Flocks ‘n’ Bikes – birdwatching on wheels

Flocks ‘n’ Bikes – birdwatching on wheels

Bike Auckland

“On my bike, I get to enjoy being a part of my environment, not apart from it,” writes our favourite storyteller Simon Vincent, as he turns his commute into a flight of fancy about what his feathered friends are thinking…

Opening the squeaky door of the shed (sorry, neighbours) to get my bike out of a morning, I am often greeted by a 21-sparrow salute. The birds rise as one, complete a few aerial manoeuvres, then resettle themselves on the roof. I am intrigued by birds; their personalities and aerial displays are an integral part of my ride to work. I am not a “twitcher”, more just an interested passerby, gliding quietly through the world of birds.

ispybirdsWhen I was a lad there was a series of books called I Spy on various themes; the idea was, you collected points for every item you spotted. I had the birdspotting book, and whilst by no means an ornithologist, I took to my I Spy Birds book with a competitive relish.

You scored a couple of points for common or garden sightings, with a higher score for rarer birds. Riding to and from school I had great opportunities to add to my tally.

I have to admit, though, my sightings were somewhat dubious at times – scoring 200 points for spotting an extremely rare golden oriel in a Lancashire backyard being a case in point.

(Not Simon's copy; but that of a contemporary, as recalled at forms traced by light
(Not Simon’s childhood copy; but that of a contemporary, via the blog forms traced by light)

As I grew older, I put birdspotting away with other childish things. Then, whilst in the military, I was privileged enough to spend a few weeks protecting the nests of red kites in Scotland, which inspired me to once more take notice of the habits and movements of our avian friends.

The birds I see on my daily bike commute are for the most part not rare or endangered; in fact, they are so common most people don’t even notice them. But to me, they add to the story of my ride.

(Warning: the rest of this article may contain anthropomorphisms).

As I leave my driveway and ride the quiet streets of Te Atatu, few people are around and the birds make the most of it. Starlings and mynahs abound on the lawns of my neighbours, pecking away forlornly at any morsel that might present itself, like guests who’ve arrived too late to the BBQ.

Riding a bike is often said to be the best speed to appreciate your surroundings, and the low-key nature of a bike rider means you also don’t scare the horses – or the birds. I ride along without startling the starlings and am able to enjoy the iridescence of their plumage, their rainbow-like hackles mirroring the oil that coats the roadside puddles.

Joining the main road, I am now in the presence of bigger beasts. Pigeons and gulls escape the road as cars, buses and trucks thunder along. The gulls alight to their individual lampposts and look down on the traffic that is unwilling to share space.

As the view of the city now reveals itself, the odd seagull drifts across the sky looking exactly like the stretched M of a child’s artwork interpretation. If I am heading into the city along the Northwestern cycleway, I know that even though I don’t see them I could be in the presence of wrybills and godwits, as well as rare fernbirds and banded rails. (There’s a cherished population of these birds around Harbourview Reserve, Pollen Island and Traherne Island, as this fascinating interview recounts).

These special birds, like those of us riding bikes on the protected cycleway, are probably given little thought by the drivers rushing to their destinations, but their presence is one we should rejoice in, their protection an important indicator that we value more than just speed.

A grey heron, waiting for a nibble.
A fat little fisher bird, waiting for a nibble.

My more usual route is along Henderson Creek, and as I take the twists and turns along the path, blackbirds and thrushes keep low and move fast as they dart in and out of the bushes. I enjoy riding slowly along here and I am often joined by a host of finches. The multi-coloured mob of chaffinches, goldfinches and yellow finches dash in and out of the flax, surrounding me in a flutter of beating wings, making me feel like a star in an old Disney movie. Suddenly there’s a bright flash as a rosella darts from the bushes and splits my avian peloton as it launches a breakaway.

Here, close to the water, pukeko stand idly by kicking their heels and playing chicken with my wheels. They wait till the very last moment before, in a flurry of blue, taking wing and come perilously close to anointing my helmet as they swoop over me.

A pukeko plays chicken. They always win.
A pukeko plays chicken. They always win.

As I round a bend I catch sight of a kingfisher on its perch. Like many a human angler I see, it seems to be happy to sit around all day with no sign of action. Ensuring there is no one around (well, no one human) I call out “any luck?”

As yet, the kingfisher hasn’t answered.

A blur as the kingfisher senses fish and dashes off. Photo taken mid-pedal by Simon.
A blur as the kingfisher senses fish and dashes off. Photo taken mid-pedal by Simon.

Crossing the path ahead of me are a line of ducks and ducklings all in a row, the parents ensuring their young keep safe and share the path. I make sure I am moving slowly and allow them to pass. They remind me of a walking schoolbus starting their day.

Everyone appreciates a convenient public drinking fountain.
Everyone appreciates a convenient public drinking fountain.

A large kowhai tree is host to a couple of tui, facing off like boxers at a weigh-in. My bell rings out in answer to their calls and we each enjoy the melodies of the morning. Before long I will be at my desk, inside, caged away from my feathered friends.

As I ride home in the evening, it seems that the birds’ rush hour is over – but then as I acknowledge a family riding together in the warm light of spring a welcome swallow dips and twirls across my path. We all head to our destinations with the freedom of wings or wheels, sharing the sheer joy of being out and about.

— Simon Vincent

Below, a glimpse of a busy morning on the NW cycleway, by fellow Te Atatuvian Simon de Vries. 

Heavy traffic on the NW cycleway  - photo by Simon de Vries.


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