24 September 2013

Birds of New Zealand: part one

Even though I live on the 9th floor of an apartment block in central Auckland city, I still wake up to the sounds of birds singing … and I like that … a lot! Sparrows and starlings, blackbirds and thrushes, and tui in the right season, are all cheeping, chirping and warbling well before I stir at around 6am. In fact, due to the intensity and permanency of artificial light in the inner city, some of them start their morning chorus as early as 4am!

Gulls entertain me riding the thermals between apartment buildings, and those cheeky little Australian interlopers, the rosellas, provide a bright burst of colour as they sweep through the trees in the park across the road. In the late afternoon, starlings rush in their hundreds to their favourite roosting trees just down the road, so many of them that it’s best to avoid walking beneath those trees if you want to stay poop-free! And, as Auckland abounds with magnificent parks, I regularly see ducks and geese, herons and pukeko during my frequent walks.

I’ve shared photos of the birds I found in Siem Reap and in Kuala Lumpur. Here now are just a few of my frequently sighted feathered friends from Auckland. (Notice I have titled this blog part one; with so many birds to share, rather than make this blog too long, I will soon add a part two.)

I was rather surprised to discover that the White-eye or Silvereye is actually not a New Zealand native, having been first recorded here in 1832 ... though that does make me wonder if it arrived much earlier and there was simply no European here to record it! In the intervening years, it has certainly made itself at home and now lives comfortably throughout the country, from sea shore to forest edge, feeding on copious quantities of fruit. Its scientific name, zosterops, from the Ancient Greek words Zoster, meaning belt or girdle, and ophthalmos, meaning eye, obviously refers to the white marking that surrounds its eyes, making it easy to identify.

The Mallard is another bird that has made itself right at home in New Zealand since being introduced some time between 1865 and the 1920s. In fact, it’s so comfy here that it’s hybridised with our native grey duck! This photo, of course, shows the female – the male has a brilliant green head and white collar ring – but I think she’s a beauty even if her colour is a basic brown. I have no wish to offend vegetarians but these little ducks taste delicious. My Dad was a duck-shooter, with a maimai on a small lake near my hometown. I recall many winter mornings sitting plucking ducks in our carport, I got my first anatomy lessons from Dad during the gutting process, and I can still taste the rich flavour of my Mum’s perfectly roasted wild duck.

Though most of us have grown up feeding bread to the ducks at our local lakes or rivers, it’s actually not the smartest thing to do. The ducks usually have plenty of natural food to go around and those bits of bread the ducks don’t eat help to nurture Avian botulism, which can paralyse and kill both the ducks and other birds. So, next time you’re planning to take that stale bread to your local pond, think again!

I remember being surprised during a visit to the Amazon jungle in Peru to see a bird I recognised from home – their Purple Gallinule (Porphyrio martinicus) looks remarkably like our Pukeko (Porphyrio melanotus melanotus). They make the same noisy squawk and have that same cheeky strut, flashing their white undertail. I was also surprised to find Pukeko living right here in the central city, in a small area of untidy shrubs and long grass, right next to a busy motorway. But they obviously thrive there, as I was delighted to watch the antics of a breeding pair with their two half-grown chicks as I passed by just last weekend.

In fact, last Sunday’s walk was a good one for bird sightings, perhaps because of the rain from Saturday night’s storm. On a grassy slope behind Auckland Museum in the Domain, I chanced upon another beautiful creature, the White-faced heron (below, left). Once again, I was surprised to learn that this bird was self-introduced in the 19th century and that sightings were rare until the 1960s. The blue-grey body and white face plumage is such an elegant combination, I feel, and the bird in my photo is apparently wearing its alternate breeding plumage, as witnessed by the longer, blue-grey filoplumes on its breast and back.

The ponds at the Domain are a great place to watch the antics of another introduced bird, the Greylag Goose (above, right). James Cook brought these first to our islands in 1773, and they are now feral in both the North and South Islands. Don’t be fooled, as I was, into thinking the white and brown are different species; they are not. The all-white plumage is a result of domestication but the geese revert after a couple of generations to their original brown ancestral plumage once humans stop interfering with their breeding. Fascinatingly, the word goose is one of the oldest words in the Indo-European languages – perhaps an indication that the birds have been domesticated for a very long time indeed.

If you’re wondering where I got all these fascinating snippets of avian information, well, one of the huge benefits of working for Auckland University Press, even temporarily, is receiving a free copy of their publications. And, hot off the press this month comes Birds of New Zealand, the definitive guide to all our feathered friends and a must-have for every Kiwi household. As well as all the pertinent facts and figures, it has amazing images, making species identification a breeze. And it’s not too big to bundle into your backpack when you’re off for a hike. The perfect Christmas pressie for friends and family!

18 September 2013

In honour of our women pioneers

Today, 19 September 2013, is the 120th anniversary of women’s suffrage in New Zealand, the first country in the world to give women the vote. It seems appropriate on such a day to pay homage to some of my pioneering women ancestors who lived through those exciting times in our nation’s history, though I doubt many, if any of them found this internationally significant event impacted on them very much, if at all. 

I imagine most were far too busy milking the house cow and churning the butter, tending the garden and baking the bread, handsewing new clothes and handwashing dirty old ones, and caring for their numerous children to even notice the dizzy heights which they and their fellow female New Zealanders had reached. The situation imagined by the cartoonist in the N. Z. Observer and Free Lance of 23 September 1893, that women would be out galavanting till the wee hours while men stayed home and minded the babies, certainly never came to pass for my hard-working female ancestors!

My great-grandmother Jessie Louisa Arthur (nee Bust), known as Louie, was born in 1871 at Blueskin Cove in North Otago, and married John Harold Arthur in 1889 at the All Saints Church in Ponsonby. By the time this photo was taken in 1904, she had already given birth to 9 children, was pregnant with her 10th and was to have 14 children in total. She may also have miscarried several children, as there is a six year gap between child number ten and child number eleven. She fell pregnant almost immediately after her marriage and had her final child in 1915, 25 years later. Amazingly, she lived to be 78, dying of chronic myocarditia and a cerebral haemorrhage in 1946. Her hard life did affect her towards the end of her life: the family had to tie the front gate closed as Granny Arthur would otherwise wander the streets of Ellerslie in her nightie, only to be delivered home with the morning milk by the milkman!

Another of my great-grandmother’s Jane Allen Welsh, nee Gunn, was born in 1875 in Christchurch and was married there in 1899 to Matthew Roger Welsh, a carpenter. I believe this photo is from around that date. Around 1916, Jane and Matthew and their nine children moved to Te Hoe in the Waikato, where they took up a grant of approximately 300 acres of uncleared land. With their children’s help, they struggled to clear enough land to create a viable farm. Life was harsh and they were very poor. My grandmother, one of their children, told me how all the children were dressed in clothes made from one bolt of material.

Jane was another woman who bred well, having 12 children in total. And, though one wee girl died at 6 months and another was born blind and dumb and died at 12 months, seven of the other ten kids lived into their eighties. Sadly, Granny Welsh was not so lucky: she died at the age of 68. The immediate cause of death was acute heart failure with toxaemia but she had suffered from diabetes mellitus for 20 years and had lost a few toes to gangrene caused by the diabetes.

Great-great-grandmother Eliza Rae nee Griffin (below left) was born in Wellington in 1857, and married James Rae in 1875 in Geraldine. Theirs was another large family: Eliza had 13 children between 1876 and 1898. James and Eliza spent most of their married life at Peel Forest, in South Canterbury, where husband James, a Scotsman, was a bushman. Eliza died aged 68, from a bout of pneumonia but she had also been suffering from senile debility for some time.

Eliza’s mother, my great-great-great-grandmother Mary Griffin nee Harris (above right) was born in 1835 in England, and married husband Martin Griffin at Aston, in Warwickshire, in 1856. The following year they emigrated to New Zealand and lived in various places around the Canterbury region, where Martin owned farms and worked as a farm manager. Mary lived to the good age of 84, then died of heart failure, but she too had suffered from senility, for 14 years.

Granny Griffin, with her daughter Eliza Rae and a great-grandson, at the Rae homestead at Peel Forest

My great-great-grandmother Mary Miller Johnstone, nee Little, was born in Castleton in Roxburghshire, Scotland in 1836, married James Johnstone in 1852, and emigrated to New Zealand in 1863. Mary’s is a true pioneering story, which has been told in the book Coal Range and Candlelight:

Among the earliest settlers in the Ashburton Gorge were Scottish immigrants Mary and James Johnstone. Mary Miller (nee Little) was born in New Castleton, Roxburghshire, Scotland in 1836. She married James Scott Johnstone at the Ashkirk Manse, on 9 December 1853. Shielswood Farm, where James was employed as a shepherd, became their home. Their journey to New Zealand began in July 1863, along with just over 300 other assisted immigrants. As they left, an epidemic of sickness was sweeping Britain. Passengers aboard the Brothers' Pride soon fell ill with scarlatina, typhoid and smallpox. The death toll reached 44, including 29 children, one of whom was little John Johnstone aged 15 months.
At the time the trip must have seemed almost endless. The logbook and passengers' diaries reveal that the ship was becalmed for three weeks and unrest flared among the crew. The already cramped conditions became most unpleasant with so many ill.  
On 7 December, after almost four months at sea, they sailed into Lyttelton Harbour. A yellow flag fluttered from the mast, signifying to those on shore that sickness was aboard. Mary, her husband and their three surviving children joined the other passengers in quarantine at Camp Bay. There they spent three weeks in primitive conditions living in tents, before being allowed to move to the Lyttelton Immigration Barracks.  
Their second eldest daughter Mary, later wrote in her memoirs of climbing the Bridle Path. A keepsake of hers was a dressed oak box bearing the inscription 'Brothers' Pride'. It reminded her of the voyage and was with her belongings for many years.  
The Johnstones set out by bullock wagon from Christchurch for Lake Heron, where James had a job as shepherd. They turned inland at Rakaia and followed Thompson's Track across a tussock-covered plain dotted with cabbage trees and matagouri bushes. A night was spent at Thompson's Accommodation House that had been built not far from the boundary of the Winchmore and Springfield Stations. The remaining nights were spent under the stars in the shelter of the wagon.  
At Lake Heron, Mary was kept busy with her young family while her husband was away shepherding. Within two years James was appointed head shepherd on the nearby Clent Hills Station. Mary's new home was a two-roomed cottage, one of a cluster of buildings erected at the foot of a small hill.  
A third daughter, Isabel, was born on 30 October 1864; her birth was registered in Christchurch. Isabel was to become Mrs William Morgan of Methven. Two feet six inches of snow covered the ground at Clent Hills on the July morning in 1868, when Mary gave birth to another son - Christopher John. The name John held a special significance for Mary and James. A son born in Scotland in 1856 had been named John, but he drowned at the age of six. In 1862, another son also named John was born, but died the following year on the voyage to New Zealand.  
The Johnstone family spent 13 years at Clent Hills. The children received lessons from a station employee, except for eldest son Tom, who was educated in Ashburton. By then the family had grown to 10. With children to care for and men to feed, Mary found there was little time for idle hands. At shearing time a cook was hired to feed the extra men. The 'stores', as James called them, arrived by horse-drawn wagon from Mt Somers. Mary had to find a safe place for the flour and sugar away from the mice which sought refuge in the cottage during the cold winter months.  
The children looked forward to family picnics and jaunts out to Lake Emily on the property. Another pastime was to go fossicking in a nearby creekbed for dark grey stones imprinted with tiny ferns. Their visits to the Lambie family at Mount Possession Station resulted in the marriage of Thomas Johnstone to Margaret Lambie.  
Mary's eldest daughter, Margaret, wrote of her mother riding to church on horseback carrying her baby in front of her. In those days services were held in the Mt Somers boarding house. When Clent Hills was sold the Johnstones moved to Springburn where they bought a property on the south bank of Taylors Stream, close to Alford Station. They called their land Roxburgh Farm after their homeland Roxburghshire. Their son Francis Finlay Johnstone was born in 1879 and his brother Norman in 1881. It would appear that 14 children were born to Mary.  
In their later years Mary and James lived in a house built for them near Springburn. They called their home Shielswood after the farm in Scotland where they began their married life. Mary lovingly tended her garden and looked forward to visits from her family, many of whom lived nearby. Mary Johnstone was buried in the family plot in the Mt Somers Cemetery on 3 May 1901. Her age was given as 65. 

14 September 2013

The frozen people: sculptures of Auckland

A few weeks ago one of my cousins suggested I photograph some of Auckland’s magnificent statues, and I am very glad she did. The commission has opened my eyes both to the wealth of subjects that have been sculpted and to the superb quality of the artworks to be found in the inner city.

I am almost ashamed to say that I had ever seen this magnificent statue until the day I specifically went to photograph it. It's tucked away at the bottom of a gully in a park in the middle of the city but not one I usually walk through and I only noticed the statue when looking out the window of the language school where I was teaching. It's a copy of an internationally known statue by one of the world's greatest sculptors.

The location is Myers Park and the statue is Moses. The plaque reads: ‘This copy of the original sculpture by Michaelangelo was brought to New Zealand for general display by Milne & Choyce Ltd [one of this country’s oldest department stores, now long gone] and was presented by them to the city of Auckland in 1971.’ It is an impressive statue, though I do wonder why Moses is sporting horns.

I don’t think I need to label this statue in Albert Park. She certainly won't be amused if you don't know who she is! The ever-informative, though not always reliable Wikipedia lists 67 statues of Queen Victoria around the world but I’m sure there are many more. Several are very similar to this one – Her Majesty stands erect and regal and unhappy. 

This particular statue was sculpted in 1899 by Francis John Williamson, a British portrait sculptor who was reported to be Queen Victoria’s favourite. He was also responsible for Christchurch’s Victoria statue four years later, as well as many of the versions to be found in Britain.

The athletic-looking bronze pictured below, by New Zealand sculptor Richard Goss, adorns one of the Elliot Memorial entrance gates to the Auckland Domain. Local businessman William Elliot bequeathed £10,000 for the gates’ construction in 1935 and Alan Elliot (no relation), a New Zealand athlete who won a medal at the Los Angeles Olympic Games, was the model for the statue.

I always remember my father telling me that this statue, whose anatomy is all present and correct and in full public view, pees when it rains. I admit I haven’t seen this fascinating phenomenon for myself!

This stately looking chap is one of New Zealand’s most well-known statesmen and was an importance figure in the early governance of this country. Sir George Grey was twice governor of New Zealand, the last superintendent of Auckland and this country’s premier from 1877 to 1879. 

The statue, in marble, was fashioned by Victoria’s sculptor, Francis Williamson, and completed in 1911. It stood originally at the junction of Queens Street and Grey’s Ave but proved an obstacle as traffic flows increased so was moved to its present location in Albert Park in 1922.

The statue below, in Albert Park, was "Erected by the members of the NZ Battery R.A. in memory of their comrades ... who lost their lives in the South African War 1900-1." It was sculpted by an unknown Italian sculptor in 1902 but has since been fenced off due to damage by vandals. 

The bizarre face of the fountainhead below it, which looks to me like an alien creature from some modern sci-fi movie, is, in fact, a lion, a symbol of power and imperial domination than is frequently used in Boer War memorials.

Below right is another artwork I only noticed, though I've walked along the road opposite it very many times. It stands at the bottom of a flight of steps that connects Mayoral Drive with Upper Lorne Street'Aspiration', by New Zealand Roderick Burgess, was donated by the Parisian Neckwear Company that operated in this street between 1919 and 1984. The inscription reads: 'That spirit of his in aspiration lifts him from the earth' from Shakespeare's 'Troilus and Cressida'.

Most sculptures are of famous people but the 2008 bronze (above, left), named ‘Kapa haka’ and created by New Zealand artist Michael Parekowhai, is a powerful depiction of a humble security guard. Located in the grounds of the University of Auckland, the figure was modelled on the artist’s older brother. Parekowhai is an associate professor at the university’s Elam School of Fine Arts. 

These are two of Francis Upritchard's 'Loafers' and they might look large but they're actually quite little figurines - it's all in the camera angle. The figures are perched on three round plinths on Symonds Street, atop the Wellesley Street overbridge. Upritchard is the youngest of the sculptors mentioned here, having been born in New Plymouth in 1976. She represented New Zealand at the 53rd Venice Biennale in 2009 and created these ‘Loafers’ early in 2012.