Thursday, 23 August 2007

'Wild Blueskin' feature: Do birds find sanctuary in your garden?

A few weeks ago we went for a walk in the Orokonui Valley through the
gum trees, tree ferns and native fuschia alongside the stream and up
the slope past the few remaining large rimu into the tall old kanuka
forest on the sunny side of the valley. We did see a pair of riflemen
but otherwise in four hours in the bush we saw little more than a
couple of fantails and three or four bellbirds and had to listen hard
to hear tomtits and brown creepers. Near the paddocks a few song
thrushes sang. We could have seen more birds in my back garden in

The following morning I stood on my deck for half an hour. A song
thrush sang from the top of the lemonwood and there were three more
down by the river. A couple of silvereyes sipped what little nectar
there was from the opening plum blossom and a couple of bellbirds did
the same from the flowering currant and japonica flowers under the
macrocarpa hedge. Two chaffinches sang up by the road and a couple
more scrabbled about with a blackbird in the dry leaves under the
walnut. Starlings squabbled over a nest hole under the eaves of the
neighbour's old shed and a bunch of chirping sparrows hung around next
door where the neighbours feed the little black bantam each morning.
Rosellas swooped downhill, two tui chased each other within the bare
branches of the white poplars while three kereru sat sedately on the
power lines.

Just as the frost started to melt in the sun on the horse paddock over
the river a grey warbler sang briefly from the top of a dead flax
stalk, a dunnock flitted up from the bare patch of earth in the
vegetable patch, where it had probably been quietly feeding away
un-noticed for twenty minutes, and a kingfisher sang from the low
branches of the willow draped with the flotsam of the recent flood. As
the half hour came to an end someone took a dog into the long grass
and thistles in the paddock upstream and a flock of finches flew up
onto the telephone lines; twenty or so goldfinches, greenfinches and
redpolls and half a dozen yellowhammers.

That is well over fifty birds of seventeen different species not
including the bantam, the gulls, ducks and harriers that regularly fly
over nor the black and pied pair of fantails which I did not see but
know regularly come to catch insects when the sun strikes the
flowering ivy.

So why was the Orokonui walk apparently so birdless? For a start it is
much harder to see birds in the thick bush than it is in the
relatively open area around my garden, especially when the exotic
willows, plums and poplars have lost their leaves over winter,
something that, of all the local native trees, only the fuschia does
and then in a somewhat half-hearted manner. Surely however you might
expect to hear just as many birds in the bush as outside? But it was
cold in the Orokonui valley; 5°C when we started and probably barely
double figures even on the sunny slopes by late morning. Small birds
like grey warblers, tomtits and brown creepers appeared to be spending
their time silently searching for insects. Once the sun has risen in
my garden it is several degrees warmer. Insects, worms, buds and
flowers, are more readily available and the birds are singing,
preparing to nest in a few weeks time.

And looking at the list of species in my garden you see that ten of
those seventeen species were introduced from Europe and Australia last
century and are essentially farmland rather than forest birds. Only
chaffinches and blackbirds and to a lesser extent thrushes, redpolls
and dunnocks are regularly found in the native bush in the Orokonui
Valley, though on the plus side the reserve has the endemic riflemen,
brown creeper and tomtit, species that only rarely visit my garden.
But unlikely as it may seem the native tui and kereru much prefer my
garden to the native bush.

So what is going on here? What birds can you see from your deck now
and what will happen in your garden when the Orokonui Ecosanctuary has
a surfeit of young bellbirds, newly introduced robins and saddlebacks?
We would like to find out more and complement our monitoring of birds
in the sanctuary with good information from your gardens in the
Blueskin area.

If you can spare an hour to count birds on a sunny morning in October
and again next July we would like to hear from you. If you are not
confident enough to identify those twenty or so species – dunnocks and
finches and brown creepers seem to be especially puzzling – then (if
we get enough takers) we are offering cups of tea and coffee and
training sessions in local gardens during September. Please contact
Derek Onley (482 2831; or Michael Fay (482 2806;

by Derek Onley

From and 'Blueskin News' published by Blueskin Media:
voluntary/non-profit community publishers in Blueskin Bay (Seacliff,
Warrington, Evansdale, Waitati, Doctors Point), Dunedin, New Zealand.
All our material is "copyleft" and may be freely re-edited and
republished. If you want to credit the source it's "".

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