Bird Brains

I made my last visit to Zealandia on a fine late-autumn day. Recent storms had drenched the valley, and the streams feeding into the reservoir ran high and fast. My path took me along the same route that I had wandered on my first day here four months ago – past the takahe, still grazing on the bright green grass, past the shags, which will supposedly continue to nest and raise young throughout the winter, along the boardwalk through the dense bush, and around the lake.

Saddleback calls burst out of nowhere, pairs feasting acrobatically along the rata vines and totara trunks.  A single grey warbler darted in and out of the foliage, while a flock of silvereyes landed in a cabbage tree, noisily checked it out, and took off for better foraging.  A tui tried to scare some young kaka out of its tree with an impressive display.

Fungi were loving the wet, cool conditions, popping up and gleaming in diverse shapes and colors. I noted with both pleasure and regret that all of this seemed so familiar now, sights that I enjoyed but that didn’t constantly stop me in my tracks any more to puzzle over.

When I finally paused to take a picture, a bold robin with fancy leg bands hopped right up and onto my boot, then flew off down the path.  I followed it and soon came upon a woman holding a clipboard, intently watching a small box lying in the middle of the path next to a digital scale.  The robin stood a short distance from the box, then hopped toward it.  I stopped to watch and photograph, while the woman whispered to me that she would be finished in just a moment, and continued to focus on the bird and box. The robin hopped over to the box, which had three covered compartments, and after using its feet to move the lids, much as it would move leaf litter, managed to open one of the compartments which contained a mealworm.  It flew off with the mealworm, then returned to the box.

By this time, I was bursting with questions and the woman, whose name was Annette, had explained to me that she was helping to conduct research on North Island robin behavior.  As the only food-caching passerine (perching bird) species in New Zealand, robins exhibit behaviors that indicate an intelligence structure similar to that of humans. The robin I’d just observed – a juvenile – was one of twenty who had already been trained to search for worms in these multi-compartment boxes, and to jump on and off the scale.  The fact that he had opened the box with his feet (a more random motion than pinpointing and opening one specific compartment with his bill) disqualified that particular result. “But in time, he will learn,” said Annette. “You see how he is still a bit clumsy about getting onto the scale.” The little robin was scrambling around, trying out different poses on the scale to see which would result in a reward.  When he finally had both his feet properly on the scale, he was given a mealworm, which he promptly ate. “You’ll see that he will cache some and eat some at this stage,” explained Annette.  “In spring, when it is breeding season, he will likely form a pair-bond and will feed his mate at the nest.  But during the non-breeding season, he is learning to store up extra food.” Sure enough, the next worm the robin found was promptly carried to a dead limb and stuffed down into a small crack.

I left Zealandia thinking about how incredibly lucky I have been to witness the creatures whose populations have been allowed to recover here. North Island robins only thrive where they have complete protection from predators. Females are especially susceptible to predation, as they incubate the eggs and stay with nestlings. Fifteen years ago they were extinct in Wellington, and then 76 birds from an offshore sanctuary island were released into Zealandia. The population is now quite stable within the sanctuary, and in the immediate “halo” area nearby.  The tieke/saddleback, who faced imminent complete extinction not so long ago, are thriving here.  And the kaka, that loud, iconic comeback-bird, paid a visit yesterday to my backyard to feast on the camellia flowers just outside my window.  It’s hard to imagine where else I could have had a better front row view of such a dramatic turn-around. This is the true wonder that I’ve been privileged to witness: the ongoing fulfilment of a vision for restored biodiversity.


Under the ferns

I was going through some notes from my earliest days in Wellington and came upon a page with a quick sketch in bright green crayon.  It was from the first day of a university teacher education class that I sat in on, where our instructor started by handing out paper and crayons and asking us to draw how we felt. My table-mates got right to work, drawing a beach scene, a rainbow, a house. I wasn’t quite sure how I was feeling, but I had just been for a walk through the fernery at the Botanic Gardens, so I drew a fiddlehead, tightly furled, and a tentative frond or two.  Maybe wound up with possibility, and hopeful about what it would become?  brick koruI didn’t know at the time that the fern fiddlehead, or koru, is a traditional Maori creation symbol denoting, as it coils back in on itself, the idea that even as life changes, it returns to its origins.

When I was very young, my mother had a tall wicker plant stand that held a large Boston fern.  I remember being just able to duck under that umbrella of lush, dangling fronds, and stand immersed in what felt like a magical forest. The last four months spent living beneath the canopy of New Zealand’s tree ferns have brought that enchantment back to life. It is one of those sensations of living here that I will miss deeply – gazing up into a fern canopy. A fernopy.
My favorite walks up and down the steep, endless stairways are shaded by mamaku, their thick sinuous stems sometimes giving me a start, gleaming long and black like a big rat snake back home.

black tree fern

Ferns are uniquely captivating plants.  Maybe it’s their feather-like pattern, their diversity, their primitive nature, or the fact that they almost seem to bridge the gap between plant and animal. I have more than once paused to stroke the furry brown neck of a yet-unfurled frond, and have spent an inordinate amount of time admiring the multiple tiny, utterly adorable fiddleheads that will someday grow up to arch above the heads of passers-by.

In the woods of the eastern US, I sometimes see ferns as just the last inedible green left standing after deer have browsed down all the rest of the understory. New Zealand’s ferns remind me, though, just how ancient and resilient they are, resisting the predation that has eliminated so many other varieties of plants here.  They climb, inhabit cracks and holes with opportunistic vigor, and flare their chlorophyll-laden fronds with all the audacity of flowers.  Who needs pollinators, anyway?

How am I feeling as my time in New Zealand ends?  I’m sticking with ferns – but maybe now as the lofty, spreading crown of a ponga, finally part of the community of the New Zealand bush canopy.








“And this affects me how?”


fa816c32540d33a5995edded442b0430Last week I joined an enthusiastic crowd for a talk given at Zealandia by Bill Oddie, a former member of a British TV comedy troupe called the Goodies. Familiar with neither Bill nor the Goodies, I was drawn by the description of Bill as a keen birder and ardent conservationist who had hosted many wildlife shows with the BBC.

Bill’s talk skimmed over his early career as a comedian and focused mostly on his conservation work, including some of his adventures with banding puffins, being dive-bombed by great skua birds, and observing other birds around the world.  Early on in his talk, Bill said that one of his primary concerns was the lack of opportunity that modern children have to explore the outdoors freely. He went on to describe his own formative experiences that included avidly collecting birds’ eggs (something that I also ruefully recall doing), and emphasized the role that adult mentors played in giving him opportunities for field experience.

So I was not surprised when he returned to this theme in his closing comments. “You’ll recall I said that I believe kids need time to explore without adults directing them.”  He continued with a story about his daughter, Rosie, when she was 13. A lovely fox had come into the garden, and he called to her to come look at it.  She declined, and the fox left.  But eventually it returned, and this time Bill insisted that Rosie leave whatever it was she was doing (“Probably playing a computer game or something like that…”) to come see the fox, and  she reluctantly complied. When Bill excitedly pointed out the window, Rosie uttered a phrase that now, years later, has become family lore: “And this affects me how?”

I loved this story and that response, mostly because they so perfectly represent the struggle that many naturalists face in trying to induce a sense of wonder among not only our unimpressed family members, but also in our students, colleagues, and the entire rest of the world, it often seems.  I was also halfway anticipating a magical Disney moment in the story, when girl meets fox and falls in love and becomes an avid conservationist – and the reality is, that particular happy ending probably never happens. “This just goes to show,” said Bill Oddie, ending his story, “that we can’t rely on kids to naturally get it. We have to show them.”

Much of my time in New Zealand has been spent thinking about and observing ways to help kids find the answer to that question, “And this affects me how?”  Some of the best practices that I’ve seen here for teaching an ethic of conservation and sustainability include asking that same question of the children who have field experiences at the Zoo and Zealandia sanctuary. How does this make you feel?  How will you take it with you, and what will you do with it?  Ultimately, the question shifts from a focus on the self to one’s role in a community: How will you share this with others?

At the end of his talk, Bill took questions from the audience. His response to “Which bird do you find the most amazing?” was to show a final film clip. You can see the clip here, the second one near the bottom of the page (for best view, don’t enlarge).

One starling is one starling, but one starling among many is a symphony.





Stopping on red

Red. It never fails to make me pause.

There are quite a few iconic nocturnal creatures in this country, and one of the few places where you can see many of them is on a Zealandia night tour.  Several nights ago, I got to check off some of my last must-see New Zealand items in the glow of a dim red beam.

Zealandia sunset

Our small group gathered at dusk and headed out into the valley, each armed with a small red torch. The moon was bright, with Jupiter just below, as we aimed ourselves in the direction of the Southern Cross constellation. Allison, our guide, pointed out the different birds that were still calling and flying to roost for the night: shags, kaka, tui. We heard New Zealand’s only remaining native owl (Ninox novaeseelandiae), commonly named for its call – which Europeans heard as “More..Pork” and Maori heard as “Ruru” – and spotted it sitting  and calling from a nearby dead tree. I learned that this owl actually has two calls, one of which sounds very mammalian, solving the long-standing mystery of which creature has been crying outside my window at night.

One of our primary goals on this walk was to find kiwi.  There are now close to 200 little spotted kiwi/pukupuku (Apteryx owenii) living in Zealandia; they are no longer banded, and are counted every ten years.  The kiwi roam throughout the sanctuary but are quite difficult to spot unless you can hear them rustling about in the brush, or unless they call near you.  My North American ears were baffled at first by what sounded exactly like spring peepers. “Are there frogs here?” I asked, and was told that yes, there were a few rare Maud Island frogs, but they didn’t vocalize.  What I was hearing were the high-pitched calls of male kiwi, often sounding off simultaneously.  The guide explained that the breeding cycle of the kiwi requires the female to eat an enormous amount in order to produce – after 30 days – an egg 1/4 of her size, which the male then incubates for another 70-80 days. During our current season, the chicks have become independent and the adults are free to forage and establish territory – thus the calling.

We moved deeper into the bush, pausing to shine our torches on weta scrambling around a tree trunk, on an enormous longfin eel hiding beneath a bridge, on glow worms hanging along the banks of the stream, on Maud Island frogs in their protected habitat.  Then, a dark furry shape scurried past so fast we could hardly get our torches on it, and disappeared into the brush: a young kiwi.  A few minutes later there was another, its eyes illuminated red for just a moment before it too darted away. As we continued on and then wound our way back to the beginning of the trail, we paused to look for the tuatara guarding the entrances to their burrows, and for a stick insect that had been spotted in a bush earlier in the day.

We finished off our walk with some tea made from kawakawa leaves, a traditional Maori medicinal plant that improves circulation and strengthens the heart. I walked back home, down the 337 steps that lead into Aro Valley, listening to what I now knew were the sounds of weta chewing and owls hunting.  Next spring, when the peepers call, I will be thinking of kiwi.



kaka1How can you tell when you’ve truly bonded with a community far from your home? For me, it was my stunned reaction to this headline: Kaka conflict: conservation icon to pest, in an opinion piece written by a local conservation biologist and professor.

The word “pest” in New Zealand usually has very specific connotations: introduced, invasive, requiring eradication. Possums, stoats, and rats are some of New Zealand’s classic pests, threatening native species through predation or destroying vegetation, and every effort is made to eliminate them. The kākā, (Nestor meridionalis) though, is an endemic parrot that was once common in the Wellington region but was extirpated here for over a century due to forest clearing and introduced predators. In 2002, 6 birds were brought from the Auckland Zoo to Wellington’s Zealandia ecosanctuary, where they were banded and monitored as part of a breeding program.  This proved successful enough, with over 200 birds now living in the Wellington region, that chick banding was finally halted this year. Kākā are back, and thriving both inside and outside the sanctuary.

kaka flying

These large, loud, red-brown birds have become my alarm clock, their shrieking calls echoing at dawn as they fly back and forth across the valley outside my window.  I watch them in the evenings flying to roost in the big Monterey pines above the house, and in the afternoons foraging through the fruit trees in the neighbors’ yards. I find it amazing that their population has managed to rebound so successfully, and that they have adapted so well to humans’ urban and suburban habitats.

They are also foraging on non-native trees (pines, cypress, and eucalyptus) in the Botanic Gardens (by chewing through the bark to get at sap and insects) and the roofs of people’s houses. But this seems to me (admittedly here a non-resident, non-homeowner) less a call for heavy-handed management of the birds, and more a challenge to creatively coexist by managing human spaces and behaviors. Kākā are bold and have quickly learned where humans will feed them, much as their mountain cousins, the kea, have done in the South Island.

kea road
Kea in Fiordland, eying a stopped bus

Maybe humans need better training in constructing houses and planting native trees that don’t lend themselves to parrot damage, as well as a strong message that feeding wild parrots is asking for trouble – for the birds’ health and the home-owners’ property.

The main argument for the kākā’s removal or control seems to be that they should not be considered true urban animals: that they are inherently forest creatures who subsist entirely on the food they glean from trees, they were not here when the city arose, and they won’t obey the human rules of city living.

The Zealandia sanctuary reintroduced what some consider an artificial population that supposedly would not normally have settled as they have in Wellington.  While kākā are far from being dangerous to humans, they are already being targeted as harmful to human structures deemed culturally significant, and it isn’t hard to imagine this “pest” discourse gaining traction as the population grows.


So, what happens when the effort to sustain New Zealand’s embattled biodiversity faces the effort to preserve its cultural icons?  I will not be here to see how this plays out, but I suspect it will be a protracted conflict whose result will inevitably hinge on economic factors.  In any case, the pro-kākā outcry in the comment section that followed this article is confirmation that after 4 months of living in Wellington, I share more than just my urban experience with my neighbors. I will depart Wellington as a full-fledged member of the kākā fan club. And I will miss my shrieking alarm clock.



Fatal attraction

Walking home along Mortimer Terrace a few days ago, I stopped to watch a praying mantis crossing the sidewalk.  Its halting gait on the concrete made it look especially vulnerable to a bird attack or human footstep, so I let it crawl onto a stick and moved it to the grass.  I recognized the species immediately, since I found the same type a few weeks ago farther north in Papamoa.  I submitted the photo to NatureWatch NZ, where it was identified as a South African praying mantis (Miomantis caffra). Just like the one in Papamoa, this was a female whose abdomen was swollen with eggs, curbing her normal agility.  The species is also known as the “springbok” mantis after their ability to jump like an antelope.

SA praying mantis Papamoa

NatureWatch NZ has many great tools on its site, including species descriptions and  maps of where they have been found. As indicated by its name, this praying mantis was brought to New Zealand from South Africa, though it is unknown how or why. A schoolboy near Auckland found a few immature ones in 1978, but it took biologists several years of raising them to adulthood before they could determine that they were in fact a common South African species. Over the years, this initial population has spread across New Zealand, though there are still many gaps on the Nature Watch NZ map for this species.  Wellington was one of those gaps – until today.


When we find a praying mantis at school in the US, I’ve had students solemnly inform me that a person will go to jail if they kill it.  There seems to be a widespread belief that 1) all praying mantises are the same species, and 2) they are legally protected.

Neither is true.  In the US, we have about 20 species.  Several of the introduced species, such as the Chinese praying mantis (Tenodera sinensis), are more commonly seen than our native mantises. They have a reputation as a beneficial garden insect because they are predators, but they are just as likely to eat other beneficial creatures as they are pests, including each other.

After I posted the first photo of the praying mantis in Papamoa to NatureWatchNZ,  it was duly identified and recorded on the map. With my second photo, I received an additional caution from one of the site experts: “This is the first time I have heard of it in Wellington. Several records from northern South Island and I photographed it in Palmerston north the other day. My advice is kill it whenever you see it because it is rapidly replacing the New Zealand praying mantis.JR

So much for my goodwill gesture of moving the pregnant female to a safer location. This “displacement” of the native New Zealand praying mantis (Orthodera novaezealandiae) is due to differing mating protocols between the two species, well described in this Science News article. Essentially, the New Zealand males (who are accustomed to not being eaten after mating) are hopelessly attracted to the South African females…who always eat them.

I’m left with the fervent hope that I don’t find any more South African praying mantises – for everyone’s sake.







Birds and binoculars

To Jemicy’s M Group, in the middle of your annual migratory bird study: I’m with you in spirit!  What have you seen so far?

Twenty or so years ago, my family gave me a pair of binoculars for Mother’s Day – and a whole new world to explore.  It was perfect timing, coinciding with the North American spring bird migration. Even though there is no comparable seasonal inland bird migration in New Zealand, I celebrated this weekend once again with my binoculars.  Now that I have learned many of New Zealand’s common forest-dwelling birds by sight and song, I’m enjoying using the binoculars less as a tool for identification, and more to simply enjoy observing bird behavior.  Such as:

Takahe graze by tipping their heads sideways, so that their heavy bills can better grab short grass stems.

Kakariki (red-crowned parakeet) feed themselves millet with their feet, but pluck flower buds off of shrubs with their beaks.


NZ robins are incredibly agile foragers, flipping and holding leaves and bark with their toes.


Kereru (NZ wood pigeons) delicately pluck the small fruit of the cabbage tree, now that their favorite tawa fruit are out of season.


The pied cormorant chicks are growing feathers, trying their wings, and still begging for food.

shag fledging


Tui use their brush-tipped tongues to get nectar – and also make very strange sounds.


Fantails – well, fantails are almost too fast for binoculars!


Along one of the densest tracks in Zealandia, I heard the sound of a small bird shuffling through leaf litter.  Assuming it was a robin, I paused and ruffled some dead leaves by the path to attract it.  But this bird – which showed itself but wasn’t fooled by my ruse – wasn’t a robin.

Prunella modularis

The bill was not the right shape for a sparrow, though it had brown and gray plumage.This bird was not shaped like a thrush either.  It was too big to be a warbler, and in the wrong place, and behaving differently.  I ran through my mental NZ bird directory several times, took as many photos as I could for later verification, and made a mental record of the bird through my binoculars until it finally moved out of sight.

Once back home, I went to another favorite tool – NZ birds online  – to help me find my bird.  Mystery solved! It turned out to be a bird that is fairly common, but still unfamiliar to me – a dunnock (Prunella modularis). It was introduced to New Zealand from Europe in the late 1800’s and has become naturalized everywhere but in the far north of the country. Most likely I have seen it before, but dismissed it as something else. The binoculars, though, enabled me to absorb richer, more distinct qualities of form, motion, and color than I could have perceived with just my eyes. With the dunnock now secure in my mental catalogue, I’ll be on the lookout for it.

Now I just need some night vision goggles for the last birds topping my list: morepork (an owl) and kiwi…

April showers bring May …foliage?

Taking a walk through the woods these days can be disorienting. When I look down and see these maple and oak leaves, and especially when I walk through a pile of them, hear the rustle and catch their scent,  I can’t help but believe that it is October, and I must be in the northern hemisphere.

fallen leaves 2

But it is May, and I am well below the equator in New Zealand, looking at leaves that are exhibiting their normal cycle by falling from tree species that originated in the northern hemisphere. This is deeply confounding to my inner phenologist – that instinctive observer of seasonal change. Maples, poplars, oaks, cherries and dogwoods – all these introduced plants and more are doing what they evolved to do: stop producing chlorophyll, reveal other pigments, and drop from a plant that would normally go dormant or otherwise be unable to sustain itself through a freezing winter. It doesn’t ever really freeze here in Wellington, but these trees don’t know that.  They are apparently responding to the triggers of reduced daylight and temperature.

Introduced fruit trees are at their peak now as well, including the Asian dogwood next door that is swarming with tui, kaka, and rosellas.

Pollinators are still out, taking advantage of an extended flowering season that shows little sign of tapering off.   Some native plants such as rata are just now producing their flowers, attracting nectar-loving birds.

In the month that I have left to experience New Zealand, I can feel my own ambivalence in embracing this slow seasonal shift to winter.  If I start believing it’s fall, what happens when I step back into a Baltimore summer?





It’s complicated

A lesson that I hope to never stop learning here in New Zealand: don’t take things at face value.  It’s natural to make assumptions when encountering something new, hard not to make foreign sensations fit into a more familiar frame of reference. That frame, though, is always skewed to prior experience and knowledge, and relationships are always more more complex than they appear at first glance.


I recently encountered this scene while walking through my neighborhood: freshly butchered haunches hanging in a hatchback. While puzzling over what kind of animal they used to belong to, the owner approached.”Wild goat from the Wairarapa,” he said, proudly describing the challenging kill in some detail. I asked about the size and effects of the goat population there. Feral goats, he explained, like deer and other introduced grazers, had devastated the native vegetation. “Just like your American bison,” he went on. “America used to be all forest until they brought in the bison.”

I’m not sure who “they” were, nor did I attempt to dissuade this hunter from his impression – apparently based on a Kiwi frame of reference – that large mammals in other countries must be introduced by humans, and therefore problematic.  (Frankly, I was afraid that any further discussion would lead – as it increasingly does when my American accent is detected – to the topic of the current American election cycle, which then requires considerable re-framing of the Kiwi impression that we must all be lunatics.)  So I wished him a pleasant goat meal and walked away.  Later that week, visiting Fiordland in the South Island, I listened to a bus driver enthusiastically describe the history of introduced deer and elk while pointing out the expansive and well-fenced venison farms surrounding us.

Elk farm, photo by Dan Bailey

Shortly thereafter, the same driver pointed out that the lushness of the forests we were driving through was severely compromised by 30 million rampaging brush-tailed possums. Yet he spoke out strongly against the use of the air-dropped 1080 poison that has been widely used as a control and is credited with a 30% reduction of possums and allowing the return of many threatened bird species.  Again, I sat and listened in silence, mulling over the variables that New Zealanders have to take into account every time they think about biodiversity.

I was delighted to encounter two bird species last week that I don’t see in Wellington: weka, and pukeko.  They ran right up to us, surprising me. When I see native ground-dwelling birds in New Zealand, my first assumption is that they must be rare and threatened somehow. But, as I am slowly learning, it’s not that simple.  Both species have adapted well to human settlement in many places. Perhaps too well, in fact, from the perspective of gardeners and farmers who find their seedlings yanked out of the earth by the voracious foragers.

Weka, Abel Tasman National Park

The Department of Conservation says that the flightless weka “occupies a problematic conservation niche.” Trying to sustain their populations in the same manner as other threatened species, by placing them on islands, hasn’t worked so well.  It can impact other species such as lizards and rare invertebrates, which the weka may feed on. Weka are legally hunted on NZ islands where they were never native inhabitants, such as the Chatham Islands.

pukeko 3
Pukeko, Papamoa

“Rueful affection” is the way one fish and game site describes Kiwi regard for the pukeko, known as both cheeky and friendly  and regularly hunted for both meat and traditional Maori cloak-weaving. They looked very much at home among the mallards and cormorants in Papamoa and approached us looking for food. Seeing their resemblance and kinship to the highly endangered takahe housed safely at Zealandia, it was hard to imagine that populations of both species had once extended through both North and South Islands.  The pukeko proved to be the more resilient, adapting well to human settlement, completely belying my impression of its fragile status.

Just this morning, I was watching a flock of Eurasian blackbirds work the rain-soaked lawn outside my window. I wondered how this thrush species topping the list for most widely distributed introduced bird in NZ was finding enough protein to have become so wildly successful here.  Once again, my knowledge (“Hey, it looks and acts like an American robin, so it must eat like one!”) was incomplete.

pied blackbird
leucistic Eurasian blackbird

As expected, I found that Eurasian blackbirds do eat numerous invertebrates (and are considered beneficial in this regard), but also consume the flowers on many plants. In fact, they provide an unexpected ecosystem service for another introduced and beloved species: the feijoa plant. Feijoa is a fruit with origins in South America which has become a very popular garden item in New Zealand, where growing conditions are ideal. But no native birds here have an association with this type of plant.  The blackbird, however, eagerly feasts on the feijoa’s flower petals, thereby transferring pollen.


These are the sorts of lessons that occur spontaneously here, in an environment that is new to me – but they are also the ones that I look forward to continuing back home.  Discovering a multi-faceted story for species that I assume I know well is every bit as fascinating as meeting them for the first time. Complexity is a beautiful thing.