Saturday, 6 August 2016

Back to School

It's great to be back at Wellesley and I can't wait to get started on trying out some of the new ideas and exciting programmes I've seen in different schools around New Zealand.

One of our major areas of focus is on developing STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) within our whole school programme.  We're starting a Maker Monday with a STEM club held each Monday lunchtime.  We're also going to be running staff development sessions so that classes can begin to explore different possibilities and ways of integrating STEM into their classroom inquiries.

Although this is an American based clip, the ideas are still the same for us here in New Zealand.  This is a short clip giving you a bit more of an idea about what STEM is.

Wednesday, 1 June 2016

Wet Day Movie Watching

Over several months, Latu has been filming the robins and watching closely their behaviour while the chicks are still in their nests.  She's been able to set up cameras and watch the nesting habits of some of the North Island Robins here in Zealandia.
For her Masters, she is looking into parent - offspring interactions and brood division.  Do mother birds feed both chicks or do they favour one?  Do males feed the chicks as much as the females do? Once you start thinking about it there are all sorts of interesting questions around who looks after who.  Through filming the nests, Latu can study closely the interactions between parents and chicks.

To ensure her research and analysis of what she has filmed is sound, she has had to get another person to watch 10% of her videos.  We each have to carefully record what we see happening, the time, who and the behaviour observed.  Then once we have recorded our observations she has to compare mine with hers.  If what we both observes matches over 85% of the time then her observations are scientifically sound.  The reason why she has to get someone else to watch the same videos is to ensure that she is not biased when watching the clips and that she is actually recording what she observes rather than what she thinks she sees.  Therefore its pretty important that I also make sure that I observe carefully and record by observations accurately.

 Luckily the weather in Wellington has been pretty cold and wet so its been a perfect time to sit indoors and watch the little chicks be fed!

Here's a couple of still shots from some of the video's.

 Can you spot the two chicks?  They are begging with their beaks wide open!

 Can you see the two beaks?  Look where the nest is - if this was in your backyard what might the problem be for this family of robins?

 Why do you think the inside of a birds beak is bright orange?

This chick is 15 days old, look how big it is sitting in its nest!

Monday, 30 May 2016

Maud Island Frogs

One of the more unusual, but also the most interesting things I've done while at Zealandia, has been to help count Maud Island Frogs.

photo courtesy of

They are nocturnal, so 9.45 one evening, I met up with Raewyn and we headed in, armed with our headlamps!  Obviously, it was rather difficult to take photos but the link to the Zealandia blog about the count has a wonderful photo of the frog.

I learnt that NZ native frogs don't really have a tadpole stage, when they are born they are little frogs with a tail which later drops off.  The frogs are kept in enclosures that are full of leaf little so I couldn't work out where the tadpoles swam.  It was wonderful to be with Raewyn as she was able to fill me in about these frogs and their history at Zealandia.

Please click on the link below to find out about the frog count I helped out with!

Autumn in Zealandia

When you spend every day outside walking around the valley you start to notice the little things.

Now that autumn is here I've begun to notice that this is the time of the year that fungus and mushrooms appear.  I love walking through the valley and just looking all around me, it's very easy to get sidetracked and often my morning bike ride into the valley is slowed when I have to stop and check out something new.  Over the past few weeks I've taken a number of photos of fungus.  Below are some of the ones I've photographed.  They are amazing!

The 20th Kakariki

While I've been at Zealandia I've been really lucky to work with two different masters students.  Thanks to Latu I've learnt so much about the North Island robins and enjoyed every minute of being part of the research she's been doing.
I've also enjoyed working with Ellen and learning how to track birds using telemetry.  For her masters she has had to trap 20 kakariki and put small transmitters on them.  When I first met her she had about 8, now she has all 20.

The other day it was just the two of us, each hiding in different spots trying to look out for the very last kakariki.

Once you stay still, it doesn't take long for birds to appear.  A cheeky little kaka appeared and decided he didn't mind being close to me.  He was so close I could have touched him and I have to admit I was slightly distracted watching this bird swing around using its claws and beak.

We had to look for ones that had a red band identifying their cohort.  This meant that this bird was born in the 2015/2016 season.  All of a sudden one appeared right where I was watching.  A quick radio call and Ellen came rushing down.   We swapped hiding spots but I hadn't been in my new spot when she radioed me to say she had caught it in the trap.  I haven't run up and down many of the hills in Zealandia but I did that morning.

I helped hold the bird while she fitted the transmitter and then I even got to carefully hold the bird while she measured its leg length - there are special ways of holding birds and so she had to teach me first how to look after them.  It was quite something to hold onto a wild bird, something I won't forget in a long time.

Thanks Ellen for letting me be part of your research!

Changing Seasons at Zealandia

There's been a range of new things happening in the valley as we head into Winter.

Usually in April/May they conduct their annual mice audit.  There are always mice in Zealandia but once a year they conduct an audit to check numbers and find out where in the valley they mainly are. This is a good time of the year to do it as the population will be up after summer when there has been plenty of food around.   A group of volunteers come in over a few weeks and the entire valley is covered.
First, the tracking tunnels are set up.  This involves putting out ink pads and pieces of paper.  Every two hundred meters along each track is a wooden box.

Inside each box is placed the ink pad and paper.  Between the ink a small pile of peanut butter/oats is placed.

Every couple of days, we have to go back to check the tracking tunnels.  We have to add more ink to the ink pads, replace the peanut butter with fresh and also remove the papers and replace them with new, clean paper.  Every piece of paper is carefully collected, what box it has come from, the date and the type of footprints found are all recorded.

On one of the days I went out to help collect and replace the tracking papers.  I got to see lots of mouse footprints and even some tuatara prints.

The peanut butter gets put out twice a week for about three weeks.  This allows for a number of mice to travel through the tunnels.  Each time they walk through, they leave behind their scent.  After the three weeks is up, they then put bits of dead mouse into each tracking tunnel.  This along with the scent will attract any rats because this scent is very appealing to them!  They do this for a couple of weeks, then they put out bits of old, dead rabbit - the rabbit attracts any other mustelids (weasels, stoats).  Thankfully for Zealandia, all of the tracking showed they had no rats or mustelids.  There is always a number of mice in the valley and after the tracking, they know where in the valley there are large populations of them.
Now, the team are about to put out some poison to kill the mice, not all of the mice will be poisoned but it helps to control their numbers.
I'm looking forward to getting back to school and setting up a tracking and trapping programme around our school with the boys.

Sunday, 10 April 2016

Space and Science Festival

Last year, this festival sold out!

The Space and Science Festival this year is going to be held on Saturday 14th May at Onslow College.  It's an event run by the Space & Science Festival Society, a not-for-profit organisation formed entirely by volunteers who are passionate about inspiring the next generation of amazing people growing up in New Zealand.  It's designed to be a family experience.

Highlights this year include:
*  A visit from Jen Blank, a NASA scientist who works with the Mars Curiosity Rover team.

*  Bottle rocket making and launching.

*  A robotic telescope to look at the moon, planets and stars.

*  Bioluminescent bacteria with Dr Siouxsie Wiles.

*  Astrophotography lessons with Mark Gee.

*  A big screen for the central quad for science videos (weather permitting).

*  Plus lots more science, engineering, technology, maths and space stuff to explore!

Please check out the Space and Science Festival website for more details and tickets.

Wednesday, 6 April 2016

Kakariki Banding

Not only does Ellen have to track the kakariki, she also has to band the nestlings and trap them so that she can fit transmitters onto their tail.

This day I got to come along to watch how they band birds.  One band goes on one leg, this has a number that is registered to DOC so that every banded bird has its own number and record. The same colour is used for the same breeding season.  The birds we are tracking have been born in the 2015/2016 breeding season so they all have a red band.   Then two different coloured bands are put on its other leg.  These are for Zealandia so that they know which bird it is.  The bands make it easy for us to identify which bird it is and also it makes it easy to record any observations about the bird.

This day I got to see two different sets of juveniles.  In Zealandia they have been looking at different types of nesting boxes so it was interesting to see how the birds nest.  These birds nest in hollows, they don't build nests.  So the first nesting box was a bit like a posting box, Ellen first uses a mirror and torch to check on the nest, then she unscrewed the lid and reached down to the young birds.  On the side of the box is a small hole that the parents fly in and out of - Ellen blocked that off before she lifted the lid.

Each bird is carefully placed into a soft fabric bag.  One at a time they are weighed and their weight carefully recorded.  Then Neil carefully let the birds head poke out of the bag.  He had to carefully measure the length and width of its beak.

Once the measurements are done and everything is recorded they were able to carefully place the bands on the birds legs.  There are strict rules about handling birds and you have to be trained and registered to be able to band birds.

A 28 day old nestling.  Too cute!

Take feather samples

Attaching the bands

Storing the feathers

Feathers are also collected and stored so that in the future if they need to be analysed they have got them all ready.

We then headed off to another nest where the staff at Zealandia had placed a Mamaku tree fern sideways in another tree.  Both ends had been blocked off and a small hole cut into the side of the tree (it was hollow).  The kakariki had happily made a home in it, along with a forest gecko (my first since being here!).
Ellen and Neil checking out the log

Working out how to get the birds to go to one end!

Ellen with one of the juveniles

A forest gecko who made its home in the mamaku too

The entrance to the nest

It's been another great day at Zealandia.  It really made me appreciate how much work behind the scenes goes on to help these birds and animals to survive and breed in the valley.  
After  that, Ellen and I ventured off to Wrights Hill again and wandering along the track I spotted another forest gecko - the second in the same day.  It was great to see it outside of the predator proof fence.  It was about 12cm long.  I haven't seen a gecko or skink out in the wild since I was a child so it was pretty special to spot this one today.

A forest gecko on one of the tracks on Wrights Hill

Kakariki Tracking

The other area of research currently being undertaken in the valley is tracking young kakariki to see where and why they are leaving the valley.

The aerial and receiver we use to track the birds

Ellen picking up a signal off  a track on Wrights Hil

It's around here somewhere!

I've joined up with Ellen and am helping her to find those birds that are leaving the valley during the day.  She has attached transmitters to ten birds, as time goes on more of them are starting to go further afield and as I have a car, I've become a rather useful helper!  So far, they tend to head out towards Wrights Hill, Johnson Hill in Karori and over to Otari Plant Museum.  Using the aerial and receiver, we can pick up a signal from a good few kilometers away, then its off to try and find it's exact location, whether that be by foot or by car.

And how does all of this link back to school science?  Patience and perseverance!  Like many things in science, the results don't just happen suddenly, you need  to wait, observe, discuss and collaborate with others so  that you can form a clear and accurate picture.  It's pointless rushing, you need to slow down and be sure of what you are doing, double check the signal.  And don't give up!  If you try and try again its quite likely you can pick up a new signal and we'll be off again.  With perseverance, Ellen can get to within just a few meters of the bird she has been tracking.  We've also been using lots of maths, I've been using a compass to take bearings and have been learning about using triangulation to help get a better idea of where a bird might be if we can't find it off aerial.
There's a real skill to tracking these birds and I'm determined to learn it!  I'm getting much quicker at striding up hills, scrambling down banks and holding my arm up in the air for what  feels like huge lengths of time!!  It's been great and I've really appreciated spending time with Ellen and learning all about what she is doing for her masters.