Ghosts in my garden

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Five or six years ago I cut down a grapefruit tree in my garden. This was a little sad because blackbirds often nested in it but we didn’t eat the fruit and it was in the way. The blackbirds seem to love citrus trees and now nest in my lemon and tangelo. Anyway, the bare ground underneath grassed over and you can’t see that the tree was ever there. The story isn’t lost though: every so often a small patch of fungi appear on the lawn. I like to think of them as my grapefruit tree ghost, reminding me that grapefruit tree roots are still down there.

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Cicadas at Shakespear Park

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It’s been a long time coming this blog. I just had a look at the last time I wrote anything and it was way back in November. And it was about cicadas which I’m just going to write about now. How can I call my blog Birding Around when cicadas keep popping up!

I  talked at Shakespear Park on Sunday (at SOSSI’s monthly volunteer day for those who can’t make it on Tuesdays) about the cicada species of the area. There are ten species that I know of, which is often a surprise to people. Most of us know the large loud chorus cicada of February but not the smaller, quieter ones singing any time from mid-October through to May-June.

Until recently I only had nine species on my list but I borrowed a bat detector from a bat guy and stumbled across a new cicada for me in front of the beachfront campground at Orewa. The reason for the bat detector, and the reason I haven’t found this species before, is that the high frequency song of some of the cicadas is beyond my hearing.

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I think it’s Rhodopsalta cruentata but I need someone to check the photo and confirm this. It was singing on lupin bushes behind the dunes and kept singing even when I was very close.

Anyway, the morning at Shakespear Park was very enjoyable and we found a few of the Kikihia (Green cicadas) that some of our group hadn’t seen before. We were productive,too, in our task of weeding out a small legume which is becoming a nuisance on the back of the dunes along Te Haruhi Bay – coincidentally where R. cruentata would be found if it was present in the park.

 

First Cicada of Summer

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Summer is here. Kingfishers are calling, shining cuckoos are back, and just this week I heard the first cicada of the season. It wasn’t actually this one in the picture, it was the small grey ‘clay bank’ cicada, Notopsalta sericea, which is always the first to sing. That was on the 1st November at Shakespear Park and, looking back on my notes from previous years, this seems to be quite late for the first sericea – the earliest I’ve heard them is on 25th September at Muriwai in 2000 and usually they’ve begun to sing by mid-October.

The cicada in the photo is the sand dune cicada, Rhodopsalta leptomera, which is a very special cicada on Northland’s east coast between about Tawharanui and Shakespear Parks. Common on the west coast, this is the only place it appears on the east side of the island. It lives in the very narrow margin of sand dune vegetation between high tide and either mown/grazed grass or bush which on the inland side. In many places it has disappeared because of farm grazing or urbanisation but within the Auckland Regional Parks it seems to still be doing ok.

Gannets at Muriwai

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There aren’t many gannets at the Muriwai colony that get this kind of solitude – the rural retreat. But I guess gannets get solitude most of the year so perhaps they enjoy the bustle of the breeding colony. The noise is constant, and if you want animal behaviour it’s all here – the fighting, the courting, the mating. I saw one bird get thrown over the cliff by his opponent, but then gannets can fly!

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This is more the usual living density which looks ok on a small scale but being stuck in the middle looks a bit claustrophobic to me.

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The white-fronted terns choose to have their own spot off to one side.

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I was just pleased to see Muriwai in fine weather for a change. I had a quick explore in the bush reserve behind the houses. There’s a great short walk off Domain Crescent to a lookout which gives you fantastic views up and down the coast. And nice bush too.

Book review

I haven’t done a book review before so thought I’d give it a crack. I’ve just read The New Wild: Why Invasive Species Will Be Nature’s Salvation by UK writer Fred Pearce. Very challenging.

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Occasionally you wake from a dream unsure of details but carrying a vaguely disturbed feeling which lingers for the rest of the day. This is how The New Wild left me. And it was caused by the over-riding message in the book being completely at odds with my natural feelings; akin to being told that dropping cigarette butts out the car window is actually a good thing.

It is not cigarettes that we are being asked to accept by Pearce but the many nasty introduced life forms that are not natural wherever we live. Essentially the book’s thesis is that introduced species are not “bad” and should be accepted as new members of our ecosystems. Although some will cause havoc (eg rats in New Zealand), many will strengthen the ecosystems that we humans are battering so brutally. We can’t recreate the “old wild” and should accept and even applaud the very different “new wild”.

Many, many (too many?) examples, studies and stories are included by Pearce to illustrate the case he is making. And yet his arguments are still very elusive to me. Ironically, it feels as if scientific studies are being referenced to build an impression, a feeling, in the absence of a clearly laid out argument. And this is fine to a point because ultimately decisions concerning our environment come down to culture and emotion – there is no right or wrong answer. But it didn’t help my uneasiness.

I also felt uneasy that my country’s struggling native flora and fauna was being classed as “losers” and could be sacrificed to the future. Pearce calls for us to back the winners, those global species which can help ecosystems to fight against the ravages of humanity. It’s not exactly defined how species qualify as winners. Are rats a winner in NZ? Should we accept them? How do they help our ecosystems?

The answers to these questions escape me and I come away from reading The New Wild with far more questions than I went in with. But while Pearce doesn’t present a clear argument to support his ideas, in a funny way you find yourself doing this for him. It challenges your current thinking. If I can accept chaffinches as honorary natives (and I do), then why not the evil shiprat or Tradescantia (wandering willie)? And if I can’t accept them then what can I do about it?

Although I criticised the book at length for its repetitive use of examples in the first hundred pages,waiting for Pearce to make his point, in the end I put it in the “good read” section of my bookshelf for the challenge it gave me. And then wondered should I start pulling the Tradescantia in my garden…  or just make a cup of tea and relax.

 

Thrush and blackbird dawn chorus

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On July 12th I wrote of the song thrush beginning its dawn chorus at five to seven each morning. Slowly over the intervening six weeks that time has been pushed back, slowly at first but with gathering pace. After a couple of weeks it jumped to 6.45, then 6.35 and 6.25, seemingly in 10 minute steps. Then more quickly to where it is now at 6.10 am. Last weekend I noticed for the first time that the blackbird has joined in, dominating with its stronger, more resonant song. Blackbirds should have been singing earlier in August but this is the first I’ve heard. Now that the two are singing together it is easy to hear the difference between them.

Out of interest, sunrise on July 12 was at 7.32 am, 37 minutes after the thrush began singing. Now sunrise is at 6.46 am which is 36 minutes after the thrush and blackbird. I can’t fault the thrush on its consistency.