Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Sailing the High Seas

(A diversion from raptors, for a change ...)

A few months ago I received an unexpected email from the Royal Society. They asked if I would be interested in supervising three students who had been chosen to sail with the Royal New Zealand Navy to the sub-Antarctic, delivering a group of scientists to Campbell Island for a research expedition ... was there ever more than one answer to that question??!!

Two days ago I returned to land and have yet to shake off my sea-legs; there's currently a moderate swell in my living room that has yet to die down. Modestly, I make a great sailor (no seasickness for this intrepid young lady), but on a seven day voyage, traversing the roaring forties and furious fifties, what exactly did we get up to?

Campbell Island, approx. 700k south of mainland New Zealand, is the southern-most point of land in NZ's EEZ (exclusive economic zone). We entered Perseverance Harbour surrounded by snow-dusted peaks, swooping antarctic terns, giant northern petrels, Campbell Is shags and an inquisitive Hooker's sealion keeping a watchful eye.

The southern royal albatross kept us enthralled as we trekked across the island, experiencing the full plethora of sub-Antarctic weather: cloud, sun, snow and wind. Lunch among a mega-herb field? Why sure. A beautiful, contemplative time to reflect on the exquisite land and ecology around us, I sat there thinking "Nature, I love you just so incredibly much."

It would be hard even for the most non-environmentally minded not to be moved by the wonder of Campbell Island or the Auckland Islands (we visited Enderby Island, part of the Auckland Is group, after two days at Campbell). From navigating the sealion gauntlet, walking past 'penguin alley', having albatrosses soar effortlessly overhead, being surrounded by a collection of plants that exist nowhere else, the heritage and legacy of our sub-Antarctic islands showed exactly why they have the highest level of protection possible.

These World Heritage Status places are largely untouched by human presence and nature is slowly redressing the impact of the sealers, whalers, castaways and unsuccessful farmers from a century or two ago.

This trip has upped my nature-geekiness to new levels and has provided much knowledge and understandings to share with future students and acquaintances alike. I could easily move to the sub-Antarctic in a heartbeat. Inspired and awe-struck, I loved every single second we were present in these special places and am already dreaming of a time that I can return for more.

Thursday, December 2, 2010

In the Presence of Knowledge

Last week saw me attending the Ecological Society of New Zealand's annual conference. It is a chance for scientists from around New Zealand (and several from far beyond our shores) to meet and hear about just some of the many projects and research that is being done in the realm of ecology.

What amazed me, being a lowly quasi-scientist, is the enormous scope that these projects cover and just how vast this discipline of science is. From mountain to ocean, slug to pigeon, native to invasive, it was a non-stop week of immersion and gained knowledge. There were attendees who have spent their whole studying and working lives dedicated to knowing and protecting the world we live in. Very humbling.

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Tea For Two

It's now time to talk about Bonnie and Clyde ... another of the harrier pairs I've named. These two occupy a lovely little extinct volcanic crater and have been entertaining the locals (and me) with their courtship antics.

On a sunny spring morning, Bonnie and Clyde were doing their usual routine of calling, sky-dancing and general mosy-ing about. After a turn around the crater rim, Clyde dropped down for a rest while Bonnie soared over towards the lake area. Clouds of passerines and other birds flew up into the air - the safest bet when a harrier is about - and Bonnie returned after a couple of minutes, headed in the direction of the man of leisure, Clyde.

I had my camera poised and at the ready (that morning's goal had been to get some good shots of harrier for use in my study documents) and so I took advantage of Bonnie's endeavours, snapping happily away. I didn't pay much attention to the details of the shots at the time, knowing that I'd review them on the computer later.

So imagine my surprise/absolute delight a bit later when, after zooming in on an image that looked a bit funny, it revealed that there was someone (or rather, something) else along - unwittingly - for the ride. Grasped in Bonnie's talons was a medium-sized passerine (blackbird, song thrush?) and she was bringing home the bacon to share with hubby.

Although it's taken at a distance, this shot is so neat in it's incidental capture of a very rare moment. Enjoy!

Monday, November 8, 2010

Hunting for the Hunter

Today's field exploits saw me get horribly distracted by these wee things:

I couldn't help but to throw all previous plans to the wind as I madly stalked them around the tree base. The eight bunnies all eventually disappeared down the hole in the roots and I prepared to move on and back into a world of sanity. Not so, as around the very next corner sat seven more little balls of ridiculous cuteness, just waiting for me to while away time snapping their pictures as well.

Having appeased my need for ooh-ing and aaah-ing, I crossed the open space and took up a perch opposite where the bunnies were ... for although they were gorgeous tiny things, the other thought that came to mind was: bait.

I was completely ready to sacrifice these bunnies to the supremeness of a harrier, adding a new item to the list of things I have seen them scoop up, but alas, none came. The bunnies are safe for another day.

Wednesday, October 27, 2010

On the Wings of Love

Well courtship is, for the most part, over, with pairs formed and nesting territories established. I'm back to searching the skies in eternal hope of a glimpse of harrier, with one sighting a day enough to thrill me (my record has been six in a day - so close to my brave little tailor aspirations). The rarity of harriers at the moment is evidence that some of the ladies have got buns in the oven .... or rather, eggs in the nest.

With the females out of sight (the good old-fashioned confinement period from centuries ago) it's up to the males to be hunter-gatherer and food provider. Which, thankfully for the expectant mums, is what these birds excel in. It just makes life/work a lot harder for any harrier chasers (i.e. me)!

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Ode to the Feathered Ones

If often wish, when I'm absorbed in watching harrier soar through the sky, that I was a writer. That I could put pen to paper and adequately compose poetry to match the majesty and spirit of these wonderful birds. But I'm not. Instead, I have to make do with reading the words of others who do a far better job than I could ever do.

Sometimes, it's the Wind,
Sometimes it's the Calm.
Something about clouds
Swirling around.

Sometimes its the wheat fields
as they dance in the light.
Or the sounds of the leaves
as they make their last flight.
The sounds of the ocean,
the waves as they crash,

Something so small or something so large,
Or even at times, it's nothing at all.

The splendor of the things,
that touch to the soul
Stir the depths of emotion,
from places unknown.

A feeling, there are but few words to describe,
It's of love and respect, excitement and calm
A place of perspective,
The center of peace.

A place once you have been there,
Your faith, will increase
A feeling of knowing,
Not in futures untold,
but that what ever life brings you,
You will carry on.

It's a feeling a flight,
High into the sky,
A place of such lightness
tears touch your eyes.

Not tears of fear, nor tears of pain,
Nor tears of sorrow,
though they can mingle and blend

Tears of a Joy, that can push you
to fear,
The fear of flying that we all hear.

But should you have the courage
to fly:
The courage to look on into the sky,
To gaze from the heights to the earth far below,
To feel the wind rush straight to your soul.

Your life will never
be what it once was

You'll find new beauty in the places you live,
You'll feel for another as if your own pain,
The Smiles you share, will come from the depths or your heart,
And the joys that it brings you,
There is nothing to compare,
Except of course,
The feeling of light;
With the Wings of an Eagle
The freedom of Flight.

by D.Enise

Thursday, September 30, 2010

The Others

Although there's been many harrier to occupy my daily thoughts this year, it's not surprising to know that I have not found them at every site I've visited across Auckland. Of course, I'm always ever hopeful and scan the skies incessantly wherever I am. But sometimes there are simply no raptors to be found. In those instances, I let the 'others' entertain me.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Captain and I

Over the last six weeks or so, the harrier have been busy a-courting and I've been busy watching them do so (voyeur, anyone??). I've also taken the opportunity to name the pairs that I've spent time with, as I do feel I've bonded somewhat with them. Over in East Tamaki are one of my main pairs who I've named Captain and Tenille. Don't ask why; I never liked their music, my parents never liked their music, but I just find it amusing (attribute this to crazy days out on my own in the field). How have I bonded with them? Case in point:

Yesterday, in delightful gale-force winds, Captain led me on a merry dance indeed. I must have traversed several k's, jogging back and forwards to keep him in sight as he cruised his territory on the hunt for a snack. Which would have been fine ... if I wasn't layered up to resemble a marshmallow in protection against the cold, if there hadn't been horizontal rain to accompany the howling wind, if the howling wind wasn't making my eyes water so much I could barely see and if my gumboots hadn't both decided that was the day to spring a leak ...

Perhaps it was his form of payback for the less-than-cool name, because I swear Captain was enjoying watching me stumble and mutter my way across the blustery hillside. I was just very grateful indeed that the lawnmower men (see June's postings) were nowhere to be seen!

Wistful anthropomorphism aside, some of Captain and Tenille's movements are related to me being so close to their home turf; they will only allow a human to come so close to where they are before they move away. Bonnie and Clyde (I know! Cool, huh?!) however, well they're accustomed to people being a bit closer, due to the nature of their territory, so life is a bit easier when I'm with them. But that's a story for another day.

Thursday, September 9, 2010

Lines and Lines and Lines and Lines and ...

Libraries. Places where knowledge abounds and is limitless. Sources of wisdom and inspiration, solitude and reflection, investigation and discovery. And raptor books.

One fantastic aspect of my research has involved trawling libraries in search of texts that relate to my topic. However, I cannot be blamed for any side-tracking on birds of prey other than hawks. A favoured rainy day pastime, delving into a world of the feathered fearless has seen me lose track of the hours on numerous occasions; falcon, hawk, eagle, kite, buzzard, kestrel or owl, the family does not matter. What matters is that these incredible birds capture one's heart and spirit and the amount of skill and pure instinct they posses is simply intangible for a feeble human to ever understand.

Great horned owl, Vancouver, Canada

"A raptor's vision is the sharpest of all living creatures ... In birds of prey, the eyes weigh more than the brain. The two eyes are twice as large as the brain itself." (Sy Montgomery, Birdology) I may not have the eyes of a raptor but I know the ones I see, be it on the page or on the glove, never fail to take my breath away.

Golden eagle, Terelj National park, Mongolia

Monday, August 23, 2010

Courtship Etiquette

"How necessary it is that the utmost caution should be exercised in forming our attachments."

Although the weather gives no hint of spring anytime soon, all avifauna is proclaiming it. 'The Etiquette of Love and Courtship' is a small pocket-book which carries advice for lovers, collected from the 1850s onwards. I feel a certain overlap between its' intended human audience and the more feathery-covered class of animals.

Some birds change their plumage in order to attract the best mate, and most often it is the male who is more brightly or intrically coloured:
"If the lady to whom you are paying your addresses is possessed of taste and discernment, you will act properly in submitting to her judgement with regard to your dress."

Some birds choose a different partner every season:
"The man who obtains the good graces of woman in general, is seldom worth the regard of any one in particular ... Of all before our observation, the most loathsome is the female coquette. Men are flirted with, and true affection becomes a sport."

Some birds* have (ahem) interesting mating behaviours:
"Some men are ever ready to disguise their real character and it is no easy matter for a lady to scan it. He may have all the traits of a gentleman - a handsome exterior and well-skilled in points of etiquette - but these are not sufficient to constitute an agreeable home companion."
* read up about stitchbird (hihi) mating behaviour sometime

Some birds mate for life:
"Domestic happiness can be secured by endeavouring to meet with a companion whose disposition, temper and whole deportment will bear the strictest scrutiny."

Birds cannot write, but instead sing to communicate with each other:
"Express your meaning as freely as possible. There is still something requisite towards the writing of a polite and agreeable letter and that is an air of good breeding."

Yes, just over a month to daylight savings, and those of the hollow bones are already preening, displaying, courting and ......... it seems some have been at it for a while!

Friday, August 13, 2010


Today's been cold, grey, windy and frankly a rather dreary day. Putting the weather to good use, I curled up on the couch with a book I've been longing to read for a while. Birdology, by Sy Montgomery, is an exploration of the essence and nature of all things avian. Swaddled in a cosy blanket and fortified with a cup or two of chai, I have been lost in a world of hummingbird rehabilitation, pigeon racing and cassowary chasing.

If you have seen the YouTube phenomenon of Snowball, the sulphur-crested cockatoo dancing, you'll be interested to read the chapter regarding him and other parrots that talk or have a notion of rhythm, something which has only recently been accepted in the scientific world.

But by far my most favourite of chapters was on raptors (surprise surprise). As the author writes, "Birds are wild in a way that we don't experience in our relationships with our fellow mammals. And nothing, I found, brings us closer to the pure wildness of birds than working with a hawk."

Reading this section brought to mind all the times when I have been awed by these carnivores of the sky and the realisation of being privileged indeed to study them and try to understand a part of their world.

Thursday, August 5, 2010


In the last couple weeks, two friends have been kind enough indulge my weirdness and complete change into scientist. Transcripts of the conversations follow ...

'J' sent me a text message about how he was driving down out of Auckland for work for the day. I reply with a comment on all the harriers to be seen out in the country. J responds with "I almost hit one with the ute."
Me: um, ok, so I know this is a bit weird, but if you should hit one, or if you find one ... could you collect it for me?
J: yeah no worries

'S' tells me "I think I saw a dead harrier just before the motorway onramp on my way home."
Me: oooh, I'd love it. Can you drive by slowly tomorrow and get a better look?
(The next day)
S: sorry, I didn't get a chance to stop this afternoon. I was gonna go at lunch, but then I thought what would I do with it for the afternoon.
Me: don't you have a freezer at your work??
S: yes, but I don't think my workmates would be very happy if I did that

What surprised me the most about these two conversations was that both friends were quite unconcerned about it all. It is not a normal, everyday occurrence to collect dead birds off roadsides and neither of them seemed to bat an eyelid over my request. In the end there was no collection of specimens, which I feel is a good thing for our friendships, as I'm sure they both secretly think I'm mad and delivery of a bird carcass would have only served to confirm their suspicions!

Monday, July 19, 2010

The Leg Bone's Connected to the ...

Rainy day = no birds flying; but somewhere in my freezer the vomit awaits . . . "To the laboratory!"

Pellet analysis, I have learnt, is a very time-consuming task (and, in all honesty, can be a bit whiffy). At least 2-3 hours per pellet, up to 5 hours if it's a biggie. I have also learnt that you can bruise your eye sockets from getting too up close and personal with a microscope for long periods of time.

Painstakingly pulling apart masticated fur and feather barbs, tiny treasures (we're talking small amounts of millimetres here) such as claws, teeth, vertebrae and leg bones have been discovered. It's kinda like delving into your santa stocking on Christmas morning (kinda), you don't know what you're gonna get.

I've spent quite a few sessions in the lab now; each time I come away with little specimen jars containing an assortment of bird and rodent bones, fur and feathers, all bagged and labelled before return to my freezer (my flatmates are very understanding).

Here's a small selection of photos to share my lab-time fun with you (NB: the rat skull was not found in a pellet - it is there for comparison purposes only!).

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Science Makes the World Go Round

Over the first week of the school holidays, science teachers from around the country descended on Nelson for the bi-annual SciCon conference. Not having attended this before, I wasn't quite sure what to expect. Memories of college teachers and stereotypes abounded, with my plane companion and I joking about lab coats and sock, sandal and walk-short combinations. Shame on us, there was none of this to be found.

Instead, we were riveted by tales of box and irukandjes jellyfish (the world's most deadliest animals), mesmerised by fantastically engaging chemistry and physics demonstrations and tried to get our minds around the awesome power of the soon-to-be-built Square Kilometre Array.

After several days of talks and workshops, eating and drinking, making new acquaintances and building friendships, an optional field trip to Maud Island finished the time perfectly. We visited on a beautifully crisp and calm winter's day; and although it was very chilly we enjoyed it immensely. The resident DoC ranger provided us with insight into the history of the island and its' current role in conservation. Among other invertebrates, we got to view the endemic Maud Island frog and Cook Straight weta before taking a walk to one of the headlands.

Being immersed in all things science for five days has made me itch with anticipation of transferring my new learning back to the classroom. Seeing as I'm still on fellowship, I'll have to take over a colleague's class if I can't hold back until next year. Sure they'll have to surrender their students to the mercy of a mad scientist, but one who is mad keen on enthusing the next generation of scientific thinkers.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

Watching the Watcher

By now, I'm very used to being subject to strange glances whenever I'm out harrier-watching. Most days bring nothing unusual to this occurrence, however this week has seen two occasions that have been different to the norm.

Monday saw me heading up Mt Hobson, which, being a volcano, offers both the opportunity of a fantastic vantage point for me and a possible hunting area for local harrier. I spent some time walking around the mountain searching for the best observation point and whilst I only came across three other people, my whole time up there I was observed by a herd of cows. It may have been that I was following their grazing tracks and routines by coincidence, but everywhere I went, the cows went, too. It was like a strange, unwanted version of The Pied Piper and not surprisingly, rather disconcerting.

Yesterday saw me heading to East Tamaki where I discovered a couple of harrier hunting over a grassy patch behind a new business development area. This was a perfect chance to observe them in urban settings; using land that has been human-modified to create opportunities for themselves. My viewing point was from a public park adjacent to the business area, and yesterday just happened to be the day when the park was being mowed.

Running all over the place with backpack on, camera round my neck, binoculars glued to my eyeballs, pen in my mouth and field diary clenched under my elbow, I provided a great deal of entertainment to the men on the large ride-on mowers. Of which there were four. It was a precarious balance between keeping track of my birds (which Murphy's law dictates were not staying put in one place, but constantly moving backwards and forwards, near and far, up down and everywhere in between) and checking to see whether I was running into the path of a mower (yes, I know they are noisy, but when fully engrossed in watching I don't pay as much attention to my other senses!).

A quick glance in the direction of one of the men confirmed what was in the back of my mind as I kept track of my charges: the way I looked and my antics were hilariously ridiculous. How could I explain myself?? Would that even help me at all?? Nope, I learnt a lot earlier in the year not to worry how others perceive you when you're doing your science ... just suck it up and get on with it, your results will be your reward. I only hope that when I go back to visit that site again that the lawns will have already been done!!

Monday, June 14, 2010

A-Birding We Will Go

Over Queen's Birthday weekend, I had the pleasure of attending the OSNZ conference in Nelson. Aside from hearing about studies and projects from around the country, covering all types of birds from migratory waders to our smallest wren, there was the opportunity to take a field trip. "Falcons and Grapes" was on the list and, although I admit that the grape/vineyard part was appealing, it was the falcons that I truly wanted to see.

A fantastic, conservation-minded approach has seen Marlborough vineyard owners pair up with the Falcons for Grapes project, to reestablish New Zealand falcons into the areas of their former range. This benefits the vineyards, as falcons are fearsome avian predators specialising in taking down prey mid-flight. They actively kill pest birds such as starlings, blackbirds and silvereyes, as well as being the best scare-tactic nature has to offer. Travelling in a group where every single person is an avid birder, it is needless to say that our enthusiasm upon seeing several falcons was limitless and we were all in raptures.

An early finish at the vineyards saw us dash across to the Waihopai Valley in search of the sole black kite that inhabits the area. Although our mini-van was packed with eager and talented bird-spotters, the lone kite eluded us and we headed back to Nelson.

Not far from my thoughts (particularly when focussed on birds of prey), we observed many harrier en-route to the vineyards (an hour and a half drive from Nelson); some when there was no rain, some when there was light rain, none when there was heavy rain. Another thing to explore further back here in Auckland!

All in all, a very worthwhile weekend with enough birding delights to keep me going until next year's conference.

Monday, May 3, 2010

Private Investigations and Roost Raiding

When applying for this fellowship, I had to put in a project proposal that included, among other things, key objectives for both the project and for my personal learning. While I'm well underway with achieving the objectives that were outlined, a significant set of field-skills are emerging which hadn't been anticipated ... those skills are that of investigation.

I swear that by the end of this, I'd make a fantastic private investigator having developed the ability to quietly sit, half-hidden, in the same spot for hours on end, regardless of weather. I am trained to not need bathroom stops or food-seeking distractions. Skilled map-reading is another honed skill, as is intuitive navigation. I wonder if PI's get a better pay rate than teachers??

Snooping through the layers of human folly aside, what all these factors have combined to produce in my situation is a set of skills that are most conducive for bird watching. And the birds have, thankfully, delivered.

Most recently, I have been on sunset-timed excursions in search of harriers flying in to roost. Kahu are different to the majority of flying birds, as they do not roost or nest in trees; both activities take place on the ground, in swampy clumps of raupo, sedge grass and/or rushes.

One harrier, let's call him Horatio, was observed approaching a section of raupo one evening, but passed over the raupo and landed in the reeds. Two nights later, he did the same thing. As harrier tend to keep the same roost site for considerable periods of time, I was confident in proclaiming I'd found my first roost!

A further two days later, I set out to physically locate the roost, as it had only been observed from a distance. This was done during daylight hours when Horatio was far away hunting. Accompanied by a very knowledgeable field minion/assistant we set out, gumboot-shod, into the bog. The reeds were up to our armpits and although it was fun to stomp about, we were very mindful that we were treading through a delicate eco-system.

Horatio's roost was successfully located and, very excitingly, contained several pellets. These were bagged and labelled as, with analysis, I may be able to determine what he's been snacking on. The great thing about the location of this roost is that it is a very short walk from two residential streets. This proves harriers are not just day visitors to our urban areas.

Not sure how useful the skills of private investigation and intrepid bog-searching will be when I'm back teaching, but I'm sure I can make them fit ... somehow.

Monday, April 19, 2010

Facts, figures and flying things

It's been eleven weeks since the harrier population of Auckland officially came under my scrutiny. So it's time for quick summary of the numbers:

9 weeks of active field observations
64 sites
36 successful sites
59 sightings (some with more than one bird)
17 sightings from people other than myself
8 possible roosting locations
5 harriers in one day (my highest daily count, so close to my 'brave little tailor' moment)
4 harriers in one place (the highest density so far, and a very exciting moment for me!)
2 field minions (a kindly-bestowed name for someone who comes to assist in a field excursion)
1 confirmed kill (rat)
????? hours sitting in wait

Success? I'd say so!

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

An Ecology State of Mind

Over many years, I've become used to being known as the 'nature person', the 'science geek', or, personal favourite, the 'tree-hugging greenie.' The friends, colleagues and family who (lovingly) bestow these nicknames on me are well used to spirited and passionate stories of animals seen, or environmental injustices occurred, or tales of nature of unfathomable beauty.

I like to think that, like most of the people who I share the planet with, I hold a decent grip on reality, but the events of last weekend may have many questioning this. My latest 'nature story' goes a little something like this ...

It was my cousin's wedding. The wedding was just over an hour's drive from Auckland, at a beach accessible by one of those most faithful of unsealed gravel roads. Picture a car-load of wedding goers: beautiful summer dresses, gorgeous heels, hair and makeup completing the look.

I, who was designated driver, was paying close attention to aforementioned twisty turny road, when, rounding a corner, noticed a large clump of feathers up ahead. Always one to avoid getting such muck on my tyres, I moved over so as not to run it further into the ground, where upon I realised that the large clump of feathers was actually a large clump of dead, squashed harrier hawk.

A lot of discussion ensued as we slowly continued down the road, until I decidedly pulled into a driveway, adamant that there was enough time for me to go back, collect this unfortunate specimen of a bird and get to the wedding all with time to spare.

"You can't!"
"Where will you put it?"
"OMG, everyone will see you!"
"What would you do with it, anyway?!"

Peer pressure, I caved in. We continued to the wedding, sans roadkill.

However ...
on the way from the wedding to the reception venue, we were to pass the flattened raptor again and this time, I was determined to collect what would be my first sample. Why, on God's earth, would I do this? Well, the main reason being I could have taken it back to the lab and checked out the gizzard to see what it's diet consisted of and, being that it was already dead, I would be doing no further harm (thinking and acting like a responsible scientist, I thought to myself).

So off we went. Being a windy gravelly country road, there wasn't space to pull over right next to the 'site', which meant a 20m hike from the car to the carcass. Not a problem, although remember the formerly mentioned wedding attire!

My companions refused point blank to accompany me on such an outlandish quest and stayed in the car, where they could not be seen or incriminated (obviously I had completely lost my mind in their opinion). I grabbed a few plastic bags that were floating around the boot, as I had no inclination to get putrefied hawk guts anywhere near me, and teetered down the road towards my flattened friend.

To sum up:
  • the hawk was not newly dead
  • it was, in fact, at least a day or few old
  • it smelt
  • the carcass was completely linear, almost two dimensional
  • it smelt bad
  • everything was all mushed up together, individual internal parts were indecipherable
  • it was stuck to the road (and the roadkill that it had chosen not to give up)
  • it smelt reeeaaaal bad
Wearing plastic bags over my hands and trying to peal the hawk pancake off the gravel I had a few vehicles pass, slowing to a crawl, the occupants giving me rather 'special' looks. I gave up on the carcass and turned my attention to the plumage. The majority of the feathers had road damage, however there were a few primary (main) flight feathers that were in decent enough condition. But they would not come out. I managed to take one tail feather before succumbing to threats that I would be left on the side of the road with the poor dead bird if I didn't get back to the car immediately.

If any of the other wedding guests had observed me on the roadside that afternoon in all my crazed weirdness, no-one mentioned it, at least not to my face. As is usual, we ate, drank and danced the night away in celebration.

... back in Auckland, reflecting on such an unexpected (and slightly strange) situation ...

I still think I have a pretty decent grip on reality, with just a touch more scientific reasoning showing itself from time to time; as every harrier knows, you have to take opportunities where you find them. However, I truly lament the loss of this particular hawk; although a brazen and opportunistic alpha-hunter, his reluctance to give up an easy dinner led to his untimely demise.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Becoming the Brave Little Tailor

When you spend the majority of your working hours without any interaction with other people, you are bound to develop a strange fixation or two. My current focus (I won't go so far as to call it an obsession - I'm not there yet!!) is on becoming like the Brave Little Tailor: "seven with one blow."

Over the last week that I've been out and about looking for harrier, I've had a rather pleasing hit rate: at least one a day, every day I've been out. Which, admittedly, is a great result, however I'm waiting for the day when I can proudly say I've seen seven different harrier all in the space of that one day. So far my total has been three. (Almost half-way!)

Of course, it's not a competition. And even if it was, I'd be the only competitor. As I gain more knowledge of the types of habitat in which these hawks may be found, it would be easy for me to skew the results in my favour. But I won't. I want my genuine Brave Little Tailor moment. I may not sew it on a belt and parade around the town seeking fame and fortune, but I'll be mightily chuffed all the same.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

The Little Engine That Could: Perseverance

Child-like enthusiasm is a wonderful thing; it binds you up and carries you along on a terrific high, but the tiniest factor can cause it to fragment and fall apart. Case in point: one child I taught was writing the most fantastic narrative, complete with incredible drawings (he was ridiculously talented in creative areas), but upon realising he'd made a mistake, screwed the whole thing up into the tightest ball imaginable and tossed it into the paper recycling. He then sat immobile, staring despondently at his empty desk for quite some time.

Never a fan of sulking or such-like, I pulled it out of the bin and made him articulate exactly what had gone wrong and we problem-solved a way to fix the error. (He didn't want to then start all over again; turns out I'm a dab hand at ironing creases out of paper!!)

In teaching, we often have moments or situations that stay with us, that stick out beyond the normal day to day happenings (although there is hardly much room for normalcy) and teaching a child perseverance is no mean feat.

Perseverance plays a large part in the success of my project. I get up in the morning. I prepare and plan. I'm ready. I arrive at my first site and wait, full of joyful expectancy, for a harrier to arrive. As the day goes on, the expectancy stays though the joy tends to slip a little. I sit through hours of: cold, sun, wind, mosquitos, sandflies ... all with the hope of being rewarded. Some days I see a harrier, some days I don't.

When I do sight one the joy comes rushing back, a huge wave of it, that makes me want to grab the nearest person, shove my binoculars in their face and shout "Look! Look!" (I have so far managed to practice restraint in this area, safe to let that response live only in my head!)

Perseverance can be a real pain. If the end-point becomes obscure, if things turn to custard, if you make a mistake, if it's taking too long ... there are so many ready excuses to give up. But if you don't give up, if you persevere, nothing beats that feeling of success, pride and self-belief. It tops up the tank and renews you for the next round.

The once-screwed-up-but-now-ironed-out-and-completed story?? It was finished and proudly presented to his grandmother for her birthday.

Me and my harriers? We're doing just fine.

Wednesday, March 3, 2010


New Zealand is not typically known for its raptors, or birds of prey. We have morepork and harrier, which are native (found in other countries as well) and our New Zealand falcon, which is our only endemic bird of prey.

One of the best places to see all three of our raptors close up is Wingspan in Rotorua. Wingspan is a trust that was set up to "care for sick, orphaned and injured raptors. This includes research into their habits and habitat, captive breeding, public awareness and the rehabilitation of raptors back into the wild."

I went down there earlier this week, with some colleagues from the Department of Natural Sciences at Unitec. Now, I've seen countless harrier and morepork before, but have never seen
a New Zealand falcon. It was a new trip for all of us, and we did wonder exactly what would greet us. Just in case we didn't end up getting close to them, I took this photo opportunity:

A 'falcon' of sorts ...

Which turned out to be totally unnecessary. Wingspan has a large barn area that is divided up into about a dozen aviaries that visitors can wander through. Here we saw adult falcons, a juvenile falcon, adult and juvenile moreporks and an elderly gent of a harrier. They were easy to see in their homes; some of the more curious falcons came right up and perched next to the viewing screens.

As harrier age, their colouring gets lighter.

After feasting our eyes and taking many photos (well, my companions did, thanks guys!), we went outside to continue this with the flying demonstration. A male falcon called Ozzy was the first bird brought out. He was very well-behaved, showing us all manner of flying and hunting techniques.

Medieval falconry techniques are still used today in the rehabilitation of injured raptors.

Next came Atareta, a female who was bigger and far more brazen than her male counterpart. She had clever ways of making sure her handler gave her the food she wanted (pigeon or chicken was preferred to rabbit).

Female falcons can be up to one and a half times larger than males.

The demonstration was accompanied by insightful, fact-loaded but easy to understand commentary, which left viewers with a clear understanding of these incredible birds, and apart from being their advocates, I'm sure all who were there now desire to become falconers! Noel, Debbie, Andrew and the team at Wingspan are very passionate and have phenomenal amounts of expertise and knowledge to draw on.

I'm so pleased we made the trip. It has been beneficial to my project in many ways: creating contacts within the raptor realm, fleshing out my knowledge of birds of prey and just having a chance to see these birds close up.

Monday, February 22, 2010

Observation Area: visual reference

Forgiving the scribbly-ness of the red boundary line, this is the area that I am wishing to collect harrier sighting data in. The line is not exact (area extends a little further north and a little further south), but hopefully gives a clear enough idea of the area under scrutiny.

Defining urban:
For the purposes of this study, I will be using a general 'farmland' rule: if there is farmland or lifestyle blocks in the vicinity, or that have been passed through to get there, then that location is not urban. If you're unsure, send the sighting through anyway:

I've started to receive sighting and location info from lots of people, so thanks everyone for the email jungle vine; keep it up!

Saturday, February 20, 2010

"Help Wanted"

So Harrier HQ is now set-up and ready to take sightings from one and all. Emails have been sent and sent and sent, which I greatly appreciate. Here's a snippet from my appeal, please pass it on as much as you like!

2010: Year of the Harrier

As you may be aware, I'm undertaking a project (courtesy of a RSNZ Awarded Teacher Fellowship) with the rather large aim of identifying the distribution of the Australasian Harrier within urban Auckland (amongst other things). However, to do this, I need your help. You too can become an avid sky-watcher ... without having to actually go out of your way.

So basically, if you see a harrier over an urban area in Auckland any time throughout the year, I NEED to know. "But I don't know how to tell if it is one or not!" Rubbish - just use the quick 'how to spot a harrier' guide below.
Then, email me with as much info about the sighting as possible, include: date, time, weather conditions (sunny, overcast, rainy, windy), specific location (be really detailed - I need to map this), what the bird was doing, direction it came from or flew off in. All of this information is helpful and will be gratefully received.

Please forward this email to HEAPS of other people, too. The more, the absolute merrier (and the better data for me to work with). Every single sighting helps ... and better yet, it's painless!

Sightings can be sent to me at harrier HQ via this address: mgalbraith2@unitec.ac.nz

How to Spot a Harrier:
  • Firstly, look at the shape of the bird first - is it large and brownish, with 'fingered' wings? If so, it's probably a harrier
  • Secondly, look at its flying habits - is it soaring in slow circles, or quartering (flying backwards and forwards) a certain area with slow, steady flight? It's most probably a harrier. Harriers use the wind currents to move them about, so they hardly seem to flap their wings at all. Therefore, if you see a large bird flapping madly about, it will probably not be a harrier!
  • Thirdly, harriers are solitary and mostly silent, only vocalising around breeding season. So match this with the above characteristics and you'll be able to guarantee the accuracy of your observation.
  • Easy!

Thanks everyone :o)

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Lessons in patience

Ahhhh, fieldwork. Fieldwork in the realm of ecology, no less. You get all geared up, travel to location, find your optimum vantage point, set up telescope, adjust binoculars, have data recording sheet ready .... and .... .... .... .... .... .... .... .... .... .... .... .... .... nothing.

"If you build it, they will come." Nice guarantee, that. Unless they're an actual animal species and not ghosts in a movie. What you are guaranteed is a LOT of weird looks from passersby, completely unknown members of the public stopping to chat about what you're doing ("so you're a bird-watcher then?") and a lot of time sitting, waiting.

Patience can feel so different depending on context: in a classroom helping a little 7 year old sound out a word (whilst, at times, feeling like forever) takes 1-2 minutes; sitting waiting for a bird to show (or not) takes hours. Hours.

BUT ... patience is a virtue, my first harrier sightings for this project have been recorded and reports from other people are starting to trickle in, so my minor panic that they all have fled upon learning of my study is over. Phew!

It will take a while to build up the kind of data that I'm hoping to collect, so in the meantime I'll sit back, relax and try to enjoy the views. And as a friend and colleague suggested, I'll "take a good book!"

Friday, February 5, 2010

And so it starts

Okay, so today finds me at the end of my first week of non-teaching. How do I feel? Strange. So much 'newness' to be discovered.

Firstly, it's quiet. I mean, dead quiet. There are no young kiddies scrambling every which way for my attention, there's no playground duty, no bells going, it's quiet. This may be because, in actual fact, there are no kids. A whole day can pass by where I don't encounter a single person younger than me. I never knew this kind of world existed.

Secondly, as much as I felt being a teacher and running my own classroom automatically created work independence, it actually was only because of the nice fluffy encapsulating boundaries of student needs and curriculum choices. When studying in ecology, you're dealing with species in the wild and the subsequent huge degrees of unpredictability that this generates; it's like being taken blindfolded on a trust game, except that my guiding partner happens to be a feathery expert hunter, with rather large talons.

Thirdly: time. Time itself is a marvellous thing. Who ever knew there was so much of it to be had. On my first day, I was finished and home by 3pm. 3pm!!! I really did feel quite unsettled. Seriously, what do people do at 3pm? A teacher's work-day doesn't usually end until at least 5-5.30pm, not to mention the planning and prep we do after dinner, so this whole having extra time thing is a novelty that I have only just started to explore.

So, 3 and a half days into the academic year, I think I'm qualified to say that this teacher fellowship thing rocks! I'm looking forward to a year of peace and solitude, adult company, pursuit of knowledge and having the time to enjoy all this. For any kiwi teachers reading, if even one of these aspects appeals to you, it's time to apply for a Royal Society of New Zealand Awarded Teacher Fellowship. So far, it's all it promises and much more.