Bird brains

Winter in the deep south

Icy frosts, chilly mittens, slippery roads, stunned sheep and ravenous critturs. Lucky for some the road I briskly stroll in pursuit of health and happiness was once a coaching route, and coachees just like travellers anywhere else cast their detritus to the winds with mad rapturous abandonment. Not only did those olde coaches leave trails of hoofprints and the warm odours of working horsepower, the victims within added their applecores …

Flash forward to winter here and now: me hoofing along the old road armed with chattering teeth and portable camera; and several dozen tiny birds—descended (they say) from a few blown across the Tasman Sea by storms in earlier centuries. How they can tell that is anyone’s guess but I like it, and having felt the fury of some of those Tasman storms for myself am impressed.

The birds are known to us here as ‘white-eyes’ or less commonly as ‘wax-eyes’. What’s in a name? Either way they are pretty in a drab sort of way — but active! Flit-flit-leap-bounce-flit-land-gobble-flit … trying to get a focus on any with a camera is more luck than judgement, especially when zoomed in; and these guys are hungry! There’s only so many apples in a wild tree and with demand exceeding supply the race goes to the swiftest—

—which in this case happens to be this cutie, monarch of all he (she?) surveys. Briefly. Displaced within seconds by another, who succumbed likewise to the next newcomer after just a few quick pecks at the apple. Think ‘bird circuit’, birds going round again and again in a patient circle—nature’s way of rationing scarce resources?

I have to admit that I cheated. I gave up trying to catch a bird qua bird but went instead for the most popular surviving apple. Zoomed in from a fair way off, framed the picture then stood patiently until a sudden blur of activity in my viewfinder triggered the camera button by pure reflex.

It worked.

When we lived in the foothills of the Takitimu ranges we used to feed the white-eyes in winter on a bird table we loaded with halved apples. I had the same problem there getting a snap but noticed that one bird in particular used to become quite floppy after a feed. He would let me approach the table without flying off, not a care in the world.

It finally occurred to me that the bird was an alcoholic, a beak-faced lush soused on instant cider — I shoved my camera right in close and got some great (don’t ask, long since misplaced) macros of him; and stopped putting out old apples, nothing but fresh after that … he must have hated me but it was hilarious for a while.

ANOTHER BIRD I’ve never had any luck with is the fantail. The fantail catches insects on the wing. Fantails like people because people stir up bugs. Bugs don’t like to be caught and evade the hunter but fantails are every bit as agile as their prey — which means hard luck for guys with cameras. I did manage to get a great shot of one, once, pure serendipity when he alighted on a branch … and my luck was such that in all of eternity this must be the only fantail that closed his fan completely exactly as the shutter opened—all you see is bird, and tail, but no fan.

‘Twas ever thus …

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