Not all meetings are equal

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Cobb Valley, Golden Bay. Photo: Craig Potton.

Short meetings beat long ones. I’m probably not alone in thinking that. So the thought of a three day meeting would normally leave me cold. But having just returned from one of Forest & Bird’s “Island Gatherings”, I can say there are exceptions.

The gatherings aren’t the usual tea-and-biscuits, spend 10 minutes waiting for Skype, let’s talk about how we should all be “moving forward” – type affairs that many of us may be used to.

Gatherings are held for the North and South Islands every year. They are attended by Forest & Bird members, branch committee reps, staff, and board members. These meetings almost defy description. They’re where ideas are thrashed out and knowledge is shared. They remind people why we care so deeply about conservation. And yes, there’s never any doubt about what people think about the more controversial topics. That’s to be expected in a room full of people dedicated to the protection of our natural heritage, at a time when it is under serious threat (although when has it not been?).

But to use my favourite cliché, the gatherings are more than the sum of their parts. You would have to be pretty indifferent not to have come away from this year’s South Island Gathering in Golden Bay without grave concerns around the extent and urgency of the conservation work that needs to be done. But at the same time, it would have been hard not to be buoyed by the determination and thoughtfulness of the people doing that work.

The highlights this year?  Some of these were also lowlights, like the story of the bar-tailed godwit. Every year the birds fly from New Zealand to Alaska. They layover in China for refuelling.  But something – a giant reclamation project, or DDT perhaps – is decimating the small marine animals the godwits eat while in China. This is going to have serious impacts on the species –they’re not about to just start using another beach.

Fortuitously, the story of the battle with the Trifford-like pest vines of Golden Bay proved no conservation challenge is too great. And a talk on what is known – and not known – about Golden Bay’s incredible aquifers was uplifting, despite the warning that only a small change in the characteristics of the water entering the system could make it all go haywire.

It’s a shame more people won’t get to hear Graeme Elliot’s talk on the science of 1080. It left me in no doubt that it’s high time that the money that goes into trying to find the mythical and elusive “alternative” to 1080 should be spent instead on just getting on with the job, with the best tool we have. .. before it’s too late.

Project Janszoon, which is made possible by the extraordinary generosity of just one couple, is doing great work in restoring the Abel Tasman National Park. But what I found particularly interesting is that Janszoon is using new communications technology to bring the park alive for those who can’t be there in person.

This year’s South Island Gathering was notable in one other respect. The catering. Gingernut fans would have been disappointed. Instead, there were mussel fritters and cheesecake, courtesy of the Onetahua Waka Ama Club, and wine, courtesy of Yealands.

The 2014 North Island Gathering  will be held at Forest & Bird’s Ruapehu Lodge between October 31st and November 2. Take a look at the programme. If you’re not a member of Forest & Bird, then it’s worth joining just for the sake of being able to go. Your idea of what a meeting can amount to will never be the same again.




Operation Petrel Negro

Last year, Forest & Bird member Emma Cronin received funding to deliver her Black Petrel Education Project to schools across New Zealand and further afield.

Like many of our seabirds, the Black Petrel, or Petrel Negro – sensibly – spends the winter in warmer climes, in this case Peru and Ecuador, before returning to NZ in the summer.

Sadly, it faces similar pressures from fishing, so Emma Cronin has made it her life mission to tell the world about the plight of this threatened bird to help bolster its numbers.

In this blog, she gives us a detailed account of her three week Peruvian school tour. 


presentation to school teachers

Possibly like a black petrel after its 11000 km journey, my arrival in Peru is met with an enormous sense of relief. I am finally here, and have certainly landed on my feet.

I am taken under the wings of the staff at Pro Delphinus, a not-for-profit conservation organisation based in the seaside district of Miraflores, Lima. The organisation began in 1995 doing turtle research, but has rapidly expanded to protect all things in the ‘marine conservation’ arena – sea turtles, cetaceans, seabirds, sharks, marine otters and more recently the pink river dolphin.

A large component of their work involves monitoring target and incidental fisheries catch; however every project has an educational component. Through seminars, interactive talks and participation with school projects tailored for school children, fishermen and their families, the education program aims to reduce the capture and consumption of threatened and endangered species.

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Happy Little Feet

Amidst the menagerie of animals in the toy basket at Newtown Kindergarten my youngest daughter Sylvie (4) formed an attachment to a little blue penguin (aka korora). It’s one of those stuffed native birds whose tummy you depress and it makes the bird’s call: a kind of Tickle Me Elmo for wannabe twitchers.

Little Blue Penguin, Craig Mckenzie

Little Blue Penguin, Craig Mckenzie

Sylvie’s teacher let the korora come home with us for a few days, and as the return date loomed, I promised Sylvie — in a slack moment of parenting by reward — that I’d get her a replacement (if she e.g. ate her broccoli, tidied her craft desk etc).

Being an urban father in the shadow of jungle dad exemplars like Gerald (My Family and Other Animals) Durrell, I worried I was missing a link in the evolution of Sylvie’s nature education. If I was going to get her a stuffed penguin, I determined that she should experience the bird in the wild first.

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Detective work on the Galapagos

Our intrepid Seabird Advocate, Karen Baird and her partner Chris Gaskin have been in the Galapagos islands in search of the breeding grounds of the storm petrels that live there.

Last year, Karen and Chris were part of the team that found the breeding grounds of the NZ storm petrel on Little Barrier Island so their expertise was very much in demand to help pinpoint the breeding grounds of this enigmatic little bird.

How was it arriving in the Galapagos?

Well, we were a little nervous about the mountain of equipment we needed to bring for our project, much of it essential, including our specially made net-guns which are required to catch these tiny (sparrow sized) storm petrels at sea.

The Galapagos sea lion vies with the young brown pelican gang at the fish market for scraps. One sea lion in particular appears to have pride of place, virtually leaning on the fishmonger as she prepares her fish for sale. One beautifully plumaged larva gull also kept watch, sporting a metal band indicating a study of some sort. We later learned that these gulls are very rare with just 400 or so breeding in the Galapagos.

The Galapagos sea lion vies with the young brown pelican gang at the fish market for scraps. One sea lion in particular appears to have pride of place, virtually leaning on the fishmonger as she prepares her fish for sale. One beautifully plumaged larva gull also kept watch, sporting a metal band indicating a study of some sort. We later learned that these gulls are very rare with just 400 or so breeding in the Galapagos.

Thankfully, all the transfers went without a hitch. It was here that Darwin came to his revolutionary and controversial ideas around the nature of life which led to his book Origin of the Species.

My inspiration for adventure and wildlife, however, came from another one of his books The Voyage of the Beagle, which I read as a teenager. I never imagined that I’d make it here!

What is it like on the Galapagos? Do very many people live there?

Our first weekend was spent exploring the town of Puerto Ayora on Santa Cruz Island where we are based. Wildlife and people intermingle, not always seamlessly but there is a certain recognition and acceptance that although humans live here, the place really belongs to the wildlife. A sculpture of a waved albatross (unique to the islands) adorns the foreshore and a statue of St Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of all animals. The 18 major islands have a total population of 25,000 people.

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How to watch whales

I remember going on my first whale watching trip seventeen years ago: dressed up in a red survival suit, travelling off the coast of Vancouver Island (Canada) in a small zodiac. No other boats around but us. The sight and sound of the 14m Gray Whale surfacing beside our small boat shortly after have stayed with me ever since. It was overwhelming experiencing such a charismatic giant! Four years later, I was standing on a clifftop on nearby San Juan Island conducting fieldwork for my Masters degree on whale watching.

Southern right whale, courtesy of DOC

Southern right whale, courtesy of DOC

In the distance I noticed the flotilla of boats approaching. Shortly after we counted 25 orca whales and 125 boats (commercial and private) around them! What was going on? We had only just brought whales back from the brink of extinction from hunting and now it looked like we were ‘loving them to death’ instead!

Since the ‘Save the Whales’ movement of the 1970s whale watching has grown into a multi-billion dollar global industry, widely recognized as the antithesis to whaling, and a harmless commercial activity that is equivalent to whale conservation. ‘The Whale’ has become a human passion. People want to observe cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) in the wild and the demand for close and personal experiences fuels an ever-expanding industry worldwide. With close to half the world’s whale and dolphin species occurring in New Zealand waters, Aotearoa is a popular destination for whale watchers from around the globe. Whale watching in Kaikoura is among the most popular tourist attractions in this country.

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Logging conservation reserves and protected parks – a tragic end to 27 years of our NZ Forest Accord.

Over my 60 years living in New Zealand- Aotearoa, I have felt admiration and pride in the extraordinary achievements of New Zealanders in protecting our natural environment.

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A large number of New Zealanders led by Forest and Bird – right across the full range of the political spectrum of Parliament – have fought to save New Zealand’s native forest and wildlife from logging and pests.

A number of us have then successfully demonstrated through ecotourism that we can create more jobs and sustainable revenue by saving and cherishing ancient trees than through chopping them down for timber.

What drives us is the knowledge that our eco-tourism efforts are helping make sure that New Zealand’s unique native forests and their wildlife are safe, permanently protected and valued for all the extraordinarily valuable roles they perform on Planet Earth.

On Thursday night June 26 2014, my beliefs were dashed in the progress we have all achieved over the last 30 years. On Thursday night our Government rushed through the West Coast Wind-blown Timber (Conservation Lands) Bill under urgency.

There was no opportunity for any public comment.

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Windthrow is a natural part of NZ’s forest dynamics

Windthrow is a natural part of NZ’s forest dynamics of catastrophe-regeneration. Thousands of hectares are levelled every year in our public conservation land forests and have done so for millenia. It is a part of the natural forest cycle in this windy country. Yet we do not intervene to sell the fallen timber in protected forests, any more than harvest kiwi, as it is as natural as the wind and rain. We allow indigenous nature to run wild and free. That is what conservation land is all about.


A dead tree is as valuable as a live one to the functioning of a forest, with up to half the wood being dead or rotting in a typical healthy forest ecosystem. This is what a forest is.

Thousands of species rely on the continual cascade of dying wood for their survival, and on the fertility and energy that is recycled back into the system. Such wood may come from the gradual decline of trees, limb breakage, or more catastophic destruction from windthrow, landslides or disease. This is all part of natural forest dynamics. An area of windthrow is still forest in the long term functioning of such an ecosystem. If the dead wood is not protected, then nor is the forest in the most fundamental sense.

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World leading marine protection?

While John Key is in the US wrangling support for New Zealand seat on the UN Security Council, Murray McCully attended John Kerry’s Oceans Conference, where the Secretary of State said the US and other nations need to take bolder steps to protect marine habitat and combat other threats.

Mother and calf humpback whales

Mother and calf humpback whales

Our government talks about being world leaders in marine protection and having a balanced approach to use and protection.

Despite the recent and welcome creation of the Sub-Antarctic Islands marine reserves and the brand new Akaroa marine reserve, less than 0.5 per cent of our marine environment is in full no-take protection, well below our international commitments.

New Zealand has 54 designated Marine Protected Areas of which 38 have full protection. These 38 are called Type 1 MPAs; the other 16 are Type 2 MPAs that allow for fishing and other extractive uses.

All of our designated MPAs are restricted to our territorial sea out to 12 nautical miles. Our Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) extends well beyond this, and yet none of it is in full protection.

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Hunting birds without guns: A visit to Otamatuna

Wandering through much of Aotearoa’s remnant bush in 2014 can be a lonely experience. One has more chance of seeing a hobbit than a kaka or kokako, and the experience is a long way from Joseph Banks’ much repeated description of the the dawn chorus in Queen Charlotte Sound in 1770:

“I was awakened by the singing of the birds ashore, from whence we are distant not a quarter of a mile. Their numbers were certainly very great. They seemed to strain their throats with emulation, and made, perhaps, the most melodious wild music I have ever heard, almost imitating small bells, but with the most tunable silver imaginable, to which, may be, the distance was no small addition.”

Our ruru or morepork

Our ruru or morepork

A couple of years back, while helping the good folks at Goodnature lay some traps in the Orongorongo Valley, I’d been lamenting that the New Zealand birds’n’bush was doing its own take on Silent Spring – with predators rather than pesticides as the culprit. I moaned that the only place I’d heard a decent dawn chorus was on the offshore ‘lifeboat’ islands like Kapiti and Tiritiri Matangi.

Robbie Van Dam (Goodnature) and Darren Peters (Department of Conservation) both urged that I had to get up and check out Otamatuna. I’d never heard of Otamatuna, or Te Urewera Mainland Island (‘TUMI’), and Google didn’t shed a lot of light either.

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Táiko across the Pacific

I cautiously peered into a gnarled puriri tree and stared eye to eye with a black petrel. I was elated – the birds were back, all the way from South America and preparing to breed, right here in my backyard.

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Okiwi school student Jordan Edmonds-Griffiths holds a black petrel chick, credit Okiwi School

‘My’ backyard is not mine at all, but is where my husband and I currently live with our seven year old daughter managing a 240 ha pest controlled native wildlife sanctuary in the north of Great Barrier Island in the Hauraki Gulf, New Zealand. Controlling pests is the essential component of the sanctuary work that enables the real interesting stuff to happen – creating a safe haven for our native species. Outside of keeping the rats, cats and rabbits at bay, our work involves the steady restoration of regenerating bush and pasture to habitat suitable to host a variety of threatened species.

One such species is the black petrel or Táiko, a migratory seabird that only breeds on Great and Little Barrier Islands in the Hauraki Gulf. There are only 1500 breeding pairs remaining and the species is in decline.
Black petrels used to be much more widespread – occurring across the North Island and even the upper South Island prior to the 1950’s, but habitat loss and predation have grossly restricted their range. They are ‘slow’ breeders producing just one egg per year from about five years of age. The parents share the incubation of the egg and care of the chick for almost six months throughout the kiwi summer and into the winter.

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