The Oyster-lover’s Guide


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I know of a cure for everything: salt water…in one way or the other. Sweat, or tears, or the salt sea.

Karen Blixen

We’ve had the sea. The entirely different smell of salt water, and the movement of tides. Bodensee – Lake Constance – is beautiful and large enough to be constantly changing on the surface with the movement of light and wind – but I miss the deeper pulse of the tides.

Brittany was our fix. And not just the sight of the sea, but the taste of it. We’ve been eating oysters. That understates it. We’ve been gorging on oysters. Pure concentrated taste of the salt sea.

Let me state my position up front. I firmly believe there is no better oyster in the world than the Bluff oyster. But I am prepared to go to a lot of effort to test that belief.

Notable oyster-excursions have included our 2010 NZ Far North tour.   I wrote then for Helvetia magazine:

Doesn't everyone do this in a Paris hotel room?

Doesn’t everyone do this in a Paris hotel room?

“Oysters seem to be among the things that firmly divide people’s opinions – up there with religion, politics, and sports teams! […]  

But yes – we’re in the “oysters are the food of the gods” camp.   The highlight of our weekend in Paris last year was not the art and architecture – it was the oysters from the street-stall.

So, you can imagine our distress when we realised that leaving early for Europe this year will mean we miss the Bluff oyster season. Compensation: each oyster opportunity has been a “must stop”.  

The best oyster eating place so far [was] Totara North on the Whangaroa Harbour.   It’s where my great-great grandfather’s family had a kauri timber mill – the last one to operate once the kauri trade finished.     The Lanes built ships there too – indeed the last time I was back there was twenty years ago when we took the scow Te Aroha ‘home’ for her 80th birthday.

Hunting and gathering rock oysters at Totara North

Hunting and gathering rock oysters at Totara North

There’s not much remaining now – just the huge sheds breaking down in the weather, and some rusting machinery.  

Industries change as our lives do. Boat building and timber milling have disappeared from the Whangaroa – but – oysters! The new industry of oyster farming means spat are plentiful in the harbour. Heaps of them have colonised the piles of the old wharf buildings at Totara North and grown into gorgeous oysters. We gathered, opened, and ate, until we’d had enough, then stayed the night on the wharf in Feierabend and did the same the next day. The cuts in our hands have healed now – but the flavour lingers in our memory.”

Feb 2010 – Helvetia


Jane demonstrating the perfect slurp at Frontignon
Jane demonstrating the perfect slurp at Frontignon

2010 ended up being a vintage oyster-eating year in Europe too. We drove through Southern France en route to Spain, and discovered Frontignan. A small town, with Muscat wine vineyards and an oyster stall in the tiny central square where they’d open a dozen and put them on a plate with a lemon for 5 euros. We revisited that paradise on the way back up with Jane and Peter.

So – there was the challenge for Brittany.   Could the oyster-experience measure up? I’d noted the famous oyster areas in my pre-research, and off we went with our mouths watering.

First attempt, in the Bay of Morbihan – disaster! Waterfront restaurant out from Arradon: “Oysters please.” “Sorry – we have none. It’s spawning season and they’re all milky. No oysters.”

The Point at Arradon. Picture perfect, but - no oysters!

The Point at Arradon. Picture perfect, but – no oysters!

No oysters – all this way and they’re too busy having sex? The Gulf of Morbihan is Brittany’s oyster nursery, with spat from here being sent out to other parts of the Breton coast to mature. So oyster sex is serious business here.

But.. it must have just been those particular oysters. Next day, a little further round the bay – oysters for lunch. Later after sampling many others, we rated those as too small. But at the time, there was the particular joy of the first. And perhaps the only, if all round the rest of the coast the others were too busy ensuring future populations?

Yes!  There are oysters for eating...  Port Navalo

Yes! There are oysters for eating… Port Navalo


But.. it must have just been those particular oysters. Next day, a little further round the bay – oysters for lunch.

Later after sampling many others, we rated those as too small. But at the time, there was the particular joy of the first. And perhaps the only, if all round the rest of the coast the others were too busy ensuring future populations?

No such worries. The next morning we were in Carnac, where they’ve been farming oysters since the 1880s. Currently they count around 80 farms there.

Paradise beckons

Paradise beckons

IMG_1232_1The Sunday market was huge – everything you could imagine to eat and drink and wear – and a group practising Breton bagpipes – and oysters! My breakfast was a dozen huge oysters, shucked by the man on the stall, packed with seaweed and lemon, and slurped down on the side of the road before we went hunting megaliths.

Onwards… I’ll write about the megaliths and menhirs and Breton villages and the hydrangeas (truly) later.. but let’s follow the oysters.

Now we’re on the northern coast of Brittany, where the rocks are pink granite. The market at Treburden had oysters, but there the stall-holder couldn’t/wouldn’t open them.. but she would sell us an oyster knife.

I thought about my old faithful opener

The round flat ones are the indigenous variety.

The round flat ones are the indigenous variety.

still in the drawer in Kapiti, and bought another. Essential equipment really.  We chose a mixture of the “hollow shell” oyster that we’d been eating, and that look pretty like our Pacific oysters, and the indigenous “flat” oysters. The latter have been badly affected by a parasite – perhaps similar to bonamia? – and so it’s mainly the hollow shell that are cultivated.

Resistence is futile. Man(i) the tool-user.

Resistence is futile. Man(i) the tool-user.

Out of town, around a marsh (with a menhir standing the middle), and to a small bay where the tide was on the way out.

We settled ourselves on pink granite rocks, and watched the bay empty of water and fill with families gathering seafood…. and ate oysters. That evening I had to have lobster instead.

Picnics don't come much better.

Picnics don’t come much better.

Over the bay and foraging families, to the oyster farm.

Over the bay and foraging families, to the oyster farm.

The sea-midden.

The sea-midden.

Just one more oyster stop. They say, “Mention Cancale to a Frenchman or a foodie and the instant response will be ‘oysters’.”   So – down to the port, seafood restaurants galore. But we’d got to like our “do-it-yourself” dining, and found the cluster of oyster-sellers’ stalls.  Such choice:  I settled for the “Huitres sauvage”.  I know it means ‘gathered from the wild rather than farmed’ – but couldn’t resist the mental picture of savage oysters!

The instructions were clear. “We’ll open them for you, but you must sit over there on the harbour-wall to eat them, and throw the shells into the sea.”  “Mais oui Madame!” (by now, the French was coming more readily to my tongue). But we’d had a good breakfast, and it was only morning tea-time, and I could manage only half a dozen before I – I couldn’t imagine myself thinking this – I couldn’t eat another. Sated! Surreptitious tipping of remaining oysters into a plastic bag, and away. The rest were lunch, as we started our inland-facing return journey, taking the taste of the sea at least a little way with us.


Wherever you go becomes a part of you somehow.

Anita Desai

Living as a Linden Tree


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Not that I want to be a god or a hero. Just to change into a tree, grow for ages, not hurt anyone.  

Czesław Miłosz


The linden leading into our little road att Altenrhein

The linden leading into our little road at Altenrhein

And right now – the tree I would be is a Linden.


I wrote that thinking of their grace, all year, and fragrance, right now.

The last few weeks, Rorschach has been awash with perfume. There’s a row of linden trees down by the wharf, but their fragrance was still dense a couple of streets back, drifting over the old stone buildings, joining up with the perfume from those in the redeveloped square –  and taking me back to the first time I ever smelled linden.

That was in the old part of Warsaw, the part totally demolished by the Nazis, and painstakingly rebuilt after the war. Somehow that fragrance is intertwined with my feelings of sorrow and awe of that place. Not just the tragedy of it, but the triumphant valour of the decision to restore it while there were still craftsmen capable of the old decorative arts.

The trees line the Wharf, by the old Kornhaus (Granary) in Rorschach

The trees line the Wharf, by the old Kornhaus (Granary) in Rorschach

And it had me thinking about the linden blossom we gathered a couple of years ago to make tea for Werner who had a cold, and whose ashes we buried a couple of weeks ago. Sorrow, and joyous memories.

And then, as one does, I went googling.

Now I know the tree I would want to become is a Linden. Mine wouldn’t be the first such metamorphosis: As Ovid tells the old story of Baucis and Philemon, Zeus changed her into a linden and him into an oak when the time came for them both to die.

It can be a very long life thereafter: linden trees can last hundreds of years, some are even said to be over a thousand.

As a Linden (aka Lime, Basswood, Tilia), I could

  • Make music.

The wood is fine, light, and easily worked, with good acoustic properties. You’ll find it in guitar bodies and necks, recorders, drum shells…

  • Make art.
Tretyakov Gallery - Mani treading off....

Tretyakov Gallery – Mani treading off….

Especially in Germany, linden was the classic wood for sculpture from the Middle Ages onwards – you see it in many elaborate altarpieces.

In the Slavic Orthodox Christian world, it was the preferred wood for panel icon painting, because it could be sanded very smooth, and, once seasoned, was resistant to warping. Wikipedia references the icons by Andrei Rublev, including the Holy Trinity (Hospitality of Abraham), and The Savior, in the State Tretyakov Gallery in Moscow. When we saw them, I was looking at the surface.   Now I’d be trying to see beneath!

  • Bring Justice and Peace – and dancing!

Way back, the tree literally and figuratively at the centre of a village would be a linden. There, the community would gather not only for festivities, but also to hold their thingjudicial assemblies and courts to restore justice and peace. It was believed that the tree would help unearth the truth.

Right up till the 18th century, verdicts in rural Germany were frequently returned sub tilia (under the linden).

So the central linden tree could be both a Tanzlinde “dance linden”, and a Gerichtslinde “court linden”.

Last year - our "route-planning-council" of Margrit Roman, Margrit and me gathered under a very old linden at the old border-post at Gaissau - the Austrian side of the old Rhine

Last year – our “route-planning-council” of Margrit, Roman, Mani and I gathered under a very old linden at the old border-post at Gaissau – the Austrian side of the old Rhine. I’m sure our decision-making was enhanced.


  • Heal.
"Our" linden tree has the wondrous long seed-wings, now piling up in drifts across the road.

“Our” linden tree has the wondrous long seed-wings, now piling up in drifts across the road.

The flowers, leaves, wood, and charcoal are all used for medicinal purposes. The flowers include flavonoids (which act as antioxidants)and volatile oils.

Linden flowers are used in herbalism for colds, cough, fever, infections, inflammation, high blood pressure, headache (particularly migraine), and as a diuretic, antispasmodic (reduces smooth muscle spasm along the digestive tract), and sedative. Now it seems the flowers might also protect the liver.

The wood is used for liver and gallbladder disorders and cellulitis (inflammation of the skin and surrounding soft tissue). That wood burned to charcoal is ingested to treat intestinal disorders and used topically to treat edema or infection such as cellulitis or ulcers of the lower leg. 

Branches used to be cut and brought inside if there was an ill person or animal – but only then. Nobody was supposed to break or cut the tree unless they really needed its help.

  • Delight the bees
Bee business

Bee business

The linden blossom is a favourite for honey-bees, and the pale richly flavoured honey is a favourite with people.

  • Protect

Many folk believe the linden to be a holy tree. Slavic people used to plant linden close to churches, houses, and important meeting places. They believed that lightening would not hit the holy tree, so people hid underneath it during thunderstorms.

  • Be useful round the house

Linden wood makes great window blinds and shutters, and the inner bark provides fibre which was used by, among others, the Ainu people of Japan to weave their traditional clothing.

  • Lend my name

Everywhere, pubs, streets, and towns are named for the Linden. But it’s also the name for the month of June in Croatia, and July in Poland, and in Croatian currency, the cent-equivalent is called a lipa (Croat for linden). Even more – the tree is a national emblem for Slovakia, Slovenia, the Czech Republic and Serbia.

  • Make perfume

And wouldn’t you know it… my summer-daily perfume, Lacoste Femme, has linden blossom at its heart.

  • Look after lovers

In German folklore, the linden tree is the “tree of lovers.”  Perhaps it’s the heart-shaped leaves…

Walther von der Vogelweide (c. 1170–c. 1230) starts a poem….

Under der linden 

an der heide,

dâ unser zweier bette was,

dâ mugt ir vinden

schône beide

gebrochen bluomen unde gras.


Under the linden 

on the heath,

where we two had our bed,

you still can see

lovely both

broken flowers and grass.


(I’ve left the medieval german in for those of us who love to see how language moves.)

Now for a chat with Zeus about what it would take to persuade him to turn me into a Linden. Or then again – perhaps not – knowing Zeus’s preferred proclivities!


Play on….


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If I had my life to live over again, I would have made a rule to read some poetry and listen to some music at least once every week.

"Are we lined up?".  Starting position for bands is feet in ballet first position!

“Are we lined up?”. Starting position for bands is feet in ballet first position!

Charles Darwin

 Poetry…hmmm…better head to the bookshelf. But music… that has been simply presenting itself!

Two weekends in a row, it’s been wind and brass. The first was planned:   there was a regional bands competition up the road, so of course off we went.   First, the marching bands. They assembled down the road. Band by band, they came up to the start line, lined up, were inspected for their starting order, then – whistle, count in, and march off playing. The judge marched backwards in front of them to check their file, then stopped and watched them pass to check their rank.


Funny how these words reorganise themselves in your mind when the origin of the saying is stepping out in front of you. It had me wondering what children think when we say “I don’t give tuppence!” – or perhaps most of us have forgotten the idiom with the coinage.

But back to the bands.  They were from all over, small towns, and big. Well-funded in tailor-made uniforms, and make-do in “ so long as it’s a black jacket and black pants, we’ll match okay”. Some had the works – a director marching on the left point, a flag-waver marching on the right, and a baton-twirling leader stepping out in front. Others… well one leader was what they could enrol and that was that.

Smart as paint - and coordinated with the road-markings.

Smart as paint – and coordinated with the road-markings.

Then there was the band, a bit small and scruffy, but with a woman in a purple satin evening dress and megaphone marching in the rear. And their marching tune was “Happy Days are Here Again”. Huh? Then they got to mid-point of the track and the tune. Up came the megaphone. She belted out the song. They did fancy tattoo-style formation marching patterns, criss-crossing and circling, almost in tight order.   They made me think of our Village Strummers ukulele band. Sometimes enthusiasm and joy in performing outweighs precision and perfection.




At least the risk of ukulele-injury is slight: Mani and Margrit were reminiscing about the mouth-injuries Mani in his youth, and Margrit’s son in his, had suffered when you hit a hole in the paddock with a trumpet at your lips!

A truly supportive friend helps out with the drinks tray

A truly supportive friend helps out with the drinks tray

Uniform rebellion - at least in the interim.

Uniform rebellion – at least in the interim.










After lunch, we abandoned the marching bands for the concert hall. Here the brass was joined by the wood-winds, and a permissible percussion section and double-bass… and we were into seriously good wind orchestral playing. Each orchestra played one piece of their own selection, and one set-piece; the judging panel rotated, and so did the audience, as the friends and relatives of each group of players followed their fortunes.




All that marching is tough on the feet....

All that marching is tough on the feet….

Then, next week’s dose – serendipitous music! Hans and Inge had found a country pub they wanted to introduce us to. It’s one of umpteen along the country-side roads and walking and cycling tracks – the benefits of a population large enough to be in constant movement through the countryside and in need of refreshment.

So – in the late afternoon we’re at the Grüne Baum, eating, drinking, and noticing some of the people at the next table were wearing music logo’d shirts. Aha! They were members of the Reuthi Musik-Verein (club) – left-overs from a gig the band had done at the pub that morning, who’d decided that there was no better place to be on a Sunday. And yes, they’d been playing at the Diepoldsau competition last weekend.


By this time, they knew Mani and I were from New Zealand, but more importantly, that before he “out-wandered” Mani had played first trumpet in the Rheineck Music-Verein.   (Auswander is such a wonderful verb – much more about exploring the world than emigrating.) In solidarity, out came their instruments, and in trio, quartet or quintet depending on who had the music books and who had the beers, these remnants of the band entertained us.

 Next to music, beer was best. 

 Carson McCullers

IMG_9933 tMVI_9952




Reuthi is a little town down in the valley. I don’t know how big the Music-Verein is, but to make up a marching-band, I reckon every second house down there would need to contribute a player. So, alongside the local choral groups, yodelling groups, folk-bands – because every town seems to have those too – there must be no getting away from the opportunity to make music, and the happy duty to provide an audience.

IMG_9929_1IMG_9941_1Happily, we did our part, again.

A little dance seems to be the right farewell....

A little dance seems to be the right farewell….

Something Old – Something New


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The blog banner photo has changed. That can mean only one thing: we’re in a Swiss Spring.

 The spring is sprung

The grass is riz

I wonder where the boidies is?

The little boids are on the wing.

No that’s absoid – the wings are on the boid.

 Thank you Ogden Nash – or someone! I see this Bronx Spring Poem’s authorship is disputed. 

Actually – the birds are  all here, in our little garden. It took no more than two minutes after we’d hung the birdseed feeder up before the Meisli (our great friends the great tits) and sparrows had discovered we were back in residence.

These are the familiar old rituals of settling in. First the welcome banner, stuck up by Roman and Margrit before they came to the airport to pick us up. Then a decent pause while we got the water and gas on, took a little nap, got the bird-feeder up, and suddenly the gang’s all here.

and so it begins... and so it goes...

and so it begins… and so it goes…

Next step – get mobile. A Christmas gale had whipped the covers off the car, even though we had wrapped it tighter than a parcel all tied up with string – so we had a slight worry that it might have taken cold and not want to start. You know that kind of background niggle that you don’t express for fear of making it real? No worries! Mani connected the battery, turned the key, and the little old Rio started as if it were not seven months we’d left her standing there. There’s a great system here: when the car’s going to be off the road, you take its number plates off and hand them in to the insurance company. Insurance suspended. You get your plates back when you want to put the car back on the road – and a refund for the unused portion of your insurance premium.

Under the kiwifruit vine, the Lane Patented Compost Maker

Under the kiwifruit vine, the Lane Patented Compost Maker

Next step – beautify! Refresh the soil in the pots and get planting. Compost-making here is a breeze: the winter does all the work.

While we’re here, the kitchen and garden scraps go into the improvised compost-maker, which is just a couple of metres of weed-mat inside a piece of old wire fencing. Come the end of the season I tuck it up with a nice layer of fallen leaves. In spring – voila – compost!.

Tip it out onto a tarp – add last year’s pot-soil and a bit of fertilizer – mix well… and get planting again.


But – amongst all these familiar rituals, something new!

IMG_9869_1A squirrel has discovered the bird-feeder. It’s a little red squirrel, and it is making itself at home.

I’d only seen squirrels as a furry blur streaking up trees as we bike through the woods, so when this one appeared, sashaying out on a branch of the gingko and reaching for the source of the sunflower seeds, I was tiptoeing and whispering to Mani to come and see.

No need. This is a squirrel that knows what’s what, and wants what’s to be got.

Easy pickings are the seeds the birds have dropped on the ground. Equally easy – being such a delightful surprise that friends and neighbours rush off and get walnuts and peanuts to add to the banquet. But when the easy pickings are done, it needs to go out on the limb, and try to extricate the seeds from the feeder.   IMG_9856_1


Or knock the lid off the feeder and try to reach inside.

Or knock the feeder off the tree and spill the goodies on the ground.IMG_9881_1

We got mean. We rewired the feeder on a wire much longer than the squirrel’s reach, so the birds would get their share. They’ve got demanding young to feed. I watched yesterday as our furry friend tried several paths of attack: out this branch – out that. No – it couldn’t reach.   Yet today when we came back to the house, the lid was on the ground. There’d been no wind.

I suspect a leap from branch to feeder. This is going to require some serious deck-chair time, watching.

People are not a problem... except when they're more interested in a book than offering food!

People are not a problem… except when they’re more interested in a book than offering food!

The ingenuity of little wild things amazes us. A couple of winters ago, mice got into an outside cupboard where we keep the sunflower seeds. As we uncovered the bikes in spring, we found Mani’s possum-skin bike-seat cover had had some fur plucked. Then we found a number of sunflower seeds under the bike-seat cover. Imagine… a mouse climbing up the frame of a bicycle – not many claw-grips there – and smuggling a supply of food up inside an elasticised bike-seat cover. And not once, but several times. I hope it had a totally luxurious winter, snuggled in possum-fur, supping on sunflower-seeds. It deserved to.

First visit ... and realisation that this visitor wasn't going to rush off without getting what it had come for.


Mellow Fruitfulness


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“Share, dear, be nice.”   “But muuuuum, they’re my favourites.”

Generosity is one of my core values. I live by it nearly all of the time. But not when MY fruit is ripening!

IMG_8890_1Out comes the bird netting, tied in elaborate festoons over the grape vine.   Strung over the raspberries. Fully enclosing the fig tree.

In a total failure of a tepee over the blueberry bush. Even in an attempt at an upside-down-umbrella to catch the feijoas before they reach the ground and the gathering beaks of the pukeko.

They’re mine!

Ripening... tantalising... disappearing!

Ripening… tantalising… disappearing!


Earlier, I’d flung the netting over the weeping mulberry tree. Each year, it’s had a few tantalising fruit. I watch and wait. And they disappear. Perhaps I’ve managed to eat half a dozen in a season.

Mulberries are the taste of childhood. On the old farm we had a monstrous black mulberry tree in the backyard. It had been planted by my great grandfather, and it was huge.

Now, remembering that tree I think I know why I’ve been losing my mulberries. The fruit drop when they’re ripe. We could never have reached the branches of that old mulberry tree. Instead we – and the chooks – scratched around in the dirt and grass beneath, to get our share.

And yes – it was the same when I found an avenue of white mulberries in Italy – the fruit was thick on the ground. I smelt them before I saw them, and was instantly back fifty years and half a world.


So – the mystery of the disappearing mulberries may be simple – and nothing to do with the birds.

This autumn, the mulberry will come out of its pot where the ground is obscured by French sorrel, and into the open garden … and I’ll find another way to net my share!

IMG_9761_1Now, imagine how I felt to head away on holiday just when the grapes were blackening, and our first ever watermelon was soccer-ball size but not ready to pick.

“Share, dear….”

Solution: neighbour Rosalind (bless her yet again) undertook to monitor the informal orchard and distribute its largesse around the neighbourhood.

Then, reconciled to returning to a passionfruit vine that had dropped all its purple pleasures, and a grape-vine reduced to a few late bunches, imagine my joy when we got back to find that time had stopped! The watermelons were still there. Rosalind had diligently tapped them, and determined that they were not ready to pick. She had passionfruit aplenty waiting in a basket. And yes -the grapes were only really truly ripening!

Passion fruit flower - with admirer

Passion fruit flower – with admirer


It has been a wonderfully fruit-ful season.

The passionfruit started producing at the end of January, and only now has dropped its last ripe fruit. But wait – there’s more! Eight large green globes are hanging there from a late flowering. Are there yet enough warm days to come to ripen them?


The absolute last - for this vine, this season

The absolute last – for this vine, this season

Yesterday I picked the last of the grapes, scraping off the drunken drowsy wasps sucking the juice out of the berries that they’d managed to breach. A thrush scolded me: it was probably her who’d discovered how to fly up under the net, and get out again stuffed with sweetness.   But, I was happy to share. There had been enough for her, and friends, and neighbours, and the gardeners, and the recycling man, and, yes, the wasps.

IMG_9750_1 There are still a couple of green figs on the tree – but I’ve uncovered that now. Lesson for next year: make some kind of a cage to put the net over. Birds worked out how to perch on the twigs and press the net onto the fruit. Peckable!   I’d look out and see some figs just about perfectly coloured. Tomorrow’s treat. Tomorrow… well, another lesson in sharing. One for Mani, one for me, and one already half-eaten!

Forced to choose only fruit to eat for the rest of my life, would it be grapes (real grapes, from the vine, not the supermarket), or feijoas, or figs? I wrote about my love for figs way back.

And now – thanks to Helen and a large plastic bag from a friend – I’ve discovered green (as in unripe) figs, and a way to preserve them.

Sikalaki Gliko - green figs in sweet syrup

Sikalaki Gliko – green figs in sweet syrup

The last half watermelon is still in the fridge… we swear we’ve never eaten sweeter.  And now the grapes are gone, it’s the fragrance of the feijoas coming from the bowl.

Mexican Guavas - how can something so small perfume the whole garden?

Mexican Guavas – how can something so small perfume the whole garden?

Ah, fragrance!   The tiny Mexican Guavas – the ones some folk call New Zealand cranberries – are ripe too. They announce their readiness by making the whole garden smell as if someone is cooking jam.

Last year we tried making a liqueur from them. Problem.    Like quinces, the juice is determined to set. We have bottles of gloriously alcoholic jelly – some quince, some guava.

But nothing is ever totally disastrous: think of poached pears and icecream, with guava jelly liqueur shaken from the bottle… that works.    I suppose if I were really organised I could warm and decant it and re-set it in a jelly mould. Or I could just keep shaking the bottle, and call it exercise!


Things turn out the best for the people who make the best of the way things turn out.

John Wooden





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Sunrise at Kairakau, the sun blazing a space between sea and cloud.

Sunrise at Kairakau, the sun blazing a space between sea and cloud.

The windows of my soul I throw

Wide open to the sun.”  

John Greenleaf Whittier

Sunrise…Sunset…    So we pace out our days.

Kairakau, sunset walking.

Kairakau, sunset walking.

Each sunrise carries in it that sense of possibility – especially when you’re travelling.

Each sunset carries reflections of things seen, experienced, felt, pondered on…    So here are some sunrises and sunsets from our recent jaunt up the East Coast of the North Island and back down the West.

A hint of autumn - morning mist rising from the river at Ohiwa

A hint of autumn – morning mist rising from the river at Ohiwa



Feierabend is designed for catching the sunrise.

Our bed lies across the back of the bus – which we strategically park pointed to the view. A perspex inner window shuts out the road-dust that could sneak in through the double-doors on the back, but opens up the whole panorama out the back, and the windows either side mean that whichever way we lie we can see out.

As soon as the light goes out at night, the blind across the back goes up – and the night sky is ours.

Eventually, when the sky starts to lighten, the dawn sneaks into our slumbers and nudges us awake. So far, so peaceful.

But, if it looks as if it’s going to be glorious, comes the rude bit of awakening! I clamber over Mani, knees and elbows avoiding sensitive spots, throw on a robe, grab the camera, and am out there, watching the glory unfold.

Following which comes the next joy – crawling back into bed for the “pensioner-sleep”.

If you’ve not yet had the pleasure – here’s how the pensioner sleep goes. You wake at the time you always did, ready to face the day.

Then you think “no! No train to catch. No sitting in traffic. No breakfast meeting. No early appointment.” And you turn over and have the sweetest sleep there is.

Being on holiday, and waking for the sunrise, and then dozing off again is the perfect rehearsal for the pleasures of the pensioner-sleep, if you’re not yet quite of an age.

Ohiwa.  We'd parked by the river-side, in the shelter of old pohutukawas, on a blustery evening. Morning dawned calm through the branches.

Ohiwa. We’d parked by the river-side, in the shelter of old pohutukawas, on a blustery evening. Morning dawned calm through the branches.


Pikowai.  The sandhills in the foreground host rare banded dotterels.

Pikowai. The sandhills in the foreground host rare NZ dotterels.

Pikowai.  The Norfolk pine branches hold the last of the moon

Pikowai. The Norfolk pine branches hold the last of the moon

Comes sunset… the perfect bookend to the day.

We sometimes assume we’re going to get the best sunrises on the east coast, the best sunsets on the west … but some special places, some special days, the light and the topography combine to give us both. Kairakau and Pikowai obliged beautifully.


Sunset is of course best appreciated with drink in hand, and head lifted from the book or chessboard that has had your late-afternoon attention. The reflection of a sunset in a wine-glass is the cameo of perfection.





Kairakau - sunset viewing

Kairakau – sunset viewing

And then… sunrise… sunset…




Anzac Bay by Bowentown. Recently made available for overnight camping by self-contained vehicles... and a gem.

Anzac Bay by Bowentown. Recently made available for overnight camping by self-contained vehicles… and a gem.

Look to this day! For it is life, the very life of life.

For yesterday is but a dream

And tomorrow is only a vision

But today well lived makes every yesterday a dream of happiness

And tomorrow a vision of hope.

Look well, therefore, to this day!

Such is the salutation of the dawn.”

Kalidasa, Sanskrit poet


The "Welcome Home" sunset. Home safe and sound before Cyclone Lusi was supposed to hit,   Feierabend unpacked,  and this sunset over our little lake.

The “Welcome Home” sunset. Home safe and sound before Cyclone Lusi was supposed to hit, Feierabend unpacked,
and this sunset over our little lake.


Vreni and Martin Go Fishing


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One of the great things about having visitors from overseas is working out what to do with them!   Of course, I mean that in the nicest possible way…

Thinking about … what’s special?  What is it that we like to do, that they might like too?  What might be the thing that sticks with them?  Sometimes it’s the simplest things: Roman and Margrit still talk about the experience of picking blueberries, then sitting by a stream with a bottle of bubbles and eating them.

We’ve just been enjoying the company of Vreni and Martin. They had a week with us as they camper-vanned south – and then some unexpected later encounters!

So – the big gamble…a fishing trip!   Bob Norman, one of our village friends, had arranged a fishing charter.  An email to Switzerland – would they like to come with us on that?  We’re thinking… this could be way outside land-locked Swiss comfort-zones. Sea-fishing.  Stroppy fish.  Energetic waves. Getting wet, smelly, fish-stained.  Not that we mentioned any of that in the email.

“Yes” came the response.

Ata Rangi, Martinborough

Ata Rangi, Martinborough

We led into it with civilised sight-seeing:  Martinborough vineyards.

Dennis and Helen’s place with its olive grove, truffle-oaks and hazel-nuts for the life-style experience complete with classic roast lamb dinner.

Then – a little more “real New IMG_8838_1Zealand” at Mount Bruce for encounters with some iconic wild-life…takehe, kiwi, and the much-more-willing-to-engage kaka.

We were late for the Tuatara feeding – and delighted that the tuatara’s favourite human gave us a special introduction.  

OK – time for the true “love-it-or-hate-it” Kiwi experience.

A sparrows-fart-start.  The weather wasn’t great – and forecast to get worse, but the boat skipper thought we could get in a half-day’s fishing without too much risk to life or breakfast.

And so it worked out.  There was a good run out to a relatively sheltered spot in the lee of Mana Island, with some judicious re-positioning by the skipper as the morning progressed and the weather shifted.  The fish came to the party.   Snapper, tarakihi, mackerel –  the exhilaration of kahawai, the menace of barracouta.   Vreni and Martin both fished and landed them as if born to it.

TWO kahawai at once for Martin

TWO kahawai at once for Martin

A nice tarakihi for Vreni

A nice tarakihi for Vreni

Extra joy … the birds!  Three mollyhauks were with us for almost the whole morning, awaiting their feed of fish-frames.   A royal albatross maintained a more regal distance.


A couple young shags did very teenage risk-taking, diving to intercept hooked fish on their way to the surface. The undersized fish we threw back had to be fast away or risk a quick recapture and instant swallow.

Of course, this being a fishing charter, the skipper and his mate did the really mucky stuff,  but nonetheless, by the time we disembarked with our share of the catch filleted and bagged we were indeed properly wet, smelly, fish-stained. And they loved it! Whew!

So that evening – the final stage of the proper kiwi fishing trip – the freshest of fish, cooked the simplest of ways, and eaten with the relish of sea-enhanced appetites.




We saw Vreni and Martin off to continue their camper-vanning in the South Island, said “see you in Switzerland in May” and took off ourselves a few days later in Feierbend.   From occasional phone calls we knew they were heading back  up the North Island.  Then we woke up one morning, parked “wild” outside the Morere Springs where we’d stopped for a hot pool the afternoon before, to see them pulling up behind us!  Bubbles for breakfast in their van. More farewells and “see you in Switzerland in May” promises, and on again in our separate ways.


We headed to a friend’s place in Gisborne to overnight.  We told Diane the story: “Oh, you must invite them here too!” So we phoned – and yes – all together again! Diane lent us her car the next morning for some Gisborne tiki-touring… then again we did the farewells, and “Switzerland in May” speeches.

And you know what? If Vreni and Martin are anything like us, finding that a total stranger would invite them to stay and offer Kiwi hospitality so spontaneously and generously, may be the experience that stays with them.  The fishing was great.  Getting up close with birds and seal cubs was special.  But the kindness of strangers… somehow that’s something one never forgets.

The Wharf Café, Gisborne - scene of several celebrations with our Swiss friends. Margrit and Roman, Hans and Inge ... and now, Vreni and Martin.

The Wharf Café, Gisborne – scene of several celebrations with our Swiss friends. Margrit and Roman, Hans and Inge … and now, Vreni and Martin.

Farewell Spit


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Whale skeleton outside one of the Keeper's Cottages - with a signpost that clearly did the whale no good.

Whale skeleton outside one of the Keeper’s Cottages – with a signpost that clearly did the whale no good.

News of more pilot whale strandings has my mind going back to last summer and Farewell Spit.  Such a place of drama and expanse.  Such a deadly attraction for whales.  A Walk a Day  – a newly published book by Peter Janssen – retells the Maori legend of why.  “Kuku (mussels) and pipi fought for supremacy of the sandy beach.  The pipi won, driving the mussels onto the rocks.  The noisy fight drew the attention of Takaako (a shark) and Te Pu (a whale). While the fight held no interest, the victorious pipi with their large tasty tongues were excellent food. Te Pu and Takaako rushed the pipi, which quickly pulled their heads into the sand, and the great sea-creatures ended up stranded with their mouths full of sand.”

Last summer, we finally (but not fatally) answered the long-felt  pull of the Spit.

Farewell Spit Eco-Tour's Maryann

Farewell Spit Eco-Tour’s Maryann

In a holiday of clear blue skies, we booked for a trip on a day when the heavens fell. A hasty postponement had us going out early in the morning of the next day – the tide dictates the tour timetable – and the reward for the 5am wake-up and dark stumble from house-bus Feierabend to tour-bus Maryann was being on the Spit as night changed to day, and rain to shine.

There are places where moody light feels right:  this is one.


Black Oyster-catchers. Tour Guide factoid:  If you see more than two together, the "extras" are chicks. Pairs maintain a strict territorial separation. Their Pied cousins are gregarious.

Black Oyster-catchers. Tour Guide factoid: If you see more than two together, the “extras” are chicks. Pairs maintain a strict 500m territorial separation. Their Pied cousins are more gregarious.

While you can drive out and do a short walk round the base of the Spit, going any further requires serious transport, with a Doc-approved company.

That’s worth it – not just for the access – but also for the commentary.

OK – I’m a self-confessed info-junky.  I hover round tour-guides, I merge into parties with an English-speaking guide and try to look as if I’m a bonafide member of the group, I’m that annoying person who asks a question just when the rest of the group is ready to move on… but…

...and why it's not self-drive territory!

…and why it’s not self-drive territory!

There’s such a joy in hearing someone who really knows their stuff talking about it.   Our guide guy was one such. He knew his geology, his ornithology, his history… and he had that Kiwi-guide dryly humorous delivery that you don’t seem to get anywhere else in the world.

So now we know…
Farewell Spit is, at low tide, the second largest sand-plain in the world (Poland currently holds the record).  But our Spit is aspiring… with what’s calculated as  4 million cubic metres of sand joining the effort each year, and working on stretching across Golden Bay.  They say earlier versions of the sandspit reached right up towards Wanganui, so it has a template!

Aspiring to fill Golden Bay... once again.....

Aspiring to fill Golden Bay… once again…..

Farewell Spit’s Maori name is Onetahua – meaning “heaped up sand”.  Cook perhaps didn’t know that when he renamed it from his own perspective.  The sand starts as rocks in the Alps, emerges on the West Coast, is ground down, carried up by the tides sweeping north-east, and deposited in that great sweeping arc of sand.

The sand-hills are the marching type. Called Barchans, they constantly on the move.

The sand-hills are the marching type. Called Barchans, they are constantly on the move.

Not an easy place to be a tree..

Not an easy place to be a tree..

As nature has it, Farewell Spit is totally sand.  So, an early lighthouse keeper brought in soil by the saddle-bag load to plant sheltering macrocarpas and pines.

These turned out to be, at least by day, as good a marker as the lighthouse itself. There’s been a lighthouse here since 1870, with the current construction standing since 1897.  It needed to be steel; the original in hardwood was worn all-but worn away by wind and sand in under 30 years!



Of course, the birds don’t need such navigation aids: they flock here from the other end of the earth, through their own GPS programming. It’s the ideal destination: remote, full of fine dining, your choice of wild ocean-side or calm bay-side bathing, a declared sanctuary, and strictly limited and controlled numbers of intruders. What more could you ask?  112 species of birds can’t be wrong!

Permanent residents - the South Island's largest land-based gannet colony.  The colony started only in 1987 with 70 pairs of birds - now there may be 3000 colonists.

Permanent residents – the South Island’s largest land-based gannet colony. The colony started only in 1983 with about 70 pairs of birds – now there may be 3000 colonists.

IMG_5757So – out we drove, with the odd seal hardly bothering to stir itself – along the ocean side of the spit to beyond the lighthouse, then back into the shelter of the old trees and the once-were-keepers’ cottages that now act as visitors’ centres for morning tea, then back along the outer spit to be off before the tide came in, and stranded us!

Our bus-load was that great mix of Kiwi visitors and world-travellers:  somehow seeing things in company with other people’s eyes adds perspectives.  There’s also that borrowed pride, that such a place, with such a history, and now, such dedicated care for its continued preservation, is ours.


And then – a reminder that there was a world long before there was anything that was “ours”:  a quick trip out to Cape Farewell.  The dramatic rock at the northern-most point of the South Island is actually a piece of Gondwanaland river-bank. Now THAT puts us into perspective, which is, I suspect, one of the things that travelling is all about.


‘Tis the Season… for the Ukulele!


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IMG_8531OK – that’s it. The last carol is sung. The jingle-bell earrings are back in the box.  The Christmas music is filed away.  Done!

If I was to rate Christmasses on a musical scale… this has been the longest – and loudest – and eventually hoarsest –  yet.

Some gigs we combined with others of Shane's troupes... here setting up at Raumati School Gala.

Some gigs we combined with others of Shane’s troupes… here setting up at Raumati School Gala.

The invitations to our Ukulele group, the Village Strummers came thick and fast as community groups and retirement villages looked for something to entertain their end-of-season parties.

Could we turn anything down?  Not likely – even when it meant four gigs in a week.  They wanted us?  We were up for any chance to strut/strum our stuff.

At the Mega centre.  On Linda's knee is her granddaughter Ella, a regular member of the Troupe. Far left is leader Shane in his best waistcoat.

At the Mega centre. On Linda’s knee is her granddaughter Ella, a regular member of the Troupe. Far left is leader Shane in his best waistcoat.

Up till late November, we were just popping in the odd Christmas number to our “usual” repertoire. Shane, our tutor/leader, was worrying away about the social penalties for premature carolling.  By the end of the season, we were sneaking in some “non-Christmas” numbers for our own sanity.IMG_8486_1

100_0296ed_1_1The final outing was loudest and hoarsest of all.

It’s a Kapiti Village tradition for some singers to pile into the gardeners’ trailers (safely caged in and with the chairs tied on) and carol our way around the Village on a close-to-Christmas evening.

This year, we added some of the ukulele strummers, to complete our group of Waits.

The Challenge:  to sing loudly enough to cut through the closed windows, loud televisions, and turned-off hearing aids – and get people out into the streets.  Our trailer-load had the advantage of our genuine Swiss cow-bell, lustily clanged by Bill, and of Bob’s door-knocking and collection-basket brandishing.

The start of the Cherry Brandy. The good fruit out of the sorters' rejects, a quick crush, and into the barrel.

The start of the Cherry Brandy. The good fruit out of the sorters’ rejects, a quick crush, and into the barrel.

End of the evening – back to the Hall for Bob’s mulled wine, Mani’s cherry brandy (the new batch from the Hastings early-season cherry run), various nibbles, and self-appreciation of our stamina and success.

The Outcome: extreme hoarseness and $560 (plus a ha’penny!) for the Wellington Free Ambulance.

Whoops – a rather sobering thought. I checked out that old term “Waits” for carol singers.   Weird Words   says they were “considered an abominable nuisance by many, who complained about the discordant nocturnal noises that became one of the perils of Christmas.”  A London footman named William Tayler wrote critically of Waits in his diary on 26 December 1837:  These are a set of men that goe about the streets playing musick in the night after people are in bed and a sleepe. Some people are very fond of hearing them, but for my own part, I don’t admire being aroused from a sound sleep by a whole band of musick and perhaps not get to sleep again for an houre or two.

But I’m sure our neighbours would NEVER think that of us!

Two reflections.

1.      All hail the ukulele!   It’s the most fun you can have on four strings.   In our group, we have a handful of people who are experienced and skilful players – and then there’s the rest of us who are experienced and skilful at looking like we know what we’re doing, while getting by on half a dozen chords.   Faking it is fine, when done with conviction and a smile.

Out of the Choir ranks, fancy hats on, and into the fun stuff.

Out of the Choir ranks, fancy hats on, and into the fun stuff.

The thing is… it’s all about making music together, lightheartedly.

When I sing with the choir, I’m thinking about making a beautiful tone, enunciating clearly, staying focused on the conductor and our collective sound.  With the ukulele – who cares, so long as we’re having a good time and giving our audience one too!

In one of the “mad” weeks, we’d done two ukulele gigs earlier in the week, a dress rehearsal for the choral concert followed by another ukulele gig that same night, then the choral concert on the Friday night (with a couple of ukulele numbers in the middle of the concert just for fun).  At supper, I heard myself saying “I don’t think I can face ukulele practice tomorrow morning.”  Of course I turned up – and within minutes the ukulele worked its magic.  Smile back. Energy up. Yeeha!IMG_6315

2.      The reason for the season.    Now that more than 40% of us are saying we have no religion (Census 2013) – what is it about Christmas?  Mumble-decades ago I decided I was a non-believer.  But I’ll sing carols about a mythology I don’t believe in, with gusto.

Well, I think it comes down to that much more ancient philosophy – that of Any Excuse for a Party!   If a date on a calendar gets us together with friends, family, neighbours, strangers, and involves eating and drinking – it’s got to be worthwhile.   So bring on New Year’s!

And Waitangi Day…

And Matariki…

And Diwali….  I wonder what we’d sing for that?


And – to finish the year’s bird theme … Kiwi readers –  you’ve seen the cats that look like David Cunliffe.  How about this gull as a stand-in for Peter Dunne?


Parenting – Bird-style.


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Favourite lookout, above Ron's kowhai

favourite lookout, above Ron’s kowhai

It’s been, it seems, a most fertile year! The second and third crop of fledglings are spreading their wings,  so let me introduce some of our favourite parents.

The Black-Backed Gull (Karoro) 

He is a fixture on our neighbour’s roof, his best vantage point to keep an eye on our kitchen window.

We inherited him from the lady who had our house before us, and for a long time he seemed to be a solo act – an older gent with a gammy leg, who’d found himself a nice spot in the sun for his declining years. Mani fed him bread laced with comfrey tincture to help his knee.

Then – an email from another neighbour to us in Switzerland one spring told of erotic goings-on on the streetlamp.    And yes, when we returned there were two gulls on Ron’s roof, billing and coo-ing (though the love song of the blackbacked gull is more of a plaintive groan).

IMG_4446_1The new lady-friend disappeared, only to return after the necessary time, with a youngster.  And the old boy coughed up, feeding his offspring.

Now they seem to be an established pair. She is more often allowed to stay over on the roof, and the other day he even shared food with her.



No sign yet this season of another young one – but who knows.

The Paradise Shelducks

Fiercely protective parents, these.  The two pair resident on our lake have raised only two ducklings each, thanks to early attrition, and those young birds, fledged and flying now, are still escorted everywhere by their parents.

Parents on guard, youngsters taking cover from the sun

Parents on guard, youngsters taking cover from the sun

A couple of years ago, I  had paused to watch a pair with a big brood of very young ducklings, when a pukeko ran through the huddle, grabbed a duckling, and disappeared into the bushes.  Papa Paradise plunged into the undergrowth, there was much squawking (duck) and screaming (pukeko), and he emerged triumphant, rescued duckling scurrying in front.

Young Paradise in herringbone disguise.  Then they all seem to take male (dark) feathers, and later again some add the female tan and white.

Young Paradise in herringbone disguise. Then they all seem to take male (dark) feathers, and later again some add the female tan and white.

Scruffy and daughter.



Scruffy the blackbird has been queen of the song-bird roost here for four years.

I wrote in October 2010 – “ Scruffy the blackbird is still hopping round the lawn. Scruffy lost a patch of his chest feathers last year when he was just a fledgling, and they never grew back – so we were quite convinced he would not last the winter without his feather muffler… but he has!”

Well – I was wrong on two counts:  “he” was a “she”, and the bare patch is some kind of tumour, but that’s no problem for her.

The other day, a young blackbird had got a bit over-adventurous, and been exploring inside our house.  When we trapped it, gently caught it, and popped it cheeping out the window, guess who was peeping in greeting. Yes, we’d met daughter of Scruffy (or son.. it’s still too early to tell, and I’ve been wrong before…).

The Pukeko.

These handsome characters are often in the role of villains in the village. They’re garden-raiders, midnight screamers, and have been said to rush at little old ladies and scare them silly.    And if they’ll take on a Paradise Duck to steal a duckling, they’re probably the cause of mallard ducklings’ demise as well.

IMG_1999BUT… they’re great parents, and aunties, and kindergarten teachers!  You’ll often see a group of mixed-age pukeko chicks, all out together in the care of one or two older birds.

Feeding is democratic – whoever screams loudest and begs most prettily gets fed, regardless of family ties.

What to do with feet this size...?

What to do with feet this size…?

Teaching includes

  • how to hold food up elegantly to the beak with one oversized foot,
  • how to walk lightly over the top of bushes to gather caterpillars,
  • and, yes, where to beg!
Aha - they're for holding things....

Aha – they’re for holding things….

Monthly, the Manager’s newsletter pleads with villagers not to feed the pukeko.

But there’s a sort of secret society, a guilty association of those who can’t resist the bold and beautiful beggars.

Perhaps we need a special handshake to identify each other, because the subtle interrogation over a glass of wine to discover whether you’re talking with a Pro-Pukeko-er or a tut-tutter can be problematic!

Perhaps a few too many pukeko?

Perhaps a few too many pukeko? A pre-cull coven.

The California Quail

These delightful creatures seem to do communal chick-caring as well.  IMG_4720_1Often there’ll be a male on look-out duty, perched up on a trellis, and perhaps another male on rear-guard.  A couple or more females will be doing out-rider duty. And scurrying along in the middle, the fluff-balls of baby quail.

The quail "call and response" is  "Where ARE you? Where ARE you?" "I'm here. I'm here."

The quail “call and response” is “Where ARE you? Where ARE you?” “I’m here. I’m here.”

There’s pair-devotion, too.

Last year, a pair were startled, and she flew into our patio doors. She was stunned, motionless on the ground.  By the time I did the fleeting calculation that one quail would not be really worth roasting, she had wobbled to her feet, and into the bushes.

The male bird then patrolled, marching up and down the edge of the row of bushes, and shouting warnings to any other bird that ventured close, for a good twenty minutes.  We thought she must have succumbed. But then, a stirring…out she tottered… and off they went. Aaaah.

The Thrush

Warning:  this story started off with a happy ending, but in the time between the first draft and publication, it has turned dark.

We’ve lost the thrushes from the gardens around us in Switzerland. Perhaps they’ve emigrated, because here, they’re everywhere.  Handsome speckles, happy song… and harvesting worms so assiduously that I wonder there can be any left!

A couple of days ago, we were about to drive out of the garage when Mani saw a young thrush under the work-bench. It was still only half-fledged and stumpy-tailed, much too young to be out adventuring.  Mama (or Papa perhaps) was hovering outside the garage door, mouth full of worm, and trying to coax it out. Our intervention only resulted in it going in behind the generator, well out of arms reach.    Solution:  leave the garage door open a bit at the bottom and leave Mama – or Papa – to the job. When we returned, there was not a peep.

But – aaaargh! As I was loading up the photos to this post, I heard a thrush’s wild alarm call, and saw a Black-backed Gull swoop up onto the roof, baby thrush in its beak.  Surely not our Gull or his lady-friend? Surely not the youngster from the garage?  But then again … perhaps…..

Perhaps it's just as well we can't identify these two....

Perhaps it’s just as well we can’t identify these two….


IMG_8461For a couple of seasons now I’ve been mystified by the brilliant gold caps on some starlings’ heads.  Mating plumage, I reasoned.  But the websites I looked at didn’t mention that.

This year we’ve had an incredible flax flowering, and the starlings have been deep-beaking for the nectar.

Illumination!  The golden helmets could be borrowed glory, pollen from the flax.  That could be why some young birds, still in their drab camouflage feathers and far too young to be advertising for a mate, were also flashing crowns.

Armed with that hunch, I searched again, and ended up on Great site, and yes, of course it knows what NZ-resident starlings do!


So – another evening approaches. Mani is in the kitchen, preparing.  And the congregation is gathering on the lawn outside the kitchen window.  Have you ever seen a Black-backed Gull salivate?   They do!

The ruler of the roost  - seeing off the pukeko and chick.

The ruler of the roost – seeing off the pukeko and chick.


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