Scary stuff

As if anti-evolution pseudo-science isn't a big enough problem, teachers in the US are reluctant to teach the real science. An article published on the Science Daily website discusses the results of a recent study entitled 'Defeating creationism in the courtroom, but not the classroom'. The title says it all. Despite the First Amendment to the United States Constitution (separation of church and state), there have been constant challenges from fundamentalist groups who want 'both sides' to be taught in science classrooms. The fact that creationism and intelligent design are not science, and thus should not be taught in science class, is only half of the problem. The other half is that by law, in the USA, publicly funded institutes such as schools cannot promote any religion, including the dogma surrounding them e.g. intelligent design.

The results of the study, which included 926 state high school biology teachers, are pretty scary. Thirteen percent of the teachers reject evolution out right and present creationism in a positive light. Considering the Gallup poll I mentioned in a previous post this is somewhat unsurprising. What I find distressing is that 60 percent of the biology teachers questioned 'are neither strong advocates for evolutionary biology nor explicit endorsers of non-scientific alternatives?' The authors of the paper suggest that the reason for this is that teachers would rather avoid any controversy.That means that kids aren't learning the importance of evolution in biology since as Theodesius Dobzhansky famously said "Nothing in biology makes sense except in the light of evolution".

It seems that the crazies are getting the attention they are looking for and having a big impact regardless of the fact that they have have not won a single major federal case in court for over 40 years in the US.

This week's bird

The beautiful colouring of the Bateleur
My bird this week comes yet again from South Africa. When one goes to the Kruger Park--or any game park in Africa--when it comes to birds, it is always the birds of prey that feature prominently. And in the Kruger Park, few are as distinct as the Bateleur (Terathopius ecaudatus). Despite it's commonness the Bateleur cannot be overlooked since it's appearance is anything but common. In fact I always consider something that is relatively common to be rather special. Special in that it is able to adapt to a wide range of habitats and exploit resources to maximize the survival of young, the key to evolutionary success. At rest and in flight the Bateleur is unmistakable. The vivid red-orange face and legs, and light chestnut wings are stunning, making this bird one of the most beautiful of the southern African eagles. In flight the Bateleur appears almost tailless, probably the most powerful diagnostic for any bird enthusiast.

As mentioned previously, the Bateleur is found in a wide range of habitats, from woodland to open savanna, and even the Kalahari desert. This wide ranging habitat is reflected by the birds diverse diet including birds, reptiles and fish, but predominately small mammals. They are also known to scavenge on carrion and the eggs of ground nesting birds and, steal from larger eagles and vultures.

Bateleur with a snake
My wife and I were fortunate enough to witness a Bateleur hunt, catch and eat a snake (see left for the photo). It was a hot day and we had been driving for an hour or so, not far from Letaba rest camp in the Kruger Park. There had been very little action and we had probably only seen a handful of the common (once again, common not necessarily bad) antelope, Impala. Suddenly I noticed a raptor flying low and slow just above the car; It was a Bateleur. Then, almost like a parachutist, wings held above it's head, legs extended downward, it swooped down close to the road. As we pulled up we noticed that it had something in it's mouth. It was a snake. I tried getting some photos but unfortunately the image is slightly out of focus because I was little bit more excited than the average person. We watched for a few seconds as the birds gulped the snake down trying to get as many pictures before it flew off with slow, powerful wing beats.

'The secret life of trees'

Add on to the previous post. If you are in any way interested in trees you should definitely try and get a hold of a book by Colin Tudge, 'The Secret Life of Trees'. Colin is an extremely well informed science writer and the book is a really in depth look at trees and how they are related to each other and was aptly described by a writer for the Financial Times as 'A love letter to trees'. I borrowed the book from my good friend Paul (read his comment on the previous post to discover his love for trees) and I have not as yet finished the whole book, but I have thoroughly enjoyed it thus far. It is not a 'sit down and read' book because it has a lot of information to absorb, but it is great to ave lying around to read a section at a time.

Tudge has another book out on birds which follows in a similar fashion as the tree book. I will get my hands on it soon and hopefully put a short summary or review of some sort.

Why I love trees

kahikatea (Dacrocarpus dacrydoides) grove, New Zealand's tallest tree
I grew up in South Africa, and as such my interest in the natural world was taken up by birds and larger mammals as I have mentioned previously. New Zealand has no native land mammals. It does however have two species of native bats, the long- and short-tailed bat. Interestingly, a recent finding of fossil evidence suggests that this hasn't always been the case. You can read about the fossils in this article in New Scientist if you are interested. 

With out mammals I needed something else tangible in the natural world to fill that gap, and New Zealand trees were that something else. It happened by accident. I was studying environmental science at university and one of the papers was on terrestrial ecology. One of the components of the paper involved a four day field trip to Pureora Forest Park. On this field trip we went into the bush and literally counted trees. Of course that is an over simplification of the process but it is pretty much what we did. But, in New Zealand trees are not just trees. They are TREES. I became fascinated by their size and majesty, and the dynamics of the forest. The way living things interact, the constant struggle for individuals to survive is an amazing thing. And trying to understand it is quite engaging and challenging.

The way I feel about it is beautifully captured by David Attenborough in  all the great natural history documentary he has narrated. We have the "Planet Earth" series at home, and I have watched the "Blue Planet" series previously, and parts of it are breathtaking. You can watch some of "Planet Earth" here but it is narrated by an American woman for the Discovery Channel who I think doesn't do it justice compared to Attenborough. The way he says "predator" is glorious.

To find out a bit more about New Zealand Forest follow the link below to watch two clips from 1984 filmed in New Zealand about the forest presented by another passionate naturalist called David Bellamy.

SHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH. This is dinosaur country.

Our World: The Best Kept Secret - Whirinaki Forest

My kori bastard photo and more

Here is a couple of shots I got of a kori bustard in the Kruger Park along with another photo that would come close to being the highlight of the trip.

Kori bustard (excuse the poor resolution, the camera was zoomed to the maximum)
Same bird as above

Spotted this guy with the rest of the pride just seconds after photographing the kori bustard

He barely noticed we were even there

Weekly bird?

There are plenty of other bloggers who have particular interests that do a weekly, or daily for the more dedicated, post pertaining to that particular interest. Given the title of my blog, birds are one of my interests. As a child in South Africa my family and I would go to the famous wild life reserve the Kruger National Park but, unlike most people, we would spend most of the time during a week long trip looking at, and identifying birds. Of course we were interested in the other animals but it was the birds that we, at least my dad and I, were fascinated by. Since moving to New Zealand 10 years ago my dedication to bird watching has waned a little. More recently however, I have become increasingly interested. Partly because of my studies and, partly because of a recent trip to South Africa for my brothers wedding, which included a trip to the Kruger Park.

It is from the trip to the Kruger Park that I got my inspiration for the first of what I hope to be a weekly post about my bird of the week. I might even consider a weekly tree/plant given the other part of my blog title. In fact I have posted this orchid in the past week.

This weeks bird is the kori bustard (Ardeotis kori). Unfortunately I am writing this from my desk and university so I don't have any personal images of the bird but I will post the one I took at the Kruger Park tomorrow. Until then see the image below.

A kori bustard with bee eaters riding on it's back grabbing insects disturbed by the bird (photo credit:

The kori bustard is a big bird with males weighing up to 20 kilograms. The wikipedia article refers to a report of 35 kilogram bird but, this is unverified. The most interesting thing about these birds, is that despite their big size and weight they are still able to fly. This makes them contenders for the heaviest birds capable of flight. Click here for a video of bustard taking off and landing. In general however, they prefer to keep their feet on the ground and are almost always seen walking across savanna in search of food such as lizards, insects, berries and seeds.

There is an excellent article (Lichtenberg and Hallager, 2008) with really in depth information about  kori bustards decribing 63 individual behavioural characteristics. It can be accessed by clicking here.

Denying fact

I have just finished reading Richard Dawkins' latest book 'The greatest show on earth: the evidence for evolution'. As a student of ecology and evolution I have thus far avoided reading 'popular' literature on evolution. I would say that my reasoning for this is a bit of misguided academic snobbery. But, on finding said book at a reasonable price at a second-hand book store, I decided I would see what all the fuss was about. I didn't have high expectations regarding new knowledge that I might gain. However, I soon discovered Richard Dawkins is an excellent writer and he articulates his arguments in a concise and compelling manner. Also, I did learn a load of new things (embarrassed sheepish grin).

Another reason I have never read any of Dawkins' books is that I perceived him to be a Darwinian fundamentalist (which he is) hell bent on proving there is no god. After reading his book I realised that his problem is less with a belief in a god and more in the nonsensical rejection of scientific evidence by different religious groups. For me the rejection of evolution it feels almost personal. This may seem a tad over sensitive or unreasonable but, when the focus of all the work I do currently is based around evolution, I find it infuriating that ignorant people with no understanding of evolutionary theory make the most ludicrous arguments against it. See the video below from one of my favourite clowns. Embarrassingly, he is a New Zealander but, who thankfully has left our shores for ‘greener’ pastures (see the next paragraph for a hint).

Despite mountains of evidence from several fields of science, there is still a huge number of people who whole-heartedly believe that the world is less than 10,000 years old and that all living things were created within a couple of days exactly as they exist today.  This sad state of affairs is highlighted by the survey conducted by Gallup in the United States that shows that 40 percent of the current population believe in a bible literal creation. Click here to view the results. I am unaware of an equivalent poll in my home country of New Zealand but I suspect the results would be a little more pleasing on the side of science. However, speaking from experience, there are still a frightening number of ‘history deniers’ (Dawkins’ term)– and, if you want my opinion, one is too many.

So all in all the book was good and thought provoking and I suggest that it is the sort of book everyone should at least have a go at reading. It can be a little hard reading for those unfamiliar with some of the science but I think Dawkins does a good job of explaining things in an easily understandable way.


Abel Tasman


My wife, our friend Paul and I did a tramp over the new year period to Abel Tasman National Park. All in all it was a good experience. As far as "getting back to nature" it fell a little short but, the views (see below) more than adequately made up for it.

Early morning leaving Bark Bay campsite. I love the greens.

Overlooking a bay, the name of which escapes me. 

In terms of trees and birds, stand outs for me were what seemed like hundreds of bellbirds/korimako, a couple of rather domestic weka, the brilliant flowering, southern rata and, a pretty cool looking orchid.
Orthoceras nova-zeelandiae



This is my first post