Am I Weird?

Stepping into my office the other morning, I had a moment of clarity, in which I saw my desk as a stranger might.

It was pretty scary.

The most obvious thing was the computer. Okay, that’s normal. But that’s where normality ended.

Strewn around the computer there were papers. There were notes for a non-fiction book proposal that included calculations for the intrinsic rate of increase of pea aphids, notes about parthenogenic reproduction, and a list of potential titles, many of which included the word ‘alien’. There were also a smattering of papers and notes from the workshop I attended last weekend, a note about my son’s shoe size, and the beginning of a short story set in New Zealand’s not so distant future.

That’s not too weird, though the story is a little bizarre…

Making a lump under the papers were three D&D dice. I use them for my students–they can roll the dice to choose a random writing prompt from the list of 500 prompts I’ve made for them. Honestly, I don’t roll the dice to see if a character lives or dies in a story (though that could be fun). The dice sit on my desk between classes because they’re fun to roll around in my hands while I’m thinking.

Well, that’s not too strange…

Also on the desk was a stem of the storksbill I’d blogged about the day before. It was still there, though I should have thrown it on the compost when I was done with it. It was interesting to look at…

And nearby was the Weeds of New Zealand book that I’d used for reference when blogging about the storksbill. I’d gotten sidetracked after the blog post was written, and spend a good half an hour perusing information about weeds. I left it sitting out because, you know, everyone needs a weed book on their desk.

And here’s where the tableau on the desk got…um…interesting…

Two dead bumblebees nestled together near one corner of the computer. They’d been there for days–ever since I found them on the floor and noticed that one of them had a drop of venom on her stinger. I put it under the microscope at the time for a photo shoot, but then kept the bees on my desk as…as…well, for no good reason really, other than that I enjoyed looking at them, especially as their parasites (mites) started to abandon their dead hosts and crawl all over my desk, questing for a new bee.

That’s not weird, right?

Over on the other side of the computer was a dead German wasp in a plastic bag. She was in the bag because I’d just taken her out of the freezer. Um…yeah. She was clearly a queen looking for a good nesting site (and she was a non-native pest that I’m deathly allergic to), so when I found her in the house, the only sensible thing to do was to kill her. But there was no point in wasting her. I popped her into the bag and into the freezer to kill her without damaging her, thinking I’d pin her later and keep her for teaching.

That’s definitely not weird. Everyone stores bugs in the freezer, right?

And thankfully out of sight inside a folded piece of paper was the dead mosquito I’d brought back from Auckland because it was a species I don’t see much of here, and when I saw it land on my ankle to bite me, I thought it would be a good specimen to keep.

Weird?

*Sigh*

It was definitely time to clean the desk before someone came to visit.

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.

Spring Weeds–Dock

Springtime is weed season, and there are plenty in my garden–57 species at last count.

I grumble about weeds, but I also find them fascinating. Weeds are the opportunists, the survivors, the tough and persistent plants of the world. Some have been spread accidentally, through virtue of their mobile, sticky, or tough seeds, but many more have been introduced on purpose. They are plants we once considered useful, and it is our changing values that make them weeds today.

So I’ll be introducing some of my weeds over the next few weeks as they sprout and flower and generally annoy me. We’ll start today with a weed I love to hate–broad-leaved dock (Rumex obtusifolius).

Dock isn’t my worst weed. Not by a long shot. But it is persistent. Deep, branching taproots make it a struggle to pull out, and with each plant able to produce up to 60,000 seeds a year which can remain viable in the soil for up to 50 years, there is an unending supply of new plants. Still, dock struggles to compete with established plants, so it’s mostly a weed of disturbed soil.

The goats absolutely love it, so I can’t complain there. Dock is high in magnesium, phosphate, and potassium, and the tannins in the leaves can help prevent bloat in ruminants. Any dock I pull out of the garden goes directly to the goats.

It is likely dock was brought to New Zealand (from its native Europe) on purpose in the mid-1800s. Though the leaves are high in oxalates, which can irritate the stomach and bind to calcium, potentially leading to calcium deficiency, the plant was regularly eaten like spinach. It was also used to treat a variety of ailments, from coughs to cancer.

Dock often grows side by side with stinging nettle and, like many nettle associates, it can supposedly cure nettle stings. I’ve used dock for this purpose, and can attest that it seems to help, but then so does just about any fresh leaf rubbed on nettle stings.

I wouldn’t want to fight dock on a large scale–it scoffs at most herbicides, easily survives mowing, and can resprout from pieces of root left in the soil after ploughing–but for me, it’s a manageable weed that even has some utility.

 

Skink-scaping

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.

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.

Missing My Mix

I planted my first vegetable seeds this weekend. I had planned on planting them last weekend, but when I looked at my garden notebook from previous years, I decided it was a few days too early. So I was doubly eager to get my hands dirty this weekend.

But when I opened one of the bags of growing mix I bought this week, I discovered it was thick with fungal hyphae. They’re saprophytic fungi, to be sure—not technically interested in eating live plants—but in that kind of quantity, they could easily overwhelm my seeds and seedlings. When I opened the second bag of mix, I found it was the same.

I looked at the mountain of seeds I intended to plant, then at the small quantity of growing mix I had left from last year. There was no way I had enough to plant everything. It was already past 1 PM on Saturday—the nearby stores would be closed for the weekend. To get more soil would require a 45 minute drive to the city. Yuck.

So I did triage. Some of the plants I start in August are summer crops that need a long time indoors to get growing (eggplants, peppers, cape gooseberries). These I planted today. Others are spring crops that can go out to the garden as soon as they’re big enough to survive the slugs, birds, and drying winds. Every year I’m in a race with those early crops. They’re always ready before I’ve prepared the garden beds for them. I left many of these for next week.

In the end, the lack of planting mix will probably mean a more pleasant, less stressful spring planting season for me. And if it goes well, I might look back at my garden notebook next August and learn a thing or two about pacing my planting.