A magpie warbles behind the sheds; starlings scuffle in the box surrounding the header tank (they're nesting there, as usual). The monotonous cheep of sparrows; a whoosh of wings as a kereru swoops over the paddock where blackbirds and thrushes peer and tug at worms. Something hops on the iron roof and the dogs whine and bark. Only the kahu remains silent, floating in the early morning sky, circling over the river flats, gaining height near the edge of the terrace. The front paddock glitters with heavy dew, then, as the sun reaches down from the north-east, the sparkling dew retreats into diminishing shadows. The remains of the night vanish into the past. Conservation Week 2008 and International Rock Flipping Day have begun.
Conservation Week runs from 7–14 September but International Rock Flipping Day lasts just 24 hours — well, at least officially: any day's a good day to learn more about what lives in your back yard. Here in Aotearoa we're the first in the world to get going. It's certainly a better day for it than last year, when I checked under a few rocks in the drizzly showers, finding little other than a few harvestmen and a large ground hunting spider. Then, I'd had reservations about disturbing these small lives — I still do — but the instructions are clear: do it with care, record what you find, replace the rock gently, and try to minimise the disturbance.
Dew still saturates much of the steep, south-facing slope that drops to Te Awaoteatua stream, and the memory of last night's cold lingers along the ragged track. Amelie and I move carefully downhill over the slippery grass, checking a few promising stones, but all we find are big, fat earthworms in the sodden soil. A crane fly larva, too, but few animals are less photogenic than a round, dun maggot. It's not even spectacularly ugly, just boringly dull. Ironically, if it survives it will transform into an insect of strange and impossibly delicate beauty; this near-formless, subterranean, legless grub will become an attenuated adult, its body clearly constructed of distinct, chitin-plated parts, supported on legs far longer than its body and as fine as human hair; it will rise into the sky on long transparent wings marked with a strikingly graphic pattern of veins. New Zealand has over 550 species of crane flies (Tipulidae), some flightless, some — possibly many — still unknown to science, some predatory, some vegetarian, some large, some small. The smaller crane flies are often swatted by people who, knowing no better and unwilling to look closely, call them mosquitoes. Yet none bite or sting people.
I replace the rock gently and carry on down the slope, towards the rocks, tussocks, and rotting logs emerging into the sunlight from the shadow of the slope.
"Aren't you going to check these rocks?" Amelie calls from near the track.
" Nah, there's nothing interesting under them. Only worms and stuff. It's too wet."
" Well what about this one? It's got some lovely moss on it."
"Moss! Moss isn't an animal!"
"But it's beautiful," she says. "Look at the all the colours and textures, all these lovely details."
I, however, have reverted to the small boy mindset. Moss does not interest small boys. Things with legs, especially things that might do harm to other small things, are vastly more exciting than moss, or indeed plants in general. Plants just sit there and grow, and one cannot even see them grow. This is wrong, of course, but the selective deafness of small — and large — boys allows no argument.
"What do you hope to find down there anyway," she calls, "— a tuatara?"
"Maybe," I say, becoming stubbornly unreasonable, "or maybe a previously undiscovered population of native frogs."
Both are as likely as all the world's small boys suddenly preferring the flipping of rocks to their playstations and dreams of rockstardom — but one never knows. One must hope.
Beneath several rocks I find an earthworm, nothing, and more nothing. But, carefully easing over the next rock, I find a small, elegant spider — and a skink.
It might not be a tuatara, but it's close enough. And it's exciting enough for this small boy.
1. They're both reptiles, but while skinks are lizards, tuatara are not.
Photos (click to enlarge them):
1. Kereru, Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae, Pohangina valley.
2. The small spider, which I haven't yet identified.
3. The skink. We replaced it carefully under the rock and trust it won't be too disturbed by becoming internationally famous.
Update: Other Rock-Flipping Day Reports (check Dave's post for the most recent links):
Blaugustine (London, England); Nature Remains (Ohio, USA); Pensacola Daily Photo (Florida, USA)
KatDoc’s World (Ohio, USA); Notes from the Cloud Messenger (Ontario, Canada); Brittle Road (Dallas, Texas); Sherry Chandler (Kentucky, USA); osage + orange (Illinois, USA); Rock Paper Lizard (British Columbia, Canada); The Crafty H (Virginia, USA); Chicken Spaghetti (Connecticut, USA); A Passion for Nature (New York, USA); The Dog Geek (Virginia, USA); Blue Ridge blog (North Carolina, USA); Bug Girl’s Blog (Michigan, USA); chatoyance (Austin, Texas); Riverside Rambles (Missouri, USA); Pines Above Snow(Maryland, USA); Beth’s stories (Maine, USA); A Honey of an Anklet (Virginia, USA); Wanderin’ Weeta (British Columbia, Canada); Fate, Felicity, or Fluke (Oregon, USA); The Northwest Nature Nut (Oregon, USA); Roundrock Journal (Missouri, USA); The New Dharma Bums (California, USA); The Marvelous in Nature (Ontario, Canada); Via Negativa (Pennsylvania, USA); Mrs. Gray’s class, Beatty-Warren Middle School (Pennsylvania, USA); Cicero Sings (British Columbia, Canada); Pocahontas County Fair (West Virginia, USA); Let's Paint Nature (Illinois, USA); Sleeping in the Heartland (Midwestern U.S.); Three Oaks (Ohio USA);
Photos and words © 2008 Pete McGregor