New Zealand Birds
By Kate Crowley
As soon as I saw the kookaburra, the song started playing in my head, “Kookaburra lives in the old gum tree, merry, merry old……” I don’t know how often I sang that song in school or at Campfire Girl gatherings, but I never could have imagined as a child that one day I’d see the real live bird in the wild. This kookaburra however was not sitting in a gum tree. It was perched on a wire alongside a road on the North Island of New Zealand. The kookaburra is a native of Australia and was introduced like so many others here.
New Zealand, having been separated from Australia for millions of years had its own unique flora and fauna. But as soon as people arrived, the composition began to change. Native birds were killed off – the Moas (there were nine species) being the most famous. These birds were bigger than the ostrich (12ft) and had hair-like feathers and no vestigial wings. Its big size and unfamilarity with a predator as efficient as man brought it to extinction by the Maori, the first people to arrive here. The Maori also brought (unintentionally) the Pacific rat and domestic dogs. When the Europeans hit the shores in the 1800s they introduced the stoat to control the already introduced rabbits and cats, which quickly and easily caught and ate the adults and eggs of birds who never knew any predators. Next, people began cutting down the forests to make pasture for grazing animals and so habitat loss became another factor. Some people also brought caged songbirds to remind them of home and before long these birds were living happily as free flying newcomers too.
What all of this means is New Zealand has the sad distinction of having lost some 50 species - a higher proportion of its native birds than any other place in the world! All of this history has been repeated across the world. This is nothing new; it’s just that with islands, it has a greater and more noticeable impact.
Even knowing all this, Mike and I have been like kids in the proverbial candy shop; our eyes feasting on all the new and delectable sights of a land completely new to us. As soon as we got out of the airport, we were looking for birds. Not surprisingly, the first we saw were English sparrows, but soon new species were being added to our life lists. Some birdwatchers travel specifically for this reason. It is an all-consuming passion (one might say compulsion). For us, the excitement that comes from seeing something unique and beautiful is more than sufficient. We are adding memories to add to our overall life list.
On our first day in the country we visited the Auckland Botanical Garden and our sightings included the Blackbird (its common name), with its all black body and bright orange bill. It is the size of an American robin, which makes sense because it is a thrush like ‘our’ robin and it behaves the same way, hopping around on lawns looking for food. Next was the song thrush which looks very much like a wood thrush or Swainson’s thrush. Both the blackbird and the thrush are introduced species, but completely new to us.
A larger and very noisy bird we encountered in the Garden was the Tui (a Maori word). There were loads of them flocking to the Pohutukawa trees, which were covered with red bottle brush shaped flowers. They are called Christmas trees here because of this. I wish I could describe the calls of these birds for you, but I will use the filed guide’s description. “An amazing range of noises, a mixture of melodic and guttural tones, wheezes, croaks, coughs, and chuckles”. I would add squeaks, chirps and whistles to the list.
The Tui, when seen in the sun, has a dark blue/black body with iridescent green and blue feathers on its back. It also has a goofy looking little white tuft of feathers that stick out at the throat, like a bowtie. These caused the English to call it the Parson. The birds are more vocal at breeding season in the spring, which is right now in New Zealand. Apparently the Tui is a bit like a mascot for some businesses and products, since their image and name is seen on packaging and store fronts.
As we crossed over a bridge near a pound, we saw swallows swooping back and forth. One little fellow landed on the railing and sat calmly as Mike snapped photos. It very much resembled a barn swallow, with a copper color on its forehead and throat, blue black feathers on its back, and a forked tail. Its common name seemed most appropriate on this day. It is called the Welcome swallow.
My last column talked about gulls and I have to say that I have now seen the prettiest one in the world. It is called the red-billed gull. It is slightly smaller than a ring billed, with lipstick red legs, bill and ring around its yellow eye. I suppose they would grow less stunning over time, but any bird that wears that shade of red so well could never be called common.