Tag Archives: species recovery

Seeds in Seams

With gray Antarctic seas rocking our ship, I hunkered down with a dental pick and got to work on the Velcro. The Akademik Ioffe was pulling up to our first landing on the glorious island of South Georgia, just north of the Antarctic Circle, and our expedition leaders had cranked up biosecurity measures.

2013-1-2_0059-South Georgia profile-©Trileigh Tucker

Approaching South Georgia

South Georgia, for all the rocky strength of its mountains and the sweeping power of its massive glaciers, is fragile. Although restrictions on hunting of whales and fur seals have allowed those species to rebound—we regularly had to dodge grumpy fur seals draped across beaches, the most harrowing part of my Antarctic experience—the island’s ecosystem is now threatened by two subtler menaces: climate change and the introduction of invasive species.

On site, we couldn’t do much about climate change, and the island’s British government has, incredibly, just succeeded in vanquishing the land’s rodent problem. But we could help prevent the colonization of the South Georgia lowlands by non-native plant species.

Which is why I was sitting in the ship’s cold mudroom, surrounded by muck boots, life jackets, and an enormous, mysterious piston-like device supposedly used for sonar “investigations” in the ship’s past life as a Russian research vessel, picking almost-invisible seeds out of the worn seams of my bright red rain jacket. That’s what Velcro is designed for, after all: catching and holding tiny things. You’d be amazed how much plant material is hidden in the folds and pockets and other in-between places in our cuffs and zippers.

2018-1-7-3483-Velcro seeds-Trileigh Tucker

Seeds and vegetation in Velcro in sleeve cuff, paperclip for scale. Note not just the “big” seeds, but the tiny little specks. All of this had to be removed before landing on South Georgia.

Finally clean and seedless, our group loaded into Zodiacs and sped toward the shore. Like Shackleton, our first stop was at King Haakon Bay, where in 1916 he had landed a small crew in hopes of crossing the forbidding mountain range to find salvation on the other side of the island at Stromness. Unlike Shackleton, we were armed with cameras and binoculars, with the assurance of a plentiful meal and fresh-baked chocolate dessert at the end of the day. We set out to get to know this realm of remote beauty.

1_0014-King Haakon Bay, South Georgia-©Trileigh Tucker

King Haakon Bay, South Georgia

The dramatic sightings of South Georgia, of course, were the hundreds of thousands of penguins who filled the glacial valleys around the island.

King Penguin colony, St Andrews Bay-Trileigh Tucker

King Penguin colony St Andrews Bay, South Georgia

More modest but just as inspiring was a South Georgia Pipit.

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South Georgia Pipit. Larsen Harbour, South Georgia

This unassuming-looking little bird is part of the island’s success story, rescued from almost certain extinction by disciplined international efforts to remove its predators, rats, from the entire place. Global warming could still melt glaciers enough to provide increased rat habitat, with consequences for the little pipit, but for now, he and his community are doing fine. They can find healthy food in the form of native plants—with our help in de-seeding invasives from our Velcro.

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I’ve long been unexpectedly attracted to the seams in our places, the in-between nooks, the overlooked vacant lots.

Vacant_Lot_of_Osaka_Rinko_Line (Wikimedia Commons)

Vacant lot, Osaka Rinko Line. By 暇・投稿 (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

 I love walking through neighborhoods as I go on errands, noticing where the wild things live. When I lived in the urban core of Seattle’s Central Area, my walking route often took me past an overgrown lot that had somehow escaped development. It was a narrow slot between houses, a standard 3000-square-foot city lot—but it supported big trees and thickets of blackberry plants where hidden birds chittered. Trails wound through the brambles, paths worn by kids’ sneakers as they explored this urban micro-wild. I hoped that somehow it could be preserved to provide a much-needed island of nature, a green refuge in a gray block.


A temporary meadow in a vacant lot on Harvard Ave E in Seattle’s Capitol Hill neighborhood. Photo by Joe Mabel; caption provided by photographer. Used by CC BY-SA 2.0. File available here.

One day I saw a big white square glaring on freshly-installed posts: the inevitable Notice of Proposed Land Use Action. It didn’t take long for a graffito protest to appear: “Neighbors – how can we stop this?” Another responded: “Let’s meet,” with a proposed date. But a couple of months later, as I approached the block, I could see a bright gap in the sky where trees had provided cooling shadows. Construction had begun. I stopped to chat with one of the workers, who told me, “Yeah, a Microsoft guy bought it. Planning to build one of those mega-mansions, fill up the entire lot with a big fancy house. Kind of a shame. But that’s always the way it goes, isn’t it?”

Robert Michael Pyle writes in his marvelous essay Eden in a Vacant Lot, “…nothing is less empty to a curious, exploring child”—and I would add, to spunky wildlife trying to make its way in a challenging urban setting—”than a vacant lot, nothing less wasted than waste ground, nothing more richly simmered in promise than raw ground.” Seeds of a child’s love of nature, seeds of nature itself, are planted in these wild seams.

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We’re now beginning to see that these urban seams may provide some of the seeds for wildlife recovery. A recent article in Yale 360, Habitat on the Edges: Making Room for Wildlife in an Urbanized World, outlines the ways in which undeveloped space in cities can act as refuges for species squeezed out of areas denser with people. Even areas as narrow as 25 yards wide can significantly help to increase biodiversity, notes author Richard Conniff. He describes a British effort in which conservation-commercial cooperation is generating new attention to the ragged land along rail lines as wildlife habitat: not just nature-by-accident, but purposeful enhancement of unexpected natural spaces. While Conniff acknowledges that much more habitat is needed for true species preservation, these neglected spaces offer small islands of hope.


Weeds and wilderness: The Haddington Branch. Caption from Wikimedia Commons: When the North British Railway decided to miss out Haddington, this did not go down well in the county town. A short branch line was built linking Haddington and Edinburgh via a junction at Longniddry. The railway was closed to passengers in 1949, but there is quite a strong campaign to reopen it. The seed rich embankment is a useful resource for the finches now that winter sown crops are becoming more popular here. (Link to file and attribution is here.)

Seeds in the seams are sources of wildness: sometimes a threat, sometimes a treasure. But unless we learn to pay attention—to consider the overlooked, the in-between, the generative gaps—we won’t be able to tell the difference.

2013-10-6_0016-Thistle seeds-©Trileigh Tucker

Thistle seeds


Southern Summer Silence

Eastern beginning of the Routeburn Track

Eastern beginning of the Routeburn Track

Strange but somehow familiar, the late-summer New Zealand forest rose around us as we began our backpack along the Routeburn Track, one of the country’s famous Great Walks. The trail rose gently through the woods, a purring stream beside it carrying water towards Lake Wakatipu, where we’d started that morning. The giant beech trees’ slightly foreign shapes, combined with an understory whose plant population we didn’t know, made for a shift in illumination compared to our Pacific Northwest forest: a slightly bluer tone, a distinctive light-pattern on the forest floor, perhaps.

Beech forest-east side of Routeburn. Photo: newzealand.com.au (click on photo for website).

Red Beech forest-east side of Routeburn. Photo: newzealand.com.au (click on photo for website).

Typically, and happily, the slowest hikers on any trail, we were a little chagrined to find an equally slow older couple keeping us company, and they probably felt the same way. Fortunately, they stopped even more often than we did, looking for birds—particularly the Blue Duck, they told us, which can most likely be found in rushing waters such as those in the stream below—so we shortly had the trail to ourselves.

Rob on swinging bridge over the Route Burn (river)

Rob on swinging bridge over the Route Burn (river)

Normally I’d spend much more time birding than hiking, but the Routeburn is a 28-mile, 4-day hike, and I knew we had a big elevation gain toward the end of today’s segment, so I wanted to keep moving while I still had the fresh energy of morning.

One of my photographic goals for this hike was the challenging Rifleman (Titipounamu, in onomatopoeic Maori), a quick little bird who darts about in the shadows, making tiny little peeps that are at the top of most people’s hearing range. (Make sure to take at least a quick listen to these recordings, to give yourself a feel for what it’s really like out there.) On the trail, I’d often hear a pair of them calling nearby, but they’d be gone before my camera could focus.

The elusive Rifleman - captured at last!

The elusive Rifleman – captured on camera at last!

The lower-pitched counterpoint tones of South Island Tomtits (miromiro) also accompanied us as we made our way to treeline.

South Island Tomtit. (Photo taken on Stewart Island)

South Island Tomtit. (Photo taken on Stewart Island)

South Island Tomtit on Routeburn Track

South Island Tomtit on Routeburn Track

We made our way upward for several hours through glorious glacial scenery.

View from near Routeburn Falls Hut: Routeburn Flats and Humboldt Mountains

View from near Routeburn Falls Hut: Routeburn Flats and Humboldt Mountains

Glacial landscape near Harris Summit (plus a tired but happy hiker)

Glacial landscape near Harris Summit (plus a tired but happy hiker)

Finally the welcome sight of gray-painted paneling greeted us through the thinning woods, and we were glad to offload our packs (which seemed to have mysteriously gained weight with our increased elevation) onto a pair of top bunks in the Routeburn Falls Hut. I dug my camera back out to photograph whichever bird species might show up, then we wandered slowly and ouchingly around the hut area, sitting for a while by the eponymous Falls and marveling at the pools’ clear deep green. I didn’t get any bird photos that evening but was looking forward to taking more during the next couple of days’ hiking, which would be mostly above treeline.

Routeburn Falls

Routeburn Falls

Spectacular Southern Alps landscape spread out alongside us as we contoured our way down from the Harris Saddle toward our next destination, the McKenzie Hut, seven miles away. The weather was perfect: 70’s, with a light breeze on our cheeks to keep us cool and bug-free. Close to the pass, the piercing calls of a small flock of Keas rang through the sky, then faded as we gradually descended along the glacial valley wall. We were far above the one road we could make out in the far distance, so the background sound was the pure distant rush of waterfalls across the deep valley.

Hollyford Valley from Routeburn Track

Hollyford Valley from Routeburn Track

Above our last stop, the Lake Howden hut, a magical hobbitish woods greeted us, sprinkled with the now-familiar voices of Riflemen and Tomtits, who kept us company for the next couple of days as we finished the hike. We reveled in the absence of civilization’s noise; the relative silence, broken by our companionable bird species, felt meditative.

We found out afterwards that it was the silence of death.

In your mind, add together the three bird calls you’ve listened to so far (Rifleman, Tomtit, and Kea), and add in a couple of imaginary ones for the birds I probably heard but couldn’t identify. Now, compare that to this recording of the dawn chorus in Abel Tasman National Park. That’s an approximation of how the Routeburn forest might have sounded before humans came on the scene: an auditory glimpse of the Pleistocene.

Even in 1770, Captain Cook’s naturalist Joseph Banks, describing the New Zealand dawn chorus in January 1770, could write:

This morn I was awakd by the singing of the birds ashore from whence we are distant not a quarter of a mile, the numbers of them were certainly very great who seemd to strain their throats with emulation perhaps; their voices were certainly the most melodious wild musick I have ever heard, almost imitating small bells but with the most tuneable silver sound imaginable….

Having evolved in the absence of land-based mammal predators, New Zealand bird species (of which an astonishing 70% are endemic) developed nests that are now exquisitely vulnerable to the huge numbers of mammal predators—rats, stoats, possums, feral cats—introduced first by the Maori, then by Europeans. Some species, like the enormous moa, were hunted to extinction by the Maori, and all of them are presumably affected by continuing habitat loss due to bush clearing and draining of wetlands. Tragically, a full third of New Zealand’s marvelous bird species may have been irrevocably lost since humans arrived. Beneath the stunning scenery, below the silver birches, a stealthy army is systematically devastating the sylvan songscape.

Later in our trip, we’d visited Ulva Island (an islet off Stewart Island, New Zealand’s southernmost “third island”), whose 670 acres have been transformed into a native bird and plant sanctuary through dedicated efforts at pest eradication. With the expert guidance of Matt Jones of Ulva’s Guided Walks, there we encountered several previously-eradicated species that now populate the island: Yellowheads, South Island Saddlebacks, Stewart Island Robins.

Yellowheads, Ulva Island

Endangered Yellowheads (mohua), Ulva Island (Call of the Yellowhead)

Endangered Saddleback tearing bark in search of bugs, Ulva Island

Endangered South Island Saddleback (tieke) tearing bark in search of bugs, Ulva Island    (Call of the South Island Saddleback)

Endangered Stewart Island Robin (banded for research), Ulva Island

Endangered – but friendly – Stewart Island Robin (toutouwai; banded for research), Ulva Island       (Call of the similar North Island Robin)

But we didn’t realize how precious the complex bird chorus of Ulva Island really was until we grasped the gaps in avian companionship along the Routeburn. If our early trail companions had found the Blue Duck they were searching for, they wouldn’t just have seen a cool duck; they would have seen one of at most 2500 individuals remaining in the world. It’s the only known member of its genus, and those numbers are declining still further. (If I’d known that, I might have spent a lot more time looking for one.)

Coincidentally, my book group’s reading when I returned to Seattle was a biography of Rachel Carson, who drew attention in the 1950’s to the Silent Spring threatened by DDT. In New Zealand, we witnessed a silent southern summer.

Fortunately, contemporary Kiwis love their birds. Every morning just before the 7 am news, Radio New Zealand starts your day with bird songs. I saw a total of two cats outdoors in the entire country. Stoat traps are regular occurrences along the trails. Roadkill was so plentiful as we drove the winding pavement that I had to wonder if drivers were actually aiming for the creatures. Of course, I squirm at all that killing; I can’t help feeling fond of any fuzzy creature I encounter, even knowing the devastation some have innocently wrought on the bird life I also love.

Can New Zealand turn its southern silence into song-filled spring? It seemed that every local organizations and guiding business we encountered sponsors predator-trapping programs, as well as those run by the Department of Conservation. Getting rid of rats is tough enough on small islands such as Ulva and Tiritiri Matangi, near Auckland; freeing birds from predators on the huge main islands of New Zealand is another thing altogether. But as another bird lover wrote:

Hope is the thing with feathers
That perches in the soul,
And sings the tune–without the words,
And never stops at all.
–Emily Dickinson

That “melodious wild musick” is surely worth the effort.

Bellbird in song, Ulva Island

Bellbird (korimako) in song, Ulva Island (Song of the Bellbird – truly exquisite)