On the branch so high,
A grey sparrow and her mate
Flutter, joined as one.
Mating house sparrows are everywhere, this summer.
Chattering in twos and threes on the guttering of the house, romping on the grass, sipping tepid water from the bird bath, dusting themselves in small leafy hollows under the feijoa trees, dangling (joined) from slim, twiggy branches, coupling in flight (just about!).
At around 6.30 am, the tui announces the imminent dawn. This wakes up the sparrows, which then start up a loud chirruping and whistling chorus in surround-sound. The only direction the sound doesn’t seem to come from is under the house.
Do we have a sparrow problem? Perhaps, but I can’t be cross with these small grey bundles of feathers, as they are so endearing.
The sparrows are almost as well-trained as our hens. They fly in from all directions when the hens are called for wheat or a cob of corn, and they’ll fly down to the pellet feeder when one of the hens puts her foot on it to open the lid. Sometimes they fly out from the feeder when we’ve opened the lid to check on food levels. And we once found a dead sparrow in the feeder – a young one.
They also help out with keeping control of the caterpillars and grubs. A green caterpillar wriggling in a sparrow’s beak is a common sight – the avian equivalent of a pizza delivery. Fast food, but not fast enough!
House Sparrows were liberated in New Zealand in the 1860s and soon inhabited most localities apart from forests and mountain ranges. Moon, Lynette, Know Your New Zealand… Birds (2006), New Holland Publishers (NZ) Ltd.
I decided to try kawakawa tea this afternoon. I picked a handful of kawakawa (Macropiper excelsum) leaves and simmered them for 10 minutes in enough water to make two cups.
The holes in the leaves are made by the caterpillar of the kawakawa looper moth(Cleora scriptaria) and interestingly, the leaves with holes are especially suitable for tea as they have the most concentrated medicinal properties.
The resulting tea was surprisingly enjoyable. I’m not really a herbal tea person, but the flavour was very refreshing and hard to define. The aroma of the hot tea was especially tempting, too.
Project for the future: Make a batch of soap using strong kawakawa tea.
Life has been busy over the past week or so. We have saved a nest of hatchlings (of the avian kind), we have purchased some black and white Orpington pullets, I have made a batch of feta cheese and we have discovered that the nearby lake is beautifully clear and warm for swimming in.
It hadn’t been a particularly windy day but towards sunset last Wednesday, Ben discovered a rotund, bushy shape bathed in late afternoon light, lying on the grass beneath the Golden Totara. He picked it up to investigate and heard a faint ‘peeping’ coming from inside. Ben hasn’t always been too keen on birds, but has become more accustomed to them since we’ve had our own hens. However, he was holding the nest very gingerly when he brought it inside for me to check the contents.
The nest was deep with a small opening at the top, so I had to part this and open the nest out a bit before I could see anything. Inside, there were at least two yellow beaks in a tangle of soft grey baby-bird body parts – sparrow hatchlings. I could count three little ones, with a possible fourth.
I’d raised a hatchling to almost adulthood once before when I was 10 or 11 (with an unfortunate outcome associated with our pet cat), but these were very young babies, with not even the first tufts of feathers showing on their smooth little bodies, so I felt somewhat daunted at the prospect.
There is a good deal of advice on the internet about what to do with baby birds, including the advice that where possible, one should try to put the nest back in the tree, as the parents would invariably still be around, wondering where their little ones were. Apparently birds don’t have very strong sense of smell, so the fact that I’d touched the nest and poked around with the opening wouldn’t deter them from continuing to feed their babies.
With this in mind, Ben and I took the nest outside in the gathering dusk to where he’d found it, and looked up into the tall branches of the totara. It didn’t look promising. The stronger branches were positioned too far up the tree for us to be able to reach them, even with a ladder. And we couldn’t think of any way to attach the nest to the nearest branch, even if we could reach it. So, it was back to the drawing board.
I mixed up some boiled egg yolk with a little milk (a recipe I’d found on the internet) and fed each chick in turn using a pipette. We could see now that there were four babies. One looked very poorly and could hardly open its mouth, but the other three were perky and squeaked and squawked with surprising loudness once I started to feed them. The two loudest jostled around trampling on their quieter siblings.
A fortuitous phone call from my daughter Immi reminded me that the Bird Rescue Centre, in Green Bay, Auckland, would take and raise these little orphans for us. She had rescued a young rock pigeon a few weeks back and had taken it there.
Founded in 1984, the NZ Bird Rescue Charitable Trust has bird rescue centres all over New Zealand, and will accept and care for any rescued birds, whether they are native, non-native or pet. They assist thousands of birds each year, many being the victims of cat attacks, road accidents, pollution (such as fishing line and nylon entanglements and botulism) or human cruelty. So we decided to think about taking the wee ones there. The centre is about 84 km from where we live, and Ben would have to divert to Green Bay on the way to work in Auckland the next day.
In the end, this is what happened. When I fed the chicks their last ‘meal’ for the night, the sickly one had died, which made me realise how difficult it would be to raise the remaining three successfully. Even if we did manage to get them to fledgling stage, there was the question of how to avoid them becoming too familiar with humans, and the fact that we have our cat, Molly… it just didn’t seem worth the risk.
On Saturday, we took a return trip of almost 400 km to collect four new pullets. Our current three hens (Leila, Lottie and Lulu) are Red Shavers, which are a relatively recent breed (related to Rhode Island Reds). In New Zealand, the red shaver is the breed that is predominately used in battery hen farming and they are the easiest hens to find if you wish to purchase point-of-lay hens for your farm or smaller property.
Since introducing the red shavers to our family, I’d become interested in adding to our small clutch with one of the older, more traditional breeds. We decided on Orpingtons as (1) I wanted a breed that would lay white eggs to go with the brown eggs the red shavers produce, and (2) everything we read about Orpingtons mentions their docile nature and the fact that they make good good pets. They also look very cute. This breed is raised for eating as well as for their eggs, (but we would never consider eating our own hens!).
So we purchased two black and two white Orpingtons, as well as 20 kg of pullet food and brought them back to South Head.
Earlier in the day Ben had assembled our smaller hen-house and separated this from the other part of the run with a wire-netting fence. It was a very hot drive back home and we were worried about the babies’ state of health, but they survived the trip okay and at around 5.00 pm we introduced them to their new home.
There appears to be quite a difference in age between the two whites and the two blacks. The white pullets have long legs and are much taller, with a slimmed-down body. They’ve also been in a group of hens that have pecked each other, and one in particular has quite a few feathers missing and bare, raw patches.
The two little dark pullets are like balls of fluff, with shorter, stumpier legs (in proportion) and a mop of black feathers with glints of iridescence. It would be so easy to love these two the best as they look so much cuter, but I’m sure I’ll love them all equally when they grow to the same size.
I don’t think these little chickens had ever been in an area with trees, shrubs, weeds, grasses and dry leaves, before. The little black girls immediately took to scratching around in the leaf mulch, peeping away happily. The white ones are a little more proprietorial – they seem to be looking out and about a lot, and are more aware of our older girls in the next door ‘pen’.
I was happy to see one of the white hens taking a dust bath yesterday. Happiness turned to horror when when the second white pullet started pecking quite hard at the bare patches at the base of the first one’s tail. This behaviour seemed to persist, so we separated the protagonist into the other side of the run, and shut the door so that Leila, Lottie and Lulu couldn’t come back in.
Ben purchased some Stockholm Tar on the way home from work today, and has applied this to the bare patches on the two white pullets to hopefully deter future pecking. The tar provides a healing coating on the skin and if the other bird pecks her again, she will get the tar stuck on her beak which will distract her from pecking her again – instead she’ll have to spend time trying to clean the tar off her own beak. Let’s hope it works!
Just to keep up with things on the cheese-making front, I made my first batch of cow’s milk feta cheese yesterday. On Saturday, we had purchased another 4 litres of fresh cow’s milk from the farm in Helensville, after which I pasteurised it and used it to make the cheese.
I had a problem with finding moulds to rest the cheese in, once the curd had been cut up, then had the bright idea of using the basket from our lettuce spinner, as well as the small ricotta mould I already had. This is why my cheese pieces comprise of one little round cheese, and four ‘quarters’ of a larger round.
After the curds had set and been transferred to a mould, I rested them overnight, and then added them to a 10-15% solution brine this afternoon. The 4 litres of milk produced 1089 grams of cheese.
The pieces have been sealed in an air-tight container in the brine and placed in the fridge. They will stay there for at least 10 days to mature. Ideally we should resist the temptation to eat the cheese until 21 days have passed, after which we can cube and store into jars of olive oil or (of course) eat. Full maturity will occur after 4 – 6 weeks.
We tasted a tiny sample tonight and it already tastes very good.
I also finished salting my Ricotta Salata, today, and this can now be stored in the fridge for at least 2 weeks, to mature.
Lake Ototoa is a dune lake, the correct Maori name for which being Lake Rototoa. According to the NZ Department of Conservation, it is the largest, most pristine freshwater lake in the Auckland region. The lake covers around 110 hectares and has a catchment of approximately 525 hectares. At 29 metres deep, it is also the deepest. Unfortunately, due to the introduction of exotic fish and weeds, the lake is now beginning to suffer.
It differs from most other dune lakes in that it is formed by a depression in rock, rather than by the trapping of water behind sand dunes formed adjacent to the West coast. It is rich in local flora and fauna.
Lake Rototoa is situated about 6 km from where we live. The lake supplies water to many of the properties in the area, including our own. Ben and I had visited it a few times since we moved to South Head, and although we had heard you could swim there, we hadn’t really investigated this.
Yesterday we decided to take a walk along the pathway that leads around the left of the lake from the road. The path is narrow and follows the contours of the lake edge. At times it is a little steep and there is prickly wild gorse to contend with, but it’s not a difficult walk. As well, it was calm and overcast, and warm enough to make the water look increasingly inviting.
When we came upon a small sandy crescent of a beach, we knew we’d have to hop in. The water has a sandy, silty bottom and after about 10 metres, drops sharply.
The water was warm and very clear. There were a few other people on the water – swimming and kayaking at a bay a little further along. The noise of loud laughing and splashing affected the beauty of the scene somewhat, but we could see that if it wasn’t the weekend, it would be the most beautiful place to spend a few hours on a hot summer’s afternoon.
Rain was forecast for this morning, but it bypassed South Head altogether. I had decided to water the flower garden at dusk last night, which proved a sensible choice. There are clouds scooting across the sky as I write, and out the window I can see the neighbour across the road riding his farm bike across the paddock. There were black and white cows there last night, but they’ve moved on today.
We had an unwelcome visitor this morning, in the form of a wild rabbit. Not that a pet rabbit would be any more welcome. I’ve seen him a few times lately and hope that he doesn’t make a habit of visiting us, or of bringing his extended family with him!
Outside I can hear ‘kihikihi-wawā’ cicadas (Amphipsalta zealandica), named for their loud chorus in the summer months. And there is a new tui hanging around – I’ll call her a ‘she’ although she could just as well be a male. She sings with just the one repetitive call – a sort of sharp ‘qweel’ sound with the first note dropping off to a lower note, not unlike the sound of a squeaking gate. She started calling this morning at around 5.30 am, right outside the bedroom window. I wonder if she’s looking for a mate as she is usually alone, which is uncommon for the tuis around here. She looks too fat to be a juvenile bird.
On my garden ’rounds’ this afternoon, I spotted a couple of monarch butterflies, coupling on the grass. Then they actually flew away (not sure how), soaring upwards and disappearing over the top of the trees. High on love, I guess.
When I got to the pumpkin patch I was distraught to discover that the hens had scratched up some of our freshly-sprouted melon seedlings. The baby plants had been fenced-in with sturdy sticks, but these had been knocked down, and all that remains is a dusty hollow amongst the wood-chips. The hens are such little monkeys! I had to physically remove Lottie three times or she’d have destroyed several runners on the gherkin vine.
Just the one gherkin ready today, but many more on the way. I know that once they really start ripening I’ll be busy pickling every other day.
The best remaining plums are either on the other side of the southern fence or at the top of the tree, so we walked around to the back paddock with a ladder to collect a bowl full. Ben will make a plum cake this evening for dessert.
I searched on the internet last night to see if I could find a stockist in New Zealand of electric water bath preservers, but without success. This seems to me the perfect appliance, with all our fruit and vegetables and just the two of us here.
I can smell the plum cake cooking. Yum!
And here come’s my mojito! Time to finish. 🙂
Ode to a Prickly Gherkin (Hei kīnaki mō te kōrero ki runga)
It lay in wait,
Under lush and scratchy leaves,
Growing from stretching vines,
The curling tips of which reach in all directions,
Towards the sunlight and up and over the old tree stump.
In and out of lush soil and wood-chips,
The tendrils strong enough to forge ahead
Through any obstacle.
It lay in wait,
A fat spiky chrysalis,
Hanging from a woven flax thread,
The flowering tip long dried up,
The skin striped sage and mint green,
Fattening beneath the shelter
Of its mother leaves.
Beat sugar and butter until fluffy. Mix baking powder with flour and sift into creamed mixture. Beat in eggs and salt. Mix everything well.
Pour mixture into a large greased baking dish and smooth out with a palette knife. The mixture should be about 2-2.5 cm deep. Top with the 24 plum halves, alternate with cut side up. Then sprinkle with the sugar/cinnamon mixture.
Bake in a pre-heated oven on the lowest shelf for about 45 minutes, or until a skewer comes out clean. Cool to room temperature or serve warm.