Landcare Research - Manaaki Whenua

Landcare-Research -Manaaki Whenua

Participants' stories

Starling. Image - Herb Christophers

Starling. Image - Herb Christophers

One hour in the holidays
By Diane Kawana

Armed with a cup of tea, a survey form, a pen and an old coat to put on the plastic chair and dressed in a padded coat with hood, I eased out the back door past Radar, the cat, who always wants to be where his owners are. Then I reopened the door and called him back inside and stationed myself half under a feijoa tree in the back garden. There was no wind, the fig tree’s bare branches bore droplets of rain and the conifers spiked against a dirty cream sky that threatened snow on the mountain and further rain.

And I saw house sparrows (hard to count because they won’t keep still) zipping on to the fence of the fowl run, down on to the ground, arranging themselves on the fig tree, then off to hide in the branches above. No hedgesparrows (dunnocks). House sparrows perched on the fence posts were given the message from starlings that they were much more important; butlers or undertakers in their dark suits tastefully breasted with speckled silver. They had their comeuppance though when mynahs, Indian pilgrim overstayers, hustled them off their perches.

Goldfinches weren’t the least interested in the chicken run. Their scarlet heads dipped in the grass picking up much smaller seeds. The air was so cold that I thought snow must be falling on the mountain and that would bring the waxeyes (silvereyes) down into the feijoas or the lemon trees but not today. I thought that our fantail had deserted these favoured haunts too but he turned up at the top of the conifers above the henhouse.

Realising that I had a narrow view of the sky and that you could count birds that you could hear but not see and birds flying overhead I moved back with my chair against the door of the glasshouse. I glimpsed a large black bird overhead, too fleet to identify. Sparrows barrelled in and out of the trees next door. Starlings on the wing were easy to spot. Then a black-backed gull wheeled across the grey and one mallard (or was it a grey?) duck had to be written in. Then a sudden swishing overhead and an even better score (four mallard/greys) with a purpose.

And just as I was about to crib some time and pretend I’d taken my post earlier, there it was. From somewhere over past the neighbour’s trees a tui called. This one had had more lessons than Sacred Heart’s bird. He repeated his five-note composition often enough for me to (a) be sure it was a tui and (b) become very aware of my cold feet and the deepening of the shadows in the tree where the sparrows perched.

So my total was one calling tui, one black-backed gull, one flitting fantail, two bobbing goldfinches, two strutting starlings, two bossy mynahs, three wary blackbirds, four determined ducks and sixteen picky Piafs (sparrows).

For one hour yesterday I took part in a bird census, the New Zealand Garden Bird Survey 2008, which was advertised in the Dominion Post on 12 July counting the most birds seen at once over an hour between 12 and 20 July.

Three goldfinches and a false dawn
By Derek Burrows

They can migrate thousands of kilometres with only an internal compass to guide them, while there are also some species that co-operate when hunting.

And no one could dispute the fact that New Zealand's own keas, with their problem-solving skills and playful antics, are up there with the brightest of animals. I discovered further evidence of birds' cunning and intelligence last weekend when I decided to take part in the New Zealand garden bird survey, organised to give Landcare Research a snapshot of the New Zealand's garden bird population. I quickly found that our feathered friends seem to know when they are under observation and can playfully confound all efforts to count them.

We have a reasonable-sized urban garden with plenty of trees and shrubs, so not surprisingly we have our fair share of avian visitors – blackbirds, waxeyes, thrushes and finches can be regularly seen, along with, of course, the ubiquitous sparrows and starlings and even the occasional fantail.

So I was reasonably confident of a healthy tally when I seated myself in the dining room window one afternoon with my survey chart, a pair of binoculars and The Field Guide to the Birds of New Zealand (to aid with difficult identification). My confidence was further boosted by the fact that we have a bird feeder hanging from a nearby tree that regularly attracts dozens of birds at this time of year.

But the moment I settled down for my one-hour observation period as prescribed in the survey instructions, the birds miraculously vanished. The feeder, filled to the brim with bird seed, was being totally ignored and for quite some time there was not a bird to be seen.

Eventually a couple of high-flyers passed over the garden but they were too remote for me to establish their identity.

Finally three greenfinches broke ranks on the ornithological boycott and succumbed to the temptation of the bird feeder. I was delighted because the survey requires you to write down how many of each species you can see or hear at any one time so I was pleased to bag three at one go. I duly double checked my bird identification chart and wrote "three greenfinches" on to my pad. It was a false dawn. No other species came into view and eventually there was just one greenfinch nibbling away at the feeder. In fact he stayed there for a full 20 minutes and when he disappeared while my attention was diverted to a movement in another part of the garden I couldn't be sure whether he had flown away or simply become so replete with seed that he'd fallen into hedge beneath the bird feeder.

I looked in vain for the pair of blackbirds that undoubtedly live at the bottom of our garden but they seemed to have chosen this time to go away for the weekend. Eventually I was able to identify a trio of starlings sitting jauntily on a neighbouring television aerial looking for all the world like three bovver boys eagerly anticipating an ornithological punch-up. I added them to my meagre tally because as far as I was aware the survey didn't limit the observer to the confines of their own garden.

I did come close to adding several other birds to my score but they all perched some distance down the garden and tantalisingly flew away just as I was focussing my binoculars on them. I'd begun this survey full of optimism, hoping to be able to record one of the rarer species – a kereru, a cirl bunting or even a tui (I know tuis exist in South Canterbury because I once saw one down by Saltwater Creek) but birds of all species were stubbornly refusing to venture into our territory. Even the flocks of waxeyes that are normally frequent visitors to our shrubs in search of berries appeared to have been alerted to my observations and were steering well clear.

My list was swelled only by the occasional sparrow and one juvenile redpoll. Admittedly the latter did look remarkably like just another sparrow but only an expert could have disputed the difference and I felt that after nearly an hour of patient observation I deserved a bit of variety. So intense had my scrutiny become that I was beginning to hallucinate. Wasn't that small bird in the bushes a Chatham Island robin? And I could swear I briefly spotted a bird with a long bill that must surely have been a huia.

I was determined not to cheat, however, and I reluctantly closed my account with the grand total of six sparrows, four starlings, three greenfinches, two waxeyes, a redpoll (of debatable provenance) and a goldfinch that had taken pity on me and alighted on the bird feeder at the 11th hour or, in this case, the 59th minute.

As I was packing away my gear I heard a mocking sound from the garden. I refused to look because my time was up and I couldn't justifiably add it to my list. It was probably a laughing owl.

First published in the Timaru Herald, 7 July 2010

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