Sunday, July 23, 2006

Late post: This is a post I started writing last Sunday, but didn't finish until tonight...

Yesterday, after days of Noah’s Arc style rain (the end is nigh), I woke to one of those stunningly gorgeous mornings that make me grateful I live high on this ridge here in Mornington. We’re used to fog here, and we’re used to cloud, but yesterday morning there was something different. It wasn’t really either – more a silvery kind of mist that made the mountains beyond disappear off into a beguiling haze.

I love our house. It was the second house we looked at on the first day of looking. It’s a walk-down, with 46 steps and a couple of paths to get to the front door, but when the door opens you can see straight down the hallway to the amazing view. Our old villa faces East, gazing out over Berhampore, Newtown and the Eastern suburbs to the Orongarongas in the distance. If you stand on our veranda and extend your neck you can catch a glimpse of the inner harbour to your left, or spot a sliver of the Southern Coast to your right. From the corner of our street you can look right down towards Island Bay.

In this part of Wellington the Southerly rolls in like a steam train in off the Strait, along the valley, and up the ridge. It slams into the side of our house right where our bed happens to be. South Easterlies are the worst. However, on the odd sunny and calm day you can hang out in a hammock chair on our veranda and the only things you will be able to hear are the Tuis and the planes (coming in to land below you). It’s one of the most peaceful spots I’ve ever lived in, and the energy that radiates out from the mountains is palpable. The garden above the house forms an embracing curve that seems to just draw that energy right in like a satellite dish. When we first entered the house the karma felt clean somehow, like it had just been blessed.

Beautiful mornings in Mornington make it impossible to stay in bed (unless you’re my husband, in which case you roll over and thank God for blackout curtains). Before long I had pulled on several layers of clothing, including thermals and two pairs of socks, donned a pair of tramping boots (bought for $19 from the Shoe Warehouse), and stuffed a bag full of more layers, binoculars and water.

I arrived at the Sanctuary not long after it opened at 10am. The electric boat was making long, slow circuits of the lower dam with no passengers on board, and Bellbirds could be heard calling from across the lake. When I got to the Weka fence I swung right, down onto the Te Mahanga Track, and wandered the short distance to the first Bellbird and Hihi feeding station. Once there I pulled out a towel to cover the wet bench-seat with, my cell phone to use as a clock, an observation sheet, pen and my binoculars.

My volunteer work at the Sanctuary has primarily involved monitoring the Hihi, or Stitchbird. 64 Hihi were released into the Sanctuary just over a year ago. It was the first time the birds had lived in the wild on the mainland for over 100 years. Other than a small captured population at Mt Bruce the only other birds live on Tiritiri Matangi and a handful of other islands.

My first responsibility as part of the Hihi monitoring team involved replenishing the various feeder stations set up to anchor the birds in the Sanctuary and to supplement their diet until the bush eventually matures. Each time I visited a feeder I would spend 15 minutes or so sitting there recording the bands of the birds that came to feed, so that the research staff would be able to monitor survival rates.

In September last year the Hihi started to breed, and I got to be part of a dedicated team monitoring Hihi nestboxes. I had three breeding pairs in my area. Every weekend I would check on each of my nestboxes, monitoring for nest-building or egg-laying activity, and later on checking on the development of the chicks. After each clutch fledged I would spend time monitoring the fledglings to check on their continued survival.

While monitoring feeders is fun, sometimes the public can be a distraction. There are times when I really enjoy getting to talk to people about my birds. However there is also something really special about walking up into the bush to monitor a nestbox.

Sitting at each nestbox for up to an hour at a time gave me a real opportunity to learn about observation. For example, it is possible to tell whether a female is still incubating her eggs or whether they have hatched by watching to see how often she leaves the nest, and how she behaves once she leaves it. One morning I watched one of my females as she searched at my feet for twigs, then flew repeatedly at the nestbox trying to get each one inside. Each time the twig would jam lengthwise across the entrance. She would drop the twig, fly down to pick it up, and try again. Eventually she would manage to approach from the right angle so that the twig would javelin into the nestbox. She would disappear inside for a minute or two to weave it into the new nest, then fly back to my feet and repeat the exercise.

The males could be obsessively attentive or absent depending on what stage of the breeding cycle the female was at. When a female is fertile her male will be extremely territorial and protective, trying to prevent other opportunists from having their wicked way (Hihi males are notorious for committing the bird equivalent of rape). When she is incubating he will often seem to disappear, and will in fact be off trying to spread his genetic material far and wide. Once the chicks hatch he will reappear, and dutifully take his part in parenting the young (not all of which may be his).

Some of my best adventures occurred once the chicks fledged. For the first couple of days their wings are still quite undeveloped and they will stay near the nest. However as they grow more confident they begin to move further afield. One day I got a little carried away with pursuing a group of five recent fledglings and got myself a bit lost in the bush. I was never in any danger and had a radio with me, but the thought of having to put a call out for help was sobering enough to ensure that I never made that mistake again.

One of the other personal rewards was simply being able to sit with myself alone in the bush. There would be long periods of time spent in front of inactive nestboxes where nothing much was happening and my mind was able to wander. I experimented with attempting to observe everything in minute detail – the berries on the trees, the bugs on the undersides of leaves. I tried just letting my mind wander to see where it would go. I attempted to keep my mind still, to focus on working through particular problems, or on formal breathing meditation practice.

The most fulfilling approach did seem to be that which left me most fully in the moment. The days where I felt completely engaged with and part of the Sanctuary where the days when I left with a full heart and deep sense of satisfaction. I never left the Sanctuary without something happening that made me truly grateful and honoured to have been there. There was the day the blue skies were replaced within minutes by monsoon rain, lightening and thunder. There was the day one of my females landed above me and shat on my head. The first time I opened a nestbox and saw an egg. The first time I saw a chick. The morning spent with my first fledglings, watching them clamber up and down a pine tree like mice. The day one of my males followed me around three different nestboxes, landing a metre away from me each time.

There were losses as well, and times when I was cold and bored. But I had taken time out from work and ordinary life to do something that I found deeply fulfilling, and that also enabled me to give something back to the world.

We’re deep in the middle of winter at the moment, so yesterday was spent monitoring feeders in the lower valley. Most of the Hihi have moved further up into the Sanctuary, so there wasn’t a lot happening other than the occasional territorial bellbird. It was a day for enjoying the break in the weather and being grateful for being able to be outside. I love living in this city.

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