Tag Archives: tui

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

Tui, kereru and korimako

Tui in the cherry tree

Tui in the cherry tree

It is the time of the year when I spend a great deal of time trying to get the perfect images of the scores of tui we have feeding in the Prunus campanulata. Because we have a number of trees, the birds migrate between them but never sit still long enough for us to count.
Too many to count. All the black shadows are tui.

Too many to count. All the black shadows are tui.

These early flowering cherry trees from Taiwan get a mixed reception in New Zealand. There is no doubt that our native birds find them hugely appealing. In an environment filled with food sources, it is the campanulatas to which they head en masse. But, and it is a huge but, most campanulatas set prodigious amounts of seed and because these form as little cherries, tasty to our fruit-eating native birds, they are spread far and wide. Indeed, seedling cherries are one of the worst weeds we have in our own garden and it takes constant management to stop the spread. So bad is it that the councils further north have banned seeding campanulata varieties and some folk would like to see total eradication across the country.

Shy korimako in Prunus Pink Clouds. It was soon banished by the bullying tui

Shy korimako in Prunus Pink Clouds. It was soon banished by the bullying tui

We would be very sorry to see all campanulatas banned but certainly the future lies in sterile selections. Sterility means that they don’t set seed so they won’t spread but we get to keep the mass blooming and the tui – and indeed korimako, our shy bellbirds – get to keep their favourite food source. Pink Clouds and Mimosa are both sterile varieties which date back to the work Felix Jury did on them, but the sugar pink colour is often less favoured to the cerises and reds. Unfortunately, the good compact growing, dark flowered variety named for Felix by Duncan and Davies – Prunus Felix Jury – is not sterile.

Acrobatic tui in a campanulata that is sterile but much too large for most gardens

Acrobatic tui in a campanulata that is sterile but much too large for most gardens

We have a sterile cerise red which is a great performer but at over 12 metres tall and 10 metres wide, it is far too large for domestic gardens. But there is hope. Mark has identified one which is sterile, has good colour and does not look as if it will get anywhere near as large.

Kereru feasting on Magnolia Vulcan buds

Kereru feasting on Magnolia Vulcan buds

“Now look ‘ere, Mr and Mrs Kereru, we need to have words about this latest taste treat you have found. This just won’t do at all. There is plenty of other food here for you but magnolia buds are off limits, especially the first flowers opening on Magnolia Vulcan.”

Poor kereru died after flying into a window

Poor kereru died after flying into a window

I would make jokes about Mr and Mrs Kereru dicing with death on this latest escapade, but some sensitive soul would take me seriously. Kereru are our large native wood pigeon and were a valued food source for Maori in times past. But they are very slow breeders and are suffering from habitat loss so are now totally protected. 056There has been a bit of a scandal recently about kereru being served as part of a traditional feast – did the Parliamentarians know they were eating kereru? – so it is poor form to even make jokes about eating them. Besides, even when a beautiful plump specimen died before my eyes after flying into one of our house windows, we could not bring ourselves to try cooking it. Instead we bought window decals from Bird Rescue to try and prevent such a thing happening again.

Apparently Vulcan scores highly on the kereru taste test

Apparently Vulcan scores highly on the kereru taste test

Floral Skypaper – the garden in August

Magnolia Felix Jury

Magnolia Felix Jury

Not for us the refinement of declaring we garden for foliage and form. Give us floral extravaganza, we say, and August obliges. In the deciduous magnolias, it is the reds that dominate. By the end of the month and well into September, the softer pinks and whites come into their own but at the start, we have an unrivalled display of the stronger colours which just gets better every year as the trees get ever larger. Floral sky-paper, I call it when looking up from below. I say it is an unrivalled display because nowhere else in the world gets the same intensity of red in these magnolia, nor have they done the breeding on them that has been done in this country over the past 40 years. First Felix Jury, now Mark Jury and also Vance Hooper have pushed the boundaries with the reds. Mark was very pleased to find recently that Britain’s Royal Horticultural Society has given an Award of Garden Merit to the magnolia he bred and named for his father, ‘Felix Jury’. While we admit to being biased, it still takes our breath away each season.

Mark's new 'Fairy Magnolia White'

Mark’s new ‘Fairy Magnolia White’

It is also michelia time – or as they have been reclassified botanically, magnolias. Do not confuse them with the evergreen grandiflora magnolias which are the summer flowering trees with big, glossy, leathery leaves. I admit we still call them michelias in conversation or we go with the “Fairy Magnolia” branding that has been placed on Mark’s new cultivars. Because michelias flower with their leaves, they are not as individually spectacular as the deciduous magnolias but they are a wonderful addition to the spring garden.

Mark has been breeding michelias for coming up to two decades now and we have many hundreds, maybe over 1000 of them, planted around our property. Out of all those, he has only named and released three so far. Fairy Magnolia White is the earliest of the season to open and has the loveliest star flower as well as being strongly fragrant. There is a purity in such white flowers, especially when contrasted with deep green foliage and wonderful velvet brown buds. One of the breeding advances has been to eliminate the tendency of some cultivars to drop their leaves and defoliate after flowering. Readers with Michelia doltsopa ‘Silver Clouds’ may recognise this trait.

???????????????????????????????Nothing excites the tui more than the Prunus campanulata. These are somewhat controversial, especially in warm northern areas, because too many of them set seed freely, threatening to become noxious weeds. Both the tui and we would be grieved to see all campanulatas banned, though we are vigilant weeders on the germinating seed. We have a number of different trees that come into flower in sequence and we can have literally scores of fiercely territorial tui bickering and fighting in these trees as they try and claim their feeding space. There are times it can appear as if the trees are dancing with the tui.

Until a whole lot more work is done on selecting and marketing sterile forms of campanulatas (in other words, they don’t set viable seed so will never become weedy), if you live in Northland, Auckland, Waikato, Bay of Plenty, Marlborough or the West Coast, where regional councils are understandably touchy on this topic, look for Prunus Pink Clouds or Prunus Mimosa which are sterile options.
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From the big to the small – narcissi season is in full swing here. The little pictures they create give wonderful detail in a big garden. We have such a problem with narcissi fly that we struggle with the later flowering hybrids which comprise most of what is sold through garden centres (commonly called daffodils). The dwarf forms tend to flower earlier so they are over and going dormant when the narcissi fly are on the wing later in spring. The little cyclamineus ones, with their swept back skirts, seem to have a look of perpetual surprise. We are delighted with how well they are naturalising on our grassy banks where conditions are harder than in cultivated garden areas.
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We looked enviously at Russell Fransham’s magnificent bananas in the June issue.
They are a pretty marginal crop this far south and as we live 5 km from the coast, we have to take extra care and cover them in winter. We do this with giant bamboo frames and old shade cloth. A bunch of 50 is a triumph for us so we were in awe of Russell’s 200. We won’t remove the covers from ours until later in spring, just to be on the safe side. I call these constructions here the Theatre of the Banana.

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

The pros and cons of the campanulata cherries

Manna from heaven for the tui

Manna from heaven for the tui

Taiwanese cherries, Fomosan cherries, Prunus campanulata – they are one and the same and around this time of the year are explosions of candy pink which bring tui to the garden. In our case, it is not one or two tui. We could count them by the score if they would just sit still long enough for us to carry out a census.

Mark was not too sure about the tui which seems to have mastered the sound of vuvuzela. But I digress.

Love the trees or hate them, the tui have no qualms at all. The nectar is manna from heaven to them. And therein lies the problem. I was contacted recently by someone who is crusading against the sale and planting of campanulata cherries and I was only relatively sympathetic because I think we are in danger of throwing out the baby with the bathwater.

The problem is the seeding habits of some campanulatas. Many set prodigious amounts of seed which is then spread far and wide by our bird population. There is an alarmingly high rate of germination. The seedlings grow rapidly and after the second season, plants are too big to hand pull out. If you cut them off, they grow again. So bad is the problem that they have been banned in Northland and this correspondent would like to see them banned everywhere.

“There are loads of better trees for Tui such as Kowhai, Rewarewa that can be available at the same time” he claimed. I don’t want to be picky with someone who genuinely cares for the environment, but on a property packed with food for the birds, I have never seen a plant as attractive to tui as the campanulata cherries. Besides, in late winter, neither kowhai nor rewarewa are in flower yet.

I mentioned babies and bathwater because the problem is seeding. There are sterile forms of campanulata and both gardeners and tui alike may rue the day if ALL campanulatas get banned, even the named forms that never set seed. This is a problem we gardeners have brought upon ourselves. The record of garden escapes into the wild is not a proud one and too many gardeners don’t take responsibility for their weeds.

Prunus Pink Clouds - one of the sterile forms raised here by Felix Jury

Prunus Pink Clouds – one of the sterile forms raised here by Felix Jury

Mark’s father, Felix, was a fan of the campanulatas and he bred a few. “Pink Clouds” has an attractive weeping habit and an avenue of them has been a feature at Auckland Regional Botanical Gardens. I assume it is still there. “Mimosa” is more upright and flowers a little later. “Petite Pink” is probably no longer available commercially but is a dear little tree that never gets much over two metres in height but has all the appearance and shape of a proper tree. The thing that sets these three apart is that they are all sterile. They don’t set seed so are never going to become weeds. All three are in that candy floss pink colour range.

Prunus “Felix Jury” was named for him by Duncan and Davies (it is not the done thing, dear readers, to ever name a plant after yourself) but it was of his raising. It is a much deeper colour, carmine red, and a small growing tree. What it is not, alas, is sterile so if you see it being advertised as that, the nursery or garden centre is wrong.

It seems to be quite difficult to find reliable information on the seeding habits of other cultivars on the NZ market. If anybody knows more on this topic, please let me know. Every year at this time, Mark starts to talk about doing some more work with campanulatas to raise more sterile forms. We know which ones are sterile in the garden but the best one is a rather large tree for most people on small urban sections. It would not allow you to fit your house on the plot as well.

Petal carpets supreme

Petal carpets supreme

I can also tell you that one of our most common weeds here is seedling cherries and we are vigilant and persistent. If you live anywhere near native bush or a reserve, you should take great care to grow only sterile forms or to avoid them altogether if you are not sure. If you live in town with a seeding specimen, your neighbours probably grit their teeth at the seedlings that pop up in their place.

If you can manage the weed potential, the explosion of bloom in late winter is wonderful. Taiwanese cherries flower much earlier than their Japanese counterparts and are nowhere near as susceptible to root problems in wetter climates, so they live longer. Nor do they suffer from witches’ broom which can take over the Japanese types. It is when part of the tree grows much more densely and vigorously and fails entirely to flower. Left to its own devices, witches’ broom can take over the entire tree and the only way to deal with it is to cut out affected sections. It is very obliging of the campanulatas to be resistant.

The tui would be most grateful if we could just get this right for them before all campanulata are banned are noxious weeds.

First published in the Waikato Times and reprinted here with their permission.

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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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And acrobat tui number two. Feeding upside down is no problem to these nectar feeding birds.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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”.”
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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.
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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.
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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.
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Then there are the nests. This one is an exquisite little fantail nest built in a fork of a magnolia tree.
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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.
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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.

Tikorangi Notes: Friday July 6, 2012

Our maunga, Mount Taranaki

Our maunga, Mount Taranaki

The tui are back

The tui are back

Latest posts: Friday July 6, 2012

1) Fragrant rhododendrons – the final feature article I have written for the Weekend Gardener. So you only want scented plants in the garden? There are fragrant rhododendrons to choose from.

2) The understated elegance of Helleborus orientalis in Plant Collector this week.

3) Reviewing the role of container plants. Do they add anything to the garden other than work?

4) Grow it yourself – celery. We don’t because Mark won’t, so I buy it but you can if you wish. The word from Mark is that it is not that easy to grow well and the one year he got it absolutely right, we only hate about two complete heads of celery and the rest went to waste.

5) In the Garden this fortnight. The final in this series I wrote for Weekend Gardener. It’s on gloriosas this week.

6) Outdoor Classroom revisited – sharpening garden tools. Everybody says do it but nobody says how.

Tikorangi Notes: Friday July 6, 2012

As you may gather from above, I have resigned as a contributor to the Weekend Gardener so the pieces first published there will cease after today. But do not let that stop you – please take the time to fill out their survey and let them know what you think of the changes they have made with their new management.

The three new posts a week from the Waikato Times will continue uninterrupted. Though if anyone has any ideas for replacing Grow Your Own, I would appreciate hearing. There are a finite number of vegetables and I am nearing the end of all available options, even allowing for extensions into some herbs and soft fruits.

In the meantime, great winter weather has seen plenty of sun, mild days (15 degrees yesterday) and very little wind. The mountain has a good covering of snow and is looking its most spectacular. More camellias are opening flowers and the tui and kereru are here in good numbers. It won’t be long before the magnolia season starts.

Plant Collector – Prunus campanulata

It took many attempts to capture the tui in the campanulata cherry

It took many attempts to capture the tui in the campanulata cherry

The cherry trees which have been in flower in recent weeks are the campanulata or Taiwanese cherries. Sometimes you will still see them referred to as Formosan cherries which may require a lesson in history for anybody under the age of about 60. True, the colours can be a little harsh in carmine pink, cerise and sugar-candy pink tones but on a bleak early spring day, who is going to quibble about the mass of flowers which appear on bare branches? The biggest bonus of the campanulatas is their attraction to tui who feed on the nectar. Our native birds are wonderfully unconcerned about whether or not their food sources are indigenous plants. We can have upwards of 30 tui bickering and squabbling for territory in a single tree, but they don’t stay still long enough to count accurately.

Campanulata cherries are not as hardy as the later flowering Japanese types but this is rarely a problem except in the coldest parts of the country. They are also more disease resistant and healthier in our climate and don’t succumb to the dreaded witches broom which can be a problem in other types. If you plant several (and being a tree of light stature, they are easy to fit in alongside other trees), you can have them flowering in succession over many weeks which keeps the tui at home. The big disadvantage is that many forms set seed freely and germinate readily. They are such a problem that they are on the banned list in Northland unless it is a known sterile form which doesn’t set seed. If you border native bush or a national park, make sure you search out forms advertised as sterile but otherwise you just have to be vigilant with your weeding.

(first published in the Waikato Times and reproduced here with their permission)