Blink and you’ll miss them

By Paul Callister and Francesca Emms

Featured in Capital #51
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Not sure if you’re looking at a gecko or a skink? The best thing to do is stare into its eyes. A skink will blink. A gecko, however, doesn’t have eyelids.

The sad truth though, is that you’re unlikely to see lizards these days. This is something that Paul Callister is trying to remedy.  “Historically, lizards were to be found anywhere from coastal shores to mountain peaks. Some lived on the ground, some in trees. Some came out during the day, while others were nocturnal. You would have once found them in your fruit bowl; others would have caught mosquitos while hanging from your bedroom roof,” says Paul.

Growing up in the Hutt Valley in the 1960s, Paul remembers school friends finding green geckos in their back yards and often keeping them as pets. “Nowadays, the very attractive green geckos are listed by the Department of Conservation as ‘declining’ and it is very uncommon to find them in the Wellington region.” Railways, roads, housing, farming, and even lawn mowing have destroyed the natural habitats of the geckos and skinks that have lived in New Zealand for 40 and 20 million years respectively. Add introduced predators like stoats, rats or cats and it’s easy to understand how the formerly abundant species became “cryptic”. “Biological speak for being hard to find,” explains Paul.

An environmental activist since the age of 17, Paul has always had a passion for protecting and improving the natural environment. He volunteers with Paekakariki’s Queen Elizabeth Park and has been involved with the Ngā Uruora – Kāpiti Bush restoration project for the past two decades. More recently Ngā Uruora has turned its focus to native lizards. Three years ago Ngā Uruora employed Ecogecko, a Tawa lizard and frog consultancy, to carry out lizard surveys. “Trent Bell of Ecogecko has taught us how and where to look for lizards. We have found four species, including one listed as ‘declining’ by the Department of Conservation,” says Paul. With help from multiple funders, Nga Uruora is now undertaking intensive pest control and  improving lizard habitat. “In a former quarry on the Paekakariki escarpment we are building rock piles in which lizards can hide from predators,” says Paul. “We are also planting lizard friendly plants. Some are rare and some were once there but are now missing from the escarpment. This ‘lizard garden’ is next to the popular Escarpment Track so eventually the many walkers will have a chance to see lizards close up.”

Most mornings, pest control is the first thing on Paul’s mind. Thanks to a smart-trap network, volunteers like Paul can check their phones or computers to find out which traps have been set off. This system is very useful in reducing the need for volunteer hours, as they don’t have to check each trap manually. Also, the real-time information means that if a nearby trap goes off Paul can be there quickly to re-set it and collect “fresh specimens for autopsy.” In the escarpment area hedgehogs and weasels are “voracious eaters of lizards.” The rest of Paul’s morning is usually spent carrying out restoration work, building rock piles or tending lizard-friendly plants like the Cook Strait mahoe. The small leaves of this plant make it hard for birds to get through to the lizards hiding underneath. The berries grow at the base of the rare plant so they’re easy for lizards to reach and eat, and they subsequently spread the seeds. Paul’s afternoons are often spent writing, again usually in a volunteer capacity. Formerly an economist, researcher and academic, Paul says “I don’t miss my paid job at all.”

Paul regularly sees dozen of lizards, but there’s a particular type of skink he always hopes to spy. “In the 1980s, when I moved to the Kāpiti Coast, Pukerua Bay was home to Whitaker’s skink,” he says. “While some may still be there, none have been found in recent surveys.” The locally threatened species hasn’t been seen in the area for many years. But it’s not all bad news. Many of these skinks were removed from the area for their own protection and for breeding programmes. Many amateur lizard breeders throughout New Zealand work under strict Department of Conservation regulations. “Although most of these lizards cannot be released into the wild, they represent an important insurance policy against extinction.” Nga Manu, in Waikanae, runs a successful tuatara breeding program, and is beginning to expand its lizard breeding operations – which include Whitaker’s skink.

According to “Lizard strategy for the Wellington region”, published in 2012 by the Wellington Regional Lizard Network, seventeen lizard species are recorded as living within the Wellington region. The report says that lizards can become exceptionally abundant with the removal of introduced predators. Lizards thrive on predator-free islands, including Mana, Kāpiti and Matiu/Somes. The challenge is to enable them to thrive on the mainland. Across the Wellington region, community groups are involved in efforts to support and expand lizard populations. The Miramar ecological restoration group Te Motu Kairangi is supporting lizards by improving the habitat and predator control on the Miramar Peninsula. Zealandia’s predator-proof fence enables threatened lizard species to thrive in central Wellington. Volunteers at Whitireia Park have undertaken an intensive pest control programme to care for their four species of lizards and are anticipating the introduction of a further species. Many schools around Wellington have lizard gardens.

Paul says supporting lizards in home gardens is relatively easy. “While keen gardeners can seek out lizard-friendly native plants and create ideal habitat with rock piles, lizards also appreciate unkempt lawns, wood and rock piles, and even old broken-down sheds. But lizards still need to be protected from predators, including cats. Wellington’s predator free effort will also favour lizard repopulation.” If you succeed in attracting lizards to your garden just leave them be − it’s illegal to collect skinks or geckos and it is recommended you don’t handle them. You should have plenty of opportunity to look at them though. Some lizards can live to the age of 50 and will stay in more or less the same place for years.


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