Until I moved to Colorado, I never paid much attention to birds, but shortly after I moved to Denver, I bought a bird book and I’d go birdwatching whenever I could. I’d mark off all the birds I could identify in my Peterson’s Guide to Western Birds–Western Tanagers, Grebes, Coots, Hooded Mergansers and Lark Buntings–and I’d seek out popular birding sites.
I remember the first time I saw a pelican in Colorado—I have to say that I was surprised when I learned that pelicans even lived in Colorado, but the summer climate suits them and they migrate up from Arizona and Mexico every spring. One day I was tromping around a lake near Denver, and I saw a shadow moving swiftly over my left shoulder. I looked up and there was a white pelican swooping down toward the water, in search of dinner.
One time Sujata and I were visiting New Mexico, and we came across a colony of avocet hanging out next to a remote road near Taos. I got so excited that I forgot about how fast I was driving and a few moments later, a cop pulled me over and issued me a $75 speeding ticket. I, unconvincingly, tried to explain to the officer that I just lost my train of thought because of the avocet, but he was, rightly, having none of it. Avocets, though, are beautiful birds:
That’s all to say that part of the joy of traveling abroad is paying attention to the bird life. I forgot my binoculars at home (I’ll buy a pair here in Australia), so I didn’t get to see as many New Zealand birds as I would have liked. I did, though, see a few fantails on the farm that we were staying at in Rotorura.
Fantails, native to New Zealand, are jumpy little birds (about 4 inches) that pop into trees, spread their tails for a second or two and then alight. One morning I woke up, looked out our bedroom window and saw a troubling of goldfinches diving from tree branches into tall grasses. I’ve seen lots of finches in Colorado, but I’ve never seen that kind of behavior before—I suspect that species behave differently on different continents and under different environmental conditions. These goldfinch in Rotorura, were totally manic—they would dive bomb straight down into the grass and pop right back up and there were hundreds of them buzzing in and out of the tree.
New Zealand doesn’t seem to have the variety of raptors that we have in Colorado. I did, though, see a lot of harrier hawks. Harrier hawks like to hunt in marshy areas—in fact, if you go to Rocky Mountain National Park you can sometimes see Harriers prowling the mountain streams that run through the meadows on the eastern portion of the park. New Zealand also has a lot of falcons—I saw a few high above us as we were driving across the country and I could tell they were falcons because of their cigar-shaped tails.
I also saw lots of shore birds in New Zealand: oystercatchers, a wide variety of stilts and beautiful, mysterious white herons migrating from one wetlands area to the next. There’s always one elusive bird and for me, in New Zealand, it was the blue duck. Blue ducks are native to New Zealand. They look relatively ordinary except for the blue streak that cuts across their head. I saw lots of ordinary mallards, but not one blue duck. When Sujata and the kids went to Hobbiton, they came back, claiming they saw a blue duck. Later that day, we all saw a Puketo on the side of the road and Sujata said, “There, look, a blue duck.” So, even they didn’t see a blue duck.
I am very excited about the birds of Australia. Birdlife in Australia is unlike most other places. The birds of Australia have a reputation for being very loud and very aggressive, both across bird species and even towards humans. For centuries, biologists have remarked about the querulous, bellicose and screeching bird life on the continent. I’m reading a book right now Where Song Began: Australia’s Birds and How They Changed the World, by Tim Low, and the author is trying to figure out why the birds of Australia are uncommonly pugnacious. What he’s come around to is the food that the birds eat. Over 80% of Australia’s birds are honeyeaters. Honeyeaters are common on the continent because, well, there’s lots of sugars in the plant life and, there’s lots of sugars in the plant life because of Australia’s infertile soil. It seems that infertile soil causes some plant life to overproduce carbohydrates and since the plant can’t convert all those carbs to more tissue, much of the plant life is dripping with sugars, which the honeyeaters love. All that said, what Low is arguing is that all the sugar coursing through the avian life of Australia basically creates an environment where the birds are like a bunch of two-year old human children hopped up on candy bars and ice cream.
Today, in Sydney, I had a chance to see some of these birds at work. We took the light rail from our house in south Sydney to the Darling Harbour area and after we ate some delicious vegetarian Jaio Ze and dumplings at Din Tai Fung, we walked to Sydney’s Chinatown district where, among other things, Eleanor found a Hello Kitty shop and spent about 30 minutes, in complete wonder. From there we meandered to the Chinese Friendship garden, a walled garden in the middle of a bustling urban area. There are waterfalls, stone steps that lead to quiet benches and lots of bamboo and jade trees.
Australian Ibis basically own the place, though. They nest in the willow trees and swoop down over the ponds, heckling the smaller birds—mostly barn swallows, from what I could tell. I did get some close contact with some of Australia’s most annoying birds, the Noisy Miner. I know, that sounds like such a cool name and the Noisy Miners, at first, looked pretty interesting . . . until one tried to attack us as we were sipping our jasmine-ginger tea and nibbling on our Taro sweets in the tea garden!
I noticed, too, that whenever the Miners tried to get near the Ibis’ territory, the Ibis would let out a ear-splitting screech and chase after the Miner, who, without fail, got the hell out of there as fast as he could. Sujata told me after we left the garden that she saw a sign as we were going in that warned patrons of “dive-bombing” birds. So, that was our first experience with Australia’s aggressive bird life.