Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Maui Vs Te Ika

Maui uses his special fish-hook to land the great fish that formed the North Island of New Zealand. That's true folks - whilst the South Island is a (slightly rocking) kayak, the North Island is a great dead fish.

As you can see, there is some friendly rivalry between North and South! I'm a mainlander, born and raised.

Of course, the North Islanders also consider themselves maindlanders...

Anyway, a maxicard style piece I rustled up for a chap in Kuwait, who probably doesn't want it (he's a stamp collector), but hey - I'm getting my art into Kuwait!

Monday, September 27, 2010

Puteketeke, the Crested Grebe

Today I thought I would share with you one of my most favouritest birds - The Crested Grebe.

Although Australian in origin, the Crested Grebe has established itself at home in the South Island of New Zealand. A cosmopolitan species has close cousins in Africa and the Palaearctic, as well as Australia of course. It can be found in many of the clear, shallow subapline lakes east of the Southern Alps, and also in Westland. During a particularly cold winter, when these lakes freeze over, the grebes take flight and migrate closer to the coast.

The species are almost entirely aquatic, and rarely, if ever, come onto dry land (although they do occasionally scramble onto mud banks, as seen here). Indeed, although they are strong fliers, they are rarely seen in flight and it is thought that they move between lakes at night. To take to the air, they require water for lift off, and take off much like swans - with a running start. Their feet are positioned very far back, almost under their tail, which makes walking difficult and also means that if they misinterpret their landing spot and land in a shallow puddle instead of on the lake, they will fall on their face. The latin name Podiceps is derived from podex meaning "rump" and pedis meaning "Foot" - so literally = "rump foot". These feet however make them swift swimmers and expert divers. They make deep dives in pursuit of live prey - crustaceans, insect larvae and fish and can stay down for several seconds - the longest recorded dive was 53 seconds.

Courtship involves an elaborate dance, and is most beautiful to behold. In early spring the pairs begin to form and the male performs for the female, splaying his neck ruff and arching his head crest. Then both birds rise in the water, facing each other and shake their heads, crests erect, whilst uttering low, moaning cries. It is a beautiful, syncronised ballet, and I hope one day to witness it.

Nests are built of sticks, rushes and waterweed, collected together to form a large, untidy island of a mound. Usually this is anchored to some sort of plant formation at the verge of the lake. The hen lays up to six eggs over a period of as many days and incubation starts immediately. Chicks therefore hatch at intervals, and sometimes older siblings will take off with one parent whilst the other hatches out the remaining eggs. Chicks ride on their parents back, usually in pairs until they become too big to do so. Some still make an attempt, however.

Never particularly populous, one pair of grebes tends to inhabit one lake, and thus they are quite difficult to see in the wild. One lake on the West Coast, Ianthe, is reported to hold higher numbers of these regal birds, and I recently visited there and was lucky enough (on the return visit) to find a single Crested Grebe, cruising the lake. I believe I may also have observed them at Lake Alexandrina in my youth, but as an avid birdwatcher, do wonder now if that was just fanciful, wishful thinking as I never saw them close-up. The grainy photo taken at maximum zoom is without any shade of a doubt, however, a Crested Grebe:

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Pekapeka, the Short Tailed Bat

The only terrestrial mammals found in New Zealand are bats, of which there are only two species (a third now being extinct). They are small, ancient bat species weighing only 12-15 grams. Although they use sonar to fly, they spend rather a large amount of time on the ground, where they forage for insects, grubs, and also enjoy sipping nectar and pollen. They use their front limbs to scramble around on the forest floor and their wing-thumb is extended into a claw, helping them dig into rotten logs, and also to climb with some skill. Indeed, it is a relatively slow flier and rarely gets more than three metres above ground. In flight they have been described as looking rather like ungainly butterflies. During the daylight hours, they gather in hollow trees or excavated tunnels, in large groups. If the weather is too cold for them to venture out, they go into a “torpor” state in which their body limits its functions until the weather warms up. It is not as intense as hibernation. In late summer, the females form into nursery groups and the males roost separately. The males sing from strategic points to attract their mates, and the females can travel up to 10 km to make their selection. Only one pup is born per season and grows to maturity within 12 weeks.

Saturday, September 18, 2010

Conservation Week - the duck with teeth

Auckland Island Merganser
(RIP 1902)
The Merganser is a type of fish-eating duck and there are a number of species found worldwide. They are unusual in having serrated edges to their beak, which are ideal for holding onto their fishy prey. This smart wee bird was found in the Auckland Islands, south of New Zealand and also fossils suggest perhaps some other offshore New Zealand islands too. It is believed that predation and hunting by humans are responsible for its decline. Whilst capable of flight, it preferred to duck and take cover when threatened, making it a "sitting duck" for predators.

Friday, September 17, 2010

Conservation Week - the Price of Fashion

(RIP 1960)
The Huia is one of three bird species in New Zealand with a unique bill. The female's bill is long and curved, and the male's shorter and sharper. It is thought that this aids in them foraging differently. The male uses his shorter, stubby bill to chisel away at the tree bark, whereas the female uses hers to pluck insects from hollows, like a giant pair of tweezers. Apart from this striking sexual dimorphism, very little is actually known about this beautiful bird, as it was little studied. However, its feathers were greatly prized, particularly the white tipped tail feathers. This bird was considered sacred to the Maori, and only those of very high rank were allowed to wear the feathers. Because of its unusual beak differences, moutned specimans were greatly sought after by museums and private collectors. With rather a lot of profit to be made, the poor huia - already threatened by habitat destruction and mammalian predation, was hunted to extinction. It is one of the ironies, that the rarer something gets, the more desireable it was to shoot, kill and mount them. The tail feathers also became a highly desirable fashion item - worn by the elite Europeans.

And with this, the huia's fate was sealed.

Tomorrow, I think I shall introduce you to an extinctwaterbird.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Enigmatic Raupo Stalker

Kaoriki, the New Zealand Little Bittern
(RIP 1890)
The enigmatic Little Bittern had a close relative in Australia, but was larger, more chesnut in colouration and stripier. It was a shy and solitary bird that stalked through raupo swamps and salt-water lagoons. Seldom seen and little studied, they disappeared from the face of the earth only 20 years after getting formally identified. Now it has been replaced by the larger Australasian Bittern, a self-introduced immigrant.

Tomorrow's bird - probably the Huia. If I can get it looking right!

Conservation Week - Piopio

Piopio, the New Zealand Thrush
(RIP 1963)
This charming forest bird is not a thrush at all and was for many years classified in its own family. It is now, however, considered to be related to the bowerbirds and birds of paradise. It was also, reportedly, the best forest songster, with its call consisting of five distinctive bars, repeated in succession then followed by rattling sounds and some mimicry. Regretfully, it is a sound we shall never hear, because the Piopio faced the fate of mammalian predation. By the turn of the last century it was very rare in both the North and South Islands (there being two subspecies) and by 1963 is was declared officially extinct. Its diet was insectivorous, including also berries and it spent a fair amount of time flitting between the forest floor and low tree branches, without engaging in extended flight. It was relatively "tame" meaning that it was unafraid of the human immigrants and thus fell easy prey to their dogs and cats.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Conservation Week - lest we forget...

This week is Conservation week, and thus I shall be commemerating the occasion by illustrating some of the birds we've lost. Because I'm a day late, I'll introduce you to two today (actually, it started sunday, so I better get cracking!)

Koreke, the New Zealand Quail
(RIP 1875)
This plump wee quail, similar to an Australian species (the Stubble Quail) was once abundant throughout New Zealand. Unfortunately, a combination of hunting and deforestation sealed its fate. There habitat was predominantly grassland, and they fed on shoots and other plant matter. Like all quails, they spent most of their time on the ground, which made them vulnerable to predation by rats. Their extinction occured before the introduction of mustelid predators to the islands.

There was some excitement in 2007 when quail were found living on an offshore island, but unfortunately DNA testing proved that these were the Australian Stubble Quail - a species which has been introduced here, but may also have occured naturally. They appear very similar in appearance and may be related.

Lyall's Wren
(RIP 1895)
Also known as "Stephen's Island Wren" this bird is infamous because of the tragedy of its extinction. Common legend has that the entire species was wiped out by a single cat. This is not entirely true. This diminutive wren was the last extant flightless passerine and its entire range was limited to a small island in the Cook Strait. It is also the stronghold for tuatara and Hamilton's frog. When the Lighthouse Keeper was put onto the island, he brought with him a cat. One day his cat brought in a small bird - and that was how this species became known to zoologists. They were apparently quite a common sight, hopping amongst the stones and under logs as they hunted for their invertebrate prey. However, their decline was swift when feral cats founs their way to the island. In the year following his arrival in 1898, after the last wren was seen, the new lighthouse keeper shot over 100 feral cats. Deforestation has also been blamed, but Stephen's Island was not heavily deforested until the early 1900s. The only possible positive that came out of this was that Lighthouse Keepers on isolated islands were no longer permitted to keep cats to get rid of the mice. Whether this has saved other species, I do not know. These cats also sealed the fate of the Stephen Island Piopio, a subspecies of our native thrush, which will (sadly) be the subject of tomorrow's post.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Cute pair of tits

Ngirungiru. the South Island Tomtit
This chubby little flycatcher is closely related to the robin and the two look very similar in appearance. However, the robin is a sleeker, more streamlined model. The South Island subspecies, pictured here, features the characteristic yellow belly, as does its robin counterpart. They are chubby little forest birds, frequently the rainforest of the West Coast. Their diet is a wide range of insects - bugs, grubs and flies. They are fast breeders, building a well constructed nest in the fork of a tree. The female incubates, whilst the male brings food and then they both look after the chicks. They are capable of raising three broods a year.


The Kakapo is probably one of our most unusual birds, and certainly one most New Zealanders are familiar with - although very few of us have ever seen one. Kakapo are critically endangered, and being long-lived there were fears for a time that there were no females left at all in Fiordland. Once this large, charasmatic parrot lived the length of the country, then predation and competition reduced its range to the high peaks of Fiordland and finally, now it is essentially Extinct in the Wild with a wild colony being set up on Codfish Island and specialist breeding facilities at secret locations throughout the country to try and breed up their numbers.

Having watched a documentary on these guys "Kakapo - an Unnatural History", I can tell you rather a lot about them.

The Kakapo is a flightless, nocturnal parrot. Its diet consists of native plants, seeds, roots, pollens and sapwood. Although flightless, it does have well developed wings and is an efficient climber, so can glide downwards efficiently. Its legs are sturdy and it has the distinctive bouncing parrot gait and can reach quite a speed, even if it does look most comical doing it.

Kakapo have great personality. They're not afraid of humans - which lead to them being hunted almost to extinction and they also display the curiousity typical of their kin. They are long-lived - it is suspected that they can live to be over 100. The males are also excessively randy. If no females answer their calls, they will try and mate with anything - I have seen footage of one accidentally killing a rather smaller shearwater that came too close to an over excited male. And as most of the world knows, they are also attracted to TV presenters. Most of our Kakapo have constant interaction with humans - even if it is just because they get weighed and examined on a regular basis.

In breeding season, the male makes himself a hollow in the sand and here he crouches and booms for a lady. And booms... In Fiordland, Kakapo were booming, but noone was answering - there were no females left. Because the long, low boom carries far but is hard to pinpioint, he follows this up with some higher-pitched screeches, so that the ladies can find him.

Luckily for the DOC chaps, a second population was found on Stewart Island, a population that included females.

Unluckily, because it was a small population, descended from only a few individuals, it was genetically "cursed" and many of the sperm deformed and chicks weakened due to inbreeding depression. This made some males more desireable genetically, but alas, these were not necessarily the birds that were popular with the rather small selection of "ladies".

If it were not for Don Merton (my hero - because he also saved the Black Robin) and the dedicated and rather obsessive DoC workers, the Kakapo would no longer be with us, and even now its future is uncertain. Long-lived birds do not breed every year and do not double-clutch (lay another clutch if the first is destroyed/dies), both factors responsible for the Black Robins survival. The genetic curse still exists, although with artificial insemination DoC can insure that some hens at least will produce healthy, viable offspring.

As this bird is so totally unique - and such a character, I hope it is one that future generations will be able to learn about with joy, not tragedy.

If you love the Kakapo, check out the DVD "The Unnatural History". You'll laugh, you'll cry and you'll be amazed at the dedication of Don Merton and the other passionate DoC workers. It's not their job - it's their life. And I am so grateful to them for it. We purchased our copy from Arthur's Pass Visitors Centre, but it might be available around town too.

Birds of a Feather

Titipounamu, the Rifleman
This wee chap is our smallest bird, measuring 80 mm from beak to stubby tail-tip. The original picture of this uis approximately life sized. Although one of the New Zealand Wren species, it is not closely related to the European or American wrens, merely bears them a superficial resemblance. Rifleman are insectivores and found in native forest prefering it not too dense podocarp or beech. They are fast moving and talkative little fellows, flicking fast around tree trunks and inserting their slightly upturned beak into crevices as they hunt for grubs.

Tutukiwi, the Snipe
Probably one of the least known native birds, the snipe is strange, small, secretive and very rare. No longer found on the mainland, he only lives on offshore islands. Whilst a member of the Wader family, the forests are his home. Once there were several species, but most were wiped out by rats and other introduced predators. More often heard then seen, the Snipe has a swift flight and a tendency to scream as it flies through the air in its mating flight. This scream greatly exceeds its dimunitive size and has lead to its attribution as Hakawai, a mythical bird from Maori folklore. Alledgedly, it sounds like a cable chain being lowered from a boat and is produced by vibrating tail feathers and preceeded by several calls. Obviously, its other Maori name - Tutukiwi, relates to the rather superficial resemblance it bears to our national icon. It is crepusculer in behaviour and like the kiwi eats grubs and bugs and other invertebrates, probing with its long, thin bill.

Tarapiroe, the Black Fronted Tern
The elegant tern can be found around our beaches and inland rivers. This graceful seabird can usually be identified in flight by its forked tail and long, narrow wings. It is not particularly common - the population is estimated to be around 5000, and migrates the length of the country. In breeding season, they flock to inland riverbeds to breed, returning to the coast in late summer and autumn. The nest is a simple scrape, in which they lay their eggs. Although nesting colonies can number around 50 pairs, they are prone to disturbances such as humans, dogs, cats and other predators. The youngsters hatch small, fluffy and precocious, and their camouflage offers them some protection from avian predators but very little from mammals (which hunt by scent). Whilst they will attempt to divebomb intruders, their small size makes them not overly efficient deterents.

Earthquake in Christchurch

You may have heard that on the 4th September there was an earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand, measuring 7.1 magnitude.

We were right in it. And it was FREAKY! It was a cold morning and there was a loud BOOM and everything started shaking. We bolted out of bed and jumped under the door clutching each other as the floor rolled beneath us like a boat and things went crashing down around the house (all our tall book cases fell over) and it just went on and on... For almost a minute. Then silence, puncuated by car alarms sounding all over the town. It was 4.35 am. We fossicked for torches and inspected the damage by torchlight before huddling on beanbags with blankets in the doorframes for about an hour before going back to bed. There are constant aftershocks - ranging from barely noticeable to magnitude 5.3. We took a walk around the neighbourhood - lots of fallen chimneys, and burst water pipes and a number of collapsed buildings.

These are the ones in my neighbourhood:

(some of these structures have already been demolished)

My family and friends are okay, and suffered surprisingly little damage. But several suburbs are under mud, with sinking houses and anyone living in an old brick house may face it being condemned. It's surreal driving around the city - most houses look fine from the outside, but then you'll suddenly come to a block of shops that have "pancaked". The aftershocks are taken their emotional toll. Noone has had much sleep, we're constantly tensing up and people are liable to snap at a moment's notice. In the last four days we've had well over 100 aftershocks. These range from barely noticeable up to 5.6, but it was yesterday morning's 5.1 that actually caused the most alarm. Because it was very shallow and a lot closer to the city, it truly felt like the big aftershock they've been threatening.

So please, send your thoughts the way of my humble little city. Not just me - I'm fine, but those that have lost their houses, their livelihoods. It is a miracle that noone lost their life.