I hate to admit it, but I still sometimes have trouble understanding the Kiwi brand of English spoken here in New Zealand. The worst time was when one of my son’s classmates talked my ear off during an entire three-block walk to a class field trip. I think I caught about one word per block.
I find myself smiling and nodding a lot when someone says something unintelligible to me. “Yup,” I said. “Ha ha.”
They smile back, and I can read in their faces what they’re too polite to say out loud: “Stupid American has no idea what I’m talking about.”
I’m doing better with bird language. On a walk in the woods today, I heard the clear whistle of a bellbird, a fairly common native songbird a bit smaller than our American robin. I haven’t had much luck learning New Zealand’s birds, most of which stay high up in the beeches or hidden in the thickets of the understory. But I have had a few encounters with the bellbird, the most recent of which was due to my facility with bird language.
The strange bird songs, like the strange trees, make me feel disoriented in the woods here. (I guess they’d call it “the bush.”) Back home, I know most of the birds by their songs as well as their appearance, so whenever I hear a bird, I want to know what to call it.
New Zealand only has a couple dozen native songbirds, so it shouldn’t be too hard to learn them, but without a field guide or bird song CD to help me, I’ve had to find birds via the Internet. The most helpful website so far has been “nzbirds.co.nz,” which has great pictures, excellent articles, and a few clips of songs.
We saw our first bellbirds on a hike (tramp) on a trail (track) to some big totora trees near Clifden. We heard some beautiful bird songs and saw some olive and yellow birds, but we weren’t sure which songs came from which birds. Later in the day I saw one feeding on a flowering shrub in a park. I went home and identified the birds as bellbirds, or korimako.
A few days later, Leif and I were playing catch in the yard at dusk when we heard a series of four plaintive whistles, each on a different pitch. From the descriptions on the web, I figured it was either a bellbird or a tui, another honeyeater also called a parsonbird because of a little puff of white feathers near its throat, like a clerical collar. We’ve been seeing a lot of tuis in the gardens around town.
Today when I was walking with Diane through the Tuatapere domain, a forest full of huge beeches and podocarps and tree ferns and fuchsias and other trees I haven’t learn yet, I heard it again, two bell-like whistles, clear and pure as crystal, almost liquid in tone, like the thrushes back home.
I imitated the whistle, and within seconds a bird buzzed our heads. I heard another whistle, and whistled back. It buzzed us again, then perched 10 feet above our heads and went off on a tirade of chirps and buzzes and rasps and trills, looking around for the rival who had intruded on his territory. I whistled again, and his curses continued.
According to Narena Oliver, the “web diva” of nzbirds, the males tend to be territorial during breeding season, and it’s spring here in the southern hemisphere. She also says they’re monogamous and that pairs stay together for years.
As we were watching, another bird flew up and perched beside it. The two engaged in a chattering conversation.
My own mate, Diane, a former ornithologist who did her Master’s research on bird song, said, “I think bellbirds are the ones that sing duets.” That’s a rare thing, since bird song is mainly a male phenomenon, used for establishing territory and attracting mates. Most females don’t sing at all but just vocalize with call notes and chips. The two reminded me of the red-eyed vireos Diane studied. We used to see them speaking in low tones to each other like the bellbirds were doing.
I came home and checked with Narena, and there it was in black and white: “After mating they often duet.” What we saw probably wasn’t a post-mating love song, but more of a conversation about the rival who had invaded their territory.
Mr.Bellbird: “Where is he? I heard him, but I can’t see him!”
Mrs. Bellbird: “I can’t see him either, but you don’t need to worry. I am strictly monogamous, you know.”
Mr. Bellbird: “The only intruders I can see are those two down there.”
Mrs. Bellbird: “Stupid Americans have no idea what we’re talking about.”