Tuesday, 29 April 2014

Deep Cove: Land of the Lotus-Eaters.

Fiordland is, without a doubt, my favourite part of New Zealand. Silver sounds wind their way inland like hungry snakes, where they are fed by great curtains of water crashing down the forest-swathed mountainsides. I, and my field assistant, have just returned from Deep Cove, which had everything that I love about Fiordland but with fewer people and more wildlife.

Or at least, I think it did. I don’t really remember. Luckily, I took notes while stuff was happening, so I have a basic record of a couple of the last few days.

Diary of first day. Click to enlarge
Diary of second day. Click to enlarge

I have no record of the last day, although this photo suggests there was a lobster involved.

So, we found C. sylvatica, which was the main thing. But what caused all the tiredness? We have two theories. Firstly, the sky was always really dark and heavy with rain, and the air damp and cold. All the time we were inside, we had the heater and electric lights on. Additionally we were working in forest and huge mountains concealed most of the sky. Darkness causes us to produce melatonin, the sleepy hormone.

Secondly, Deep Cove has no internet or cellphone reception. We hardly saw any other people. We were so removed from societal demands. My field assistant has recently been under immense pressure at university, and I have just come away from a conference, so we were both rather exhausted. Deep Cove’s serenity and isolation may have just given us the right environment to relax, rest and recuperate.

I have other theories too – maybe there is experimentation going on with different kinds of sleeping gas used for war and mind control. Or maybe terrible things are happening at Deep Cove that the government wants us to forget, so they drug the water. Maybe it is a combination of all of the above. Who knows?

The whole experience reminded me of The Odyssey, when Odysseus and his crew arrive at an island where the inhabitants get high on lotus all the time. Odysseus’ crew tries the lotus, and they end up forgetting all their troubles and wandering around in a groggy haze. It distracts them from their travels, and Odysseus has to leave some of them on the island. Luckily, Deep Cove wasn’t so incapacitating that we couldn’t leave. I also managed to get some writing done (I have to correct a paper and write a letter, a newspaper article, a thesis and a six month report). Haven’t looked at it yet though so it might be a bit senseless.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Operation Trapdoor

There's no way around this. This post will be looooong. I won't be offended if you only read part of it - but so much has happened.

 Stewart Island - Halfmoon Bay
Unlike North and South Island, Stewart Island is full of what little native wildlife is left in New Zealand. Most of it is a reserve, covered in rainforest. There is only one small village (Oban), with roads. I've been here before, but only for a few days. This time we (my new field assistant and I) are looking for a few species of Cantuaria which are only found on Stewart Island and its offshore islands.

On Stewart Island, we went for walks in the bush every day and found spiders everywhere. There are three major species here, and hopefully we have found them all. I also hung up a poster in the community notice board, and was contacted by several people who have found spiders - excellent leads. Most people who we met had seen my poster, too. Small communities can be very useful!

Stewart Island Cantuaria
Every couple of days, we took a water taxi to an island, but the rest of the time we stayed on Stewart Island. We were constantly liasing with Rakiura Charters (water taxi company) and the Department of Conservation (DOC), who took our work very seriously and were keen on health and safety. I had to name my project for their files, so I called it Operation Trapdoor. Every time we contacted DOC to tell them we were safe, we had to say we were Operation Trapdoor. My field assistant protested, but since I am the leader, I get to choose what we are called, and she doesn't, so there.

Rakiura Charters water taxi. View from Bench Island

Stewart Island - Big Glory
Big Glory is a hunter camp a short boat ride from Oban. We camped in the bush with the kakariki, tomtits, tui, bellbirds, and kereru. The only paths were game trails, and I learnt a few things about tracking deer from my field assistant (who is a hunter).

While I finished setting up camp, my friend went to use the facilities, and happened to choose an area where there were Cantuaria burrows. Lots of burrows! We dug up a few spiders before heading out to search for more, but the only ones we could find were around our camp.

The forest was dark and wild, but beautiful. I grew up on common land, with wide open meadows interspersed with trees. I could always see the horizon. The woods are always quite an exciting place to be; you can never tell what is around the corner. There is so much diversity underfoot and all around you. Lichens, mosses, plants, birds, and invertebrates were everywhere, and Entoloma hochstetteri (mushrooms) showed up as shocking blue flashes as we walked along. I kept on thinking of the few lines written by Robert Frost:

The woods are lovely, dark, and deep, 
But I have promises to keep, 
And miles to go before I sleep, 
And miles to go before I sleep.

Big Glory bush

We went a long while without seeing much of the sky, the horizon, or anything that wasn't directly in front of us. It was a wee bit claustrophobic. That night, the slight uneasiness kept us awake, which was great because we heard wild kiwi calling to each other nearby.

Whero Rock
Whero Rock's resident, Cantuaria isolata, is aptly named - Whero is a rock in the middle of the ocean, with no shelter, no beach, and only bird crap for soil.

The popular tourist destination that is Whero Rock. The bright white spot is a small fishing boat. The large patch of white is bird crap.

Landing was tricky. There is a large population of great white sharks around this area, and they like boats because of fishing and shark cage tourism. To get from the boar onto Whero, we had to leap from a rubber dinghy onto the rocks, then climb up rocks covered in slippery seaweed, bird crap and dead bodies. I got very wet and covered in the white stuff, and my field assistant wore a plastic bag on her hands so she didn't have to touch it.

Long ago, when C. isolata was last found there, Whero Rock had a hut and a tree. Neither exist any more, and I figured C. isolata may have gone extinct due to lack of soil or shelter.

I was wrong! We found a healthy population sheltering under rocks and the remains of the hut. After being on the tiny rock for four hours, my field assistant was totally over spidering and had called Rakiura Charters to pick us up. It was a good thing too - the perfect day had changed, the wind picked up, the sky darkened. No way would we stay overnight on such an exposed rock. We were glad to return to our backpackers, and to shower and wash our clothes!

Bench Island
The final island we visited was Bench. The dangers there were not sharks and rocks, but fur seals. Everywhere were seals with pups, and we had to walk and talk loudly so that they knew where we were. The key, we were told, was not to get between them and the sea.

For a while we searched fruitlessly. We stuck to the beach: the bush was filled with muttonbird burrows, which are easy to collapse. It was hard to search there anyway and fur seals were hiding in the bush. We found some burrows, but they did not look right; there was far more silk around the entrance than usual. Finally, my friend yelled out that she had found a burrow halfway up a bank. Many more burrows surrounded it, some with lids, others with partial lids, and some completely open. We dug, dug, and dug some more until we had collected our quota of five spiders.

Spiders on Bench Island
You will notice that these are much smaller than the other pictures I have posted - the southern, unlidded (or partially lidded) spiders I have found are quite a bit smaller than their northern counterparts and lidded Cantuaria.

We have had so much success on Stewart Island that we rebooked our ferry to take us back early (also because this place is very expensive). Tomorrow morning we leave. I had better go and pack.

Photos by Ashley White

Friday, 4 April 2014

Things that go "Ahem" in the night

I'm now in Dunedin, having spidered in Oamaru, Hakataramea, Duntroon and surrounding areas. I caught more spiders than I had expected, and I really hope they're not all the same species. Most of them are pretty big and made me jump the first few times they came out of their burrows.

The tethered beetles are doing well; none have been eaten yet, although the last of my carabids was munched by an angry mummy spider (all I got back was a leg).

While catching spiders at night, I am very focused on the burrow, waiting with bated breath for the beast to rise from the bowels of the earth (or rather, <30 cm from the surface). The concentration makes me lose awareness of my surroundings, so between burrows I take a minute to look and listen for odd goings on.

A few days ago I was collecting from a population near Five Forks. The night was pitch black, windless, and silent. I was leaning against a clay bank, beetle in hand, when a terrible screaming howl startled me. "It's nothing," I told myself. "Someone has probably left their dog outside." Again and again the screaming reverberated through the air; it sounded more like someone was sawing the tail off the dog. I tried to blank my mind to it, and continued to try to get the spiders to come out. Perhaps it was my waning patience, but they seemed not to want to come out at all. The atmosphere was chilling and I felt on edge; I just wanted to get the spiders and leave. Even without the dog screaming in the distance, I could feel that something wasn't right. I'm not one to respond to my gut feelings, but the darkness had got to my senses.

The screaming stopped, and the silence flooded back in. Still there was a feeling of tension, as there is in a flock of pigeons when a goshawk is watching them from the bushes. Then I heard a cough - not loud, but near, and stifled, as if the cougher did not want me to know they were there. I bolted for the car and drove to the next spider population. It was probably my imagination, I was hearing things...but the spiders were not coming out anyway (and the population was very small), so maybe it would have been fruitless to stay there.