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The giant weta woman of ZEALANDIA
Louise Slocombe

The giant weta woman of ZEALANDIA

Outstanding volunteer Sheila Playford

Sheila Playford has been described as a ‘Giant Weta Woman’. Since 2011, she has carried out a weekly survey of ZEALANDIA’s Giant Weta population and her dedication recently won her a ZEALANDIA ‘kākā’ award for outstanding volunteer contributions.

I accompanied Sheila on one of her weekly surveys which involves checking on the occupants of 30-odd weta ‘hotels’ and boxes around ZEALANDIA. As well as looking for giant weta, Sheila also records any other wildlife that have taken up residence, which might include tree or cave weta, forest geckos, native slugs or spiders. The ‘hotels’ are boxes stuffed with bracken which she pulls out to see who is inside – carefully though, as a couple of times she has ended up with painful cuts. “Weta can slice your fingers with the razor-sharp spikes on their back legs,” she explains. But for giant weta, “it’s the only defence they have” – contrary to what I had thought, it’s only the male tree weta that can bite. Nor are weta likely to jump out at you, which is what many people are afraid of. Weta are nocturnal - during the day they are sleepy and docile, and don’t seem to mind much having the lids of their homes lifted off by people surveying them.

Sheila has been carrying out the weta survey for about five years. She got interested in the idea when she went on a kayaking and camping trip to Matiu/Somes Island. She met some scientists in the bag check area, who were there to carry out a weta survey that night. They invited her to join them and the group she was with found 46 giant weta. Later she saw that ZEALANDIA were looking for volunteers to survey giant weta and she jumped at the chance. She told me she was ‘rapt’ to get the weta survey role, but then realized that perhaps there weren’t many other contenders - not everyone is quite as passionate as she is about weta, or as keen on the idea of handling them. In fact, “my girlfriends think I’m nuts” she says as she dives under a flax bush to see what is inside a weta box. The boxes are often placed close to flax as weta like to live in flax roots.

As well as the opportunity to find weta, Sheila enjoys the flexibility of the role which she can fit around her schedule, and she loves spending time in ZEALANDIA. She also has a personal connection with the valley as her father used to work at the Karori waterworks before it was decommissioned and became part of ZEALANDIA. His job was to test the water to make sure it was safe to drink and they lived in one of the houses just above where ZEALANDIA is now. She remembers “running through the bush” that is now ZEALANDIA.

I’ve always preferred to keep my distance from large scary-looking insects, but Sheila’s enthusiasm starts to rub off on me. I’m amazed to find out that giant weta graze on grass and other vegetation, and can be found at night along the edges of ZEALANDIA’s paths. Outside of sanctuaries such as ZEALANDIA and Matiu/Somes Island, this makes them vulnerable to introduced pests such as stoats, rats and hedgehogs. In fact, giant weta were extinct from mainland New Zealand until some were transferred to ZEALANDIA from Matiu/Somes Island.

We’ve already found a couple of juvenile giant weta and then in one ‘hotel’ we are lucky enough to find a pair of giant weta mating, locked in a weta embrace. Sheila points out how the female is much bigger than the male. She is delighted at the find. “That’s why I come here – the wow factor – you don’t get over it”, she says.

Story by Louise Slocombe
Photos by Judi Lapsley Miller

 

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