(extract from Ode to the seagull, Pablo Neruda)
It is hard to understand how we humans can write so beautifully in admiration of the gull as Neruda does, or how we can send the book and the film Jonathan Livingston Seagull to the top of the charts yet also be the species that generated the headlines above.
What possesses us to engage in such brutality? How can someone walk up to a colony of gulls and deliberately raise a stone above a nest of helpless chicks and smash it down? What sickness is it that causes someone to thrill to enticing gulls with food, shooting just to stun and then run over their living bodies with a car? What is in the head of a person who drives through a colony of eggs and chicks, distressed parent birds keening about their windscreen, and call it fun?
And, most perplexing of all, what has the gull done to earn such hate?
As a passionate bird photographer and conservationist I find it hard to understand how anyone cannot see the beauty in the silver flight of a gull. Or not experience awe at their precise aerobatics; perhaps experience a tinge of envy at their sleekly groomed perfection even in the face of a gale?
But too often we hear: “gulls are a pest”, “fucking scavengers”, “lamb killers”, “food stealers”, “flying rats”.
Most gulls are, indeed, opportunists, many successful animals are. But it is the habits of humans that create the problem; the bird is simply looking for an easy feed, a quality that most humans can surely identify with. So when they gather at the outdoor restaurant table, or swarm over open rubbish tips, surely the question we should be asking is not “will someone rid us of these pestiferous birds?” but rather, “what have we done to cause this behaviour and how can we fix it?” When animals become ‘pests’ it is almost inevitably the behaviour of humans that is the root cause.
Gulls do not flock to tips that are well managed and covered quickly; they soon bore of restaurants where food is cleared as soon as the table is vacated and where patrons don’t encourage them with a surreptitious scrap under the table. And as to lambs, studies show the infamous black-back rarely, if ever, kill healthy living lambs. They do, however, take placentas or docked tails, or feed on carcasses of lambs that have died from other causes.
Perhaps it is because there is something in the human psyche that looks down upon scavengers. In New Zealand the swift falcon is admired but the largest and equally handsome raptor in our skies, the swamp harrier, is derided as being “nothing but a bloody scavenger”.
But I don’t think it can be so simply explained as merely a cultural dislike of scavengers, this savage brutality toward other species that we humans display; seemingly for no reason other than some apparent bloodlust. For, it is not just gulls that are the victims of it. In New Zealand we’ve seen more than one attack on seal pups and they hardly fit the scavenger label, indeed are popularly seen as ‘cute ‘n cuddly’.
Sometimes our persecution of animals is because we perceive animals to be a threat to our own prosperity: the magnificent kea, the world’s only alpine parrot, was shot in the thousands because of a very few attacks on sheep; the black shag was hunted almost to local extinction because they had the nerve to eat trout that we wanted to eat ourselves.
This selfish attitude, too, can only be a part explanation, because sometimes cruelty to animals seems to have no motivation other than the act itself and whatever perverse gratification its perpetrators receive from it. Indeed, such cruelty can be counter to the perpetrator’s interests, such as when a farmer deliberately harms the animals that produce his income.
At this level, cruelty to animals gets scary. There is evidence that it can be an indicator of, or precursor to, the same person ‘progressing’ to human victims.
We can probably do very little to prevent the deep-seated psychosis that drives pathological cruelty, but at least this is comparatively rare. But much of human kind’s distressingly more common ‘casual’ cruelty to animals is enabled, I believe, by social apathy and attitudes that seem to condone or even imply tacit approval. Fisher, hunting, and rural communities, for example, too often clam up when harm is done to animals because they don’t want to dob in their neighbours and mates, or bring their industry or recreation into disrepute.
“It’s just a few bloody gulls,” is a response I heard from one driver when I remonstrated with another 4-wheel-drive owner roaring through a protected gull colony; an attitude that is, unfortunately, widespread. Never mind that the birds in question were the most endangered gull species in the world!
Until there is community ownership of, and appreciation for, the animals that share our recreational spaces, cruelty will be enabled because it is so rarely condemned, let alone reported or prosecuted.
To grow a sense of pride in our wild neighbours, education is vital, awareness is vital, building community pride is vital.
Take for example, the black-billed gull and black-fronted tern colonies in the Ashley River on the edge of Rangiora township. The black-billed gull has the undesirable status being the most threatened gull in the world and the black-fronted tern is one of New Zealand’s most endangered and declining tern species. These are the gulls that in 2012 were attacked by people who smashed stones into the nests; and just this last breeding season, where off-roaders drove straight past warning signs to plough through the nesting terns.
But there is a change of attitude that is becoming increasingly evident. Locals are becoming proud of the fact that their little patch of river is host not only to these two threatened birds, but others as well, such as the unique wrybill. There is a growing sense of community ownership. Having been given the chance to become educated about these birds, locals themselves have expressed a willingness to police the riverbed in breeding season and seem more willing to ‘dob in’ those who drive past the “no vehicle access” signs.
This is an achievement when you consider that some elements within the conservation community itself have sometimes lobbied for not telling the public about these special places in their backyards in the, I believe, mistaken belief that this helps protect the birds from lunatics who would see killing a rare bird or smashing its eggs as a challenge.
Having worked in conservation education for many years my experience is that when people are given the chance to be good, they frequently are good, but they need to understand why. And, when they do, they often become passionate advocates for the precious species in their midst.
But it should not, of course, have to take the plight of a rare and threatened species for us to take action against the callous, or at least indifferent, cruelty meted out to the animals we share our environment with. The red-billed and black-backed gulls are abundant, but this does not make the cruel killing of them any less deserving of condemnation.
If we are to resolve this issue, good people must be given the knowledge, and the chance, to be good and, more important, enabled to do good. For it is a truism that (and I quote): “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil, is for good men to do nothing.”
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.
This is a large park comprising a number of different environments, all of which have been created or heavily modified by humans. In places it has patches of second growth native bush, especially in the steep valleys, which is slowly maturing and tall canopy trees are starting to peak above the smaller trees and shrubs, aided by supplementary native planting.
In other parts of the park, early European settlers have planted acres of introduced trees typical of northern hemisphere woodland. Interestingly, native trees, shrubs and ferns are coming up through these mature oaks, elms, sycamores, hawthorns, ashes, willows, poplars and conifers (to name a few), creating a post colonial landscape unique to New Zealand.
In other areas large numbers of eucalypt from Australia have been planted, the resinous gum leaves inhibiting the undergrowth; this is an open, light and accessible forest with only a few hardy shrubs that seem able to cope with the natural plant inhibitors in the fallen gum leaves.
The once heavily forested tops are now bare tussock; the original bush – tall with rimu, matai and totara – long milled and cleared for farming, except for a few, very precious, bush islands. And, finally, there are areas of groomed lawn with the occasional shade tree where children frolic, finches glean seeds and blackbird and thrush probe for worms.
I can always count on this park to present interesting native and introduced plants, an ever-changing parade of birds, a good walk along its often-steep trails, and spectacular views. In a relatively short time one can wander from a dense native bush gully, lush and green; through open meadows dotted with introduced specimen trees; then though thick European woodland tangled with blackberry and scented with flowering currant; up through crackling dry eucalypt forest and, finally, onto the open tops with sweeping tussocklands and bare volcanic crags.
Perhaps because of this variety of ecosystems there is a great variety of birds, native and introduced. Recent planting of native species has assisted the re-establishment of native bird life, notably the kereru (NZ pigeon – Hemiphaga novaeseelandiae), riroriro (grey warbler – Gerygone igata), Piwakawaka (fantail – Rhipidura fulginosa), korimako (bellbird – Anthornis melanuris), and tauhou (silvereye – Zosterops lateralis). The open tops host the native kahu (harrier hawk – Circus approximans); putangitangi (paradise shelduck – Tadorna variegata) and torea (South Island Pied Oystercatcher – Haematopus ostralegus finschi) nest in the open fields; kotare (sacred kingfisher Todiramphus sanctus) use the clay banks and tree hollows for nest sites and haunt nearby ponds and streams ,or hawk cicadas from among the trees. The park is also abundantly populated with common European introductions such as sparrow, chaffinch, goldfinch and greenfinch, blackbird and thrush, yellowhammer and cirl bunting, redpoll and skylark and california quail.
Tree planting is a traditional activity in Victoria Park, with many groups and individuals participating in planting events. Some non-local natives have been planted in eastern bush such as kauri and the rare Pittosporum dallii. On the warmer western slopes exotic specimens such as proteas, banksias, grevilleas and leucodendrons can be found. Also noteworthy, the existence of silver tussock so close to a city centre is said to be unique in the Southern Hemisphere and possibly the world.
In one of my spring wanderings the understorey of the exotic/native mix forest was rich with the spicy scent of flowering currant. The scent is from the new leaves, not the flowers. In autumn the tauhou gorge themselves on the berries.
Spring is also when the glorious native flowering tree kowhai (Sophora microphylla) bursts into flower and the korimako and tauhou descend on them in good numbers to feast on the nectar. Interestingly sparrows do too, but they cheat, biting into the rear of the flower to access the nectaries directly because, unlike the native birds, they do not have a special tongue to collect the nectar ‘legitimally’. The other herald of spring are the native clematis, first the puawananga and then the strongly perfumed clematis foetida. This is an unfortunate name as the smell of this small greenish yellow clematis is pleasant, reminiscent of nutmeg and daphne. If you get a lot of it at once, it can be a bit overpowering, but hardly foetid!
In high summer the grasses burn brown and the inflammable scent of eucalyptus oil drifts threateningly through the valleys – an incense prayer to the fire gods for a lightening strike or perhaps a wind to drop a crackling wire from the hilltop radio towers – for eucalypts were born to burn and send their seeds into the ashes of the fire.
Autumn produces an abundance of fruit, nuts and berries from the mixture of trees, and the native birds will just as happily take wild cherry plum as the fruit of the native karamu. By this time, too, piwakawaka are in abundance. These little birds are super breeders, producing around five clutches from spring to the end of summer. They need to, the winter takes a heavy toll on these flickering denizens of the forest edge and cheerful companions of the walking human.
The hills of Banks Peninsula are high enough above the Canterbury Plains to attract snow in winter.
The park, then, is a popular playground, especially for parents with tobogganing youngsters. The fantails are seriously depleted at this time of year and can sometimes be seen huddled together in roost trees sharing their meagre warmth. The hardy tauhou has a better solution, it migrates to the suburban gardens where exotic berry plants and fruits (and friendly bird tables) sustain them through the cold.
But none of the seasons last and, at the time of writing, spring is well underway yet again. The tauhou have left our garden and returned to the hills and forests. Kowhai has burst forth in its short-lived blaze of glory and will soon fall to carpet the forest floor with a fading yellow; suddenly fierce oystercatchers will launch themselves at the unwary wanderer who has come too close to their shallow nest in the short grass fields; and the silver tussock will shine as bright as a summer sky.
One of the joys of returning home after years away is that you see your old stomping ground through fresh eyes. Absence sharpens your appreciation for familiar surroundings. Upon return you see them for what they really are; treasures that have added to the quality of your life in more ways than you had realised. Nearly a decade after leaving Canterbury I have returned, post earthquakes, and see Christchurch city and the surrounding province through more appreciative eyes. The city has changed, irrevocably. But the wild places remain. I’ve been back just over a year and have spent almost every weekend exploring wild places, either to renew an old acquaintance or, I’m ashamed to say, to discover some of these treasures for the first time; places I had overlooked when I lived here last.
One of the special places I had not discovered that first time around was the Ashley River / Rakahuri estuary. Now it is my most regular bird watching spot as I record the seasonal comings and goings of the birds that live or visit there. There is a boyish joy in spending hours getting filthy from lying prone in mudflats, or belly crawling through coastal reeds to get close to, but not disturbing, flocks of feeding godwits, nesting dotterels or courting terns. In conservation circles, Ashley-Rakahuri has long been recognised as a significant natural wildlife resource. The river and estuary are included in a list of wetland sites that meet the criteria for classification as being of international importance by the International Union for the Conservation of Nature (IUCN). Below the State Highway One bridge, the Ashley-Rakahuri River is tidal, and in combination with the mouth of Saltwater Creek, forms a largely unmodified estuary containing more than 150 ha of mudflats and shallow water, which is excellent feeding habitat for shore birds. It is a common stopover site for migrating birds whether they are those that migrate within New Zealand or to and from often very distant overseas locations. The estuary is also a handy feeding area for birds that nest in the riverbed.
Sadly, while these outstanding ecological values are recognised in conservation-friendly circles, they are not appreciated by everyone. In addition to the usual introduced weeds and predators, one of the biggest threats to the native plants and animals that make the estuary home is human beings; in particular their indiscriminate use of all-terrain vehicles in the fragile tidal environment. These vehicles compact or breakup delicate sedimentary structures, crush crustaceans and other animals living in the mud, facilitate the introduction of weeds, disturb nesting birds to the point they can abandon their nests, and physically run over nesting birds and their eggs. In spite of large signs prohibiting vehicles from the tidal zones at all times, and the braided river channels during nesting season, every time I visit Ashley the exposed mudflats and sand banks are marked afresh by the tyre tracks of these vehicles.
But people are also helping to protect the river and estuary and the birds that live there. Chief among them are the members of the Ashley-Rakahuri Rivercare Group. A community group formed in 1999 to assist with management of the lower reaches of the Ashley River, the group’s main aims are to protect birds and their habitat in the riverbed and estuary, to monitor breeding success, and to promote these activities to the wider public. Rivercare folk work closely with the Department of Conservation, Environment Canterbury and the Waimakariri District Council to protect and enhance river and estuarine environments. Awareness campaigns, regular trapping and bird monitoring began in earnest in 2004. Since that time, annual surveys of numbers and breeding success indicate that bird populations on the managed portion of the river are at least holding their own (you can learn more about and donate to the Ashley Rivercare group here.) One of my favourite birds at Ashley is regarded as the area’s iconic species, the ngutupare or wrybill (Anarhynchus frontalis). It is the only bird in the world with a side-ways turning bill and is endemic to New Zealand. A small plover, the ngutupare only breeds on the braided riverbeds of Canterbury (apart from just a few pairs in inland Otago). The Ashley-Rakahuri is one of its northern-most breeding sites. The Rivercare Group’s website reports that numbers of this rare and important species have been relatively stable on the river during the last few decades, with 5-8 pairs normally nesting annually. But many more wrybill than that visit the estuary on the way to and from their nesting sites. I have seen flocks comprising 50 to 100 birds busily gleaning the mudflats, filtering bill-fulls of mud to sieve out the minute crustaceans they feed on.
Two other important and threatened species native species that breed on the Ashley-Rakahuri River are the tarapiroe (black-fronted tern – Sterna albostriata) and the black-billed gull (Larus bulleri). Over the last 20-30 years, numbers have declined substantially (particularly of gulls), mainly due to weed invasions, predation by introduced animals and human disturbance. Again, while humans can be the saviour of these threatened birds – the black-billed gull is one of the rarest gulls in the world – they can also be their biggest threat. In December 2012 more than 50 black-billed gull chicks were stoned to death by human attackers despite signs asking people not to disturb the endangered birds while they are nesting.
While the protection efforts at the Ashley focus on the wrybill, black-billed gull and black-fronted tern, many other bird species benefit. The river and estuary are home to such other key native species as the tuturiwhatu (banded dotterel – Charadrius bicinctus), the poaka (pied stilt – Himantopus himantopus) and the torea (pied oystercatcher – Haematopus ostralegus). A very very rare kaki (black stilt – Himantopus novaezelandiae) has bred occasionally on the river in recent years (mated with a pied stilt).
Other native birds I regularly see include pied, little, spotted and black shags; royal spoonbill; white and white-faced heron; grey teal and New Zealand
shoveler, paradise, and scaup ducks; Australian coot; harrier; pied and variable oystercatcher; kingfisher; white fronted and Caspian terns; red-billed and black-backed gulls; grey warbler, silvereye, fantail. Migratory visitors I have seen include eastern bar-tailed godwit, whimbrel and knots. The estuary is also home to large number of introduced game birds such as black swan, mallard and Canada geese; and introduced field birds such as skylark, chaffinch, yellowhammer, redpoll, sparrow and goldfinch. This list is by no means exhaustive; many other species are recorded as residents, regular or occasional visitors.
The Ashley is a treasure. But it is a treasure under threat. The Rivercare group and other conservations are doing their bit, but we all have a role. Just as drinking and driving has become a social no-no, we should be similarly outraged when ignorant (or uncaring) idiots drive their vehicles onto the estuary or through the braided river channels; when folk let their dogs run free among the sand and shingle banks and mudflats at nesting times.
The Kiwi culture of not wanting to say anything, of “minding our own business”, of tolerance rather than action, does our special places and animals no good at all. Reporting offenders, educating yourself and your friends, joining active groups like Rivercare or Forest and Bird . . . these are the ways you can make a difference, and help ensure the beautiful, unique and precious places like the Ashley and its wildlife not just survive, but thrive.
This is a question that has been asked for centuries.
It is far more than an interesting philosophical query.
In the United States ‘African American’ and ‘nigger’ provoke quite different reactions. So much so that in the re-make of the Dambuster’s movie by New Zealand director Peter Jackson, there has been huge debate as to whether the squadron leader’s dog should be called Nigger. Historically accurate, but many thought it was not appropriate to use the name in entertainment media today.
Interestingly there is a parallel in the world of nature (albeit without the serious consequences surrounding the use of racist epithets).
In New Zealand cormorants are called shags – it is thought to be a colloquial reference to the shaggy crest many cormorant species have when they are in breeding plumage. While not exclusive to New Zealand – the term is used in several countries – ‘shag’ is dominant here and imbedded in our culture. There are dozens of place names such as Shag Rock, Shag River, Shag Point, and so on. ‘Shag’ is so near exclusively used that if you ask any New Zealander if there are cormorants in their country, I predict that most would answer ‘no’.
In the same vein, if you asked many New Zealanders what they thought about cormorants, they’d probably say something like: “Marvelous birds, isn’t it wonderful how Asians have trained them to catch fish!” But if you asked them what they thought of shags (especially if you asked people keen on trout and salmon fishing), they’d probably say “bloody vermin.”
Indeed, this country has a history of persecuting these birds. Kawau (Black shags – Phalacrocorax carbo) had a bounty on their heads offered by acclimatisation societies (today’s Fish and Game New Zealand) for the presumed impact of shags on the trout fishery (ironic given that trout are an introduced species that have had a devastating impact on populations of native fishes). Between 1890 and 1940 many colonies were exterminated.
It wasn’t until the mid 1980s that kawau finally received partial protection as a native species, but only after several scientific studies proved that shags have little impact on the sports fishery, taking mostly native eels, small native fish and perch (the latter themselves an introduced fish species that have become a pest). I always find it ironic that humans will persecute an animal for preying on a species that they (the humans) themselves want to catch and eat, which is the point that Oliver (quoted above) was making as far back as the 1930s, long before the bounty on shags was lifted.
Occasional destruction of shag colonies and/or shooting of individual birds still occurs, albeit illegally, and, as I have suggested, there is still an anti attitude toward many shag species particularly by those who still believe, wrongly, that they impact on sport fishery species.
Maori in New Zealand had a different attitude. The birds were admired for their straight, unswerving flight and there are many whakatauki (proverbs) referring to this. An example is:
said to be the last words of Maniapoto to his people, instructing them to take the flight of the shag when entering battle.
Shags were not an important food supply for Maori but were occasionally eaten. Shaggeries in trees or on cliffs were visited to take the young before they could fly. These shaggeries were known by special names and were often given as evidence of occupation in the Maori Land Court.
Worldwide there are 33 species of shag in freshwater and marine habitats. Of these, 12 species breed in New Zealand including eight that are endemic.
In spite of growing up in a fiercely keen trout fishing family whose early attitudes to shags reflected the mores of the time – pests and a threat to the trout fishery – I’ve always rather liked these striking birds (but then, I was always the least keen angler as well). As a youngster I delighted in their habit of sitting spread-winged on a handy rock or branch, feathers translucently spread to the light to dry after a period of diving for food; I’d laugh with excitement when one popped up onto the surface with a fish in its bill, dexterously juggling the fish to be able to swallow it head first so that the spines on the dorsal fin were folded down and would not catch in their throats. Perversely perhaps, I even liked their smelly colonies and would look for the telltale stains of their guano on the trees and cliffs as a clue to a good place to photograph and observe them.
Once, when I was about 12, I was snorkeling at one of our favourite fishing lakes trying to find snagged lures to retrieve and sell for pocket money to fishermen to re-use. I was joined by a shoal of perch attracted by the invertebrates I was stirring up from the mud with my flippers.
Suddenly there was a flash of light and the perch whirled away in all directions, except for one unlucky straggler that was caught fast in the bill of a kawaupaka (little shag – Phalacrocorax melanoleucos). The bird and I surfaced together and from the vantage point of only a few feet away I was treated with a shag’s-eye view of the kawaupaka’s dexterous juggling as it tossed, then swallowed the fish whole . . . absolute magic!
These photos then, are a tribute to the industrious, resilient, straight and true shag. May they always grace our waters and brighten our skies.
Since I can remember, korimako (bellbirds) have been a part of my life.
Our family home in the small town of Geraldine in South Canterbury was nestled at the foot of a hill covered in native forest.
This wood, a small remnant of the once vast native forest that covered the rolling downs behind Geraldine, is officially known as Talbot Forest but, like many such places in New Zealand, is more often simply referred to as ‘the bush’.
Though small, ‘the bush’ is biologically important. It contains an abundant biodiversity – plants, native birds, a population of rare native bat – out of proportion to its size; effectively acting as an ark – a small natural boat afloat in a sea of land long stripped of its trees and turned over to highly modified pasture.
And in this ark there was in my childhood – and still is – a remarkable population of the glorious-voiced korimako; though, then, I only knew them as bellbird.
Indeed, the very first non fiction book on birds that I ever read – a battered and much-thumbed copy of R.A Falla’s book of New Zealand Birds borrowed from the local library – delighted me by singling out Talbot Forest as one of the best sites for bellbird in New Zealand. It is always a wonder to a young person to find that their small country town is famous . . . for anything!
I, of course, did not need Falla’s book to tell me that bellbird were abundant.
My mother was particularly fond of fuchsia and her garden was full of this pretty shrub in many forms. The bellbirds shared her love, but for a different reason. They would descend upon our garden to hang upside down and feast on the nectar of the pendulous fuchsia flowers; their foreheads becoming thick with colour as the fuchsia took advantage of these sweet-billed invaders to spread their pollen from bloom to bloom. In winter we’d put out jars of diluted golden syrup and the bellbirds and waxeyes would come down – the latter in their many dozens – to feast on this free source of nectar to see them through the season’s fast.
At times, being so fixated on bloom or jar, the bellbirds would tolerate me standing right beside them, within an arm’s reach – oh if only I had a good camera then!
From an early age I had learned to imitate the territorial calls of the Talbot Forest korimako, especially the males. A short low note, a longer high note, followed by two short notes mid-tone between the first lower and the second higher, then a little ‘chonk’ or ‘titch’ sound and, last, a throaty bell sound in the lower register. So accurate did I become that I could whistle and the resident males would come down screeching with aggression, all fluffed up and agitated to try to drive me away from their territory; and females would come to check out this apparent new boy in town.
Just a half hour’s drive further inland from Geraldine, at the much larger Peel Forest, my whistle was completely ignored. The bellbird there simply did not interpret my calls as being of their kind. Theirs was a more melodic and fluid suite of notes I found hard to imitate.
Though sweet voiced, korimako are bullies. At home they would fly at the waxeye gathered near our nectar jars and drive the little birds away. They would do this even if they were full. They’d perch all stuffed and feathers on the twig we’d set at the edge of the jar for a landing spot and guard the syrup water, lest another bird get so much as a sip!
At Zealandia, the wildlife sanctuary in Wellington, nectar feeders are used to encourage the honeyeaters to stay within the safety of the sanctuary fence. But they have had to create feeders screened with a mesh just the right size to keep tui out while allowing the korimako and hihi in for a feed, otherwise the smaller honeyeaters would not get so much as a look in.
But, tui or korimako, one can forgive their aggressive natures when they start to sing.
A long running debate in New Zealand is which bird is the better songster. My view is that they are complementary and each has their special talents.
The korimako is a piccolo and is undoubtedly the more melodic, it’s notes sweeter and generally higher, with tripping-down descending rills and pure, single, bell chimes of incredible purity.
At first hearing the tui is similar, but the tui is no piccolo, it is an organ. Its song is full of a raspy vibrating resonance and, whereas the korimako’s song pierces the forest, the tui’s seems to swell through the trees in an enveloping wave. Tui, also, are seriously good mimics and will fill out their repertoire with imitations of other birds and even, if they live near people, the sounds of telephones, cell phones and doorbells. Futher, they embellish their melodies with grunts, rasps and wheezes that would never normally be heard from the throat of a bellbird – though once I witnessed a male bellbird at a feeder giving a perfect imitation of a tui, throaty croak and all, presumably to discourage rivals from the food source he coveted for himself by making them think a dominant tui was in residence.
But, if I were forced to choose, then it is the dawn chorus of korimako that would secure my award for first prize. The bird authorities note this is particularly strong when bellbird are gathered in large numbers and few other songsters are around to compete with them. Such was often the situation at Talbot Forest. My Geraldine mornings, especially in spring, rang with a chorus of bells more fine than any group of campanologists could ever hope to create with the finest and most diverse range of crystal and silver bells. The first Europeans to sail within sound’s reach of the New Zealand dawn chorus wrote passionately of the dawn chorus – we know now that what they heard was probably comprised of a mass of bellbirds.
The beautiful voice of the korimako was, of course, remarked upon by Maori and the bird has entered their oral traditions. Indeed, the Maori language has some 26 names for the bellbird. Ka rite ki te kopara e ko nei I te ata — like the bellbird singing in the morning — is a simile used by Maori orators.
And it is the bellbird that features in one of Maoridom’s most compelling whakatauki (proverbs), which speaks of the bellbird feasting on the flowers of harakeke (New Zealand flax), a plant that, for Maori, is strongly symbolic of whanau (family). When Maori harvest harakeke they only take the leaves from the outside of the plant as cutting from the heart of it would kill it. Thus:
Hutia te rito o te harakeke When you slice open the heart of the flax plant
Mai wai te komako e ko? Where will the komako sing?
E patai atu ahau ki a koe, Let me ask you,
He aha te mea nui o te Ao? What is the most important thing in this world?
He tangata, he tangata, he tangata. It is people, it is people, it is people.
A desert fascinates me, but I would not choose to live there. I could never live so far from water.
Not for mere physical needs – though clean water is so essential to us we are much composed of it – but because, for me, the ready availability of natural, clean, flowing water is as intrinsic to who, what, and how I am as is the DNA that comprises the building blocks of my own body; or the emotions, thoughts and feelings that emanate from my brain or, if you like, my soul.
Clean, unpolluted natural water is life. It is inspiration, comport and peace. It is refreshment and recreation. It is fierce, dangerous and challenging. It is vital. Whether it be the languid beauty of a lake on a still warm morning, the rush of a sea wave to its own destruction upon the rocks, or the merry rill of a small bush stream, water completes me, restores and heals me and is at the very core of nature.
I searched, recently, for the tag “water” among all my photos stored on Flickr. Just mine, no-one else’s. But still the search returned thousands of hits, so much is it ingrained into the landscapes I travel through, the birds and plants I photograph.
These photos are a small selection of those thousands of images. I hope you enjoy them as much as I did when I took them.
~ Henry David Thoreau
“Take a look at your natural river. What are you? Stop playing games with yourself. Where’s your river going? Are you riding with it? Or are you rowing against it? Don’t you see that there is no effort if you’re riding with your river?” Frederick (Carl) Frieseke