Green teachings

My name is Mere Valu and I work with NatureFiji-MareqetiViti (NFMV) which is a BirdLife International affiliate. My work centres on landowning communities – identifying sustainable land use management techniques, initiating forest restoration projects, and empowering Local Conservation Groups (LCGs). On top of this, I run school environment education programs.

Birdwatching in Fiji

Mere Valu birdwatching in Fiji

I am particularly interested to develop an environmental education program for NFMV and this has become possible through a Conservation Leadership Award I received to undergo an internship with Forest & Bird to learn about their kids’ club (KCC) which has been running for over 20 years.

I had the option to choose between the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB) in the UK and F&B in NZ and I chose the latter as it was closer to home and its work related more to the Pacific.

When I first decided on my travel dates I made sure that I came in summer, so I could cope with the less-than-balmy weather but I was greeted by a storm on arrival. It raged for over a week. Windy wellington lived up to its name, something that worried my host family a lot more than me.

Leaving that aside, my internship experience at Forest & Bird has been great – Forest & Bird’s Communications Manager, Marina Skinner and their KCC Manager, Tiff Stewart filled my diary with interesting activities.

The weekend before last, I attended the annual KCC gathering where all the KCC Co-ordinators met to share ideas. I learnt some great lessons from these hardworking volunteers such as organising fun, original and creative activities for both kids and their parents and using available resources resourcefully!

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The secret lives of Wellington cats – uncovered

Our ten week cat-cam pilot study to investigate the wild diets of our cats, their foraging habits and general behaviour has given us several interesting insights into the world of our cats.

A still from one of the cat-cams. Although there was no predation of birds, tracking behaviours like this and even the presence of cats  will deter birds from nesting.

A still from one of the cat-cams. Although there was no predation of birds, tracking behaviours like this and even the presence of cats will deter birds from nesting.

Domestic cats are creatures that live so closely to us, and yet – in NZ at least – studies have been limited. Indeed, this cat-cam study was a NZ first!

The study – initiated by postdoctoral fellow Heidy Kikillus – followed the lives of ten cats living around the neighbourhood near the sanctuary Zealandia (Northland, Highbury, Kelburn, Karori).

Each cat has been fitted with a motion-sensitive camera that was turned on either during the day or at night by their owners to give us a two-hour snapshot of their behaviour.

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Unwrapping an enigma

Little Barrier Island is one of those magical places where time feels as if it stands still and birds, so rare elsewhere, abound. Kokako and saddleback are just part of the everyday soundscape and bellbirds are so common that their song is a constant companion not just an occasional delightful toll. Huge kauri and hard beech trees rise into the mist on this rugged volcanic island.

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I have come here to join the New Zealand storm petrel team for a week, building on last year’s huge success of finding them breeding on the island. NZ stormies were thought to be extinct until rediscovered in 2003. Nests were found last autumn in a deep valley amongst beech and kauri trees.

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Bright future for albatross chicks

Each day on the Chathams dawned in the usual manner – ferocious howlers and churned up seas – and day by day, this never-ending storm slowly chipped away at our hopes of executing a NZ first – an albatross translocation.

We were hoping to transfer 30 threatened Chatham Island albatross chicks to a specially protected site on the Main Island from a rock islet called The Pyramid in order to create a second colony.

The pyramid

The pyramid

It is the second time an albatross translocation has ever been done in the world, so let’s just say our nerves were getting rather frazzled.

In typical Murphy’s Law fashion, as soon as we were ready for the birds, it started to blow violently…..and didn’t stop for two weeks!

Finally at the end of January, our window appeared, and we set sail. Three years planning, three months full time preparation and a month’s hard graft had come to fruition. It was transfer day!

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The secret life of Wellington cats

Are our pet cats bird-killers, or ratters? Grass-eating layabouts, or stealthy skink-hunters? What do they get up to at night? And are their hunting activities doing damage to our wildlife, or helping to protect our wildlife by keeping rodent numbers low?

Heidy’s cat ‘Pancho Villa’ models one of our Cat Cams, flanked by researchers Mya Gaby (left) and Heidy Kikillus (right).  Photo courtesy of Victoria University.

Heidy’s cat ‘Pancho Villa’ models one of our Cat Cams, flanked by researchers Mya Gaby (left) and Heidy Kikillus (right). Photo courtesy of Victoria University. *

Last year philanthropist and conservationist, Gareth Morgan fielded a number of questions like this at a community meeting where residents living near the wildlife sanctuary Zealandia grappled with his demands to keep their moggies inside, or not replace them, following the launch of his site Cats to Go.

To support his argument that cats are wildlife-killers he referenced several overseas kitty-cam studies or research papers which showed the impact cats had on urban wildlife – only a couple however, had been conducted on our shores

Amongst the crowd was Karori-based Postdoctoral Fellow Heidy Kikillus who came up with the idea of conducting a pilot study documenting the behaviours and habits of our domestic cats.

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The lucky country?

I have recently returned from holidaying in sunbaked Queensland, Australia, which lies on the doorstep of the magnificent Great Barrier Reef.

kookaburra cafe

Friendly kookaburra

As a travelling environmentalist and advocate for Forest & Bird it’s hard to take a complete break from work because environmental problems are rife throughout the world. And the ‘lucky’ country is by no means spared.

In Australia, they’ve been suffering from record temperatures (sometimes in the 40s and 50s) and in a somewhat Hitchcockian illustration of how climate change is affecting our creatures, bats have been falling out of the sky.

While we can easily cool off in our local pool, bats can’t cool off in these extreme temperatures.

The independent reported that fruit bats are dropping out of the sky due to heat exhaustion and 100,0000 rotting bat carcasses lie beneath their roosts.

Before quietly expiring they cling to trees and urinate in a desperate bid to reduce their body temperatures.

Indeed, I thought we had left our worries about climate change and coal mining in NZ, but no, the Ozzies think they can have it all too.

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Enchanted Enderby

Rodney has finished his 6.45am on-ship briefing. I photograph his hand-drawn map of Enderby Island and kit up for the day; wash the gumboots in antibacterial solution, check velcro for stray seeds, put on a life-jacket, throw some woollies and lunch into a daypack and head for the gang-plank.

Gentians and Anisotome flowering on cliffs,  the sealion community, a yellow eyed penguin and a regular visitor to Enderby island, Rodney Russ.

Gentians and Anisotome flowering on cliffs, the sealion community, a yellow eyed penguin and a regular visitor to Enderby island, Rodney Russ.

I ask Sergey one of the Russian sailors how to say ‘hello’ in Russian. He smiles and says ‘privet’ and then we’re descending the steep steps and clambering into a zodiac, all excited smiles and zoom lenses.

We’re 460km south of Bluff, in a World Heritage nature reserve in the middle of the Southern Ocean. It’s a place renowned for wind-driven rain and cloud. But today it’s cloudless, windless and balmy as we head for Sandy Bay on Enderby Island. Once grazed by cattle and rabbits, the island is now free of both and recovering strongly.

Centre stage on the beach a large harem of sea lion females with pups are ringed by giant ‘beach master’ males; growling, lunging and biting each other. Around them at a safe distance are the ‘dateless and desperate’ younger males, watchful and hopeful.

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Re-wilding urban spaces

For the past few years, many city dwellers have been vigorously flying the flag for “Predator-free New Zealand” while, ironically, a scourge of pests have been running wild at their feet. Yes, in urban New Zealand, our pests are having a field day.

North Shore branch members take part in council-run training session.

North Shore branch members take part in council-run training session.

Throughout New Zealand there is no nationwide council-led effort to build on the good work of DoC and eliminate pests in the city.

Indeed, the vast majority of our urban parks and reserves are in fact faux sanctuaries.

As birds spill out from our pest-free Hauraki islands into the parks and reserves of our biggest city, Auckland, they quickly find these green spots are booby trapped with stoats, possums and large numbers of rats which keep birds at bay by munching on their young and competing for their food.

So for the past two years we have worked with our biodiversity officer at Auckland Council, Paul Duffy, to create a template, so community groups can control the pests in our city’s parks and reserves.

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The battle to keep our bats

Crawling out of my tent at dusk, I noticed the erratic flight of a long-tailed bat high above the kahikatea trees surrounding the Pelorus Bridge Campground. That sighting led not only to five years of surveys for these elusive creatures across the top of the South Island, but also the instigation of a pest control programme at Pelorus Bridge/Te Hoiere.

Long-tailed_Bat_Photo_Colin O'Donnell

Fifty years ago bats seemed plentiful around the rivers of the Buller, the Pelorus, the Wairau, and the Motueka. The beech forested slopes and tall podocarp tracts of forest surrounding large rivers provided all that the little mammals needed to survive – or seemingly so. But a quick check with local DOC staff, and I got the feeling that not all was well.

After the sighting at Pelorus Bridge I started asking questions. Conversations with long established ecologists described them as “around, but in small numbers, not entirely sure”.

That wasn’t good enough for our native terrestrial mammals – edging closer to the status of extinction every time a threat classification review was undertaken. Occasional survey work had been undertaken around Nelson Lakes, Maruia and in the Aorere – but no substantive work appeared to be ongoing. And of course, the methodologies made bat detection a tough ask: walking around at midnight clinging to a little black box that might click at you if a bat happened to fly past at the right time.

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Conservation station

If the directions had just said “Turn off State Highway 4 and drive to the very end of Oio Road” I would have got there much sooner.

Blue Duck Station from a distance.  Photo: Phil Bilbrough

Our small convoy of cars lost touch with other, one went up and down State Highway 4 looking for Oio Rd, another was going up and down Oio Rd, and the participants of the other car imploded into an argument over the best direction to take.

Whakahoro is remote. It’s an old settlement tucked into the junction of the Whanganui and Retaruke rivers. In Whakahoro there is a DOC campsite, plenty of history and the Blue Duck Station.

Dan Steele runs the Blue Duck Station. It is a working farm, an eco-tourism venture, a brand of honey and a conservation project. I met Dan at Forest & Bird’s 2012 Face up to the Future Conference where he was one of the speakers. Since that time I was keen to travel north and check out his Blue Duck station.

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