Radar's Rant: Big ups to the bittern

By Te Radar

Photo / Supplied
Photo / Supplied

Entertainment: Like Miss Universe, only for birds - it's the Bird of the Year competition.

It could be said that Forest and Bird's upcoming Bird Of The Year competition is merely a tawdry ornithological popularity contest waged by people with too much time on their hands.

I have stated as much myself when looking at the gratuitous hype generated by some of the birds' ambassadors over the course of the campaign. But then perhaps I was a tad bitter.

I was the champion of the Skua in 2012, and managed to raise its total vote tally from 13 in 2011 to 27. A triumph. Or it would have been had there not been a total of 10,223 votes cast. I reasoned that it wasn't so much my campaigning skills that let the Skua down; it's more that it's a problematic bird for people to love.

Amongst other quirky traits Skua are kleptoparasites. Rather than dive into frigid waters themselves, they wait for other birds to catch fish then assail them, forcing them to regurgitate their catch, providing the skua with a pre-warmed ready meal.

It's a clever, if not exactly an admirable peculiarity.

What really attracted me to them though was a wonderful photograph taken by Skua expert Professor Euan Young. The photo is of a Skua nest. The nest, which sits on a patch of rough gravel, consists solely of a few dozen rusting nails and screws that the doting parents had pillaged from somewhere and crudely strewn about to form a rudimentary pile. In the centre are two mottled tan eggs. How could you not love a bird that does that?

With no disrespect to the skua, this year I have a new love, the Matuku, or as it is more commonly known, the Australasian Bittern. Like many New Zealand birds they are their own worst enemy.

There are less than 1000 of them. This is no surprise as their defence strategy is to simply stand erectly upright, their bills pointing skywards, and remain extremely still in the hope they won't be seen. It's not particularly effective against predators but their brown plumage makes excellent camouflage, and it does mean that most people have never seen one, and thus few people know they even exist.

I've only ever seen one alive, and that was a few weeks ago at Massey University's Wildbase wildlife hospital of which I am an ambassador. It's a role I relish not only because they are the only hospital of their kind in the country, but primarily because it allows me to gawp at, and fondle, a lot of endangered birds.

The bittern was in isolation in what appeared to be a skyline garage because it is so timid that it can't be around any other birds, or too many people. I can relate to that. So when the competition for the Bird of the Year starts at the end of the month don't rush in and vote based solely on shallow charisma. Take a gander at all of the entries, or indeed suggest your own. Look for the quirky, or the incompetent.

I'd be tempted to suggest we should also include out poor neglected bats, the only land mammals here prior to man's arrival. They make great honorary birds, even though, like many of their feathered compatriots, the Short Tailed Bat nearly abandoned flying as well, and is the only bat to adapt to ground hunting. We're a nation of creatures that just can't be bothered taking to the air.

So, I say, "don't be bitter, vote for the bittern." Or should that be "Once bittern, twice shy?" "You'll be bitten by the bittern?" I think the skua may be relieved to be rid of me.

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