Nature Red in Tooth and Claw

Photo: Eric Weiss

It’s not often you witness outright thuggery in nature. Predators hunt prey—they have to, because otherwise they starve. Predation is never pretty, but it is what it is. 

Sitting at my desk, procrastinating … er … writing this morning, I saw brutality, pure and simple. 

A pair of magpies was chasing a starling. They caught it and brought it to the ground. Standing over it, they pecked at its eyes. At first, I thought they were trying to kill and eat it. But after a few minutes, they got bored. The starling managed to fly off. The magpies followed, caught it and brought it back, only to repeat the eye pecking routine. Three times while I watched, they allowed the starling to escape, then brought it back to peck at it. Always at the eyes.

Eventually, they bored of the sport. They wandered away from the hapless starling to forage in the lawn nearby. After a few minutes, starling and magpies flew off in opposite directions.

I suppose it shouldn’t come as a surprise. Australian magpies have a reputation as aggressive, intelligent birds that like to play. They brazenly steal food from the chickens, fighting right back when a chicken lunges at them. And I’ve watched as gangs of juvenile magpies have tormented my cat, swooping low over him as a team, trying to get a peck in while he swats at them. And I’ve been on the receiving end of magpie parents defending their nests with noisy dives at my head.

In general, magpies eat invertebrates—they were originally introduced to New Zealand to help control crop pests. Research on their effects on native birds indicates they only rarely kill other birds, and their aggressive pursuit of larger predators like harriers may even provide some protection to smaller birds.

Still, I can’t help thinking magpies are the bullies of the playground. They’re fine as long as you’re not their target. Fascinating for me as an armchair naturalist, but I’m thankful I’m not a small songbird.

Duck for Christmas

In the excitement of our pre-Christmas hike, I forgot to introduce the newest members of our menagerie—a pair of Indian runner ducks.

I looked into getting ducks years ago, based on the fact they like slugs, won’t tear up the vegetable garden, and lay eggs. I gravitated toward Indian runner ducks for their quirky looks and less water-dependent lifestyle. 

I ended up with chickens instead, because they were easy to get locally, and ducks were more difficult.

Three laying hens is about right for us, in terms of eggs. Unfortunately, a few months ago, before I had a proper fence constructed, one of my chickens escaped and never returned. So we’ve been a little light on eggs.

When someone posted in our community Facebook page (two days before our trip) that they had Indian runner ducks to give away, I couldn’t pass up the chance.

These two are ducklings, and won’t be giving eggs for a while (if they’re even females … we’re not certain), but they’ve been quite entertaining, and I look forward to letting them loose in the vegetable garden once I’ve finished the fence.

The chickens, with whom they’re housed, weren’t at all amused at first and are still thoroughly offended when the ducks go for a swim in the drinking water, but for the most part the birds ignore each other.

I look forward to finishing the entire garden fence so I can let the ducks loose among the vegetables. 

Christmas on the Heaphy Track

Our pre-Christmas tramp this year took us to Kahurangi National Park to walk the Heaphy Track. The trip was simultaneously spectacular and miserable.

The Heaphy Track follows the path of a proposed road, and as such is gently graded—it’s a technically easy walk. So easy it’s almost boring. But it passes through some spectacular landscapes teeming with remarkable flora and fauna.

Day 1 began for us at 5.30 am when we awoke in the Collingwood Campground to our tent being blown flat by the wind and rain. We quickly decamped and retreated to a shelter to wait for the rain to let up before starting our hike.

Unfortunately, the rain outlasted our patience, so we started out under a heavy fall that had us soaked within minutes. The steady climb was largely unremarkable. The rain eventually cleared and we reached Perry Saddle Hut under a sunny sky.

Day 2 was more eventful, with two endangered species sightings by 7 am. The first was a takahe browsing the grasses just outside the hut as we finished breakfast. This critically endangered bird, the world’s largest rail, was presumed extinct for 50 years. Its population now numbers just 445.

Minutes down the track, with rain setting in again, we nearly stepped on our second endangered species of the day—a Powelliphanta snail—a fist-sized carnivorous snail. Without the rain, we never would have seen these nocturnal, moisture-loving animals. We counted ourselves lucky.

Under increasing rainfall, we made our soggy way across Gouland Downs and then the weird and wonderful Mackay Downs. We explored caves and admired huge glacial erratics tossed like giant bowling balls over the landscape. Weka (another endemic rail) with chicks in tow scurried around our legs every time we stopped for a break, waiting for us to let down our guard so they could make off with a snack.

We reached Mackay Hut drenched, but the worst of the rain was yet to come. Half an hour later, the sky opened up and the wind rose. The torrent sheeted down, spilling off the hut roof like someone was tossing buckets of water over the edge. It didn’t let up until nearly 4 am the following day.

Again we set out in the rain, this time into a landscape scoured and still gushing water. But again the rain held delights—another giant snail, sundews lining the track, enormous 700-year-old southern rata trees, waterfalls in all directions, sprays of flowering bamboo orchids dripping from tree trunks, a mistletoe with scarlet flowers … That evening—Christmas eve—drying out in Heaphy Hut, we composed a New Zealand tramping ballad as a family:

T’was the night before Christmas, and all ‘round the hut
I sure wasn’t stirring; I was sitting on my butt.
A cup of tea nestled warm in my hand.
I ate lots of scroggin, expanding my waistband.
Out on the porch, the weka did play,
Hauling our shoes and our stockings away.

When up on the roof there arose such a clatter
I limped from my bench to see what was the matter.
The sun on the roof of the dunny nearby
Made me shade my eyes as I peered up to the sky.
And what to my wondering eyes did appear
But a trio of cheeky, mischievous kea.
With can opener beaks and curious minds
The birds tore apart everything they could find.
When done on the roof they moved on to our packs
Eating their fill of our Christmas Day snacks.

With our stockings all gone and no snacks to eat,
We still had a Christmas that couldn’t be beat.

Christmas morning dawned and the last ragged storm clouds blew away, leaving brilliant blue skies and blooming rata trees for our last leg along the coast under dense stands of nikau palms.

We ended with a quick dip in the Kohaihai River (very quick—it was ice water) and the long drive home. A most enjoyable Christmas!

Hanging Out with the Locals

Sunday’s family hike took us to Avalanche Peak in Arthur’s Pass National Park. Several years ago we’d been to the peak on our way to Crow Hut, but we’d never done the day hike loop from Arthur’s Pass Village to the peak and back. So in the interest of leaving no track unwalked, we did the loop.

Last time we were there, we reached the peak to find it packed with people. So many people jostled to stand at the top, I was worried about being shoved off. Stretched down the mountain, a line of hikers ascended to join us. We didn’t stay long, but quickly dropped off the peak, sidling up the ridge toward our destination, which was similarly crowded (there were 16 people staying at the 10-bunk Crow Hut that night).

Looking down on the Waimakariri River

Sunday’s experience was entirely different, in spite of it being a similar beautiful summer day. With no foreign tourists in the country, the only hikers were Kiwis. 

The long slog to the top was rewarded with a prime seat on the jagged peak (it’s the most uncomfortable mountaintop I’ve ever sat on—rocks like razors). We shared the summit with just two other hikers and three kea.

The weather was perfect—light winds, cool air, warm sun—and we took our time over lunch, chatting with our fellow hikers and fending off the the kea, who angled for our sandwiches, considered ripping open our backpacks and took a swipe at my daughter’s apple.

It was the most intimate kea encounter I’ve had (excepting the time one bit me on the butt). 

Wade, the cheeky kea

For those of you unfamiliar with kea, they are endemic to New Zealand and are the world’s only alpine parrot. They are an endangered species (estimated population of 4000 adults). A large factor in their endangered status is their lack of fear of humans and their incredible curiosity. Combined with a huge beak like a can opener, it means they get into all sorts of things they shouldn’t They have a deadly fondness for the lead heads of roofing nails, they like to tear apart automobiles and camping gear, and they irritate farmers by killing sheep (yes, a sheep-eating parrot—scary eh? Don’t mess with that beak!). 

Two of the birds hanging out with us were banded, and we were able to identify them on the kea database. ‘Wade’ was the most in-your-face bird of the trio—of all the photos I took, only a few didn’t include Wade. And, of course, I took lots of photos, in spite of the fact I have dozens of photos from previous kea encounters. I swear, it’s part of their strategy—one poses for the camera while the others rifle through your bags looking for treats. 

Eventually we said goodbye to our fellow hikers and our feathered companions and descended to a quiet Arthur’s Pass Village—so different from the frenetic activity of summer with overseas tourists. I feel for the tourism industry, suffering this year with a lack of business. But I love the opportunity to enjoy our backyard without teeming masses of people.

I look forward to the day we can invite our overseas visitors back—international tourism is not only an important part of the economy, but also a strong impetus for protecting the stunning and unique natural landscapes, flora and fauna we have here in New Zealand. It’s good to see Aotearoa through the eyes of tourists now and again, to remember just how special our natural heritage is.

But until then, I’ll enjoy hanging out with the locals.

Weeding Magpies

Photo: Eric Weiss

We’re still getting to know the local wildlife at the new house. The marauding sparrows are pretty much the same—devouring young lettuce and chicken feed in large flocks. The black-backed gull’s evening flights to their nightly roos on the gravel banks of the Waimakariri River are also familiar—though at the old house, the birds were headed to the sea.

The magpies are also familiar, but I’ve noticed some intriguing behaviour here that was absent at the old house.

The magpies here are weeding my garden.

Well okay, not really. Not on purpose. But they’re doing a nice job of it, regardless.

Our yard and garden here are cursed with wire weed. This aggressive plant’s long tough branches sprawl up to a metre or more from a strong central tap root. They tangle in the lawnmower and garden tools, and can trip the unwary. Their only saving grace is that, at least in our lousy soil, their foliage is small and sparse—they may tangle all through my crops, but at least they don’t smother other plants entirely.

And apparently, they make superior magpie nesting material. For weeks, the local magpies have been avidly stripping wire weed from the garden and hauling it to the tops of the pine trees across the road. They started with the easily obtained dead plants that I’d pulled out and left lying about. But now they’re ripping up live plants and taking them away by the beakful.

All the more reason to love these feisty feathered thugs.

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.