Cry of the Kiwi: A Family’s New Zealand Adventure, Book 2

  THIS DARK SHELTERING FOREST

©2015 Magi Nams

 

January 6

Mist hangs in the early morning air. It shrouds the forest and yard with secrets. I lose myself in writing while Dainis, accompanied by Vilis and Jānis, collects the first set of tracking tunnels from the open forest habitat and resets them at a new site within Ōhinetonga Scenic Reserve.

“Nothing,” Dainis calls to me when they return after a quick hour and a half. “Just some wētā and other insects.”

“Zero tracks,” Vilis confirms. “That tells me that if there aren’t any rats and mice in those forests, there aren’t any stoats either.”

Interesting. Data so far: 60 percent of Dainis’s tracking tunnels in riverside scrub had small mammal tracks, 20 percent of his tunnels in the forest with thick understory had tracks, and 0 percent of the tracking tunnels in the open forest had tracks. What about the lagoon-edge habitat?

We postpone collecting the lagoon-edge tunnels until afternoon, as we need to buy supplies from Taumarunui. We drive to the “Heart of King Country” and stock up on groceries and petrol for the quads. After shopping, Dainis and I savour long apple turnovers heavy with chunky apple filling while Vilis and Jānis devour chocolate-iced donuts bursting with real whipped cream. “That bakery is the best-kept secret in Taumarunui,” I say, licking my fingertips. Today, the central North Island town isn’t bouncing with heat waves or awash with pouring rain. We swim through our list of errands as effortlessly as orange and black goldfish swim through weeds in the fishpond beside the town’s main street.

During the afternoon, dragonflies and red-bodied damselflies skim above Ōhinetonga Lagoon, the latter mating in the air. Fantails and tūī flit around in shrubs near the lagoon edge, and wary ducks lift from the water. Human voices echo, bouncing back and forth across the narrow water body while Dainis, Jānis, and Vilis fight their way through scraping, swiping fern fronds to retrieve the ten tunnels Dainis and I set in the lagoon edge habitat four days ago. “Ninety percent rat tracks, zero percent mice tracks,” Dainis shouts to me before re-setting the tunnels farther around the lagoon.

I’m birding in open forest atop the steep slope beside the lagoon. Here, tree ferns rise to ten metres, their green circular sprays of fronds tracing mandalas against the sky. On the forest floor, infant tree ferns are thick, curled fiddleheads a foot tall, hirsute with bristling rusty hairs. Although massive, they remind me of the ostrich fern fiddleheads my family gathers from river floodplains in Nova Scotia each May, to eat as spring greens.

I amble among the tree ferns and widely spaced, towering tawa trees. The tawa’s narrow, lanceolate leaves form a lacy canopy high above me. In the treetops, noisy whiteheads (small, native songbirds with white heads and underparts) trill and chatter while moving rapidly within the leafy canopy. Otherwise, the forest is still and serene, an ocean of peace, sheltered within the grandeur of its rising giants.

More than any other of my interests, this simple kind of on-foot exploration of the natural world is what moves me, what thrills and soothes me. I feel grounded. In harmony. Connected with a thousand organisms even though I’m alone. I stare at a tree fern, and my mind seeks words to describe it. I hear the whiteheads, and sentences begin. Two and a half decades ago, after spending seven years studying biology at university, I realized that when I go for a walk in the outdoors, I’m not thinking about experiments and I’m thinking about words. Words to describe what I see and hear and smell and feel around me, like this rainforest.

I stroll parallel to the lagoon edge, then abandon the forest and scramble downhill to join my husband and sons at the water’s northern limit. Here, tall clumps of palm fern give way to dense blackberry canes, vines, and toetoe next to Whakapapa Bush Road. We aim for the road and thrash our way through ten metres of scrub. Thorns tear at our skin, toetoe leaves slap and slice us, and vines entangle our legs.

“Ow!” I yelp.

“Yikes!” Dainis shouts.

“Yeesh!” Jānis yells.

Finally we stumble out onto the road and climb into the Bomb, the boys laughing about the tough scrub. Back at the house, I brush toetoe seeds from my hair, wipe away blood from blackberry scratches, and then start supper.

“Why don’t we go see the glow-worms tonight?” I suggest during the meal. “It’s not raining. In fact, it’s a beautiful night.”

“That sounds like a good idea,” Vilis says.

In the quiet beauty of a calm, moonlit evening, we return to the glow-worm tunnel at Kākahi and step into its darkness. Almost instantly, we see constellations of miniature blue stars against the blackness. The glow-worms are everywhere. On the dirt walls. In the ferns beside us. In the vegetation above us.

“Look in this hole!” Dainis calls.

We peer into a blue-lit recess in the tunnel wall and observe tiny, wormlike creatures. These are the carnivorous larvae of a gnat, Arachnocampa luminosa. The blue bioluminescence they produce, though enthralling to us, heralds a death trap for other insects. “They use the light to attract prey,” I tell the boys, and we notice that the glow-worms lie amid transparent strands that resemble spider web silk. I’ve read that adult gnats also produce the blue light, although they use it to attract a mate rather than a meal.

We discover more glow-worms in the vegetation and walls beside us and revel in the sheer beauty of those so high above us that all we can see is their light. At the tunnel’s end, we step out into moonlight, the night sky far brighter than the tunnel’s blackness. Then we re-enter the glow-worm tunnel and again revel in its blue beauty.

 

January 10

The forest within Ōhinetonga Scenic Reserve is still and humid, dull in the shade of its many trees. No sun shines above it this morning. A robin, itself all shadow and flickering movement, perches on a thin-stemmed sapling, as though it were a sooty scout sent down by the legions of songbirds encamped in the canopy above. Again, Dainis finds no small mammal tracks in the tunnels he placed in open forest.

“Maybe there isn’t anything for them to eat,” he tells me, his brow puckered in thought. “They probably don’t eat ferns.” A note of speculation enters his voice. “I think there’ll be some when we set them on the other side of the road. It’s closer to the lagoon.”

Ōhinetonga Lagoon lies still and serene, its green and grey reflections perfect, its thickly vegetated shore some mysterious utopia for rats. We set the ten open-forest tunnels well back from the lagoon, beneath trees as tall and shading as those on the other side of the bush road. Then we check the shoreline tunnels.

“There are tracks here!” Dainis shouts from the first.

We dodge vines, push aside fern fronds, and stumble over fallen logs in our search for the next and then the next orange flag hanging somewhere amidst the thick vegetation. Each tunnel, once found, elicits another satisfied exclamation from Dainis. Then, “Oh-oh. I remember this one,” he mutters when we find a flag at the top of a sheer drop-off with a short incline above it. Undaunted, he scuttles down the slanted slope and grips a slender sapling that bends beneath his weight. He kicks out and drops the three metres to the lagoon edge.

“Yup. More tracks.”

He tosses the tunnel up to me before climbing a slim, branching tree. When he stretches one leg out to place a foot on the top edge of the bank, I reach forward to grip his outstretched hand and tug him toward me as he jumps from the tree.

“Thanks!”

“Good thing you’re a monkey!”

He laughs. “It’s fun!”

Once we’ve collected the tunnels, we sit on the boardwalk that crosses the lagoon, with our shoes off and feet dangling over the water. The tracking papers are smudged with rats’ black footprints and yellow urine stains. We change the papers, and Dainis squishes out more oil and charcoal “ink” from a shoe polish dispenser onto the central bait panels. “Why would there be so many rats here?” he ponders. “A hundred percent! And last time I had ninety percent.”

We scan the lagoon’s shoreline, with its overhanging trees, shrubs, and palm-leaf ferns. Dense clumps of sedges grow at the water line, some bearing seeds, as do some of the thick-stemmed rushes and submergent aquatic plants growing in the lagoon. “I wonder if they swim for food,” I remark. “There would be plenty of seeds.”

“Stoats swim.” Dainis stretches out on the boardwalk and leans over the edge to wash his hands in the lagoon. It’s almost noon, so he munches on the sandwich he brought along. “The work goes better when I’m not hungry,” he tells me almost apologetically. Like all researchers, he’s learned that obtaining data comes at a personal cost. In his case, that cost is hunger resulting from hours of physical exertion in the outdoors.

While he eats, two long-tailed cuckoos wing across the lagoon and disappear in the rainforest. A white-faced heron screeches out its call and perches atop the tallest tree in sight. Ducks whir in a compact flock over the lagoon, then change direction abruptly when they spot us on the boardwalk.

We rise from our respite and tackle the lagoon edge jungle to set tunnels there for the third and last time. I awkwardly pace out the distance atop the steep slope above the water, where vines and ferns snare my feet. Abrupt rises and drops in terrain cause me to continually adjust my estimated metre-long steps. When we reach each thirty-metre mark, Dainis tosses down the bait containers before slipping and sliding down the slope after them to the level of the lagoon edge. I toss a tunnel down to him, which he baits and sets before scrambling back up the slope. The tenth and last tunnel is a fight all the way. We slog through mud and slip on moss- and liverwort-covered rocks. We pull ourselves up onto the bases of tree ferns to ascend vertical rises, then drop down again into hollows.

“Whew! We fought for every metre of that one,” I pant.

Dainis grins. “Yeah. I liked it.”

I see him standing beside me, his youth shining like a questing star seeking all that life can give. I see him happily scrambling up and down slippery slopes, reaching out with both hands to grasp each new climbing challenge as it arises. I see him go places I can’t go, or won’t go, and marvel that this child, whom I so often see as the quiet intellectual, also has the heart of an adventurer.

On our return to the house, Jānis bounces up and down on the porch, his eyes lit with excitement. “We caught another stoat!”

“Super! What’s its name?” I ask.

“Samson!” Jānis dances about. “And I got to drive the quad almost all the time!”

I feel a jolt of surprise. “You did? Not on the Makos, I hope.”

“No.” His smile holds a tinge of disappointment. “And not in that place that you don’t like.” He shrugs nonchalantly. “But I got to drive between most of the traps. Not in the hard places and not when we drove fast to help with the stoat.” He heaves a sigh huge with joy, as though happiness blazed through him from the morning’s adventures. “I’m really glad I went out with Vilis today.”

While scrounging up a mid-day meal, I call out to Vilis, “So, how much did Samson weigh?”

“Two hundred and eighty-five grams.”

“And the females are about…?”

“A hundred fifty to a hundred seventy.”

“So, he’s a mature male.”

Vilis chuckles. “Yeah. And he sure smelled like a mature male, too.”

Jānis grimaces. “He stank! Blah! Awful. Disgusting. Horrible.”

So, the rank, musky smell of stoat, a rare perfume to a select few like Vilis, repels yet another novice to the world of mustelids.

During the evening, Vilis tells me, “You know, Jānis said that catching the stoat today made this North Island trip worthwhile for him. He said he liked watching Tala and me process it even more than driving the quad.”

Both our sons revealed hidden depths today.

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