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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 http://nzbirdsonline.org.nz/. 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.