Birding in inner city Christchurch

It’s not often I get to bird watch in the centre of the city – of course, Christchurch has the Avon River which attracts native and introduced ducks and other birds, but these little darlings are different.

About 300 critically endangered black-billed gulls (the most endangered gull in the world) have come to the city for summer. Normally nesting on the braided river beds and Canterbury they have set up camp and their nests in inner-city Christchurch, choosing a high-rent area, but pay no rent.

Their preferred, inner-city apartments, are on the site of a partly demolished commercial building one of the many (80%) quake-damaged inner-city buildings. Here, surrounded by islands of concrete and reinforcing steel, no predators are able to steal the eggs or chicks.

Some chicks, unable to fly, and used to nests on the shingle of the Canterbury Plains this high-living has caused problems. When they fall out of their nest they land in the water below, and unable to fly would drown. However, locals who are keeping an eye on them, let the Department of Conservation know and see here, life rafts have been created for them

Swimming with Florida’s manatee (dugong)

It’s satisfying ticking off a bucket list item: swimming with manatee – tick.

With two Florida locals, and three from Mexico, I cruise some Florida canals looking for a 600-kg creature (1322.77 lb). Sirenia are large marine herbivores and are also called sea cows, manatee, dugong and for sailors, mermaids.  It’s not the right season, but a few are permanent residents. We are looking for a fat needle in a large, watery haystack.

The canals are beautiful with expensive real estate and living at the water’s edge are a few ordinary working folks among the rich and famous including John Travolta who has a holiday home here.

Crystal River National Wildlife Refuge looks after this part of Kings Bay and many locals object to their speed, and other, restrictions. DJ, our young Captain, calls out to a young guy in a hire boat to slow down, to obey the speed limit – he did, but maybe just until we were out of sight.

Manatees, which lack blubber which allows whales tolerate the cold, have a near-perfect winter refuge here as many of the springs produce large quantities of warm (22 c) water.  We’re told that the locals in this de-facto manatee capital of the USA can, from November to March, walk out their doors and see dozens of them swimming or sleeping in the canals.

We pass a boat, with its passengers in the water watching this relative of elephants, but DJ moves on and later, just when I decide my bucket list will not be ticked today, we find a manatee floating on the water like a great grey blimp beside a private jetty.

I’m so excited. The only other manatee I’d seen was in a Disney park many years ago – wildlife in the wild is always different!

“She’s due to pop” our skipper says. It seems no-one has ever seen a birth and a local university has offered $US10, 000 for a video of the event. I immediately check my camera’s video setting, wriggle into a wet suit, then with mask and snorkel on, slip off the back of the boat.

For some reason the water’s very dark at this time of the year which suits the manatee as they can sink and be out of sight quickly.

Keeping well back from this pregnant cow I’m thrilled to be in the water with her. We’d learnt they needed warmth from the sun and her back was out of the water catching sun rays.

Although only a few feet away, the murky water made her hard to see clearly. I just float and admire her while sending mental ‘I love you’, and ‘we won’t hurt you’ messages. We stay in the water for about ten minutes and she’s motionless the whole time. As we get back into the boat she glides slowly into the middle of the canal and I miss her lifting her nostrils to breathe before sinking.

Our boat moves away slowly, heading for the Three Sisters Springs where, in season, photos are taken of the manatees resting in the clear, warm water. It was photos such as them that had put the manatee on my to-experience bucket list.

Once again we slide off the back of the boat, swim past two cruise boats moored between us and the entrance to the springs, then past the barrier that stops boats entering. Unfortunately, it doesn’t stop canoes and kayaks and I keep to the edge as many of the boats seem to have passengers who have little control over their direction.

The water is much clearer here and I see how easy it would be to watch them underwater: a reminder that bucket lists sometimes need to be time specific.

Touching protected wild animals, as our captain had suggested we could (none of us did) would never be allowed in many countries, and it’s this ‘swim with manatee’ activity that has conservationists, boaters, some residents, politicians and tour operators arguing over the future of the area. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service oversee all wildlife refuge areas and, manage the manatee population too.

In the video shown before we boarded, we were told ‘don’t disturb resting manatees; don’t block them when they are leaving the roped-off areas (where people are forbidden) and don’t touch.’

Patrick Rose, an aquatic biologist and executive director of the Save the Manatee Club, believes the situation at Crystal River is harassment of the manatees, and is “in direct violation of both the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the Endangered Species Act.” He advocates stricter rules including requiring swimmers to “stop a body length away from manatees” so they are free to interact, or not, with people. “The majority of the dive shops are trying to do a good job” Rose says, and “If they want to be responsible and protect the privilege they have, which is so unique, then fine. If not, the swim-with program should go.”

Some years ago, in Florida, I’d bought a Wyland (marine artist) print of a manatee and baby and now I’ve seen one – without a baby, so no ten thousand dollars for me.  With its fat, flat, wrinkled face and sensory whiskers, the manatee looks rather like an overweight dolphin or small whale despite not being related to either.

Vulnerable to extinction, the population in this state is under 5000 and it seems that without stronger conservation efforts, these gentle creatures will be consigned to legend status along with the mermaids.

Like New Zealand’s flightless birds, the manatee evolved in an environment with abundant food and no predators.  Now vulnerable, its survival depends on locals and tourists being willing to share its home. If you are travelling in Florida, November is Manatee Awareness month and when you are most likely to see them.

 

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Bachelor Boys at Orana Park. The world’s largest primates, gorillas

Orana Wildlife Park is New Zealand’s only open range zoo and as soon as I arrived I went to see ‘the boys’ – my main reason for visiting the park yet again. I have been visiting this park for many years, in fact my brother, Roger, helped with fundraising to get the park started. Some years after it started my father had to apologise for his lack of trust in the success of the project and he too loved visiting.

‘The boys’, as they are affectionately called, are three of the world’s largest primates, and Orana park is part of the international zoo based breeding program for Western Lowland gorillas: their role now is to house three of these critically endangered species. These bachelor boys are :Fataki, the silverback and half-brothers Fuzu and Mahali. (Fataki is a half-brother to Mahali too).

orana 2016-02-05 10.44.22They’re housed in the $6M Great Ape Centre – Orana’s most   ambitious project ever was completed in June 2015 just before the gorillas arrived. The habitat enables Orana to hold two species of critically endangered great apes (in separate habitats within the one complex) and the endangered Sumatran orang-utans will hopefully be transferred to Orana during 2016 – when I will return to Christchurch. Add it to your ‘bucket-list’ too.

Raising awareness on the plight of gorillas and orangutan is also a huge page of the park’s role although in the future Orana Wildlife Park hopefully may receive a breeding recommendation.

As you will possibly know threats to gorillas are primarily driven by lifestyle choices such as habitat loss due to coltan mining for electronic devices. Orana Wildlife Park has partnered with Re:Mobile, a New Zealand firm that recycles and re-markets mobile phones, reducing the demand for new handsets and the associated environmental impacts.

So, take any old mobile phone to the park when visiting and put it in the collection box so you too can help.

Orana, a registered charity, is a not-for-profit organisation, and raises 100% of funds for each new development and generating the required funds for the Great Ape Centre was a huge effort by them – well done to you all. See their website to see how you can help as a volunteer, adopt an animal, or donate.

I have more blogs to come about my recent day at Orana Park, but for now for some of my gorilla photos:

Keep up to date with the park and its inhabitants on Facebook … here is the boys shopping list.

Shopping list for vegetarians
Shopping list for vegetarians

NOTE: Many of the endangered animals at the Park do not belong to Orana Wildlife Trust but to the relevant breeding programme which makes decisions about which females are best bred with which males to ensure the most diverse gene pool possible in these captive populations. From time to time animals are moved between various zoos and parks to enhance the genetic diversity of their particular species.

*See recent posts about the quakes – an elephant in the room and one about Christchurch as it is.

See heuse IMG_6616re for more of their conservation activities

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Wellington sanctuary has 500 year vision to save species

Zealandia is a sanctuary  with a difference:  it has a vision for 500 years – its goal,  to restore  this Wellington valley to its pre- human state. It’s twenty years into the plan!

Only minutes  from the centre of New Zealand’s capital,  and parliament buildings,  it’s a great place  to spend a few hours,  a day  or, take an evening guided walk to check out New Zealand  wildlife  flora and fauna.  I spent a couple of hours there  2 days ago  and here just a few of the many photos I took. (search in this blog for other Zealandia posts I’ve written)

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OMG – endangered species right beside me!

Night two safari at the Tabin Wildlife Resort, Sabah was OMG great: as well as seeing the giant-eyed slow Loris, an Italian man in my little group spots the prize – the stealthy carnivore, the silent killer, the wonderful, and endangered, Sunda clouded leopard.

Clouded Leopard. photo by Cristian Morettin. August 2013
Sunda Clouded Leopard. photo by Cristian Morettin. August 2013

I cannot believe my luck. It is right beside the road and we stop, and in amazement, remain silent, looking down on it as it too freezes briefly, before slinking slowly into the bush. Beautifully marked with large irregular patches of colour it is about the same size as a medium-sized dog. I’m sure not many tourists get to see this vulnerable creature which research estimates there are only 275–585 of them in the four totally protected reserves that are large enough to hold a long-term viable population of 50 individuals.

How much deeper will it get? Photo by Cristian Morettin.
How much deeper will it get?
Photo by Cristian Morettin.

Despite having no photo of my own, Cristian Morettin, our hero who spotted the leopard, sends me one of his, as well as one of me up to my knees in water as we cross a river, before cooling down in a waterfall pool.

On the same day that we saw the mainly nocturnal leopard (Tabin is considered to have 2 or 3 hundred according to Wendy Hutton in her book Tabin) we also see another rare sight: the Bornean, or Pygmy, Elephant of which there are about 1500 and are only on Borneo.

Getting ready for the afternoon safari, all of which are included in the charges to stay at this luxurious resort, our guide rounds us up with urgency.

My guide who found the elephant
My guide who found the elephant

‘Quick, an elephant in the area’ gets us moving fast despite the heat – I’m the first on ‘our truck’, the first of three trucks and in only moments spot him slowly disappearing into the bush.

The driver’s told to where to go and wait for him to hopefully reappear. While the guide is scanning the bush, I photograph oil plantation workers on the opposite side of the road – it’s a hard job and I believe 90% of the manual workers in these plantations are Indonesian migrant workers, employed to do the harvesting, weeding and maintenance.

Oil plantation work is heavy work
Oil plantation work is heavy work

Ten minutes later our guide proves right about where the elephant would hopefully go, and he, one lone animal, emerges from the bush into the long grass he loves to eat. Despite being smaller than other elephants, and are called a pygmy, they are actually between 2.5 and 3 metres high, have big ears and straight tusks. Beside an Indian or African elephant I’m sure they’re tiny, but I’d be a little intimidated at his size had I met him on the path. He may be small, but the grass is high and the photographer in me keeps hoping he would come out into the more open areas – but no such luck.

the grass is as high as  an elephants eye!
the grass is as high as an elephants eye!

We just sit and watch him for 20 or 30 minutes; he ignores us, busy eating the ‘elephant grass’ he loves. An older elephant, these lone males are at the bottom of the pecking order and can be a problem: however it seems this one, a well-known regular, has caused no problems.

While a national treasure, the elephant is sometimes regarded a nuisance and can destroy acres in a night. With the fragmented forest reserves and deforestation this has sometimes placed the wildlife in conflict with landowners and villagers. Sadly ‘the 14 pygmy elephants which were found dead at a forest reserve near Tawau, Sabah (January 2013) were killed by severe poisoning’ the Sabah State Tourism, Culture and Environment Minister, Masidi Manjun said. More positively, quick action by wildlife rescuers saved a herd of 10 Bornean pygmy elephants that had wandered off their range and ventured as close as 10km to Lahad Datu: the Sabah Wildlife Department, over eight days, captured and relocated them (nine female adults and a four-year old male calf) back into Tabin. The Sabahmas Plantations have electric fences and ‘green corridors’ to help keep elephants out of their palm areas because of the damage they can create.

Bucket list ... return to Tabin Resort for better pygmy elephant photos
Bucket list … return to Tabin Resort for better pygmy elephant photos

Adding Tabin Resort onto my ever getting longer ‘revisit-bucket-list ‘this country has produced, I fly back to KK and home to New Zealand. Nevertheless I have another Malaysian Air ticket with my name on it – this time I’m off to Miri for the annual Borneo Jazz Festival in May 2014, and to see some caves in Sarawak, Malaysian Borneo.

Stephen Fry, a kakapo, and me

Stephen Fry and I have at least one thing in common: we have both seen the rare kakapo. I saw one at Zealandia (Wellington, NZ) while Stephen, on Codfish Island, (Whenua Hau) watched in amusement as Sirocco, poster boy for his species, attempted to mate with zoologist, and documentary-maker, Mark Carwardine. (see the YouTube clip here )

Behind 8½ kilometres of predator-proof fencing, Te Mara o Tane (the garden of Tane) this flightless visitor has many flocking to see him. One of only 129 left in the world, this fat, native nocturnal parrot is, according to Collins Travellers Guide, Birds of New Zealand is “moss green upperparts, yellowish green underparts” and is “entirely herbivorous, eats fruit, seed, nectar . . .”

Collins Birds of New Zealand

On the moonlit evening we check our bags and enter the sanctuary.  I hear kaka, tui and shags as they settle down for the night.  “Tui are usually the last to stop calling at night and the first to start in the morning’ according to one of my fellow kiwi on this night safari.

It is a privilege to see this rare bird – the heaviest parrot in the world: he was hand raised and unfortunately imprinted on humans, but which now has the advantage of making him available for tours such as this – and changing how other chicks are raised.

Enjoy my photos of this comical bird. (And, if you can, please help with its recovery)

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In this hidden, almost secret valley, kiwi are breeding only 3 kilometres from our parliament – in the heart of our Capital city, a slice of New Zealand is reverting to its pre-human state so, make sure when in New Zealand, visit the world’s first inner city pest-free environment – and it seems Stephen and I have one more thing in common .. we’ve both been to Zealandia!