Kaitorete Spit: An Overlooked Gem

Earlier this week, my daughter and I hiked onto the Banks Peninsula from Birdlings Flat. The walk afforded us gorgeous views of Kaitorete Spit.

Kaitorete Spit is only about 6000 years old, but is an important natural and cultural resource. Te Waihora / Lake Ellesmere, formed by the spit, is home to or visited by 166 species of birds and 43 species of fish which support commercial fisheries, recreational fishing and hunting, and traditional food gathering. In spite of its harsh, exposed environment, Kaitorete Spit is home to a remarkable number of threatened plants and animals, including pīngao (a native sand sedge prized for weaving), a flightless moth, and the katipo spider. A variety of lizards also flourish on the spit. The lake and spit have been important sources of food and fibre for Māori since they arrived in the area. Fragments of the oldest known Māori cloak were uncovered on the spit, dating to around 1500 AD, and many other signs of early Maori use of the spit have also been found there.

In pre-European times, Māori used the spit as a convenient highway as they travelled up and down the island. Unfortunately, the shifting gravel of the spit and the regular opening of the lake to the sea mean the spit isn’t passable in anything but the most capable of four-wheel drive vehicles. Today, travellers make the long trek all around the lake, so our home near the pointy end of the spit is a 40-minute drive from Birdlings Flat, just 25 km away on the fat end of the spit. But I’m happy to leave the spit to foot traffic—it helps protect the unique plants and animals that live there.

On a windy, wet day, Kaitorete Spit is a miserable, exposed place to be, but visit it on a warm sunny day, and you’ll see why it is an overlooked gem.

Pheasants: Honorary Natives

We’ve had a lot of pheasants around the house this spring. The common pheasant (Phasianus colchicus), also known as the ring-necked pheasant. Is a curious bird…or rather, our relationship to it is curious.

The common pheasant is native to Asia, but has a long history in Europe. It was probably introduced by the Romans, and the first printed mention of the bird in Britain was in 1059.

Who knows what ecological impacts the pheasant had in Britain? I doubt anyone paid attention at the time. By the time people began to worry about conservation, in the early 1800s, it was the pheasant they worried about, as its numbers declined with land-use changes and the introduction of firearms for hunting.

The pheasant was first introduced to North America in the 1770s, and has naturalised in many areas. As in Europe, it has become a popular game animal and is the focus of conservation efforts, in spite of its non-native status.

Many years ago, I applied for a job with a ‘conservation’ organisation in Minnesota. Though I was ultimately offered the job, I turned it down, because its sole focus was on the maintenance of pheasant populations for sport hunting. I struggled to view that as conservation in a place where pheasant habitat was incompatible with habitat for threatened native animals, and where maintaining a pheasant population required captive breeding, because winters are simply too harsh for it to survive, even with appropriate habitat.

Even in Hawaii and New Zealand, where introduced species are almost universally considered pests, the pheasant is fussed over and cared for as a native—bred in captivity and released to keep its numbers up for the benefit of sport hunting.

A search for information on the ecological impact of pheasants is curious. Many sources presuming to address the ecology of pheasants deal only with the threats to pheasants themselves, not pheasants’ impact on the native ecology around them. It is as if even researchers have turned a blind eye to the fact pheasants are non-native over most of their current range. In truth, their impact is undoubtably small compared with non-native predators like stoats, cats, and rats. They tend to prefer disturbed, agricultural habitats (though they have been recorded as competing with native prairie birds in North America) and feed primarily on cultivated foods, weeds, and insects.

Yes, they feed primarily on crops. They’re crop pests. They particularly like grains and small fruit crops, and can cause significant losses in grape vineyards and in small holdings.

So, why do we embrace the pheasant so unreservedly? Let’s face it, most of us don’t eat pheasant, so we get no benefit from the bird. But it seems its long historical association with people and the agricultural landscape have made it almost a domesticated species. And, as we put up with the chickens occasionally wreaking havoc in the garden, so we put up with the pheasants, too.

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.

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.

Spur-winged Plovers

Almost every year, a pair of spur-winged plovers (Vanellus miles, known as the masked lapwing in Australia) establishes a territory in the goat paddock. A few days ago, I was taking food to the goats, and noted where the plovers were making a ruckus at the other end of the paddock.

This afternoon, I took a walk out there. The plovers were nowhere to be seen, and I was worried–they’re not always successful nesters here. There are simply too many predators around our property.

I nearly turned around, but I decided to take a look anyway.

I was rewarded with the perfect plover nest. Two eggs, a little dried grass, and some rocks.

The spur-winged plover self-introduced from Australia in 1932. Since then, its population has grown dramatically. No surprise when you consider it likes open habitat, and is quite happy to set up house in paddocks, parks, and road verges (we once had a pair nesting in the middle of an intersection nearby).

It has done so well since it arrived in New Zealand that its protections as a native bird were removed in 2010 due largely to the problems it was causing for aircraft (airports are lovely habitat for it). It is one of only two native birds to not be protected under the Wildlife Act (the other is the black backed gull).

I enjoy the plovers. I love their harsh night-time cry, and their indignant posturing while defending territory and nest. I love the fact they cheekily nest wherever they want and expect everyone else to stay out of their way.

I’ll be watching these eggs closely. Fluffy plover chicks are even more fun to see than plover eggs.

When the pests are cute

img_2765A month ago, I saw a perfect little bird nest in one of the fruit trees—incredibly tidy, and woven from grass and lichen. It was so pretty, I couldn’t bear to remove it, though I knew it must be the nest of a non-native bird (that’s about all we have here). Starling and house sparrow nests get the heave-ho as soon as I find them. This one…well, I couldn’t possibly disturb something so cute.

I forgot about the nest for several weeks, but today my husband noticed it was chock-full of chicks. Five grey fluffy European goldfinches (Carduelis carduelis)—so ugly they were adorable.

We don’t really need any more goldfinches, but since we don’t grow grain, they’re not much of a pest to us. These five chicks, though, will likely join the flock that descends on the neighbours’ fields in late summer. Sorry, guys. If you’d seen this cute nest of chicks, you’d understand.

Takahē PDA

2016-12-11-11-49-22On a family trip to Wellington this weekend, we visited Zealandia, a predator-fenced wildlife sanctuary. A number of endangered native birds, reptiles, amphibians and insects have been introduced to the sanctuary, and many have done well there. Among the birds we saw were kākā, saddlebacks, and kākāriki. But my favourites of the day were a pair of geriatric takahē. Takahē are beautifully coloured, stocky birds about the size of a large chicken. They were thought extinct until 1948 when they were rediscovered in a remote area of the Murchison Mountains. In spite of protected habitat and a captive breeding programme, takahē remain critically endangered, with a population of around 300.

This pair were once part of the captive breeding programme, but at over 20 years old, they are no longer able to produce viable eggs. They were transferred to Zealandia to live out their retirement where they can be ambassadors for their species. They were certainly doing their job this weekend.

When we were there, the takahē were hanging out in a grassy clearing, feeding leisurely and basking in the sun. As we watched, the male walked over to join the female and groom her—a cute public display of affection. They talked to each other quietly as they fed, and completely ignored the half-dozen people standing around watching. They looked content and relaxed—just like a retired couple should.

I hope this unique bird can hold on, and flourish once again, if only in predator-free sanctuaries and offshore islands. It would be sad to lose it…again.