Monday, 16 May 2016

Two partridges come a-visiting; and wekas at Westport, New Zealand

It was two days ago, in the afternoon. I was in my study (a room on one of the front corners of my house) when I became aware of an unusual sound. A kind of slow ticking or tapping noise. For some things I've got good hearing, and pick up sounds that others might not hear, or find easy to ignore. I couldn't ignore this and shut it out. What could it be?

Well, I had to find out. It seemed to be coming from outside. And there was my across-the-road neighbour Alison, and her daughter Shiraz, looking at my next door neighbours' front drive. No wonder! For walking about on it were two wild birds with handsome markings, not very large but plump and rounded, pecking at this and that, and entirely unconcerned about the presence of humans!


The village is surrounded by farmland, and has the odd pond and stream here and there, so it's not at all unusual to see a variety of wild animals and birds among the houses from time to time, though more usually at night. But I couldn't remember seeing birds of this sort - a secretive bird of the open fields surely - in our grassy, leafy, but semi-suburban enclave. Identification was a priority, so I took some photos (shown above) so that I could look these birds up in whatever guide I might have on my shelves. The birds posed without apparent concern. Then they wandered across my front lawn and on into other neighbours' front gardens, there being no fences to stop them. The local cats must have been sleeping on the job, because nothing raced over to take a look and challenge them. I dare say the birds were more alert to danger than they appeared, and could fly out of trouble if need be.

Well, back in my house, and studying my photos, I deduced that they had been a pair of Red-legged Partridges.


I had consulted this little book from the mid-1970s. Old it might be, but the illustrations were pretty helpful.


I'm sorry these shots are not quite in focus. It isn't your tired eyes. I was holding the camera just a bit too close.

Anyway, there's no dispute here as to what these two birds were. The mystery is why they had decided to mooch around some front gardens, instead of a nice farmer's field. Wikipedia supplies a clue: see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Red-legged_partridge. They like to nest on dry, sandy ground. And lo, the ground underneath where my next-door neighbours' caravan is parked, originally grass reinforced with a green plastic lattice, but now powdery soil reinforced with a faded green plastic lattice - seen in the second shot - might well catch a ground-nesting bird's fancy. In fact one of the pair actually settled down into a section of it, to try it out as a possible nest. Not big enough, though!

It was a diverting episode. Birds are not at all my hobby, but they are full of life and movement, even the drabbest of them. Often full of noise too! But I warm to some kinds especially. I certainly enjoy the company of all birds built like chickens. Why, I can't say. They just seem happy to be with people, they are certainly curious, and they are often very attractive to look at. You can talk to them, either normally or by mimicking the noises they make, and they will pay attention. In other words, you can form a relationship, there is mutual recognition, and you can make friends with such birds.

I thought of other wild birds like these that I've encountered. For example, the endearing Weka birds that came up to our campervan in 2007 when pitched at Westport, on the west coast of South Island, New Zealand:


They were entirely unafraid. They were very interested in our campervan, and if we hadn't been around, might well have come aboard to investigate further.

Ah, Westport. I thought it was an attractive place, even though it had once been a centre for mining.


It was at the mouth of the Buller River. The lighthouses where the river disgorged its water into the Tasman Sea were favourite sunset spots:


Looking along the beach, the light effects at sunset made the sea, sand, low clouds and distant mountain range look ethereal:


The same place at dawn was even stranger, the beach littered with an incredible collection of washed-up tree stumps, some looking like the skeleton bones of whales, or the jaw-bones of crocodiles:


Although a proper town, Westport had a rather end-of-the-world feel to it, the South Island west coast not being at all well-populated. You would feel a bit cut off from the rest of New Zealand, with nowhere else close by to go to if you wanted a day out in a different town. Westport had a rather 'frontier' look to it, superficially modern, and spruce, and nicely-painted, but perhaps not all that different to how it might have been a long time ago:

 

Behind the scenes, there were signs of decline, such as the place that was once Westport's railway station. No passengers had alighted here for a very long time, and grass had all but covered the tracks: 


The remaining very infrequent freight traffic was concerned with the cement works only.

Why had the passenger train service disappeared? When private cars were few, and rail travel the only mass-transportation option, New Zealand's railways flourished. Their heyday was the mid-twentieth century. But the rail routes had been determined by the mountainous topography, and trains were always hampered by winding track and many speed restrictions. Driving to a place became a better option, and later on, going by air. And except in the vicinity of Wellington and Auckland, suburban train services were not viable. So out in places like Westport the passengers vanished and grass took over.

When Westport had its mining industry, things must have been good on the freight side, but now wagons moulder on sidings.


The mining past is however well-commemorated, and I spotted this superbly-executed mural when walking about town:


Just as well I shot so many different photos at Westport. I am never likely to return, as much as I might wish to take a second, more leisurely look at South Island. There is however a 'family' reason to go back. Dad's family surname was Dommett - so streets named after a nineteenth-century settler (and eventual NZ premier) named Domett were all highly intriguing! Such as this one in Westport:


The Domett name cropped up in Collingwood, up at the north end of South Island, too. Wikipedia explains why - see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alfred_Domett. The difference in spelling may not mean 'no connection whatever', although in this case I do tend to think that this active and enterprising man had no link with the humble country people down in Devon and Somerset called Dommett. But you never know.

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