31 December 2005

A Christmas conversation

Two kereru fly low over the paddock, a slow, powerful flight, silhouettes against a grey sky, a cool wind, traces of thin, fine hogsbacks. The weather’s on the change.

I heard small voices this evening; stepped outside onto the verandah and saw Trev walking slowly along the deck next door, ankle-tapped by two small granddaughters. He was holding a long-handled net. Kylie saw me, and jumped up and down.

“Let’s go and see Pete!” she yelled.

Olive laughed. “You’re popular tonight!” she called.

I sat on the step at the end of the verandah and listened as Kylie told me how she and Jemma were helping Granddad and Grandma vacuum the pool. “We could vacuum your verandah!” she suggested.

I asked her how her Christmas had been.

“Good,” she said, climbing over the short section of lichen-encrusted wooden fence and around the verandah post. She kept circling around it, doing laps over the fence, presumably for the enjoyment of climbing, while she diverted the conversation to favourite toys. Jemma’s, she said, was Melvin the Monkey. She went to some lengths to ensure I understood that Melvin the Monkey had come from Furniture Fair. As for her own favourite, it was a whale. Of all the sea animals, she explained, her favourite was the mermaid, but they weren’t real. Her second favourite was the whale. Hers had a captain’s hat.

“I’ve seen whales,” I told her. “Dolphins too. I’ve seen lots of dolphins.” I wondered whether she knew about dolphins.

“Bottlenose dolphins?” she asked.

“Yes, but mostly dusky dolphins, and I’ve seen the little Hector’s dolphins, the rare ones. They’re only little; they’re cute.”

We talked a bit about dolphins and whales, and about mermaids, which aren’t real. Seahorses, too—she liked seahorses. She asked how big bottlenose dolphins were, and stretched her arms wide.

“This big?”

I extended my arms. “Even bigger than this,” I said. She stood behind me and measured “bigger than this” with her own arms. She could just manage to reach past my elbows. I pointed to the gate post.

“I reckon from there to about here,” I said, pointing to a spot nearby.

“How wide are they?” she asked.

I held my hands apart, trying to estimate honestly. “Maybe this wide?”

We talked some more, and Jemma decided to join us. She padded across the stony driveway in bare feet, stopped, and pointed at the ground.

“Poo,” she said, indicating a nugget of sheep crap.

“Yeah, sheep poo,” I said.

She inspected the ground for more sheep poo, pointing out each lump and pat. Meanwhile, Kylie had realised she was supposed to be making sure Granddad and Grandma were vacuuming properly, so she ran back across the drive.

“We’ll come and see Pete again later,” she told Olive, loudly, so I could hear. I saw Olive smile.

Behind the grey and white clouds, the sky’s the most beautiful pink and mauve I can imagine.

[This is true. Some names have been changed to preserve anonymity.]

Photo 1: Kereru.
Photo 2: Hoherius meinertzhageni again. This male and female were on the underside of a lacebark (Hoheria) branch; a difficult position to photograph, but it does show how well camouflaged they are. I think the female was ovipositing.

Photos and words © 2005 Pete McGregor

29 December 2005

Christmas wildlife

We met at Deb’s for Christmas. A collection of geographical orphans, none of us where our families were: Arne, Deb, Will, Dianne, Dorothée, Yvan, Stephen, and me—as far as I’m aware, the only true orphan. At some stage during the afternoon we seated ourselves around the table and began a meal that lasted until evening. Conversations cruised around the table, bouncing back and forth, diverging, sometimes splitting, then reforming. If my memory’s accurate (a dubious assertion) I managed at one point to direct the discussion to a less lighthearted, more serious exploration, not because I wanted to depress it but purely because these were people whose thoughts I value—I wanted the the buzz, the energy of hearing intelligent, considered viewpoints. It’s one of the joys of having friends like these: people from different cultural backgrounds—on this Christmas day, from Germany, France, the UK, and Aotearoa. People who’ve seen, collectively, most of the world; from Antarctica to Zimbabwe.

At my end of the table we found ourselves discussing altruism and whether it truly exists; whether you ever do anything you don’t believe (at least subconsciously) you’ll benefit from. Will argued it is indeed real.

“Sometimes you just do things,” he said. “You don’t think about whether you’re going to get something out of it.

Dianne agreed. “If you see a child standing in the middle of the road, you don’t think about it, you just rush out and save it.”

True. But what prompts you to do that? Why don’t you think about it? I sensed the discussion was about to veer towards that impossible argument about free will, determinism, and whether—or how—you can reconcile the two, so I coaxed it back to whatever was being discussed at the other end of the table. I don’t remember what it was about at that stage, but it soon focused on dessert and whether to watch Dr Strangelove. We settled for both.

The evening finally finished about half past one in the morning. Dianne had left earlier; Stephen drove off to work (!) to change a tape for a backup that takes three days; and the rest of us retired.

I woke when the room began to lighten, recognised I’d only had about four hours’ sleep, and went back to sleep. I repeated this several times, at one stage hearing blackbirds scolding nearby, clearly agitated. I wondered vaguely whether they were mobbing the stoat Deb and Will had seen recently, but I was too tired to get up and look. I dropped off to sleep again, eventually rising some time after eight to find Deb and Will had been up for an hour or two.

We spent the rest of the morning and much of the afternoon eating, relaxing, talking, and photographing: baby blackbirds, silvereyes, Deb’s flowers, but mostly each other. Will, Arne, and Yvan decided to play petanque, so I joined them, mostly so none would feel bad about being the worst player. I succeeded admirably until I started getting the hang of it and occasionally—and briefly—lost my worst player status. I even won one round, then immediately came last in the next.

After 20 minutes or so of being thrashed at petanque, I became aware that the blackbirds were scolding again. I excused myself from the game, collected my camera and the big lens and edged carefully around to the front of the house where the birds were chink-chink-chink-ing. A thrush flew up from the ground to the top of the netting fence separating neatly mowed lawn from long grass; other birds harangued from nearby shrubs and small trees. I moved forward, slowly and quietly; raised the camera to look at the thrush through the viewfinder. As I did so, I glimpsed something flicker in the grass beneath the camellia. Something brown; another thrush, I thought. Then, no: the arc of a small, long body briefly in sunlight then gone into shadow.


While it was out of sight, I moved quickly and quietly to the fence and raised the camera, readying it. Nothing for a moment, then I saw the stoat, apparently unperturbed, looping over and through the grass. I fired a quick shot, but the stoat was mostly obscured. It flowed through the grass and up among low camellia branches. I managed another photo (blurred, as it turned out) before it dropped back to the ground and ran underneath a shrub in the corner. Easing closer, I waited for it to reappear. The birds were still agitated and calling. I kept hoping the stoat was still under the shrub and hadn’t vanished into the rank paddock on the other side. I’d almost managed a photo, but “almost” is almost the same as “not”. Frustrating. Keyed up, waiting, charged; I’d taken on some of the intensity of the small predator I was hunting.

When it emerged, it ran across the lawn in front of the harakeke. I snapped a photo; the stoat turned and ran slightly towards me, then stopped. I managed three more photos before it returned to the longer grass on the far side of the fence. It climbed a tree, snaking up into the canopy. There, it peered out, looking directly at me. I could see only its head. In the shade, there was too little light for photos, although I took several, hoping I might be lucky. The stoat looked around and opened its mouth; a gleam of tiny, white teeth; prominent canines. Who knows what the gesture meant? To me, it looked like a yawn, as if I were being told to hurry up and take my damn photos, it didn’t have all day to hang around being photographed. But it could have been defiance—stop harassing me, I have birds to kill—or perhaps it was uncertainty, indecision? I’ll never know; I can only speculate and wonder. What’s important is that, for a moment, we entered each other’s lives. We existed in each other’s consciousness. It may have been a day late, but as a Christmas present it takes some beating.

1. Stoats (Mustela erminea) were introduced into New Zealand in the 19th century to control rabbits. It didn’t work; instead, stoats are now a major threat to New Zealand’s birds. The Department of Conservation claims
about 60% of the North Island brown kiwi born are killed by stoats: about 15,000 kiwi chicks per year. That’s a lot of kiwi chicks, especially for a population currently about 70,000 but declining at almost 6% per year. It’s not just kiwi, either—as well as other birds, including kaka, mohua, and whio, stoats also eat invertebrates, including koura (freshwater crayfish) and weta. However, stoats do kill rats and mice, so removing stoats may, under some circumstances, cause rodent populations to increase—bad news for birds, plants, and invertebrates. Unfortunately, we don’t know enough about these sorts of ecological interactions to be able to exploit them for conservation ends.
2. Stoats are considered such a threat to New Zealand’s indigenous biodiversity that in 1999 the Government committed
$NZ6.6 million over 5 years to stoat research.
3. Sorry about the copyright statement on the photos, but I need to take care with these photos, as I hope they’ll supplement my microscopic income ("income" is actually a misnomer). If you want a larger, clean photo, send me an email.

Photo 1: “...the stoat turned and ran slightly towards me, then stopped.”
Photo 2: “... it ran across the lawn in front of the harakeke.”
Photo 3: “... there was too little light for photos.” In fact, I was able to salvage this: not exactly a world-beater, but you get the impression.
Photo 4: The previous evening (Christmas day), this hare (Lepus europaeus) was feeding in the paddock next to Deb’s house, seemingly not bothered by the music and activity. However, when I tried to stalk closer, it loped off, only to return later. I didn’t disturb it a second time; I like hares, and harassing this one—especially on Christmas day—seemed like a mean thing to do.

Photos and words © 2005 Pete McGregor

21 December 2005

At home with the dragon

Sometimes I’m consumed by restlessness; a nomad’s need to be moving on; the disquiet of being fixed to a place. This usually happens after reading an evocative book about somewhere I haven’t been, or watching a well-presented documentary: something that shows me places, things, birds, animals, landscapes, people—environments, I suppose—new to me. The feeling is summed up by Bruce Chatwin at his best, describing a conversation with a tramp:
He then said, slowly, and with great seriousness:
‘It’s like the tides was pulling you along the highway. I’m like the Arctic tern, guv’nor. That’s a bird. A beautiful white bird what flies from the North Pole to the South Pole and back again.’”[1]

Sometimes I sit on the verandah watching swallows flicker across an apocalyptic sky, everything dark and angry and the paddock and the terrace-edge trees saturated with stormlight; a korimako[2] rushes across the field in front of me to the harakeke[3] and methodically checks every flower, drinking from each one on the long stalks; the pups emerge from under the house and drift through the short, seeding grass, noses down, checking what’s been there, seeking something stinky to roll in, tails in the air so I’m presented with three arseholes to improve the view; or I get home, tired, and settle down with a glass of wine, slices of crisp apple, and a nice bit of cheese—these things, a million more, and there’s no need to be anywhere else. This feeling is summed up exquisitely by Peter Matthiessen:

The great Zen Buddhist teacher Eihei Dogen said, ‘Why leave behind the seat that exists in your own home and go off aimlessly to the dusty realms of other lands? Do not be afraid of the true dragon.’ The dragon is the buddha nature, the essence of existence, which is everywhere. You don't have to go anywhere to find it, it's right here, right now. Once you have that sense of life, it doesn't matter where you are. You're always home.”

They seem to be different—poles apart, you might say. Are they?

I walked down the road in the warm evening, in the shadowless, dull light of a nor’wester that hadn’t quite arrived. There wasn’t the slightest breath of wind. For some reason the deer seemed unperturbed although they clearly knew I was there; a few watched me walk by but seemed content to sit chewing their cud. Three fawns now—when they tuck themselves up on the ground they can vanish in grass so short you could see a lizard running. It’s only when they lift their heads that you see them. I have no idea how they manage it. In the hills they’d be utterly invisible.

As I strode down through the cutting I felt fit and lean and strong, the feel of the clean cotton shirt loose and warm, a kind of kinaesthesis making me aware of my whole body. I felt energised; picking a large rock from the road where it had come to rest after falling from the cliff, I heaved it shotput style to the far side of the road. It flew so far through the air that I startled myself.

The sky continued to thicken and grow denser with grey cloud. A few spots of light rain touched my face, and I looked up to see a strange sight. Two swans flying up the valley. They passed almost overhead, silent, methodical; long straight necks stretching towards a destination. I’ve never seen swans in the valley before.

I walked on, past the bulls in the paddock by the bridge. Like the deer, they seemed unconcerned. I walked past one, almost within arm’s length; he lifted his head, momentarily stopped chewing while he inspected me, then continued hauling in the grass that hung from his muzzle like noodles. Beyond the bridge, the sporadic spots of rain became more frequent; a light, sparse, spitting drizzle not yet capable of wetting anything. I turned and began walking back, knowing the inevitable—that it would gradually become denser, heavier, wetter. A ute[4] with a dog on the back passed me and turned into the bull paddock. I realised then—I have no idea what led me to the thought—that I feel most at home where the qualities of wildness, possibility, uncertainty, and complexity are strongest; in places that might be described as ramshackle, rundown, untidy. Conversely, I understood that I have a horror of perfectly neat, tidy, trimmed, organised places—weed-free pastures, well-tensioned fences, freshly-painted buildings; places that people call efficient and productive but I call sterile and exclusive; places with characteristics that say, “I own this, I look after it, keep off, keep out, there’s no place for you, don’t trespass.”

So you go somewhere else; you keep moving, like the tides was pulling you along the highway. Then you feel at home.

[1] On page 310 of The Songlines (1987); London, Picador. 325 p. ISBN 0 330 30082 2.
[2] Anthornis melanura; the bellbird.
[3] Phormium tenax; the New Zealand flax.
[4] In New Zealand idiom, a ute is a pickup truck. It’s derived from “utility vehicle”.

Photo 1: The damselfly Austrolestes colensonis. This is a male. Damselflies and dragonflies comprise the Order Odonata.
Photo 2: ditto.
Photo 3: The mason wasp (usually referred to as the mason bee, but it's a sphecid wasp), Pison spinolae. They're everywhere at the moment, packing spiders into clay cells wherever they can find a suitable crevice. I liberated this one from the laundry windowsill.

Photos and words copyright 2005 Pete McGregor

16 December 2005

A nice day...

I woke suddenly in the wee hours of a hot, humid night, startled by the roar of the house shuddering about me. Instinct told me to throw back the covers, roll out of bed, and hit the floor, but some other part of my brain—the sensible cortex, perhaps—refused to wake. I lay there, the usual earthquake thoughts rolling through my semi-consciousness: how long will it last, how big will it be, should I take cover, is Wellington a pile of rubble? Eventually it stopped. I looked at the clock—2:57 a.m.—and went back to sleep.

The ‘quake was centred about 50km away and 25 km deep; 5 on the Richter scale. Wellington wasn’t a pile of rubble and National Radio even appeared unaware the ‘quake had happened. Here in Aotearoa, on the Pacific rim of fire, you get used to earthquakes. From an early age you’re taught what to do—stand in a doorway, get under a table, and so on—but after years of surviving them and having nothing actually falling on you, you become complacent. You know what you should do, but when it requires getting out of bed you lie there instead, trying to decide just how bad it has to get before you move. It’s as if the land has been crying “Wolf!” all your life.

But one day we’ll get the big one.

At breakfast I listened to Jakob’s Subsets of Sets, compelled by the title of the brilliant 3rd track: “Nice day for an earthquake”. The day had an oppressive, brooding feel; a sense of tension; of something about to happen. If anything, the humidity had increased despite a hot, blustery wind from the North-East. I kept expecting a storm, another earthquake, maybe an eruption from Ruapehu or Ngauruhoe; but the sky remained quiet and strewn with patternless cloud, the ground remained firm and immobile beneath my feet, and Ruapehu, according to the GNS website, was doing nothing more than simmer at level 1. By mid afternoon I’d decided to release some of my own tension, so I wheeled the mountainbike out and set off for No. 2 Line.

I’d expected to feel exhausted, enervated by the weather, but the feel of doing something physical and energetic revitalised me. I won’t say I raced up the steep and dusty gravel road—I was less like a racing sardine than a jogging flounder (a floundering jogger?)—but a steady effort took me to the end of the road without shattering me. From the end of the road I could see out across the Pohangina Valley and over the hill country towards Wanganui; South to the Tararua; North along the line of the Ruahine to the Ngamoko Range where the tops were hidden by cloud rolling over from the East and dissolving down deep gullies, silhouetting ridgelines. In the West, at last, a thunderstorm had formed over the hills, its borders hazy with dark rain, its upper region a mountain of wild, white and black and grey cumulus. I released the brakes and began the descent. No more floundering; now I felt even quicker than that racing sardine, maybe even as fast as a Pohangina Valley blowfly. It’s one of the most accessible ways to get a buzz—powering down a gravel road on a mountainbike on the edge of control, eyes showing more white than a hard-boiled egg, imagination switched off, and the smell of fear in your nostrils after you feel the back wheel twitch on a bend. Despite the wind generated by my speed, I could still feel the nor’easter’s buffeting. I shot around a corner, lifted my head slightly to check the road and BANG!—the wind tore the sun visor from my helmet. Bummer. By the time I’d managed to stop, I was faced with an unwelcome grind back up the road to retrieve it. More exercise than I’d intended, but I’m sure it did me good. It also gave me the opportunity to realise there was a truck speeding up the single lane road.

The highlight of the ride came as I accelerated up out of a dip in the road and rounded a bend where the road levels off for a short way. Up ahead, something crossed the road. Lithe, quick, a ripple of agile energy—then another, a body’s length behind the first. Stoats! A few seconds’ glimpse, then they were gone, vanished into the long, wind-whipped grass on the roadside. I pulled up, swung off the saddle and peered into the dense grass; scanned the close-cropped paddock on the other side of the fence. A sheep stared back at me. Distant thunder growled, a long rumble reverberating around the valley. The image of the stoats seemed to fit the sound—intensely charged and ephemeral, like a strange form of lightning. Nothing moved other than the grasses. No sign of stoats.

I drove into town that evening. Beyond Ashhurst I saw railway lines, deeply rusted but, on top, polished clean and gleaming, forming perfect lines of light; sunlight through the shimmer of a starling’s wings as it arced away from the car. I returned after dark, late, with the headlight beams full of erratic moths and wisps and ghosts of mist rising from the warm tarmac. A bird rose from the side of the road, straight up and into darkness. Over everything—the valley, the Ruahine, the western hills, to every horizon—long clouds stretched in moonlight. Pure drama; the essence of legend. A nice day for an earthquake.

Photo 1: Inspired by the Urban Dragon Hunters, I fossicked through some old photos and found some I'd taken last year at little tarn on the summit of the Ngamoko Range. These are Austrolestes colensonis.
Photo 2: ...and these are Xanthocnemis zealandica.
Photo 3: Thundercloud and rain, Pohangina Valley.

Photos and words copyright 2005 Pete McGregor

12 December 2005

We save the world (tomorrow)

This is mostly true. If it were to be filmed, it would be called a dramatised documentary, or “based on true events” (and possibly many other things also—“dog’s breakfast” springs to mind). The names of the characters have been changed, but I am me. Some of the conversation actually occurred.

Pubs are where the world’s problems are solved1. At the Celtic on Tuesday evening we addressed the problem of how to save the world: an exploration of the question, “What on Earth makes us act in ways that will ruin it?”

It had begun with the assertion that because we know we’re going to die—and (relatively speaking) soon—only altruistic people give a toss about securing a reasonable future; in other words, because our actions are so far removed from their consequences, we’re mostly free to act irresponsibly.

“Perhaps,” I argued, “if we thought we weren’t going to die—if we thought we’d live indefinitely—we’d look after the planet much better.”

There was general agreement that we were all going to die.

“Not me,” I said, “I’m not.”

Art looked at me, his expression half amused, half scared. “Everyone’s going to die,” he said.

“Prove it.” I could say this confidently, knowing his veganism prevented the taking of life—mine at least, I hoped. “Just because 99 point something of the world’s humans have died doesn’t prove I’m going to. It’s inductive reasoning. Besides, look at all these people,” I said, gesturing at the other patrons and passers-by. “They’re not dead.”

“You’re in denial. You’re afraid of dying.”

To avoid the accusation of inductive reasoning, I resorted instead to wild, sweeping generalisations. “Most people are afraid of dying,” I said.

Wal disagreed. “No,” he said, “most people are afraid of living.”

He went on to explain how most of us live half afraid, insecure, not pursuing our passions. Not taking risks. Not living. But, although he had disagreed, there was no real contradiction. People can be afraid of dying and also afraid of living. I suspect they’re afraid of living because it’s risky and they’re scared it might kill them.

By now some of my friends were laughing nervously and studying their beers. Dee, however, was interested in the original proposition and wasn’t put off that easily. She’d seen a flaw in my argument. “ What about your kids?” she said, referring to children as a concept rather than as real individuals—the fleeting wish of harassed parents the world over. “People do things so their kids will have a good place to live.”

“The time frame’s too long,” I said, although I didn’t believe it, “and you have to imagine the consequences vividly enough to want to save your kids from them, but most people,”—that incomparably useful generalisation—“have no imagination.”

There was general disagreement that people in general have no imagination.

A boy racer prowled past, panels pulsing, neons glowing. He changed gears—a sound like glass being smashed—and accelerated down the street in a squeal of tyres.

“There, see?” I said, “—no imagination. He can’t imagine the consequences of driving like that.”

“Inductive reasoning,” Art said, “—generalising from one kid to everyone. Your argument’s shit. Most people have some imagination.”

I had to admit it was true—my argument was shit. “But the principle’s true. If he can’t imagine ending up like train smash even when he’s driving like that, how seriously will he think about the consequences for his kids?”

“Maybe if he had kids he’d think about it?” Dee suggested. “He might drive more responsibly, too.”

“There’s an idea,” Andrew said. “Perhaps we could save the planet by encouraging everyone to have more kids?”

There was general agreement that his proposition was flawed.

I thought about Dee’s argument. Perhaps she had a point. When you have kids, you’re more likely to consider the consequences of your actions—at least, I imagine this is what happens. But even then, so many consequences seem remote, abstract, doubtful: faced with the immediate, definite fallout of forgetting to buy batteries for the animatronic Christmas raptor, a special trip to town in the SUV means nothing.

“Immediacy always trumps consequence,” I said, out loud, ending the conversation. We walked across the road to the Downtown complex to watch Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, a long film rescued by its humour.


I stopped at the gate and got out to open it. The half moon hung bright in an almost perfect sky; a few tatters of luminous cloud glowed along the Ruahine; the night glittered with stars. Despite the steady murmur of the idling engine, a deep silence infused everything—the clang of the metal tubing gate, the hack of a coughing sheep, the slam of a door in the distance: those brief sounds accentuated rather than diminished the silence. I paused, looked up at the immense sky and across to the faint shapes of deer moving in moonlight. What would all this be like a hundred years from now? What will our children see? Where will they find wildness?

I parked the car and walked across to the back door, trying to remember where the puppy shit was so I didn’t step on it. A ruru began calling. It sounded like a message from the present, to the unknowable future.

1 I was going to add, “...and cafes”, but then realised it’s not true. Cafes are where the world’s problems are generated. They’re where we buy coffee, thus supporting the giant pesticide corporations and compounding the problems of the desperately exploited people who grow the beans; they’re where we eat cake and cultivate obesity; they’re where we incubate our affluenza.

Photo 1: Yes, I have a new set of neighbours. Three, in fact. Here are two.
Photo 2: Possibly my favourite... but they're working dogs, not pets [sigh]...
Photo 3: Southern hemisphere half moon. If you're in the northern hemisphere, have a look at the moon one night and see if you can spot the difference.
Photo 4: If your monitor's brightness is set too low, this might be a bit hard to appreciate. As with all the photos, click on it to get a larger view.

Photos and words copyright 2005 Pete McGregor

08 December 2005

Bird. Life.

The sparrows are copulating on the gate again. They’ve been at it a lot lately; momentary cloacal conjunctions punctuating the daily grind of collecting dry grass, poplar fluff, shed feathers, and dog hairs for the nest. It’s a tough life being a sparrow—even the matings are so quick it’s inconceivable (if that’s the right word) that they can enjoy it. Must be more like a duty: “Dang, there she is again, better get on with it,” or, “Bugger, it’s him again, guess I should assume the position.” Two seconds later, a bit of feather ruffling and it’s back to the dog hairs.

Meanwhile, the sun’s just 20 minutes above the horizon. Corridors of light slip through gaps in the terrace-edge vegetation to slide across the evening paddock; shadows creep out from under the mahoe, the lacebark, the dense tangle of native passionflower1, the kennels. The blackbird’s still working hard out there, foraging for worms, pursued by his fully fledged brood. They should be quite capable of finding their own tucker, but instead they’re just a few hops behind him: “Feed me!! Feed me!!” The poor old guy’s looking utterly frazzled, scrawny-necked and almost bald; looks as if he’s on chemo but he’s still going hard out. It’s that irresistible imperative: reproduce!—even if it kills you.

Through binoculars I watch a kereru2 drink from the stock trough then rise with powerful wing strokes, sweep around and alight next to a slightly smaller, slimmer bird. He—I assume he’s a him, and I’m probably right—shuffles along the branch until he’s almost touching the other bird. He dips his beak to his chest, pulls his head back, and fluffs every feather on his body and shivers. It looks as if those berries he ate have exploded inside him, but I suspect what’s on his mind is something quite different from indigestion.

She edges away and drops to a lower branch, out of sight. The sun’s about to drop out of sight too; it’s left the paddock, but while there’s a little light left the blackbird family still fossicks among the wiry, seeding grasses. The breeze is cold, so I go inside, thinking about birds and families; imperatives and responsibilities. I’m glad I’m not like that harrassed blackbird. I’m not yet ready to be bald.

1 Passiflora tetrandra; kohia.

2 You should know this bird by now. Here’s the latest photo; and one from Kapiti Island. All right, for good measure, another from Kapiti.

Photo 1: This is NZ's endemic tui, Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae. The background tree is the introduced black locust, Robinia pseudoacacia.
Photo 2: Kohia flower (see footnote 1). It's just over 1 cm diameter.
Photo 3: We had another thunderstorm a couple of days ago. The rain obscured most details, creating a beautiful aerial perspective on the far side of the valley. [Disclosure for the pixel pedants and grain gurus—I've added the noise].

Photos and words copyright 2005 Pete McGregor

02 December 2005

Small is beautiful

Small things tend to go unnoticed—it’s hardly surprising, and there must be innumerable reasons for it. However, I suspect one major reason is simply that paying attention to tiny things requires more effort. Sometimes, considerable effort. Take this little beetle as an example. He’s about the size of a match head, but not as fat, and with those colours and bumps he’d be pretty difficult to spot on the bark of a tree. In fact, you’d have to inspect a lot of bark, very closely, to find one of these, and all that inspecting would require a lot of effort and would necessarily be at the expense of other things—possibly more important things, like enjoying the sun on the verandah in the evening while eating a nice bit of cheese, or whatever else you might consider more important than searching for Hoherius meinertzhageni. Actually, it’d be much easier to find his name than him—it’s about 10–15 times longer than he is, and would stand out much better against the bark1.

Yes, that’s him—and yes, he is a male: you can tell because he has a big head. The females are much more normal. Don’t ask me why the males have those huge2, flattened, whitish heads; I could speculate indefinitely but testing all those hypotheses would interfere even more with eating cheese on the verandah (for example), and as far as I know, no one knows. In fact, the sum of knowledge about H. meinertzhageni is largely included in Bev Holloway’s monograph on the New Zealand Anthribidae3. It’s not a lot, but at least it tells you you’re likely to be wasting your time looking for H. meinertzhageni on anything but plants belonging to the mallow family4, which makes it all the more surprising that I found this individual on the curtain in my laundry. I suspect it arrived from one of the lacebarks (Hoheria sp.) growing nearby.

Now, I’m sure many people would have either ignored the small speck on the curtain or reached for the flyspray, but my years of entomological training prompted me to look closer. On realising I had a live, male H. meinertzhageni loose in my house, I decided to try for a photo, so I found the nearest handy container (which had contained leftover lasagne but was now, surprisingly, washed and spotless) and after a careful stalk, captured him. I was determined not to repeat the same, shameful mistake I’d made with the weta, so I set up the camera, attempted a few photos, then left him with a sprig of freshly clipped lacebark for an hour or two before experimenting with a few more photos. Having confined him for long enough, I took him outside and watched as he cleaned his antennae, turned a couple of circles then took to the air. He disappeared from view within a few seconds, but when I last saw him he was heading for the bush on the edge of the terrace.

Many years ago I would probably have killed him, glued him to a triangle of card, and pinned the arrangement into a box with a label. The specimen (that’s what he would then have been called) might or might not have added an infinitesimal amount to our store of scientific knowledge. But it’s been years since I’ve felt like collecting insects, and seeing him fly off like that, I felt an enormous sense of delight. He may have been tiny, and the noticing and photographing may have required effort, but the reward has been immense. Good luck, little fella.

Now, where’s that nice bit of cheese...

1 Hoherius meinertzhageni was originally called Proscoporhinus albifrons—which would be even harder to spot against the bark, as it’s very slightly shorter (if the fount’s the same).

2 Relatively speaking. A millimetre wide isn’t usually considered enormous.

3 Holloway BA 1982. Anthribidae (Insecta: Coleptera). Fauna of New Zealand 3. Lincoln, NZ, Manaaki Whenua Press. 272 p. ISBN 0-477-06703-4.

4 "Hoherius meinertzhageni has been reared only from endemic Malvaceae" (Holloway 1982). However, I’ve found adults on the introduced (i.e. not native) mallow Lavatera trimestris. As far as I’m aware, this has not been recorded in the scientific literature, nor any other published literature, until now.

Photo 1: That's him.
Photo 2: Morning grass, Pohangina Valley.

Photos and words copyright 2005 Pete McGregor