29 September 2008

The life of birds

LightForm VIA pair of magpies [1] flashes across the edge of the paddock, the black and white a brilliant, swift streak of contrast, of non-colour, against the dull yellowish-greens, taupes, and greys of the overcast day. The birds arc around a pair of startled lambs, veer up towards the old apple, dive behind a manuka, and disappear below the terrace. A minute later one bird reappears, flying straight over the paddock; the other follows a few seconds later.

Territorial dispute? Some kind of courtship behaviour — the male demonstrating his skill and strength at flying or the female testing it? I don't know, but the aerobatics seem no less spectacular for my ignorance. I suppose someone's studied magpie behaviour rigorously enough to say what's behind the display, but I'd rather not think about how many hours of observation must have gone into that kind of research. Watching birds — one of life's great delights — can be mind-numbingly tedious when the primary aim is to test an hypothesis.

The spectacular flight of those birds — fast, complex, apparently unpredictable — remains vivid in my memory as I think about the physics, the aerodynamics, the physiology. My personal knowledge of those matters is rudimentary but as a species we now know enough to build machines that can fly faster and higher than any bird and carry loads many orders of magnitude heavier. What we can't do, and can't come anywhere near, is build a machine even remotely as agile as a magpie, or that tui weaving now through the still leafless branches of the Robinia, or the two riroriro I saw scrapping in and above the leatherwood on Knights Track. When it comes to flight, the examples of our inadequacy are innumerable.

Perhaps one day we might be able to make something with those capabilities. But whatever the materials it will be made of, it will still be essentially an inert lump of those materials, waiting for some human to provide instructions. What it will not be is alive; what a bird has that this constructed device will not, is life.

One magpie returns, flying low over the paddock then suddenly swooping upwards to the power lines. It slows, hangs momentarily in the air and grasps the line with its feet. As it folds its wings it breaks into that joyful, ebullient, warbling song. Whatever one thinks of magpies — and that's often not an appreciative thought because of their belligerence, their propensity for attacking other birds [2] and humans (I have direct personal experience of that from just last week as I pedalled home) — one can't help admiring them. The ratbags are so magnificently alive.

1. Australian magpie, Gymnorhina tibicen. The other birds specifically mentioned (in paragraph 3) are the tui (Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae) and riroriro (grey warbler, Gerygone igata).
2. Despite popular folklore, magpies are not likely to have important effects on native birds except perhaps in a few limited situations. The folklore probably arises because magpies' interactions with other species tend to be highly conspicuous. While magpies do sometimes kill other birds, the attacks seldom result in anything more than displacing the other bird about 50–100 metres.
Innes J, Spurr E, Morgan D 2004. Magpies are not serious pests. Kararehe kino: Vertebrate pest research. Issue 4 (June 2004): 6–7. ISSN 1175–9844. Retrieved 29 September 2008 from http://www.landcareresearch.co.nz/publications/newsletters/possnews/KarareheKino4.pdf
Morgan D, Waas JR, Innes J 2006 The relative importance of Australian magpies as nest predators of rural birds in New Zealand. New Zealand journal of zoology 33: 17–29. Retrieved 29 September 2008 from http://www.royalsociety.org.nz/includes/download.aspx?ID=95100 (pdf, 440 Kb).

LightForm IV

The only good photos I have of magpies I've already posted. So, you get a tui and some play, which given the way magpies play, might not be entirely inappropriate.
1. Not a bird. An experiment with light.
2. Tui on flowering harakeke, Pohangina valley, December 2005
(click to enlarge it).
3. Another experiment with light.

Photos and words © 2008 Pete McGregor

15 September 2008


Ming, 14 September 2008

He’s twenty-one years old. He still hunts, patrols the fencelines, and is adept at extracting morsels from rubbish bags. His hearing, although not as good as it once was at recognising commands like, “Get outta there!” or “Get off the table ya mongrel!”, shows no signs of diminished ability to hear a fridge door opening or the rattle of dry cat food poured into a china bowl.

It occurs to me that Ming and I have lived in the Pohangina valley for similar periods — twenty-one years ago he was born and I moved here. Nevertheless, he’s older than me — in cat years he’s probably at least twice my age; however, I like to believe I’m wiser although I get the feeling he knows better.

I, however, drool less; unlike Ming, when I’m happy I don’t leave a zippered trail of saliva spots along the verandah. I suspect he considers this habit of his to be part of the wisdom of old age — if you’re happy, why not show it? Self-consciousness is both an indicator and a burden of immaturity, although one must be careful to distinguish lack of self-consciousness from dignity. All cats I’ve ever met have had a well-developed sense of dignity, the loss of which, however temporarily, is one of the worst disasters that can befall a cat.

Now he sits with his back to me, on the edge of the verandah in the warm evening sun, looking out over the paddock. Perhaps he’s wandering his twenty-one years’ worth of memories; perhaps he’s remembering what it felt like to be lithe and agile, the scourge of small animals and the idol of humans. More likely, he still feels that way and is simply considering whether to stalk the blackbirds tugging at worms in the paddock. Meanwhile, the dogs are going ape at something — a sheep grazing too close to the kennels, Tigger/Jimmy, 15 September 2008perhaps — but Ming couldn’t care less. He knows they’re locked up and harmless. He, on the other hand, is never locked up — locked out, perhaps, although I doubt he acknowledges it — and he’s far from harmless. The gifts he’s deposited next door have, over the years, included rabbits, full-grown rats, and even a weasel.

When I shifted to this house nine years ago he kept his distance. Both cats did, but after several years Tigger (a.k.a. Jimmy) decided I was acceptable enough to be allowed to feed him and we’ve become good friends. If the door’s open and I’m at the kitchen bench it’s not unusual for me to be startled by the bump and rub of a striped head on my calf, or even a pair of paws arriving on my thigh as he stretches up to say, “Hello; feed me; now would be good.” Ming, however, remained aloof. When I called in to collect my mail he’d crouch and glare from his position on the warm bonnet of the car — not infrequently, I add, the recently cleaned bonnet, to which the muddy paw prints added a kind of Jackson Pollock flair sadly unappreciated by its owner.

Just what finally changed his attitude towards me remains unclear, but seems to have coincided with a visit earlier this year by the attractive and otherwise-intelligent-but-cat-gullible Amelie. Seeing Ming prowling next door, she called to him. He feigned deafness but she persisted until he finally chose to exercise his right to be Minglavished with food and attention. Now, having realised that both benefits are freely available here, and the rubbish generally contains something worth checking out, he’s a frequent visitor.

He turns his head and looks at me, intuiting he’s being written about. It’s another of the infuriating set of qualities with which cats have been gifted — not only do they have an extra eight lives, they also have six, not a mere five, senses. And they know it. But as he looks at me I wonder about his gammy left eye, the iris of which looks inflamed although he seems untroubled by it and it’s not weeping. I hope it’s nothing more than the consequence of a long-healed infection. Perhaps he’s cultivating it, realising the sympathy it engenders among his admirers, or perhaps he likes the fear it strikes into those at whom he chooses to glare — rather like the Eye of Sauron.

He curls up on the verandah, absorbing the warmth from the dark wood, and closes his eyes. The fierceness softens. Twice my age, I think. I trust I’ve lived at least half as well in the last twenty-one years.

Photos (click to enlarge the smaller photos):
1, 3 . Ming.
2. Tigger/Jimmy.

Photos and words © 2008 Pete McGregor

07 September 2008

Flipping rocks

Kereru (NZ pigeon), Pohangina Valley

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 Spider, Pohangina Valley, IRFDwhat 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[1]. And it's exciting enough for this small boy.

Skink, Pohangina Valley, IRFD

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