Summer Rock Concert

It’s a cicada; it must be summer.

The main cicada season doesn’t really start until the chorus cicadas (Amphisalta zealandica) come out after Christmas, but two weeks ago, we found a few chirping cicadas (Amphisalta strepitans) on the rocks around Okains Bay.

Cicadas are largish, as insects go, but they’re well camouflaged. Usually, you find them by sound. As with most insects, it’s the males that do the singing. The main part of a cicada’s song is made by flexing plates (tymbals) on top of the body. Built-in amplifiers (opercula) pump up the volume to an astonishing level. Cicadas are noisy. I don’t know if any of the New Zealand species have been tested, but the calls of some North American cicadas are over 105 decibels at a distance of 50 cm. That’s nearly as loud as a rock concert (115 decibels). When the chorus cicadas here in New Zealand come out in large numbers, they can be so loud in some places that it’s impossible to carry on a conversation.

Some New Zealand cicadas add an extra feature to their song—a bit of drumming called clapping. The cicada snaps the leading edge of its wings against a branch to make a sharp click. Females also clap, and I’ve read (though I’ve never tried it) that you can call the males to you by snapping your fingers.

There are about 2500 species of cicada worldwide. Because of their size and volume, they seem to be culturally important wherever they live. They are eaten as food in many areas, and sometimes used as fish bait. Growing up, my siblings and I used to collect the shed exoskeletons of cicadas and attach them to our clothing like jewellery. When I lived in Panama, the children would catch cicadas and tie strings to their feet, then carry them like helium balloons, flying on the end of the string.

Wherever they live, they mark the seasons. Here in New Zealand, and in America where I grew up, summer hasn’t really started until the cicadas sing.

Loud singing? Drumming? Must be a summer rock concert!

Spring Cuteness

‘Tis the season for growth and new life.

Unfortunately, that means lots and lots of weeds, birds nesting in the shed (and pooing on the car), and slugs multiplying like mad (and decimating the newly-planted lettuces).

But it also means the occasional cuteness overload, like this guy.

This newly-fledged magpie has been hanging out in various locations around the yard as he learns how to get around and hunt for himself. He’s quite tame at the moment, and you can even give him a little scratch without him fluttering away. I’m sure it won’t be long before he’s dive-bombing the cat with his cohort of teenage magpie thugs, but at least for now, he’s terribly cute.


Our property sits in the middle of an agricultural landscape. Not the quaint, woodsy sort of agricultural landscape favoured by jigsaw puzzle makers, but the scorched-earth type of agricultural landscape, where every square metre of land is ploughed, planted, sprayed, and sucked for all it’s worth. Not the sort of landscape that welcomes wildlife, particularly not native wildlife.

In spite of that, our property is home to native skinks (the common skink, Oligosoma nigriplantare). They stalk the vegetable garden and sun themselves on rocks in the flower garden. They rustle among the native grasses and slip into garden hoses left lying on the ground. I don’t know why we have so many skinks, but I aim to keep them here.

Habitat loss and predators are the main threats to skinks in New Zealand (though the common skink is not threatened, as many of our other lizards are). Skinks are preyed upon by cats, rats and stoats, all of which are plentiful around our place. We can’t eliminate all the predators, but we can provide plenty of hiding spots for the skinks. Dense native grasses, rocks, and even broken flower pots all provide shelter for skinks. The rocks and flower pots also make nice sunning spots.

Skinks eat mostly insects and spiders, along with the occasional fruit or seed snack. Our live-and-let-live attitude toward insect pests means there are plenty of arthropods for our skinks to eat. We’ve also planted a range of native plants to ensure there are berries available much of the year. (I also suspect the skinks of snapping up the currants that drop to the ground and taking the odd bite of my strawberries, but I’m happy to share.)

The end result is a healthy population of skinks on the property—welcome wildlife that makes me smile every time I see one basking outside my office window or rustling through the lettuces.

Gate Sales

I picked up a kilo of honey and a lovely variegated sage plant while I waited for my son at piano lessons today. And I didn’t step into a grocery store or a nursery.

One of my favourite aspects of New Zealand life is the practice of ‘gate sales’–selling your produce at the farm gate. Gate sale setups can be elaborate, like the beautiful flower cart one of the local daffodil farms uses, or they can be simply a table or box by the side of the road. They operate on an honour system–there’s no one there to make sure you pay–you simply drop your money into a box. Theft does happen–I know from my own experience–but most people are honest.

I’ve seen all sorts of things for sale on the roadside–all manner of vegetables, eggs, walnuts, plants, honey, in-season fruits, flowers–whatever the grower has in abundance. And it’s not just commercial growers–did your lemon tree produce a spectacular crop? Sell the excess at the gate. Zucchinis out of control? Sell the them at the gate. I used to pay my entire year’s garden expenses from gate sales of whatever was extra. I’ve gotten better at planning in recent years and have two teenagers in the house now, so I don’t have the same problem with excess produce anymore.

While I don’t sell much anymore, I take full advantage of those who do. I’ll even go out of my way to buy something (like honey) directly from the farm, rather than picking it up at the grocery store. Other times, the farm is much closer than the store. If we’ve run out of potatoes or eggs, all I have to do is walk to the neighbour’s place to get more. I like the idea that my money is going to the producer, and not to all the middlemen. I like fact that whatever I’ve bought has been locally produced. I like the feel of the trust inherent in the transaction. It feels good, neighbourly, and personal.

As we move into spring and summer, gate sales will be increasing. I’ll be ready, with my ’emergency’ stash of loose change in the car so I can stop and pick up whatever is fresh and at the gate today.

Beech Forest Hiking

I’m particularly fond of hiking in early spring. It’s not for the spring weather, which is often raw and windy, or for spring flowers, which aren’t particularly abundant in the bush. No, it’s for the lack of German wasps.

Much of the forest we hike through is dominated by beech (not the northern beech, but several species of Nothofagus). Beech is host to a fascinating ecosystem which has been invaded by non-native wasps.

Throughout much of its range, beech is infested by scale insects. The scales live in the bark of the trees, feeding on sap. Because sap is low in nutrients and high in sugar, the insects need to excrete the extra sugar. Each insect has a long anal tube through which it ‘pees’ concentrated sugar water called honeydew.

Drops of honeydew form on the tips of the anal tubes and fall to the ground, tree, trunk, and branches around the insects. The entire area ends up coated in sticky sugar.

Sooty mould grows on the sugar coated surfaces, turning trees and forest floor black, and giving the beech forest a distinctive smell. The sooty mould is eaten by a variety of insects, including moths and beetles.

But not all of the honeydew simply drops to the ground. Native birds and insects (and hikers) drink the drops of water on the tips of the scales’ anal tubes. For wildlife, honeydew is an important winter food, when flower nectar is scarce.

German wasps enjoy honeydew, too, but only in the summer.

By mid-summer, the beech forest hums with the sound of millions of wasps collecting honeydew. For me—allergic to wasp stings—it means a hike requires constant vigilance lest I grab a tree trunk for balance and end up in anaphylactic shock. But in springtime, the wasps aren’t yet out and about, and I can enjoy the sticky smell of the beech ecosystem without worry.

Springtime Adventure–Mt. Oxford

I’ve been AWOL from the blog for a couple of days. I have a good excuse, though. Friday I raced from 5.30 am to 7 pm to do two days worth of work in one day. I managed to plant out all the peas, lettuce, and spinach, cleaned the house, baked cookies, did a bunch of writing and editing…

It was all in preparation for taking the entire day off yesterday to go for a hike.

We had a lovely day hiking to the top of Mt. Oxford. It was a long day, too, by any measure—7 1/2 hours of hiking, 31,700 steps (according to the phone’s health app), 20 km, and over 1 km elevation from carpark to peak.

Starting from a honey bee farm, the track climbs through beech forest and into subalpine tussock. Yesterday the hike had everything—snow, mud, sun and rain, wind. The lichens were especially exuberant, as was one particular rifleman (a tiny bird, for those of you unfamiliar with NZ fauna) who shot through the trees with such abandon, it smacked me in the face. It was the perfect springtime adventure.

Te Wiki o te Reo Māori

Aotearoa–land of the long white cloud

Tēnā koutou!

It’s Te Wiki o te Reo Māori—Māori Language Week.

My grasp of te reo is poor. I know a few phrases, a smattering of words, a couple of waiata (songs). But I’m always eager to pick up new vocabulary and phrases. I love languages. They speak to a culture’s values, and reveal some of its history.

I also enjoy finding the similarities between languages—phrases and sayings that reveal truths that transcend culture and geography.

For example, check out these Maori proverbs:

E mua kaikai, e muri kai huare.
Early arrivals have the pick, but late comers may only get spittle.
Doesn’t that remind you of ‘The early bird gets the worm’?

Waiho ma te tangata e mihi, kia tau ai.
It would be better to let others praise.
Sounds like ‘Don’t blow your own horn’ to me.

Mauri mahi, mauri ora; mauri noho, mauri mate.
Industry begets prosperity (security); idleness begets poverty (insecurity).
Bears a striking resemblance to ‘Early to bed, early to rise makes a man healthy, wealthy and wise’.

He manako te koura i kore ai.
Crayfish are scarce when they are expected.
To me, that says ‘Don’t count your chickens before they hatch’.

Have a great week everyone!

Haere rā!