Our Changing World

Thursday 20 November 2014, with Alison Ballance, Ruth Beran & Veronika Meduna

On This Programme

Dunedin's Secret Seabird Cliffs

By Alison Ballance

Fairy prion

Fairy prion

Photo: Alan Tennyson

“These fairy prions are so gentle, they really are at the bottom of the pecking order for seabirds.” Graeme Loh

At the end of a cul-de-sac, in the Dunedin suburb of St Clair, a small path worn through the grass by a team of keen volunteers leads to a surprising predator-proof fence perched on the edge of steep sea cliffs. The prion fence, as it’s known, is the brainchild of Dunedin conservationist Graeme Loh. It is part of an effort to secure the future of a small colony of fairy prions, which breed on a narrow ledge halfway down the 70-metre high cliff. Graeme also wants to enthuse people about the birds.

“I want to make it easier for people to come and study them, and to come and appreciate them,” says Graeme. “What I want to do is get people excited about the greatest seabird country on earth, which is New Zealand. We have more of these birds breeding here than in any other country, they make fantastic sounds, and these fairy prions are so quiet and friendly. It’s such a great thing about New Zealand – but most people don’t know about it.”

Graeme, along with fellow ornithologists Graeme Taylor and Alison Davies, first spotted the ledge in 1992, while cruising the coast between Blackhead and St Clair in a small inflatable boat, searching for little blue penguins. They noted seabird burrows that they assumed belonged to sooty shearwaters or titi, and some evening vigils from the cliff top confirmed that titi were indeed present.

A year passed before Graeme summoned the courage to abseil down to the ledge, using an old hawser-laid rope, and he was very surprised to find that the burrows actually belonged to fairy prions. These small burrowing seabirds are very vulnerable to introduced predators such as rats and stoats, and so are usually confined to predator-free offshore islands. However, rats aren’t able to reach the ledge, and so the birds are able to breed in total safety.

Graeme Loh has put leg bands on more than 1200 fairy prions at the St Clair colony since 2000, and he makes regular roll calls to follow the progress of the banded birds. Here he is reading the leg band of one bird, while Tiff Stewart holds its mate.

Graeme Loh has put leg bands on more than 1200 fairy prions at the St Clair colony since 2000, and he makes regular roll calls to follow the progress of the banded birds.

Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

However, the ledge is a less-than ideal place to breed: it is eroding away, and in most places the soil is too shallow for the birds to build burrows. To help the birds out Graeme began to build bird motels, wooden nesting boxes that would both be a safe ‘state house’ for the birds, and also enable him to easily check in on the progress of the nests via a hatch in the top of the box. He has installed about 90 nest boxes, and all of the building material had to be lowered down by rope, as abseiling is the only way to reach the colony.

“I stopped building nest boxes when I was here by myself one night and it was the peak of the season and I thought ‘gee this has got a bit more than a hobby’. With about 80 of these occupied by two birds that’s a lot of legs to read bands on,” says Graeme.

Graeme began putting leg bands on the birds in 2000, and he’s now banded more than 1200 birds. Some of those original birds are still breeding in the colony, including one pair that have bred together for that entire time. Graeme says he “does see quite a bit of mixing and matching. Some partners are changed, and sometimes they move next door to a different nest box.”

Young birds return to the colony for the first time, aged 2-4 years, during June and July. In August and September older birds return to the colony. All breeding birds are incubating birds by mid-November.

Graeme plays recordings of fairy prions in the small area protected by the predator-proof fence, and he hopes that the calls will attract birds to breed there and establish a second population. He is also keen to protect other seabirds, such as titi, to ensure that St Clair’s secret seabird cliffs is home to as many kinds of seabirds as possible.

Alison Ballance completed the 50 metre abseil descent to the prion colony with her sound recording equipment slung over her shoulder (left); Graeme Loh and Tiff Stewart (right) checking the leg bands of fairy prions using the nest boxes that Graeme has built on the ledge.

The only way to reach the fairy prion colony is to abseil 50 metres down a sheer cliff - Alison Ballance completed the descent with her sound recording equipment slung over her shoulder (left); Graeme Loh and Tiff Stewart (right) checking the leg bands of fairy prions using the nest boxes that Graeme has built on the ledge.

Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance


Google Glass in Emergency Situations

By Ruth Beran

If an emergency responder is given information about a little girl on the fifth floor of a damaged building, but instead remembers the girl is on the sixth floor, the child may die if the building collapses.

“What we want to do is try and prevent that from happening,” says Prof Deak Helton from the University of Canterbury.

Visual displays, such as Google Glass or the Recon Jet, are one way to provide information in situations like search and rescue, law enforcement, or firefighting operations, but the question is, how will these new technologies impact on performance?

A photo of Deak Helton standing in front of the climbing wall, with Alex Woodham wearing Google Glass

Deak Helton standing in front of the climbing wall, with Alex Woodham wearing Google Glass

Photo: RNZ / Ruth Beran

Alex Woodham is building on previous research using a climbing wall at the University's Recreation Centre, to see how various conditions impact on people traversing (or moving back and forwards across) the wall.

Participants are asked to either simply climb, or to climb while completing another cognitive task. In the past, this has been an auditory task.

“So we’ve had them listening to words, and then after the climb they recall as many as they can,” says Deak.

Previous research has shown that people lose about half of the information they are asked to retain when they’re physically active compared with being non-active.

“If I give them 20 words when they’re seated they’ll remember about 12, when they’re climbing they’ll remember about 6,” says Deak.

In this new research, Alex is displaying words to participants on Google Glass, a type of monocular, see-through display that sits just above the right eye.

Traversing is used because it “emulates some of the things that search and rescue people might have to do,” says Alex. “So high-angle climbing or just general complex physical activity.”

It is also a very controlled environment while still focusing on complex physical activity, similar to scrambling over uneven terrain, climbing in and out of buildings, or up and down ladders. “Things that firefighters or other emergency responders would have to do would be very similar,” says Deak.

In this environment though, the researchers have very strict measures of how people physically perform and have more control over the setting which might otherwise be constantly shifting.

“It gives us that complexity and it allows us to examine how that works with cognitive load or cognitive functions and even how if effects things like memory,” says Deak.

One question Deak and Alex are trying to answer is how much information people can handle when they’re under physical, intense activity.

A photo of Google Glass

Google Glass

Photo: Tim Reckmann CC BY-SA 3.0

“It might be very limited, and if that’s the case it means we have to handle that,” says Deak. And understanding the operators' limitations means their capabilities can be enhanced. “For example we could augment them with updated memory systems, ways to recall the information once they’re in. Maybe they don’t need to remember it, maybe the system remembers for them and then gives them that information later.”

In previous research it has been shown that information content can affect climbers, so fear related words triggered a fear response, where participants brought their legs and arms in to the centre.

“So we’re going to see if we can see any difference in the motion they will have climbing during periods around when the words are displayed and compared to samples from other periods during the climb,” says Alex.

A microphone will also be attached to participants who will repeat the words they see on the Google Glass.

“That will give us an idea of how much of the words they’re actually seeing and the timing of the words,” says Alex, “And we’ll be filming them as well, seeing how far they climb, how many holds they use, and then we’ll also be using that video for checking motion tracking to see how they move around.”

While it may seem obvious that performance while climbing would be affected if participants have to read words at the same time, Deak says it’s always good to remind people that they can’t do these things, because many people believe that they are immune. “When you talk to a lot of people in these environments they believe that [happens] for other people but not for themselves.” He gives the example of texting while driving, and how many people will do it themselves, even though they know it affects other people. A quantified knowledge of the impact of visual cues is critical, he says, so it can be regulated.

And in the future the paradigm Deak and his team have developed may be used to compare new technology like map information with a series of verbal commands. “We can actually compare which one is better for climbing. Not always are those things going to be easily distinguishable on raw common sense,” says Deak.


Rain Water Harvesting

By Alison Ballance

Stan Abbott stands next to the Roof Water Research Centre on the roof of Massey University in Wellington, which comprises 16 large water tanks and a sophisticated weather monitoring system.

The Roof Water Research Centre on the roof of Massey University in Wellington comprises 16 large water tanks and a sophisticated weather monitoring system.

Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

The Roof Water Research Centre at Massey University in Wellington is run by microbiologist Stan Abbott. Stan is an enthusiastic advocate for collecting rain water from roofs in both urban and rural situations, yet he’s also aware of potential contamination from seabird droppings and wind borne pollutants. He says that although very few people who report gastrointestinal problems believe they drank contaminated water, he believes that regular drinkers may be immune, and also that a Food Safety Authority study showed that there is significant under-reporting of illness related to tank water.

Ten percent of New Zealand households already rely on rain water collected from the roof as their primary water source. These houses are mostly on farms and life style blocks, as well as in isolated areas such Waiheke Island. However, some District Councils such as Kapiti have passed by-laws so that all new dwellings must have a 10,000 litre rain water tank or a 4,000 litre rain water tank and a grey water diversion system. Stan believes that more urban dwellings should collect water for non-potable purposes such as flushing toilets and watering gardens.

Stan also believes all households should have a small rainwater tank for use in emergency situations such as after a large earthquake, when municipal water supplies may be interrupted for a period of time. Modelling by GNS Science showed that following a significant rupture of the Wellington fault, Wellington city might be without mains water for 35-55 days. Stan stresses this emergency rain water should be boiled or treated before drinking.

Stan Abbott led a study looking at water quality in tank water samples from 560 private dwellings in New Zealand. At least half of the samples exceeded minimal acceptable levels for contamination, and more than 30% of samples showed evidence of heavy faecal contamination.

Further research into various physical methods for collecting clean roof water showed that a first flush diverter was the single most effective way of maintaining good water quality. The first flush diverter diverts the first 50 to 100 litres of water collected during a rain event, ensuring that contaminants don’t make it into the tank. Other features such as a calmed inlet ensure that sediment in the bottom of the tank is not stirred up, while down-pipe rain-heads ensure that debris such as leaves doesn’t wash into the tank.

The Roof Water Research Centre has a farm of 16 large rainwater tanks on the roof of Massey University in Wellington, and a sophisticated set of sensors that allow Stan to correlate microbial contamination with particular weather conditions and water temperature. Stan uses the Colilert system to test for E. coli, which is an indicator of faecal contamination.


Music for Tesla Coils and Robotic Bass and Drums

By Alison Ballance

The lightning arcs produced by the Tesla coils are controlled by the Chime Red box pictured in front. The faster the coil is fired, the higher the pitch of the resulting sound.

The lightning arcs produced by the Tesla coils are controlled by the Chime Red box pictured in front. The faster the coil is fired, the higher the pitch of the resulting sound.

Photo: Victoria University of Wellington

Dramatic arcs of lightning and piercing electronic sounds produced by a trio of Tesla coils, rapidly plucked bass guitar strings and a robotic drum kit came together in a unique musical performance called Chime Red this week.

Chime Red took its name of a control system developed by software engineer Josh Bailey, who owns several Tesla coils and wrote the software, and electrical engineer James McVay at Victoria University of Wellington, who developed the hardware. The Chime Red system controls the Tesla coils, and allows the ‘lightning arc’ produced by each coil to produce 16 notes simultaneously, meaning the composers had 48 notes to work with.

Chime Red was a collaboration between the School of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science and the School of Music at Victoria University of Wellington. Jason Long is a PhD student at the School of Music, and he composed a number of pieces for the performance. Other works were composed by Jack Hooker and Jim Murphy.

“What’s really cool about writing music for all these things is that we can use regular music software on our computers and interface with all these,” says Jim Murphy. “I think that’s really the big accomplishment with all this, creating these interfaces that let us use regular tools to create for this strange new technology.”

The Chime Red performance uses three Tesla coils, which produce high voltage electrical arcs. To minimise the leakage of these and ensure audience safety the coils are contained in a Faraday cage.

The Chime Red performance uses three Tesla coils, which produce high voltage electrical arcs. To minimise the leakage of these and ensure audience safety the coils are contained in a Faraday cage.

Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance

James McVay developed MechBass, the robotic bass guitar, as an Honours project two years ago, when it became something of a YouTube hit. It has four strings that are plucked by a set of guitar picks, and can play faster than a human bass player, producing up to 80 notes a second if all four strings are being used.

“The Tesla coils are quite ear piercing,” says Jason Long, “And don’t have a lot of low frequency content, so using the MechBass bass guitar with them fills out the spectrum and gives quite a big sound. And the drums? Well, I like drums, and I wanted to write music for drums, bass and three Tesla coils!”

Tesla coils were developed by the eccentric and brilliant Serbian-American inventor Nikola Tesla in 1891. Tesla, who invented AC or alternating current, was involved in a well-known feud – the War of Currents - with inventor Thomas Edison who came up with DC or Direct Current. Tesla coils produce very large amounts of electrical charge, and were the first way of wirelessly transmitting electricity.

Jim Murphy (left), James McVay (centre) and Jason Long (right) standing behind the robotic drum kit. The MechBass robotic bass guitar is at the back, between James and Jason.

Jim Murphy (left), James McVay (centre) and Jason Long (right) standing behind the robotic drum kit. The MechBass robotic bass guitar is at the back, between James and Jason.

Photo: RNZ / Alison Ballance


Seabird of the Year Competition

Forest and Bird is running a Seabird of the Year competition. Voting closes on 24 November.

Here are some great seabird stories from our audio archive.

Alison Ballance bands Gibson’s wandering albatrosses, and hears from Kath Walker and Graeme Elliott how populations of the two New Zealand wandering albatross species have declined by 50% in the last 10 years.

Dragonfly Science talk about analysing fisheries by-catch data and what it shows.

Young royal albatrosses from Taiaroa Head near Dunedin ‘text home’ to tell researchers their location.

The Hutton’s Shearwater Trust has been translocating Hutton’s shearwater chicks from the main colony high in the mountains of the Seaward Kaikouras down to the Kaikoura Peninsula, and Alison Ballance joins a chick-collecting trip.

Veronika Meduna joins the West Coast Blue Penguin Trust and hears how people and their cars are the little penguins biggest threat.

Alison Ballance heads to Matiu-Somes Island in Wellington harbour to see how a group of volunteers are feeding fluttering shearwater chicks to help establish a new population.

There is a thriving population of little blue penguins on Matiu-Somes Island, as Alison Ballance discovers when she joins a long term monitoring project.

Sooty shearwaters are long distance fliers, and nest on islands around New Zealand, including Mana Island.

Colin Miskelly has been involved in seabird translocations to Mana Island, and Alison Ballance joins him to check up on some of the birds.