Birds of the Water Wood & Waste
DEBOUCHING on to the flat upon which the Tutira house is built is one miniature gorge and several smaller valleys, or dens, each sheltering its own trickle stream. Yet these insignificant rivulets it is that have created the flat, for in winter rains, and when the hill sides are slipping, avalanches of mud and water are carried down and stones, weighing hundredweights, rolled for scores of yards. One great slip in the nineties came down close to the house, filled all the open drains, washed through the stockyard into the garden and tennis court, page 150 and even inundated the back room of the house with its mud puddle of fine silt. These valleys, as far as possible, have been allowed to remain unspoiled and uncut and to act as bird sanctuaries. Resident always in them are several small species, the Waxeye, Fantail and Warbler, with, so to say, the wilderness behind them into which they can at any time retire.
Out of these wilds pairs and parties of Waxeyes are constantly coming down to the gardens and orchards. In spring one of the attractions is the green fly, and during the breeding season the Waxeye gathers from the flower beds a rich harvest of caterpillars for his nestlings in the neighbouring scrub.
The breed is plentiful on the run, though varying much in numbers from year to year. Last season, for instance, they were very plentiful, this comparatively scarce.
The Waxeye breeds a month or six weeks later than the Fantail, and it is not till October that the tiny nest may be discovered in a trail of native bramble flung on a lacebark or manuka sapling, or cunningly hidden on the edge of a patch of low scrub or dense bracken, and for choice suspended over water.
The two or three delicate eggs of pale blue hang in the frailest looking fairy basket imaginable, a diaphanous cradle, woven on to frond or branchlet, and stirred by every breath of wind. The nest, though so slight in appearance, is really sufficiently strong, and is firmly fastened on to the supporting bough with web and wool, and lined with long, pliable bents and horsehair; for further ornamentation it is striped and crossed with fresh faded leaves of soft meadow grass, their pale pilose surfaces, flat on the exterior, blending exquisitely with the bluish cocoon wool and grey spider web.
At a later stage many of the nests hang quite awry. Although perfectly secure, the page 152 parents do not seem to have allowed for the fledglings' growing weight. The nest is tilted, and has lost its earlier eminently trim and dainty appearance. On Tutira the Waxeye's nest is always cup shaped, and it seems to me a very remarkable fact that these I have got from about the Taupo district were noticeably different and distinctly boat shaped.
These little Waxeyes, when paired, show great affection for each other, stroking and preening one another's feathers, and cuddling together on the bough.
During the eighties the species increased largely in numbers. They then used to roost in large flocks among the fern and often at dawn, when mustering sheep, have I started them from repose. At the very peep of dawn, too, whilst waiting for the sheep to gather, and meanwhile amusing myself by watching and listening to the birds have I heard them, deep hidden in the dewy tutu, singing what can be only termed a whisper song, its notes so very soft and low as to be inaudible at even a few feet. Although not quite so courageous as the Fantail, the Waxeye, too, is a good photographic subject. His movements, for page 153 one thing, are much more easily caught, and the parent bird's incessant feeding of the young gives many opportunities. When the youngsters are but a few days old, one or other of the parents is practically always on the nest. The parents then take it in turn to sit, the cock bird sounding forth his coming and whistling off his wife, and he in his turn vacating the nest when she arrives with supplies. The young are fed with moths, spiders, caterpillars, etc., all crushed and dead. They are fed fairly, as far as can be judged, but probably the strongest and hungriest gets rather more than its rightful portion.
After placing, or rather stuffing in the morsel to a nestling's mouth it is sometimes found to be too large, and whilst the body of it has gone, the long legs or wings still project like antennae. This condition of things is then considered judiciously for a moment by the feeding parent, and the morsel often withdrawn and given to a hungrier or larger mouthed child. Meanwhile the unlucky loser still continues to gape and quiver in expectancy, persevering in vain long after his nest fellow has swallowed the last mouthful and settled down.page 154
At the least shake of the bough supporting the nest, up go all the long necks, and all the mouths are opened wide, but it is strange to mark the little family's discrimination between a shiver of wind and the light tread of parent bird.
Nearly always after feeding is over, and before the old bird departs, a dropping is deposited by one of the young on the very edge of the nest. The old bird, who has awaited the event, carries it off in its bill. If by accident, however, the sac containing the deposit has been broken or torn, the contents are still gathered into the bill, and very careful search made in all parts of the nest for the least bit of matter that would cause harm. By the Waxeye these droppings are got rid of at a few yards from the nest, and quite at random.
The Waxeye's nest may be had between October and January, and probably earlier and later.