Southern Eye on the river

Allan Simpson, 10 December 2019


The first Southern Eye Birdwalk left my waiting room at 1pm on December 4 and will again in future, on the first Tuesday of each month (except January). There were seven of us to share observations on the river –  the Otakaro River that we are privileged to have gliding by right outside our workplace.

There was a warm northerly wind blowing as we crossed under our airbridge in the direction of the Colombo St waterbridge, by the Town Hall.  First we saw four or five Sparrows in the recently landscaped riverside planting – so common that we hardly notice them but like all birds so industrious, always alert for the next opportunity. Then a male Blackbird foraging in the ground mulch and in the large tree a Waxeye or two – everyone’s favourite bird.

Just after Justin and Chrissie caught us up, a Welcome Swallow flew past at its usual frantic pace – but it takes more than one swallow….

From the bridge we saw clumps of weed drifting on the water, sign of workmen upstream. And further down were 13 Canada Geese, ten on the water and three on the bank.

As we lingered in the shade of a tree near the Tree Houses for Swamp Dwellers Karen noticed a squeak of a bird that “drives her nuts at home”. We didn’t see it in the canopy but I heard it again next day, I think, and saw the owner, a Chaffinch.

And so we came to the main event of our nature walk – the Black-billed Gull colony, newly taken up lodgings in the disused flooded basement of a mostly demolished building – earthquake residue still not resolved yet. And this is decidedly apocalyptic in ambience, perhaps a premonition of sea-level rise on our overheating planet.  But the gulls don’t think about that, they just want a safe place to raise their young and they found these broken concrete pillars and slabs fit for purpose, the twisted reinforcing like tangled vegetation. And they are protected from rats and cats and the 4WDs of their conventional riverbed habitat. Besides the owners of this section are doing nothing with the place!

From the Armagh St fence we look through the picture windows at Black-billed Gulls (endemic to New Zealand and “the most threatened gull in the world according to DOC”). There are multiple families, each of one or two chicks, some very new and others older. They are very close – so close that we don’t actually need binoculars to see them well. Further away and on higher pillars are Red-billed Gulls also – which hatched their chicks a few weeks earlier. And they seem more aggressive too. Ann was here before and saw a Black-billed chick left alone while parents were getting food. It was pecked by a Red-bill, then fell into the water and several Red-bills “finished it off”! Red in Bill and Claw.

Nextdoor to the Apocalypse, on the gravel carpark, a group of perhaps forty gulls had congregated, some red and some black, like good Cantabrians, waiting for we don’t know what. Perhaps the Apocalypse!

And so we returned to the river and downstreamed to the Manchester St Bridge by Margaret Mahy’s playground. There were three male Paradise Shelducks on the water here and one female on the bank.

Across the bridge and upstream again, we walked past five Spur-winged Plovers paying their respects to the 18 on the PGC Building Memorial lawn – and amongst them four Starlings (of Mrs Cox’s fame – after her cataract extraction she could see that they were speckled, not merely black!).

On the north side of the river now we saw a Red-billed Gull, alone and dishevelled – outcast and ex-colonial. And back across the river on the grass, opposite the Seattle Rocks where the Non-Art Bridge will be built was a Pigeon – a Rock Pigeon of course.

And as we hurried to get back to work by 1.30pm we noticed that the fence around Otakaro community orchard was gone – hopefully a sign that they are about to resume work on the bones of  the stalled café building (sadly lacking flesh for lack of money we think). On again off again like the Town Hall fountain.

But we hadn’t finished yet. We looked in the river for the Rat that Justin and Chrissie see from their first floor offices (when they should be working!). He creeps out onto the bank and scares children eating their lunch – Enormous  –  even if you don’t count his tail. But Ratty must have been elsewhere on the river – and the Wind in the Willows had died away to a whisper.

We got back, right on time for afternoon clinics.