Quick Stop at the Petrel Station

I drove through Punakaiki recently.

Once a year this west coast town holds a festival to welcome the Westland petrel back home to New Zealand after its annual sojourn to South American waters. Amid a weekend of music and revelry, festival-goers gather on the beach at sunset to watch thousands of large black seabirds assemble in the sky above the coast. The birds then fly en masse overhead toward the forest hills, as they do every night during their breeding season.

Punakaiki has good reason to be proud of these beautiful petrels, also known as a tāikos, because they’re truly a local specialty. All 4,000 or so pairs nest along this small patch of coastline. Unlike nearly all other burrowing seabird species in New Zealand, Westland petrels somehow avoided being pushed off the mainland when invasive mammals hitched a ride with humans to this part of the world (though the birds certainly struggle with predation on land, as well as with threats at sea).

I missed the Tāiko Festival by a few weeks, but I got to see something even better when I stopped through town. With the help of a conservation-minded landowner whose property holds dozens of nests, I visited the Westland petrel colony itself.

Westland sunset by Abby McBride

It was sunset when I parked in the driveway and followed Bruce Stuart-Menteath into the inland forest. In the gathering dusk we ascending long sets of wooden stairs that he’d built years ago to give petrel colony tours to interested parties. At one point, Bruce paused to explain something and was interrupted by a crash in the thicket off to the left. “That was a petrel,” he remarked, as we continued our climb.

At the top we sat down, and there the spectacle began in earnest.

Big dark birds were crash-landing in the forest all around us and shuffling along the ground to their burrows. Watching the dimly lit sky through a gap in the trees and ferns, we could see their silhouettes circling as they prepared for entry. One came straight at me: imagine looking at a Batman symbol (except more seabird-shaped) that gets larger and larger and then veers aside at the last instant to tumble dramatically onto the ground. I felt a whoosh of air, a brush of wings, and fortunately no puncture from that fearsome ivory beak.

After one of these landings, Bruce turned on a dim light so we could get a look at a petrel as it rested from the exertion. I had half a minute to sketch this one before it crept away toward its burrow.

Westland petrel by Abby McBride

Later on, another bird climbed up a stump in front of us—a customary launch pad, Bruce informed me—and spent about ten minutes contemplating an early departure back to sea. Several times it opened its long wings and flapped vigorously. But it ended up dropping back to the ground and meandering off into the bush. Apparently it would wait until the morning rush, when most of the petrels head back to the ocean under cover of darkness (to avoid the falcon, Bruce said).

We didn’t want to use too much light and disturb the petrels. But there was plenty to listen to, between the crashes and the rustlings and all manner of vocal performances, as the birds sat in their burrow entrances and loudly laid claim to their territory. Within a week or so they’d be laying eggs.

When we descended back to sea level that night, I accepted a kind offer for “tea and pudding” (that’s dinner and dessert in New Zealand) with Bruce and his partner Denise Howard. Then I camped nearby on the coast.

I emerged from my tent an hour before dawn and drove until I reached a stretch of road that Bruce had described to me. I got out of the car. Standing there with the world gradually lightening around me, I watched Westland petrels materialize in the distance above the hills and fly toward me in a wide, continuous stream. They flew over my head and past the moon with faintly swishing wingbeats, off for a day of feeding at sea.

The flood slowed to a trickle, and at last the final petrel flew over. The sun rose. I got back in the car and drove on.

Un Enfoque Divertido para los Educadores para Involucrar a los Estudiantes en Biodiversidad de Insectos & Cambio Climático

LOGOTIPO DEL JUEGO. DISEÑO R. ISAÍ MADRIZ

Los insectos generalmente no son muy atractivos a los ojos de muchos, fuera de las coloridas y “carismáticas” mariposas y escarabajos. ¿Cómo mostrar a las moscas y “gusanos” de una manera interesante y atractiva? El secreto está en exponer las vidas secretas de los insectos. ¿Sabías que puedes usar “gusanos” para ver si el agua del río es buena para beber? ¿Sabías que hay zancudos primitivos que han sobrevivido sin muchos cambios desde la época de los dinosaurios (período Jurásico)? ¿Y qué pensarías si te dijera que hay familias enteras de moscas que parasitan arañas tan grandes como las tarántulas? ¿O qué hay larvas de moscas acuáticas que poseen ventosas hidráulicas ventrales las cuales las mantienen firmemente agarradas a las rocas sumergidas

¿Cómo se puede involucrar a mentes jóvenes en temas complejos como el cambio climático, la conservación, el endemismo y los bioindicadores en un paquete divertido?

Este juego gratuito está destinado a servir tanto a niños en desarrollo típico como a niños en desarrollo atípico (como aquellos con autismo leve y otras necesidades especiales). Los materiales abarcan palabras escritas que el niño o el maestro pueden leer en voz alta, fotos para la representación visual y piezas táctiles para mejorar la comprensión.

Hay dos componentes principales de este enfoque educativo: 1) el juego y 2) reflexión intelectual (el rol del educador).

El Juego

Los estudiantes participan en una combinación de temas que incluyen descubrimientos de especies, endemismo, cambio climático, especies introducidas y biomonitoreo a través de la exploración, el descubrimiento y el pensamiento proactivo.

El tablero de juego es una composición  artística de imágenes satelitales de la geología y hábitats de la Patagonia (Aysén, Chile).

Tablero de juego con explicación de figuras. Diseño R. ISAÍ MADRIZ

Como “exploradores”, los jugadores parten hacia una tierra desconocida, por donde viajaran a diferentes hábitats en busca de especies de insectos raras y nuevas, las cuales deben ser adquiridas a través de herramientas específicas para cada especie (red de insectos, pinzas, etc.) Estas herramientas sólo pueden obtenerse respondiendo preguntas sobre la biodiversidad. Las preguntas variarán según el grupo de edad de los jugadores.

Durante el juego, los exploradores se encontrarán con especies introducidas y aprenderán sobre su impacto en el medio ambiente (cómo se desplazan /superan las especies endémicas). Asimismo, aprenderán sobre el microhábitat donde habita cada especie.

El enfoque de bioindicadores es simple y tiene como objetivo proporcionar a los estudiantes una sencilla comprensión de su uso como bioindicadores, así como una visión simplista de cómo identificar a los grupos.

En su andar, los jugadores pueden adquirir, a través de la adquisición de un comodín, una “especie invasora” y tratarán de encontrar una manera de “lidiar con” (controlar) las especies invasoras que se establecieron en la nueva tierra del jugador.

El juego está destinado para tener un enfoque de grupo. El jugador con más especies no es el ganador, por el  contrario, el objetivo del juego es discutir e interpretar los diversos insectos y su información de hábitat para crear un equilibrio.

Los insectos seleccionados para esta primera versión del juego son una combinación de especies nuevas, carismáticas y poco conocidas. La información sobre insectos proporcionada se basa en información de publicaciones científicas y en relatos precisos e inéditos de la historia natural de la especie seleccionada.

Tarjeta de especies con explicación de figuras. Diseño R. Isaí Madriz

Reflexión Intelectual (el rol del educador)

El maestro no necesita ser un experto en entomología para usar este juego con los estudiantes. El rol de el es facilitar el aprendizaje antes y después de jugar el juego. Antes de iniciar el juego, el maestro puede dar una introducción a temas generales, como la biodiversidad, los ecosistemas, etc. El enfoque del juego puede ajustarse a los requisitos del plan de estudios del aula.

Al final del juego, el maestro guiará un intercambio intelectual entre los jugadores con el fin de ayudarse unos a otros a lograr “un planeta en equilibrio” basado en los insectos que recolectaron. Se sugiere el fomentar discusiones adicionales para que los estudiantes reflexionen sobre lo que aprendieron y por qué es importante.

El objetivo de la reflexión intelectual es estimular a los estudiantes a que expliquen su razonamiento sobre cómo jugaron el juego y su estrategia de crear un ecosistema diverso y saludable. Hay un gran potencial para lograr diversas perspectivas y resultados, lo que crea un proceso de aprendizaje más valioso.

R. Isaí Madriz adquiriendo información sobre moscas de torrente para el juego. Foto Anand Varma.

Nota: Esta herramienta de aprendizaje fue inspirada por diez años de trabajo en educación, conservación y experiencia científica colaborando con distintas comunidades en todo el continente americano en temas de conservación para ayudar a los educadores a involucrar a sus alumnos y llevar las maravillas de la exploración y los descubrimientos científicos al aula.

Este juego y sus componentes se pueden adaptar a cualquier parte del mundo en dimensiones tan pequeñas como un municpio hasta un un continente y más allá. Además, se puede adaptar para diversos estilos de aprendizaje y actualmente se está desarrollando en español e inglés.

* Para obtener más información, incluidas las reglas del juego y el acceso a archivos PDF de los componentes, comuníquese por medio de la sección de comentarios de este blog o mande un mensaje a [email protected]

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El equipo usado para este proyecto de nueve meses es cortesía de Fulbright, National GeographicIridiumAlpacka RaftAqua-BoundBoo BicyclesKokatatSeal LineOsprey, TentsilePatagonia, Voltaic & Jax Outdoor Gear.

Just a Seagull? Nope.

There’s no such thing as a seagull, according to certain pedantsHow can that be?

Because it’s a gull—actually, one of about fifty gull species living in habitats all over the world, oceanic and otherwise. They range from the size of a dove to the size of an osprey, with all sorts of differences in appearance and behavior. Three of those species live here in New Zealand—including the river-dwelling black-billed gull, the most endangered gull in the world. When I took my sketchbook and went looking for nesting gulls, I found some nests inches from the ocean and others 50 miles inland, which is about as far from the coast as you can get around here.

So…what’s wrong with calling a sea-affiliated gull a seagull? Sigh. Nothing, I guess. But by using more precise terms you can help discourage a tragic misconception: that there’s one kind of seagull, and it’s a rat with wings. In a single week I’ve watched a motorist drive casually into a flock of endangered black-billed gulls resting on the grass, cringed while a recreational fisherman traipsed through one of their breeding colonies on a river island, and heard stories about people shooting them for fun. They’re just seagulls, after all—they’re everywhere, all making a nuisance of themselves. Right?

Nope. Endangered or otherwise, each gull species is unique and deserves to be recognized as such, in my humble opinion. So without further ado, I’d like to introduce you to New Zealand’s gulls.

RED-BILLED GULL (Larus novaehollandiae)

The dainty red-billed gull is known as tarāpunga or akiaki in Māori. It’s the most common gull on New Zealand’s shores, so some people think of it as a pest. But in fact its population has been plummeting in response to things like invasive predators and changes in krill abundance caused by climate fluctuation. I think the red-billed gull is one of the dandiest birds around: sparkling white, with brilliant red accents and an attitude well out of proportion with its size.

BLACK-BILLED GULL (Larus bulleri)

The black-billed gull also goes by tarāpuka. Closely related to the common but declining red-billed gull, it’s of similar size and spunk but with a more elongated body, a more attenuated bill, and more of an emo expression. It nests in dense colonies on river islands and is the most endangered gull in the world. I generally avoid talking about politics, but I voted for the underappreciated black-billed gull in the New Zealand Bird of the Year elections. More about this gull in my next story.

SOUTHERN BLACK-BACKED GULL (Larus dominicanus)

The southern black-backed gull is found all over the southern hemisphere, where it’s usually known as the kelp gull. Here in New Zealand it goes by karoro or simply “black-back”. Opportunistic scavengers, black-backed gulls have gotten more common in conjunction with human impacts on the landscape. Even among bird aficionados they have a villainous reputation, thanks to their habit of dining on eggs and chicks. But just look at how cute that black-backed gull family is…

In the next episode I’ll take you to a special gull colony I stumbled on. Meanwhile, remember: good or bad, a gull is never just a seagull.

Abby McBride (Photo: Edin Whitehead)Photo by Edin Whitehead

Abby McBride is a sketch biologist and Fulbright-National Geographic Fellow. She is currently sketching seabirds and writing stories about extraordinary efforts to save these threatened animals in New Zealand, the “seabird capital of the world.” Here are some ways to support seabird conservation.

Originally posted 2018-02-01 02:26:32.

Brazilian Salamanders: Rare, Beautiful and Endangered

Turn over a few rocks and logs in a moist forest and you will certainly find a salamander. Well, not exactly. While this is true in many areas in North America and Europe, salamanders are quite rare in some other places, where other types of amphibians, such as frogs and caecilians, are common.

Contrary to the general patterns of global biodiversity, where tropical forests harbor the majority of species, the bulk of salamander diversity is found in temperate forests of the northern hemisphere. Most groups of salamanders are confined to temperate zones, including a high number of species that are be found only in the United States.

One group of salamanders has, however, successfully colonized Central and South America: Lungless salamanders (Plethodontidae). These small-size, lizard-like amphibians are usually terrestrial and inhabit a variety of habitats, including the forest floor, crevices and caves, inside bromeliads and tree holes—some are even found high up in tree canopies.

Brazil is the country with the most amphibian species anywhere in the world—13 percent of the 7,800 known amphibian species occur in the country. However, out of more than one thousand amphibians in Brazil, only five are salamanders. In fact, until very recently only a single species was recognized—a study in 2013 discovered three new species and provided scattered records of another one. All Brazilian species are members of the lungless salamanders group, and are restricted to Amazonia. They are all relatively rare, extremely poorly known with respect to their biology, and most already face major threats to their survival.

Pará’s Lungless Salamander (Bolitoglossa paraensis), one of the five species of salamander that occur in Brazil—the species is threatened with extinction due to destruction of its forest habitat. (Photo: Pedro Peloso)

Conservation of Amazonian Salamanders

One of the five species of Brazilian salamanders is Pará’s lungless salamander (Bolitoglossa paraensis), which is restricted to forested areas of the easternmost portion of Amazonia. Although locally abundant where it occurs, the species has a patchy distribution and is only found in a few well-preserved rainforest areas. The species does not tolerate too much disturbance to its habitat and cannot survive in open or cleared areas. Most of the species’ range is within the Amazonian Arc of Deforestation, and therefore the Brazilian Government has listed the species as officially threatened with extinction.

The other four species also appear to be rare and are usually found in areas with increasing threats to their survival. These threats include rampant deforestation, pollution, changes in rain patterns that may affect their reproductive cycle, the building of large hydroelectric dams (Tapajós and Madeira Rivers) and, potentially, infectious diseases (such as chytrid fungus).

Caldwell’s Lungless Salamander (Bolitoglossa caldwellae) was described in 2013—it was named after biologist Janalee Caldwell, whos dedicated many years to the study and conservation of Amazonian amphibians. Very little is known about its biology and distribution.

The Brazilian portion of the Amazonian rainforest harbors an incredible diversity of animals and plants, many of which are unique to that part of the globe, or are very rare.

A large portion of Amazonian species are poorly known in most aspects of their biology and geographic distribution, which makes any assessment of their conservation status difficult. In the specific case of amphibians, several Amazonian species were never assessed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources (IUCN) Red List of Threatened Species. Moreover, many of those that were evaluated are labeled as Data Deficient (DD)—this means there are no sufficient scientific data for a conclusive assessment of their conservation status.

Out of the five species of salamanders in Brazil, one is listed as DD and three have not yet been evaluated. Finally, given that many areas of the Brazilian Amazonia are completely unexplored, it is possible that additional species of salamanders will discovered there in the future.

The bottom line is: we need more field biologists collecting data on Amazonian salamanders (and other organisms). This is critical for their survival.

Tapajós Lungless Salamander (Bolitoglossa tapajonica), one of three species discovered in a study in 2013. The construction of hydroelectric dams and deforestation in the Tapajós River region threatens the habitat of this species—and consequently imperils its survival. (Photo: Pedro Peloso)

The Rare Primitive Crane Fly and the Inelegancies to Find It

(Patagonia’s Untold Stories)

While packrafting the southeastern edge of the Northern Patagonia Ice Field along Chile’s largest river, the Baker, in search of primitive crane flies, Anand Varma and I came across an exciting find.

In a fragmented location only accessible via water, among a lichened-covered forest, we discovered a single wing of the genus Neoderus adhered to the underside of a leaf, between the Northern and Southern Ice Fields. Yes, a single wing is a fantastic find when it comes to primitive crane flies.

Most likely you have never heard of them and that is because primitive crane flies are considered to be one of the rarest groups of flies in the world and only a handful of people have been able to collect them. With only one specimen ever collected in the late 1800s in the southern Chilean fjords, the genus Neoderus can be considered the rarest of all primitive crane flies.

During my last expedition in 2015 I secured four flies, the first and only specimens collected of this genus since its discovery.

stacked image of a Female neoderus sp. hanging on a Nothofagus sp. twig. Photo by R. Isaí MAdriz

With colder temperatures marking the last chance this year to find this rare group, I set off once again to complete what Anand and I started. I decided to target the locality where I found a lone wing two years prior. I loaded my backpack, took my hiking poles (or as my collaborators call them, “my gimpy sticks”, due to the frequency of my ankle injuries) and limped into one of the most pristine creeks I have seen. After a 1100ft climb and bushwhacking across dense forest I arrived to the location.

Upon arrival I removed my hiking boots and proceeded to relieve my ankle pain in the glacial creek. Soon after, I unpacked my 60+lb backpack and identified the perfect configuration for my tree tent, which was strategically located near the creek 6ft above the ground. Below my tent, I set up my “field laboratory” consisting of a stereomicroscope from the early 1980s with generic USB lights secured by duct tape and powered via rechargeable solar battery. This arrangement allows me to collect aquatic insects and immediately identify any promising specimen under high magnification. The dream camp set up of any insect-loving seven-year-old!

Not only does my tree tent provide a dry refuge from sudden rainfall, characteristic to this area, but it is also the perfect barrier from the numerous avian intestinal discharges I am constantly being bombarded with by territorial birds.

With sunset approaching, I decided to have something to eat. I packed all the necessary gear for this short expedition but managed to forget food.

Loose in one of my backpack’s hipbelt pockets, I found a handful of stale trail mix (from sometime since September) and a piece of chocolate.

Lack of aesthetically pleasing or “proper” camping food, seem to be a trend for this site. A couple of years ago, my food bag punctured and got wet while reaching this exact location, leaving me to consume lukewarm soft cheese, soggy bread and broken crackers accidentally blended into a paste-like consistency. Read more about this particular story here.

This time was no different. As I searched the creek looking for the unknown larvae of Neoderus and other aquatic insects, I intentionally separated the largest common stoneflies. I later proceeded to make my “back-country specialty” of au naturel stonefly and stale raisin kebabs on endemic southern beech twigs, complemented with all-you-can-drink glacial melts. A true delight!  My other options were: 1) No food or 2) Soggy almonds and common black fly larvae, but the latter are quite slimy and a last resort among the edible insect choices on my list.

With hunger “satisfied”, I set up my blacklight a few feet away from the stream.  While waiting for insects to be attracted to the light reflected on a white sheet, I set off into the dark forest in true nerd-like fashion with my rain pants synched up to my mid abdomen, my cuffs tucked into my socks and sporting my night vision goggles in search of nocturnal six-legged gems.

stacked image of a female Neoderus sp. resting on Nothofagus sp. twigs. Photo by R. Isaí MAdriz

Throughout the night, the UV light attracted all sorts of insects, including Darwin’s beetles, half-inch-long parasitic wasps, caddisflies, moths and many midges. Alas, no Primitive Crane Flies.

Soon after midnight, rain drove away most of the insects and continued to pour until mid-morning. With sunrise approaching and a sufficient few hours of sleep, I climbed out of bed, ate a forgotten stonefly still in the “food” container and the piece of chocolate for breakfast, put on my rain gear and limped across the forest in search of the insect I came for.

After wadding through the creek for a couple of hours with no success, I decided to direct my attention to the numerous fallen trees around the forest. Interestingly, a large decaying tree still hangs 8ft high over the creek. Underneath, a Neoderus female. After squealing like a piglet for some time, I proceeded to secure the specimen. Crane flies in general are well known among taxonomists to lose or detach their legs at will. This particular female had all six legs still attached, making it the only pristine specimen in the world.

With my precious find, I headed straight back to camp. Once there, I frantically packed it all up and awkwardly limped back to my vehicle a few miles away, all the while juggling the specimen, my heavy backpack and my “gimpy sticks”.

I drove eight hours back to my headquarters and proceeded to photograph the female. After a long and continuous photography session of 48hours the female finally died, but not before yielding the photographs above. These, along with one poor quality image from 2015, are the only photographs of a live Neoderus in existence.  A true reminder of the biological jewels awaiting discovery in the vicinities of the Patagonia Ice Fields.

R. Isaí Madriz identifying aquatic insects in the field. PHOTO BY R. ISAÍ MADRIZ

*The Neoderus specimen in the photographs above belongs to a new species of primitive crane fly. A scientific (peer reviewed) publication is in process to formally describe this species.

Follow Isaí Madriz on Instagram, Facebook or Twitter.

Equipment used for this nine month project is courtesy of Fulbright, National Geographic, Iridium, Alpacka Raft, Aqua-BoundBoo Bicycles, Kokatat, Seal Line, Osprey, TentsilePatagonia, Voltaic & Jax Outdoor Gear.

Originally posted 2018-03-20 22:39:01.

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