Rejecting boy scouts at age 14, Paul Cuming could hardly have known his mother's insistence he join a club would lead to a life-long passion. Sandra Simpson meets Tauranga's birdman.
"I'd been in cubs but didn't take to scouting at all," the Hamilton-born ornithologist says.
"My mother was exasperated at my lack of interests so found me a junior naturalists club."
The club had a lodge near Kawhia and did a lot of birding work and Cuming began to build up the knowledge that today sees him the Bay of Plenty-Volcanic Plateau regional representative to Birds NZ and a founder of the Western Bay of Plenty Wildlife Trust, established after the Rena grounding, which helps a Massey University study into this area's little blue penguins.
Cuming, a librarian, moved to Tauranga in 2003 but knew Mauao well having worked since 1989 on a Department of Conservation project to study the maunga's grey-faced petrels (ōi).
"They're astounding seabirds that range from coastal South America to Australia and New Zealand and up to just below the Equator," he says.
"A lot of birds go by rhythms other than daylight – shorebirds and seabirds, for instance, are governed by the tides. Sometimes you only know a bird is in your area by hearing it at night and that's true of petrels."
Cuming has one warning, gained from harsh experience, for anyone new to handling seabirds – keep the head directed away from you and don't stand in front of someone handling a seabird. The birds regurgitate as a defence and, he says, it's impossible to remove from clothing, even with repeated washing.
Although the DoC study has ended, the Wildlife Trust continues to monitor and support the Mauao petrel population, including with pest control.
"New Zealand's pest control knowledge is in demand worldwide," Cuming says.
"We've done such a lot of pioneering work, including private enterprise, and have a huge amount of on-ground experience.
"Not having rats about really does make a difference to bird life."
Cuming, who helps train others, including at youth camps, is involved in updating the Atlas of Bird Distribution in New Zealand, last published in 2004, and in the transfer of seabirds to Pelorus Sound, and from Motuotau (Rabbit Island) to Hopukiore (Mt Drury).
His multimedia presentation at Escape! next Saturday will focus on identifying the kinds of birds you might see in Western Bay gardens and parks by their call, especially as many native birds are more often heard than seen.
"Introduced birds are almost the hardest to identify by their calls, while native birds, apart from the tuī and the bellbird, have quite distinctive calls."
With 11 muscles in its throat, the tuī can create all sorts of sounds, some of them at the same time – and it's the only bird in the world that can speak in a human voice.
"If you see a tuī with its beak open and can't hear anything it's singing in a sound range beyond our hearing."
Kingfishers (kōtare) and grey warblers (riroriro) have distinctive rain songs, although the kingfisher, Cuming says, is a more reliable weather predictor.
"I have a tiny garden in the central city but if I stayed outside all day I could record 25 to 30 different birds – but up to half I would hear and not see. Plenty of birds perplex with their calls but if you know a little bit you can identify them."
Cuming appears in Up with the Birds at Escape! at 12.30pm on October 17 at the University of Waikato in Durham St. See the full programme at taurangafestival.co.nz. Tickets from the website or Baycourt.
- Supplied content