Spot the Bird

What birds we should be seeing as the halo expands?

We are already experiencing the halo effect in our gardens around Wellington. I live in coastal Seatoun, on the Miramar Peninsula, which can be seen as an outer halo of Wellington city, with much potential for ecological restoration at such sites as Oruaiti Reserve and Watts Peninsula. As across most of Wellington, an increase in Tui numbers on the Miramar Peninsula has spearheaded the halo effect. I used to see Tui here only occasionally, but now I see them most days, attracted to our garden by a Puriri tree, by Kowhai blossom, and by sugar-water feeders – though with the latter I have to battle competition from ants and common wasps, especially in the summer months. The graph, based on observations from our home, vividly illustrates this increase in Tui there.

Tui DATA ben

Planting native trees and shrubs on our section has also provided an attractive food source and habitat for such common native species as Fantails, Grey Warblers and Silvereyes. Such garden development – establishing native trees and shrubs that attract and provision native birds – is an important first step in getting native species to your garden or suburb.

 Silvereyes eagerly come to our sugar-water feeders, as well as to food like suet, which can be placed in a mesh feeder. They also go for bread scraps, as do many of the introduced birds, which are usually the more common residents of suburban gardens. We often disregard these alien species, yet – like it or not – they are the species we often see and they are now an integral part of our bird fauna, adding variety and interest to the native species that we can attract. Garden centres now sell birdseed feeders, and these serve to attract a variety of these European settlers, such as Chaffinches, Greenfinches, Yellowhammers, House Sparrows and perhaps Goldfinches, Redpolls and occasionally the scarcer Cirl Bunting. The colourful Goldfinch is attracted to seeds of French Lavender in our garden. Blackbirds, Song Thrushes and Starlings are also common garden species in Wellington.

Seeds can attract some exciting native species too. Over recent years Zealandia has used millet seed clumps to supplementary feed Red-crowned Parakeets or Kakariki – a species we have occasionally seen, or heard, in Seatoun, possibly birds originating from Matiu-Somes Island or from Zealandia. Parakeets are a relatively mobile species, and might occasionally be found anywhere across the Wellington halo, providing there is some bush habitat. They are often first picked up by their distinctive chattering calls.

Other widely dispersing native birds within the halo are the NZ Falcon and the Kaka, which may be seen flying over, or even settling in your garden. The Falcon, a much smaller bird than our more common bird of prey, the Australasian Harrier, is usually seen singly, and with experience the smaller male can be distinguished from the larger female. They have a loud and rapid “kek-kek-kek” call. Two other avian predators – the Morepork and the NZ Kingfisher – already occur within the Wellington region, and both could spread and benefit from the halo effect.

The harsh calls or more flute-like whistles of the Kaka may be the first indication they are in your neighbourhood. Being a social species, the Kaka often occurs in groups, either seen flying over, or settling in taller trees, such as Pinus radiata. While their local base is in Zealandia, they regularly commute to such feeding areas as Newtown (Wellington Zoo), the Botanic Gardens (Kelburn) or the Karori-Otari area, and have bred outside Zealandia now.

The NZ Pigeon or Kereru is another familiar native species capable of flying to distant food sources that include the exotic Tree Lucern. Some Wellingtonians already enjoy having these stately pigeons on or near their bushed sections, and Kereru are likely to increase in range and numbers within the halo. Although I very rarely saw them on the Miramar Peninsula in the past, I now see them more frequently, though still only occasionally – on only three days so far this year!

The Bellbird recently started to appear in our Seatoun garden, and – like the Kakariki – may well have come from Zealandia, although the first re-colonists arrived in the Wellington area before the sanctuary was established. Bellbirds, like Tui and Silvereyes, are attracted to garden sugar-feeders, and on rare occasions the Stitchbird or Hihi, has been seen away from its Zealandia home in places like Island Bay (at a feeder), Otari and the Botanic Gardens. It has to run the gauntlet of introduced predators like cats when beyond the safety of the sanctuary fence. Other native birds, re-established in Zealandia, might also be seen in Wellington gardens, especially in the bushy suburbs around the sanctuary itself. These include chattering flocks of Whiteheads, and the occasional Saddleback and Robin. The strident calls of the Saddleback, plus its habit of spending time on the ground, makes it particularly vulnerable to ground predators like cats and stoats, but it is a species that could fare better if predator control across the halo is sufficient.

Given time, the loud calls of Whiteheads in Zealandia should attract the Long-tailed Cuckoo, which lays its eggs in their nests. Locally, it occurs in the Rimutakas and Tararuas, and on Kapiti Island, but it has yet to exploit the Whitehead population re-established in Zealandia – I have recorded it only once there over recent summers, but I have heard it passing through Seatoun occasionally, including at night. It has a distinctive shrieking call. The commoner Shining Cuckoo lays eggs in the nests of smaller hosts, particularly the Grey Warbler. This cuckoo is already relatively common in bushy Wellington gardens over the summer months – like so many native birds it is more often heard than seen, having a distinctive upward slurring song.

So far I’ve talked about birds that are mostly native forest species – but the effect of the Wellington reserves also covers other species. For instance, in recent years we’ve seen an increase in numbers of Pied Shags, a coastal species that can be seen flying from the harbour across Wellington to its breeding site in Zealandia. In time this bird may well be looking for other trees around Wellington on which to safely nest. Three other shags use the sanctuary too – Black Shag, Little Black Shag and Little Shag. Over time in coastal reserves such as the Oruaiti Reserve and Watts Peninsula, it might be possible to again have mainland breeding colonies of seabirds such as sheawaters and petrels – but first those sites need to be made safer through further ecological restoration and predator control as part of the halo project.

Ben Bell