Bird Life – Hawks, Magpies, and Larks in Paradise

I don’t think I’ll ever tire of the bird life out here on Te Muna Road. Yes, they drive us crazy when the grapes are ripe, especially the starlings (grrrrr), but the rest of the year I love watching what goes on in the lives of the other birds.

It’s ironic, somehow, that when we lived in suburbia, in Pt Howard, we were surrounded by native birds – masses of tui, kereru (wood pigeon), fantails, and even the occasional little bellbird, whose magnificent voice belies the tiny size of his/her body. I was reminded of this when watching a YouTube clip of Judith Durham from The Seekers singing “Carnival Goodbye” at the group’s last concert in London. That woman had the most amazing voice – she just seemed to open her throat and this pure, beautiful sound came out. It still makes me weep at the magic of it. When you hear a bellbird sing, it brings the same goosebumps, a bit like a nightingale, I suspect.

Out here in the country, while there are a few tui, we’re mostly surrounded by exotic birds, ie, imported, and there is none I love watching more than the harrier hawks. They are truly majestic, as they soar up above the vines, eyes scanning the ground for mice, rabbits, or – at this time of the year especially – baby ducklings. High in the pinetrees on our boundary, magpies are nesting, and while they don’t bother me, they do attack any hawk who dares venture into their airspace. The magpies gang up on the hapless hawk, screaming that this is a no-fly zone, and drive the hawk away from the young magpies in their nests. It’s like watching old movietone newsreels of world war dogfights – one magpie attacks from below, and the other from above. The hawk puts up a valiant defence, sometimes even flying upside down to show his/her claws to the upper magpie, but in the end the magpies win. They are just so tough and territorial, and fiercely protective of their young. That’s why I find it sad that we even have this debate about culling out magpies, because of their dive-bombing of humans at nesting time. When I was a little girl our farmhouse was at the end of a long drive, lined with high pines, and the magpies used to divebomb us when we went down to catch the school bus, or collect the mail. Dad used to send me out as a decoy, then try and shoot them as they swooped down at me. I don’t remember his ever hitting one though, and I don’t even remember being scared, such was my trust in my father’s care not to shoot his one and only daughter (whom he treated like a boy, anyway).

My little brother Tim used to think the magpies were calling him to play cowboys and indians, and I guess they are cowboy birds, in a way.

On Saturday afternoon when I went out to feed Smitty, I found a baby magpie blown out of its nest. It couldn’t fly, but could still move across the ground quite quickly, so I got Taja to catch it (she has such a soft mouth, she could carry an egg without breaking it), and brought it home to try and save it. When I showed it to Colin, he said, “You can’t keep it inside”. I suspect if I found an orphaned elephant in the vineyard and brought it home, Colin would say, “You can’t keep it inside.” So I put it in the garage in a box, away from Kete, whose eyes lit up at the sight of an immobile bird, then looked up Bird Rescue on the Internet to find out what to feed it. I mixed hard-boiled egg yolk with a bit of catfood, and found some fresh worms, and managed to get it to eat (though much of it went all over me). Sadly, the next morning it was dead. At least I gave it a chance at life.

Then a few days ago when I went up to feed Smitty, two Paradise ducks were startled out of the creek. You’d swear the mother was terribly injured, the way she cried like a wounded child and hobbled along as if her leg was badly broken. Meanwhile the father honked off a bit further, cautioning the five little ducklings to stay under water. Mum deserved an Oscar for her performance – trying to draw me and Taja away from her brood. I smiled and left them to it, and expected the ducklings to be swiped by hawks. But no. Yesterday they were still there, grown a bit, and moved through the fence on to the neighbouring property. I would love to take a photo, but the parents would be too distressed, so I’ll leave them in peace.

Finally, it’s a joy to be out in the garden, or in the vineyard, listening to the skylarks singing their tiny hearts out. Up, up, up they go, trilling all the way, then abruptly their music stops and they drop like stones to the ground, then run along to their nests. They are one of the many lovely sounds of spring, and I wonder they don’t get blown off course in these ‘up to’ 90 kph gusts we’re experiencing right now. But as I write this, I can hear one just out the door, above the pinot noir, happy as…well, a lark in paradise.


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