Thursday, August 25, 2011

Where are the fantails that survived the big snow?

Our unseasonably warm winter was interrupted by two ferocious southerly storms that dumped snow across much of New Zealand. My home town of Christchurch was buried for days while raked by strong, chilling winds fresh from Antarctica. While we all had the luxury to bundle up inside our houses around our fires or heat pumps, wild nature was left outside to struggle through the storm. As in past late winter snow storms, it looks like fantails have been hit particularly hard (except for three desperate, clever birds that sheltered inside someone's house).

I am an avid bird counter (my wife would say obsessive) and I've yet to see a single fantail since the second big snow, which ended over a week ago. On my weekly runs between Wigram and the Cashmere hills, I almost always see fantails. I've done two runs since the snow, and no fantails. On my bike into work at Lincoln, I usually see fantails, almost always when I go the long way through Tai Tapu. So far, three rides, including through Tai Tapu, and no fantails. My wife saw one fantail at Victoria Park yesterday, just one, after we've spent several hours in combination there since the snow.

How about you? Have you seen fantails? Where? Now is the time to use NZBRN and record where you are seeing, and equally importantly, not seeing fantails. When using NZBRN, you can tick the "Sought but not found" box to mark places and times where you looked for fantails unsuccessfully.

This is an important opportunity to learn where in our landscapes most fantails survive these storms. Fantails are prolific breeders and eventually bounced back after the big 1992 August snow storm. It is quite plausible that some places are where most of the survivors are, and these places play a disproportionately large role in the population's recovery. Perhaps it's sheltered dense lowland forests on low northern slopes facing away from the storm (not that Christchurch has any of them left). In Christchurch, perhaps it's Bottlelake Plantation, a large lowland pine plantation that presumably is partially sheltered from the worst of the winds and snow by Banks Peninsula. Perhaps it's sheltered well-wooded gardens without cats.

Only lots of your observations can tell us this.

Go the All Blacks?
In the South Island, we have both pied and black phase fantails. The black birds are found only rarely in the North Island and are associated with the colder climes here in the South Island. If you decide to record survivors of the 2011 Big Snow, it would also be useful if you recorded in the NZBRN comments whether each bird you see is pied or black. Perhaps the black birds, by soaking up more sunshine, were a bit better able to cope with the recent bleak conditions. The fantail population may become more black just in time for the Rugby World Cup!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

It's bird spotting time!

It's time again for the annual New Zealand garden bird survey. You've got until this Sunday (3 July) to add to the annual national effort to document birds in our gardens. All you need to do is spend one hour noting the maximum number of each bird species that you see at any one time.

Eric Spurr, the project coordinator, told us the following about last year's survey.

Silvereye returned to the top of the table of species counted in greatest numbers, with house sparrow second, starling third, and blackbird fourth. A grand total of 187,858 birds were counted in 4193 gardens (an average of nearly 45 birds per garden). This included 55,543 silvereyes, 52,779 house sparrows, 11,837starlings, and 11,156 blackbirds. These species have been the top four in all four years of the survey. As in previous years, the only other native species apart from silvereye to make the top 10 were tui and fantail.

These annual surveys are a useful way to document which birds are using our gardens and how our bird communities are changing.

Instructions and a summary of past years' findings can be found at the New Zealand Garden Bird Survey. The results of the past bird surveys are all available through NZBRN (Eric is still following up on some unusual observations in the 2010 data).

If you miss this survey or get enthused about documenting the birds using your garden at other times of the year, you can store and share your garden observations on NZBRN at any time (and not just of birds but also other animals, plants, and fungi). If birds and only birds are your thing, another good web option is eBird.

NZBRN distribution maps come to nzbutterfly info

Those of you who like butterflies have likely already discovered Robert Arter-Williamson's excellent compendium of information at There's lots of information about all of New Zealand's butterfly species. You can now also view live NZBRN distribution maps for each species from the webpages of

For example, if you go to the red admiral page, you'll see an NZBRN logo on the right-hand column. Clicking it will pop up a map showing all red admiral observations in NZBRN. Handy!

If you want to add maps like this to your own website, we have a blog post of instructions all about it.

The other thing you'll note if you explore these maps is that we need a lot more observations to properly map out the distributions of these butterflies. Get ready to spot butterflies in the spring, and if you have any old butterfly observations, please consider sharing them with the world using NZBRN.

Saturday, June 4, 2011

How old is that bird?

Those of you entering bird records may have noticed that NZBRN has an unusually detailed list of options for Age.

This is generally met with confusion by non-birders, including me. What it means is a bird's minimum age in years. If a bird is within the first year of its life, it's 1cy (unless it's an egg, or a chick if it hasn't fledged). If it's one or more years old, but you don't know how old, you should use 1cy+. If you know a bird is more than one year old but less than two years old, use 2cy. And on it goes. If that's a tad too obtuse, you can just choose from egg, chick, 1cy for fledged juveniles, and adult. (You can also leave Age blank.)

How would you even know how old a bird is? Some species have distinctive signs in their plumage in the first few years of life. For example, all blackbirds start out with brown plumage and dull-coloured beaks when they fledge in spring-summer. In autumn, the male birds moult their plumage to become black, except for their primary flight feathers on their wings which remain brown (have a careful look at the first photo above). At around this time, they'll take on the yellow-orange beak colour of adult birds. In the second year, male blackbirds moult again and take on their distinctive complete black plumage. So, it you'd got a brown blackbird with a dull beak colour, it's 1cy. If you see a black male with an orange beak in spring or summer that still has brown primary feathers, it's 2cy. If it's an all-black male, it must be more than a year old so it's 2cy+.

For older birds, your only hope of aging them is if some clever ornithologist caught it in the past and banded it. Whenever you see colour bands on a bird, it is exceptionally useful to record in your comments the colours and their order on both the right and left legs. If you find a dead bird with a metal leg band, it's also very helpful if you send in all the details including the band number to the National Banding Office at the Department of Conservation.

In these abbreviations, "cy" means "calendar year", which is a hang-over from northern hemisphere ornithology (and the Swedish web code origins of the current NZBRN system). Bird breeding seasons up north conveniently span one calendar year from spring to autumn, Seasons in the Southern Hemisphere do not behave so well with our Northern Hemisphere calendar. When you use NZBRN, "1cy" still applies to <1 year old birds, etc.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

NZBRN newsletter

Our latest newsletter is now available. We are very excited to announce that we have secured one year's funding from TFBIS, part of the New Zealand Government, to begin a complete refresh of the NZBRN website, from its database foundations to a simpler, more user-friendly, and more flexible website. We describe our first steps in the newsletter, which most importantly involves getting feedback from you.

We would really like to hear about your priorities for the new NZBRN. What would you change? What treasured features would you retain? The newsletter contains a one-page survey asking for your feedback. You can also download an editable PDF of the survey form that you can fill in on your computer and email to us. We look forward to hearing from you.

Issue 3, March 2011


  • What’s new at NZBRN

  • Tutorials are here

  • Creepy crawlies

  • A nature recorder for all New Zealanders

  • Where do you want to go?

  • Which praying mantis?

  • News from Westland

You can also read past newsletters here.

Saturday, March 19, 2011

Tomorrow is world sparrow day!

No kidding. I thought it was a joke at first, but no. Go to and you can learn all about it. It turns out that the ubiquitous and largely ignored house sparrow we have in New Zealand is a prized native bird of the UK. It is also a native bird in worrying decline in the UK and southern India.

So, perhaps for a day we New Zealanders should pay a little attention to the house sparrows all around us. They are fascinating birds in their own right and have been amazingly successful in urban and rural landscapes throughout the temperate world. That some landscapes are being altered to the extent that they are pushing such a successful bird into decline should be of concern to all of us.

Log in to NZBRN and show the world how many bazillion sparrows we still have down here. The UK can have as many as they want.

Distribution map of house sparrows (Passer domesticus) in New Zealand.
View Larger Map | Enter your own observations
Source: New Zealand Biodiversity Recording Network.