Monday, December 10, 2012

Thar’ she blows!!

Here’s a bit of a catchup on my whale investigations.  I’ve started looking at whales and whaling in Southland for a booklet coming out in about twelve months.  The most recent stranding in Southland is a humpback, at least the fourth in ten years.  These big guys don’t get stranded alive; they die at sea and drift ashore.  If the bodies get stuck in the inter-tidal zone they break down quite rapidly.  One which washed up on 1 November at Mason Bay on Stewart Island had largely disintegrated by 9 December with each tide bringing a new wave of crustaceans to nibble the flesh and wash away the loosed debris to expose more meat for the tearing gulls.  If it had been cast up above high tide by an exceptional tide, then it’s the flies that break it down and that process takes years. 

Pictures show the remains of a Humpback in November 2012
and the same animal six weeks later.

 Humpbacks were hammered by the shore whalers and it was this species that kept the last of the whalers – the Tory Channel ones – going until the early 1960s.  There had been an extensive humpback fishery on the Northland east coast until then.  The whales were trapped by huge nets across the mouths of bays, harpooned and dragged ashore for flensing.

Some of the vertebrae and other bones had separated from this carcass.  The back of the skull was detached and showed a severe growth of cancerous bone which may have contributed to the whale’s death.  Sea mammals suffer the human diseases of old age as they are amongst the few animals to actually reach advanced years.  For other species, advancing weakness or illness makes them vulnerable to predation and they are quickly killed and eaten.  Whale bones often show arthritis and osteoporosis.
The whale’s radius and ulna were protruding from the carcass.  These are the longest radius and ulna of any sea creature that ever lived - longer than the equivalent bones on the Blue whale and exceeding those of any of the giant marine reptiles.

Pilot whales stranded in February 2011 photographed three months later.

Further south along Mason Bay the last remains of the Pilot whales that stranded in February 2011 are slipping from view.  Here and there you see a rib or vertebra on the beach and there are still a dozen skulls, much battered after this time.
It was on this spot that Pilot whales, or Blackfish, as they were known, were herded ashore by Stewart Island fishermen.   The iron pots were brought around from Oban and the carcasses were boiled for their oil. 

From time to time the suggestion comes up for using stranded whales and dolphins for food – a cultural issue rather than one of necessity.  There is plenty of historical precedent for eating whales and dolphins and whale meat is available in Japan, Norway and other countries.  In wartime Britain canned whale meat from the Antarctic whale fishery supplemented beef and mutton although it was eaten unenthusiastically.  There is a big difference between the meat of baleen whales and toothed whales with the Sperm whale in particular giving a dark, oily meat with noted laxative powers, while the meat of the rorquals – Blue, Fin, Minke and Sei and Bryde’s whales – is milder, paler and better flavoured.

Whale meat is low in cholesterol and calories and high in Omega-3 oils but the prospect for the harvest of meat from stranded cetaceans is bleak for several reasons.

1)  The insulating layer of blubber on a large whale effectively prevents the carcass from cooling after death and the temperature rises rather than falls.  Decomposition begins rapidly in the hot lifeless tissues and the meat is inedible after a few hours.  Commercially harvested whale meat is removed from the body and chilled quickly aboard a factory ship.

2)  As the cause of death is usually not obvious, the whale may have died from a disease that may be transmissible to humans or may render the meat toxic.

3)  Being top carnivores, marine mammals accumulate natural and man-made toxins which remain in the food chain.  Pesticides, such as DDT, and heavy metals, especially mercury, can be at a dangerously high levels, as can the natural level of vitamin A in seal livers.

So there goes the case for eating meat from stranded carcasses.  They can provide other useful bits though.  Although whales dead and alive are protected, it is lawful to remove bones and teeth that have separated naturally from the carcass.  Bone, especially the jaw of the Sperm whale, is much prized by carvers, as are the teeth.  Baleen, formerly removed from Right whales to make corset stays, umbrella ribs and the springy bottoms of chairs, can be used for carving, and the large vertebrae are used for garden seats.  By the way, we don’t know why it is called the Right whale.  It was clearly the wrong whale to hunt as its oil was inferior and it was regarded with distain by the whalers, for whom the ‘right whale’ was the Sperm whale.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Waterfowl in Southland

Male Shovellor

The diverse aquatic habitats in Southland suit so many of New Zealand’s waterfowl that it’s easiest to start off with what’s not there. The Mute swan, the big white one, has never survived long out of captivity in Southland. Individuals show up from time to time but the bird doesn’t compete with the Black swan. The Brown teal, formerly abundant everywhere has disappeared from the South Island and Stewart Island, shot to near extinction, taken by mustelids and hybridised with other ducks. The Flightless goose and several species of flightless ducks did not survive Maori hunting nor the depredations of the kiore or Polynesian rat which swept through the country like a dose of salts about 700 years ago.

The other waterfowl are doing well with a couple of exceptions. A few Blue ducks or whio live in swiftly flowing rivers feeding Lake Te Anau and west of the divide and they have been reported from Redcliffs and a few other places. The Grey duck is in decline as its population cross-breeds with mallards. Genuine Grey ducks are scarce and largely confined to remoter, higher altitude lakes and valleys. They are quite distinctive with their strong eye stripe and green flash on the wing.

Dead mystery duck

Mallards are the commonest waterfowl in New Zealand. They breed rapidly and prolifically, tolerate water of any quality and rapidly colonise urban and agricultural ponds, quieter stretches of river and roadside ditches. Paradise ducks were nearly shot out but after a few years of protection the numbers sky-rocketed and they are now everywhere on lakes and farm ponds or in rough grassland near tarns.

 The Grey teal and the shovellor are lake species and the Black teal or scaup is a common sight on the larger lakes, often forming flocks of several hundreds. It is our only diving duck and the bird single-handedly responsible for ruining the mirror effect of the Mirror Lakes on the Milford Road. Black swans thrive on wetlands, building bulky nests. Small gaggles of white or grey feral geese live on scrubby grazing land.

Grey Duck

The Canada goose has recently lost its gamebird status and can now be hunted freely. It remains to be seen whether or not we will end up with more of them or fewer. Without Fish and Game input into management it is likely that numbers will grow on conservation land and farmers, who are adversely affected by grazing geese, may struggle to keep numbers down. Oddities turn up as well – occasional Chestnut-breasted shelducks, Cape Barren geese and Wood ducks from Australia. I have a picture of a duck that looks about halfway between a mallard and a Paradise duck. Have a look and tell me what you think.

Monday, July 2, 2012

Borland Road Walk

 Coprosma foetidissima

A few weeks ago I walked down the last ten kilometres of the Borland Road. It was a good day with fog in the early morning giving way to a clear sky after the first hour’s walk. A light overcast developed later and there was a halo around the sun with a sun dog to the left of the sun. It is unusual to see that when the sun is high in the sky. The halo usually portends a change in the weather but the succeeding days were fine. The walk, at botanical pace, took about three hours by the time we had explored some of the tracks leading from the main road into the pylons.

 The botany is good along the roadside, more so at the higher altitude. The montane Hebes – Hebe subalpina and Hebe odora give way to the common koromiko Hebe salicifolia as you descend and the Celmisias – the mountain daisies – disappear once you drop to about 400m above sea level. We could clearly see where there had been a huge growth of lotus or Birdsfoot trefoil and the tussock hawkweed Hieracium lepidulum, now both knocked back by the advancing cold weather. The hawkweed has spread a good deal in the last few years and it lives throughout the forest as it is very shade tolerant. There was a bit of Mountain tutu, still in fruit, and we squeezed out a few drops of juice. It has a pleasant taste but you have to be careful not to eat the tiny seeds or you will die.

Clubmoss with its spore-producing bits.

 We noticed a lot of celery pine Phyllocladus alpinus along the roadsides and some of the splendid Mountain inanga Dracophyllum menziesii. There was a a variety of coprosmas. The three that didn’t get below the 400m altitude line were Coprosma cuneata, C. pseudocuneata and Coprosma serrulata. The latter has large, leathery leaves with fine serrations.

 All three species grow in my garden. The genus seems to be quite hardy and I have 18 species growing at present. The one I have had no luck with is taupata Coprosma repens which is not frost tolerant and prefers to be near the sea. It is south of its natural range in Southland but it grows well around Riverton and Bluff where it is naturalised. Two of the other large-leaved species, C. robusta and C. grandifolia are widely naturalised around Southland and on Stewart Island. C. robusta or karamu hybridises a bit with other local species.

Coprosma rhamnoides

 Returning to the Borland story… the variety of lichens diminishes with altitude as well, and the bright red algae that covers the rocks disappears as you get into the lower and more shaded stretches of road. There were a few fungi on the roadside too but the season had passed and it had been too dry for the fungi to show themselves at their best. We checked the lancewoods hoping to find some of the alpine lancewood Pseudopanax lineare which I have seen there before but no luck this time.

 Later in the year I plan to walk down all the way from the pass. Let’s hope it will be good flowering season. I’m guessing that around the beginning of December will be best.

Saturday, March 24, 2012

Rambling thoughts

Kids picking blackberries

 A bush walk with kids can be entertaining. There’s all sort of things that can happen and lots of surprises and odd discoveries as you lead them through the wilds. A recent occasion was a field-day for Southland Girls High School Y7 girls. Nice bunch. I asked them about their previous schools and they come from all over. There’s 100 schools in Southland and many primary schools contribute to Girls High with the rural ones boarding at the hostel. The red shoes? Half loved them, the other half hated them.

 My part of the day was to take them in small groups on a 40 minute bush walk. We did twelve of these over two days. Good weather both days luckily, but the blackberries ran out  at 1.23pm on the first afternoon. It’s been a pretty good blackberry year but nothing on last year which can only be called vintage. I collected 10kg in 2011 at a rate of about two kilograms per hour. This year they were smaller and less abundant and we had to work harder for them. The better ones seemed to be in moderate shade rather than in full sunshine or deep gloom. They weren’t the only things to eat. There were several fungi that are edible including the Sticky bun which grows only under pines and the Waxy laccaria which is nicer than a mushroom.

 We found a patch of the black orchid Gastrodia and dug up and ate a couple of tubers. They taste like raw potatoes. Normally I would baulk at ruining an orchid but they are actually very common in places. They were past flowering and hadn’t set seed. We smelled lemonwood and I told them I had tried a sprig with the potatoes. That had been a big mistake; I had to throw them out. About a square centimetre of leaf would be sufficient. Pikopiko or the koru, the coiled new frond of Hen and Chickens fern, is edible but it tastes bitter. Other fern species have an edible koru as well but none of them is very nice raw. The uncoiling bracken frond is called ‘bears’ paws’ but it is apparently somewhat poisonous so we don’t eat that.

 We pulled thistle heads apart and ate the thistle ’nut’. I burned most of them with pepper leaf, horopito, by calling it ‘sugar leaf’. The good thing about that is that the horrible burning only lasts about ten minutes. There is a toadstool that does that as well, the Peppery bolete, which grows under beech trees. In Europe it is harvested, dried and ground to a powder for flavouring. I found a few miro berries but I think the pigeons must have got most of them before they fell. You can suck them like peppermints. We caught cicadas. They tickle when hold their legs against your skin. One child wanted to see what it felt like on her nose . She shut her eyes and I popped it into her mouth. Some people sure make a fuss. My mother would have said “Just eat it up and don’t say anything”, her usual response when we kids pointed out the caterpillars in the cabbage. I tried my ‘toothache cure’ where you get someone to bite gently on a stalk of Yorkshire fog, then pull it away quickly leaving them with a mouthful of fluff.

 The commonest of the ferns is houndstongue. I got them to hold one in their teeth and pretend they were dogs with green tongues. No dogs have green tongues but the chow from China has a blue tongue. It is or was an eating dog. We don’t eat dogs in our culture but they were on the menu in many parts of the world. Maori used to keep kuris for food and on his first voyage, Cook celebrated rounding the bottom of Stewart Island by converting one of the ship’s dogs into a pie, a roast and haggis. I suggested that the poodle might be a good eating dog. I can picture a KFP shop in Dee Street. Tuatapere could become the sausage dog capital of the world and I can imagine takeaway shops throughout Southland selling hot dogs as well. Needless to say the suggestions were not received with acclamation.

 No dogs were eaten in the making of this story, but a good many other things were.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

A whale for Monkey Island

Before Christmas I made a trip out to Monkey Island to inspect the whale. It is very impressive.
It is a full-grown Humpback whale, one of the commoner species around the coast but an infrequent strander. I checked again some time later and it had gone. Suspicious disturbance of the vegetation nearby suggested that a hole had been dug and the creature buried. It must have been a huge task and it’s quite unnecessary.
A decaying whale is part of the food chain. Gulls feed on it and as the tissues break down the nutrients support a whole ecosystem. If it is buried, the nutrients aren’t lost but they unavailable to marine life – thousands of species from gulls and Giant petrels to sea lice and bacteria are scavengers, cleaning up the ocean’s leftovers.
At sea the carcasse floats for some weeks then sinks once the gas-filled innards rupture. The body on the seafloor, called a whale-fall, keeps the neighbourhood in takeaways for 25 years or more. One group of decomposers being succeeded by another. The flesh eaters have their turn, then the oil eaters and finally the bone eaters. They don’t leave much. Often the earbones of the whale, fist-sized lumps of very hard bone, are all that remain after 100 years.

I collected a dozen barnacles from the whale; the whale is a protected species but the barnacles growing on it aren’t, so fair game I guess. The largest barnacles are tennis-ball sized. There is not much flesh in them but the shells are very solid. They are embedded in the skin of the flippers and lips.
They travel the world as guests of the host, contributing nothing to its well-being; not using pain but slowing it by reducing it’s streamlining.
It’s more likely that nets and ropes will snag it if it has a good crop of barnacles.
As the barnacles only live on whales, the breeding cycle must be fairly haphazard.

Often we are best just leaving the dead stuff for nature. She has an army of helpers.
We can use the same argument with freedom campers. Human waste is the most biodegradable substance on the planet. It is produced in equal quantities by freedom campers, picnickers, tour bus passengers, schoolchildren and anyone else who gets caught short along the road, so why pick on the freedom campers, most of whom are very responsible and decent folk?
We should be encouraging people to camp out away from the towns where they can enjoy the starry sky, the lack of traffic and the dawn chorus. Freedom campers provide a presence in reserves and laybys that deters vandalism. Many clean the area of rubbish before leaving. We try to clean up the world but maybe we should just leave things to nature.

One Northland group has purchased a beach groomer to remove all the untidy seaweed from the beach. Does that sound like the sort of place you would like to visit?