Backyard Appreciation Society

Octopus on the Shore

A short film about a short life. A creature with three hearts and a hole in her brain. 

It’s been a long while. I’m sorry. What’s my excuse? I’ve got a new backyard in a new city. Gone are my days in the gallery and staring into the confusing abyss of contemporary art. I miss my old backyard even the 8 legged behemoths in the trees but I’ve gone back to school to learn how to communicate science. The video that I’ve posted is an assignment that I did a couple of weeks ago. My lecturer said we could chose any medium to communicate our message so I decided animation would probably be a bit of alright. I mean who doesn’t like cartoons? What an idiot. Animation is hard. Like really really hard especially when you don’t know how to do it and you’ve only got 3 days to do it. Excuses aside, I present to you my first animation, Toothfish.

(For best results watch it in HD on something that can handle a bit of bass! HA! Get it? bass! like sea bass?!…HAHAHA)

Two days ago an awesome thing happened. I was busy playing Guild Wars 2 when my partner yelled out ‘Oi Rach! COME HERE! I was reluctant to leave what had escalated into a huge battle against a mass of undead humans who were hellbent on trying to stop me from destroying an evil crystal. However, I could detect an urgency in his voice so I signed off and went into the lounge where he was staring at a couple of gum emperor moth cocoons (Opodiphthera eucalypti) that I had collected from a eucalyptus tree a couple of months ago. One of the cocoons was clicking loudly. 

Gum emperor cocoons look like hairy wombat balls and are incredibly robust. The clicking was growing louder and within a few minutes a soft patch (induced by a special secretion) appeared at the top of the cocoon. Every now and then we could see a tiny black hook poke through the cocoon wall. This hook is part of the emerging moth’s forewing and is used for tearing away at the tough fibres of the cocoon. After about 15 minutes the moth began to vigourously push through the cocoon until it finally burst through head first. It was one of the coolest things I’ve ever seen and when I edited this quick video together I found I had to constantly cut out excited gasps, heavy breathing and swearwords from the audio track. When the moth’s wings had stretched out and her body had firmed up we took her in a big cake box to a suburban wildlife sanctuary and let her go. 

I opened the door to the porch and was surprised to see a female house sparrow (Passer domesticus) hovering around the door frame. I sat down on the steps with my coffee and wondered why a sparrow would risk flying in such a confined space. It dawned on me that she was probably desperate for protein in the form of insects (in this case spiders) to feed her rapidly growing and demanding chicks. I looked up to the corner where Sigourney (star of ‘How to Keep a Pet Spider’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tt6_SUnd2Ew) had her web, but I couldn’t see her. This wasn’t particularly unusual because orbwebs and many other New Zealand spider species are nocturnal and hide during the day. I went back to the porch at nightfall to check if Sigourney was ok but I still couldn’t see her. I continued checking over the next few days and noticed there was uneaten food stuck in her web. I had to accept that my pet spider had been decimated by a sparrow. I was gutted. I had been watching Sigourney develop and grow and was quite certain that she was gravid. I had been looking forward to the day her spiderlings would burst from their egg case and venture out into the great unknown. Sometimes the circle of life can be a real asshole. Rest in Pieces Dearest Sigourney x o x.

I opened the door to the porch and was surprised to see a female house sparrow (Passer domesticus) hovering around the door frame. I sat down on the steps with my coffee and wondered why a sparrow would risk flying in such a confined space. It dawned on me that she was probably desperate for protein in the form of insects (in this case spiders) to feed her rapidly growing and demanding chicks. I looked up to the corner where Sigourney (star of ‘How to Keep a Pet Spider’ http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tt6_SUnd2Ew) had her web, but I couldn’t see her. This wasn’t particularly unusual because orbwebs and many other New Zealand spider species are nocturnal and hide during the day. I went back to the porch at nightfall to check if Sigourney was ok but I still couldn’t see her. I continued checking over the next few days and noticed there was uneaten food stuck in her web. I had to accept that my pet spider had been decimated by a sparrow. I was gutted. I had been watching Sigourney develop and grow and was quite certain that she was gravid. I had been looking forward to the day her spiderlings would burst from their egg case and venture out into the great unknown. Sometimes the circle of life can be a real asshole. Rest in Pieces Dearest Sigourney x o x.

Yellow admiral butterfly (Vanessa itea).

Yellow admiral butterfly (Vanessa itea).

This is the New Zealand falcon or karearea (Falco novaeseelandiae). Technically speaking, this bird wasn’t in my backyard although I once saw a pair riding a thermal updraft above my house. I took these photos at Wingspan National Bird of Prey Centre (Rotorua) a rehab and breeding facility for New Zealand raptors (birds of prey) including moreporks (Ninox novaeseelandiae) and harrier hawks (Circus approximans). 

Kahikatea (Dacrycarpus dacrydioides) swamp forest  at Arohaki Lagoon

Tiny yellow fungus possibly Hygrocybe julietae

Giant liverwort (Monoclea forsteri)

Rainbow earth formed from geothermal chemicals at Orakei Korako - The Hidden Valley.

 Filmy fern (Hymenophyllum)

Like flies to a turd, tourists flock to Rotorua to see (and smell) the ancient geysers, mudpools and hot springs. I’ve always been put off by tourist captials in my own country because I hate feeling like one of those naive suckers that pays too much for crap food and never gets to experience the real gist of a place.

However, when it comes to Rotorua I’ve had to rethink this cynical approach. The real crime is not the hordes of people with type 2 diabetes getting towed around thermal parks in a golfcart train, but it’s the fact that most Kiwi’s don’t know just how special this bit of land really is. 

Yes, Rotorua smells like an inescapable sulphur fart-cloud, but after a few hours the intensity lessens and within a couple of days the smell is barely perceptible. The colours and crystal formations that are created by the geothermal chemicals are stunning not to mention the jaw dropping geysers that shoot steam 30 meters into the air and the constant lowbrow (my kind of brow) hilarity of the mud pools that eternally plop and fart and wheeze. Classic. 

After a couple of days perusing the thermal parks my stepdad and I took a drive to Whirinaki Forest which forms the boundary between the Kaingaroa Plains and Te Urewera National Park.

Whirinaki township has an eerie neglected feel with rows of statehouses in disrepair. The locals look tough. The tearoom looks tough. Even the pet goats glared at us menacingly as we drove past. After stoping at a D.o.C office for some maps and local knowledge we headed towards the forest. After thrashing our tiny rental car on an ungraded dirt road we ended up in a deserted car park surrounded by massive ancient podocarps including miro, matai, rimu, totara and kahikatea. There was only one other vehicle in the car park. It looked like a hunting truck - dog cages on the back, bloodstains on the deck and a couple of swandry’s on the backseat. 

Less than ten minutes on the track and we came across a pair of tomtits, Petroica macrocephala.  North Island tomtits have markings like tiny pandas and disproportionately large heads with shiny black eyes - like something created by Hayao Miyazaki these birds have the quintessential components for cuteness. 

We ventured off the track (don’t do this) to follow the tomtits to see if they had a nest. After silently squatting on a mossy log in the middle of a clearing I began to hear a completely different level of the forest. The trees especially seemed to have their own language. Deep groans and sighs from the canopy of the ancient trees and soft whispers from the treeferns and forest floor.

After about 20 minutes of quietly observing the tomtits flying regularly between a couple of trees it occurred to me that I looked like a deer, albeit a grossly disfigured deer. Indeed there was deer poo on the ground at my feet and perhaps this clearing was a regular feeding spot. My mind traced back to the car park and the hunter’s ute. I suddenly became very aware of the potential of being blown apart by a shot gun. I had been given strict birdwatching orders by my step-dad to stay still and quiet while we watched the tomtits. If hunters were watching us waiting to see if we were humans we had not really given them any clear signals*. In my rising anxiety the rustling trees began to sound like advancing footsteps moving through the undergrowth. So, blowing our cover completely, I let out my loudest baritone cough which frightened the tomtits into oblivion and ruined any chance of finding their nest. My step-dad looked at me with a slightly disappointed exasperated look, however, a part of me feels that I may have saved our lives that day. I suppose you could call me a hero. 

We made our way back to the track and headed for Arohaki lagoon. I have been in some amazing forests but this place is like FernGully on steroids. The sheer size of the kahikatea (which can grow up to 60m) miro and matai is humbling. Even on the forest floor there are giants including the world’s largest liverwort, Monoclea forsteri, and the giant moss, Dawsonia superba

After another hour of walking we arrived at the lagoon. Ahoraki lagoon is an ephemeral (rain fed) lagoon hemmed by long elegant kahikatea whose buttressed roots look like the gnarled hands of an old sculptor grasping soft clay. This place is spectacular and within half an hour we saw kakariki (Cyanoramphus novaezelandiae), kereru (Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae), shining cuckoos (Chrysococcyx lucidus), grey warblers (Gerygone igata) and Southern bell frogs (Litoria raniformis). 

My words can’t do Whirinaki justice. Rotorua is only a fifty minute flight from the Capital and within the Bay of Plenty region there are some of the oldest and rarest animals, forests and ecosystems on the planet. If you’re a kiwi this is a MUST do even if it means eating some humble pie and being a tourist in your own backyard.

*I know nothing about hunting, hunting rules or regulations, deer stalking or guns. In fact I think the hunters were probably hunting pigs so I should have been more concerned about getting mauled by pig dogs and stabbed. 

 

I initially thought this moth was a piece of twine stuck to the roof of the porch. After awhile I questioned why and how a piece of twine would could attach itself to the high ceiling. Not surprisingly, it was not a piece of twine.

This is a hebe plume moth, or ‘Cross’ moth (Platyptilia falcatali) often found on koromiko. During rest the moth rolls it’s wings up giving it the appearance of a piece of dried grass or a tiny dragon.

So, a short video on how to keep a pet spider. An interesting topic you might say, especially for someone who’s afraid of spiders. I have to admit the process was rather cathartic. Sigourney was in a controlled environment which meant I could keep my anxiety wrangled. As I observed and filmed her there was interesting shift in power, I had to feed her or she would die. I had to look after her or there would be no short film. Usually she’s the one calling the shots, making me squirm and shudder with a wave of her leg. Over the few days I had Sigourney in this environment I was able to max out my imagination and I began to believe that our relationship was one of trust, reliance and affection. Deluded? Yes. Completely. 

Still, I am now rather fond of this one particular spider. 

As a kid I was contracted by my step-dad (wildlife photographer) to catch flies. I charged $5.00 per species and could make up to twenty five bucks in a weekend. This was some serious cash for a nine year old in the 90’s. With this money I would buy a buttload of candy and game tokens for the local arcade TimeZone.
In a strange, slightly Pavlovian way, I still get a sense of satisfaction catching flies. Today I came across a drone fly (Eristalis tenax).  Drone flies look like domestic honey bees but you can tell them apart by the position of their eyes and the way they hover when they fly. Catching these flies with your hands is quite a good ‘party’ trick (admittedly it would have to be a lame party) to convince your friends that you’re some kind of hardcore bee whisperer that is immune to the pain of bee stings. 
Drone fly babies are affectionately called rat-tailed maggots. The name is derived from the snorkel (the ‘rat-tail’) that the larvae use to breathe while they live in polluted water or piles of crap before pupating. 

As a kid I was contracted by my step-dad (wildlife photographer) to catch flies. I charged $5.00 per species and could make up to twenty five bucks in a weekend. This was some serious cash for a nine year old in the 90’s. With this money I would buy a buttload of candy and game tokens for the local arcade TimeZone.

In a strange, slightly Pavlovian way, I still get a sense of satisfaction catching flies. Today I came across a drone fly (Eristalis tenax).  Drone flies look like domestic honey bees but you can tell them apart by the position of their eyes and the way they hover when they fly. Catching these flies with your hands is quite a good ‘party’ trick (admittedly it would have to be a lame party) to convince your friends that you’re some kind of hardcore bee whisperer that is immune to the pain of bee stings. 

Drone fly babies are affectionately called rat-tailed maggots. The name is derived from the snorkel (the ‘rat-tail’) that the larvae use to breathe while they live in polluted water or piles of crap before pupating. 

This is a male blackbird (Turdus merula) that I discovered on the lawn. After checking his wings and legs I put the bird in a nearby tree. He promptly jumped off the tree and disappeared into a small mountain of grass clippings. This is not the first time I’ve come across a terrestrial blackbird.
Back in 2005, I met Ratbird. Ratbird lived in the woodpile at my brothers house. We were quite convinced that he was the illegitimate love child of a Norway rat (Rattus norvegicus) and a blackbird. Ratbird wasn’t much to look at. He lacked some primary tail feathers and had a bald patch on his head. However, I was always impressed by his ability to scuttle over the woodpile and squeeze into the tight spaces between the logs. Unlike normal blackbirds, Ratbird preferred to feed at dusk and wasn’t particularly vocal. 
Blackbirds are conspicuous, territorial and obnoxiously noisy - often tirelessly repeating the ‘chuk chuk chuk’ alarm call in suburban areas. 

This is a male blackbird (Turdus merula) that I discovered on the lawn. After checking his wings and legs I put the bird in a nearby tree. He promptly jumped off the tree and disappeared into a small mountain of grass clippings. This is not the first time I’ve come across a terrestrial blackbird.

Back in 2005, I met Ratbird. Ratbird lived in the woodpile at my brothers house. We were quite convinced that he was the illegitimate love child of a Norway rat (Rattus norvegicus) and a blackbird. Ratbird wasn’t much to look at. He lacked some primary tail feathers and had a bald patch on his head. However, I was always impressed by his ability to scuttle over the woodpile and squeeze into the tight spaces between the logs. Unlike normal blackbirds, Ratbird preferred to feed at dusk and wasn’t particularly vocal. 

Blackbirds are conspicuous, territorial and obnoxiously noisy - often tirelessly repeating the ‘chuk chuk chuk’ alarm call in suburban areas. 

This is a North Island lichen moth (Desclana atronivea). Normally, these moths are almost impossible to spot, as the name suggests, they hang out on lichen and become virtually invisible. Luckily for me this individual flew into my hotel room and landed on the heinous  mustard coloured wall paper. Not so inconspicuous. 

This is a North Island lichen moth (Desclana atronivea). Normally, these moths are almost impossible to spot, as the name suggests, they hang out on lichen and become virtually invisible. Luckily for me this individual flew into my hotel room and landed on the heinous  mustard coloured wall paper. Not so inconspicuous.