Owning a property that backs on to a council reserve full of exotic trees, as I do, has its disadvantages. It means the spouting gets choked with dead leaves every autumn and I have to clamber gingerly along the edge of the roof to clear them. They pile up on the lawns too, in such quantity that I have to pile the trailer high with sack loads of leaves – mostly from elms, but with a smattering of oak leaves too – and take them to the compost pile at the tip. There are far too many for our own compost heaps to accommodate.
But having so many trees around has its compensations. They give us privacy, they protect us from the southerly and they provide an attractive backdrop to the house, which was one of the reasons we bought the property. And most of all there are the birds.
I have to confess my enthusiasm for the local birdlife isn’t always shared by my wife. They scratch out her seedlings, gorge on our plums and grapes, and crap all over the back deck. Notwithstanding this inconvenience, which I unsympathetically categorise as minor, I think the birds are marvellous.
The most visible permanent residents are blackbirds and thrushes. I’m ashamed to say that as a kid I would stalk blackbirds with a slug gun and found them incredibly wary – a blackbird was the ultimate kill. (My father approved because the birds plundered his apple trees.) But the blackbirds around here are engagingly tame and hop around me with insouciance even when I’m using the rowdy motormower. I guess they have learned from experience that human activity disturbs insects, affording an easy feed. One cocky blackbird in particular is always on the scene when there’s digging being done.
Mallard ducks sometimes nest in the garden and we are visited every day by starlings, which I regard as among the least interesting birds – dull to look at and, unlike the blackbird and thrush, totally lacking in musical charm. But even foraging starlings have their fascination, marching in groups across the lawn with almost military precision. They're welcome to every grass grub they can get.
We have chaffinches and silvereyes in abundance, and yellowhammers. Sparrows too, of course.
A young chaffinch startled me a couple of weeks ago when it crashed into the side of my head as I was having a cup of tea on the deck. It bounced off me onto the table in front of me, where it stood for several seconds looking at me with an expression of indignation, as if it was my bloody fault for sitting there, before regaining its composure and flying off, doubtless to rejoin its anxious mum.
There are greenfinches too. At least I think it’s a greenfinch that takes up a position in one of our pittosporums at certain times of the year and announces the start of the day with its extraordinarily loud but not unpleasant twittering. The reason I can’t be sure of its identity is that it seems a shy and furtive bird that hides amid the foliage and disappears if I come anywhere near.
Like the putative greenfinch, other species come and go according to the time of year. We normally have a noisy resident tui population but they have been absent in recent weeks, possibly taking advantage of the warm weather to migrate to the Tararuas. My three-year-old grandson recognises the tui’s song instantly but can’t get the pronunciation quite right, calling it a chewy bird – so that’s what the tui is called now at our place. (We’ve also adopted his habit of referring to the supermarket as the stupid market, which we consider pretty perceptive for a kid that age.)
A morepork (ruru) is an occasional lodger in the reserve. It was a permanent inhabitant for a long time but now seems to visit intermittently; I heard him (her?) only last night. Kingfishers (kotare) appear now and again too, their sharp, distinctive call usually being heard before they are seen. A much rarer visitor was the large shag – I’m not sure which species – that we suspect devoured our goldfish a couple of years ago. (It did us a favour, in a way. We were mildly concerned about the goldfish pond because of our two small grandsons, but once the fish had gone we filled it in.)
Fantails (piwakawaka) are ever-present, as they are in many urban gardens. On a sunny morning a few weeks ago, one fluttered into my office after I had thrown one of the two sash windows wide open. I opened the other window and left the room, hoping the bird would find its own way out – but when I came back I saw, to my consternation, that it had trapped itself in the narrow space between the two panes. By carefully manoeuvring the upper and lower windows while simultaneously making what I thought were soothing noises, I eventually managed to free it – but I wouldn’t mind betting the experience shaved a few days off its life expectancy.
Incidentally, I have heard that the Maori regard the fantail as a harbinger of death – but as you can see, I’m still here. I hope I’m not tempting fate by saying this.
Anyway, what prompted all this rambling about birds was that today my wife, who doesn’t normally get excited about the avian world, called me to the French doors in the dining room. “Aren’t those quail?” she asked, pointing to the far side of the lawn. And dammit, she was right – two California quail were cautiously making their way through the undergrowth.
That was a pleasant surprise, since I’ve not seen quail around here before and wouldn’t have expected them in a built-up area. I just hope the neighbourhood cats don’t get them.
Now I’m waiting for my first kereru, or better still, a bellbird. But I’m not holding my breath.