Little Owl Gully’s lizards
If the number of sightings is anything to go by over the past four or five years, then Little Owl Gully’s lizards are definitely on the increase. When I say lizards, I mean the skinks we see scurrying over paths or disappearing under tussock or long pasture grasses or other cover, such as the railway sleepers surrounding raised beds.
Herpetologists have given me licence to reclassify Little Owl Gully’s lizards as Canterbury grass skinks. Up until 2008 they were classified as a common skink, but herpetologists have now split the ‘common’ ones into five separate species. Regrettably, despite being assessed as a ‘not threatened’ species in 2010, since then the Canterbury grass skink has been on the decline.
It’s a good name for them – we’ve seen them dashing across our tracks as we walk through pasture grasses, or startled, looking up at us as we disturb a paddock’s portable water trough.
We’re spotting them again now that cold winter days are behind us and there’s heat in the spring sunshine. Solitary creatures, we’ll spot one that frequents the rose garden, another that must live somewhere round the compost bins or nearby gooseberry bushes.
Just yesterday, in the full blaze of the mid-afternoon sun, I disturbed one basking on the concrete foundation of a barn wall as I closed a farm gate after moving the cows. Such a burst of speed – I was scarcely able to keep it in focus, but I had time to notice, before it disappeared under the barn side’s corrugated iron, that it had lost its tail.
Like most lizards, New Zealand’s skinks can drop their tales: the detached tail will keep wriggling and distract a predator. Assuming that works, the predator gets a snack but misses out on dinner! Given time, a tail will re-grow – shorter and now supported by cartilage rather than bone, but a tail nonetheless and once again available as a fat storage organ.
The skink that came into the back porch last summer probably had hidey-holes under the railway sleepers that form sides of the raised bed near the back door. Gave us quite a run-around till it found a dark corner in the laundry and paused long enough for me to put a large, clear plastic bowl over him or her. Once back outside, I made sure our visitor had plenty of cover handy.
Around noon on another hot summer’s day last year, I watched for several minutes as one basked on top of a bunch of violet plants growing in a rose bed; with the skink’s pencil-thin 8 centimetres spread over a few leaves, the dainty plants had no trouble supporting it. I moved first, in fact, and when I cast a shadow, the lizard, in the blink of an eye, dropped out of sight to escape a ‘predator’.
They usually give birth in summer or autumn, so perhaps the skink on the violets rushed back to its nest. It seems quite a marvel to me that these reptiles – New Zealand geckos and skinks -don’t lay eggs but give birth to live young.
Cold-blooded, they seek out sunbaked rocks for basking – survival in the open vastly increased as their heated blood and revved-up metabolisms turbo-charge bursts of speed for hunting invertebrates and escaping predators. Like the rest of us, starved of sunlight and warmth on bleak winter days, they’ll get in some sunbathing on days when there’s sufficient heat in the winter sun. Sluggish when their blood is cold – an easy catch for predators.
Because they’re a tasty treat for so many predator species, and because suitable habitats are now greatly diminished, about 80% of our endemic gecko and skink species are either threatened or endangered. I was surprised to learn that wasps, mice, hedgehogs, kingfishers, possums, dogs and pigs are on the predator list, but not surprised about the rest: rats, cats, stoats, weasels, ferrets, owls, blackbirds, starlings, magpies.
There was a brief segment on the TV current affairs programme Seven Sharp the other night, featuring a twenty-three-year-old who’d recently published a book on New Zealand’s reptiles. There was so much youthful rapture and fizz when he talked about lizards, that if he’d been champagne you would have had to be extra careful how you popped the cork! His parting words were: “I want other people to admire and love these creatures so that we can look after them.” He’s right though isn’t he, you’ve got to let creatures other than humans ‘get under your skin’ in a good way (not a Sigourney Weaver ‘Alien’ way!) before you genuinely begin to care.
Our enthusiasm for lizards, tempered by age and with neither the intention nor the ability to mimic the unique way he related to them, has nonetheless increased now that sightings of Little Owl Gully’s skinks are on the rise. We’ve certainly provided them, even if ever so incidentally and incrementally, with plenty of desirable habitats. That must be so, because we’re also home to many of the species that predate them, and yet the Canterbury grass skink, a lizard species on the decline in New Zealand, is doing just fine round here.
That’s all on modern-day homesteading at Little Owl Gully till next Monday. Thanks for your company. Bye for now.