Monday, 29 February 2016

Trap Checking with Jenny

The one thing that has struck me about environmental science and conservation since being at Rotokare is how labour intensive it is. Traps and tracking tunnels in thick bush need to be checked/ rebaited regularly. Data needs to be entered and GPS points plotted, by walking to each site ( often very steep and no vehicle access!), among much other research and maintenance.  And this all has to be done by real life people!  With an area of 230 hectares, this is no small feat. Without volunteers, places like Rotokare Reserve would cease to exist.
Jenny is one of the wonderful volunteers who give up their time to work at Rotokare. Prior to her Rotokare life, Jenny was a dairy farmer in Taranaki. She has been volunteering at Rotokare for about 6 years and enjoys the chance to keep fit, be in the bush and give back to the community. Jenny is very knowledgeable about the bush and birds. When we went out for Wednesday fence checks, she was very patient in teaching me how to check and set the traps, and log any irregularities that we saw along the way.

Before I started at Rotokare, I'll admit, I'd never actually set a mouse/ rat trap, although I had watched my husband get his fingers snapped on multiple occasions. Around the undulating 8kms of fence line, there are mouse, rat and stoat traps at regular intervals, based on the habitat range of the targeted species. They are baited with peanut butter which attracts pests due to its strong smell. In order to be humane, the holes in the trap boxes are made just big enough for the targeted species to enter, so that the trap will kill any pests immediately (if something bigger than the trap was intended for got in, the pest may not be killed). This also aims to prevents birds etc entering the traps. The stoat traps are much bigger, and as Jenny kindly demonstrated with a stick, are rather unforgiving when set off. These are baited with eggs. I still haven't quite mustered the courage to set these after the stick demonstration. 


Last Wednesday, being rather wet and blustery, I thought it would probably be an inside day. But no, the work doesn't stop. All the fence line traps still need to be checked and rebaited, and the fence checked for damage or holes. We also ventured to the 'Outside Bush' an area of the sanctuary that has not been fenced.  The outside bush definitely looks and feels different to the inside bush. While the inside bush is lush and the forest floor is covered in regenerating seedlings, the outside bush is more sparse, and birdsong more infrequent. On the inside, there hasn't been evidence of even a mouse for about a year, while pests are regularly tracked and caught in the outside bush. I guess this is great proof that the fence is doing it's job. 

We smelled the 2 possums in the traps in the outside bush long before we saw them. While I was nearly retching in the distance, Jenny bravely remove the possums and reset the traps. I'm still working on the whole harding-up thing, but I think I've come a long way already!

Thursday, 18 February 2016

Bitten by a Banded Kokopu!

The cool thing about working at Rotokare is that lots of different scientists come to visit. On Monday morning when I arrived at Rotokare, there was already a group of people gathered outside, one of whom was Stella McQueen. Stella is a fresh water ecologist and author, currently working with DOC in Taranaki. Stella had brought out a troop of fish enthusiasts to check out the Banded Kokopu fish in the stream at Rotokare.

I had seen these fish and photographed them a few days earlier, but I hadn't known much about them at all! The Banded Kokapu are one of 5 species of fish that, when they are babies, are known as whitebait! This is what whitebait look like if they are given the chance to grow up. I was surprised to hear that 4 out of 5 of the whitebait species are threatened (Banded Kokopu are the one that is not listed as threatened). Banded kokopu are normally nocturnal, but the interesting thing about the Rotokare fish is that they unusually like to come out in the day. Stella is passionate about educating the public about the risk that our native fish face, not only from whitebating, but from habitat loss. Check out her Facebook page New Zealand Native Fish.

Stella told me that the kokopu have a lateral line that leads to a cell to detect vibrations and water movement and allows the fish to orientate themselves in their environment. When the fish are young especially, they can climb. They can travel up waterfalls and even across land, breathing through their skin. These fish really fascinated me! At Rotokare (where whitebaiting doesn't take place), the introduced perch are one of the greatest threats to the native fish population, as well as the water quality in the lake. Small perch eat zooplankton in the lake. The zooplankton usually feasts on phytoplankton, but if the perch have eaten the zooplankton, the population of the phytoplankton will explode, causing an algal bloom (as is the current case at Rotokare). The large perch feast on other (native) fish and sometimes even turn to cannibalism.

We fed the fish the worms that Stella had brought along, and mealworm beetles from Rotokare. The longer we stayed, the more confident (or greedy) the fish became, and they would jump right out of the water to grab our fingers! I may have squealed a wee bit the first time one bit onto my finger, but it didn't really hurt at all! What a cool experience. I'll be spending some time researching how we can go about improving the habitat for these native fish at Rotokare.

Hunting for Penguins in Taranaki

Last week on a clear Taranaki day, I set off to the coast to hunt for penguins with Elise Smith, a local scientist. Elise has wealth of knowledge on many different subjects relating to biodiversity and marine science,  and now contracts her skills out to different organisations, providing them with GIS mapping services. I was lucky enough to meet Elise at Rotokare the previous day, and she kindly offered to let me tag along with her excursion. Elise is also hosting two other Taranaki teachers on the STLP programme.

One of Elise's current projects is monitoring the Blue Penguins that come to nest around the Taranaki Coast line. Blue Penguins are the most common penguin in New Zealand, and the only penguin to breed along the coast of the North Island. The penguins spend most of their time at sea, but between December and March each year, they come to shore to moult. During the time they are replacing their feathers (about 2 weeks), they are unable to swim or eat.

When I arrived at our destination, I met Andrew Hornblow. Andrew is a Taranaki engineer who has developed devices using solderless- breadboards to monitor local ecology. The amazing thing about his devices is they consume miniscule amounts of power and data; the aa batteries can last for a year, and they have the ability to transmit data to wifi up to 18 kilometers away. This makes them ideal for isolated locations. Andrew has also deliberately made his devices simple enough for a child to build, programme and monitor, as he is passionate about getting more children actively involved in science in their community. They have the ability to connect humidity, temperature and light sensors, among many others. The possibilities are endless!

The main objective of the trip was to change over the batteries of the devices in the burrows, but we thought it would be interesting to have a look inside while we were there. When we reached the man-made penguin burrows, we carefully lowered an endoscope (made by Elise with some kiwi ingenuity!)  into the holes. This was connected to her computer, displaying the video footage from the end of the endoscope. We were looking for feathers outside the burrow, which might mean there was a penguin moulting inside. While we did find some feathers, and plenty of poo, there were no penguins home that day. But remember "evidence of absence is not absence of evidence!".

Me using the endoscope in the burrow

Brent (STLP teacher) looking for a lost monitoring device

We headed back to a cafe and Andrew showed us some of the graphs that were being automatically created on his website from the data that was coming in from the burrows. Looking at the graphs we could see what time of day the penguins returned to their burrows (mostly in the evening), because the temperature in the burrow would tend to spike at this time each day. We could also tell which burrows were regularly being occupied, and at which times of the year. Over time, they will be able get an idea of whether the Taranaki penguin population is increasing or declining.

A penguin in the burrow that Elise found last week. 
Before we headed back to work, I discussed the possibilities of using these monitoring systems back at school. What would you like to find out about that you could monitor at school? At your house? On the farm? Let me know in the comments and we'll see if we can make it happen!

Monday, 15 February 2016

Fence Checking and Robin Monitoring

At Rotokare it is important to carry out regular checks of the fence to make sure it is still predator proof. The fence is 8.2km long and surrounds the reserve, going over hills and gullies. A baby mouse can get through a 7mm hole in the fence!  These checks happen once a week and each check has a different focus. Last week we also had to collect in the tracking tunnel cards from around the fence line, and reset the traps (just incase any predators get in!). There are beautiful views across Taranaki and the Lake from the top of the fence.  

The view of lake Rotokare from the top of the fence

Testing the fence to make sure an alert will be sent if the fence is damaged. 

On the way back to base, we went into the bush to do some Robin surveying, taking notes about the behaviour, condition and habits of the robin. There are only about 10 known robin at Rotokare, so we were lucky to find about 3 of them, and we even found a nest of babies!

Wednesday, 10 February 2016

First Day at Rotokare

After spending an interesting week in Wellington last week becoming familiar with the STLP programme and learning about teaching science,  I got started at Rotokare Reserve yesterday. Boy, was I in for a shock! Fiona, the site manager ran me through the heath and safety protocols, then we were straight out into the bush. 
Lake Rotokare
Heading up the fence line
Getting the cards from the tracking tunnels

We needed to collect in the print cards from hundreds of tracking tunnels from around the reserve. These have ink in the middle, so when something runs through to eat the peanut butter they can track the footprints to see what animals or insects are in the reserve, and to make sure there are no pests. 

What pests can you think of that might harm the native birds or plants at Rotokare?

I thought that we'd just be collecting them from near the track around the lake, but we went right into the uncut bush, walking (falling) up and down lines between the fence and road. When we go out in the bush we need to take a radio to keep in touch, and let people know we are safe. On my first day I got to see one of about 10 North Island Robin at the reserve, and 2 Saddleback, which were translocated there a couple of years ago. 
The bush we were walking through
Checking the culverts for holes. They are covered to make sure kiwi don't fall in and drown.

Looking rather dishevelled and worse for wear after a tough day in the bush. 

After stopping for a late lunch and to patch up some blisters, we finished collecting cards for the day and headed back to base to analyse them. Luckily we didn't find any pest footprints. I certainly slept well last night, that's for sure.

 Who do you think these footprints belong to?
Card (a)

Card (b)