NZ Wildlife, part 1 (Belching at Tuis)

My postings to this blog are liable to get less frequent now, despite the improved internet access in New Zealand. This is because we’re gone from spending short periods in each place and going on lots of tours to longer, more laid back stopovers with not much formal planned. We’re still managing to fill our days, but in a less structured way.

One of the (many) things I love about New Zealand is, well, Nature. As an amateur astronomer, I find the night sky here a bit disconcerting (when I can see it for clouds, of course). The only familiar constellation is Orion, and he’s upside down. The islands themselves are mainly volcanic, and in North Island this means lots of hills, not just the gentle rolling hills we know from Hobbiton but also small steep hillocks. Some hills still have the weathered grey cylinder of a cinder cone poking up from the centre. They are often the only grey in a green countryside. In the more settled heartlands this is the green of pasture, given over to cattle rather than sheep in North Island. In remote areas of coast or mountain the green is the myriad shades of native bush. Now being English, the word ‘bush’ conjures up images of small manicured plants found in the border of one’s garden. The only remotely bush-like plants here are the Tea Tree and the Cabbage Tree, plants named with double irony as not only are they not really trees, they also have nothing whatsoever to do with either tea or cabbage, no matter what Captain Cook might have told his men in the 1770s. If you want trees, they’ve certainly got them – the few remaining Kauri trees could give the giant Redwoods a run for them money in terms of size and age. No, the forests of New Zealand have more in common with jungles than gardens. They’re especially interesting if, like me, you are a fan of fern. Here ferns don’t just cover the ground, they grow on the rocks and the tress. In fact quite often they are the trees. There’s something gloriously primeval about walking through a forest of fern trees – I keep expecting a glimpse of dinosaur scales through dappled greenery, or a sudden encounter with a dragonfly as long as my arm.

However, unlike Australia, New Zealand doesn’t have monsters.  No snakes, only one, very rare, poisonous spider, and no large predators. The only non-domesticated mammals I’ve seen, besides the roadkill possums, are a few rabbits and one large water-rat. Rivers, lakes and sea are full of life though: on our first ‘bush walk’, just half an hour’s drive out of Auckland, we found a waterfall and, in the pool at the bottom, the biggest eel I have ever seen. Almost every jetty I’ve looked over gives me a glimpse into clear water with a full and fishy ecosystem. We did attempt to get close to the country’s most popular sea dwellers, but as they weren’t up for playing, it was more swimming after, than with, dolphins. More successful was the unexpected sighting of several dozen Orca on the scenic flight I took on my birthday.

What NZ really excels in is birdlife. Of course there’s the usual crop of familiar immigrants including Sparrows, Blackbirds, Thrushes and Mallards, plus unexplained colonies of Chickens in some rural car-parks. I’m not sure if the Mynah birds who seem to live exclusively on flat possum are local or not, but they seem to have adopted the habit of walking everywhere, and though this could be out of solidarity for the local flightless birds, I suspect they’re just lazy. Plenty of avian niches still have their original inhabitants. Lacking any guide or book we took to referring to ‘heron-analogues’, ‘magpie-analogues’, ‘oystercatcher-analogues’, only to later discover that these birds were in fact know as Herons, Magpies and Oystercatchers. Kiwis (the people, not the flightless birds) have a straighforward way of naming their wildlife. The birds with the bright yellow heads? They’ll be Yellow-heads. The gulls with red beaks? Red-beaked Gulls. These latter beasts mob anyone eating outdoors and will devour almost anything. I have tested this in my ongoing mission to feed inappropriate food to wildfowl in scenic locations (My attempts in South America being less successful; the incident with the cheese pasty and the coots of Lake Titicaca is best forgotten). A lot of the birds have Maori names, which also tend to be descriptive. My favourite bird so far is the Tui (I’m not sure what ‘Tui’ means in the Maori language, possible ‘daft’). Tuis have glossy blue black plummage, and are delicate nectar feeders, but they often seem to forget how to fly in mid-flight and start to plummet before remembering, and the whole landing gracefully thing is beyond them, as they prefer instead to drop like a stone and pull up at the last moment. They also have a white throat-pouch which they use to make a variety of unlikely noises. Their default ‘song’ sounds like a deconstructing cuckoo-clock, but each bird’s call is unique, and they are natural mimics. So far I’ve head ‘car horn’, ‘rusty gate’, ‘bicycle with dodgy wheel’ and, most perplexingly, ‘greenwich time signal’. On discovering their ability to mimic sounds they hear, Beloved has taken to burping loudly whenever we hear a Tui nearby. It is a noble mission, but I can’t help thinking that, in a country with so many visitors from Australia, if they were going to learn how to belch, the Tuis would already have done so.

Correction: Since writing the above, a nice Maori barman has explained to me that the plural of Tui is not Tuis, but Tui (‘Like sheep, yeah?’). This misunderstanding was only cleared up because Tui, as well as being a daft bird, is a brand of beer, less bad than some but still way to gasy. Which means, far from teaching Tui to belch, Tui has been causing a certain amount of burping. 

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