'I'm always looking for the Hows and the Whys and the Whats,' said Muskrat, 'That is why I speak as I do. You've heard of Muskrat's Much-in-Little, of course?'
'No,' said the child. 'What is it?'
- The Mouse and his Child. Russell Hoban.

Go here to find out more.

Saturday, 30 January 2010

Snow Crystals

In another of my efforts to make the world a Better Place, and given that I feel just a teeny bit guilty that here it is so hot I pull the curtains and go to the back bedroom to work, (and I've just seen that the high for Frankfurt and London today was 0ºC and Sheffield was -2ºC,) I bring to you:
Why Snow is Good.

Enter, courtesy of physicist Kenneth Libbrecht, the fascinating world of snow crystals.

He has invented a way of growing and photographing snow crystals, and, from over 7,000 of them, has posted the best (most symmetrical) ones on his website. Apart from serving up a feast for the eyes, he explains how and why they grow, why they all have the hexagon shape in common, and gives examples of the different shape types. Very interesting! And well worth a visit.

How to Report the News

Although I haven't watched the news on the telly for years, from this clip, things obviously haven't changed much.

Thanks to Flatattack.

Thursday, 28 January 2010

Cannon-netting at Miranda - part 3.

When you have about forty wild South Island Pied Oystercatchers (SIPO)jumping around in boxes and the drizzle has been replaced by patchy sunshine, the best idea is to process and release them as soon as possible. In relays, each SIPO passed through the hands of each of the course members, who were shown how to measure and record their vital statistics: wing length, state and number of flight feathers, bill length, approximate age, weight and eye patterns. And of course, details from any leg bands, which, if they didn't have one, they were given. The leg bands, which are usually only recovered if the bird is caught like this or dies, are stamped with the bird's unique number and also an address where the band should be sent.
Other information like the date and place the tag was found, and the bird's condition, cause of death if known, etc., are useful.

And here we come to the point of the exercise. Why is it useful? Why do all this? Well, it's not just about learning about South Island Oystercatchers, or any other specific waders. Although, by gathering information about the shorebirds at Miranda, New Zealand, we can indeed learn a lot about these creatures for their own sakes.

More importantly, we can notice aspects of their health or if their populations are increasing or decreasing and make guesses as to why, when we link this with other data about, for example, mangrove encroachment, predation, and human disturbance of many kinds within New Zealand.

Yet it is more important even than nationally. When we look at information about birds, especially migratory birds like the Godwit, we are registering the influence of other global effects. Certainly we know the massive reclamations in North China and North Korea, where the Godwits and Knots stop for a month to refuel, are removing crucial tidal flat staging posts. Can the birds stop to feed elsewhere? Have they been spotted anywhere else?* What happens if they cannot get quite enough fat laid down for their last hop? Do they fall into the sea? Or do they get to Alaska but not have the reserves to breed successfully? What will happen when the Alaskan tundra melts earlier in the season and the succulent larvae that birds need are already adults flying around when the birds arrive?

The more we understand about the world, the more we can understand ourselves, and where we fit in. And the extent to which what we do on this planet affects the balances between the flora and fauna here, and the significance of these changes.

The birds could be seen as indicators of change.

* No.

Bill length.


Flight feathers - number and age, wing length.


Above - a juvenile SIPO. Note the eye colour compared with the adult below.

Release. Squawk!

And, if you are unlucky, your shoes will be anointed.

Saturday, 23 January 2010

Cannon-netting at Miranda - part 2.

The first thing to change our plans involved the godwits. Suddenly they all took off (what a spectacular sight!) and went inland to the silt ponds. They are a jumpy bunch. Perhaps they spotted us. Either way, we weren't going to be catching any godwits this time. I must say I was disappointed. I was especially keen to see a godwit close-up.

We had to go to Plan B: try and net Wrybills and South Island Pied Oystercatchers (SIPO).

Unfortunately the wrybills proved elusive. They are calm little birds, almost tame, and despite all Adrian's efforts to 'twinkle' them in the right place, they simply parted to allow him to move among them, then filled in again behind him! They would not be herded!

So, Plan C. Moving very gently, and with great skill, Adrian began to work just on the SIPO. They did herd. He didn't want them to take off, or all his time would have been wasted and they might have ended up at the end of the shell bank again. Slowly, slowly he pushed them towards the net area until there were plenty in the right place. For a long while we waited. Nothing seemed to be happening, but then someone who was on the other end of the radio said that Adrian was waiting while a couple of SIPO moved themselves a bit, as they were too close to the actual cannons.

Then suddenly it was the countdown: four…three…two…ONE! BOOM! and everyone sprinted madly across the shells to cover the struggling, flapping birds with light sacking to calm them down...

and then, as fast as possible, the 'extractors' untangled them from the net and placed them in the containers with the special cloth lids, and we carried them, four to a container, back to the shelter to be weighed, measured and tagged.

Next: part three.

Thursday, 21 January 2010

Cannon-netting at Miranda

Last Monday the high tide at Miranda was due about 10.30 am. So in order to lay the net down on the shell bank and be off long before the birds came up to roost, I had to become upright at a time usually reserved only for quick nips to the bathroom, i.e. 5 am.

It wasn't easy, especially in view of Estella's excellent cognac and even more excellent conversation with Keith Woodley the evening before early that same morning.

But somehow I, the ten participants of the course, and about the same number of old hands, plus the tutors, had breakfasted and were up to our calves in water by 6.15am, carrying a quantity of essential paraphernalia. The hills were obscured by a light haze of rain as Adrian Reigen, Keith and Steve walked the shell bank, deciding on the best place to site the nets. Cannon netting is a fine art and things don't always go to plan. Wind strength and direction are the main factors to take into account.

The two nets were then carefully positioned with the open side of their covers in the correct direction so the nets would be yanked out properly. Weights were attached to the leading edge of the nets and dropped into the cannons which had been aimed carefully and then buried up to their mouths. The plan is that when they went off, the nets would cover a good number of birds, yet not land in the water. We didn't want any drowned birds!

And then everything was lightly covered with shells - camouflaged, so that when the tide came up and the wading birds were pushed off the tidal flats to roost on the shell bank, they wouldn't notice it there.

Now you see the cover over the net...

... and now you don't.

Then it became just a matter of retiring to a more distant spot with the wires, and literally keeping a low profile and waiting. And waiting. It got pretty cold and the drizzle didn't help much.

After a while there was some action. The waders began to arrive in flocks. They wheeled in; godwits, wrybills, a smattering of herring gulls, a few red knots and lots of the smartly-dressed SIPO - South Island pied oystercatchers - to preen and doze with their bills under their wings.

Unfortunately after that things didn't go exactly as hoped ...

Part 2 tomorrow.

Wednesday, 20 January 2010

What's inside a Godwit.

I've just come back from another stay at the wonderful Miranda Shorebird Centre where I was researching and gathering photographic material for my next show.

One time I was walking the path through the fennel forest when a skylark started singing high above. I tried to photograph it but it was a tricky subject against the pale sky. But in front of me was a good selection of the local plants, and I couldn't resist this bumblebee visiting these blue flowers. There's a ladybird there too, which I didn't see until I cropped the image. The more often I visit Miranda the more I see.

So much for the pretty picture. Next one is not really for a chocolate box. Just an advance warning for you.

This visit I caught the last two days of the Field Course, and took part in the cannon-netting (oystercatchers this time) and a Godwit dissection which I really wanted to see. This desire may sound gross, but I've always been fascinated by almost everything, dissections not excepted, but they are not often available.

This was a Godwit that had been injured, probably on the road, and had been kept in the freezer for this demonstration. (I hasten to add Godwits are not killed for this purpose!)

It was great to see all the bits and pieces, and especially learn how Godwits are adapted for their stupendously grueling journeys between New Zealand and Alaska twice a year. Among their adaptations is their ability to shrink down their digestive organs for the actual migration flights, to cut down on weight. They are not needed of course, as Godwits neither eat nor drink when flying long-distance, a fascinating fact by itself.
They also can lay down huge amounts of sub-cutaneous fat and this one, killed last February, already showed a thick layer under its chest. Godwits have been recorded carrying 55% of their body weight as fat, just before they fly north in the New Zealand autumn. This fat is their 'fuel tank' that they gradually use up on the journey.

Here you can see Jodi the veterinarian holding out the beautiful wing for us to see. I've decided to censor the bloody bits because I know not everyone is as fascinated in them as I am. But if you really want the unexpurgated version, email me, and I'll email it to you it in a brown paper wrapper.

Tomorrow: cannon netting, measuring and tagging Oystercatchers.

Thanks to Keith Woodley for the last image.

Thursday, 14 January 2010

Peacock Moth

Last autumn I had this lovely visitor. What lovely eye spots gleaming in the light! Its latin name is Dasypodia, but it is known by a number of common names: Wattle Moth, Peacock Moth, Owl Moth, Moon Moth and Pepe Atua to the Maori. According to Andrew Crowe, it was known to the Maori by the odd one that blew across from Australia before the first wattle trees were planted in New Zealand, after which it became established. The caterpillars eat wattle (acacia) leaves. It's quite large at about 70 mm across.

Wednesday, 13 January 2010

What to do with leftover Christmas Mince

How to make a quick and yummy dessert in no time flat!

1. Roll out some flaky pastry* to about 3 mm (1/4 inch) thickness.
2. Cut out circles using a drinking glass or a cookie cutter.
3. Put a dollop (about a teaspoon) of Christmas mince in the centre of each one and smooth it out a bit but not right to the edges.
4. Brush some water on another circle.
5. Firmly pinch the two pastry circles together around the edges.

6. Cut three deepish knife cuts in the top of each one, brush with beaten egg or milk, and sprinkle with sugar.
7. Bake in a hottish oven (200ºC or 400ºF) for about ten minutes until golden.

These Flaky Mincies keep in a jar for ages, but are nicest eaten hotted up in an oven then doused with cream.

*I always buy mine. Flaky pastry takes ages to make and is really fiddly.

Tuesday, 12 January 2010

The Laughing Horse Award.

It is with much pleasure I announce that a great honour has been bestowed on this blog.
In the end-of-year Yorkshire Pudding Blog Award Ceremony held at the Pudding Towers in Sheffield, "The Last Visible Dog" was the joint recipient of Top New Zealand Blogger! Needless to say, I'm thrilled to bits, and although I was not able to attend the ceremony in person because of northern hemisphere travel disruptions and airport closures due to snow, I am proud to display my award here, and encourage you to read all about the ceremony at beefgravy.blogspot.com here.

Monday, 11 January 2010

The colours of Alaska from Google Earth

These beautiful satellite images of Alaska remind me of a cut and polished slice of some of the minerals in my collection .... or an abstract painting. Hmmm, now there's an idea ....

Sunday, 10 January 2010

Virtual travel using Google Earth

I should be painting, but, well, I got side-tracked. I've just downloaded Google Earth and have been low-altitude flying, slowly (hot-air balloon?) over New Zealand. Then I decided to fly to Australia and ended up at Lord Howe Island. I'm in heaven. I don't know why really, I just absolutely love to see our Earth from above.

Saturday, 9 January 2010

Horse Trekking in the Bay of Plenty

While Ann and Claire were staying with us, we decided to treat the girls to a horse-trek. As it was very settled weather, we chose Briar's Beach Trekking at Maketu, and highly recommend them. The trip was three hours and was professionally organised, interesting, and most importantly, fun!

First; get a helmet, You need one that fits so it will be safe and comfortable.

A short talk about the route the trail will take, and safety. The girls put on sunscreen and take drinking bottles in their saddlebags because the day is bright and clear.

Then they are paired with their mounts. Good care is taken to ensure the right horse for the level of experience of the rider.

Let's just adjust the length of these stirrup leathers...

...and this is how you hold the reins.

The girls already look as though they were raised in the saddle.

So off they go; through the gate, over the road,

and over the hill...

...over the lush farmland pasture ...

...but not too close to the edge although there's a great view down to the beach!

It's getting hot - time to get that jacket off.

And then down to the sand for a relaxing stroll along the beach. On the return leg the girls were shown how to rise to the trot and, if they wished, canter their horses.

And although they had sore bottoms for a few days, it was very much worth it!