Thursday 29 December 2011

Container shopping mall, Christchurch

Christchurch, South Island, New Zealand

One of the must-see things in Christchurch for us was the Cashel Mall which was badly affected by the February earthquake. We had heard that it was now a thriving mall; a unique rebirth in a city which has suffered so much. Since October it has been operating from containers. All kinds of shops, banks and cafes have sprung up. Their surroundings have been landscaped and even the seagulls have moved in.

Coffee shop

I've taken a lot more pictures, they can be viewed here.
Links for press news about this unique mall: 
PS: we were in Christchurch only 2 nights and experienced no tremors, but since then there has been some very bad nerve wracking pre-Christmas quakes. If you like, you could follow them up in this excellent site

New Zealand bellbird

Little Paradise Lodge, Mount Creighton, South Island

In NZ as in Australia bellbirds are more often heard than seen. There is only one bellbird in NZ and to complicate things, the tuis sometimes imitate them.

Bellbird Anthornis melanura perched on a bird feeder
This picture was taken from inside the Little Paradise Lodge when it was raining! We chanced upon the lodge as the weather broke and were very glad to have found it; we were going camping in Glenorchy.
The hosts have set up some bird feeders with sugared water, so one can see tuis and the more elusive bellbirds from the kitchen window! A very clever idea in a country which has nectaring birds.
There were lots and lots of clever ideas in this amazing place, inside the house anywhere you turned there was a work of art. Be it on the walls, ceilings, doors, floors, etc. Unbelievable.
Outside there was a profusion of flowers, sculptures, ponds and discourses on overpopulation. There was tremendous creativity coupled with fantastic hospitality and a wonderful Thai chicken curry cooked at the drop of a hat. When we left the next morning our car was covered with rose petals.
 For a view of some of the pictures that I've taken of this extraordinary place, click here.

Tuesday 27 December 2011

Kea, the alpine parrot

Fox Glacier, Westland National Park, South Island, New Zealand

Keas Nestor notabilis were one of New Zealand birds that I very much wanted to see in the wild. Campsites and car parks are full of notices about not feeding the wildlife and that includes keas. We have even stayed at the Kea campground in Mt Cook, no luck!
But when I was preparing a packed lunch out of the car boot in the Fox Glacier car park, David came round rather excited: there was a kea around. Perhaps it had smelled our food? Anyway, I dropped everything and grabbed the camera. Below is the result of my efforts.
Kea strutting rather fast

 To my surprise it was rather fast. Keas are rather mischievous too. Their feathers are a rather dull colour for a parrot, but when they fly they show some beautiful orange feathers and I'm yet to see that.
Side view showing its parroty beak
Also the characteristic 2 toes at the front, 2 toes at the back. 

Then it went on top of a rock for a nice pose

Note the rings in both legs. Keas are being heavily monitored, their numbers came dangerously low for various reasons. For more see

PS: we did not give it any food, nor did any of the other delighted tourists!

Monday 26 December 2011

Nectaring tuis

Te Anau, South Island, New Zealand

Here I’ve already shown you a couple of nectaring birds: sunbirds in South Africa and a wattlebird in Western Australia. On this trip I’ve been particularly interested in these birds because in the UK there are no birds that feed on nectar; correct me if I’m wrong.

Tuis Prosthemadera novaeseelandiae are one of New Zealand nectaring birds. They are more often heard than seen; their song is very melodic and varies a great deal.
So hearing a tui, or seeing one, is a real pleasure and there were lots of them at Te Anau. They are very acrobatic and you need to be at the right place the right time. The photos below were selected from around 100 shots!

Tui on a flax flower stem
They have a very characteristic lacy collar; otherwise they could almost be mistaken for a blackbird except for their behaviour and feeding habits. In case you didn’t know, there are masses of blackbirds, thrushes, chaffinches, sparrows and starlings all over NZ. Tuis together with the bellbirds are perhaps the NZ birds that has escaped the onslaught  of a number of catastrophic introduced species. The flightless ones have suffered most and in order to see them one has to go to bird sanctuaries or the like.

Tui nectaring on a flax flower
They arrive at a flowering flax plant and quickly work up and down the stems. In the process they pollinate the flowers.
They aren’t entirely black and the photo below illustrates that: lovely bluish-purple and bronze iridescent sheen feathers; bits of white too.

Tui nectaring lower down a flax stem
They also feed on insects and seeds.

Flax Phormium sp. plants are widespread in New Zealand, sometimes they cover huge areas. The Maoris used them for clothing and other domestic things, then the settlers also used them, mostly for ropes. 

Saturday 24 December 2011

Carnivorous plants in Fiordland National Park

Kepler Track, Fiordland NP, South Island, New Zealand

The bog area near Moturau Lake had a couple of display boards. In one of them it showed 3 sundew species: Drosera arcturi, D. spathulata and D. binata.  I had a good look around but found only the last two. The first one was D. spatulata, yes, the accepted spelling seems to be this one. I had already found it in Tongariro NP, on dark soil, but here was growing surrounded by moss.

Drosera spatulata surrounded by moss
Note the spoon shaped leaves and the tall flower stalks. Carnivorous plants bloom well away from their leaves, they do not want to trap their pollinators.

The other sundew was D. binata known as the fork-leaved sundew. It grew in small groups on the moss.

Fork-leaved sundew D. binata
Note that the central plant has a leaf with a freshly trapped green insect, other leaves have dark remains of previous meals, perhaps to be digested further.  

There were some intriguing little blue flowers sometimes in clusters which were also growing on a long stalk on the moss. They were rather difficult to photograph, below is my best attempt.

Delicate blue flower on a slender stalk
It looks as if there was another flower in the other stem....
At first I thought that this might be the blue orchid shown in the notice board, even though it did not look like an orchid flower to me.
I found out what it was purely by accident. When I was reading in Wikipedia about D. arcturi, the sundew that I didn't manage to spot, I read that "In New Zealand, D. arcturi is often found growing in clumps alongside Utricularia dichotoma.", I clicked on the button and out came this flower. I could not have been more thrilled with this coincidence.Very exciting!
As it turns out there was yet more to learn. I had come across a terrestrial bladderwort, a plant with very sophisticated bladders in their roots which catch small organisms that happen to pass by. Most bladderworts are aquatic plants but this one was growing in a very wet place, a slight transition perhaps?
For more about the mechanism of their bladders here is an excellent page    
It is just a shame that I never found D. arcturi, but it was an amazing swamp! 

Friday 16 December 2011

New Zealand Christmas tree

Auckland Airport, North Island, New Zealand

New Zealand Christmas tree in bloom
These pictures were the first that I took of a NZ Christmas tree, it was the day after we arrived, in a very high wind. The tree was just coming into bloom.
Unfortunately, it was also the last time, and as we are now in the south the chances that I will be able to show you some decent pictures by Christmas are rather slim and I regret this very badly because I wanted it to be our e-card. Apologies!  

Here this tree is known by its Maori name, Pohutukava. There is a certain pride in using the Maori names for a lot of wildlife and other things too. The Department of Conservation gives a very strong example.

Pohutukawa is considered one of most magnificent flowering NZ trees, it grows along the coastlines of North Island where we did see some near Tutukaka but they weren’t yet in bloom. However, it is also widely grown in urban spaces, indeed as it has a lovely round shape and when in bloom is spectacularly covered with red flowers.
Its scientific name is Metrosideros excelsa, it belongs to the same family as eucalyptus trees, the Myrtaceae. Indeed the flowers open up just like the widely planted bottlebrush shrubs Callistemon and I was able to capture that.

As you can see it has nothing to do with the Christmas trees that we take for granted, they are all conifers.

There is also an Australian Christmas tree Nuytsia floribunda, it has yellow flowers. This tree is rather strange though, it grows on other trees, a hemiparasite.

Australian Christmas tree flowers
Again, this tree was just coming into bloom in the Perth area in early November soon after we arrived. Perhaps I will be able to see some still in Sydney in January? 

As for originality, one can’t beat the South Africans who use the very tall spent inflorescence of the agave plants, a tropical American native plant that is now well established in that part of the world, and other placers as well, for instance Portugal.  It has ideally spaced branches to hang things, rather stark and effective. 

Mount Cook flowers

Aoraki/Mount Cook National Park, South Island, New Zealand

After showing you a glut of lupins I thought that it was about time that you saw a couple of native flowers.
To see them we had to go up a National Park, starting from ~760 m above sea level, and to put you in the picture I’m also going to show you some views of a mighty mountain.
Pre-breakfast view of Mt Cook from the village
Mount Cook at 3755 m is the tallest peak in Australasia.
After breakfast we moved from the very pricey Alpine Lodge and set up camp at the DOC White Horse Hill Campsite. Then we went on the Hooker Valley Track, a very popular walk, loads of hikers.

Hikers on the trail, Mt Sefton is on the background
About a third of the way up the trail, there were lots of Mount Cook buttercup Ranunculus lyalii plants, some of them in bloom. It is the flagship flower for the National Park and used to be known incorrectly as the Mount Cook lily, but you can see in the photos below that it has very buttercuppery leaves. The flowers are rather similar to the Japanese anemones, except that they are always white.

Perfectly opened flowers

Flowers frayed by the wind, note the large glossy leaves 

The other interesting plant in bloom on the trail was the large mountain daisy Celmisia semicordata; it is also white but its leaves were not soft at all, instead they rather stiff, downy and sharply pointed. I thought that they were a really beautiful grey.

Mountain daisy plant with lots of flower buds

Tiny bee on a large mountain daisy flower
It was really nice to see a few tiny bees pollinating these daisies. Another native species, I wonder? So far, we have seen honey bees and large white tailed bumble bees, both imported species.

In all, it was a very successful walk in spite of the fact that I started it off with a blister and it got much worse... The view of Mt Cook from the campsite was stunning.

Mt Cook at sunset from the campsite.
Alas, it started raining non-stop from 1 am and we saw it no longer. We left the camp absolutely drenched but with no regrets.  

Saturday 10 December 2011

Lupins galore

Lake Tekapo, Mackenzie Country, South Island, New Zealand

Our first view of turquoise Lake Tekapo was soon after Burke’s Pass, ~500 m. We were in picture postcard territory but what interested me were the lupins by the roadside; the rest of the country is either pasture fields or conifer plantations. By the time we arrived at our Holiday Park by the lake shore the lupins Lupinus polyphyllus had come down from the slopes right to the lake’s shore.

Absolutely amazing display of colour predominantly purple and deep blue, but pink, brown, yellow and white flowers were also there. Sweet scent. What a view for breakfast!

Lake Tekapo view from the campsite

I wasn’t the only tourist out with a camera...

Boys jumping for joy
This picture was taken along the path to the village which was bordered not just with lupins but with other garden escapes like the Californian poppy Eschscholzia californica. Both plants are mentioned as baddies in a little booklet that I’ve been given by the Department of Conservation: PLANT ME INSTEAD! Published by Weedbusters, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-9582844-1-7
There it says that both garden escapes invade river systems and destroy nesting sites for some endangered native birds.   

Plants growing by the lake shore
On the picture above one can see clearly how they have established themselves on the lake’s shingle shore. Indeed a very successful colonization. Just think how difficult it would have been if one had wanted to start a garden in just a place! 

By the village it seems that they are trying hard by landscaping with native plants.

Tussock grasses in the background, lupins in the foreground

Closer view of native tussock grasses vs lupins. And birch trees
Which one would you have?
According to someone we talked to, the locals like the lupins. They even export the seeds; but in conservation areas they are sprayed. 
Other naturalised plants we have seen: verbascum, thistles, viper's bulgloss, lots of yellow daisies, broom, various grasses, pine trees, larch, sycamore, willow, birches, flowering plums, etc.
Just guess about the birds? Well, blackbirds, thrushes, sparrows, chaffinches and even skylarks are filling the skies with their song. I must say, I find all this a bit disconcerting.     

Wednesday 7 December 2011

Sundews in Tongariro National Park

Tongariro National Park, North Island, New Zealand

We stayed in this national park a few days. As soon as we arrived I found sundews at the back of Skotel, in a very wet place; then in the Taranaki Falls track. Both places were above the tree line in an alpine environment, over 1,000 metres above sea level.

A lovely carpet of Drosera spatulata on dark volcanic soil
Literally the spoon shaped Drosera. It was just about coming into bloom, the flower stalks are those blobs at the centre.
I was delighted with this find, it added to my sundew experience during this trip. By now I knew where to look. See my posts in South Africa and Western Australia.

Tuesday 6 December 2011

Umbrella fern

Tongariro National Park, North Island. New Zealand

The tree ferns in NZ are absolutely spectacular, indeed a silver fern leaf is the national emblem. However, here I'm going to show you how a relatively small humble fern unfurls itself.
The umbrella fern Sticherus cunninghamii grows only up to 50 cm up in montane areas, forms dense mats and it unfurls itself most gracefully.  I loved its striking symmetry and took lots of pictures. Below is one of my collages ending with a photo of the final fronds.

Stages of unfurling leaves of the umbrella fern
As you can expect the tree ferns are much bigger, in fact rather majestic. I've been collecting some pictures  and plan to show you some in the future.

Friday 2 December 2011

Huhu bug

Te Aroha, North Island, NZ

Female huhu beetle Prionoplus reticularis, body length 4-5 cm
Early in the morning I found this enormous beetle on the wall outside the Ladies in our Holiday Park where we were camping.
Then I showed it to the campsite owner who was doing her rounds; to my surprise she promptly scooped it with a rug and told me: "It is a huhu bug. People don't like to see them, they can nip you... Please, put it in the bush".
Not me! I took it to a place by our tent and showed it around. Everybody was delighted to see it. All the while it hardly moved, so I took some more shots. Below  is a close up of its biting mouth parts.

Head of the huhu bug
Then I found out that it is New Zealand's largest beetle, it is a member of the longhorn beetle family (Cerambycidae). The females have antennae longer than their bodies, easier to sex. The larvae develop in wood, a saproxylic species!

The story goes that the Maoris ate their larvae... Rather a tasty morsel as they can reach a fair size.  Huhu is the Maori name for both larvae and adult. For more see

A very nice find indeed! I'm yet to see a weta, another NZ speciality... I will certainly keep you posted if I do ;-)

Thursday 1 December 2011

Stranded violet sea snails and other curiosities

Muriwai Beach, North Island, New Zealand

Muriwai beach is just north of the Takapu gannet colony and as it had a motor camp right by it  we decided to stay in spite of the high winds.
This black sand beach goes on for many kilometres is popular with wind surfers in all weathers. Indeed there were many doing amazing acrobatic jumps. At the same time I was keeping an eye on what was on the sand; after a while I realised that I was seeing violet sea snail shells which seemed to be alive.
The first time that I saw them it was after a storm on the Carrapateira beach, Parque Natural do Sudoeste Alentejano, Portugal, back in 2006. Then there were many rather small violet snail shells plus the remains of the by-the-wind sailors Velella velella and I just took a couple of pictures. Now that I had my chance to see them again I was positively ecstatic.

From the left, a couple of violet sea snails, one mystery white curled mollusc* and one by-the-wind sailor
* Thanks to the help of  Shaun Tamblyn I now know that this shell is known as Spirula. It is the the internal shell of the ram's horn squid. It is commonly found in the Western coast of Australia and New Zealand and I can attest to that! Fascinating! This shell must have hung around a while because it had barnacles growing on it. 

The bigger snails had a very 'bubbly foot' and quite a few hitchhikers, identical to the ones growing on the spiral shell, some kind of barnacle [?]. The 'bubbly foot' is a raft that allows them to float. Apparently,  the mucus used to produce the bubbles seems to be chemically stabilized so that it is long-lived and the bubbles do not burst. If they did the snail would sink and die. They are also blind.
They probably float upside down, thus the lighter colour is below, and that is also where the hitchhikers position themselves.

A couple of live violet sea snails showing that the spiral side is lighter 

Close up of a large violet snail

The beauty of this is that their shell has a lovely kink to it. Hopefully this will allow their identification. There are several Janthina species. My cousin João J. Castro who is a marine biologist, has shown me this page on the Marine Species Identification Portal

Janthina feed on things like the by-the-wind sailors, which had also a matching blue colour, see top photo. According to this page they also feed on the Portuguese man of war, and we did find one next morning. Now doubt it was brought in by the steady on shore wind.

Stranded Portuguese man o'war
These are much larger and look a bit weird out of the sea. They can give you a nasty sting and I've experienced that ages ago while swimming in Recife, Brazil, but that is another story...

Monday 28 November 2011

Gannet colony

Takapu Refuge, Muriwai Regional Park, North Island, New Zealand

This is the only mainland gannet Morus serrator colony in NZ. Here they are perched right by the coast in the most windswept place one could imagine.

A beautiful bird gliding against the wind
They live on the edge of the wind, quoting one display board.
A couple of gannets ready to land 
Note how their forewings are bent.

Close up of the nesting birds.

Each adult is sitting on a nest where they lay one eggs. At this time of the year most of the chicks are a fair size. One can see several on this picture; one more or less in the centre is being fed. The smell emanating from the colony was incredible. More than fishy...

Saturday 26 November 2011

Eucalyptus leaf beetle larvae

Eltham, North Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
16 – 22.11.11

Soon after we arrived my eye was caught by something on a leaf of a ghost gum Eucaplytus papuana on the street right by where we were staying. It was a cluster of larvae on what remained of a leaf. Interesting.
After that I watched them regularly. They ate around the clock. When they finished a leaf they moved to a fresh one on the same branch and started feeding from the tip. 
That particular tree seemed to have only one cluster, but another one up the road supported a much bigger colony, it was a different eucalyptus though. It also had a lot of galls.
So I took many pictures and to make things easier I selected just six of them.

Pictures of various Eucalyptus leaf beetle larvae

Top row from the left:
  • Very small larvae, first instar, clustering on a practically finished leaf.
  • Medium sized larvae, second instar, on a bigger portion of a leaf.
  • Same sized larvae, feeding around galls which were quite woody.
Bottom row from the left:
  • Medium sized larvae plus a freshly moulted one being protected by another one.
  • Medium sized larvae being attacked by a spider.
  • Mature larvae, third instar, feeding on a galled leaf. Note their anal secretions.

I have read here  that, as a defence, they produce hydrogen cyanide coupled with toxic eucalyptus oils.
Also they waved their tails around, this to avoid predators like tiny parasitoid wasps laying eggs on them.

Catching a spider attacking a larva during the night was rather exciting. There was another spider about too. The next day the larva was dead, and the rest of that cluster seemed to have vanished completely. Puzzling.
I never saw the eggs or the adults, and I just wish that we stayed longer so that I could follow them up.  All rather frustrating; but perhaps I have got enough material for another traveller’s tale for the Bugclub?

Thursday 24 November 2011

More about possums

Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

As we were walking from Flinders Station to the Botanical Gardens we saw many trees with guards: palms, eucalyptus and even oak trees. The guards were either in metal or plastic. See below.

Oak tree with a possum guard
At the Botanical gardens they explained to us that they were possum guards. Possums have become urban animals like many others: racoons, foxes, hedgehogs and stag beetles.
And they are highly unpopular to the point that in the Botanical Gardens possum guards were quite conspicuous. A bit too firm, I thought.

This bad popularity has spread to New Zealand, where we are now.  Here they are considered an introduced pest and I’ve seen a poster about

Possums are eating…
  … our forests
  … our birds
  … our gardens

It advertised traps.
Poor things!

PS: I've now found out that possums were introduced in NZ in 1837 to start a fur industry. This in a country which had only two mammals: two species of bats!
They are selling some nice woolly hats which have possum fur, so the "fur industry" isn't dead... But now there are 70 million possums roaming the islands...

A koala

Healesville Sanctuary, near Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

I thought that some people might like to see a picture of a Koala even though it was taken in captivity.
Koalas are the most expensive animals to keep in Healesville. They eat only fresh eucalyptus leaves, not all of them. As they are pretty indigestible the poor things take their time digesting the stuff, they go into a kind of deep sleep. This particular one happen to be alert. Enjoy!

Koala with its eyes open

Saturday 19 November 2011

Long-necked turtles

Healesville Sanctuary, near Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Count the turtles on the picture below.

Pond life
When I took this shot I saw only one long-necked turtle. We were out looking for them and I was very pleased when I spotted one, sunning itself on a rock, I thought.
So, camera in hand, I started taking shots from a fairly obscured place then moved along to a better standpoint. While I was concentrating on the shots I heard a school teacher behind me: "Do you think that it is afraid of that bird?".
The answer was "Yes"! Soon after that the moorhen pecked the long-necked turtle and it promptly dived.
And from my earlier shots I could see that the turtle was well aware of the approaching bird, its long neck was well bent towards the moorhen.
The little pied cormorant ignored them altogether, fetched a stick and climbed on to the floating branch to the right of the scene.

So how many turtles did you count? The correct answer is at the very bottom.
In summary, the protagonists of the pond life were, from the left, little pied cormorant Phalacrocorax melanoleucos, dusky moorhen Gallinula tenebrosa and long-necked turtles Chelodina longicollis,


Friday 18 November 2011

Superb fairy-wren

Healesville Sanctuary, Victoria, Eastern Australia

Several males in their full breeding regalia were strutting around the paths, briskly. Then they go back to a brown plumage, like the females.  
A delightful sight. I have decided to make a mosaic with some of the shots.
Superb fairy wren males

In Forrestdale, Western Australia, there were some blue wrens as well, a different species. Unfortunately, I didn't manage to take any shots. Too fast. So I was extremely pleased with the above shots.

Wattlebird on banksia

Kings Park, Perth

Wattlebird feeding on a scarlet banksia Banksia coccinea
This photo was taken in the Botanical Garden bed dedicated to these remarkable plants. They are related to the proteas of South Africa, compare with the post about sunbirds,
They were all on my list of things to see ;-)

Other links:

Thursday 17 November 2011

Weaving lizard

Kings Park, Perth
Lizard on a grass tree

This lizard was in the dead leaves below the crown of that grass tree. Bryony Fremlin tells me that it is a Fence Skink Cryptoblepharus buchananii. 
I love grass trees,, they are the most iconic plant of Western Australia. This time we were lucky to see them in bloom.

Ringtail possum

Busseldon, Western Australia

Ringtail possum feeding on apples
This possum table was set up to distract them from an ornamental grapevine nearby. They can even eat the blossoms!

Tuesday 15 November 2011

Seagrass beach balls

Geographe Bay, Busselton, Western Australia

We were taken to this bay by Ralph Fremlin to see its huge seagrass balls.

Ralph and David Fremlin by a large seagrass ball

They were truly enormous. As you can see beach was covered by a thick mat of seagrasses, only a little bit of it had balled. Surely, this must have happened by the action of the waves well before they landed.
Seagrass ball  plus 5 cm ruler
Close-up of a bit of seagrass found underneath the ball
  The interesting thing was that this beach also had much smaller fibreballs, see below.

Fiberglass balls with a 5 cm ruler

  These are probably Posidonia australis, a much finner seagrass than the above one.

The amazing thing is that I have found identical seagrass balls on a Mediterranean beach near Murcia, Spain. Those were P. oceanica

Now I must find out what is then seagrass in the huge balls, obviously different.

Pet emus

Forrestdale, Western Australia
Broody male emu
This pet male emu somehow went broody and has been sitting on an empty nest. Alas, he has no partner.
The incubation period takes 8 weeks during which the male does not feed or drink. Then, they also look after the chicks. But being a pet has its advantages, he is being fed by David James, pictured above, its owner’s brother.

The female lays up to 15 eggs in about 2-3 weeks and after that has to recover from the mammoth task. Emu eggs are lovely dark green, but go blackish with age - over several years.
They are much smaller than ostrich eggs.

Old ostrich, left, and emu, right, eggs
David James and Bryony Fremlin, our hosts, have a couple of pet emus themselves. Brother and sister now over 30 years old.   
Brother and sister emus
These two nest regularly, but because it is rather tricky to release emus into the wild the government advises pet owners to kill the eggs. And everybody gets upset.
Emus live forever, David said.