Bird of the Year 2018: The gannet, the tūī and the podcaster

by Graham Adams / 04 October, 2018
A gannet at Muriwai (left) and a tūī at Zealandia. Photo / Dave Walsh and Wolfgang Kaehler for Getty Images

A gannet at Muriwai (left) and a tūī at Zealandia. Photo / Dave Walsh and Wolfgang Kaehler for Getty Images

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 Birds on the brain

I’ve just voted online for the Bird of the Year. I don’t think I’ve been asked what my favourite animal is since I was a child but Facebook has so thoroughly infantilised us by allowing us to like anything we view that I found myself clicking under a picture of a pair of elegant seabirds without thinking. 

The bird I chose so thoughtlessly among the 61 featured on the page was a gannet — which is fortunate because I’ve liked gannets from the time I first saw one dive out of the sky like a kamikaze pilot at a shoal of fish. My admiration for these streamlined creatures only increased when I was told that they often go blind in later life because they hit the water with their eyes open at such high speed that their eyesight is eventually damaged.

 

When I went to see the gannet colony at Muriwai years ago, I imagined there might be a section roped off for elderly birds with white canes and dark glasses ruefully advising younger birds to close their eyes just before impact.

In fact, there was no such section, which makes sense given that the blinding of the gannet is apparently a myth. I have since discovered that their eyes are well insulated for dive-bombing — which can be from 30 metres above the water and at speeds of 100km/h — thanks to a protective membrane that covers their eyes.

And it's not just their eyes that get protected from the collision between bird and sea. They have internal nostrils (located in their mouth) that stop water being forced into their sinuses, and air sacs in their face and chest that function somewhere between bubblewrap and airbags in a car.

They are undoubtedly brave, nevertheless, to the point of being foolhardy. Fledglings attempt to cross the Tasman when they have just learned to fly, and naturally many don’t make it.

A gannet coming in to land at a colony in Muriwai. Photo / Dave Walsh

 

Most who survive return to New Zealand after a few years, to live on islands or headlands. There are three main colonies on mainland New Zealand — at Farewell Spit, Muriwai and Cape Kidnappers.

The birds have been known to mate for life — and given they can live for 30 years these pairs make their marriages work much longer than many New Zealanders manage.

Having voted for the gannet, I’m hoping it wins but when I last looked it was a long way behind the front-runners such as the kakapo and kereru.

Jacinda Ardern has come out in favour of the black petrel but so far “the bogan of the birds” has not benefited much from being championed by the Prime Minister, having gained fewer than 70 votes. That may in part be due to the irony of someone who doesn’t want “black petrol” being extracted in Taranaki voting in favour of a similarly-named bird.

Tūī much trouble?

As little as a year ago, I would have readily voted for the tūī, which topped the poll in 2005. Their black plumage shot through with an iridescent blue, green and bronze is stunning and the white plume at their neck a stylish flourish. But I have gone right off them after a neighbour started putting out a large bowl of sugared water for them to sip. She put so much sugar into the mix, the tūī started to behave like crazed children at a birthday party who had eaten too many sweets and too much cake.

A troupe of up to 10 demented tūī started whooping it up between the pohutukawa at the edge of my property and the camellia bush over the back fence. They clanked and whirred and crashed through the branches with so much enthusiasm they even frightened our pair of elderly cats.

They kept this racket up all day into the early evening. Initially, I found their noisy presence charming, and visitors certainly admired the native birds my neighbour had so successfully encouraged.

Shhhhh! Podcaster at work

But then it became a problem. My partner, Megan, produces her own podcast, called The Lip, which she puts together painstakingly in her study. Each episode is a huge amount of work as she goes backwards and forwards over extensive interviews, adds her own narration to introduce the episode and to link parts of the story, and gathers all the loose ends in a conclusion. 

It’s only when you live with a podcaster using sensitive audio equipment that you realise just how noisy even placid suburban life is. There’s always someone doing the lawns or a renovation over the fence or a leaf-blower droning away down a nearby driveway.

A tūī feeding on flax at Zealandia in Wellington. Photo / Wolfgang Kaehler

Even household sounds such as a microwave beeping, or unloading the dishwasher, make recording impossible but the repertoire of raucous calls that tui produce is more intrusive.

The tūī, in short, became a problem. Megan ended up only recording in the evenings, once the tūī had gone to bed. And that was hardly ideal because by that time of the day her voice had lost some of its bounce and sounded tired.

When my neighbour fell ill, she stopped feeding the tūī and within a week they had vanished from our garden in a brutal exhibition of the limits of cupboard love.

I don’t think a gannet would be like that. It’s true that they are dedicated eaters and are happy to hurl themselves headlong at food at high speed from a great height but their mating habits show they obviously also understand the nature of love and loyalty and commitment.

 


 

The Bird of the Year competition began in 2005. Previous winners include well-known birds such as the tūī, kākāpō, kiwi and kea, as well as the lesser-known mohua (yellowhead), bar-tailed godwit and fairy tern. Last year, more than 41,000 votes were cast. Voting closes at 5 pm on Sunday, October 14; the winning bird will be announced on RNZ’s Morning Report on Monday, 15 October, at 8.50am.

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