Birds of a feather

SES, 20 April 2020

The Southern Eye Birdwalk: Lockdown edition

With the concern and uncertainty in our daily lives never has the opportunity to get outside to reconnect with nature been so important. Allan Simpson reports on his latest Covid-19 bird-watching quest through a slumbering autumnal city.

Yes, April’s Birdwalk proceeded – but under the extraordinary Covid-19 lockdown rules we found ourselves living through. I co-opted Beth, the only other person in my isolation bubble, to come with me.

The first Tuesday coincided with Canterbury DHB’s first clinic at the Southern Eye premises, where they are taking over our ground floor for three days a week. This is yet another example of the close co-operation built between public and private ophthalmology in our city and a recognition that we are all in this together.

The Corona virus is a stark reminder that we humans cannot live on this planet separately from the animal and plant kingdoms, particularly with our unsustainable lifestyles threatening these vital kingdoms. The virus is a wake-up call from our complacency.

It was a melancholy thought for the autumn day. Outside our front door three ducks were flying northeast and a couple of Black-backed Gulls circled overhead. There was no sign of any activity in the Swallows’ nests above our entrance.

Two Paradise ducks were standing on the riverbank outside our offices, deserted now with the management team working from home. The breeze was rustling autumn leaves on the pavement by the river, and a number had blown onto the water and were floating out to the estuary.

The streets were quiet too as we crossed the Town Hall Bridge, from which we counted thirty Canada Geese on the river downstream, a number with their white backsides in the air as they grazed underwater. There were four Mallards with them.

Then a couple of Swallows swooped past at head height and a pair of Black-billed Gulls sat on the riverbank opposite Southern Eye. I wondered if there still be any at ‘Apocalypse Colony’, a name and place that now seems less surreal and irrelevant than it did last bird walk.

It turns out there were no Black-billed gulls remaining, just a dozen lethargic Red-billeds and a couple of Mallards in the stagnant green water. On the way to Margaret Mahy we saw no more than a sparrow but, as Beth reminded me, “a sparrow counts too”.

However as we crossed Manchester St we saw where most of the gulls were – and these were not at all lethargic. On the riverbank next to the landing a bearded man with a cardboard box on a bicycle was corralling and feeding them.

“Are you looking for the Black-billed?” he asked. As we passed with the requisite two-metre distance, he stated, “These fifty are all Red-billed. The Black-billed have moved to Swanns Rd. There’re about forty there.”

So, life moves on for the Black-billed Gulls.

Nearby a pair of Paradise Shelducks was challenging a large Black-backed Gull. It was an equal match it seemed – but they all flew off before declaring a winner.

We got as far as Madras Street before it was time to turn back. Here I noticed properly for the first time the Edmonds Clock Tower sitting on the riverbank lawn, its four sides labelled Faith, Hope, Peace and Charity – old-fashioned sentiments perhaps.

Indeed, its foundation stone was laid in 1929, the year of the Wall St Crash that set off The Great Depression. Across the bridge was Graham Bennett’s sculpture made of steel from the Twin Towers that came down in 9/11, a reminder both of the suffering in New York and the world with the current pandemic. Even then, this threat will be dwarfed by the changes ahead through global heating.

A brisk walk back to Southern Eye took us by the stalled Otakaro Orchard. Will that ever regain enough funding to complete its grand vision in the inevitable recession? Or might we suddenly remember the lessons it was aspiring to teach us about food resilience, local sustainability and Mahinga Kai? How do we value natural resources that sustain our life? Surely, everything needs to be re-evaluated in the new world we are moving in to. There is still hope.

Thanks for reading,