Celebrity Sighting

Apologies, not much updates of late. Life has seem to snowball into a growing checklists of To Do’s as all the Hihis have decided to synchronise shag. To top it off, the boss’s arriving tomorrow which means the past week has been a ‘mare of paperwork catch up, tidying data and extensive “lab” hours. I had to practically beg Dave the ranger to let me download an episode of Radiolab on (Great podcast!) the fast DoC internet so I wouldn’t drive myself mental shoving tiny sample numbers into 100+ eppendorf tubes of avian matter till 11. Oh and gettin’ bollockings for not doing dishes…. when all I want to do is sit down with a beer and watch The Thick of It (Great tv show!) But aaaanyway, we all have lives to moan about.

Back in the days however, of late mornings and fishing evenings, where lunch was had at a leisurely and communal pace, we met an dashing young herpetologist (amphibian reptile expert, not the STD) who wanted to know if we had seen tuatara, a strange lizard like creature that hasn’t changed for millions of years. As people started swearing upon their sightings like UFO spotters, I noticed an older looking gentleman standing behind him, shifting uncomfortably and paying undue attention to the “CLEAN THE BUNKHOUSE” notices on the board. He looked distinctly familiar… those kindly eyes, the reserved smile. Something’s not quite right though, it’s as if he’s missing…a big horny green parrot on the top of his head…

It couldn’t be. Will’s English and he would know, but he seemed to be more interested in the young herpetologist. However Will suddenly whips round and whispers not so discreetly, “Is that MARK CAWARDINE?” I swear I saw the older man stiffen up a bit, but I shrug helplessly. Will proceeds to answer himself, “No. It’s definitely not him. I’ve met him before. And I know for a fact, the lady presenter from the Really Wild Show right? He’s f-” right then the man looks over and we quickly hide behind our avocado and bacon sandwiches.

I wasn’t convinced, so I did what everyone does when in doubt. I Googled. Turns out it was Mark Cawardine. Esteemed conservationist, nature presenter and journalist. Of course, what he’ll always be remembered for is the video of him being shagged by a Kakapo, a very rare NZ parrot. If you haven’t seen it, I insist you search it up on youtube this instant.

He apparently happened to be on this island to take photos of tuataras for an article. Will and I spent an afternoon plotting and scheming on how to ‘accidentally’ encounter him while we were at ‘work’. Unfortunately being not-so-important people on this island, he got squirreled away for a private dinner with the upper echelons of the Tiri hierarchy. Right, so much for inspiring young conservationists eh? I’m off to work for an oil company, in bitter protest.

However next day as I was doing my feeder rounds, I bumped into Mark and taking photos of my beloved Hihis. I couldn’t think of anything smart to say, instead I unsuccesfully tried to peer over the top of his turtleneck sweater to see if I could spot the love scars from his dalliance with the Kakapo. I suppose I could have asked him about state of conservation but frankly we all know the answer to that, so all that floated to my mind was Will’s previous ponderance about Mark the day before, a strange connection between Terry Pratchett (who Will loves) and the late Douglas Adams who was Mark’s good friend. So instead of engaging in lively discussion deserving of like minded conservationistas, I just burst out with:

“My room mate wants to know if you read Terry Pratchett.”


“Do you read Terry Pratchett?”

“I have read his books…What a weird question!”

I grimaced and gave him a tell-me-about-it expression.

“Tell him yes. Yes I do.”

Happy with that answer I bounded back to report to Will whose life was definitely enriched by it. Despite this insight into Mr. Cawardine’s reading habits, I was still frustrated at not having gotten away with anything substantial from this rare celebrity vagrant on our island who was leaving that very day. I mean we didn’t even have proof that we met this guy.

So in a last ditch attempt, I left a note by his doorstep:

“Dear Mark, I’m not sure if Will and I will bump into you again on Tiri. Our ornithological masters demand our servitude. Missing out on a chat with you is a damn shame for us conservation-keen young ‘uns who you’re a bit of a hero to. Ach. If we don’t cross paths again on Tiri, would you mind autographing some books for us? We don’t actually have any proper books. But Will has this one Terry Pratchett book (not why he wanted to know if you read T.P. (or watch the Wire). That will remain a mystery) and I have a Kindle. You can sign the BACK of it and you will have your name on the 90+ books I have in it (the closest appropriate one about cannibal sailors and a komodo dragon.) [note: Mark has done a documentary about komodo dragons. I’m not crazy.]

A big fat thank you for your efforts!

p.s It would make a great Xmas present for Will as I am too skint on my volunteer lack-of-wage to afford one

pp/s Hope you got some good HIhi shots. They are proper sexy birds.

.. and placed my kindle and Will’s Terry Pratchett book beneathe the note at Mark’s doorstep and headed back home to wait.

Awhile later, Will comes into the room with a dazed smile on his face and an autographed copy of Snuff by Terry Pratchett (not autographed by Terry Pratchett) and my autographed Kindle in his hands. He had just been chopping up avocados in the kitchen when Mark Cawardine walks in and goes “You’re Will?” Will raises his head from his chopping and just about keels over. Cawardine in the Kitchen! Mark hands over books, and Will at this point had to incoherently stutter out his logic behind his TP question. Mark was friends with Douglas Adams who Will felt had similar style of writing to Terry Pratchett who he was thinking of because it just came out in the news that alzheimic Mr. Pratchett was starting the process assisted suicide. Although then Will glumly admits that he just made it sound like Mark Cawardine had Alzheimers and wanted to take his own life.

Prize for whoever can decipher what is says. "With just nits" is what I'm sticking with.

Pleased as punch, I ran out just to catch Mark walking away in the distance. I raced across the paddock, like an enlightened lover at the final scene of a romantic comedy, yelling out “MARK MARK.. WAIT!” As he turned round, I screeched to a halt with a big grin on my face, “THANK YOU!” ┬áHe winked at me, like the man that he was, and strolled off into the sunset.

When I went back, Will insisted we still didn’t have definitive proof of his presence. Take a photo! he cries. I flat out refuse at this point, having pretty much stalked the poor man, requesting a photo would be tacky, if not a little creepy. “Use your long lens”. My what? “Your long lens. You didn’t just buy that lens to take photos of bloody BIRDS.”
So I scramble to whip out my obnoxious and invasively long zoom lens, and proceeded to capture this last glimpse of Mark Cawardine in the distance with the dashing young herpetologist. No, definitely not creepy at all.

There is definitely nothing going on between them.


One two three four five, we’ve finally caught a fish alive!

It costs quite an obscene amount of money to come on the island. $66 for a round trip ferry ticket from Auckland and wee bit cheaper from Gulf Harbour. People must however think it’s worth it, since on the day the ferry runs, the island’s public tracks are overrun by the world’s worst invasive species (humans). Tourists aren’t allowed to go off track, so more shy and elusive species like Island Researchers use this opportunity to take cover deep in the bush away from the nature-hungry eyes of bird enthusiasts, and the war cries of school groups. Although it has to be said on rare occasions, when we do emerge from the bush right in front of a group of wide-eyed tourists (never on purpose… of course), it gives us great pleasure to raise our hands in a calming motion, and like a plainclothes policeman, point towards our badges, and go “It’s okay ‘Mam. I’m a Researcher.”

.. Ironically we seldom wear them out as they get snagged on branches, (or nipples, in Will's case, as in.. his own).

On Monday and Tuesdays, the ferry “Tiri Kat” snoozes, and the island population reduces in number to just the rangers, researchers and a sprinkling of overnight visitors. On these days, I bounce along the public tracks like a happy sparrow with the island mostly to myself. Or so I thought.

One day I nearly shat myself when I ran into a fellow on the Kawerau boardwalk on a Monday evening who wasn’t a tall scruffy looking Robin-Researcher. People can access the island from their own boats whenever they want, so sometimes on these off days, you actually do get day trippers who have sailed on. Richard here, was one of those.

Richard it turns out, is a professional sailor and gets hired by bajillionaires as a crew on their bajillion-dollar sailing ships. Today however, he was out on his own sailboat, the lovely Atria to have a gander at the birds of Tiri and have a jog around the island. After a little chat, he asks me what I did in my spare time. “Fail to catch fish” was my response pretty much. Richard then promptly invited me and Will out and a fishing trip on his inflatable dinghy with rods, bait and every form of equipment we could think of provided.

"I'm on a boat, I'm on a boat. Everybody look at me."

Will went overjoyedly mental, and rightfully so, for we had a ridiculous time out on that dinghy 200 metres offshore. Richard set up a rod for each of us with soft scented fish-shaped baits in wild neon shades with equally wild names (“Nuclear Chicken” anyone?) dangling at the end.

Within a minute of casting his line, Will cries out as his rod starts to arch in the most alarming manner. Having week and weeks of unsuccessful fishing endeavours, we assumed he had snagged the bottom, but no my friends, the line starts to tug and it’s Will’s turn to shit himself as the realisation that he’s hooked a fish sinks in.

Before long, Will’s reeling in a good sized snapper and while Richard skillfully hoists the fish on board, Will the clumsy oaf, manages to crush every plastic fishing gear lying around on the bottom of the dinghy stumbling around in excitement. I don’t blame him though. Successful fishing is incredibly exhilarating. A primal rush of adrenaline grips your body when you see your rod bowing down with parabolic grace to the power of a fish, and feeling its strength pit against yours in a cruel savage game of tug of war.

Or just simply get Michelle to hold it.

Just as Richard gets Will’s fish off the hook, this time it’s my rod that starts to bend. Will and I alternatively reel in large snapper consistently for an hour or so, making poor Richard so busy with unhooking our fish that he hardly had time to cast his own line out. We had each caught 4-5 fish by the time the sun had set.

Richard invited us aboard the Atria for fish dinner after. As we ducked into the cabin, he gently reminds us to watch our heads. “It’s okay. I’m too short to get hi-” BLAM. It dawns upon me as I’m seeing stars, that maybe I’m not so small after all. This clearly doesn’t register because I walk right into it again a couple of minutes later, but I have no excuses this time – just your regular clumsy Michelle. (Will: “Or the fact that you got pissed on one quarter of a bottle of beer…”)

Richard deftly fillets and pan fry the snapper.”It’s a bit of a waste filleting them,” he confesses, but at this point we’re flush with fish, so why not? The soft white flesh tasted oh so very sweet, but no way as sweet as our fishing victory after weeks of weeding the sea with our lines at the wharf. As way of thanks for the best day we’ve had, we left a bottle of wine when we returned Richard’s fish bucket (which he realised in dismay was actually NOT his fish bucket, but his *shower* bucket) the next morning on Hobbs beach. It wasn’t the last we saw of him, for he came back to school us in the ways of squid fishing, but that’s another story for another time.

Blue Penguin Blues

When I got to New Zealand, I spent one night in Auckland having a farewell city-life pint with a couple of good folks, then shipped off to Tiri the next morning. Hence Tiri has been my whole New Zealand experience, and in my mind-constructed version of the mainland, it was just a bigger version of Tiri, except you didn’t need to take a boat to reach the nearest bar.

I hadn’t realised how much I had taken this island for granted, until I kept stumbling across tourists marveling at Saddlebacks, when I spent most days grinding my teeth and wishing they would shut up (the Saddleback, not the tourists. They have an annoying Heeheeheeheeheehee mocking laugh). The people who come on the island, tell me that the forests on mainland are silent, and how special a place Tiri is. Never a moment goes by where you are not surrounded by a panoromic cacaphony of cheepings from the Whiteheads, the Hihi stitch calls resembling the sound of two tiny pebbles clicking together, the peeps of the Robins which gradually increase in speed into a rapid burst of audible excitement and occasionally, we are graced with the mournful flute like notes of the Kokako.

The diversity and density of birds found here bring tourists from all over the world, and also keeps the island suitably interesting for Will and I. I spend most of my time on the island working with Hihi, but I haven’t even written much about them. I’m afraid they’ll have to wait again.

Today’s evening entertaiment (which consists of The Wire over dinner), was duly interrupted by a penguin rescue mission.

When Will is not busy in bed playing his PSP, he can be found chilling out on Hobbs beach with a book. Today however, he was distracted from his recreation by a clumsy waddling Little Blue Penguin chick who was wandering around the beach. The poor little fellow, christianed Bernard McSnipperHoven, suffered from deadbeat parents.

We went back down to rescue him task-force style. Cruised down to the wharf on the Kawasaki mule, screeching to a halt in and in slow motion, swung ourselves off the vehicle. Pet carrier in one hand, purpose in every step, we marched on a mission to save abandoned Bernard from the unfriendly hostility of daylight on Hobbs Beach (they only come on land nocturnally you see).

Well…of course we had to take the customary “Look I’m holding a penguin chick!” photo before packing him away.

We like to fondle birds. Especially the young kind. Ornipaedophilia.

Little Blue Penguin chicks are well adorable. They actually are a clean metallic sheen of blue. Like most seabirds they’re covered also in a fuzzy down, which falls off their heads last, leaving them with a rather hilarious 80’s ‘fro. They are wee sized as well, being the world’s smallest penguin.

Just call me Lionel.

We brought Bernard back for the night, intending to send him to Auckland’s famous “Bird Lady” the next day, a selfless bird recovery specialist. To feed the little fella, we had to chisel off oysters from the beach again, and Will chewed them up in his mouth and spat them into Bernard’s in a romantic mouth-to-beak transfer.


Just kidding. Will who had by this time gotten properly broody and protective over his ward, had the fine job of holding Bernard against his tummy like a child cuddling a too small teddy, and hold his bill open, while I force fed oysters into his gob, which he merrily chomped down in beak-smacking satisfaction. Thank goodness we figured out how to force feed it. Our original plans were to leave the bowl of saltywatery oysters in the box but Bernard had taken a penchant to face planting himself in it, or sitting in the bowl like a little wet shellfishy penguin.

The next day we went down bright ‘n early in the morning to check on Bernard.

But he was dead.

Pop Popped By

My dad came to visit me on Tiritiri Matangi recently, proudly donning the “Brown Dad” hat I bought him, and taking photos like a good and proper Asian. It was lovely having my father out on my field site, as I imagine it helps him understand why I do what I do and enjoy it so. Of course, like any parent, he was overly worried about me whacking my eye, falling, getting scratched up, biking (Dad – I wear a helmet all the time – relax.) But I feel like those are to some level, battle scars and small and proud prices we pay for working this line.

Unfortunately he probably won’t be visiting me in Auckland anymore… I was dismayed! After an impudent inquiry on my part, he modestly mentioned he would be changing his fleet, and would now be flying the A-380 for the next five years until retirement. Unfortunately Auckland doesn’t feature on the A-380’s route. Bah.

Wish he could have stayed longer. I made a point to wave at the sky the next day, I’m pretty sure he could see my tiny hand as he flew back to Singapore.

Yes my sun glasses are duct taped together if you're wondering.

Muscling Mussels

There’s no denying it now. Numerous days on the wharf, knocking back bottles of beer and endless casting of lines only to catch a small pathetic dangle of seaweed… there’s only so many excuses we can come up with. Those smarty pants conservationist were right….There just simply isn’t any fish or squid in the sea.

Or we’re just brilliant anglers who have yet to reach full potential. Fishing might have to take a backseat for awhile as I recover from my last casting episode. We decided to bring out the huge rod (michelle size x 3) and when I was casting it, I stood at the edge of the wharf and obviously lost my balance and fell down. My first thought, SAVE THE ROD! Which I did, heroically shoving it back onto the wharf. My second, ow. OW. OWWWWWWWWWWWW. Instead of falling into the water, which would have a much higher comedic value, I instead fell in between a wooden beam and the wharf. Imagine, a kitten dangling from a pole on it’s front half, trying desperately to cling on, and mewing in protest because her mini-sized rib cage has been whacked against a large wooden beam. And beam is all Will did while I eventually hauled myself up and rolled around the wharf groaning and laughing and then groaning again because it hurts when I laugh.

The fish and squid may have escaped our unskilled grasp, but shellfish, beware. The first month of our island life was marked by the King’s tide, or Spring tide, which means it was the lowest that it would ever be during the year. A perfect occasion for mussel picking. Despite most mussel beds being raped and pillaged, we managed to find a good haul of massive green-lipped mussels.

It is hard to distinguish the more intelligent life form in this photo.

The rocks here are also grottoed with oysters. Armed with a hammer, a quick tap on its hinge will unshell a delicacy. Or a huge smack will result in your face dripping in oyster juice…

Afternoon snack

But we dined in style that night. Delicious mussels in sweet leek and garlic broth. There was however an unexpected guest in our dinner. Will had a good chomp on a pea-crab. A tiny gravid orange crab that seemed to live snug inside the folds of mussels. Somewhat disturbingly cute. Bearing in mind what mussels and their byssal threads do resemble… it gives a whole new meaning to crabs.

Bivalvic STDs?


Inventor of the predator proof fence (“we built a fence, stuck a cat on one side, a tasty bird on the other, then observed…..) and helicopter goat-hunting, New Zealand is clearly well known for its invasive animal eradiction techniques.

However, they are just as efficient at invasive control as well. We had a weed control team stay with us for three weeks, a mega cheeky o’l ex-ranger dog (whose greatest joy in life is derived from giving Will a joyfully hard time about being a lazy bastard), sweetly mischievous irish lassie wth a twinkle in her eye, and a professional chainsawing abseiler (say.. what?) friend, all who were made jolly good company.

Inevitably, I got roped in to do a spot of weeding as well. One of the more noxious and virulent weeds is this innocent looking Heirloom Lily, which I had been mistakenly admiring during my bird jaunts. Bad Lily…Lily gonna get got. So I hauled my poor assistant over to help dig up a flower. All I did was stand there and point, and Nikki, weeder champion in the making, gave a hefty yank and unfortunately fell backwards into some bracken, heels in the air! Nikki being a 6’2 lady, was all legs and arms, and looked adorably similar to a toppled over giraffe. But we finally managed to bag it, flower, bulb and all.

I do miss all the fine folk on this island. It was Nikki’s last week and she’s been a great Hihi loving volunteer, she even bought a 7 dollar Hihi pin to prove it. Highly entertaining company as well, and I reckon we made quite a pair trotting down the track. A tall lanky hipster but-really-wanna-be-punk kiwi, and a pint sized singaporean muppet all out for a laugh …


Nikki: It’s wasn’t me… YOU do all the screwing.
Michelle: *blink* I do.

The most rare and dangerous creature on Tiri: Michelle with a power tool.

Feeding Frenzy

Sorry I’ve been out of internet the past 2 weeks or so due to… certain people watching inappropriate videos. (By inappropriate, I may possibly mean hilarious videos of bicyclists being knocked down by antelopes.) In the weeks that have passed, chicks burst into being, chicks died, eggs cracked, sun came up and oh yes. New Zealand won the rugby world cup.
But before all that, oh how it rained….

from 2 weeks ago:
It’s been pissing buckets lately and a cold clingy atmosphere has has been hanging around the place. It makes work jolly tedious when you’re constantly damp, brushing past vegetation which makes you even more wet than the rain itself. Suddenly, paperwork seems a lot more exciting. Although I do actually leave the bunkhouse before noon… can’t say the same for some other people.

Well, I don’ really have a choice in the morning. In rainy and wet weather, the birds need you even more. Part of my work here is to change the bird feeders every morning. We put out sugar water for the Hihis. The more common bell birds, also nectar feeders and similar sized, enjoy the free buffet as well.

The rain supposedly washes away the nectar from flowers, leaving the birds to depend more on feeding stations. So today I set off, armed with soda bottles of sugar water (you up end them on what is essentially a hummingbird feeder), drove off to the six feeding stations I have to refill.

I arrived, soaked to the skin (I unwisely decided if I was going to get damp, forget wearing a rain coat, just a bikini, t-shirt, shorts and sandals in 16 degree rain. Pneumonia anyone?) faced with about forty hungry Hihis and Bellbirds perched on the branches around the feeder baying for ..sugar water. A potential scene straight out of The Birds by Alfred Hitchcock. I clean the feeding station, and birds start fluttering and bouncing across my head, chittering beside my ears. Hurry hurry!

When I finally shut the cage of the stations (to prevent larger bullying birds like Tuis from getting in) the feeders are swarmed with birds. I counted at the very least twenty birds in a fluttery sipping orgy inside the station. Quite a sight! I would have tried to get a better photo, but the rain wasn’t electronics-friendly.

After changing six feeders and skedaddling around muddy puddles, I looked not unlike something the cat dragged in during monsoon season. Definitely an “I Love Birds” day. Only thing that keeps me going.

Bell Bird and Hihi Feast. Can you spot the two different species?