Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Lila's big day out.

It’s ANZAC Day, New Zealand’s day to remember the war dead.  It’s an important day for my family too, because we arrived in New Zealand on ANZAC Day (April 25) 1955 on the MV Ruahine
Today it rained on and off all morning, so when the sun came out after lunch we had to get out for a walk.  Rufus was happy inside, but Lila was out in the garden and decided to follow us.  We tried to outrun her, but in the end decided to give in and let her come with us.
So she tagged along quite happily for the first 500m or so and then seemed to get a bit tired.  She was very wary the whole time, probably because she was out of her territory and in a place of new smells and sounds.
You might feel it’s wrong to take a cat into the bush, especially so close to Zealandia.  First, she’s not a hunter (yes I know cat owners always say that, like dog owners say their dogs don’t bite).  Secondly, she was too busy keeping up with us and watching her back.  Thirdly, and I know it’s not a valid argument but I’ll make it anyway, lots of cat-owning households back onto that bush and people walk their dogs there all the time.  I agree with Gareth Morgan that cats should be enclosed so they can’t hunt birds and lizards.
It’s autumn now.  The drought is well and truly behind us and fruits and fungi were the features of this walk.
Favolaschia calocera
Favolaschia calocera is an introduced fungus that lives on dead wood.  It’s become very common around Wellington.  Under the cap are large pores instead of gills.
Under the cap of Favolaschia calocera are honeycombed pores.

Buds of kohekohe, Dysoxylum spectabile.
Kohekohe (Dysoxylum spectabile) is going to have a bumper flowering this year.  The sprays of small white flowers are produced on the tree trunks, and a number were quite low down.  When these open, I’ll easily be able to reach them and get good photos.  Individual trees are either male or female, although some males can set a few fruits.
Outside the bush, the track follows the Zealandia pest-proof fence alongside a clay banks with a nice range of mosses and lichens and a view of the harbour.  We didn’t go far along, because Lila was clearly getting tired by now.
Passiflora fruits, one eaten by birds
Native passion flower (Passiflora tetrandra) was in fruit.  Orange rinds littered the ground where birds had opened the fruits for their meagre pulp and few seeds.  I found one intact one.
Inside the Passiflora fruit are bright red seeds and pulp.
The fruit has three parts (carpels) and the ovules and (later) seeds are attached in three rows to the outer walls where they join.

Home at last, Lila staggered in the door and immediately collapsed on the cool wooden floor.  She’ll sleep well tonight.

Saturday, 13 April 2013

A little gift on the doorstep

When you have cats, you have to get used to odd and sometimes gross gifts on the doorstep, but this morning's little surprise didn't come from the cats.
Wētā dropping with embedded seeds.  The New Zealand 10c coin is 20.5 mm diameter
Wētā are large flightless Orthopterans (crickets), and this is wētā poop.  The dropping is about 5 mm diameter, so this is a big insect.  Note the embedded seeds; they've passed right through the wētā's gut. Probably it was a Wellington tree wētā (Hemideina crassidens), which are common in the garden.  These seeds are quite large, and I suspect they're Coprosma robusta.
Coprosma robusta in fruit, Tunnel Gully, Wellington.
I could wash them out and put them under the microscope to confirm their identity, but instead, I've just planted the poop to see what comes up.  I'll report back when I get a result.
A close-up of the seeds.
Duthie et al. (2006) reported wētā dispersal of seeds in New Zealand.  Mostly the seeds dispersed were smaller than these.  The underside of this dropping had several more showing, so I'm expecting up to 8 or even 10 seedlings.


Duthie, C., Gibbs, G., Burns, K.C., 2006. Seed dispersal by weta. Science 311: 1575.

Tuesday, 9 April 2013

45 years on—10th April 1968.

Forty-five years ago I was a first year student at Victoria University of Wellington, studying Botany, Zoology, and Chemistry.  On April 10th, I woke up early, before seven, to the howling of the wind and the house creaking and shaking.  It was a very strong single-story house – Dad designed it with earthquakes in mind and the builder claimed it was “overbuilt” – so it didn’t creak often.  I don’t recall if I was worried, but I was certainly surprised by the strength of the wind, the constant roar of noise, and the shaking.  In the hallway outside my bedroom I met Dad on his way back from the bathroom.  He told me the inter-island ferry Wahine was aground on Barrett’s reef, but that everyone was safe.  The wind is said to have peaked that day at 275 km/h.  NIWA has published a catalogue of weather extremes, damage, injury, and loss of life that day.  Our house in Linden was at a similar altitude and exposure to Kelburn, where they recorded just under 200 km/h.

At breakfast we debated about going in to work (Dad) and university (me).  It was probably after breakfast that the power went off, ruling out our usual transport, the electric trains.  Then a neighbor called to say her husband had tried to drive into town and had turned back because it was too windy on the motorway.  We decided to sit tight.

I guess it was mid-morning when the roof blew off the house next door but one.  For some reason, Dad and I were in the laundry watching the storm from there, so we saw the iron sheets lift off one by one and fly tumbling through the air towards us.  Dad had the presence of mind to get me out of the room and close the door; however no iron hit the house, but it did demolish our fence where some sheets embedded end-on 5mm into the wood.  Dad and I dashed across the intervening section to help our neighbors evacuate the house.  I foolishly sprinted through the swirling iron; he sensibly ducked around the back out of its flight path. 
Minor damage at home, 10 April 1968
At some stage during the morning our 5m Norfolk pine (Araucaria excelsa: Dad used to call it the Alka-Seltzer) tipped over at about 30˚ off the vertical.  We watched a tree across the road thrash itself out of the ground and then roll end-over-end down the street like a giant tumbleweed, never to be seen again.

Some time in the early afternoon everything went calm.  We thought it was the eye of the storm, and expected the wind to pick up again from the north, but it was all over.  I don’t recall hearing more about the Wahine until the TV news that night.  My memories of that are all mixed up with what I’ve heard since.  Fifty-four people died in that storm, 51 on the Wahine.  The display at Wellington's Museum of City & Sea captures it all; it still makes me tear up.

Students who did turn up for lectures had an exciting morning, they told me later.  Prof Gordon had valiantly tried to give the Botany I lecture, but abandoned it when slates from the roof of the Hunter Building started crashing through the lecture room windows.
Smashed pine trees, Colonial Knob, Wellington, 1968
 The following weekend was Easter, and I went tramping in the Tararuas with two friends.  Another friend couldn’t come because his cross country running club had volunteered to search the south coast for bodies.  On Cone Saddle we encountered a whole beech forest tipped over.  We ended up having to climb among the fallen trees to get through, sometimes walking along logs that were 5m above the ground. 

At home, we fixed the fence and pulled the Norfolk pine upright again.  For me, the day had been pretty benign really, but I still think about it every time 10 April comes around.  For many people, I guess life took a sudden and unexpected turn that day.  People survive a lot worse—Christchurch earthquakes, the Sept. 11 attacks in New York, let alone the blitz, Dresden, or Hiroshima—but these things all leave their mark.

Wednesday, 3 April 2013

Improvised macro lens for a point & shoot camera.

Flower of an unnamed native buttercup, photographed with my old Spotmatic. The flower is probably about 15 mm diameter.
Years ago (about 1970) I was given an Asahi Pentax Spotmatic 35mm camera with a 50mm macro lens.  I used that camera for field and family photography for about 30 years.  It was tough and I never had it serviced, and sometimes the photos were great.  In the last 12 years I've had three different digital cameras, all cheap(ish) point-and-shoot models.  While they get pretty close, they don't match the best performance of the Spotmatic for plant close-ups, although they have some real advantages.  On the whole I'm pretty happy with the latest one, a Sony Cybershot 14.1 megapixel camera.  It's small and light and has a macro function that does a reasonable job with all but the smallest flowers.
Digital cameras are evolving rapidly and so I seem to need a replacement every few years. Fortunately they're also getting cheaper as they get better.  I'm reluctant to shell out a lot of money for a digital SLR, knowing in a few years it'll be obsolete, or at least surpassed by newer models.  However, I would like to get closer to small flowers, so I've been playing with cheap alternatives.

The latest is a $10 home-made macro lens.  It's inspired by the idea of the Ōlloclip lenses for iPhone (I've just bought a set of these and they're pretty good and very portable).  You can get reasonable results by simply holding a botanist's field lens in front of the camera lens, but I was lucky enough to have a cheap jeweler's loop that fits quite snugly over the lens of my camera.  Unfortunately though, it's a bit tricky to hold it aligned in place while you take the photo.  I wanted something a bit more stable.

I hit on the idea of using cheap plastic plumbing attachments to hold the lenses together.  Here's the camera with the parts of the new system.  The loop fits snugly in one end, and the other end fits snugly over the camera lens when it's extended.  You have to zoom a bit to fill the field of view.
My point & shoot camera with components of the clip-on macro lens: a $2.50 plastic pipe attachment and a $10 jeweler's loop.
And here's my camera with its new macro lens fitted.  I still have to hold it while I take the photo, but the pipe fits snugly so I don't have to position it as well.  I could superglue a threaded plastic ring onto the camera, then screw the pipe attachment into it (it's threaded on both ends), but I don't want to do that to my camera, at least until it's out of warranty (in a few weeks).  If I did that, I could put the camera on a tripod for greater stability and better focusing, so I might do it quite soon.
The macro lens clip-on in place.
The real test is in the results.  Here are three shots for comparison: using the standard camera as close as it can get (left), then using the new clip-on lens with the zoom half-extended (centre) and fully extended (although not quite focused, right).  Printed at 300 dpi, the 1 cm wide key in the right hand picture would be about 33 cm across:

The new system has quite a good working distance and is easy to use.  There is a little distortion of parallel lines (see above), and there might be other effects like chromatic aberration that I haven't looked for.  But at $12.50, it's a bargain.  I'm playing with other improvised systems too, and might report on them later.

I used it in the field this week too:
Veronica scutellata, Foxton Beach.  In the original photo, the flower was 1240 pixels across; in life it's about 6mm.
Veronica catenata, Himitangi Beach.  In the original photo, the flower was 800 pixels across; in life it's about 4 mm.

To finish, here's what the Ōlloclip macro lens can do with an iPhone 4S:
Veronica serpyllifolia capsule.  It's 4 mm across, and spans about 600 pixels in the original.

It focuses at 13mm, so I guess I need some kind of adjustable stand to hold the phone at that distance from the subject.  I've started building one.