Exploring Zealandia 1

It was a picture-perfect day in Wellington: bright sun, warm, breezy. I caught the free Zealandia shuttle from the city center and headed up into the hills to the world’s first ecosanctuary, located in Wellington’s Karori neighborhood (www.visitzealandia.com).

An urban location is highly unusual for a nature preserve of this kind, one that is attempting to return the land and its inhabitants to its pre-human state; i.e. with no mammalian predators, native plants restored, and invasive vegetation controlled.  Before entering, visitors are asked to check their bags for stray rodents – no joke. “You’d be surprised,” replied the guide when I asked, incredulous, if anyone had ever actually flushed a mouse from their backpack. “Lots of people come in here after having been out camping, with food in their bags, and where there’s food, there are often mice. One pregnant mouse could set us way back.”

One of the first stops I made was to see, as the volunteer docent explained, “the geriatric exhibit.” This is a pair of elderly takahe named Terminator and Puffin, who belong to a species of flightless waterfowl native to the South Island, but are spending their golden years in the safety of Zealandia. Once thought extinct, takahe were rediscovered in the 1940’s, but their population remains very low – around 200.

At a feeding station, kaka and red-crowned parakeets (Kakariki) flew in noisily, hung around to eat millet and fruit, and then took off back into the bush. On the lake edge, young pied shags (Karuhiruhi) stretched out of their nest, soon to fledge.

I spent the next several hours meandering along trails that wound through dense bush, into and out of valleys that rang with birdsong. I have learned here that if a sign says a track will take an hour, I need to double that.  Whoever calculated those walking times did not take into account spending 10 minutes watching a kaka shred a dead sapling, nor the need to test out a guide’s suggestion for luring a New Zealand robin by crouching and scattering leaf litter with your fingertips, exposing minute invertebrates.  It worked like a charm, so every time I saw a robin I had to try it. There were many robins.

shining cuckoo
Shining cuckoo -Pipiwharauroa
Whitehead -Popokatea
Fantail -Piwakawaka
Stitchbird – Hihi
NZ kingfisher – Kotare
NZ robin – Toutouwai

When I returned home in the late afternoon and was telling my host about my trip, he pointed out that it wasn’t just Zealandia whose native biodiversity had been boosted by the construction of a unique preserve.  Surrounding neighborhoods have begun seeing far greater numbers and species of birds, presumably as a result of having a secure area for breeding, but also from the strong predator controls now promoted outside the sanctuary.  It’s a hopeful sign.



Our quick trip around the South Island took us through an astonishing array of landscapes in a very short time.  One moment we were standing on a rocky glacial moraine, and the next in a torrential rainforest downpour.

Franz Josef glacial moraine

The Southern Alps looked like they had sprung a thousand leaks, gushing waterfalls out of every face as we wound through them, all but their fern-blanketed feet shrouded in the long white cloud that is Aotearoa – and then suddenly we were on the eastern side, in dry Wanaka.

long white cloud

On our final leg to Dunedin, on the east coast, the rain resumed – but overhead we spotted a helicopter carrying water to a fire.  Our hosts there told us that there has been a total fire ban for months.  This was a bit hard to believe given the amount of rain we’d experienced in the past week, but you could see it in the brown undercoat of the otherwise green vegetation.  I found myself admiring the smooth, undulating patterns of the steep hillsides, but then realized that the green velvety appearance that makes them attractive from a distance is due to severe disturbance. They are heavily logged and grazed, and most of what the sheep and cattle didn’t eat, the rabbits have.  Up close, I searched for plants of more redeeming value than being the only things the livestock and rabbits rejected. Thistle and sharp-spined gorse ruled the landscape.


This growing awareness that New Zealand’s current biodiversity includes huge numbers of introduced and invasive species has left me dismayed at times. I often have the same overwhelmed reaction in the US, but New Zealand is so relatively small and biologically isolated, its ecosystems feel far more fragile and susceptible to disturbance.

te papa introduced species
Te Papa Museum, Wellington

When we arrived at the Orokonui Ecosanctuary in Dunedin on Thursday, I felt a surge of relief.  Here, tucked away on a hillside far above the city, is a section of land that has been fenced, introduced mammals removed, and native plantings restored.

stoat trap
Stoat trap
Pohutukawa tree

Unlike Australia with its many native marsupials, New Zealand’s only native land mammals are three species of bat, one of which is thought to be extinct. Many of its endemic bird species were and are flightless, with few predators. Introduced mammals such as stoats, cats, dogs, possums, and even hedgehogs have thrived on easily accessible prey.

dog sign

It has taken strong measures to counter the devastating effect on endemic species. Creating a completely predator-proof environment has been the only means of protecting and restoring threatened populations, either through fencing or by relocating them on islands where all predators have been removed. At the Orokonui sanctuary, the fences allow most birds to come and go, to breed and nest and feed undisturbed. Those that are flightless, like the kiwi, may grow up here and then be released into other protected sanctuaries such as the one we saw signs for near Okarito.

kaka drinking
Kaka at a feeding station

The effort to protect and restore endemic species in both Tasmania and New Zealand is closely linked to education. This may seem like an obvious connection, but the routes to species decline and extinction are often obscured. Direct education is crucial to involving as many generations as possible in the process of conserving species and creating sustainable ecosystems. I was fortunate to get acquainted with Nel Smit, education strategist at Greening Australia, whose work in Hobart is based in a “six green star” learning center. The facility itself is an inspiration, beautifully designed and filled with evidence of projects that engage young people in restoring Tasmania’s native vegetation and wildlife, working in partnership with the public educational system. I loved seeing the “down under” version of what our nature centers in the US do: different species, same ideas. https://www.greeningaustralia.org.au/project/sustainability-learning-centre.

slcbushrangersnest boxes

The possibilities at Hobart’s Sustainability Learning Centre and the Orokonui Ecosanctuary give me hope and have fueled my anticipation for my next learning phase and the heart of this journey in Wellington. My new host city also hosts an ecosanctuary, Zealandia, where I hope to get involved and investigate the experiences of school groups in learning about biodiversity through direct exposure and interaction with endemic species. Meanwhile, I feel like I’ve landed in a sanctuary myself, in a house perched high on a hillside overlooking Wellington, and with birds and butterflies I have yet to meet in the garden just outside my window.

moose view.jpg

Small wonder

okarito ESrock

Having traveled a long way to a destination known for its natural beauty, there is always supposed to be a compelling view: a waterfall, a stunning mountain vista, ancient sea cliffs, a serene green ocean, hordes with selfie sticks. But it is life at a smaller scale – the flower, the insect, the leaf, the shell – that grabs my attention. Here in a new country, with the fantastic scenery of the Southern Alps all about me, I tend to zoom in.  As soon as I have access to some good field guides, I’ll add more ID’s.

greenstone, pounamu, Okarito
Arthur’s Pass
Arthur’s Pass
Arthur’s Pass
Arthur’s Pass
red rock flower
Franz Josef glacier
Arthur’s Pass
female copper, Arthur’s Pass
Arthur’s Pass
APmoth underwing
Underwing moth, Arthur’s Pass
Polystichum vestitum prickly shield fern pūniu
Prickly shield fern, Wanaka
Carpodetus serratus putaputawētā marbleleaf
Marble leaf, Wanaka
flies on thistles
Flies on thistles, Wanaka
AP flower 3
Franz Josef glacier
orange plant
Franz Josef glacier
Lobelia angulata Panakenake
Copper on Lobelia angulata, Arthur’s Pass
mushrooms, Arthur’s Pass
mountain daisy
Mountain daisy, Arthur’s Pass
AP flowers
Arthur’s Pass


South Island Express

After popping across the ditch from Sydney to Auckland, and then on to Nelson, we rented a car and are B&B-hopping our way around the South Island of New Zealand. Here are a few postcards from the tour thus far, each possibly to evolve into a separate post later:

Cable Bay
Delaware Bay, Cable Bay
Bathing korimako, bellbird
NZ pigeon
Kereru, NZ pigeon
Punakaiki, pancake rocks
the welcoming weka
Harakeke, NZ flax
Ourisia, Arthur’s Pass
kea sign
“A fed bird is a dead bird”
Okarito rocks
Franz Josef glacier: 7 miles of snow and ice
Baltimore, we feel your pain.
Moose finds a friend in Fox Glacier
…or not

The birds

Dear Jemicy M Group,

I’ve been thinking about you and the hard work you are doing on your Jemicy science fair projects on ocean animals. Your roving reporter in Tasmania has a preliminary report (and also some questions…) for you based on her field research! I’ve seen lots of interesting marine life here with the Southern Ocean before me, but, as you can imagine, the birds always catch my attention. On my Flickr page, there is an album of all the Tasmanian birds that have let me get close enough to photograph them, but here are a few highlights of some local water-loving birds:

silver gull Larus novaehollandiae

Silver gull (Larus novaehollandiae): This is a common bird found all around Australia and New Zealand, on both the coasts and inland. It was the first shorebird that I saw on Roaring Beach, and I loved watching how it navigated the surf looking for small invertebrates that were washing up. Its bright red-orange bill and legs stand out against its silvery plumage. The ones I see here seem to start off in a flock in the morning, but by late afternoon they are working the beach on their own. Please note the “novaehollandiae” in the Latin name. It means “New Holland,” and many of the birds here have that as part of their scientific name. See if you can figure out why!

pied oystercatcher Haematopus longirostris

sooty oystercatcher Haematopus fuliginosus

There are two species of oystercatcher here: pied (black and white, Haematopus longirostris) and sooty (black, Haematopus fuliginosus). There is one pair of pied oystercatchers that has been on Roaring Beach consistently for the past month. They stay close to each other, moving along the surf from one end of the beach to the other, flying low and landing on rocks exposed by low tide. Recently another solitary oystercatcher has appeared – a sooty. I watched it yesterday picking up some kind of food – maybe a crab? – from the rocks, then flying out to the tide pools, where it repeatedly dropped the food into one pool after another. It finally flew off with the food before I could get a closer look. What was it doing?

Black-faced cormorant Phalacrocorax fuscescens


Many of you will have seen cormorants before around the Chesapeake Bay – diving birds that perch like statues on docks or rocks. These are black-faced cormorants (Phalacrocorax fuscescens), common throughout this region. You often see them standing tall with wings outstretched. Why?

short-tailed shearwater Puffinus tenuirostris

Buller's albatross Diomedea bulleri

On our boat trip around the Tasman Peninsula, as we rounded the cliffs and headed out into open water toward Tasman Island, flocks of short-tailed shearwater (Puffinus tenuirostris) flew past us, skimming the water. They were incredibly agile and beautiful to watch. The boat crew told us that these birds have one of the longest migrations – can you find their migration path? There were several Buller’s albatross (Diomedea bulleri) that accompanied us as well, soaring alongside the boat and keeping an eye out for fish. How long do you think an albatross can soar without landing?

Do you remember when we watched a video of a white-bellied sea eagle (Haliaeetus leucogaster) eating a venomous sea snake? I haven’t seen anything that dramatic here; in fact, it’s rare to get a glimpse of these beautiful birds. There is one that we see occasionally perched in a dead tree high on the cliffs above the beach. I spent an hour one day watching it (through binoculars) being dive-bombed by gulls, very much like the mockingbird-hawk scenario I photographed one time in Maryland. The eagle was at least twice as big as the gulls, but it just huddled in the tree as they swooped and harassed it. The best view I got of an eagle was on our boat trip around the peninsula. A pair was sitting near the shore with something they had caught, and as we pulled in close, the crew joked, “See? We told you she’d have the best perch!” I’m betting that Alex will get that one!

And finally, even though it is technically not a marine species, I have to include the Tasmanian native-hen (Gallinula mortierii) as one of my favorites, because it is one of the few truly endemic species I’ve seen. These flightless birds stroll around in flocks, kind of like chickens, making squawky, hoarse noises. I was so used to thinking of them as chickens, in fact, that I was surprised the day I found one swimming in a river. But they actually are quite at home in freshwater habitats. So, my final question for you is, why did the native-hen cross the road?


Noah, I see you are wondering if there is trash here in Tasmania.  Do you still celebrate Thursday Trashday?

I have been surprised by how little litter I see here. I walk along Roaring Beach every day; until just this week, I never saw any trash there.  Brightly colored objects caught my eye, and I kept thinking they were trash, but it turned out they were animals or plants washed up from the ocean.

orange fingers
Orange finger sponge (Neoesperiopsis rigida)

A few days ago I got down to the beach very early, before the sun rose.  The tide was coming in, and I started noticing small bits of trash lying about – mostly pieces of rope.  I watched the pair of oystercatchers that are always here as they foraged in the sand and rocks for food, and I hoped that they wouldn’t accidentally eat or get caught in some of this trash.

pied oystercatcher Haematopus longirostris3
Pied oystercatchers

I thought, every week on Thursday Trashday we cleaned up the Jemicy playground, but now this is my playground, so I will help clean it up.  I started walking up the beach picking up bits of plastic, rope, wrappers, etc., and when I turned around at the cliffs to walk back, I met one of the neighbors, Monica.  I showed her the trash I had found and wondered why this was the first time I had seen any.  “That’s probably because I walk here early every morning and pick it up!” she said.  So, every day is Trashday on Roaring Beach. Can you tell which of these things is not trash?


An awesome Thursday Trashday happened on New Year’s Eve, when Dan and I took a boat trip around the Tasman Peninsula.  We dressed in long, red waterproof suits and zoomed around sea cliffs, past Australian fur seal colonies, watched white-bellied sea eagles eating fish, raced common dolphins.

Suddenly, the captain slowed and stopped the boat.  We all looked, wondering what new cool thing they were going to show us. Ange, the guide, grabbed a pole with a hook at the end, leaned way over the edge of the boat, shouted, “Got it!” and pulled in… a plastic bag! Everyone cheered. One less piece of trash in the Southern Ocean.

Who knows how far that bag had traveled?  Wouldn’t it be great if, by the time I travel back to Jemicy, we could celebrate Trashless Thursdays?


I wonder if… you will see a baby animal

Maggie‘s stick said,  “I wonder if… you will see a baby animal.”

It is summer in Tasmania, and the animals that were born in the spring are growing up. One of the things I had hoped to see was a young marsupial, like a wallaby or pademelon, hopping in or out of its mother’s pouch. So far, I haven’t been lucky enough to see that, but I have seen young birds with their parents, sometimes begging them for food. I’ve also seen baby moths and butterflies (caterpillars) and baby frogs (tadpoles).


silvereye zosterops lateralis2
Silvereye parent and chick
Native-hen and chick

It is very, very dry here in Tasmania now, and lack of rain makes it hard for some animals to find enough food and water to take care of themselves and their babies. For amphibians like frogs, which need water to live in as they go from being a swimming tadpole with gills to a hopping adult with lungs, it is extra hard. This tree frog has found a great spot inside a plastic sleeve around a young tree that Peter waters regularly.


I’ve been checking on one of the ponds here regularly since I arrived. On my first day, I saw tadpoles swimming around. The water level was low and it was very warm, but they seemed to be surviving. Today, I went back to the pond and found that, without rain to refill it, the water had evaporated and it was now mostly mud with a few tiny puddles of water. The tadpoles were becoming froglets. They still had some tail left, but now had hind legs and were breathing air, and could move from one puddle to another.

From a tree nearby, a young brown falcon was watching them. The young frogs were well camouflaged and quickly buried themselves deep in the mud when a shadow passed overhead.




I hope these babies get some rain soon!

Scary, hairy, imaginary

Dear JE Missy/Kalli,

There are three of your “I wonder…” sticks that I will try to answer together in this blog post.

First, Cailin’s: “I wonder if… you will see a tiger.”

I wish I could see the Tasmanian tiger!  If I did, it would mean that an animal that most people consider extinct is actually still alive. The Tasmanian tiger was not in the cat family like other tigers; it was a marsupial (raised its babies in a pouch) and a cousin of the Tasmanian devil, but it did have stripes on its back. There are people who think they have seen the Tasmanian tiger still roaming in wild places.


Maybe this is one?  No, sorry, that’s Mala – a friend’s dog.  Like a Tasmanian tiger, she also loves chasing wallabies.

Though Tasmanian tigers are now probably imaginary, I am quite sure that fairies and dragons do exist here.  In fact, I see them almost every day, but they still seem magical.

Here is the fairy – the superb fairy-wren, the very first bird that I saw in Tasmania.

They are tiny little birds in constant motion as they forage for bugs and other food. The female is brown, and the male is bright blue and black, and they both hold their tails straight up in the air like little flags.  Their name fits them perfectly, because they are truly superb, and they really do flit around like fairies.

And this is one of the local dragons: a mountain dragon.  It is a cousin of bearded dragons, but much smaller.


It is a quick little lizard that likes to sun itself on sandy paths and scurries under bushes when something big like a human comes along.  This particular dragon was braver and let me get close enough to photograph it for awhile.  It stared at me, then at some nearby ants, then back at me, then at the ants, as if telling me politely that I was interrupting its dinner. Just because you’re a dragon, that doesn’t mean you are safe from predators.  Large birds would love to have you for dinner if they could catch you.

But, back to tigers, and on to Jack’s stick, which wondered, “Will you get hurt?” Humans used to hunt and kill as many Tasmanian tigers as they could, because tigers are predators, and predators could be dangerous, to humans themselves or to things they value, like sheep and cattle. When I came to Tasmania, I knew that there were no more large wild predators left, but there were other things that could potentially hurt me if I were not careful.  This spider, by the way, is not one of them.


It is called a huntsman spider, has legs as long as a tarantula’s, and its only disturbing habit is hanging out over your bed at night while it hunts bugs. A blue bottle jellyfish, on the other hand, could sting you if you swam into its tentacles.


One day while I was out walking, a neighbor saw me and warned me that I should be wearing socks with my sandals.  Why?  Moving on to Andrew’s stick: “I wonder if… you will see a new snake.” There are three species of snake in Tasmania, and all three are quite venomous. I was being extremely careful when I took walks to watch where I stepped.  But why would wearing socks keep me safe from a snake bite?  Wouldn’t they just bite through the cloth?  I found out that the smaller snakes have very short fangs, so socks could offer some protection from getting a dangerous bite.

And yes, I did see some new snakes.  All three species are very fast and tend to move away quickly when they see you, so I only got a not-so-great photograph of one crossing a path.  The smallest snake in Tasmania is called a white-lipped snake, and another one is the copperhead (it has a different shaped head and pattern than Maryland’s copperhead).


Back to Cailin, I am pretty sure the one I photographed was the third species: the tiger snake.  Does that count as seeing a tiger?

I wonder if… you will try a new food

Missy wondered, “Will you try a new food?”

Were you were thinking perhaps of something made from kangaroo or wallaby? meatThey have many such products in the grocery stores, and last night some friends prepared a meal with minced wallaby. “Grass-fed!” Dan said it tasted like hamburger. I’ll let you know what he thinks of the open range, sustainable kangaroo steaks.

I prefer adventures with eating wild plants. When I arrived here, Peter took me on a walk around Windgrove and showed me many different plants that were all new to me. One kind of bush had lots of small white berries, and he told me that it was called native currant.

Leucopogon parviflorus

He popped one in his mouth and offered me one to try. I did (a little nervously, because do you know what Maryland plants have whitish berries that you would not want to eat? Poison ivy and mistletoe!). It was just a little bit sweet, with a small hard seed. Every morning since then, I take a walk down to the beach and eat native currants on the way. The birds also like them, so the bushes are usually busy with breakfast customers. Another wild fruit that I tried is called native cherry. It doesn’t look or taste anything like the native cherries in Maryland, except that it’s red. It grows on a parasitic tree that looks like a pine tree, and its seed is outside of the fruit instead of in the middle.

Exocarpos cupressiformis

One of the edible wild greens along the trail is called coastal spinach or ice plant (Tetragonia implexicoma). Its leaves are very salty! There is also a plant with a pink flower called pigface that grows on the rocks along the beach. The leaves and seed capsule are also salty but juicy and tasty.

pink flower.jpg
Carpobrotus rossii

One day we had a visitor to Windgrove who was an expert at diving for seafood. When he dives, he holds his breath, so he has to know the animals’ habitat and behavior very well in order to catch them quickly. That morning he had caught abalone, crayfish, and butterfish – all new to me – and made a delicious stew for us.

Would you care to try any of these foods? Sadly, I won’t be able to bring them back with me; the airport biosecurity dogs would certainly sniff them out!


I wonder if… you will see a koala bear

Dear J-E Missy/Kalli,

My last blog post mentioned two of my favorite new animals that I’ve seen in Tasmania: the duck-billed platypus, and MacLeay’s Swallowtail. Both of those animals are native to both Tasmania and mainland Australia, meaning they evolved here over millions of years.


Nick was wondering “if you will see a koala bear.” Koalas do live in Australia, but only on the mainland. Since Tasmania is a smaller island to the south, and you have to either fly or take a boat and cross 150 miles of choppy water from mainland Australia, koalas would have to be champion swimmers to get here by themselves. People often “introduce” animals and plants to places far away where they can’t bring themselves. Sometimes those introduced species can become a problem, because they don’t stay in balance with the rest of the living things in the place that they are introduced to. Because of the problems it has had with introduced species, Australia is now very careful about what it lets people bring into the country, and to islands like Tasmania. When you fly here, there are specially trained sniffer dogs in the airport that check you and your luggage out to make sure you haven’t brought in any kind of fruits, vegetables, animals, or any products made from them that could be carrying pest species.

I don’t know if anyone has ever tried to introduce the koala bear to the wild in Tasmania, but there is another introduced animal whose name sounds kind of similar: the kookaburra. It is a big bird that is known for its incredibly loud “laugh.” Actually, to me it sounds more like a combination of all of the loud jungle noises you could possibly imagine. Kookaburras live in family groups, so there are often several of them whooping it up at once.

Laughing kookaburra (Dacelo novaeguinea)

Laughing kookaburras are native to eastern mainland Australia, but people brought them to other parts of the country, where they are now considered a pest. They nest in holes where parrots and owls usually would, and will eat baby birds and other little animals that can’t hide well or escape from them. Watching them in the old gum trees is entertaining, but when they show up, other birds leave. Last week I was hiking through a rainforest where there should have been great habitat for birds, but the only bird I saw or heard for hours was a kookaburra.

So, to answer your question, I won’t see a koala in Tasmania unless I go to a zoo. But I have seen its cousin, the native wombat, which looks like a small bear and has a face similar to a koala’s. It moves faster than a koala, though, so I sneak and spy on it when it is looking for food at dusk.


What native and introduced animals do you think live in Maryland?