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.