous red colour variation. Kākā are basically the closest thing to dinosaurs, retaining some ancient parrot characteristics since they split off from their cousins around 100 million years ago. The kākā is at risk due to habitat loss and predation from introduced pests, but has recently been welcomed into the leafy subrubs of Wellington. Zealandia Ecosanctuary is backing this bird: YES WE KĀKĀ CAN!

Image by Small (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Image by Small (CC BY-SA 2.0).

BAR-TAILED GODWIT  (Limosa lapponica baueri, kūaka)

This insane mofo completes the longest non-stop flight of any bird, migrating between the Arctic tundra and temperate regions in Asia/Australia/New Zealand. It’s been recorded as flying more than 11,000km over 9 days, the longest trip without stopping to feed of ANY animal. Like woah, THAT’S CRAZY DUDES. When they’re not flying ridic long distances, they can be found chilling in mudflats and marshes, munching on insects, crustaceans and aquatic plants. Tasty.

Image by Ben (CC BY-ND 2.0).

Image by Ben (CC BY-ND 2.0).

CHATHAM ISLAND BLACK ROBIN  (Petroica traversi)

This lil black sphere is super resilient, battling back from the brink of extinction, fo’ real. There are now around 250 black robins, but back in 1980, there were only five left. ONLY FIVE. This included a *single* fertile female, named Old Blue. Using cross-fostering techniques, Don Merton and his Wildlife Service team were able to save these cuties. As all individuals are descended from Old Blue, there is unfortunately little genetic variation between them. Interestingly, this doesn’t seem to have caused any inbreeding issues, suggesting that the species has suffered similar population bottlenecks in the past. Ain’t nature crazy cool?

Image by Frances Schmechel (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Image by Frances Schmechel (CC BY-SA 2.0).

FIORDLAND CRESTED PENGUIN  (Eudyptes pachyrhynchus, tawaki)

These dapper chaps have excellent eyebrows. Just look at those spiky yellow plumes! You won’t find these rare penguins in the Antarctic – they live in colonies in coastal temperate rainforest. Tawaki mate for life, and like other penguins, they don’t have teeth. Instead, they have nightmare-inducing fleshy spines that allow them to swallow their food whole.

Dem eyebrows. Image by travelwayoflife (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Dem eyebrows. Image by travelwayoflife (CC BY-SA 2.0).

Inside a penguin's mouth: THE STUFF OF NIGHTMARES. Image via Imgur.

Inside a penguin's mouth: THE STUFF OF NIGHTMARES. Image via Imgur.

KĀREAREA  (Falco novaeseelandiae, New Zealand Falcon)

Don’t get on this dude’s bad side – despite their small stature, these birds of prey are fiercely territorial and will attack people.  Unlike their larger swamp harrier relatives, kārearea won’t be found scavenging carrion. Instead, they prefer to display amazing aerial acrobatic prowess and snatch their prey out of the air, or grab them off the ground with their sharp talons. These falcons are speed demons, reaching speeds of up to 200 km/h. And they’re not just fast – they’re gutsy too, killing prey UP TO SIX TIMES LARGER than itself. WOAH. If you’re a fan of a classic Marlborough sav, vote kārearea! They have been introduced to the Marlborough wine region to deal with grape-devouring pests. Check out Wingspan Birds of Prey Trust.

Tiny but mighty. Image by Tony Wills (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Tiny but mighty. Image by Tony Wills (CC BY-SA 3.0).

KERERŪ (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae, New Zealand Pigeon, Wood Pigeon, kūkupa, kūkū)

With a white singlet stretched over their rotund middle and whooshing wings in flight, it’s hard to miss these tubsters in the bush. These guys are trendsetters, living the raw vegan lifestyle way before it was cool on Instagram – they mainly eat fruit, with a few flowerbuds thrown in. Kererū are super important to many native plant species, including kawaka and tara, dispersing their seeds via poop. If the kererū disappeared, our beautiful lush NZ forests would never be the same again. The kererū was an important food source for Māori, however it is now illegal to hunt them. Other threats to these forest fatties include predation by rats, stoats, cats and possums. Go to Kererū Discovery and Project Kererū to learn more.

On the lookout for some tasty forest fruit. Image by Cheryl Harvey (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

On the lookout for some tasty forest fruit. Image by Cheryl Harvey (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

KŌKAKO (Callaeas wilsoni)

These intriguing North Island forest-dwellers have grey plumage, a black eyemask and striking blue wattles. They once had a South Island cousin adorned with orangey wattles, who is sadly now presumed extinct. Like many NZ birds, this fella has a hard time flying and instead prefers to hop around, scramble up trees and glide – more like a flying squirrel than a bird! This behaviour evolved in the absence of mammalian predators, so the introduction of nasties like stoats has had a devastating effect on our kōkako friends. They have a clear, bell-like call which can be heard ringing across the forest for kilometres in a “bush choir.” Visit Hunua Kōkako Recovery Project to see more of these woodland warblers.

Masked forest bandit with a bell-like voice. Image by Matt Binns (CC BY 2.0).

Masked forest bandit with a bell-like voice. Image by Matt Binns (CC BY 2.0).

TAKAHĒ (Porphyrio hochstetteri)

The largest member of the rail family, this stocky big-beaked bird was once presumed to be extinct. Incredibly, a small population was rediscovered in 1948, deep in the rugged mountains of Fiordland National Park. The takahē once inhabited swamps, however conversion of swampland to farmland left them searching for a new home. They found it higher up on the tussocked mountainsides, where they dine on alpine grasses. The takahē is flightless, and is at risk due to predation by stoats and competition for food sources with deer. There are currently around 260 takahē, with several populations residing on predator-free island sanctuaries.

The rugged Murchison mountains in Fiordland National Park - where the takahe was rediscovered in 1948. Image by Dan Nelson (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

The rugged Murchison mountains in Fiordland National Park - where the takahe was rediscovered in 1948. Image by Dan Nelson (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

WRYBILL (Anarhynchus frontalis, ngutuparore)

This plump lil plover is endemic to New Zealand. The wrybill is the only bird species to have a sideways-bent beak. Why, you may ask? To reach under and around riverstones to catch some delish insect tucker, of course. WOAH EVOLUTION YOU CRAZY. The wrybill breeds in the braided rivers of the South Island, and spends January to July each year holidaying in the estuaries of the North Island.

Check out that bent beak! Image by 57Andrew (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Check out that bent beak! Image by 57Andrew (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0).

Rakaia River: an example of a braided river, where wrybills breed. Image by Geoff Leeming (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Rakaia River: an example of a braided river, where wrybills breed. Image by Geoff Leeming (CC BY-NC 2.0).

Of course, there are many other fabulous birds you can vote for; this is just a small selection of the feathered phenoms we have here in lil ol’ Aotearoa. VOTE HERE then let me know who you voted for & why in the comments!

The other flightless, night-dwelling bird

First written in March 2015.

New Zealand is well-known for our array of birds-that-are-more-like-mammals (thanks, evolution!). We have long been recognised for our namesake bird, the kiwi, but the roly-poly kākāpō is rising through the ranks of “world famous in NZ” stars. I’d contend the kākāpo is the fourth most popular folk-bird in NZ, seeing as they’re pretty much the avian version of the Flight of the Conchords: awkward but endearing and oh-so-funny. If you haven’t heard of these delightful but eccentric parrots, I can guarantee your life will be all the richer once you get to know them!

Sirocco Kākāpō. Image by Chris Birmingham/Department of Conservation (CC BY 2.0).

Sirocco Kākāpō. Image by Chris Birmingham/Department of Conservation (CC BY 2.0).

The kākāpo is a rotund parrot with an owlish face and exquisite green mottled feathers. This soft, dappled green is excellent for blending into the lush NZ bush, which is handy for kākāpo who seem opt for “freeze” rather than “fight or flight” when taken by surprise. Kākāpo take the title for “world’s heaviest parrot” so it is no wonder they also take the honour for “world’s only flightless parrot.” These adaptations served them well in pre-human NZ, as they were able to effectively avoid predation by the giant but now extinct Haast’s Eagle that ruled the daylight skies. They may not be able to soar majestically, but kākāpo are great at “controlled falls” out of trees, with the grace and elegance of a flying brick. Despite their limited flight abilities, kākāpo are fantastic climbers and one has even been known to evade capture by Department of Conservation rangers by scaling a rimu tree tens of metres tall. Cheeky as!

Haast’s Eagle was the largest eagle known to have existed. Here it is pictured attacking moa (also extinct). Image by John Megahan/PLoS Biology (CC BY 2.5).

Haast’s Eagle was the largest eagle known to have existed. Here it is pictured attacking moa (also extinct). Image by John Megahan/PLoS Biology (CC BY 2.5).

Kākāpo are largely solitary birds, leaving their home range only to breed. Like many of their other characteristics, the kākāpo’s courtship is rather unusual. Kākāpo are considered “lek” breeders, which means that the males compete with each other to attract the attention of females. The male kākāpo’s “stall” in this “marketplace of seduction” consists of a shallow bowl dug into the ground, cleared of any forest debris, with a couple of tracks leading to it. This “track and bowl”, typically located high up on a hilltop, is the stage for a remarkable performance. Forget milkshakes ‘cause they don’t bring the kākāpo to the yard – these birds are are all about that bass. The male will puff himself up into a fat feathery ball and commence “booming.”

His boom is amplified by the bowl and reverberates across the valleys, attracting females from far and wide. Sometimes he will alternate his bassy booms with a “ching” call that allows females to hone in on his location. Gotta get dat boom-boom-ching!

What happens next? This video featuring Spokesbird for Conservation Sirocco Kākāpo may give you an idea…

The female will then typically lay one to four eggs, that will hatch after 30 days. You can see a kākāpo hatchling in this video (they aren’t the most attractive baby birds, hey).

This bizarre breeding display only occurs once every couple of years – only when there’s sufficient rimu fruit around. Ordinarily for kākāpo, this slow pace would be all good, as they can live for 90 years, and maybe even 120 years. However, human settlement, habitat destruction and introduced pests such as stoats and cats have led to a significant decline in kākāpo numbers. Fossil records indicate that the kākāpo were once widespread throughout NZ and were our third most common bird, but today, they are considered critically endangered.

Kākāpō chicks. Image by Dianne Mason/Department of Conservation (CC BY 2.0).

Kākāpō chicks. Image by Dianne Mason/Department of Conservation (CC BY 2.0).

Conservation efforts began as early as the 1890s, with conservationist Richard Henry transporting 200 kākāpo in his dinghy from Fiordland to Resolution Island in an attempt to save them. Sadly, stoats soon swum to Resolution Island and wiped out Richard Henry’s endeavours within just six years. Today, only 126 kākāpo remain, and each is individually named – a stark reminder of the species’ precarious situation. These survivors live on offshore, predator-free islands, with about half calling Whenua Hou (Codfish Island) home.

The good folk at the Kākāpo Recovery programme intensely manage the kākāpo population and have overseen an increase in their population from just 86 individuals in 2005. Each bird is fitted with a radio transmitter and supplementary food is provided to encourage successful breeding. The kākāpo are trained to use their food hoppers with “Hansel & Gretel” style trails of kumara. Some hoppers are even fitted with devices able to identify specific kākāpo via their radio transmitter – this prevents naughty kākāpo from raiding their neighbours’ tucker!

Kākāpō at a feeding station. Image by Josie Beruldsen/Department of Conservation (CC BY 2.0).

Kākāpō at a feeding station. Image by Josie Beruldsen/Department of Conservation (CC BY 2.0).

One particularly mischievous kākāpo is Sirocco, who I have already mentioned is the Spokesbird for Conservation and star of “Last Chance to See” with Stephen Fry. Sirocco had a rocky start to life, suffering from a respiratory illness at three weeks old. In order to improve his chances of survival, Sirocco was handraised and returned to the wild once he was healthy, after a few months in human care. However this stint in the company of humans had a lasting effect, as it soon became clear Sirocco believed he was Homo sapiens and not Strigops habroptilus. Sirocco was so enamoured with his human saviours that he built his “track and bowl” on the path between the ranger hut and toilet on Codfish Island, and attempted to mate with any unsuspecting volunteer or ranger who ventured out for a midnight pee. Due to his imprinting on humans, Sirocco was deemed unsuitable for breeding but he had a natural affinity for the limelight. He spends most of his time living peacefully in the wild, but does “go on tour” like any rockstar, visiting various locations around NZ.

Sirocco Kākāpō is full of character. Image by Darren Scott (CC BY 2.0).

Sirocco Kākāpō is full of character. Image by Darren Scott (CC BY 2.0).

Kākāpo are intelligent, curious and have distinct personalities – they are an extraordinary species, precious taonga (treasure), that we cannot afford to lose. With charismatic advocates like Sirocco, a well-funded breeding programme and the procurement of predator-free habitat, there is hope for our fascinating feathered friends.

This post was inspired by a recent talk given at Forest & Bird.

You can visit Sirocco Kākāpo on Facebook here.

You can visit Kākāpo Recovery on their website or on Facebook.

Counting birds at Te Waihora

First written in February 2015.

Forget counting sheep, tallying our feathered friends is a surefire way to get to sleep – not because it’s boring, but rather exhausting.

Recently, I ventured out across the Canterbury Plains to Te Waihora (Lake Ellesmere) to participate in a planning day for the Te Waihora Trust’s annual bird count. Despite its proximity to Christchurch, I had never visited this vast, 5000-year-old lagoon, whose Māori name means “spreading waters.” The lake has a fascinating history, both ecologically and culturally. It was formerly the mouth of the Waimakariri river and as our accompanying ranger explained, “The Waimak is like an out-of-control water hose. It’s only due to human intervention that it’s stayed put.” To the local Maori people, Ngai Tahu, the lake has long held significance as a mahinga kai (important site for food and other natural resources). For hundreds of years, they cleverly maintained the lake at an optimal level for the birdlife, an important food source, while eels and fish were abundant. Sadly, post-Pakeha settlement activities such as farming and commercial fishing have degraded the lake and the life it supported.

Satellite image of Banks Peninsula. Te Waihora is the murky green body of water at the bottom left. Image by Jesse Allan/LANDSAT 7 via NASA/Earth Observatory.

Satellite image of Banks Peninsula. Te Waihora is the murky green body of water at the bottom left. Image by Jesse Allan/LANDSAT 7 via NASA/Earth Observatory.

Nonetheless, Te Waihora remains an important bird habitat, with as many as 98,000 birds present at any one time, and more than 150 species recorded. Its natural beauty is of the sweeping, sparse variety. Emerging from the surrounds of farm fields onto the vast Greenpark Sands reveals an extraordinary expanse of brown, red and dull green beneath a bowed grey sky. The ground is cracked and dry – a symptom of the ongoing drought in Canterbury.

Greenpark Sands.

Greenpark Sands.

Just a few days ago, a flock of around 600 banded dotterels were here, but today we can only find a few flocks of about ten, camouflaged in the glasswort and salt grass. The lake is the fifth largest in New Zealand, so there is lots of area for the birds to cover. My binoculars are heavy and difficult to keep steady, and with the birds constantly moving, it requires good concentration to count them. Just imagine counting hundreds, or thousands! We near the lake edge, which appears shimmering grey in the heat haze (even though it’s quite chilly). There are black swans, wrybills and pied stilts spied from binoculars. A tern soars overhead. The avid birders are excited to spot a lone red-necked stint amongst some dotterels, a species that migrates between the Arctic and Australasia. A couple of hours have passed as we have wound across the saltmarsh, stopping intermittently to watch and practice counting. It’s tiring work. I’m just an amateur keen to see beautiful birds and be outdoors, but some “twitchers” take their birds very, very seriously.

Banded dotterel. Image by JJ Harrison (CC BY-SA 3.0).

Banded dotterel. Image by JJ Harrison (CC BY-SA 3.0).

I couldn’t make the actual count itself – but an impressive 48,000 birds were counted. You can visit the Waihora Ellesmere trust on Facebook to see pictures of the count.