On his monthly 42km Port Hills bike ride, ecologist Jon Sullivan geo-tags native trees and species for his Wild Counts blog.
From what he's seen, New Zealanders need to do a lot more to attract native birds and insects into our paddocks, gardens, towns and cities, he tells Jesse Mulligan.
Sullivan, by his own admission, is obsessive about counting.
“I really want to know about what’s going on in nature. Quite a while ago I realised I could do that myself."
“So every month I do this 42km bike ride from my home through the Christchurch Port Hills down to Lincoln University where I work. I put my iPhone on my handlebars with my microphone and talk to myself whenever I see something. I count every bird I see, every butterfly I see, roadkill, a whole bunch of weeds, flowering times of things and map out what’s going on and that’s just part of it.
“I do other routes and run throughout the city as well and I try and keep that going every month as well, so I can track how things are shipping.”
The technology Sullivan uses to record his rides has changed a bit since he started working at Lincoln back in 2003.
The advent of iPhones was a game-changer for Sullivan, replacing the clip-on piece of cardboard and pen he'd previously used to note down what he was seeing on his bike.
Sullivan now makes verbal observations into an app, which records his exact location.
He then feeds these audio recordings onto Amazon Transcribe where he can access decades of observations.
Sullivan is still in the process of audio-transcribing mountains of material so any changes in patterns can be documented and understood.
One observation he can confirm is bellbird numbers are increasing in the Port Hills.
“We’ve seen things going up. Things like kererū, which are not common around here, are still holding their own, which is good news. Some of the weeds are starting to spread, which are shifting fennel and things trying to move around.”
The other picture Sullivan is forming is of spatial patterns, which reveal a divide between the preferred habitat for native species and our townland and farmlands.
“When I go up to the Port Hills, that’s where the bellbirds are and then I go down on the flatlands, that’s where all the house sparrows and starlings are. It really is that stark.
"This month when I went up to the Port Hills, on the top of the hills is Summit Rd, there’s forest around and open grassland. I think I saw one house sparrow and one starling and lots of bellbirds. But as soon as you get down to farmland, it just completely switches to lots of house sparrows and starlings and I had one bellbird the whole day.
“We really are still in the situation where all the natives are up in the hills and exotics are thriving down on the flats, cities and farms...”
There's a striking gulf between the number of native trees and species in the hills and those on flat land, Sullivan says.
We could do better at turning our cities and townlands into environments in which they can thrive.
“We’ve got nature reserves and reservations going on and that’s where the native species, except for the weeds and pests encroaching in. But when it gets to the industrial landscapes we’re just making our economy run, it’s still not a place for a lot of native species.”
Sullivan hopes that with a shift in mindset, there will be places for native species everywhere, not just on reserves.
Bellbirds are coming into Christchurch gardens and increasing in number, but little in the way of other native species are doing the same, he says.
“I count butterflies and down in the flats I counted 452 cabbage white butterflies over my ride, and 427 of these were in the farmland.
“Almost none of them in the Port Hills. Then 91 percent of the native butterflies were all up in the Port Hills. For butterflies, all they need is some delicious host plants around for the caterpillars to eat, but the bulk of the host plants of the native butterflies are still up there in the Port Hills.”
With a bit of knowledge and work, we could turn our own farms and gardens into amazing places for natives to thrive, Sullivan says.
For those wanting to make a difference, his advice is simple – be aware of what’s around you and do practical things to make a home for New Zealand natives.
“Plant the right plants, control the rats, get the possum traps going, the native herbaceous plants – we’re all just still pulling them out when we see them – so just be aware of what’s around you and know what you’re pulling out when you pull something out of your garden.”