Monday, 24 March 2014

More Canterbury and Banks Peninsula

Tomorrow I head down south. Today was my last day around Canterbury and Banks Peninsula.

This last 10 days I have found seven populations of Cantuaria burrows. Much better success than I had expected, considering I am just warming up, but the recent rain has made the burrows much easier to find (the surrounding soil dries out much more slowly than the thin trapdoor lids, which show up pale against the dark damp background). Many of the spiders have had to fashion new lids to their burrows, the poor wee buggers. The rain has smoothed a lot of them down, which will make them harder to find when everything dries out again.

I have moved away from using the big fighty aggro carabid beetles to flush out Cantuaria. It was great for a couple of times, but most of the time when I have used them the spider has stayed down the burrow and (presumably) been munched by the carabid. I have contemplated gluing the beetles' jaws together, but these are native beetles and that isn't exactly ethical. If I can create some kind of tiny muzzle for them that can be removed, I will do that instead.

Some of the populations I have found are really small. I found a tiny one on a bush track near Oxford (the description in the Book, by Forster and Wilton (1968), says "Chalk hill in Canterbury" - thanks guys). Three large burrows. Surrounded by tiger beetle holes. I couldn't find any more burrows, and not for want of searching. I fear that population is on its last legs, possibly due to the tiger beetles eating all the young spiders. One that I found this morning only had one (again very large) burrow in it, but about 30 metres or so further up the track was another population; the two were probably once joined (and may still be connected by males, or by burrows that I didn't find).

I stay up late most nights to catch the spiders, but if I don't do any catching one night then I get up early the next morning to find more populations. Plus there have been a few things to tie up at work which have meant late nights even when I'm not catching. Late nights, early mornings. Sometimes early nights which throw me right off. I have no idea whether it's night-time or Wednesday. Hopefully I'll get into some kind of routine. My routine before was nice. Overall though, it's refreshing to only have one thing to do - find Cantuaria, and find more Cantuaria, and do not think about anything else.

Tomorrow, Kakahu. Tonight, sleep.

Tuesday, 18 March 2014


Today is my fourth day of collecting. The last three days have been eventful but I have still managed to end up with no spiders. I think the weather hasn't helped, as a lot of clay banks have been eroded by the recent storms.

On Sunday, I planned to go to Kennedy's Bush and Governor's Bay. Kennedy's Bush, however, was not where Google Maps said it would be (on Kennedy's Bush Road). I drove around Kennedy's Bush Road for a while, got lost, then found a clay bank that made me immediately certain that there would be Cantuaria there. I'm not sure exactly why this clay bank was such a dead cert to me, but I got out and searched and found burrows. Awesome. Unfortunately the rain was somewhat torrential and the wee buggers wouldn't come out, and digging them out just ended up with a bunch of mud being washed down the stream that I was standing in, and I got covered in it. So I marked the burrows with sticks and on the GPS, and went to Governor's Bay.

At Governor's Bay I was feeling pretty sick so I went into a cafe/information centre and sat down for a bit. I started talking to the staff about trapdoor spiders, and one guy pointed me in the direction of Ōhinetahi Valley, where he'd dug one up once. I headed in that direction and searched the clay banks around the area, but couldn't find anything. There was a wee track through the bush (which was mostly underwater), so I swam down that for a bit and climbed (and slid down) some more clay banks, mud banks, mossy banks. No burrows. I set some pitfall traps and asked the SatNav to send me home.

The SatNav had other ideas, and we went up through Gebbie's Pass (which was covered in fog so thick that I couldn't see the headlights of a car 15 metres in front of me), down a different road where I saw a sign to Kennedy's Bush, and then back to Governor's Bay. On the second try, I tried to find the place near Kennedy's Bush Road that I had found the burrows, but couldn't relocate it.

On Monday I went with a friend to Kaituna Valley and Prices Bush, where we found loads of open burrows (Cantuaria borealis?). I also caught a couple of big, mean carabid beetles to flush the spiders out. When we returned to the area after dark, I shoved a harnessed carabid down a burrow and a big female came out with all her little baby spiderlings (which was really nice to see). However, the female's spinnerets (little finger-like projections sticking out from the rear) were far too long to be Cantuaria. I figured she was probably Stanwellia instead, and let her go (even if she had been Cantuaria I would have let her go so she could look after her spiderlings). We found three more Stanwellia but no Cantuaria. I also hit a hedgehog (pest in NZ) and took it home for tea. There are some benefits to driving around a lot at night.

Yesterday I was meant to search "Port Hills", but the Port Hills cover a huge area. I ended up driving around as much of the Port Hills as I could, looking for clay banks, and then searching Victoria Park. I didn't find any Cantuaria, although tiger beetle burrows were everywhere.

Today I am going to search Springfield (and hopefully catch some spiders from the mystery location, which Google Maps tells me is on Cashmere Road). Wish me luck!

Tuesday, 11 March 2014


There are a great many things I like about New Zealand. Chillaxed people, strange (if dwindling) native wildlife, and of course the scenery (which really is the essence of NZ). But their autumn just isn't right. Autumn and winter are my favourite seasons, and I love the changing colours, early frosts and different animals and fungi that are associated with it. Autumn in NZ is a very confused season though. Some days are like summer, others like winter. You get a lot of non-native mushrooms such as Amanita spp. (there are a few around the university now), and the only trees that are doing anything interesting are also non-native. NZ dips its toes into the swimming pool of winter before diving in at the deep end.

My seminar went well, I think. It's hard to know, because people never want to crush you after you present something, but I said everything I needed to say and didn't make any mistakes without correcting them (to my knowledge). I could have put more energy into the way I presented it, maybe I focused too much on getting the facts right. Now I just have to wait for the outcome of my assessment. Hopefully my assessor will let me do everything I want to do, and give me some good feedback. I don't think there should be much of a problem with anything.

So now I have to face my field trip...perhaps the reason why autumn seems particularly strange this year is because I know I am going away to look for the spiders. I'm looking forward to getting some meat into my project, turning some of my promises and ideas into reality, and figuring out what bits of my PhD I should focus on the most based on which populations I manage to find. But there is part of me that is freaking out a wee bit, because these things are hard to find, and if I don't find any then I will not be doing this PhD. But that is the nature of biology. You can't force organisms to give you good data, you just have to roll with whatever happens and have plenty of contingency plans.

I'm hoping I collect lots of spiders carrying mites and worms. Particularly worms. I'm really interested in these worms.

Thursday, 6 March 2014

Seminar and field trip - planning

Before I do all of this stuff I've been blogging about, getting excited about, and dedicating the last 5 months of my young life to, I have to ask the university's permission if I can do it. My proposal that I handed in a while back is the first part of that, but I also have to give a seminar on it. That's on Monday. I've practised it twice and have another practise planned tomorrow. I'll let you know how it goes. Luckily my friends are willing to listen to me practise and give me heaps of critique, as they know I will do the same for them.

As soon as my proposal is over, I will prepare for fieldwork! I'm pretty prepared already actually, more prepared than I have been for anything else ever. I even have a sleeping bag which I'm still starving myself to pay for (technically it's supposed to come out of my field budget, but since the sleeping bag I got given by a previous student is a summer sleeping bag and I will be camping in the damp in the winter, I needed to get a better one...which cost about thrice the entire field budget). Except for permits, because the people who I need to speak to about them keep going on holiday (what is this with useful people going on holiday all the time??!!), and transport to the less easily accessible places, because I need permits first before I know the dates. I can't do much about that. At some point it will all fall beautifully into place like a bird's feathers. Soon, I hope. As long as I find some Cantuaria.