Wild, wild and blinding
“Suppose, sweet eyes, you went into a distant country
Where these young islands are nothing but a word;
Suppose you never came back again by Terawhiti:
Would you remember and be faithful to your bird?
And when they boasted there of thrushes, larks and linnets,
Would you hold up a stubborn little hand,
And say: “Not so! I know a sweeter singer
Than any bird that cries across your land!”
Would you, remembering, tell them of the Tui?
Wild, wild and blinding in its wildest note.
They – they never heard him, swinging on a flax–flower,
Mad with the honey and the noon in his throat.”
(an extract from the poem by Eileen Duggan)
The special occasion bird
On my first visit to our capital city, when I was still a naive small-town country boy, I went to the Wellington Zoo where I had my first up close and intimate encounter with a tui.
It was in an old fashioned aviary with thick mesh that made it hard to see the bird inside. But as I pressed to the wire, my fingers gripped through the gaps either side of my face, the tui came to me, chorused a glorious song, gave a distinct ‘hello’ – a far more accurate rendition of the human voice than any parrot – and then proceeded to lick the salty sweat off my fingers. The touch of its feathered tongue was infinitely soft, almost a nothing, but I still thrill to the sensation to this day!
As I have commented in a previous blog, my Canterbury childhood was populated with the glorious voice and modest moss green of the korimako (the New Zealand bellbird), which is the second largest of our native honeyeaters. The largest os these nectar eating birds is the tui and, although it is abundant throughout most of the country, they are rare in the dry bush patches dotting the Canterbury plains where the bellbird dominates.
I never saw a tui in the patch of native bush behind our house but, very occasionally, would see one at nearby Peel Forest on the edge of the plains where the extent of forest was greater and the climate wetter. But for reliable sightings of this ‘parson bird’ I had to travel a much greater distance – south to Otago, west to the Wild West Coast or north to Marlborough.
So, for me, the tui was a very special bird indeed. I came to associate it with the adventure of a holiday. The tui was one of the birds I looked forward to seeing when my parents took me on wonderful motoring holidays , travelling throughout the South Island. Staying with my beloved Aunty Joan in Nelson, who shared and encouraged my passion for wildlife, was often on the agenda.Visits to her were always notable for the tui that came to her garden ,where I would sit in her ancient rocking chair on the small deck and watch them squabble over the blossoms or the honey jars she strung in the trees to draw them in and ease their winter. For this reason I’ve always been very fond of tui; my special occasion bird that came to symbolise long hours of family time in places new and thrilling.
As an adult, I came into tui heaven when I moved away from South Canterbury; first to Southland where they spangled the blossom trees in the botanic gardens, and then Hokitika on the West Coast. The Coast, in particular, was a haven for tui. There, in the small garden outside my office window, I’d see them singeing their foreheads with the fire of harakeke pollen.
Auckland and Wellington, too, were remarkable for the tui that came into suburbia and sang from trees on the edge of motorways as if the cars were not there and the whole domain a forest for them to glory in.
In the capital I was woken to tui song every morning, no matter the time of year. A tui living in the Mt Victoria forest at our back door favoured a neighbour’s tall Norfolk pine as his singing post and greeted the dawn from the top of it every morning. His song was always cheerful, but when the harakeke was in bloom and the pohutukawa blossoms were bursting into summer like scarlet fireworks, then his song took on a volume, intensity and complexity that is unrivalled in the avian world.
Sometimes his song would reach such intensity his notes would scale beyond human hearing and you would see his bill gaping, throat pulsating and breast puffing, but could only imagine that other tui (and local dogs) were being enthralled by his virtuosity.
His human-audible repertoire included glorious melody, single chimes of great purity, spiraling downward trills and ascending scales, organ-like notes filled with vibrato; and an almost paradoxical collection of grunts, wheezes, gurgles, coughs, chunks, chonks, and the harshest of screeches. Occasionally city noises would also fill out his musical arrangements, especially a tone-perfect imitation of a car alarm and a neighbour’s doorbell.
Back now in the Canterbury dry lands the tui is again a bird to visit elsewhere, but not so far now. Reintroductions of this bird to the Banks Peninsula Hills, one of its few Canterbury strongholds prior to agricultural clearance, mean I need only visit the close hills to the east to hear the distinctive whirr of their wings and their choral proclamation of ownership over the local stands of kowhai, blue gum blossom and fiery rata trees.