City of stone
Then as I looked at your buildings rising in stone of the utmost brilliance, of a kind I have never seen before, I thought, Oamaru is a fair maiden that sits by the sea. —Sir George Grey, Prime Minister, 1878
Then as I looked at your buildings rising in stone of the utmost brilliance, of a kind I have never seen before, I thought, Oamaru is a fair maiden that sits by the sea. —Sir George Grey, Prime Minister, 1878
At the end of February 2004, the tail of Cyclone Ivy whipped into Papamoa Beach in the Bay of Plenty, transforming the sea into a grey cauldron of foaming currents and swirling debris. As monstrous waves slammed into the coastline, some feared not for houses, but that the storm would wipe out one of the last strongholds of New Zealand’s most venomous native spider. “Katipo are threatened with extinction. Their decline may seem incremental against normal timelines, but it is dramatic in geological terms,” says Brian Patrick, entomologist and manager at Otago Museum. In an extensive study of the red katipo completed in 2002, Patrick failed to find the spider at 72 per cent of sites where it had previously been recorded. Grace Hall, arachnologist at Landcare Research in Auckland, tells a similar tale. “They were once common around Auckland beaches such as Muriwai and Port Waikato. Now I doubt that any remain near Auckland, and I’ll be lucky to find one in a place as quiet as Foxton.” Katipo belong to the genus Latrodectus—widow spiders. Two endemic species, L. katipo and L. atritus, known as the red and the black katipo, are now recognised. “Anatomically they are identical,” says John Early, Auckland Museum entomologist, “but they differ in distribution and colouring. Black katipo occupy the northern half of the North Island. Red katipo occupy the remainder of the country, with the exception of the deep south, but there is some overlap.” The iconic female red katipo has a silky, ebony-coloured, pea-sized abdomen marked by a crimson dorsal stripe like a lightening bolt and an hourglass-shaped marking on the underside. The female black katipo lacks the stripe, and her hourglass is faint. Adult males—only one-sixth the size of females—are white with a dorsal pattern of red-orange diamonds bordered by black lines. Katipo live for a year. Mating takes place between November and December and the female then hangs three or four silken sacs, each containing as many as 90 eggs, in the centre of her web. As the wind blows, sand adheres to the sacs, forming a protective shell. When the eggs have hatched, each spiderling spins a length of silk with which to catch the wind and waft away. Katipo are only found near the seashore, where they favour the sheltered side of dunes. They colonise low-growing shrubs and rushes, sun-warmed tin cans and driftwood, but their preferred home is the base of endemic grasses such as pingao (golden sand sedge), kowhangatara or spinifex (silvery sand grass), sand coprosma and sand pimelea. Eschewing dunes densely overgrown with marram, kikuyu, lupins or buffalo grass, they construct their snares over open sand. Beetles quickly become trapped in the sticky strands, allowing their captor to encase them in silk and inject them with venom. Katipo venom is potentially lethal to humans, earning the diminutive creature its Maori name, which means “night stinger”. “The two species are equally dangerous,” explains Early, “but the severity of symptoms is related to the amount of venom transmitted to the wound and the victim’s weight, age and general health.” The powerful nerve poison races through the bloodstream causing spasms of pain, malaise, fever, chills, trembling, restricted breathing, elevated blood pressure and abdominal cramping. Fortunately, most hospitals stock an antidote and fatalities are rare. Despite their notoriety, katipo are shy, unaggressive creatures. Only females have the strength to penetrate human skin with their fangs, and they bite exclusively when defending their eggs. “Bites are very uncommon,” observes Patrick, who recalls finding beach-goers at Karamea sunbathing just metres from a red-katipo colony, neither humans nor spiders disturbed by their proximity to the other. It was an unusual situation: katipo generally live in areas unfrequented by people, who, in turn, tend to steer well clear of poisonous critters. DOC researchers, led by technical support officer Brendon Christensen, are currently studying the elusive spider in a survey of the Bay of Plenty. “From October to December 2004, we completed the first stage, determining the presence of katipo throughout the district’s coastlines. Initially, we found black katipo only on Matakana Island, but by the end of March we found 34 spiders at four sites on the coast—the Matakana Island dunes, Papamoa Beach, Kaituna River-mouth dunes and Maketu sand spit.” The numbers are encouraging, and the study is now measuring the density of spiders at each site. Further work may include research into the resilience and stability of local katipo populations. At another stronghold, Kaitorete Spit in Canterbury, DOC entomologist Lisa Sinclair and two field assistants crawled through prickly pingao and sheep’s burr searching for katipo under every bush. Sinclair comments: “Scattered beetle husks indicate inhabited lairs. Katipo occupy a shifting mosaic of habitat, and they are fussy so they can just disappear from a site.” The ongoing study, set up last year by an outside consultant, is at the monitoring stage. Sinclair’s outlook? “We’ve started just in time. Unless a flood or storm wipes them out, we have a chance to maintain this population.” South Island populations are located from Karitane north of Dunedin to Oyster Bay in Marlborough, and from Nelson up to Farewell Spit, plus a few isolated populations on the northern West Coast. In the North Island, populations have been found around Wellington, on the west coast, in the Bay of Plenty and in Northland. There has been talk of making katipo reserves on Great Barrier Island and Matakana Island, but Christensen says such developments are a long way off and would require the support of landowners and other interested parties. According to Sinclair: “There is only so much DOC can do. To save this species, we need the cooperation of the public.” Unlike their house-dwelling cousins the Australian redback (L. hasselti, established around Wanaka and New Plymouth) and the North American black widow (L. mactans), katipo seem unable to adapt to human modification of their habitat. Another (much more common) coastal arachnid, the South African false katipo, or black cobweb spider (Steatoda capensis), recovers quickly from environmental disturbances, inhabits dense vegetation and reproduces all year around. But foreign spiders are not actively displacing the katipo. As Early explains, “The redback and black widow prefer different habitats from katipo, and the black widow is not established in New Zealand.” Hall concurs: “False katipo recolonise faster but are not direct competitors.” Experts agree that habitat destruction is the single greatest factor in katipo decline. If this is true, preserving dune vegetation is the key to preventing their extinction. Within the last century, 70 per cent of coastal sand dunes have disappeared, and those remaining have been modified by farming, grazing, burning, off road driving and exotic plants such as marram grass. It is likely that only intervention will save the residue of this delicate ecosystem. In the aftermath of Cyclone Ivy, locals at erosion-prone Papamoa found sections of their coastline surprisingly intact. The Papamoa katipo population was also safe. “Pingao and spinifex held the sand together,” says Greg Jenks at Environment Bay of Plenty. Ten years ago, at a time when the health of dunes received little attention, Coast Care BoP was founded. This coastal restoration group aims to restore dunes by planting native dune grasses, controlling weeds, educating the public, inspiring community action and providing formalised pedestrian and vehicle access. The resilience of the Papamoa coast is proof of the project’s effectiveness. “Native grasses prevent erosion better than any sea wall. Nature maintains nature,” says Jenks. Twenty-eight locally managed coast-care groups throughout the Bay of Plenty currently plant 50,000 vigorous sprouts a year. The steadily growing programme is invaluable in raising public awareness and encouraging communities to solve their own problems. At the same time, DOC’s Canterbury conservancy is also planting endemic species on dunes and disseminating information. “We cannot actively increase katipo numbers, but we can revitalise their habitat. Pingao planting has been 90 per cent successful,” says Sinclair. Signs remind beach-goers to keep to marked tracks. Dedicated groups hold planting days. “The tide is turning, with accretion replacing erosion in many places,” says Jenks. “It makes a fascinating story of community action overcoming the very serious and widespread results of human-induced erosion. We hope that once the native ecosystems have been reestablished, native fauna—including katipo—will again thrive.”
As I write this, Easter beckons and the stores are awash with Easter eggs. Eggs have traditionally been associated with new life and, in Christendom, the resurrection of Christ. In some countries, such as Russia, Easter is the most important festival of the year and eggs have long been a traditional Easter gift. The series of Easter eggs made by Russian jeweller Carl Fabergé for several Russian tsars, beginning in 1884, are now the world’s most famous eggs. However, New Zealand holds a few very valuable eggs of its own—relics of the long-dead moa. Although thousands of moa bones have been recovered from swamps and elsewhere, only 33 moa eggs are known that are sufficiently intact to permit their length or width to be measured. They come from some 15 sites throughout the North and South Islands and all are now in public collections. Four of the eggs are held at the Natural History Museum, London, while the rest are in eight New Zealand museums or research collections, from Auckland Museum in the north to Otago Museum and the University of Otago in the south. It seems that somewhat fewer whole moa eggs have been found than whole eggs of the extinct elephant-bird of Madagascar. Twelve moa eggs are from archaeological sites (burials or middens), indicating that they were collected and used during the early period of Polynesian settlement. The rest are from natural sites—alluvial deposits, mud-flows and swamps—to which they may have been washed some distance, and sand-dunes and rock-shelters, where they were probably laid. Many of the moa eggs are imperfect, with one or more pieces missing. Others have been reconstructed from fragments found together. The six eggs detailed below are the best examples. They include the largest and the smallest, which happen to be nearly complete, and the four most complete of the other eggs. Four are from the South Island and two from the North. They are all ivory-coloured, as is most broken moa eggshell. A few green moa eggs are known from the South Island, but none is sufficiently complete to make the top league. Like ostrich and emu eggs, moa eggs are relatively small for the size of the birds that laid them. The kiwi is unusual among ratite birds in laying a very large egg relative to its body size. Yet moa eggs are often larger than those of the brown kiwi (about 130 mm long by 80 mm wide), emu (130 x 90 mm) and ostrich (160 x 130 mm), although they are dwarfed by elephant-bird eggs, which are known to reach 333 x 241 mm. Moa eggs are thin-shelled: even the largest have shells thinner than 2 mm, whereas ostrich eggshell is about 2 mm thick and that of the elephant-bird may exceed 4 mm. [chapter-break] Kaikoura egg (ME12748, Te Papa, Wgtn) This is the pre-eminent moa egg because it is the largest known—240 x 178 mm. It was also the first to be found—in the late 1850s by a workman digging foundations for a building at Kaikoura. The site turned out to be a Maori grave, and the egg had been placed beside a human skeleton. The egg has a perforation at the narrower end to make it into a vessel, and a portion of it was broken during excavation. The much-travelled Kaikoura egg was exhibited at the New Zealand Exhibition, Dunedin, in 1865. The same year it went to London and was auctioned. It passed into private ownership but was exhibited at the New Zealand Court of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, London, in 1886. It returned to this country in 1966, when it was purchased by the people of New Zealand to be a treasure in the national museum (now Te Papa), in Wellington. This egg was probably laid by the largest of the moa, the South Island giant moa, Dinornis robustus. [chapter-break] Tokerau Beach egg (B4003, Ak Museum) The smallest of the moa eggs (120 x 91 mm), this was probably laid by the coastal moa, Euryapteryx curtus, a small species whose bones are very common in the sand-dunes behind Tokerau Beach, near Kaitaia, where the egg was found. A local resident (L.J. Matthews) found the egg in about 1900, and kept it in his home for 30 years before an Auckland Museum staff member he helped to collect moa bones visited him. Persuaded of the great importance of the egg, Mr Matthews presented it to Auckland Museum. [chapter-break] Kai Iwi egg (1931.136, Whanganui Regional Museum, Wanganui) This egg, from Kai Iwi, near Wanganui, is fairly small (162 x 119 mm) and was probably laid by the little bush moa, Anomalopterx didiformis. It was found in 1931 by A.E. Clutterbuck at an alluvial site. It is almost complete, and the few damaged areas have been filled with plaster so that it looks perfect. [chapter-break] Ettrick egg (AV7479, Otago Museum, Dunedin) This egg was probably laid by the stout-legged moa, Euryapteryx geranoides, a medium-sized species especially common in eastern areas of the South Island. It was found in 1911 by a young rabbiter checking his traps on a river terrace at Ettrick, Central Otago. It had been exposed by erosion in a small land-slip. It measures 200 x 138 mm and appears to be intact, but one or more small areas may have been repaired. Something rattles inside the egg, possibly sediment or chick bones. [chapter-break] First Earnscleugh egg (AV7475, Otago Museum, Dunedin) This egg was found floating in the Clutha River by a workman on the Earnscleugh dredge, near Alexandra, central Otago, in 1899. It had lain buried in the river-bank and been dislodged by scouring when the river was in flood. It appears to be complete, with no visible holes. It was probably laid by the same species that laid the Ettrick egg, and is of similar size (195 x 135 mm). The dredge-hand was paid 50 pounds for the egg and it was acquired by Otago Museum. [chapter-break] Second Earnscleugh egg (Natural History Museum, London) Around 1900 a second egg was found at the Clutha River gold-dredgings at Earnscleugh. It measures about 200 x 140 mm and again was probably laid by the stout-legged moa. At one time it was in the private bird collection of Lord Rothschild, at Tring, Hertfordshire, but it now resides in the Palaeontology Department of the Natural History Museum, South Kensington. These moa eggs are surely among the jewels in the crown of New Zealand museums’ natural history collections.
Stoats kill two-thirds of all kiwi chicks that hatch, while dogs and ferrets frequently attack and kill kiwi of all ages. To counter these threats in the northern Coromandel, in 2001 the local community and the Department of Conservation (DOC) began setting traps throughout the district. This ambitious project, known as the Moehau Kiwi Sanctuary and funded in part by the Bank of New Zealand Kiwi Recovery Trust, attempts to protect kiwi over 18,556 ha—a huge area, of which two-thirds is privately owned. Trappers service 1723 Fenn traps in the sanctuary. DOC isn’t the only kiwi protector in the area. The Moehau Environment Group, a community conservation society also funded by the Bank of New Zealand Kiwi Recovery Trust as well as Environment Waikato, has just installed 600 stoat traps on 6354 ha of land immediately south of the Moehau Kiwi Sanctuary. Together, the two projects are the largest initiative of its kind in the country. Group chairwoman Lettecia Williams says she has been amazed at the level of community support for the work, which is aimed at the creation of a pest-free zone. The group aspires to fence off 20,000 ha and eradicate pests from the northern tip of the Coromandel Peninsula. So far this seems feasible, although $1.4 million is needed to construct a 6.4 km pest-proof fence from Waikawau Bay in the east to Colville in the west, and a lot of work remains to be done. Just how big the kiwi-protection trapping area eventually becomes needs further debate. With sufficient community support, perhaps the whole Coromandel Peninsula could be a sanctuary for our national icon. The Hauraki Maori concept of a waka extending from Te Aroha north to Moehau might provide us with a guiding vision. In the Moehau Kiwi Sanctuary, seven trappers, most of whom live within the trapping area, carry out predator control on contract. Traps are baited with fresh hens’ eggs or salted rabbit meat—fortnightly during summer, monthly during winter—and wooden housing round the traps prevents non-target species from entering. The frequency of trapping has been reduced in response to lower predator numbers. The annual stoat catch has declined from 359 in 2001 to 134 in 2004, with a pronounced peak each year in December and January, when juvenile stoats disperse. Twelve trapping sessions are planned for 2005–06, compared with 18 per year when traps were first installed. Six per cent of the traps at Moehau have accounted for half the 882 stoats and 302 weasels caught so far, and the trappers are installing a second trap at 125 of the ”hottest” sites. DOC has chosen a new kind of trap—known as the DOC 200—for this purpose, and will be keeping a close eye on its catch rate relative to that of the Fenn trap. Every three months, inked sponges and blank papers are placed in baited tracking tunnels in both the sanctuary and nearby untrapped forest at Papa Aroha. The footprints obtained provide a comparative index of the numbers of mustelids and rodents inside and outside the sanctuary. Since August 2002 there have been no mustelid footprints at Moehau, while footprints have been found in about 25 per cent of the tunnels at Papa Aroha in each tracking session. This suggests the trappers are doing their job well. The threat of dogs is harder to manage. However, an education campaign to reduce the chances of dogs coming into contact with kiwi, and a kiwi-avoidance scheme to train dogs not to approach the birds, have been running in the Coromandel for many years. This work, largely carried out by Adele Smaill, Bank of New Zealand Kiwi Recovery Advocate for the Coromandel, is a key part of the long-term strategy for kiwi. Adele says the training, which entails using an electric collar to associate the sight and smell of kiwi with a negative experience, is intended for dogs taken into kiwi areas. The dogs wear a dummy collar for a few weeks prior to training and, ideally, are retested annually to ensure they haven’t forgotten their lesson. Despite the old saying “You can’t teach an old dog new tricks”, Adele says almost all dogs brought to her learn to avoid kiwi, although she stresses the need to involve both animal and owner as a team. Based in Waikawau Bay, the Moehau Kiwi Sanctuary team consists of four rangers who check up and report on the progress of radio-tagged kiwi and ensure the project meets its targets. Yuri Forbes, Diane Prince, Tommy Herbert and the author aim to monitor 20–30 kiwi chicks per year to see how many survive and to identify the cause of any deaths. Other monitoring activities include tracking sub-adult kiwi and ascertaining the breeding success and calling rates of adults. We’ve found that kiwi chicks at Moehau Kiwi Sanctuary have a pretty good chance of surviving long enough to grow to 1000 g weight (sufficiently heavy to be safe from stoats and weasels). About 79 per cent of the 92 chicks monitored so far have reached this weight, compared with a survival rate of about 5 per cent in forests around the North Island where stoats are not controlled. Once the birds reach 1000 g they are classified as sub-adults and start to roam around the countryside. We have recorded kiwi moving up to 55 km from the northern tip of the peninsula to near Coromandel township. In fact, 16 per cent of sub-adults monitored to date have tramped south of the sanctuary border, either into or straight through the Moehau Environment Group’s trapping area. This highlights the importance of making kiwi sanctuaries large, so that birds are still protected when they reach breeding age and move into new territory. Keeping track of these wanderers is not always easy. Sometimes we use a light plane, vehicle or boat equipped with radio-tracking equipment to locate birds that have disappeared off the radar. How many kiwi live at Moehau? The first full survey, undertaken in 2000, revealed the presence of at least 200 adult kiwi. We are not sure of exact numbers today, but modelling of the population suggests a rate of increase of 12.5 per cent per year, or a doubling every six years. We think about 57 per cent of all kiwi present are adults, compared with 23 per cent sub-adults and 20 per cent chicks. Owing to a three-year delay between hatching and adulthood, it is only now that we can expect real gains in the breeding population. We plan to resurvey the entire population in 2008, by which time four cohorts of chicks will have had time to mature since trapping began. Moehau kiwi still have a 24.5 per cent chance of being killed in their first year, compared with 7.0 per cent in their second and third years and 2.2 per cent each year after that. This means that once they reach adulthood, their life expectancy stretches to something like 45 years. (Stoats and dogs still account for more than 50 per cent of first-year deaths, while cats, infection, cars and getting snagged in undergrowth by a transmitter are less common causes.) One of the first chicks to be monitored at Moehau has just started breeding (March 2005). This heralds the beginning of a new phase at the sanctuary, as we attempt to evaluate how many chicks become members of the breeding population.
Catching the train seemed the proper mode of travel for my first visit to Featherston’s Fell Locomotive Museum. The museum houses the only remaining Fell locomotive in the world. As the early-morning passenger train rumbled through the 8.8 km tunnel that pierces the heart of the Rimutaka Range, I realised that this very tunnel was what made New Zealand’s Fell locomotives redundant 50 years ago. The Wairarapa is the nearest large swathe of arable land to Wellington, so when railways were being strung across the country in the late 19th century, it was natural to try to connect Upper Hutt with Featherston. However, there was a problem: the steep Rimutaka Range which reared up between the two towns. While it was possible to find a route across, the grade on the eastern side (1 in 15) was far too steep for normal locomotives, which can only operate on gradients gentler than 1 in 35. The solution was to use special machines designed specifically to operate on steep tracks—Fell locomotives. In addition to normal wheels, these had a set of smooth, horizontal, powered wheels that gripped a raised centre rail from each side. John Barraclough Fell (1815–1902) devised the system for a railway over the Mont Cenis Pass, between Italy and France. Fell was the first—but far from the last—to design a locomotive that could negotiate steep grades. When the line between Wellington and the Wairarapa opened in 1878, it included the Rimutaka Incline, a 4.8 km section of track that climbed 265 m up the Wairarapa side of the range. It was New Zealand’s steepest section of main-line railway. In fact, by the time Fell’s locomotives started service on the Rimutaka Incline in 1878, the technology behind his invention had already fallen from favour in engineering circles. Mechanical problems had plagued the Mont Cenis system, where the line had remained in place for only a few years before being replaced by a tunnel. There had also been difficulties with a Fell system built in Brazil in 1870. The Rimutaka Incline was the third and last installation of Fell’s centre-rail patent system. Had the Fell locomotives run on the Incline for no more than a few years, they would probably have become merely a footnote in train lore, but Kiwi ingenuity solved the mechanical problems, and necessity—the mother of all invention—kept the locomotives working and trains running for 77 years. In total, the six Fell locomotives that ran on the Incline logged more than 4,445,000 km. On the day I visited the museum there were several tour buses parked outside. Inside, museum volunteers were engaged in earnest conversations with small groups of visitors. A number of tourists stood in deep contemplation around restored Fell locomotive H199 and renovated Fell brake-van F210. There was a feeling of awe in the room, not only for the locomotive itself, but also for those who keep this intriguing piece of railway history alive. People come to the museum from all over the world to learn more about the engineering achievement it celebrates. A 20-minute video, photographs, memorabilia and several painstakingly made models give visitors an overview of life on the Rimutaka Incline. The highlight of the museum, though, is indisputably the 130-yearold H199, which took 9000 hours of volunteer labour over an eight-year period (1981–1989) to restore. “The other five Fell locomotives that worked the Rimutaka Incline ended up as scrap metal in 1957, making H199 the last engine of its type in the world. Amazingly, this important piece of history sat in a Featherston park for more than 20 years, where it deteriorated from exposure to the elements and vandalism,” explains Graeme Jupp, volunteer guide and member of the Friends of the Fell Society. “A group of dedicated enthusiasts, under the supervision of engineer Graham Murrell and led by Clifford Lea, rebuilt H199. Their dedication over eight years gave New Zealand a beautifully restored transport icon.” Graham Murrell was a Fell fitter on the line from 1940 to 1948. During that time, he lived at the small railway settlement of Cross Creek, one of two communities established solely to service the Rimutaka Incline. Like many others who worked on the Fell locomotives, Graham retains a keen interest in them and has devoted many hours to helping the public understand the distinctive attributes of the Fell system. “Living at Cross Creek was a relatively isolated existence, but for many it also seems that it was a very positive experience. There is a loyalty to the Fell locomotives that is quite remarkable,” adds Graeme Jupp. October 29, 2005, marks the 50th anniversary of when engine driver Dan Kennelly took H199 on its last journey up the Incline. Five days later the tunnel that now connects the Hutt Valley with Wairarapa was opened. Museum volunteers and staff, Fell locomotive enthusiasts and the townspeople of Featherston and Wairarapa are looking forward to a celebration this October to commemorate the occasion. As Ron Grant, a retired civil engineer and rail historian recalls: “The incredible sound, soot and sight of a Fell engine working ‘all out’, especially when experienced from the open platform on the carriage immediately ahead of an engine, is not easily forgotten”. For those of us who weren’t able to witness a Fell locomotive in action, the museum provides the best alternative. If you have the time, be sure also to visit the Rimutaka Rail Trail, which follows the old railway route over the Rimutaka Range. It is popular with mountain bikers and trampers and maintained by Greater Wellington Regional Council and the Department of Conservation (DOC). There is interest in re-establishing some sort of heritage railway over the old route. The museum is open every day of the year from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (except Christmas day and ANZAC day morning), and is located in Featherston on the corner of Lyon Street and State Highway 2. Entry is $4 for an adult, $2 for a child (4–14 years) and $10 for a family. For further information phone (06) 308 9379 or e-mail email@example.com. Train-spotter facts Six Fell locomotives worked the Rimutaka Incline. Four were imported from England in 1876 and named Mont Cenis, Mount Cook, Mount Egmont and Mount Tongariro. Two Glasgow-built engines joined the workforce in 1886. Today, H199 weighs 32.5 tonnes. When a Fell locomotive was in working order, however, it weighed 39.6 tonnes, the extra weight coming from 762 kg of coal and over 4000 l of water. Operating speeds on the Rimutaka Incline averaged about 6.4 kph on the ascent and 16 kph on the descent. On a good day, the climb between the railway settlements of Cross Creek and Summit took 45–50 minutes. It was not unknown for passengers to get off the train and race it to the top on foot. The brake blocks on the Fell locomotives and brake-vans were made of soft cast iron and usually lasted only one round trip. They would wear down from 152 mm thick to 51 mm. Soft cast iron was used to minimise wear on the centre rail.
Unprotected, harassed, maligned and even culled by its human neighbours, the handsome southern black-backed gull continues to loiter round the edges of settlements and farms, always on the lookout for an easy meal.
Campbell Island's snipe flew home from its precarious refuge on tiny neighbouring Jacquemart Island recently and onto prime-time television news. Less than four years after the extermination of 200,000 brown rats on Campbell Island in the largest operation of its kind anywhere in the world, the snipe’s return was an astonishing and important event. It was certainly worthy of a better news slot than that between the weather and the wrap: as a landmark event in New Zealand conservation it surely merited as much screen time as the latest sports injury. The bold kilometer-long flight across sub-antarctic waters showed that, given the chance, our wildlife can make it. Unknown until 1997, the snipe had for 160 years survived amid gale-blasted vegetation clinging to 19 steep ha above vertical cliffs. The little bird’s success is just the latest leg of a far longer journey to reverse long-term environmental damage on the island, and is a fine reward for the daring and professional team that, in midwinter 2001, cleared the 11,300 ha island of rats. Campbell Island is part of New Zealand’s subantarctic World Heritage Area—remote, beautiful, frequently forbidding. The southern islands have resisted all attempts at permanent settlement. Seals and whales proved incapable of surviving industrial-scale predation, while the harsh climate and distance from markets killed off farming ventures. Now the islands are reserves, a source of revenue for tourist companies and of wonder for their clients. Forty years ago, conservationist Gerald Durrell listened in disbelief to a cabinet minister dismissing the islands: it didn’t matter if royal albatrosses became extinct because no one could go and see them anyway. Somehow, damaged but not destroyed, these magnificent birds have weathered exploitation and active political indifference. Fortunately, people—or at least those with enough disposable income—can go there now and bring back images and sounds to share with the world. But what is the real state of the islands, and what will be the effects of our present management? Answers may lie in the mists of history. Subantarctic island histories tell of treasure and tragedy, of hardship and perseverance, shot through with a touch of opportunistic scientific endeavour. The islands’ bleak shores received expeditions from Europe during the era of scientific colonialism, and since the 1840s, English, French, Americans and Russians have all added to the pool of knowledge. Darwin’s great friend and confidant, Joseph Dalton Hooker, drew on first-hand experience and his own collections to describe the botany of the southern islands. But Hooker and the others were already studying damaged goods. Drastic changes had begun with the first visitors, the sealers. Sealers were secretive people. Their business was finding and exploiting isolated seal-rich islands, reaping the bounty for as long as it lasted. Island locations were usually closely guarded commercial secrets. Hence, the visit to Campbell Island recorded in the log of the sealing brig Perseverance in 1810 may not have been the first by Europeans. Yet southern sealing did not begin until the 1790s, so any earlier visits could not have been many years before that of Perseverance, and Campbell Island’s plants and animals in 1810 are likely to have been in as close to an original state as any seen by Europeans in New Zealand. The date is therefore a convenient one on which to hang the island’s recent history. Unfortunately for the natural inhabitants of Campbell Island, sealing gangs—bad news that they were for the fur seals they harvested, and the penguins and albatrosses they lived on—were not the only new arrivals. By the 1790s, brown rats—also called Norway rats despite originally coming from southern Asia—infested ports and vessels, and sealing and whaling ships delivered them free to islands around the world. Also known as water rats, browns are not afraid of getting wet—in fresh or salt water—and proved able island colonists, soon at home even on bleak specks of land such as Campbell and the glacier-bound South Georgia. We don’t know who took brown rats to Campbell Island, but we can work out roughly when they arrived. The first scientists to visit the island recorded what they saw, but they could not know what was missing, and most of what was missing had gone down the throats of rats. By late 1840, a bare 30 years after Perseverance’s visit, James Clark Ross’s expedition to find the South Magnetic Pole recorded no land birds at all. Later researchers found a teal and a song-bird (and, in 1997, the snipe), but grumpy surgeon-naturalist Robert McCormick did not see these in 1840 because they had already been banished to rugged stacks too small to warrant visits by the scientists aboard Her Majesty’s ships Erebus and Terror, and in many instances, still impossible to land on today. These last tiny refuges from the rats included tooth-like Dent Island, off the north-western coast (conferred by French explorers, the name rhymes with “want”). Dent and two other islets were refuge, too, for the local pipit, but the snipe was confined to Jacque-mart, off the southern coast. Missed in its castle keep by the first human visitors there in 1984, it was seen and photographed in 1997 by people looking for more teal. Its relationships are still unknown because no feathers have been collected for DNA analysis, but even so it fills a puzzling biogeographic gap. It may have been unknown until 1997, but its presence was not unexpected. Other southern islands have their snipe; the puzzle was why Campbell Island did not have one. And there are similar gaps in other widespread groups. Even Macquarie Island, further south and more remote yet, had its rail and duck, both of which made it into the 19th century but not beyond, and all the islands have parakeets. The question was, was Campbell special? Had rails or parakeets or other songbirds never reached the island, or had they got there and died out? And what about the petrels? Had diving petrels, prions and storm petrels always been confined to the stacks? With no possibility of finding more land birds lurking on offshore islets, there was only one way to go: down. Limestone outcrops and dune systems offered the hope that there might be fossils. We could dig for answers. Funding is always tight for research and management in the subantarctic, and even tighter when it is based on a hunch; so hunch had to be married to opportunity. That came in September 2004 with the triumphant repatriation of the teal, first fruit of the rat–eradication campaign. From then, the hunt was on. Space was found for Jeanette Winn, veteran of over a decade of palaeontological research. Time was short, and Jeanette had searched several possible sites without success before a test pit under an overhang above Perseverance Harbour yielded six identifiable bird bones. Then she had to hurry to catch the boat. You have to be lucky sometimes. One of the bones came from a parakeet—Campbell’s lost parrot, at last. Whether this bird was unique to the island cannot be stated before the results of DNA analysis are available, but at least we now know that Campbell Island did have a parakeet. The other five bones? Three were identified as Richdale’s diving petrel and two, both juvenile, as sooty shearwater, confirming both these species once bred on the main island. But there is the shadow of another bird too, evident not in the bone count but in the result of its actions. One of the shearwater bones features a notch made by a predator’s beak, telling us that falcons—some of the southernmost in the world—once graced Campbell Island skies. The island appeared different from other subantarctic outposts only because rats had arrived early enough, and done their job fast enough, to erase all above-ground evidence of birdlife before McCormick stepped ashore. They managed it within about 30 years, meaning McCormick was a few years too late to eat snipe and watch parakeets rocketing above the tussocks and megaherbs. What can we learn from the parable of Campbell’s parrot? First, as Horatio found, there are more things out there than we might think. Life has patterns, but we may need to dig below the surface (literally) to find some of the pieces. Fossil evidence can flesh out what we know of these remote islands. The story of the parrot and its companions on Campbell Island, and the efforts to sustain them and their home, echo the experience of all New Zealand over the past 2000 years. Fossils are the only means we have of knowing what the main islands were like, too. The cultural landscape that is New Zealand today can tell us only so much about the environment in which such iconic species as takahe and kakapo evolved. To save and manage them and all the rest, we need to know far more about what used to be here and how it all worked. The lost petrels of Campbell Island are telling us something, too. They are saying that nutrient cycles and succession cycles of vegetation there are not what they used to be. No account of the vegetation and animal life of Campbell Island can ignore the fact that millions of birds once occupied millions of burrows there, fertilising the land with thousands of tones of nutrients brought in from the Souhern Ocean and, in effect, ploughing the fertiliser in deep. We know that at least 14 species of petrel nested on the South Island, but have scant idea of how they fitted into the terrestrial ecosystems, or even if they determined what those systems were. The parrot was discovered because a Department of Conservation manager was prepared to take a punt and let palaeobiology have a go. He found a berth on a tight ship, and we found a person who could help with the teal transfer but who was also skilled in unearthing bone deposits. Now, anything older than last year’s budget is usually off the map for managers and funding agencies. The concept that the past is important, and that a few bones can take you where binoculars and modern ecology cannot, has at best gone unappreciated. Popular fallacy has it that palaeobiology—in our case, studying recently extinct birds—is about mounting expeditions to exciting places to haul another moa skeleton or two back to glass cases and storage basements. Glitz and one-day glamour, maybe, but not really science. Collecting as an end in itself is 19th century science. Then, the job was over when the bones had been identified, labeled and listed. Now, collecting should be done only as the basis for dealing with larger questions. The richest results come from work after catalogue entries have been made. New high-tech tools for interpreting the structure and function of past environments are begging to be applied to the riches of New Zealand’s recent fossil record. They promise us a perspective of the past that can guide and underpin our responses to the challenges of the present and the future. It is time to recognise the extraordinary value of recent fossil deposits, largely ignored here by science both in teaching and in practice. Society’s indifference means that, unlike our thin human heritage, the natural resource of the palaeontological record is completely unprotected by statute. It should be cherished and conserved as a vital part of our national heritage and identity, and mined for information fundamental to conservation. Progress in understanding our recent past and what it can teach us about the present demands properly trained professional researchers, encouraged by peer and public recognition that they are playing a role in New Zealand’s future and not just fixating on a lost past. Progress will not be helped by high fees for bona fide researchers wishing to sample museum collections for the ancient DNA and stable isotopes that can reveal so much about our astounding past. Given museum managements’ grudging support for collections, even at Te Papa, it is ironic that for some institutions collections have become a means of offsetting costs rather than the substantial basis of a thriving and relevant—science. The Campbell parakeet is just a small example of how our horizons can be opened up by allowing the orphan palaeobiology a seat at the table. Its bone, collected on a hunch, has been halved: one half will be preserved as a permanent record; the other has been sacrificed to ancient-DNA analysis so that an ex-pat Kiwi can fit into place what is a new piece of the jigsaw of New Zealand’s life. We must fill in more of that jigsaw if we are to take more than museum relics of our rich heritage into the future. Conservation management in New Zealand has come a long way, with many successes to balance the trials, blind alleys and inevitable abject failures. The Campbell Island experience is its microcosm. Take the teal; when it was rediscovered rat eradication was only a dream, so there was no alternative but to bring the birds north and breed them in captivity. Returning them to their own island is an unexpected bonus, flowing from the new technologies of predator removal. For 40 years, translocation has been used to save rare species in New Zealand. The technique came too late to save those species lost when Stephens Island was trashed in 1894, and it failed the South Island snipe and the bush wren when, in the early 1960s, it could be practised only in defiance of official instructions. But, clandestine or otherwise, the first successful moves ensured the saddleback could be brought into the 21st century; and when translocation was finally, if grudgingly, accepted, it allowed the black robin to stage its astonishing comeback in the 1970s and 1980s. Now that predator removal has become more of a science than an art, species can go home or stay at home. Some, like the snipe, can even go home under their own steam. Spending money on deratification saves far more in the long term. Spending some on research into past systems would not only show us that the Campbell Island landscape needs the flash of green and blue parakeet wings to be truly restored; it could also provide a context and a structure to guide sustainable conservation on islands and on the mainland, now and in the future. And conservation has to be a commitment in perpetuity if the efforts of today are to have any meaning at all.
With our stone canoe anchored in the zone of the persistent mid-latitude westerly winds, we New Zealanders can be surprised and discomfited by the sort of weather a good period of easterlies drags in. Fog, for example, is not common in Wellington, yet at the beginning of February there were five days of low cloud and fog rolling off the sea in a southerly breeze. Wellington airport was closed for long periods causing major disruptions to air travel. In places known for fog, such as Christchurch and Hamilton, fog is least likely to occur in summer, and if it does form then it is usually only for an hour or two around dawn. In winter, of course, fog in these places can last ten or twelve hours. Known as radiation fog, it typically forms with clear skies and light winds. During a night without cloud the ground radiates heat away to space—the longer the night, the greater the heat loss. As the ground becomes cold, it cools the air in contact with it. If the wind is light, the cooling is confined to the lowest layer of the atmosphere where the temperature can drop by 5 or 10 degrees. Usually there is enough moisture in the air that this amount of cooling will bring the relative humidity up to 100 per cent and some of the water vapour will begin condensing, forming the tiny liquid droplets that fog and clouds are made of. By contrast, the fog that affected Wellington in February was caused by a different mechanism. Known as advection fog, it formed when warm, moist air from the subtropics moved over a progressively cooler sea surface during its journey of several days towards New Zealand. The air was initially transported out of the tropics by north-east winds on the flank of a large slow-moving anticyclone. The winds turned easterly as they approached central New Zealand, then finally turned southerly just before the fog swept in to Wellington Airport. Because the cooling of the air is caused by the contrast between warm sea surface temperatures in the sub-tropics and the cool sea surface temperatures found around Wellington, this sort of fog can strike at any time of year, day or night, and last for as long as the wind is following the same path. Another of the easterly’s unwelcome gifts is torrential rain. Although often thought of as dry sunny areas, the eastern provinces from Gisborne down to Wairarapa experience, on occasion, some of the heaviest rainstorms that occur in New Zealand. Gisborne’s flooding during Cyclone Bola in March 1988 is one example and the February floods of 2004 another. At the end of March this year parts of Wairarapa had their heaviest rain in decades. Some places recorded around 200 mm in 24 hours, but the worst blow was struck by intense microbursts lasting an hour or less. One of these struck Castlepoint where the MetService rain gauge received 57 mm in just one hour. A large section of road was washed away and a number of beachfront properties were engulfed by floodwater. One house, sold two days before for $690,000 was left with silt and sand up to the top of its cupboards. Some isolated rural communities were cut off for days by slips and washouts, and supplies of food and medicine had to be airlifted into them. One farmer near Tora, who had never seen rain like this in the twenty-four years he had lived there, had five cows swept out to sea, a huge amount of fencing destroyed and paddocks left covered in mud. Worse hit was the Ngahape valley east of Masterton. Debris left from forest harvesting clogged and dammed the Kaiwhata Stream. When the water burst free, thousands of tons of logs were driven over farmland, hurling through the sides of buildings, destroying equipment and killing farm stock. Total damage across Wairarapa is expected to be many millions of dollars. But easterly storms do not just drop water out of the sky: they can also drive the sea up onto the land. At Haumoana, near Hastings, heavy six metre swells riding on top of the high tide forced the evacuation of six houses on Thursday, March 17. One wave was seen to wash completely over a house. Walls residents hadbuilt to protect themselves were reduced to rubble and shingle washed right across the road. Four Norfolk pines 15 m tall were uprooted and 30 m of lawn in front of one property turned into sandy beach. A heavy swell warning had been issued and no lives were lost, although a chained dog had to be rescued after the waves washed over it, and a kitten survived being washed out to sea twice. Known as storm surge, or sea-flooding, this sort of maritime invasion is caused by a number of factors. The low atmospheric pressure near the depression centre acts to lift the sea-level in a similar way that liquid can be drawn up a straw by sucking. Also, strong winds blowing towards the land cause breaking waves to pile up water in shallow coastal areas. When all this happens during high tide, buildings and farmland along the coast are at risk. Gradually, the effects of sea-level rise induced by global warming will increase the risk of coastal damage. Environment Waikato estimates around a billion dollars worth of property in the Coromandel alone is likely to be affected by coastal erosion in the next hundred years. Sea level rise is caused partly by expansion of the surface layer of the sea caused by the slow rise in sea temperatures, and partly by melting of land-based ice, such as glaciers. In most parts of the world glaciers are in rapid retreat. The Tasman Glacier, for example, has suffered a series of collapses recently, releasing hundreds of blocks of ice, some as large as Dunedin Railway Station, into Lake Tasman. Since its last advance in 1890, the snout of the glacier has not only retreated, but the top surface has lowered by around 100 m. In some parts of the world, such as California, Oregon, Washington State, and northern Chile, melting snow and glaciers in the mountains provide the main or only source of water in the summer half of the year. As the snow and ice retreat, these places are headed for crisis. And in New Zealand we may have to learn to become comfortable with more easterlies than we have been accustomed to. During the period from the late 1970s through to about 1999, the Southern Oscillation was in a mode where El Niños were much more common than La Niñas. Now climatologists think we have shifted back to a mode where La Niñas will be as common as El Niños, or even more common, for the next couple of decades. Although the recent easterly storms managed to arrive without the help of a La Niña, easterly storms tend to be more frequent during a La Niña event. Worse than that, the water in the Pacific Ocean tends to slop back to this side of the Pacific Basin during a La Niña, raising the sea-level an extra twenty to thirty centimeters at the western boundary. Watch out for those high tides!
In May 1955 New Zealanders Norman Hardie was one of four mountaineers to reach the summit of the world’s third-highest mountain, Kangchenjunga. His climb came just two years after another New Zealander, Edmund Hillary, had succeeded in climbing the world’s highest peak, Mt Everest, with Tenzing Norgay. Both ascents rate among the finest of the 20th century, yet—in contrast to Hillary’s celebrated performance—Hardie’s role in his historic climb remains little known.
Behind Matapouri Bay, north-east of Whangarei, a small estuary flanked by mangroves runs quietly inland, ignored by the scores of visitors who crowd the clean sand of the main bay. Yet towards high tide (when it is easy to float about), there is much for the patient snorkeller to enjoy amid the mangroves.
Operation Mercury—the invasion of Crete by Nazi Germany—began on May 20, 1941, when gliders and paratroops swooped through the dust and smoke thrown up by Luftwaffe bombs and cannon. On the ground, a mixed British, Dominion and Greek army raised its guns to meet them. Mainstay of the Allied defence, where the conflict was most fierce and its outcome decided, was the 2nd New Zealand Division. Sixty years on, as crowds gathered in remembrance of the many who lost their lives in the savage clash, Mark Bathurst trod the battlefield and listened to those with tales to tell.
Ask your librarian to subscribe to this service next year. Alternatively, use a home network and buy a digital subscription—just $1/week...
Subscribe to our free newsletter for news and prizes