Monday, 22 July 2013

Canadian canoe odyssey

Howdy folks,

Since my last post I've managed to get out and see a bit more of the Canadian province of Saskatchewan. Mostly I've been getting out and about visiting many of the islands on Lac La Ronge, which is about 350km north of Saskatoon, as well as a few other lakes and rivers somewhat further North in the Churchill River uplands. The trip North from Saskatoon to the Churchill River catchment is a fascinating one, as it covers three iconic ecotones (an ecotone being a broad classification of major ecosystems at the subcontinental scale). Saskatoon sits near the Northern border of the great North American plains, where massive herds of bison once roamed prior to European colonisation.  Heading north, one then passes through the boreal transition zone, comprised of a mosaic of grassland with deciduous trees, such as trembling aspen (Populus tremuloides), on gently rolling hills. 

From there it's onwards through the boreal forests, situated on thick glacial deposits from the last ice age. The forest here is a mix of deciduous hardwood trees, such as birch (Betula papyrifera, the Saskatchewan's provincial tree) and balsam poplar (Populus balsamifera), and conifers such as white and black spruce Picea glauca and P. mariana). Also present is tamarack (Larix laricina). Tamarack are an unusual member of the coniferous class of plants as they (along with the other fifteen or so larch species) are deciduous. Lac La Ronge itself sits astride the edge of the famous Canadian Shield. The Canadian Shield (also known as the Precambrian Shield or Laurentian Plateau) covers an area of some 4.4 million square kilometers, and consists of the oldest rocks to be found on the North American continent. Repeated glacial advances and retreats through the ice ages up until 10,000 years ago have scraped away the surface resulting in a complex network of lakes, and left behind vast areas of exposed bedrock. The Canadian Shield is also rich in valuable resources, such as gold, uranium and platinum. 

With such a wealth of rivers and lakes in the area, there seemed no better way to explore than in a canadian canoe (wanting to indulge in the canadian experience, of course). So with a few buddies I headed further north to the mighty Churchill River catchment for five days of paddling, fishing and camping. In the early days of european exploration of the continent this was an important river, with coureurs de bois ('runners of the woods') exploring inland by canoe to trade european goods for furs with the native tribes from the early 17th century. As the area is only sparsely inhabited, there are vast areas of pristine wilderness and it's an ideal place to forget about the hectic pace of modern life. With the beavers slapping their tails, the fish biting, and the eagles soaring it's also an easy place to slip into the mindset of a modern day 'runner of the woods'. 

Until next time folks,

Southern Bird Geek out.

Big skies and big water. Evening on the water in northern Saskatchewan.

Modern day coureurs de bois. Erin in the back, Southern Bird Geek in the front. 

Sunday, 9 June 2013

Southern Bird Geek flies again

Howdy folks,

Well, what a busy time it's been since I last wrote. The PhD is done and dusted and a second scientific paper from this work, Resource availability and foraging of Silvereyes (Zosterops lateralis) in urban trees, is out in Emu: Austral Ornithology. I also spent seven months working for the Department of Conservation in the beautiful mountains and fiords of South West New Zealand, while maintaining my involvement with protection efforts for the critically endangered grand and Otago skinks (Oligosoma grande and O. otagense) in central Otago. Come the first snow dumps of the southern winter, however, I was ready to take flight and head north. Quite a ways north. A chance meeting with a colleague from Canada last  year has now culminated in the opportunity to visit the land of big skies and big lakes in Saskatchewan, Canada. While here I'll be participating in a few research projects, and engaging in valuable exchange of knowledge in wildlife management and research methods. 

While I will no doubt be exploring and writing about some of the more remote parts of the province, as usual my bird geeking activities began at my point of entry into the area: the city of Saskatoon. Much as I love getting out into wilderness areas, towns and cities can provide some rich wildlife viewing that is all too often overlooked despite being right under our noses (if you browse my earlier posts you'll find plenty along this line). From an ecological perspective urban areas are fascinating, with just about every imaginable component of the ecosystem being modified. For example hydrology is heavily impacted by the sealing of surfaces with concrete and asphalt, temperature is affected (the 'urban heat island' phenomenon), and the importation of ornamental garden plants results in a highly exotic plant community with all sorts of flow on effects through the various trophic levels. As these impacts are relatively constant no matter where in the world your town/city is, there are likewise many commonalities in the ecological communities in urban areas throughout the world.

This morning I took the opportunity to head out for a walk with my host Iain along the banks of the Saskatchewan River as it flows through Saskatoon and get my bird geek on. Unfortunately my binoculars suffered a fatal blow recently in the hills which made identification of some of the smaller species difficult, but even so a great time was had. As we don't have snakes in New Zealand, the chance to get acquainted with a couple of garter snakes (Thamnophis sirtalis) was a highlight. 

Rivers through towns and cities are often bordered by strips of vegetation (riparian vegetation), as such areas are unsuitable for building on due to unstable substrates and flood hazard. These riparian zones are, however, a vastly under-utilised resource, and have the potential to provide some real neighbourhood gems. While urban riparian vegetation can provide oases for a range of wildlife, there is huge room for improvement. Such vegetation typically suffers from heavy infestations of exotic weeds, and while there certainly exceptions, exotic vegetation generally supports exotic arthropod and bird communities leading to further degradation of the conservation potential (a topic I touched on in a previous post, Globe trotting birds)

So here's my vision for such riparian strips. Worldwide there is an increasing groundswell in conservation towards community led initiatives. Riparian vegetation not only along urban rivers, but also other features such as railways, is ideally suited to such community led projects. The land has little commercial or development value, and is immediately accessible to locals of all ages. Despite the weed infestations, the vegetation is often mature and as such contains the structural diversity needed to support a rich bird community, and allow movement of the birds through the landscape to access localised food resources. The inclusion of shared paths for cyclists and pedestrians can extend these benefits from the avian inhabitats to the human, resulting in options for cheap, healthy, and immediately available recreational opportunities. All in all a win-win situation promoting healthy lifestyles, healthy communities, and of course, healthy birds. 

So remember my ongoing message throughout all my posts: getting out into the wilderness is great, but don't forget the wildlife viewing opportunities right under your noses! Check back soon and hopefully I'll have a few tall tales and photographs from the Canadian wilderness.

Until next time, Southern Bird Geek out. 

Another tough day in the office in the depths of Fiordland National Park and World Heritage Area, south west New Zealand, during the southern summer.

The south branch of the Saskatchewan River as it flows through Saskatoon. The anthropogenic hydrological modifications, riparian vegetation containing infestations of exotic invasive weeds, and water quality issues are typical of urban rivers around the world. It ain't all bad news though.

Urban garter snake (Thamnophis sirtalis), Saskatoon, Canada.

Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Raptor inspired ramblings

Howdy folks,

The past few months I've been doing a bit of contract work for the New Zealand Department of Conservation in some of the lovely alpine tussock grassland of Central Otago. With the PhD thesis just a week or two from submission, it's been a very welcome opportunity to get out from behind the desk, and away from the pressure of formatting and editing. 

When I'm travelling, viewing raptors is a particular interest, largely due to the paucity of birds of prey in New Zealand, though also the splendour and majesty they encapsulate (see my earlier post, raptor rapture). We do have an absolute gem, however, in the New Zealand falcon (Falco novaeseelandiae), as well as the Australasian harrier (Circus approximans). Last year I spent much of the summer radio tracking New Zealand falcons around a wind development site and monitoring their breeding efforts, and just last week I was lucky enough to hear, and then see, a newly fledged NZ falcon while out working. It can't have been long out of the nest, as many of its feathers weren't fully unsheathed, and it was busy preening itself to help the process along. This is the best time of year for watching NZ falcons. The calls of the juveniles make them easy to locate, and the interactions between the adults and the juveniles are fascinating to watch. Most exhilarating are food passes, when the adults will drop food items for the youngsters to catch on the wing. 

New Zealand's raptor fauna wasn't always so depauperate though. Unfortunately New Zealand has the dubious record for having one of the highest extinction rates in the world. Since New Zealand was first settled by people around 800 years ago, 40% of the terrestrial and freshwater bird species have become extinct. Among these is the largest eagle ever known: Haast's eagle (Harpagornis moorei). Weighing up to 15kg, with a wingspan up to 2.6 metres, and claws the same size as a tiger's, Haast's eagle must also have been a majestic sight to behold. Unfortunately, competition with the newly arrived human settlers for the flightless, herbivorous birds on which Haast's eagle depended saw it decline, and disappear forever. 

The impacts of human settlement on New Zealand's avifauna doesn't end there though. Seventy percent of the (remaining) terrestrial and freshwater bird species in New Zealand are threatened with extinction. So should we be concerned? If you're reading a blog about birds I'm guessing you'll say yes. As do I. As I pointed out in my my last post (globe trotting birds), birds are a huge part of our cultural identity. Birds are charismatic, visual, and conspicuous representatives of biological and cultural diversity. They feature heavily in iconography and religion, myths and legends: Noah sent a dove from the ark; babies are delivered by storks; birds adorn our bank coins and notes, as well as countless national coats of arms. The examples are endless. While funding for conservation may be dropping in the priority list of governments in tough financial times, failure to invest in the survival of bird species is a fairly profound statement. What is it that we are losing through the ongoing decline and extinction of such prominent icons of our own culture?

So go out, get your bird geek on. And while you're out enjoying the experience, take a bit of time to ponder the place of birds in our own cultural identity. 

New Zealand falcon (Falco novaeseelandiae)

Wednesday, 4 April 2012

Globe trotting birds

Howdy folks,

Once again I find myself off jet-setting, this has been quite a big year for it. This time to England to attend the conference of the British Ornithologists' Union. I've been in the UK a few weeks now, having a long overdue catch up with some friends, and plugging away at the PhD thesis. A few milestones were met last week, I finished the first draft of my final data chapter, and the first publication to come out of my PhD "Arboreal arthropod sampling methods for urban trees" is now available online with the Journal of Insect Conservation. 

Naturally, it wasn't long after arriving in London before I was checking out the local avifauna. Given the paucity of bird habitat in highly developed areas, such as central London, features that may seem fairly 'rubbishy' habitat can play an important role in maintaining at least some biodiversity. Hence the vegetated railway-side vegetation provided a few opportunities for getting my bird geek on and spotting a few of the feathered locals (train-spotting?) on my way out of London. A few pigeons, some sparrows, chaffinches, blackbirds, starlings, thrushes, dunnocks... wait a minute... looks I'm not the only one who's been doing some jet-setting. In the past year I've been lucky enough to travel in both islands of New Zealand, Australia, southern Africa (SA and Namibia), and now England. In the towns and cities in all these areas, spanning three continents, there is a high degree of overlap in the bird communities. So what's the story?

This 'biotic homogenisation' is one of the byproducts of urban development. Worldwide, local species suffer from high rates of localised extinctions in urban areas, while concurrently cosmopolitan species, such as pigeons and sparrows move in. The precise details behind this shift remain unclear, as so many aspects of the environment are modified by urbanisation, at scales ranging from soil microbial activity right through to wholesale atmospheric and temperature changes. I'll save going into these in more detail for another post though. So should we be concerned about this biotic homogenisation? I argue yes, for several reasons, two of which I'll outline briefly.

First is species conservation. As the area of urbanisation spreads through urban sprawl, species of conservation concern are increasingly found in towns and cities. In such situations, there is the danger that what may have been a localised extinction could potentially become a total extinction. This is further exacerbated by the fact that urban centres tend to occur in biological hotspots, such as river mouths and estuaries (again, think London), largely due to historic trade reasons. 

Second is national identity. The avifauna of an area is one of its most visual and defining characteristics. Coincidently, I've just come from a lecture on the cultural value of Polish 'stork villages', where people travel from miles around to visit small villages, where the rooftop nesting storks can outnumber the human inhabitants. As a New Zealander travelling overseas, perhaps being known around the world colloquially as a 'kiwi' means this relationship between avifauna and national identity is particularly pertinent to me right now. 

So how do we go about reversing this biotic homogenisation? That's the six million dollar question. If anyone has a quick and easy solution, do let me know. In the meantime, I'll keep plugging away on my research on how urban tree-scaping may play a role. 

City birds... an urbanised ibis, a photograph instantly recognisable as Australian.

Friday, 2 March 2012

my humble homage...

Howdy folks,

Being in the final countdown to my PhD thesis hand in date the writing efforts have been ramping up in a fairly major way. I had a paper accepted for publication, and knocked off another chapter this week, so I think I'm winning though. Much as I'm enjoying the writing process (if not the pressure), I've been grateful for a few opportunities to get out of the office and away from the computer. I've been doing some part time contract work for the New Zealand Department of Conservation, and also spent a week in the beautiful Catlins region (South East coast), helping teach an undergraduate ecology field course. With rugged forested hills right down to the coastline with its rocky points and sandy beaches it's a beautiful place both to work and unwind. 

A big part of the New Zealand forest experience comes from one of our most inconspicuous little birds-the grey warbler (Gerygone igata), to which I would like to pay homage. Despite their small size, and inconspicuous behaviour and appearance, their call is one of the most endearing aspects of getting out in the hills. As they are found in forests throughout New Zealand, their call is synonymous with the New Zealand wilderness experience. Waking up in the bush just wouldn't be the same without it. 

Thankfully, grey warblers appear to be relatively resistant to urban development, despite the general trend for insectivorous birds to be fairly sensitive to such environmental change. As such it's not uncommon to hear them in town, and I frequently see (and even more often hear) a resident pair around my office, despite being beside one of the main traffic thoroughfares through town. And even better, there's another resident pair around my home, and they often give me a welcome, relaxing dose of the forest atmosphere while I perform my morning ritual of coffee while reading the news. 

Coincidently, while we're on the topic of urban bird communities, I tagged along with one of my academic supervisors, Yolanda van Heezik, for a New Zealand Radio discussion on urban ecology research, on the weekly 'our changing world' show. Click on the link below to listen to the podcast, and the multi media viewer to enjoy the trilling of the grey warbler. 

till next time, 

bird geek out. 

'our changing world' urban ecology discussion

Grey warbler in the hand, note the diagnostic red eye. 

Saturday, 3 December 2011

escaping the office...

Unfortunately I’ve been rather office bound the last wee while. It hasn’t been in vain though, I’ve knocked out another PhD thesis chapter, and completed the GIS (geographic information systems) analysis necessary for the next one. However summer has arrived, and earlier in the week it was just too nice a day to spend in front of the computer. A far more appealing option was to head to the Dunedin Botanic Gardens to get my bird geek on with a friend and colleague, also named Ed. Our target species: the humble dunnock (Prunella modularis).

Dunnocks (also known as hedge sparrows) are a fairly small, drab, and seemingly unremarkable little bird. So unremarkable, in fact, that despite their abundance in urban areas many people don’t realise their existence, failing to distinguish them from house sparrows (Passer domesticus). While there are differences between the two in plumage, song and behaviour, to the untrained observer the bill is the easiest distinguishing feature. House sparrows have a broad, finch-like beak, whereas dunnocks have a finer, more needle like bill. This is how I taught my young son to tell them apart.

Their inconspicuous appearance, however, belies a far more ‘colourful’ private life, with all the possible mating strategies being exhibited by dunnocks. Monogamy (mutually exclusive), polygyny (one male, two or more females), polyandry (one female, two or more males), and a generous dose of promiscuity can all be found in dunnocks. Ed’s PhD is on the evolutionary consequences of this, and examining which strategies, under which circumstances, are the most successful in rearing offspring and ensuring the continuation of the genetic line. Over the past few summers Ed has been catching adults, monitoring nests, and doing paternity tests on the chicks to build up a big picture of the dynamics of an urban dunnock population.

Hopefully the pictures will give you an insight into the more enjoyable side of being a bird biologist-getting out in the sunshine and getting our bird geek on. For me it was a welcome opportunity to get out of the office. Now back to that data analysis….

Ed removing an adult dunnock from the mist net. 

Colour bands are a common tool in ornithology, enabling biologists to tell birds apart. 

Chicks are regularly weighed and measured to check their progress 

 And nest cameras are used to see which adults are feeding the chicks, and how often.

Tuesday, 25 October 2011


 Apologies for the delay in getting another post up. Since my return to New Zealand 3 weeks ago I've had my head down doing some serious data analysis and writing. If anyone would really like to read a blog post on statistical modeling of arthropod communities I'd be happy to oblige.

As you may recall, many of my images from my recent trip to Namibia were committed to slide film, and hence hadn't been posted. Finding somewhere to get slide film processed over there proved difficult-it seems slide film has been erased from the memory of all the camera shops I tried in Windhoek. I went into one camera shop and asked 'do you process slide film', to which the shop attendant replied 'yes, do you have your memory card here?' Righto.... I didn't spend long enough in Capetown to get it done on the way through there, so it had to wait until I got home. I got the film back from the lab last week, though haven't had a chance to have a good look through until tonight. With a few hundred images from my trip it's just like Christmas, and I'm getting to relive it all over again.

The nostalgia goes back beyond reliving my trip though. My decision to use film on this trip arose from a recent experience where I simply could not get the shot I wanted out of digital. No matter what I tried, nothing could make up for some undefinable character, some sort of elusive depth of character. It's the same phenomenon as music, whereby digital medium are supposedly superior to analogue, and despite the immense advantage of convenience held by the digital technology, records still hold their own and are enjoying a resurgence among audiophiles disillusioned by the digital age. Shooting the film was also an exercise in nostalgia. Before leaving I dug out my first SLR, a Pentax, and nothing flash by any stretch of the imagination. The whir of the motordrive after the shutter, the inevitable phenomenon of getting to the end of the roll just as an animal moved its head in the direction I'd been waiting for, trying to keep the dust out of the camera while changing film (not easy in the desert!).... and I loved every minute of it and will be doing it some more. Ah, nostalgia.

Hopefully you'll agree the selection of images below made it all worthwhile. All shot on fujichrome provia 100F, with a Pentax MZ50.