Hello darkness, my old friend

Posted by Ellery McNaughton @EJ_McNaughton

Who’s afraid of the dark? Society in general it would seem. Some people have good reason to be, living in places where humans are not top of the food chain, and darkness provides cover for those that are. Yet even in places where predation is not a risk to contend with, darkness gets a bad rap. The Dark Side, the Dark Lord with his Dark Mark, dark magic, somehow we have conflated darkness with evil. Perhaps this is because in the dichotomy of light and dark, light outshines darkness in the PR department. Light is the stuff angels wear to look suitably holy. Light signifies safe places for lion kings to rule their lion kingdoms. Light is the symbol of enlightenment and civilisation, an indicator of human innovation, technology and progress. And in the immutable logic of opposing pairs, if light = good, then darkness must therefore = bad. It’s algebra, or something.

Light side dark side

Choose light or choose dark. Choose the hero or the villain. Somehow they’re always the same choice

However, darkness really is our friend, preserving our sleep patterns and physiological processes, keeping our biological clock running in an orderly manner. It’s an unappreciated and often abusive friendship on our part. Natural darkness is being eroded away as we increasingly choose to hang out with the cool new kid, light. Natural limiters of daily activity are for lesser species, and if we want to work late into the night, nothing can stop us (even if the numerous health problems should). Some people love light so much that when their streetlights are changed to have less light spill, they buy outdoor lights to make up for the lack of illumination. That’s not just enabling a later bedtime; it is actively avoiding the presence of darkness. Why are we afraid of the dark?

dumbledore-happiness-turn-on-the-light

Dumbledore promoting light pollution

While urban dwellers generally don’t have to deal with predation, in the dark we often feel at risk from other humans. Walking home at night becomes an exercise of fearful imagination, where every shadowy bush, alley or doorway becomes a hiding place for others up to no good. Light banishes the shadows and leaves no place for imagination to run riot; security lights are so named for a reason – they make us feel secure. This is in spite of the fact that light doesn’t appear to reliably banish the presence of the criminal element. Of course, even if light doesn’t actually make us safe, it is important for people to feel safe in their cities. And until we as a society stop viewing darkness as a villain to be conquered, light is a necessary evil.

 

Ellery McNaughton is a PhD student in the Centre of Biodiversity and Biosecurity, School of

Ellery (2)

Ellery

Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. Her project investigates the effects of a city-wide changeover in streetlight technology on urban bird behaviour and ecosystem function. She is supervised by Margaret StanleyJacqueline BeggsKevin Gaston (University of Exeter, UK) and Darryl Jones (Griffith University, Australia).

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Going for birds: my top 6 places for bird watching in New Zealand

Posted by Daria Erastova @Kuukso

My big dream was to study New Zealand native birds. To my utter happiness, I finally joined the friendly Ecology Ngātahi labgroup under the supervision of Margaret Stanley to study ecology of urban native birds. However, I have just started my PhD project and I hope to give you some insights on that later. Instead, I will share some of my experiences birdwatching in New Zealand. Birds of a feather flock together – I found this pastime quite popular in New Zealand, so today I share my top six places to find native birds!

No. 6: Dunedin Botanic Garden, Dunedin.

The famous Dunedin Botanic Garden lies within the city’s green belt and is very big. This, along with numerous old and flowering trees growing there makes this place an excellent haven for birds. Many native species scurry here and there: tui, bellbird, silvereye, fantail etc. There is also an aviary with captive kea, kaka and kakariki.

Sylvereye

Silvereye

No. 5: Point England Reserve, Auckland.

This spacious reserve connects with other coastal reserves and is maintained, allowing you to spend a whole day there. This amazing place enables you to get  a wildlife experience while staying New Zealand’s largest city. Here you would can find a variety of shore and forest birds. I counted 25 species in a day, including natives like shelduck, kereru and rare little black shag.

Kereru

Kereru

No. 4. Urupukapuka Island, Bay of Islands.

I was not keen to go there. Urupukapuka proved I was wrong as it turned out to be an outstanding place for birdwatching. In fact, I beat my personal record and identified 27 species in 3 hours! My most interesting encounters were banded rail, New Zealand dotterel, tomtit and North Island robin.

shelduck

Shelduck

No. 3. Otago Peninsula, Dunedin.

Except for the famous Royal Albatross Colony, where you can also spot Stewart Island shag, and the Penguin Place, with grumpy yellow-eyed penguins, there are other places worth visiting. For example, the Hooper Inlet, inhabited by sacred kingfisher, white-faced heron, grey teal and swamp harrier. The other place is Portobello Bay with royal spoonbill, pied oystercatcher and the cutest little shag. Finally, go to Tomahawk Lagoon for pied stilt or spur-winged plover.

little shag

Little shag

No. 2. Tawharanui Regional Park, Auckland.

What is special about this beautiful peninsula is that it is surrounded by a pest-proof fence and has a variety of habitats, including old forests with kaka (you are highly likely to see or hear one), river thickets with spotless crake and seashores with pipits.

No. 1. Tiritiri Matangi, Hauraki Gulf.

This reserve does not need any introduction being one of the most popular tourist attractions in Auckland. After predator eradication and forest replanting the island became the bird paradise. There you all the chances to have a close encounter with species you would never or hardly ever see anywhere else, e.g. little spotted kiwi (one passed 25 cm away from me!), takahe, kokako, brown teal, stitchbird and many more.

I hope this list was useful and enjoyable for all nature lovers. It is based on my limited experience, and there are many other fantastic places, which I am eager to explore. Therefore, if you need a volunteer for your bird fieldwork or a companion on a birdwatching trip, please feel free to contact me.

 

kokako

Kokako

 

DariaphotoDaria is a PhD candidate studying the influence of garden sugar feeders on native bird behaviour and health, and whether feeders alter the contribution these birds make to pollinating indigenous plants. She is supervised by Margaret Stanley, Kristal Cain and Josie Galbraith.

 

Breaking the mowing addiction – let’s have some meadows.

Posted by Bruce Burns @BruceTracks

Why do we mow so much? In the city, our landscape norm is buildings set in areas of close cropped grass, and we are taught from an early age that regularly mowing lawns is the height of good husbandry (or wifebandry). But does it need to be so?

The mown lawn could rightly be viewed as an emblem of western civilization, and modern urban form owes much to the existence of lawnmowers. Regular mowing maintains open space around our buildings and roads and prevents ecological succession of those areas to weeds or forest. But there is a lot of lawn to mow – urban grasslands take up around 15 – 20% of Auckland (and other western cities) land area. There is also a cultural norm that seems to equate closely-mown lawns to tidiness, order, and care for urban human habitat. Mowing has become a regular activity for us, and we even instil a mowing ethos in our children with toy mowers.

meadow

Meadows in low-mow situations in Auckland provide multiple environmental and biodiversity benefits

But all that mowing comes at a cost, both real and opportunity. Publically and privately we spend millions of dollars and hours each year on mowing. Environmentally, mowing burns fuel and thereby contributes emissions to the air and pollutants to water. The opportunity costs can be estimated by considering what happens if we mow less and let lawns turn into meadows. Urban grasslands provide areas for stormwater infiltration and water retention – these ecosystem services are increased when grassland swards are deeper. As well, urban biodiversity would be enhanced. Meadow vegetation supports a greater diversity and abundance of plants, insects (including pollinators) and many other life forms. As well, wildflower-rich meadows would have psychological benefits for many urban dwellers, and they are stunningly romantic.

So, let’s experiment with setting aside areas within our cities and allow them to develop into meadows. I’m not talking about everywhere and not suggesting they won’t need some management. But I think we have a lot to gain by leaving the mower in the shed and valuing the nature that happens as a result.

bruceDr Bruce Burns is a Senior Lecturer in Plant Ecology in the School of Biological Sciences, University of Auckland. He is a plant community ecologist specialising in the biodiversity and restoration of natural, managed, and urban ecosystems.