Friday, November 25, 2011

Where are all the moreporks?

Little Owl

New Zealand has few hunting birds. The only birds of prey are the extinct giant eagle, the falcon and the harrier. In addition to these we have only had four owl species. These are the morepork or ruru, the Laughing owl which is now presumed extinct, the Barn owl which is a rare visitor and the Little owl or German owl, widespread in the South Island.

Little owls are common in Invercargill. The best place is Queens Park which probably has a population of about six but there could be many more. Little owls call in the evening, the usual cry being a screech. If their roost is discovered by blackbirds there is a lot of agitation which can be a clue to their whereabouts. They feed on moths, wetas, mice and small birds and are particularly useful in controlling porina moths. Little owls nest in buildings and often inside disused farm machinery. A few years ago a pair nested in a roller door at Makarewa. You can imagine the twice daily disruption to their domestic routine.

In contrast, the morepork is a rare bird. You hear the call ‘more pork’ in the distance throughout Fiordland and elsewhere but the forest should be full of them. It is difficult to imagine what the limiting factor is. There is plenty of food, their nests in holes in trees would seen reasonably secure and they don’t have an obvious enemy. Perhaps the Little owl is out-competing the morepork or even a predator of it.

Barn Owls

Little owls are a frequent road casualty, the result of sitting on the warm road at night and flying low as they look for prey at dusk.

They are easy to tell apart. The morepork is about twice the size, it’s brown and has yellow-orange eyes. The Little owl is grey with dark spots and has lemon-yellow eyes. Little owl chicks – owlets – are one of the easiest birds to raise as pets. They eat strips of meat and can turn their heads 180 degrees. You don’t want one sitting on your head though as they have needle-sharp talons. As these talons close on a victim, they pierce the heart and ensure a quick kill.


No sign of the Laughing owl being re-discovered although there are odd reports of strange, large owls. It’s difficult to judge size in poor light and these may be moreporks. I’ve been confused with pigeons as well – silhouetted on a branch they can look like an owl. Better news with Barn owls. A few years ago they bred successfully in Northland so may slowly spread.

I gave a ride to some German hitch-hikers. “Where did you stay last night?” I asked. “Ve stayed vis ze peasants up ze road,” they said. We talked about birds. “Ve see a ool,” they said. I said I didn’t know what a ool was. “A ool, ze bird vot clasp ze mouses in ze night.”

Friday, September 9, 2011


Whether you want to call it a mollymawk or an albatross, it’s big! There are around a dozen albatross species worldwide with the New Zealand area the richest of all for species. In New Zealand the smaller albatrosses are called mollymawks and only the larger two – the Royal and Wandering – plus the small Sooty albatross are called albatrosses. The belong to the stormbird family Procellariiformes which includes shearwaters, petrels, prions, muttonbirds, fulmars and about 100 others, again concentrated in the New Zealand region.
The molly we are most likely to see is Bullers mollymawk. Thousands nest on the Solander Islands and the Snares. The youngsters leave the nest in September and many get blown off course. Each year DoC rescues them from farmland throughout Southland. Sometimes there is one standing lonely on the beach – Molly on the Shore, if you remember the Percy Grainger tune. Most mollymawks ashore will be too weak to take off and will die unless rescued and fed before release. Sometime they need a bit of height to get airborne, and Taiaroa Head on Otago Peninsula is a favoured release spot. Handling the bird you notice something weird, which is how little it weighs. No bone on an albatross is more than a millimetre thick, the wingbones are hollow, there are large air spaces in the body, the feathers weigh nothing and there is surprisingly little muscle. An albatross is a weak flier and unable to flap for long. It relies on locking the wing into the outstretched position and gliding. A bird this size is at the limit for flight and has to be as light as possible to stay aloft. Albatrosses are said to have an extra joint in their wings to enable them to achieve their enormous wingspan of nearly four metres. Not true, but there is an oddly elongated elbow ‘thumb’ that pushes out the leading edge of the wing into a straight line for maximum lift.

My best encounter with mollymawks was off Solander Island in January. From a ship we could see many hundreds of Bullers mollymawks just circling. They weren’t looking for food – which they do by skimming along near the surface, landing by the morsel and gulping it down. No, they seemed to be flying for the pleasure of it., spiralling up and downwards in a great flock.

It has been reported that until a decade or so ago there were albatrosses nesting along cliffs west of the Wairaurahiri Mouth. I’d be very keen to confirm this. They would probably have been Bullers mollys and if confirmed, this would be just the second site in the world where an albatross is nesting on the mainland, the other being Taiaroa Head where the Royals are nesting. My most recent encounter was a few days ago. I was walking the bush track through Bowman’s Bush in Otatara when I came across an juvenile Buller’s molly also doing the track. He must have run out of good air just above the bush on his maiden flight. We grabbed him, getting painfully beaked in the process, took him out to the beach, gave him a boot in the backside and watched as he spread his wings and got just enough lift to get beyond the breakers. Fate unknown but he is in a better environment than the native forest.

Here’s a plea for information!! Do you know anything about albatrosses nesting along the south coast? Can you provide any Southland records or snippets of information for my weekly column on history in the Southland Times? I’m always looking for more! Do you have any photos or stories of Omaui? I am doing a book on Omaui and I want as much detail as I can get before it is printed later this year.

Lloyd Esler

Sunday, July 10, 2011


I saw a skink recently amongst the rocks in the Waiau riverbed. It saw me first so I got no more than a quick flash – a hint of brown and yellow and it was gone. No point looking for it as skinks can worm their way down through rocks or tussocks and secrete themselves in the narrowest crevices. This is the reason we still have lizards. A tiny, tasty scrap of meat, unable to fly or swim or climb trees would be a picnic for a stoat or rat.

There are at least four skinks around. Recent discoveries in Fiordland suggest that there may be tiny isolated populations of new species of gecko and skink still to be found. Let’s hope so.

Common Skink

The four we have are the Common skink, Cryptic skink, McCann’s skink and the Emerald skink. The first three are the common little brown lizards, about 12cm long, that we encounter sometimes in abundance in a suitable dry habitat. They eat small insects, spiders and berries. The Emerald skink gets to about 20cm. It is much less common and best known from the Tiwai Peninsula. Here its main predators are wild cats. It is quite a stocky creature and slower and more vulnerable.

Pre-human and thus pre-rat, Southland was a very different place. A few fossil bones preserved in sediment and cave deposits give some idea of the many species that went extinct with the arrival of the kiore or Polynesian rat. Southland may have had dozens of lizards in all manner of niches and today’s populations are the species that have survived, albeit in very reduced numbers, because they were small and fast and lived in habitats that offered a quick escape. Tree-dwelling lizards and those that lived on the forest floor are gone. We had the tuatara in Southland. Bones are found in dune deposits along the coast and in Central Otago and a mummified specimen was found in a cave.

These lugubrious survivors of the dinosaur age were no match for rats and they exist today only on predator-free islands. I wonder of we had snakes as well? There is no evidence of recent snakes but millions of years ago we almost certainly did. A pity we haven’t still got them. If we did we have snakes we would also have predator-proof birds and probably a lot more lizards as natural selection favoured those with the genes to run fast, dodge trouble spots, breed rapidly, modify behaviour or whatever was necessary for them to co-exist with their enemies.

Emerald Skink

I’ve got skinks in my garden and I’m building a lizardium with rocks and tussocks. They are protected so you can’t officially keep them without a permit but this is just habitat enhancement – they are free to come and go. I’m hunting for a square of thick perspex to cat-proof part of it. Much as I dislike cats I suspect that without them I would have rats and stoats and possibly no lizards at all.

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Native berries

Natureblog May 2011


I spent a couple of days at Borland recently with Year 10 from St Peters. That’s Form Four. I’m doing the environmental stuff – the bush, stream, nightlife and birds. Being autumn we had the fungi and the berries. The fungi weren’t good. The season had been too dry for them. Fungi have good years and bad years and this was a bad one. It had been an exceptional year for flowering and fruiting, however. The coprosmas were in fruit. Long ago geckos and abundant birds would have eaten the berries but the geckos are long gone from the bush and the birds are less numerous.

We tasted all the berries. It is right to experiment with new foods as long as you identify the doubtful ones and very few native fruits are poisonous. The obvious one is tutu with clusters of fleshy flowers in late summer. The juice is not poisonous but the tiny seeds are.

Coprosma foetidissima

Coprosma rhamnoides

Rohutu, Coprosma colensoi, C. foetidissima and C. rotundifolia berries are orange, Coprosma rhamnoides berries are red, Weeping matipo berries are purple and pepper berries are black. Pepper berries are very hot, about ten times as powerful as the leaves. The flesh is orange and there is a large seed. One girl chewed a handful of them before realising what a mission she had just signed up for. She drank a good bit of the Borland River before she recovered. I didn’t tell them that there is another side effect of eating all those orange, red and purple berries. They act as a good laxative.

Weeping matipo


 Pepper or horopito berries can be used as flavouring. Horopito butter is sometimes available but it’s nasty stuff really and I can’t imagine it was a traditional Maori food. Surprisingly little of our native flora makes its way into the cooking pot. Puwha and watercress are the two most popular wild greens but neither is native, both being introduced early in European settlement. There are no other leaves, fruits or roots which have a commercial use – the only exception being manuka. Manuka is the single native species cultivated for its food value, in this case manuka honey and manuka oil. Manuka leaves have a fragrant oil as do many other members of the myrtle family to which it belongs such as eucalyptus and rata. Make manuka tea by boiling a sprig of fresh leaves. Maori did not have manuka honey as there were no honey bees in New Zealand before they were brought by the early missionaries.

Apparently there is only a single Australian plant grown for its food value as well – the Macadamia.

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Banding Black-billed gulls

Gull on the nest

New Zealand has three species of gulls – the Red-billed gull which is strictly coastal and two species which are equally common inland or on the coast. These are the larger Black-backed gull and the Black-billed gull. Because they are very different in habits, I will treat each as a separate blog beginning with the Black-billed gull.

Gulls at Queenstown

These birds are insect eaters, useful for controlling porina and grassgrubs, and they are the birds commonly seen following a plough to get the worms. For thousands of years they had few predators except falcons, harriers and wekas. Now stoats, ferrets, cats, dogs, off-road vehicles and illegal shooting are threats to the survival of the species which is classified as ‘endangered.’ Gull banding is an interesting experience. The chicks crèche, which is an uncommon habit, shared with some penguin species but few other birds. The banding team makes a corral out of chicken wire and herds the chicks in. Sounds easy? It’s even easier than it sounds. Because the gulls synchronise their laying, all the chicks are the same age. The captives are boxed up and then removed singly. A metal band and several coloured bands are fastened around the legs. The band combination – perhaps red/green/metal left and green/white right – is the cohort combination unique to that colony. In a banding session on the Aparima River last year we took mouth swabs as well, part of a study to test for the remote possibility of bird flu. Results were negative fortunately.

Chick banding on the Waiau

Each year there are perhaps 20 Black-billed gull colonies in Southland rivers, mostly the Oreti, Upper Mataura and Waiau. For several years colonies were photographed from the air and the number of gulls counted that way. Thousands were banded as well but there have been few returns. We noticed a steady creep of colonies upriver, possibly because the encroachment of broom and other weeds made nesting risky in the lower reaches. Perhaps gravel extraction had channelled the river more that normal and removed the gravel islands that the gulls favour.

On one of the flights we photographed a colony in the Aparima River. A few days later we visited it and it had been abandoned, nests, eggs and young chicks. Perhaps they had a fright from a predator. We then did a detailed count of the nests in the colony and matched this with the gulls in the photo. From this we derived our formula for assessing the number of nests at about 1 nest per 1.5 white dots in the photo. The gulls become unsettled easily and abandon a nestsite in its early stages. They then settle on another location and begin again. They have from about September to January to nest and some pairs may nest more than once in this time.

When handled, the chicks tend to leak from both ends. In one colony, they may all regurgitate aquatic insects or whitebait at another. One lot all regurgitated worms, the produce of their parents’ following the plough in a nearby paddock.

Following a plough

Any reports of banded birds, unusual species or odd behaviour are welcomed. Freshly dead birds are useful for museum specimens. Observers can assist by reporting the band colours of birds they spot, and if the bird is found dead, the metal band should be removed and sent to the address on it. It usually says Send National Museum NZ. I heard a tale of an American who returned a band from a crow. It had a number and Wash. Biol. Surv. on it, short for Washington Biological Survey. He said. “I shot one of your crows. I followed the cooking instructions on the band and I want to tell you that it tasted awful!”

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Possums and I (or is it me?)

Natureblog March 2011

I’ve had an on-again off again relationship with possums over the years. I’ve trapped them, shot them, eaten them, skinned them, dissected them, plucked them and dutifully patted pet ones. Possums make rotten pets. They have a brain half the size of a cat’s brain so you can’t train them to do much. They can’t retract their claws either so when they jump onto you it’s claws-first.

NZ Possum (Trichosurus vulpecula)

My first experience of eating one was as a child. The family was staying on a farm and my mother dished up what she called ‘turkey’. Being trusting children we ate the ‘turkey’. The truth came out later.

The name possum or opossum is a North American Indian word. Explorers familiar with the Virginian possum bestowed the name on the similar-sized animal in Australia. In fact, they are quite different. The Australian possum has a fluffy tail, has a single baby at a time and is a herbivore. The Virginian possum is a carnivore, has multiple babies and a bald tail and it plays dead. The Australian possum is more closely related to the kangaroo, koala and wombat than to the American possum. Both are marsupials however, giving birth to tiny babies which are nurtured in a pouch rather than inside the mother’s body as in placental mammals.

American Possum

They were introduced to New Zealand, at Riverton, in around 1865 in expectation that they would be the basis of a fur industry. They increased rapidly and soon their depredations on orchards made their sponsors regret their enthusiasm. With few enemies and with many palatable leaves, the population swelled and within a few decades was widespread in the three main islands.

When I had scouts we frequently trapped and ate them. “This chop has a foot on the end” announced a new scout, appalled by the discovery. “just eat it up lad,” said his leader, “It’ll make you grow big and strong.” Next camp he chased one up a tree shouting “I want your legs.”

“Here’s your breakfast kids” said Fred as he unzipped a tent, emptied a large, black possum from a sack and zipped up the tent again. It fought valiantly but was eventually subdued under a blanket and liberated. It made for the gear tent and hid in the utensil box. Hounded from there it clawed its way up the sacking of the occupied latrine. Disconcerted by the screaming it then fled into the pines and safety.

They got revenge a year later by wiring a possum carcass to Fred’s muffler. ‘Don’t get mad, get even,’ is a very satisfactory principle.

Once our trap stifled not a possum but a wild cat. It was in the frying pan sizzling away when the scouts came in for breakfast. They were used to possum and it was soon gone. I showed them the skin. There are grey possums, black and red possums but no tortoiseshell possums. “You said it was a possum,” they accused. “Well it tasted like a possum,” said one boy who always looked on the bright side. He draped the skin, catside in, over another scout’s head. “Just seeing what it looks like,” he said. “I’ll get Mum to make it into a hat for me.”

Will we ever solve the possum problem? Probably not. We can’t develop a disease because it would spread to Australia sooner or later and affect their marsupials. Trapping, shooting and poisoning have some effect but they are too numerous and too fertile to eradicate totally. There have been some successes. Kapiti Island is possum free now and so is Ulva although that island is now facing a re-invasion by Ship rats. In Fiordland, Pomona is possum-free and so are several of the other islands. You have to be vigilant though, possums stow away in boats and cars and even packs. I heard of a tramper who discovered after some time that his pack was unusually heavy and animated. He reached in and got bitten by a possum who had been scoffing his biscuits before the ride.

Fortunately possum fur has regained some of its former value and, blended with merino wool, it becomes Merino mink, a soft wool with exceptional insulating properties. Enquire about possum control from Environment Southland or your local Landcare or pest-busters group.

Lloyd Esler

Monday, February 7, 2011


Natureblog  February 2011

Mallard duck eggs

I do an egg unit with schools – oology it’s called. There are oologists throughout the world who study eggs, but the term is also used for egg collectors. Birds’ egg collections used to be a big thing and as a youngster I did my share of bird-nesting although I never collected any from protected birds unless the nest was abandoned. Finches, blackbird, sparrow, thrush, dunnock, magpie, skylark and starling were fair game. Duck, swan and goose eggs were commonly found and I chanced across the odd ones discarded from gull nests or from abandoned nests such as the oystercatcher and stilt where the owners had been disturbed and decamped. These open-ground nesting species have camouflaged eggs, often a very effective disguise against predators. Unfortunately the stoat has a keen sense of smell and an egg has a scent attractive to it. In fact, unbroken eggs are used as bait in stoat traps. Hedgehogs are predators of eggs also and more of a problem than we thought in the past. Mrs Tiggywinkle gave the world an unrealistically favourable impression of the spiny tribe.

Can you spot the two Banded dotterel eggs?

Egg-collecting has been illegal since 1954 in the UK, the home of oology. What started as a schoolboy hobby became an obsession for Victorian and Edwardian gentlemen with money and time on their hands, and rare eggs changed hands – carefully – for thousands of pounds.

In Tom Brown’s Schooldays (1857), Tom and cronies go birdnesting in Caldicott’s Spinney, and come to grief if I remember correctly.

Egg collecting led to the loss of a number of breeding species in Britain – eagles, ospreys, some owls and others – and may have contributed to the demise of the Great auk, although that fowl, the Garefowl of The Waterbabies, was also harvested for food and for its feathers which were used in stuffing mattresses.
Here is a White-fronted tern egg, matching the cockle shells on which it is laid

In earlier days kids were paid for sparrow eggs or ‘spugs’ eggs’ as my parents generation used to call them. The birds were a pest amongst the crops and local authorities paid a penny a dozen or suchlike for the eggs. A futile gesture but profitable for children, especially if they knew where the eggs were discarded after purchase as they could be recycled.

Here is a White-fronted tern egg,
matching the cockle shells on which it is laid

Blowing eggs can be a problem but must be done or the contents will rot. I have had some crack or explode, the worst being a gull’s egg which went with a bang when I made a hole in one end. You have to get new clothes and avoid polite company for a week.

I found an abandoned swan nest and decided to break one egg to see if the others were fresh enough to blow. I threw it, intending for it to fall to the ground but by mischance executed a girlie-throw that sent the egg straight up. A very long time later it came straight down and hit me. Fortunately it wasn’t addled.

My largest egg is a cast of the Elephant bird egg, from that extinct native of Madagascar; It’s the largest egg of any bird. Possibly the only larger eggs are were some of the dinosaurs and maybe the Whale shark. I have moa eggshell fragments as well. They can be found quite readily in some places. Moas were the largest New Zealand species to leave eggshell and you can find fragments readily in sand dunes, sometimes with New Zealand’s tiniest eggs. These minute eggs, a few millimetres long, were laid by long-extinct landsnails.