Science Abroad: Brush with a Kiwi

Mount Saint Mary College students and faculty stepped into a whole new world of science and discovery recently.

Biology professors James Moran and Douglas Robinson, and 10 students, spent three weeks in New Zealand. The course has several foci: the diversity of the birds of New Zealand; the impact that humans have had on them; and strategies that have been implemented by the New Zealand government’s Department of Conservation and other organizations.

Over 80 million years, “The animals didn’t evolve with any terrestrial mammals on the two main islands of New Zealand, which make up a landmass about the size of California,” explained Robinson. “No mice, no rats, no cats, no dogs – just birds.”

The birds lost the ability to fly over time because there were no major predators. When humans brought animals like dogs and cats, the flightless birds were defenseless. Up to 70 percent of bird species were eliminated.

The Mount group studied at nature preserves, where the native birds have a chance to thrive.

“We saw a species of bird called the takahé, and there are fewer than 300 left,” said Robinson. “They’re only found in New Zealand.”

Robinson and Moran created a “classroom on the go” to make any activity academic. “Our hike to Fox Glacier helped students learn about how glaciers form, the physical dynamics of glaciers, and the different properties of glaciers,” explained Robinson.  “While sea kayaking to our campground in Abel Tasman National Park, students had the opportunity to observe a seabird colony and formulate hypotheses regarding its location on Adele Island in Tasman Bay.”

Students also learned about the culture of the native New Zealanders, the Maori. In the city of Rotorua, a stronghold of Maori culture, they received a traditional welcoming and meal.

Chris Lorch and Dorian Shann study a sea star on the Sandy Bay (Marahau) tidal flat.

The journey, a general science course, was not limited to science majors. Sean Harrison of Glendale, N.Y., a business major with a minor in biology, said that the trip opened his eyes to new concepts and cultures.

In addition to studying the country’s unique bird population – such as the takahé and the Kiwi, a well-known symbol for New Zealand – “I learned a lot about myself,” Harrison said. “It’s certainly the longest and the farthest I’ve ever been from home, so I feel like I’ve become more independent, and I’ve learned how I react to situations I’m not normally in.”

The Mount sojournering students also included Jack Capetola of East Rockaway, N.Y.; Kristen Maddock of Medford, N.Y.; Lara Guindi of New Windsor, N.Y.; Dorian Shann of Beacon, N.Y.; Chris and Jason Lorch, of Plainview, N.Y.; Kate O’Driscoll of Manorville, N.Y.; David Hobbs of Lynbrook, N.Y.; and Stephen Macleod of Carmel, N.Y.  Preparations are underway for a return trip, which will include a Kiwi bird radio tracking and release program, among other new experiences.

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the endangered takahé