Tag Archives: Californian quail

For the sake of the birds

I love cats. But when our last cat was in her twilight years, Mark commented that he did not want another. I felt a twinge of sadness, resentment even. But I knew he was right and these days I make do with the cats of the internet.

The late Buffy

The late Buffy

In our years together, we have had a succession of furry felines. Every one was both loved and ginger, male or female. To me, all cats should be ginger. Buffy, our final cat, was named by the children for the vampire slayer. She took her name seriously and slayed not vampires, but rodents, probably skinks, birds in abundance and she gave no quarter to visitors who thought they might stroke her without permission or – horrors – move her from a chair that they might sit there instead. Buffy met the world on her terms. And she was a killer.

If we still had a cat, we would not have the ground-dwelling quail

If we still had a cat, we would not have the ground-dwelling quail

I believe Gareth Morgan when he says all cats are roaming killers, contrary to what their owners think. The hidden cameras prove him right. Urban cats may not achieve the same tally of bird kill but that is likely to be because of a lesser population of birds. We live rurally with no domestic cats in residence nearby. Mark maintains an ongoing rodent control programme, particularly against rats, and is on constant alert for other predators, including feral cats. We can never be predator free, but vigilance keeps the incidence lower than the norm.

Waxeyes feeding from aloe

Waxeyes feeding from aloe

The rewards lie in the bird population. Everybody I know claims their garden is ‘full of birdsong’ and we are fortunate that there is a certain base-level bird population throughout most of the country. A friend who recently moved from a very large, cat-free country garden to a leafy town suburb commented how much she missed the birdsong. I bet if you asked her neighbours, they would be shocked and think this a gross misrepresentation. But the difference between that base-level population and an environment that is truly rich in bird numbers and variety is huge.  These days, our garden feels so alive. 

Our beautiful but lumbering native pigeon - the kereru

Our beautiful but lumbering native pigeon – the kereru

We have never set out to feed the birds. But on a property which is heavily planted in both natives and exotics with many different varieties, particularly flowering ones, across 25 acres, there is a succession of food all year round.

We have seen the kaka again recently so it appears to be resident in the area

We have seen the kaka again recently so it appears to be resident in the area

It is not that we have much in the way of rare birds, although the arrival of a kaka for two months in late winter was a thrill and we are on the feeding flight path of native falcons (karearea).  Mostly it is about the tui which we count by the score, the kereru that are permanent residents here, korimako (bellbirds), ruru (moreporks) at night, piwakawaka (fantails), white-faced herons, silvereyes, pukeko, shining cuckoos in season and all the formerly common birds of our bush and grasslands. Then are the introduced varieties. It is one of the delightful introductions that we know we would miss entirely if we had a cat. The Californian quail spend a lot of the time on the ground and nest at ground level so are extremely vulnerable to predation. These are charming additions to the garden, a gentle presence all the time. We do not eat them.

Tui feeding from veltheimia

Tui feeding from veltheimia

The one grief for us is the incidence of bird-strike on our windows, exacerbated by double glazing which turned the windows almost mirror-like. Because the reflection is all of sky and trees, too many birds think they can fly through. Window decals do not work. Believe me, I tried. A young kereru still died when it flew straight into one. Mark constructed an open bamboo grid that he suspended from the eaves in front of our very large picture window which claimed too many birds. It does not impede the view from indoors and we can still open the windows. Upstairs was more problematic because we lack eaves. Reluctantly – and I say reluctantly because we like the views – we have hung sheer curtains in the two worst affected rooms. These work – Mark has seen a young kereru take avoiding action when it registered the visual barrier.

The grief of window-kill kereru

The grief of window-kill kereru

One solution to window-kill

One solution to window-kill

We place a high value on creating a sound eco system and the increasing bird population tells us we are succeeding. It is not just the birdsong. It is the movement, the interaction between the birds (we witness many a battle), the charm of different nests, even the falling feathers – all enrich our lives well above and beyond just having a garden. If the trade-off for us is forgoing the character and pleasure of a resident cat, then so be it. We would rather have the birds.

First published in the February issue of New Zealand Gardener and reprinted here with their permission. 

Fantail nest

Fantail nest

Feathered friends

Would you mess with this cat? Few people ever tried a second time.

Would you mess with this cat? Few people ever tried a second time.

The decision not to replace our last cat – when she shuffled off the mortal coils after 16 long years of cantankerous and unpredictable behaviour – was not taken lightly. Both Mark and I had lived with cats all our lives and were fond of the furry, purry things. But they are killers and we prefer the birds. That decision has certainly had a huge impact on our bird population here. It helps that none of our neighbours have cats and that there has been some control exercised over feral felines. This spring, we are particularly aware of the huge number and variety of birds in residence and feeling that we may have achieved something of a sustainable ecosystem which maintains an all year-round population. Mark’s ongoing efforts to reduce rat numbers by trapping may also have helped.

Our kaka!

Our kaka!

Not even the late Buffy cat could have had an impact on the most exciting arrival this year. It was a kaka – one of our native parrots which is limited to small, defined areas of the country these days, nowhere near here. We had never seen one before. A loud, noisy larrikin it was too, one which enjoyed rarking up the tui, swooping around the place feeding from a variety of sources including the mandarin trees. We were not so impressed at it pulling off fat magnolia buds just to throw around for no clear reason (we did wonder if it was aiming at the tui). After about two months it moved on, perhaps looking for a mate and it has seemed a little quiet here since.

The kereru nest scores about 1/10 for skill are care.

The kereru nest scores about 1/10 for skill and care. Viewed from below. 

Baby kereru in residence

Baby kereru in residence

The kereru – our great, lumbering native wood pigeon of small brain –  are a constant garden presence. They also sit about look decorative, posing almost, as they eat the magnolia and michelia flowers and anything else that takes their fancy. Fortunately we have plenty to share. But I thought that few readers are likely to have seen their nests. These are not creations of great skill and care – more a case of throwing a few twigs together and hoping it lasts long enough for the single baby to mature to flying stage. Sometimes the nests do not last the distance, alas. Mark manoeuvred the ladder into position with some difficulty so I could photograph the rather large baby in residence. I will keep an eye on it to see if I can catch the parents coming in to feed it.

Wax-eyes craft exquisite tiny nests

Wax-eyes craft exquisite tiny nests

What the kereru lack in nest-building skills, the wax-eyes more than make up with their exquisite little creations mere centimetres across. I found this one two days ago in a conifer I was cleaning out (removing the clutter of dead needles improves the look and air circulation enormously). The hatchlings were so tiny that at first I thought they were berries that had fallen into an old nest and my eyes had difficulty focusing on the minute movements that showed they were living. I backed off immediately. Finishing the grooming of the conifer will have to wait. Two days later, today, I checked again and the babies are now looking up with their mouths open, waiting to be fed.

Trapped on the inside - Californian quail

Trapped on the inside – Californian quail

We would not have the mob of quail that have built up, had we kept a cat. They spend most of their time on the ground and they usually nest at ground level, then lead their babies around from the earliest stage when they still look like little feathered bumblebees, long before they are big enough to fly. I could, however, have done without the two who wandered into my office one night when the door had been left open by mistake and who then could not work out how to exit.

Agitated young pukeko

Agitated young pukeko

I haven’t even mentioned the pair of white-faced herons currently nesting in the Pinus muricata yet but neither have I been around with my camera at the right time to photograph them entering or leaving the nest which is maybe 30 metres up.  We are hoping that the cretinous man who shot two white-faced herons in the area because they were stealing his goldfish (!!!!) is now too old to still be wielding a gun. I can, however, give you the young pukeko separated from its parents down in the North Garden – and very agitated they all were by my presence there with the dog. These native swamp hens that rarely fly far are wonderful exemplars of survival and adaptability and therefore so common that they are taken for granted and never given the status of their highly endangered cousins, the takahe.

One of the bonuses of having a garden filled with birdlife is that we do not have much of a problem with slugs and snails. As far as we are concerned, good gardening is about establishing good eco-systems as much as it is about pretty flowers.

We once had a much-loved ginger cat called Moomintroll (or ‘The Troll’ for short). He lived to a ripe old aged despite two broken legs in kittenhood, the second requiring amputation. From this misfortune, I learned that three legged cats are good rodent catchers but can’t get the elevation to catch birds. I did wonder about putting a standing order with the local SPCA for a three-legged cat but there is a problem. All our cats have always been ginger, male or female. As far as I am concerned, all cats should therefore be ginger and a standing order for a three-legged ginger moggy who is confident living with dogs might be altogether too specific. We will stick with the birds.

The handsome kereru, our native wood pigeon

The handsome kereru, our native wood pigeon

The perfect dish of Brussels sprouts

For I have found the perfect serving of Brussels sprouts*. Some may scoff, especially as I failed to record this memorable occasion on camera. But I am a woman of honesty and integrity so you can take my word for it when I say that I was recently served a Brussels sprouts dish to die for. It was at a little Middle Eastern restaurant called Sefa Kitchen in Bondi, Sydney. In the absence of photographic evidence, we will have to make do with a somewhat fuzzy image of their bone marrow meze with its preserved lemon gremolata and polenta chips, to convey the ambience of this little eatery.

photo0108Their menu describes the dish as “Brussel sprouts** with almond tarator and zhoug”. I had to google both tarator (usually a yoghurt, cucumber and walnut based sauce) and zhoug (hot green spice paste of Yemeni origin). From memory the sprouts were not boiled or even steamed. They may have been lightly roasted.

img_7002111Alas, my plans to attempt some re-creation of this taste treat at home this season have been thwarted by our resident Californian quail. We are very fond of these charming birds which are slowly increasing in number but have no intention of consuming either the birds themselves or their lovely speckled eggs. When you have watched Mama and Papa Quail herding their young, which resemble fluffy little bumblebees, around the garden, the thought of putting them on the dinner plate is unimaginable. But it was a close-run thing when a mob of them found a way into the protective cloche Mark has placed over this season’s crop of Brussels sprouts. The crop was decimated and the few we have salvaged are poor, shredded examples of this vegetable.

But for those who think the much maligned Brussels sprout is only palatable when cooked with bacon, I can recommend the Sefa treatment as being one of those rare restaurant dishes that is genuinely memorable.

Loosely related only, those who have visited here or know the area will realise that we live in a rural area of little sophistication, though it has its own charms. I like to travel but my most recent trip to see our daughters in Australia reminded me that nobody, just nobody, could ever think that Tikorangi is hipster.

photo0106I give you the ultimate example of Bondi hipsterdom in Sydney.

img_1024And the somewhat quaint example of hipsterdom in Canberra. No, I do not think pulling out the stained, blue woolly hat that my late mother in law used to adorn her teapot will achieve the desired level of hipsterdom when I lack the gluten-free friands as accompaniments.

Quail-pecked Brussels sprouts are the best we can manage.

* A singular teensy tiny member of the brassica family is a Brussels sprout. More than one are Brussels sprouts, not Brussel sprouts. I guess there should be an apostrophe in there somewhere, presumably at the end of the first word because they are, apparently, named for the city of Brussels.

** You may notice that Sefa have failed to get to grips with the plural term but I can forgive them that on account of the delicious nature of the dish.

A flurry of feathers*

* That is a flurry of feathers as opposed to a tranquil haven filled with bird song.

Some dreary weather and the need to find the best photos we have of our garden had me trawling through and sorting all the many photos on my computer. I was quite pleased with the bird file and in an act of displacement behaviour (because the more urgent task was far more difficult) sorted some out for here.
???????????????????????????????
Photographing our native kereru (New Zealand’s wood pigeon) can be a challenge because they are inclined to take fright and crash away. This large bird is protected these days and is slow to procreate.
???????????????????????????????
Mark has been known to erect hammocks beneath a precarious kereru nest to protect the growing baby (kereru usually raise only one young at a time), and to build a large ground enclosure to save one which was learning to fly from ground predators.
???????????????????????????????
The morepork or ruru is our native owl and is rarely seen by day. This was almost certainly a young one. A morepork calling is one of the loveliest night time sounds. One of the most delightful sights we have seen was a family of five roosting in a tree here during the day. Mama and Papa Ruru were trying to sleep and three babies with big owl eyes were all bright and alert.
??????????????????????????????? Sadly this one was lying dead beside our letter box last week – almost certainly coming off second best from an encounter with a vehicle at night.
???????????????????????????????
I have spent a great deal of time photographing the tui. There is no shortage of candidates – we can have trees heaving with scores of bickering tui – they are strongly territorial.
???????????????????????????????
And acrobat tui number two. Feeding upside down is no problem to these nectar feeding birds.
???????????????????????????????
King tui, we call this one. He looks as if he is the dominant bird in this campanulata cherry. I posted two short clips of feeding tui last spring here and here.
038 - Copy
Bellbirds, often known by their Maori names of korimako or makomako, tend to be heard more often than seen. They are a modest bird to look at and very shy in their behaviour, but with beautiful song.
???????????????????????????????
One of our most ubiquitous birds is the little fantail or pīwakawaka. The tail spreads out in a full fan and these little birds do not show a great deal of fear around humans. However they also move extremely quickly and this is the best photo I have managed so far.
???????????????????????????????
The little waxeyes are here in large numbers – almost our equivalent of humming birds, which we don’t have in this country. Because it is self-introduced to this country, it is regarded as a native. Wikipedia says: “ Its Māori name, Tauhou, means “stranger” or more literally, “new arrival”.”
???????????????????????????????
The Californian quail are a more recent arrival to our garden but are a quietly delightful addition. Each spring we watch nervously as Mama Quail heads off with a gaggle of little babies in tow – each of them a tiny bundle of feathers. Up above we can see Papa Quail and hear him calling. We like to think he is cooing out directions: “Turn left.” “Veer right.” “Danger ahead.” Sadly, we then watch an ever-diminishing number of fluffy babes as each day passes. But this winter we have seven mature quail quietly foraging around so maybe they are going to be a permanent feature.
???????????????????????????????
And Mark’s pidgies – tumbler pigeons these days. He likes the coloured ones rather than the white ones more commonly favoured. There are times when he feels he is raising fodder for the rare, endangered native falcon or Kārearea which makes frequent feeding forays through this area. The surviving pigeons are the wise ones.
???????????????????????????????
Just common old blackbirds in a nest last season – a nest in a particularly public position – but the sight of babies brings out the protective instinct all the same. They all matured and flew away – probably to thieve our strawberries.
???????????????????????????????
Then there are the nests. This one is an exquisite little fantail nest built in a fork of a magnolia tree.
???????????????????????????????
Each year we gather the abandoned nests which are in good condition and bring them under cover – our nest installation. Each spring the birds fly in gradually demolish them in their search for nesting materials – recycling in action.
???????????????????????????????
And my most favourite tui photo of all. Sitting in a mandarin tree out from our back door. It was gorging itself on the fruit. We no longer have a cat and none of our immediate neighbours have cats. We would rather have the birds.